Maple Leafs’ Depth Stepping Up Is Creating a Great Problem

“It’s only preseason”. 

Every year around this time, hockey fans find themselves repeating this statement. Whether it’s a seemingly minors-destined player scoring a few extra goals in the exhibition games, or a star player looking a step behind out of the gates, it’s always important to remind yourself that what happens in preseason, whether good or bad, should always be taken with a grain of salt.

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This same sentiment should be applied to the fact that so far, the Toronto Maple Leafs are 4-1-0 in preseason, Nick Robertson is leading all NHL players in preseason scoring, and the tandem of Matt Murray and Ilya Samsonov have combined for only four goals against on 91 shots, good for a combined save percentage (SV%) of .956. These are all encouraging signs, but preseason wins don’t matter in the long run, as we all know. 

Nick Robertson Toronto Maple Leafs
Nick Robertson, Toronto Maple Leafs (Photo by Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images)

What does matter in preseason, however, is the performance of players who aren’t guaranteed spots on the team. William Nylander scored two goals in Monday night’s defeat of the Montreal Canadiens, but he’ll be starting in the top six regardless of how he plays in his exhibition games. But what about players like Robertson? Or Denis Malgin? How about Pontus Holmberg? These are all players who came into camp with the sole goal of making the roster. When these players stand out in preseason, it means something. And so far, it looks like Maple Leafs’ brass will have their hands full when the time comes to make the final cuts. 

Robertson Running Away With His Opportunity 

When we talk about players who are vying for a spot on the team, Robertson likely had some of the worst odds of the players who had a reasonable shot to make it. Not only can he be sent to the American Hockey League (AHL) without having to pass through waivers, he came into training camp with some hurdles to clear after an underwhelming performance at the Traverse City Rookie Tournament. 

I wrote an article on his chances to make the team following an interview I did with Sports Illustrated’s David Alter, who’s around the team just about every day, on the Sticks in the 6ix Podcast. The gist of what he told me was that Robertson was going to have to not only show up and play well, but that he would essentially have to pry the job from somebody else. And so far, it’s looking like he took that advice to heart. He’s been more engaged, he’s been playing well away from the puck, and as I mentioned, he currently leads the league in preseason scoring with three goals and seven points in four games played. 

One of the other issues that was at hand with Robertson cracking the team is that his skillset doesn’t complement a bottom six role nicely, especially if John Tavares and Nylander are both in the top six. I’ve never been a fan of spreading out the offense in the past, but it might be worth it if it gets the former Peterborough Pete on the team. After all, what kind of message would that send to him and other players if he lost out on a job to somebody less deserving only because he didn’t have to clear waivers? Because right now, he looks better than just about any player, and at a bare minimum should be starting the season with the team. 

Aston-Reese Playing Himself Into a Contract 

You can always expect the Maple Leafs to toss out a professional tryout (PTO) or two, and this year, the recipient was former Pittsburgh Penguin Zach Aston-Reese. He has one goal in preseason so far, but with a career-high of 12 goals in a single season, he’s clearly not expected to be an offensive force for them. Instead, he’ll look to add an element that was missing from the Maple Leafs’ fourth line for most of last season. Speed, hard forechecking, and physicality. 

You wouldn’t think that a former Hobey Baker (awarded to the NCAA’s top player) finalist would be known for his physicality in the NHL, but that’s very much the case here. Last season, Aston-Reese finished with 231 hits, which was far and away more than any Leafs’ player had, with Wayne Simmonds’ 148 being the next closest. He isn’t the biggest player at 6-foot and 204 pounds, but he’s a solid frame who will help improve the team’s forechecking game and make their bottom six harder to play against. 

As of right now, Aston-Reese doesn’t have a contract with the team, or at least it hasn’t been officially reported on. But, Toronto Sun beat reporter Terry Koshan mentioned in a recent article that he will sign before preseason is over. So between that and his play at camp so far, it’s safe to assume that he will be a Maple Leaf on October 12th. 

Malgin Looking to Make the Most of Return to NHL 

After the 2021-22 season, there were few more controversial names to Maple Leafs’ fans than Denis Malgin. For those that don’t remember, he was acquired from the Florida Panthers in exchange for Mason Marchment back in 2019-20. At the time, Marchment was barely a depth forward and it seemed to be a nothing trade, but that was before he broke out for 47 points in 54 games last season. Meanwhile, Malgin went pointless in eight games for the Maple Leafs in 2019-20 before returning to his home country of Switzerland during the COVID-19 Pandemic. 

The trade looked stunningly awful last season especially, given that the Maple Leafs definitely could have used a player of Marchment’s type last season. But with him having signed a four-year contract with the Dallas Stars this past offseason and Malgin returning after leading the Swiss League in scoring, there’s a chance for him to rewrite the narrative. And while it would be foolish to expect the same level of production Marchment had last season, he could still be a useful player for the team. 

Like Robertson, Malgin’s name has been showing up on the scoresheet more often than not during preseason so far. He has three goals and three assists in four games played, and he’s caught the eye of head coach Sheldon Keefe for his play away from the puck. Which, for somebody with his build and skill set, is massively important. He will need to clear waivers to be assigned to the Marlies, and given the way his preseason has gone so far, I’d imagine his chances of making the roster are high. 

Injuries to Tavares, Engvall Creating More Competition

I’ve gone and highlighted three players who look like they’re playing themselves onto the team, but that doesn’t mean there’s a spot for everybody. Pontus Holmberg and Alex Steeves, who have both looked great throughout preseason, will both likely start the season in the AHL for the sole reason that there isn’t enough space on the roster for them. Adam Gaudette is likely in tough to earn a spot after a minor injury knocked him out of commission for a little bit, but he’ll have to pass through waivers if the Maple Leafs want to keep him. 

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Then you get to players like Wayne Simmonds and Kyle Clifford, both of whom the Maple Leafs clearly love having around the team, but can you justify dressing them night in and night out when they’re a step behind the rest of the players? Probably not. And then, when you factor in the eventual return of Engvall and Tavares, there will be even fewer spots available. The Maple Leafs will close out preseason this weekend with a back-to-back against the Detroit Red Wings, and after that, brass has three days to make a decision on who makes it and who doesn’t, and I don’t envy them in the slightest.

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