Injuries are a fact of life in professional sports. They close doors for some, but they open doors for others. While the 2019-20 Toronto Maple Leafs aren’t dealing with any serious ailments as the Oct. 2 season opener against the Ottawa Senators draws near, the ones they do have will have an impact on the early makeup of the roster.
Let’s take a look the Maple Leafs who are injured at each position during training camp and see how they could end up shaping the roster.
Injured Maple Leafs Forwards
The lone notable injury up front is to winger Zach Hyman who underwent offseason ACL surgery after injuring his knee in Game 4 of the Maple Leafs’ first-round playoff series loss to the Boston Bruins. Hyman is expected to miss the first 15 games of the season, which pegs him for a return around Nov. 5 against the Los Angeles Kings, if all goes to plan.
As a result, there’s an hole to fill up front, but it’s not on the left of John Tavares where Hyman skated for the entirety of last season. Instead, Kasperi Kapanen will move from the right side to the left side and skate with Tavares and Mitch Marner to open the season. Kapanen was originally penciled in to the right of newcomer Alexander Kerfoot on the club’s third line, however he’s set to play an increased role while moving up the lineup onto the team’s most productive line from a season ago.
With Andreas Johnsson, Auston Matthews and William Nylander set to skate together, there will be some mixing and matching on the Kerfoot line throughout camp. Offseason signee Ilya Mikheyev is set for a spot to the left of Kerfoot while Nic Petan could fill an important role on the right side and give the Maple Leafs’ some under-the-radar production. Jason Spezza should be locked into the fourth-line center spot, and if Mikheyev grabs the third-line left wing spot, a fourth-line winger spot will likely go to head coach Mike Babcock favorite Trevor Moore – a player who can play on either wing.
Still, we are left with an open spot on the fourth line, which will spark fierce competition between Jeremy Bracco, Pontus Aberg, Kenny Agostino, Nick Shore, Mason Marchment, Pierre Engvall, Matt Read and Garrett Wilson, although Wilson is injured. We’ll see who opens the season with the big club and who will be sent to the Toronto Marlies of the AHL (after clearing waivers). With Aberg, Agostino and Shore the only three healthy options who are not waiver exempt, perhaps they have the upper hand.
Injured Maple Leafs Defense
Again, there is only one notable injury on the Maple Leafs’ blue line and it’s to 22-year-old Travis Dermott who underwent offseason shoulder surgery. His recovery is expected to follow a similar timeline to Hyman’s, meaning there’s an opportunity for someone to step into the Maple Leafs’ top-six for the time being. Along with the open spot on the bottom pair, the Maple Leafs are searching for their bottom two defensemen during training camp as well as a seventh defenseman to keep on the NHL roster.
The Maple Leafs have 10 defensemen under contract for this season, including Dermott. The top four of Morgan Rielly, Cody Ceci, Jake Muzzin and Tyson Barrie are set on the roster. Keep in mind, top prospects Rasmus Sanin and Timothy Liljegren are knocking on the Leafs’ door after some impressive results with the Marlies. As a result, Babcock will be looking at about seven healthy rearguards for two spots on the blue line to begin the season.
Along with Sandin and Liljegren, players like Martin Marincin, Justin Holl, Ben Harpur, Jordan Schmaltz and Kevin Gravel will be in the mix. Marincin is the most familiar player of the group and Holl spent the entire 2018-19 season with the Maple Leafs despite appearing in just 12 games. That said, I can’t help but wonder why the Maple Leafs would acquire a 24-year-old Harpur – the youngest NHL contract outside of the top-four and a restricted free agent (RFA) at season’s end – in the July 1 deal with the Ottawa Senators only to expose him to waivers months later. Due to his size, physical element and penalty-killing ability, I bet he’ll earn a spot, whether it be in the top-six or as the seventh defenseman.
That leaves Schmaltz – also acquired in an offseason trade and a fellow RFA after the season – along with Holl, Marincin, Gravel and the two youngsters to fight it out for the two remaining spots, although it’s likely Babcock will want a right-shot on the right side of his bottom pair. That leaves Schmaltz, Holl and Liljegren in the battle. If this is at all confusing, the battle doesn’t seem any clearer to the head coach, either.
Injured Maple Leafs Goaltending
Of course, Frederik Andersen is in for another big workload with the Maple Leafs in 2019-20 – and possibly a Vezina Trophy – but the team wanted a competition behind him in training camp alongside Michael Hutchinson. That competition didn’t last – at least for now – as veteran Michal Neuvirth, who signed a professional tryout this offseason, was injured during training camp.
Acquired from the Florida Panthers in December of last season, Hutchinson started five games with the Maple Leafs, posting a rock-solid 2.64 goals-against average (GAA) and a .914 save percentage (SV%) in the process. He also appeared in 23 games with the Marlies, posting a 2.70 GAA and .910 SV%. The club re-signed him to a one-year contract this offseason.
The backup goaltending role will likely be a larger role this season than it has been in Andersen’s three-season run as the Maple Leafs’ unquestioned No.1. Andersen’s 192 starts in that span are the most in the NHL and his 6,221 shots against are by far the most in the league, a cool 550 shots more than second-place Connor Hellebuyck. He usually only rests in back-to-back game situations, so perhaps less should be more in 2019-20. As a result, the team’s backup will start closer to 25 games this season after Andersen started 66 in two of his three seasons with the club.
Regardless of Andersen’s workload, the injury to Neuvirth is giving Hutchinson the clear path to the backup role after splitting his post-trade time last season between the Maple Leafs and Marlies.
I’m always up for predictions: I imagine the Maple Leafs’ roster will shape up to be something like this on opening night, with the salary cap of course being considered:
Kapanen – Tavares – Marner
Johnsson – Matthews – Nylander
Mikheyev – Kerfoot – Petan
Moore – Spezza – Aberg
Rielly – Ceci
Muzzin – Barrie
Harpur – Holl
IR: Hyman, Dermott
As mentioned, two spots are hard to predict: the fourth-line right-wing spot and sixth/seventh defense spots. Aberg scored 11 goals in just 37 NHL games last season and he would require waivers to be sent to the AHL. That could give him a leg up on a player like Marchment who, I believe, will make an impact in the NHL this season.
The defense is hard to predict, but Harpur and Schmaltz are just 24 and 25 years old, respectively; both were acquired in trades this offseason; and both are RFAs at season’s end. Given the age and club control, I don’t see general manager Kyle Dubas risk losing these players on waivers. The late-blooming Holl has more upside than Marincin, giving him my edge there. He also spent all of last season on the NHL roster, and I believe he’ll be rewarded for his continued patience.
Regardless of how it all shakes out, there’s no doubt that even a few small injuries will factor into shaping the Maple Leafs’ roster to begin the 2019-20 season.