4 Takeaways From Day 1 of Maple Leafs Training Camp

Toronto Maple Leafs’ training camp opened up today, marking the second phase in the return of hockey season. After wrapping up the Traverse City Rookie Tournament over the weekend, Maple Leafs’ players and personnel returned to the ice in preparation for the start of preseason this Saturday. The exhibition games kick off with a doubleheader against the Ottawa Senators on Sept 24, with the regular season set for Oct 12 on the road against the Montreal Canadiens.

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Depending on how much patience you have for this team at this point, you might not care to hear what general manager (GM) Kyle Dubas, head coach Sheldon Keefe, and star players such as Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and John Tavares have to say heading into yet another season without a playoff round victory. But, for those that do, I’m going to be taking a look at some of the biggest takeaways to come from the first day of training camp.

Dubas Knows He’s on the Hot Seat 

Shocker – the GM behind the team that hasn’t been able to win a playoff round since his takeover is being pressured about his job security. This is probably the least surprising headline you’ll read from training camp, or even just in general today.

Toronto Maple Leafs General Manager Kyle Dubas
Toronto Maple Leafs General Manager Kyle Dubas (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette)

Dubas, when asked about his contract status, confirmed that team president Brendan Shanahan did not offer him an extension over the summer, and even went as far as to say that he preferred it that way. Granted, I’m sure he would have happily accepted an extension if offered one, but it’s good to know that he recognizes that this season could very well be his last if nothing changes. 

When you look at the season-by-season record of Maple Leafs’ teams managed by Dubas, there’s been clear improvement each season. But, ultimately, his legacy and success are not going to be defined by his team’s ability to perform in the regular season. Nobody will look back and say, “this team accomplished some amazing regular season feats!” With two years left on Matthews’ contract, this season, more than any other in the past five years, will be the one where the stakes are highest. In fact, the team’s effort against Tampa Bay is probably the only reason he still has a job this year. Whether or not his quotes instill any confidence depends on the person, but at least he’s self-aware. 

Maple Leafs’ Second Line Remains an Open Opportunity 

One of the biggest questions heading into the 2022-23 season is who will take the spot on the left side of John Tavares and William Nylander. Last season saw a bit of a musical chairs of players there, mostly Alex Kerfoot and the recently-departed Ilya Mikheyev. While the former is likely one of the strongest candidates to resume a place on that line, Keefe also cited newly-signed forwards Calle Jarnkrok and Nicolas Aube-Kubel as potential candidates to fill that role. Jarnkrok would be eerily similar to Mikheyev in that role, as the two produced at a similar pace last season. 

Aube-Kubel, on the other hand, would be interesting, to say the least. He isn’t much of an offensive player, tallying only 22 points in 67 games, but what he does bring is speed and arguably the most relentless forechecking game on the team. Tavares and Nylander have lacked a player like that most of the time they’ve been together, so it’s crazy enough that it just might work. And if not him, I will continue to argue that Nick Robertson should get a shot on that second line, for more than one game at a time. With Pierre Engvall likely to miss the start of the season with an injury, there may not be a better opportunity for him to crack the lineup and stay there. But, of course, that all comes down to how he produces in the preseason. 

Engvall and Liljegren to Miss Training Camp With Injuries 

Each offseason, Dubas signs a plethora of depth players, not all of whom are expected to make the team. The reason for that is instances like this. It was revealed over the past few days that both Engvall (as I alluded to before) and Timothy Liljegren will miss training camp with some nagging injuries. Engvall is dealing with a foot/ankle injury and will be reevaluated on Oct 3, and Liljegren will miss a minimum of six weeks with a hernia, which likely sets him up for a return in early November. 

Timothy Liljegren Toronto Maple Leafs
Timothy Liljegren, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Engvall is a player who, in my opinion, could contend for that spot on the second line along with Kerfoot, Aube-Kubel, and Robertson. He said he felt that he could score 20 goals earlier this season, and his size and speed could make a big difference there. But, in the meantime, his spot in the lineup will be up for grabs until he’s ready to return. Liljegren’s spot, on the other hand, will require a longer-term solution. Rasmus Sandin remains unsigned, so that final spot will likely come down to one of Victor Mete or Jordie Benn to start the season and could feature a rotation of different players. 

Maple Leafs’ Optimistic About Amirov’s Return

After getting through the usual suspects (pressure on management, injuries, etc), we’ll end on a high note. Rodion Amirov, who was the Maple Leafs’ first-round pick in 2020 and was diagnosed with a brain tumour in March, will be undergoing a final round of chemotherapy in Europe this fall, and Dubas said in his meeting with the press that they hope to bring him to Toronto and have him around the team afterwards. This is one of those situations where life clearly comes before hockey, so the fact that he’s already looking at a return to playing this year is a massive victory in itself, regardless of what it means for the Maple Leafs. 

Rodion Amirov
03.04.21. Parimatch JHL Championship 2020-2021. Playoffs. JHC Dynamo (Moscow) – Tolpar (Ufa). @ Rodion Amirov (Photo credit: photo.khl.ru)

Maple Leafs’ fans haven’t really seen much of Amirov since he was drafted, in part due to the diagnosis keeping him off the ice, but even before that, he was getting next to no ice time with his Kontinential Hockey League (KHL) team. It’s worth a reminder that European pro teams don’t care about developing young talent for NHL teams’ prospects. Like NHL teams, they’re focused on building the best roster possible, so it’s not at all surprising that a young player like Amirov wasn’t getting more than a few minutes of ice time a night. Should he eventually join the American Hockey League’s (AHL) Toronto Marlies, he will more than likely get top-six minutes, and could even see an NHL debut at some point depending on how that goes. Either way, it was encouraging to see he’s making good progress. 

Other Odds and Ends From Day 1 of Camp

Outside of those four major takeaways, some of the other talking points at training camp included the battle in the crease as well as some talk about Matthews’ next contract. New goaltender Matt Murray says that his relationship with tandem partner Ilya Samsonov will be a pivotal thing for the success of the team this season and that they’ll only push each other to get better. This can only be seen as a good thing for a team that’s taking a big risk with the tandem they’ve chosen to commit to, and the crease will remain open depending on who’s playing better.

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Meanwhile, Matthews had no time for any questions regarding his next contract today, saying that he considered Toronto “his home” and was focused on the season and nothing else at this point. It’s one of those topics that, like it or not, people are going to be talking about in a market like Toronto, and he probably answered the question as best as he could without triggering any further speculation. The 2022-23 season is going to be an entertaining one, for better or for worse, and I hope this article served as a solid primer for Saturday’s preseason kickoff and the hockey to follow this season.


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