Maple Leafs Training Camp News: Kapanen, Kerfoot, Mikheyev, Hyman

The recent signing of Mitch Marner to a Toronto Maple Leafs contract has raised questions about whether the team’s salary structure can be sustained. However, there is finally a wealth of news emerging from the team’s training camp. In this post, I will explore some of the salary news as well as news emerging from the training camp’s first days.

Item One: Bruins vs. Maple Leafs Top-Four Salaries

The Boston Bruins proved again last season to be the Maple Leafs’ nemesis, ousting them for the second season in a row during round one of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. There’s a good chance the teams will meet again in the playoffs at the end of this 2019-20 season. Both teams look strong and primed to make another playoff run.

Boston Bruins David Krejci
Boston Bruins center David Krejci (Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports)

There are many ways to compare how the teams stack up; and, after Marner’s signing, one obvious way is to compare each team’s salary structures. Toronto, as most fans already know well, will ice four players (Auston Matthews, John Tavares, William Nylander, Marner) who take up over $40 million of the $81.5 million in cap space (that’s almost 50% of the team’s total salary cap).

The Bruins salary structure differs. In comparison to the Maple Leafs paying out $40 million to their four highest-paid players, the four highest-salaried Bruins players have salary-cap hits that total “only” around $27 million a year. David Krejci is the highest-paid Bruins player at $7.25 million; Patrice Bergeron is second at $6.87 million; David Pastrnak is third at $6.66 million; and, Brad Marchand is the fourth highest-paid with a cap hit of $6.12 million.

All of the four players on each team are certainly quality NHL players. On the surface, if one assumed those top-four players were equal in skill (which they are not), in conversations about which team is stronger, the edge might go to the Bruins.

Related: Maple Leafs News & Rumors: Mahovlich, Marner, Tavares & More

The different salary structures give the Bruins $13 million more to spend on players who make up the remainder of the team’s roster. That means there’s a better chance Boston can have more highly-skilled, secondary players as part of the team’s other 23 roster spots than the Maple Leafs. How that works out will be interesting to see, but it’s a way to contrast the teams.

Item Two: Maple Leafs Have Three of Top-Seven Highest-Paid Players

In another salary note, CapFriendly tweeted just after Marner signed that, of the top seven salary cap hits in the NHL, the Maple Leafs have three of the highest. Matthews is at No. 3 ($11.634 million); Tavares is tied for No. 5 ($11 million); and, now Marner is No. 7 ($10.893 million).

Toronto Maple Leafs Mitch Marner Toronto Maple Leafs Auston Matthews
Toronto Maple Leafs right wing Mitchell Marner and centre Auston Matthews (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette)

The others in the top seven are the Edmonton Oilers’ Connor McDavid at No. 1 ($12.5 million), the New York Rangers’ Artemi Panarin is No. 2 ($11.643 million), the San Jose Sharks’ Erik Karlsson is No. 4 ($11.5 million), and the Los Angeles Kings’ Drew Doughty is tied with Tavares at No. 5 ($11 million).

Item Three: Kapanen Plays On Left Wing with Tavares and Marner

So far during the early days of this training camp, head coach Mike Babcock has slotted Kasperi Kapanen on Tavares’ left-wing with Marner on his usual right side. If that line works, Kapanen would be playing on his off-wing. However, in an interview aired on TSN, Kapanen noted that he has played on the left side before and isn’t worried.

It looks like Kapanen will have the first chance to replace the injured Zach Hyman on the team’s first line. Or, is it the second line now that Matthews is the highest-paid Maple Leafs player? Or does the team have two de-facto first lines? This won’t be the last time that question will be asked this season.

Related: Maple Leafs Dark Horse Contributors for 2019-20

Anyway, Babcock suggested that “Kapanen will get the first kick at the can. We’ll take a look and see how that works.” That makes sense to me; Kapanen did a good job last season replacing William Nylander.

Item Four: The Young Russians Draw Babcock’s Praise

After Saturday’s training camp session, Babcock noted that “I thought (Russian rookie Egor) Korshkov had a real good day, a big man, makes plays. What slows him down right now is you have to understand the language.” Babcock also noted that “Mikheyev is another big guy that can really do it.”

Word was that Babcock was considering a line of Ilya Mikheyev, Alexander Kerfoot, and Kapanen. What’s interesting about Mikheyev is that Jason Spezza befriended him in early August at the club’s training facility.

Bernhard Ebner, Ilya Mikheyev
Russia’s Ilya Mikheyev (THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Artur Lebedev)

Spezza reported, “I’ve seen different Russians come over at different times and it can be difficult for them. Ilya seems really eager to learn, has a great attitude. He got here early, which is important because the language can be a barrier. He’s older, too, 24, a step ahead of younger guys who come in from Europe.” (from “Leaf Snaps: Russian rockets up the charts”, Lance Hornby, The Toronto Sun –9/15/19)

Item Five: Zach Hyman Will Be Missed

Coach Babcock was very specific about the value of injured Zach Hyman to the team. The coach went out of his way to point out that Hyman was both a great forechecker and “he’s so heavy on the net.” Babcock added, “He gets those guys the puck over and over and over again. So we need someone to do that for them.”

Babcock has often said that Hyman is the best forechecker in hockey, so his praise of the injured winger is not a surprise. It also hints at what Babcock appreciates in a player. 

Item Six: Alex Kerfoot’s Speed

Given the news that emerged from the first days of the Maple Leafs training camp, I might have been wrong. Or, perhaps Kerfoot got faster over the summer? In a previous post, I had noted that he is a skilled forward with “elite processing abilities.” He’s smart and has great on-ice vision. I also noted that he “doesn’t have blistering speed, but he’s elusive, shifty, and slips around defenders.”

I might have been depending too much on scouting reports when I wrote my first post about his lack of blistering speed, and I admit that I didn’t know much about Kerfoot before his trade to the Maple Leafs. Obviously, he’s considered a strong candidate to replace Nazem Kadri as the third-line centre; however, the former Colorado Avalanche skater impressed everyone on Friday’s opening day of workouts with his “blazing” skating speed.

Kerfoot was the second-fastest Maple Leafs skater, right between rookie right winger Ilya Mikheyev (who was the fastest) and Nic Petan (the third fastest). About Mikheyev, Kapanen (no slouch as a speedster himself) was quoted as saying, “I had trouble keeping up with him.” My apologies, Alex. (from “Kerfoot’s speed stands out at Maple Leafs training camp”, Lance Hornby, The Toronto Sun –9/14/19)

Colorado Avalanche Alexander Kerfoot and Florida Panthers Aaron Ekblad
Former Colorado Avalanche center Alexander Kerfoot and Florida Panthers defenseman Aaron Ekblad (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

Second, given what we’ve heard so far a number of times from training camp, Mikheyev is a young player I want to keep my eyes on.

Item Seven: The Fittest Maple Leafs Player

In a quick bit of news, the fittest Maple Leafs player, according to the results of Wednesday’s medical testing, was Toronto Marlies forward Pierre Engvall. The 6-foot-5, 23-year-old Swede had a strong season with the Marlies in 2018-19. Odd, I might have expected one of the smaller players to be the fittest.

A Final Thought

Now that Marner has signed, it’s good to watch interviews where he’s NOT defending himself or deferring questions about contract negotiations. He looks much more relaxed simply talking about hockey.