With the preseason already underway, it’s easy to get back into the hype with games that really don’t mean a lot. For many, a job is on the line as it’s their chance to make their mark and earn a roster spot. This is the case with some names on the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Already dealing with a logjam at the wing position and a vacant spot on the third defensive pairing, the competition is already underway to fill those spots. Even though the Maple Leafs have only played three games, there are already a few names that stand out to make a lasting impression. Here are five names that have stood out for the Maple Leafs during the early stages of the preseason.
A very early front-runner to replace Zach Hyman’s spot on the top line left wing position, Michael Bunting hasn’t disappointed. In his first few games with the Maple Leafs he’s nailing his early audition for the spot.
He was extremely noticeable playing alongside John Tavares in his first game against the Canadiens, scoring a tap-in goal off a nice pass from T.J. Brodie. That drive getting to the high danger area continued against the Ottawa Senators as he scored a hat trick in a 4-0 win.
Bunting scored 10 goals in 21 games with the Arizona Coyotes in 2020-21, surprising results for a player who just the season before played in five games and scored once. While preseason stats don’t matter, it’s impressive that Bunting has scored four goals in two games. That kind of production may not be sustainable during the regular season, but it could be a glimpse of what’s to come as he’s eyeing a spot in a top-six role.
In his post-game interview, Bunting made it a point that it doesn’t matter where he plays in the lineup and that he’s going to bring his game wherever he is. This is the kind of mentality that was missing in the past and Bunting seems to be energized with the opportunity. Safe to say that whether it’s with Auston Matthews or John Tavares, Bunting is going to provide a positive impact with his tenacious mentality on the wing.
No one needs to have a strong preseason and make a lasting impression more than Timothy Liljegren. After spending four seasons in the AHL with the Toronto Marlies, he’s now entering his fifth pro season. While it may seem like time is running out for the 17th overall pick in the 2017 draft, he’s only 22. But his mindset is different as he feels that he’s overstayed his welcome in the minors.
Head coach Sheldon Keefe said that Liljegren is one player that has taken significant steps in his development. In the games that he suited up for, he was very impressive. While he may not be the puck-moving defenceman as when he was drafted, he certainly displayed his two-way game. He even had great possession numbers when he was partnered with Jake Muzzin, including a CF% of 73.08 at five-on-five.
Liljegren showed his ability to play in a shutdown role yet still be a factor offensively, converging on the puck carrier, keeping them to the outside and applying pressure. His breakouts and stretch passes also stood out, as they’re big parts of his transitional game. If we thought he looked comfortable in his first game, he looked even better in his second against the Ottawa Senators providing that shutdown aspect. He is off to a really good start and making a statement.
Ondrej Kase and David Kampf
Two potential players that could make up the Maple Leafs third line in a shutdown role, Ondrej Kase and David Kampf have been really effective in the early going of the preseason.
It’s been a difficult few seasons for Kase who has dealt with a number of injuries. Only playing in three games last season with the Boston Bruins, he is looking to stay healthy and provide that strong two-way play with a good scoring touch. Things were looking great in his preseason debut with the Maple Leafs.
Kase was extremely effective with his speed and hard nosed play in the offensive zone.
Although the Maple Leafs lost 5-2 to the Canadiens, he finished with a 5-on-5 73.9 CF% when he was on the ice and scored, finishing off a nice passing sequence. He would also add an assist against the Senators.
When he’s at his best and healthy, Kase can be a very effective power forward getting in on the forecheck and provide a strong net front presence. He is also able to comeback and help out on the backcheck, breaking up plays and creating turnovers. That is definitely an aspect that can fill the void with the loss of Hyman.
Kampf isn’t known for his offense as he only had 12 points last season with the Chicago Blackhawks. He did, however, score in back to back games including a lucky bounce while shorthanded. Keefe has lauded the play of Kampf as he’s comfortable playing him against other team’s top players. Based on his play early on, that confidence in Kampf is showing.
While he may chip in offensively every now and then, Kampf’s defensive-minded play style is definitely something that benefits the Maple Leafs as they lacked a true shutdown centreman in the past. He has great positioning in his own end to break plays up and is strong in the faceoff dot. He had a 65% faceoff percentage against the Canadiens and 50% against the Senators, a slight decrease from his previous game, but still effective overall.
Heading into camp on a professional tryout, Josh Ho-Sang was looking for a fresh start after a rough patch with the New York Islanders. It looks like he may have found a new home.
In a game where he needed to make a statement that he belongs on the roster, Ho-Sang made sure to have that consistency in hopes of earning a contract. After showing great speed and puck skills when the Maple Leafs played the Canadiens, he found the score sheet against the Senators, setting up Bunting on all three of his goals. He was extremely grateful for the opportunity with his post-game comments.
A player with his skillset and upside deserves a spot in the NHL no matter what team he’s on. Even though it’s still early on in the preseason, Ho-Sang isn’t taking anything for granted as he’s been noticeable when he’s on the ice. He’s put in the work and it’s starting to pay off.
Even though it’s the preseason, a number of players on the Maple Leafs have begun to make their mark that they belong on the roster and have been more noticeable than others. Jobs are on the line and all these players have made their case early on, that they belong on this team.
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Peter is in his third year with The Hockey Writers, covering the Toronto Maple Leafs and heading the Draft and Prospects section. He has previously interned at The Hockey News and worked on Toronto Marlies broadcasts for Rogers TV. He currently is the co-host of the podcast Sticks in the 6ix and a frequent guest on Maple Leafs Lounge. Aside from hockey, he also enjoys drumming, animation and impressions/ voices.