When Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas met with the media recently, he made one thing very clear: internal competition is a must. The team wants their players to push each other and with many new additions and young players being given a chance, expect to see a healthy dose of internal competition come training camp next month, which should bode well for the success of next season’s team.
It all starts in goal. Dubas landed free agent Petr Mrazek from the Carolina Hurricanes, a goalie who checked off all the boxes. Mrazek is on an affordable contract, he’s still in his prime, and he comes from a tandem. The latter was very important for Toronto as they know Jack Campbell is capable of taking over the crease, but considering the only sample size is one shortened season as a legit starter, Dubas had to provide the team with a security blanket should things not work out in 2021-22.
Mrazek has all the experience, was part of a successful tandem with James Reimer in Carolina, and has also shown from his days with the Detroit Red Wings that he’s capable of being “the guy”. At this point, expect Campbell to start game one next season, and we could very well see Mrazek in game two, regardless of the outcome.
New Blood Brings Shorter Leashes for Returning Players
With the additions of Nick Ritchie, Ondrej Kase, Michael Bunting, David Kampf, Kurtis Gabriel, and even Josh Ho-Sang – who will be on a professional tryout at training camp – there’s plenty of options for head coach Sheldon Keefe, and the Maple Leafs are going to have a very different feel come opening night. Returning players such as Pierre Engvall, Adam Brooks, and Ilya Mikheyev are no longer a lock to make the top-12. Two of them could be in suits enjoying popcorn in the press box at Scotiabank Arena on Oct. 13 when the team faces off against the Montreal Canadiens in the season opener.
Engvall and Mikheyev both struggled last season, and there’s no doubt they’re on the bubble to make the Maple Leafs’ roster. Engvall brings a touch more versatility than Mikheyev, as he’s able to play down the middle if needed and took 237 faceoffs in 2020-21. The 25-year-old pending restricted free agent posted only 12 points in 42 games last season, so if he wants to stick around, management will want to see upwards of 30 points from the former seventh-round selection.
As for Mikheyev, there’s an outside chance he will get a shot on the team’s second line once training camp begins, but the Russian winger is expected to flank the third line and be a forechecking presence. He missed several grade-A chances last season and was snake-bitten at times, especially early on. He finished the season with 17 points in 54 games which, even though he’s become one of the Maple Leafs’ hardest workers, isn’t enough if he wants to dress for every game.
New Additions Have Similarities
Given their offseason signings, it seems the Maple Leafs were looking for some low-risk, high-reward type of players. Ritchie, Kase, Bunting, Gabriel, and Ho-Sang are all 26 years old or younger and have been handed “show-me” deals – take this for now, and if you show us you can reach your potential, we’ll consider a long-term extension. Tyson Barrie with the Oilers last season was the perfect example. He signed a one-year discounted deal and ended up leading the league in points by a defenseman and was rewarded with a long-term extension with a decent raise to stay in Edmonton.
When it comes to the new players, Dubas and Keefe know Bunting and Ritchie very well from their days together in Sault St Marie of the Ontario Hockey League. These two were obvious targets for the Maple Leafs, and both could be given some serious minutes if they get off to a good start in training camp and to open the season.
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Expect to see Ritchie with John Tavares and William Nylander to open the season, while Bunting’s tenacity should remind Leafs Nation of Zach Hyman and could be a natural fit on the team’s top line with Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner. Bunting loves to battle, find those dirty areas and scores most of his goals from tips or rebounds in front of the net. This trio could hit the ground running and will be one of the biggest storylines in October.
Defensive Group Is Almost Set in Stone
At this point, the Maple Leafs’ defence may have the fewest question marks. The top-four is set with T.J Brodie, Morgan Rielly, Jake Muzzin and Justin Holl, but after that, there’s some debate. At this point, both Travis Dermott and Rasmus Sandin could be in the lineup on opening night, with Timothy Liljegren right there in the mix. If this was Mike Babcock’s team, you know Liljegren would be handed the keys because he’s right-handed, but thankfully for everyone, that’s not the case anymore.
Both Sandin and Dermott are pencilled in, which could become inked in with a strong training camp. Expect to see the Toronto Marlies’ Mac Hollowell and Kristians Rubins given some looks in training camp as well, along with new additions Alex Biega, Carl Dahlstrom and Brennan Menell.
Given the Maple Leafs’ remaining salary cap space and contract count, their roster appears to be all but set. Dubas and company will likely make their final decisions based on internal competition and are looking forward to creating battles in training camp as players vie for roster spots. When your president asks for more killer instinct from the group, the best thing to do is create internal competition that forces your players to push each other to be better. Kudos to Dubas and company for a job well done so far this summer.
Shane covers any and everything to do with the Toronto Maple Leafs & Pittsburgh Penguins. A constant contributor to the THW family, his passion and unique perspective on the game results in some diverse content. Certainly versatile, you can find Seney also contributing at NHLTradeRumors.me, BaseballRumors.me & BBallRumors.com. Follow along on Twitter @ShugMcSween