The Toronto Maple Leafs defeated the Montreal Canadiens 4-1 in their first taste of preseason action ahead of the 2021-22 season. This was the first time the Maple Leafs took the ice since May 31, when they capped off another historic choke at the hands of the same team they beat last night.
While, yes, it’s only preseason, I always have a lot of fun watching the exhibition games to tee up the real thing, mainly because preseason is the time when fringe players who aren’t guaranteed a spot on the team are given a chance to shine, such as Joshua Ho-Sang, who’s at Maple Leafs training camp on a professional tryout (PTO), and says he would start the season in the ECHL if he had to.
Because of this, I always find the play to be intense. And while the games mean nothing from a season standpoint, it’s fun hockey to watch. There were a lot of aspects that stood out to me from Saturday’s game, but I’m going to narrow it down to three things that caught my eye more than the others.
William Nylander Picks Up Where He Left Off
Nylander’s time in Toronto has been a roller coaster. After holding out of the 2018-19 NHL season for two months while he negotiated a contract extension, and leaving a sour taste in fans’ mouths, he’s gone from the media scapegoat to one of the most consistent, dependable players on the team.
Nylander was the only forward to show up every night in the first round against Montreal in last season’s playoffs, tallying eight points in seven games, and he looked no different tonight. He had two primary assists to end his night, one on each of the first two goals. The second one came on the power play, which, on another note, looked much more organized than the disheveled version we saw in the second half of 2020-21.
While Nylander will most likely occupy his usual role as the second line right winger this year, his consistent play all of last season should, at least, earn him a role on the top power play unit. Especially when you consider that the power play was such a problem at times for them last year. Adding him to the mix and giving him those extra looks on the top unit could be an internal way to help solve it.
Maple Leafs’ Top Line Brings All the Energy
With no Auston Matthews or Mitch Marner in the lineup tonight, John Tavares assumed the role of number one centre with a pair of players looking to prove something on either wing. Michael Bunting, who scored the third goal for the Maple Leafs tonight, on his left. And on his right, Ho-Sang, who’s fighting to turn his PTO into an NHL contract.
The top line was productive for the Maple Leafs, with Tavares and Bunting each collecting a goal. And Ho-Sang, despite being held pointless, seemed to be in the middle of the action all night. While Bunting is more or less guaranteed a role on the team unless he does a nose dive in preseason, Ho-Sang doesn’t quite have that luxury. And you could see it in the way he played tonight. As for Bunting, well, that’s just the effort you’re going to be seeing from him every night from here on out.
The Leafs have a comical amount of forwards battling for a spot on the roster come opening night, and while Ho-Sang’s night wasn’t perfect, as his giveaway late in the third period led to Montreal’s only goal of the game, the effort was certainly there. For a player like him, he recognizes that he’s going to have to give an effort like that just about every night if he wants a deal. Regardless, he certainly started off on the right foot.
Kurtis Gabriel Makes His Presence Known
Speaking of players who have nothing to lose, Gabriel certainly made his mark. For a guy who isn’t expected to have regular minutes with the Maple Leafs this season, he was all over the ice in his debut. From hitting Canadiens defenseman Alexander Romanov in between the benches, to dropping the gloves with Brandon Baddock, even scoring a goal after a bad giveaway from Habs’ goaltender Michael McNiven. Gabriel made sure the fans knew who he was.
And honestly, I find it near impossible not to root for a guy like him, regardless of what his chances to make the team are. After seeing an effort (or lack thereof) like the one the Leafs gave in Game 7 against Montreal, it feels good to watch players go out there and work their tails off.
I’d imagine Gabriel will have a role similar to what Scott Sabourin had with the Maple Leafs last year. He may only play 10-20 games, maybe even less than that. But they didn’t bring him in for no reason. If he can stay fresh with the Marlies and jump into an NHL game here and there when they need a big body, his presence will be felt throughout the locker room.
Maple Leafs Are Back in Action on Monday
With roughly two and a half weeks remaining until the start of the regular season, the Maple Leafs will face off against the Canadiens once again on Monday, this time in Montreal. While the roster for that game is unknown as of now, you’d have to imagine the Maple Leafs will want to see what they have in other players such as Nick Ritchie, Ondrej Kase, and David Kampf.
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Again, while preseason doesn’t matter statistically, it’s always interesting to follow along with and see what you have in certain players. And while we won’t be seeing a full, NHL-ready Maple Leafs roster until towards the end, the sooner the coaching staff can establish a mindset to go out there and leave it all out on the ice night in and night out, the better.
Alex Hobson is a third year broadcasting student at Niagara College. He has been writing about sports since 2005 and has been with The Hockey Writers since October of 2020. He covers the Toronto Maple Leafs, World Juniors, and the NHL Entry Draft, and is also part of the Maple Leafs Lounge Podcast, presented by THW. For interview requests or any other inquiries, you can follow Alex’s social media pages listed at the bottom of his articles like this one.