We know the superstars. Auston Matthews, John Tavares, Mitch Marner, William Nylander, Morgan Rielly, Tyson Barrie and Frederik Andersen will do much of the heavy lifting this season. As the leaders of the team, the 2019-20 Toronto Maple Leafs will only go as far as they take them.
However, with injuries and lineup changes a fact of life in the NHL, you can bet your last dollar that we will see some fresh faces this season. Perhaps they could become substantial contributors to the club throughout what is a long and arduous 82-game regular season.
Let’s look at some names that could become dark horse contributors in 2019-20.
As a first-round pick in the 2017 NHL Entry Draft, defenseman Timothy Liljegren may not fit into the “dark horse” category, but he could end up becoming a vital piece to the Maple Leafs’ blueline sooner than later.
With much of the attention gearing towards fellow defenseman prospect Rasmus Sandin after his dazzling rookie season with the American Hockey League’s (AHL) Toronto Marlies last season, Liljegren has largely flown under the radar of late. A glance at the Maple Leafs’ depth chart on the blue line would seemingly give Liljegren a chance to beat his fellow Swede to the NHL ranks this season.
With Rielly, Jake Muzzin, Travis Dermott, Martin Marincin, Ben Harpur, Teemu Kivihalme and Kevin Gravel all boasting left-handed shots, the Maple Leafs have depth on the left side, although Dermott did spend much of the 2018-19 season skating to the right of Jake Gardiner. Still, the right side of the bottom pairing seems much more available behind Barrie and Cody Ceci. Justin Holl might have the upper hand given the fact he spent the entirety of last season on the NHL roster. However, if the Maple Leafs are looking to complement their size on the left side with a puck-moving defenseman on the right, Liljegren is in prime position to make the jump to the NHL.
If I was a betting man, I would lay my cake on Liljegren starting the season in the AHL, but don’t be surprised to see the Maple Leafs give him a shot if an injury or under-performance occurs on the right side of their blue line. Remember, Dermott was summoned from the AHL after skating 28 games with the Marlies in 2017-18, playing 37 games with the big club that season followed by all 7 postseason contests. With that in mind, it wouldn’t surprise me to see Liljegren take a similar path this time around.
First, hat tip to my colleague Peter Baracchini as he has predicted 24-year-old Mason Marchment to win the fourth-line, right-wing spot on the Maple Leafs out of training camp, and he might be onto something.
Never a big-time point-producer in junior, Marchment’s game has evolved nicely with the Marlies over the last couple of seasons, tallying 51 points in 88 games since the start of the 2017-18 campaign. He wouldn’t be cracking the big club with offense as his primary weapon, but rather to bring some grit and sandpaper to the table — something the Maple Leafs are lacking throughout their lineup — especially now that Nazem Kadri has moved onto the Colorado Avalanche.
There’s certainly a number of candidates that will battle for the fourth-line, right-wing spot in training camp, including Nick Shore, Pontus Aberg, Jeremy Bracco and Yegor Korshkov, among others. However, none of these players carry a physical aspect to their game, especially to the level that Marchment does. I have an inkling that head coach Mike Babcock would appreciate having a player like Marchment that plays with 100% maximum effort every chance he gets. He was playing in the ECHL as recently as the 2015-16 season, but don’t sleep on Marchment contributing at the NHL level in 2019-20.
Harpur was the lesser-known piece acquired alongside Ceci from the Ottawa Senators in the July 1 deal that saw Nikita Zaitsev and Connor Brown depart Toronto, but Maple Leafs fans will likely become much more familiar with him this season.
A veteran of 103 NHL games across parts of four seasons with the Senators, Harpur is listed at 6-foot-6 and 222 pounds, per NHL.com. With Travis Dermott expected to miss 12-14 games to begin the season, the Maple Leafs’ bottom defense pair is wide open at the moment. Harpur will fight for that left spot along with returnee Martin Marincin, as well as the aforementioned Kivihalme, Gravel and Sandin.
If the Marincin experiment over the last few seasons has taught us anything, it’s that Babcock appreciates size and reach in his depth defensemen. Listed at 6-foot-5 and 213 pounds, he’s been valued by his bench boss for his long stick and penalty-killing ability. That said, where Harpur could gain the edge over his new teammate is on the physical side. The Hamilton, Ontario, native offers a grit element that Marincin simply does not. He racked up 56 penalty minutes and 89 hits while skating in 51 games with the Senators last season. Marincin, on the other hand, tallied just 12 penalty minutes and 21 hits in 24 games with the Maple Leafs a season ago.
With Dermott able to play the right side when he returns, Harpur has an opportunity to carve out a full-time role with the Maple Leafs in 2019-20.
Along with a new-look blue line, there’s been plenty of focus on Maple Leafs wingers this summer, mostly from a contract perspective. The Mitch Marner saga finally reached a resolution, fellow restricted free agents (RFAs) Andreas Johnsson and Kasperi Kapanen inked new deals in July, Nylander declared his confidence in a bounce back season, and Zach Hyman continues his rehab from offseason ACL surgery. It’s the Hyman situation that could open a big door for winger Nic Petan.
With Hyman likely out for the first month of the season, it’s open season on left-wing spots in Toronto. Offseason signee Ilya Mikheyev is likely to grab one of those spots and Johnsson is primed for a big season, possibly alongside Matthews in all situations. Another could very well go to speedster — and Babcock favorite — Trevor Moore. Where Petan ends up on the depth chart remains to be seen, but you can’t argue that opportunity isn’t present.
A storied junior career that included a pair of 100-point seasons and two trips to the World Junior Hockey Championship for Team Canada has yet to translate to the NHL level for the Portland Winterhawk product. Petan fell out of favor with the Winnipeg Jets organization after tallying just 5 goals and 23 points across 108 games in parts of four seasons after they drafted him in the second round back in 2013. Acquired in a straight-up deal for Par Lindholm as the Maple Leafs’ lone move at the 2019 trade deadline, Petan tallied one goal in five games with the Maple Leafs down the stretch, but didn’t suit up for any of the seven postseason contests versus the Boston Bruins.
The spot to the left of John Tavares is open for the taking. Perhaps Mikheyev earns the spot or maybe Moore gets a shot to use his speed on the top line. Regardless, it’s theoretical that everyone moves up a spot with Hyman sidelined. Whether Petan can earn a promotion up the depth chart in training camp is to be determined, but the opportunity to contribute this season is right in front of him.