Maple Leafs Will See Tight Competition for Forward Roster Spots

Earlier this week, we looked at four of the Toronto Maple Leafs young forwards to see which of them might make the opening game roster. In this post, we’re going to look at the six remaining forwards who we believe are on the bubble. That is, they might make the roster or they might not.

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These six players are Nick Ritchie (salary-cap hit of $2.5 million), Ilya Mikheyev (salary-cap hit of $1.645 million), David Kampf (salary-cap hit of $1.5 million), Pierre Engvall (salary-cap hit of $1.25 million), Ondrej Kase (salary-cap hit of $1.25 million), and Kurtis Gabriel (salary-cap hit of $750,000).

Which of These Players Make the Maple Leafs’ Opening Game Roster?

So who makes the roster? Who will the 13 forwards be? Moving down our list, here is what we think happens to each player.  

Player One: Nick Ritchie

We believe Nick Ritchie makes the roster. He’s been signed to a high-enough salary to indicate the team sees him as a roster member. In fact, we believe he not only makes the roster, but he jumps right into the top-six on the left wing of either Auston Matthews’ or John Tavares’ line. 

Nick Ritchie Boston Bruins
Nick Ritchie, when he was with the Boston Bruins (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

As far as we can see, the Maple Leafs believe that Ritchie can fill the void left by Zach Hyman five-on-five. We also believe, as we noted in our earlier post, that the organization has high hopes that Michael Bunting could be that other Hyman-replacement. 

Player Two: Ilya Mikheyev

Funny thing about Ilya Mikheyev. There’s been recent noise about trading him, but we see him as a potential key player on this team who might be the fifth best forward (after the team’s Core Four of Matthews, Tavares, William Nylander, and Mitch Marner). 

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We believe that Mikheyev will make the roster and might be deployed differently this season than last season. While Mikheyev has shown a frustrating lack of finish, in my post yesterday I made the case that it’s often for the right reasons. That is, he’s thrown over the boards in the most difficult situations because his head coach Sheldon Keefe trusts him. As a result, his offensive numbers suffer.

Toronto Maple Leafs Ilya Mikheyev Tyson Barrie Trevor Moore
Toronto Maple Leafs right wing Ilya Mikheyev celebrates his first NHL career goal

We believe Mikheyev is Selke Trophy material, plays with a lot of energy, can use his size to play a physical game, and has surprising speed. He’s sound defensively and will become an even better player because his wrist will be closer to normal this season than last. The serious tendon injury he suffered in December of 2019 was supposed to take up to 18 months to fully heal, and that time’s up this season.  

Player Three: David Kampf

We believe David Kampf makes the roster. Kampf was signed because he’s sound defensively and because he’s good in the face-off circle. He provides little in the way of offense, scoring only a single goal and 12 points in 56 games this past season with the Chicago Blackhawks. During his entire 235-game NHL career, Kampf has scored 17 goals and 58 points, which projects to six goals and 20 points for an 82-game season. 

However, Kampf has averaged 2:30 in penalty-kill time per game over the past two seasons. We believe one reason Kampf was signed was to take Hyman’s place on the PK. However, going back to Mikheyev, if Kampf can cover some of the difficult assignments the organization gave to the young Russian, that would free Mikheyev for other – perhaps more offensive – opportunities. 

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It’s generally believed that Keefe would like to create a shutdown third line that could play against other team’s top lines. Kampf fits that bill and his signing makes sense because he could easily center such a line. We see Kampf starting the season as the third-line center, with the Maple Leafs deciding to use Alex Kerfoot as a top-six winger like Keefe did just after Mikheyev was hurt at the end of 2019. Kampf could also fill in as the team’s fourth-line center, if Kerfoot stays as the third-line center. 

Player Four: Pierre Engvall

We’re not quite sure what will happen to Pierre Engvall. He might make the roster or he might be moved. Engvall was drafted and developed by the Maple Leafs and he also knows Keefe’s systems, having both played for him on the Marlies in the AHL and the Maple Leafs. That works to Engvall’s advantage.   

Pierre Engvall Toronto Maple Leafs
Pierre Engvall, Toronto Maple Leafs (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

As well, Engvall typically is considered the fittest of the Maple Leafs’ players. When Keefe took over as head coach after previous head coach Mike Babcock was fired, Engvall sat beside Keefe on the plane to Arizona and scored a goal in Keefe’s first game as head coach. The point is that Keefe has a history with Engvall and likes him.

However, for whatever reason, Engvall seems to be in Keefe’s doghouse. Maybe it’s a tough love situation, where Keefe thinks he can get more out of the tall and very-swift Swede. It could also be that there’s something about Engvall’s game that Keefe just doesn’t like. 

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Engvall has size and speed. He can hit; however, he was far more physical when he played for the Marlies than he’s been with the Maple Leafs. Engvall also plays a solid defensive game. We think he’ll have to lose his spot during training camp, but he could find himself as the 13th forward when the season starts. 

Player Five: Kurtis Gabriel

Kurtis Gabriel is, at best, the Maple Leafs’ 13th forward. Fans of Sesame Street will recognize the song “One of these things is not like the others.” That song applies to Gabriel. Gabriel is 6-foot-4 and 200 pounds and has no issue dropping the gloves. According to he had six fights in 2021 alone. 

Unfortunately, at 28-years-old, Gabriel has played only 49 NHL games. The most games he played during a season was 22 for the New Jersey Devils in 2018-19. The most ice time he’s averaged during a season was in 2021, when he averaged 7:40 TOI in 11 games for the San Jose Sharks. He’ll be a spot player at best.

Player Six: Ondrej Kase

As I noted in my post two days ago, Kase’s a long-shot to play this season. We believe he was signed for his potential and the team is willing to wait for him to heal from his concussion issues. As a result, we believe there’s only a slim chance he’ll play this season. However, should he be able to play, that’s added value for the organization. Until then, we believe the Maple Leafs will be very careful with Kase and he’ll start the season on LTIR.  

Predicting the Maple Leafs 2021-22 Forwards

During this offseason, Maple Leafs’ general manager Kyle Dubas set out to create roster competition. He appears to have done that. There’s no way the Maple Leafs will start the season with 15 forwards. That leaves some Maple Leaf forwards fighting for a spot. 

Here are who we believe are the Maple Leafs forwards in the opening game of the season. 

Toronto Maple Leafs Auston Matthews
Toronto Maple Leafs centre Auston Matthews (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young)

These forwards include ten incumbents: Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares, William Nylander, Alex Kerfoot, Wayne Simmonds, Jason Spezza, Ilya Mikheyev, Pierre Engvall, and Adam Brooks. We also believe the following three new players – Nick Ritchie, David Kampf, and Michael Bunting – will make the roster. 

[Note: Again I want to thank long-time Maple Leafs’ fan Stan Smith for collaborating with me on this post. Stan’s Facebook profile can be found here.]

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