On Monday morning, the Toronto Maple Leafs finalized their 23-man roster after placing bottom-six forward candidates Kenny Agostino and Nic Petan on waivers alongside the injured Garrett Wilson and depth defender Kevin Gravel. With that, the team now has 13 forwards and 8 defensemen on the roster leading up to Wednesday’s season-opening tilt against the rival Ottawa Senators.
While many questions were answered with the finalization of the roster, other questions remain. There’s some interesting takeaways when looking at the makeup of the group and with the team right up against the salary cap, many of these decisions were financially-related.
With that in mind, let’s get inside the heads of general manager Kyle Dubas, head coach Mike Babcock and their respective staffs and make sense of the Maple Leafs’ current 23-man roster.
Timashov Earns Fourth-Line Spot
I’ll be the first to admit that I did not have prospect Dmytro Timashov fully on my radar to win the open fourth-line spot at training camp, other than to note that he had a minuscule chance, but was likely to open the season with the American Hockey League’s (AHL) Toronto Marlies.
Timashov didn’t exactly light it up in the preseason, going pointless while skating just 12:45 per game across four contests. However, Timashov did impress in practice and scrimmages enough that he gained the watching eye of Babcock. The Maple Leafs’ bench boss also had some praise for his defensive play and his ability to protect the puck.
Of course, there’s a financial aspect here as well. With a $694,444 cap hit while at the NHL level, Timashov is a cheaper option than the aforementioned Agostino and Petan, both of whom would earn well over $700,000 while on the NHL roster. It may not seem like much, but this 23-man roster is only $10,840 under the cap once Nathan Horton, David Clarkson, Zach Hyman and Travis Dermott are placed on long-term injured reserve, likely on Tuesday. The team absolutely needs to carefully consider every dollar this season.
For now, Timashov is a Maple Leaf. For how long remains to be seen. He’s surely going down to the AHL once Hyman returns as he has no place in the press box as a healthy scratch but rather in a vital top-six role with the Marlies after a breakout 49-point campaign with the club a season ago. At this point, the audition is more than he could ask for.
Liljegren Sticks Around
While fellow Swede Rasmus Sandin proved himself worthy of a full-time role on the 2019-20 Maple Leafs, the team’s 2017 first-rounder, Timothy Liljegren, also reeled in a spot on the club’s 23-man roster. Like with Timashov, however, the length of time he spends there is in question.
The Liljegren situation isn’t quite as complex as Timashov, but it has its similarities. Like Timashov, there’s a zero percent chance that Liljegren spends any time as a healthy scratch with the Maple Leafs, perhaps outside of the club’s season opener against the Senators. His development is ongoing and he needs to log big minutes with the Marlies.
So, why is he still around? Likely to get some additional exposure to the ins and outs of NHL regular season preparation and additional practice time with the club before he is sent down in time for the Marlies’ season-opener on Saturday night in Toronto.
Liljegren logged 14:54 of ice time per game across four preseason contests with the Maple Leafs, tallying one assist and four shots on goal in that span. With Martin Marincin playing most of the preseason on the right side next to Sandin and Justin Holl also in his way, his chances of cracking the opening night roster weren’t overly optimistic to begin with. Babcock didn’t deem it necessary to give him the top-pair minutes in any of the exhibition games that he handed out to Sandin and Marincin.
For now, he’s inside the 23-man roster. However, a waiver-exempt move to send him to the Marlies is likely only a few days away.
Dynamic Fourth-Line Duo
Timashov wasn’t the only news on the fourth line as the long-rumored duo of Jason Spezza and Frederik Gauthier will indeed start the season together on the Maple Leafs bottom unit.
After spending the entirety of the 2018-19 season as the Maple Leafs’ fourth-line centre, Gauthier appears to have earned a role on that unit again this season. Only this time, he will be complemented by a 16-year veteran in Spezza, and for good reason. Much of that reasoning rests inside the faceoff circle.
In addition to the experience and leadership Spezza brings to the table, he also dominated the faceoff dot to the tune of a 58.2% clip last season, tied for the best mark in the NHL among players who took at least 800 faceoffs. Spezza also cleaned up with a 60.1% mark in his defensive zone a season ago.
For his part, Gauthier also did well in the faceoff circle last season, winning 53.7% of his faceoffs with an increased 56.4% mark in his defensive zone. Considering the league’s new faceoff rules following a penalty and an icing, having both a left and right-handed centreman on this line who absolutely cleaned up in their own end a season ago could prove very valuable. Gauthier’s potential spot on the team was increased from the first preseason game with high praise from his head coach.
The Maple Leafs have a unique combination on the fourth line with the young Gauthier and veteran Spezza, one that could provide some sneaky value for the club as they utilize a pair of league-minimum contracts.
Blue Line Puzzle Completed
There was simultaneous certainty and uncertainty on the Maple Leafs’ blue line entering September’s training camp. While we knew the top four would include Morgan Rielly, Cody Ceci, Jake Muzzin and Tyson Barrie, the bottom pair was certainly up for grabs among a host of candidates.
In all honesty, I didn’t feel too bad about questioning what the bottom pair would look like come Oct. 2 as the Maple Leafs’ head coach was admittedly confused himself.
The picture became much clearer as camp progressed, however. Namely, Sandin cemented himself as an opening night roster lock with a stellar preseason that seemingly demonstrated that last season’s wildly successful rookie AHL season was no fluke. He will open the season on the bottom pair alongside Marincin in what became a dynamite duo throughout camp thanks to Sandin’s skating and puck-moving ability combined with Marincin’s stay-at-home style, reach and play below his own goal line.
With Gravel, Ben Harpur and Jordan Schmaltz hitting waivers over the last several days, it appears that Justin Holl will once again hang around as the team’s seventh defenseman, once Liljegren is inevitably sent to the AHL. It did take some time, but the puzzle that was the Maple Leafs’ blue line is now complete.
Shore Earns Role
Veteran NHLer Nick Shore didn’t play in the league last season but rather in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League. However, his return to North America is thus far successful as his name remains on the Maple Leafs’ 23-man roster.
That said, Shore’s role remains unclear at this point. As noted, the Maple Leafs didn’t keep Timashov to have him sit in the press box, and Gauthier and Spezza will certainly be a part of that fourth line. As a result, it would appear Shore’s role at this point is of the 13th-forward variety. A role player in his best days in the NHL, Shore’s development isn’t nearly as sensitive as many of the players the club passed through waivers for full-time duty purposes with the Marlies.
Time will only tell what could happen to Shore once Hyman and Dermott return from their respective injuries. The Maple Leafs will likely only be able to keep one extra player on the roster come early November given the cap crunch, which could very well leave Shore on the outside looking in, and eventually on waivers.
For now, the 27-year-old is once again on an NHL roster as he looks to carve out another role in the world’s best hockey league.
Despite having some spots up for grabs at training camp, the truth is those spots are short-term in nature given the aforementioned early-season injuries. Much of the roster was set in stone from the get-go, most notably the top-nine forward group, top-four defensemen and the goaltending duo, especially once Michal Neuvirth was released from his professional tryout.
It’s one of the NHL’s most skilled and talented groups on paper. Expectations are once again high and anything short of two playoff series wins would likely be a disappointment. While we wait on the results, we at least now know the 23 players the club is currently going to battle with leading up to Wednesday night’s opener.