The Toronto Maple Leafs drop the puck on the 2021-22 season next week. There are still many decisions to be made. Who will make the team? What players will get lined up together? With just a week left to impress the coaching staff, competition is heating up. Who’s impressed and who needs to do more was the hot topic in a recent Maple Leafs Lounge.
Some obvious players will be on the NHL club. There are others on the fringe between the big club and the minors. Then there are the two guys on professional try-out contracts or PTOs.
Maple Leafs Have PTO Decision
Any NHL training camp must be difficult, but imagine attending one with only a try-out contract. At any point, Josh Ho-Sang or Nikita Gusev could be sent home. While there is the possibility the Maple Leafs will sign both players, it’s unlikely with the amount of forwards vying for positions that already have contracts.
Ho-Sang has been noticeable in camp. The first look we had at him, he was on a line with captain John Tavares and Michael Bunting. Ho-Sang was a first-round pick in 2014, but his career has stumbled in recent years. However, Alex Hobson thinks he has a good shot at a contract, “he’s all over the ice. He’s been tenacious,” said Hobson.
Hobson also likes Ho-Sang’s commitment to getting back on track. “He said he would sharpen skates and start in the ECHL if he had to. I think just based on that alone, I can’t imagine that (Kyle) Dubas and (Sheldon) Keefe don’t see how much drive and wanting to win Josh Ho-Sang has.” Hobson also thinks Ho-Sang could be assigned to the Toronto Marlies to start rebuilding his career.
Gusev was a late addition to the training camp roster and has proven to be, as advertised, a one-dimensional, offensive-minded player. Not that that is a bad thing, but not what Toronto needs. While he has had some goals, he has a lot of work to secure a contract.
Peter Baracchini thinks Gusev’s five-on-five play needs to be put to the test. “I think the only time where he actually stood out was during that blue and white scrimmage and in the third period. They were trying out special teams, and he scored two really solid goals. Fantastic! But at the same time, if you’re only going to get powerplay minutes and play on five on four and he’s doing nothing else at five on five … it’s hard to see him get any significant minutes.”
Maple Leafs on Watch
Then there are the other players who are challenging for roles in the top 12 forward mix. Of course, the front office will always say all positions are up for grabs. But we all know the guys with more significant contracts are more likely to be on the roster on opening night.
The Maple Leafs made a trade just before the expansion draft to secure Alex Kerfoot in Toronto. They acquired Jared McCann from the Pittsburgh Penguins, who was subsequently taken by the Seattle Kraken. However, the trio of writers has not been seeing much from Kerfoot in camp. I had him pegged for a big season after last year’s performance in the playoffs. “I had Kerfoot on the top line with Matthews and Marner because behind Nylander, he was the best on in the playoffs last year. But this camp, I don’t really see him on the ice.”
Toronto signed an x-factor in Ondrej Kase. He has a concussion-filled past and only played three games last season. However, Baracchini said he has seen shades of Kase from years ago, “we’ve seen him be kind of what he was with the Anaheim Ducks where he started his career. Being that power forward with the speed, the shoots providing great scoring depth.”
Maple Leafs Top Line: Ritchie or Bunting
Outside of Petr Mrazek, the Maple Leafs spend the most money bringing in Nick Ritchie in the offseason. Since then, Ritchie has been pegged as the top guy who would start on the first line with Matthews and Marner. However, we haven’t seen what that line would look like because Matthews has been limited at camp while recovering from wrist surgery. Marner and Ritchie have had some ice time together, but the gameplay has not shown a lot from Ritchie – yet.
Baracchini thinks it’s coming along, “he is engaging on the forecheck. He’s going to be that guy that’s going to go into the puck out to get the Marner. Then get the cycle going to spot point shots, to spot Matthews for one-timer and then get in front of the net to provide some traffic.” But it’s another new guy, Baracchini sees getting the nod for the top line. “(Ritchie) provided some good plays but not as much as we have seen with Michael Bunting.”
Keefe continuously tinkers with his line make-up. It’s expected this season will be no different. Hobson thinks he may start with Ritchie in the top spot, but “I don’t know that I see Nick Ritchie being that guy in the end on the top line. I think that will be Bunting’s role. Especially if he proves early on that the flashes he has shown in preseason and training camp aren’t just flashes. I think they would be missing an opportunity not having Bunting on the first line.”
Maple Leafs Give Sheldon Keefe Extension
The trio of writers don’t always agree, but there was no one disputing the Maple Leafs giving Sheldon Keefe a two-year contract extension. Last season, I wrote an article arguing that Keefe should be nominated for the Jack Adams. “He continues to push this team to new levels, despite having every move he makes under a microscope and now on Amazon for everyone to see. He is essentially a rookie coach; he doesn’t have a full, normal regular season,” I said during the Maple Leafs Lounge.
Hobson wrote an article on this topic. He dives deeper into what Keefe has accomplished and why he is worthy of an extension. He also points out that Keefe has a 62-29-12 record as an NHL coach.
Maple Leafs All or Nothing on Amazon
I’ve made my feeling known about Amazon’s new show Maple Leafs, All or Nothing. I have no interest in watching it, instead of repeating all the reasons, you can check out my article. Hobson also said he would not watch it, but he told me, “you’ve proven that you are a strong man than me because the night it came out, I binged the whole thing.” He says there is a lot of behind-the-scenes material you don’t get elsewhere. Still, He acknowledges that last season was difficult and doesn’t blame anyone who doesn’t want to watch it.
Of course, we finished with our fan chat, where we look at comments, questions and opinions left by viewers, readers and listeners of the Maple Leafs Lounge. Be sure to leave your comments here or on our YouTube channel.
Kevin Armstrong is an award-winning journalist with more than two decades of experience. He’s been rink side for World Juniors, Memorial Cups, Calder Cups and Stanley Cups. Like many Canadian kids, his earliest memories include hockey. Kevin has spent countless hours in arenas throughout the country watching all levels of the game.