The Toronto Maple Leafs are going into a season in which the expectations to succeed are much higher than they were last year. Adding three players over the age of 35 to a rebuilding lineup will do that.
Make no mistake, the Leafs are ‘going for it’ in the next two seasons. While the addition of veterans will help them in their goal, it also leaves little room for younger players to crack the lineup. Last season, nine rookies were regulars in the lineup. This year, we might only see one. Looking at the roster, there isn’t an open spot among forwards or goaltending. Defense is the only position where we might see a new player break into the lineup.
So, who makes the Leafs’ 23-man roster?
Definitely In: Frederik Andersen, Curtis McElhinney
Contender: Garret Sparks
Andersen enters year two of a five-year deal with a vice grip on the starter’s job. Despite a slow start last season, he quickly adapted and played a career-high 66 games. If the defense improves in front of him, he will be even better than he was last season.
McElhinney is the type of backup the Leafs have been looking for the last few years. While he’s not the best goalie out there, he doesn’t have to be. He just needs to be steady behind Andersen. Now, if Andersen gets injured, then there might be a reason to worry. Garret Sparks of the Toronto Marlies will be ready in that situation. With an improved team in front of him, he should perform a lot better than his previous stint with the Leafs two seasons ago.
Definitely In: Morgan Rielly, Jake Gardiner, Nikita Zaitsev, Ron Hainsey, Connor Carrick
Contenders: Martin Marincin, Travis Dermott, Calle Rosen, Andreas Borgman, Timothy Liljegren
Alright, there are one or two spots available here and it will be interesting to watch training camp to see who comes out with them.
The big question is whether Dermott is ready for an everyday spot in the NHL. Should he lose the sixth spot, it would be better for him to be sent down to the Marlies so he can play more. Marincin has a good chance at sticking around with the club at least. It comes down to the Leafs’ new trio of Swedes.
Liljegren has the highest potential but probably needs one more year of development before joining the Leafs. Borgman is only 22 so he could also use a year with the Marlies. Rosen, as the oldest of the group, has the edge for now. If the Leafs decide to hang on to eight defensemen to start the season, it’s possible that Borgman will make the team as well.
Head Coach Mike Babcock has said that newcomer Hainsey will be paired with Rielly. That leaves Gardiner to pair with Zaitsev and Carrick with Rosen. Borgman is the seventh defenseman while Marincin sticks around in reserve.
Of course, this will all be moot if the Leafs make a deal for another defenseman.
Definitely In: Auston Matthews, William Nylander, Mitch Marner, Patrick Marleau, Nazem Kadri, James van Riemsdyk, Connor Brown, Tyler Bozak, Leo Komarov, Dominic Moore
Contenders: Zach Hyman, Kasperi Kapanen, Nikita Soshnikov, Josh Leivo
Boy, not much room here. The Leafs have more than a few players that are ready for a spot in the NHL but have no spots open for them.
The first line should be one of the best in the NHL this season as Matthews and Nylander are joined by newcomer Marleau. If they are not in the top-five in goals scored by a line this season, something will have gone really wrong.
The second line doesn’t change as Bozak once again centers van Riemsdyk and Marner. Marner should only get better in his second season. Bozak and JVR will become unrestricted free agents after the season and it’s unlikely that both will be back. There have been trade rumors surrounding both players but since nothing’s happened yet, it is unlikely anything will happen before the season starts.
The Leafs so-called “energy line” also stays intact with Nazem Kadri between Leo Komarov and Connor Brown. This line could also change as Komarov will be a UFA after the season. Don’t worry that Brown is not signed yet. If there is any hint at a trade before the season starts, it’s that Brown remains unsigned. The Leafs have two contract spots open with the departure of Alexey Marchenko so there must be a reason that the Leafs have not signed him and it’s not a contract impasse.
The fourth line could disappoint fans just by the appearance of Matt Martin. Most would rather see a young player like Kapanen on the roster, so the fact that Martin was protected in the expansion draft shows that Babcock values his presence in the lineup. He probably takes the left wing spot. This leaves Hyman, another Babcock favorite, without a spot on his natural wing. Again, as a player that Babcock likes, he’ll probably play on the right side. Moore, in his second tenure with the Leafs, will center the fourth line.
Leivo will be relegated to the press box once again as he can’t be sent to the Marlies without clearing waivers. Kapanen doesn’t have that problem so he will start the season with the Marlies unless the Leafs actually make a trade.
My Opening Night Roster
Forwards: Matthews, Nylander, Marleau, Marner, Bozak, van Riemsdyk, Brown, Kadri, Komarov, Martin, Moore, Hyman, Leivo
Defense: Rielly, Gardiner, Zaitsev, Hainsey, Carrick, Rosen, Borgman, Marincin
Goalies: Andersen, McElhinney