A fun part of the start of the caring-about-hockey season is that couple-week long stretch where fans re-acquaint themselves with their teams’ rosters and begin drawing up line combinations. Done in a public setting, this will lead to the odd disagreement and argument, or twenty.

Today’s variant of that on Leafs-centric social media stems from a tweet coming from Platinum Seat Ghosts, who is back from a summer Twitter hiatus to get people to give their takes on the centre of the universe:

As you can see by that ratio, disagreement was plenty, and a consensus form of it quickly rose: where exactly was Kasperi Kapanen?

Kapanen, who spent the majority of his 2016/17 season with the Toronto Marlies, won over the fanbase in the dying stretches of the regular season. Coming up in relief after consecutive injuries to Nikita Soshnikov, Eric Fehr, and Josh Leivo made a fourth-line spot available, the 21-year-old picked up just three points in 14 games, but all of them were big goals, and matched with top-end speed. That should be enough to get him a spot, right?

Not exactly.

Perhaps one of the downfalls of the 2015/16 “Tank” season was that it spoiled our collective definition of opportunity. As that season progressed, players got injured, and players were sold at the trade deadline, the team had an endlessly rotating cast of skaters and goaltenders getting their kick at the can. As a result of this, the roster that Toronto finished the season with was one that was, for all intents and purposes, one that was due to be completely replenished.

Three forwards and a defenceman from that roster were pending UFAs. Many others were bubble players and cap dumps just filling space and getting a head start on next year’s training camp. Others were involved in trade speculation. At best, there were 3-5 forwards and 2-3 defencemen that were still on the team to end the year that were expected to be on next year’s team, and that’s if you include players who missed out on that last game due to injury, like Nazem Kadri, James van Riemsdyk, and, if you were really pessimistic about their ambitions to upgrade their defence, Matt Hunwick.

With over half the roster up for grabs, it was no surprise that the more talented of the available youth secured positions. Very little changed from opening night to the final night; Milan Michalek’s body didn’t keep up so he was very quickly replaced by Soshnikov, Peter Holland lost his job to Ben Smith, who lost his to Brian Boyle at the trade deadline, and Jhonas Enroth couldn’t figure out how to get taller in six days or less and was replaced with Curtis McElhinney. Technically speaking, Martin Marincin’s role in the Top 6 was taken away and given back by Roman Polak’s tenacity followed by his health, but he was always around.

This left a final roster full of promising youth, or quality established NHLers with time left on their contracts. The only two skaters who played Game 6 against Washington that aren’t still signed are Boyle and Hunwick.

This left two openings; both of which were filled by Dominic Moore and Ron Hainsey respectively in July. Neither is expected to have to fight for their spot next month; particularly Hainsey, who Mike Babcock already has second-pair ambitions for and has a multi-year contract.

Where are you left from there? Perhaps Martin Marincin’s spot is up for grabs, but that’s on defence and up to Travis Dermott, Andreas Borgman, and Calle Rosen to fight for. Up front, the Patrick Marleau signing actually leaves them with one more forward that’s a guarantee than they had before, meaning someone will likely have to be subtracted rather than added.

This likely means that Kapanen’s dream of playing on the opening night roster is in danger at the moment, save for him being one of the absolute best players at training camp, to the point of forcing a veteran player with value into being moved in a trade. It also means that Nikita Soshnikov will likely start his season with the Marlies; a weak link situation would likely pit him against Matt Martin for demotion from the lineup and in a world where Martin played in all 82 games last year and where Mike Babcock believes in “tiebreaker goes to the veteran”, it’d be hard to bet on the young Russian coming out ahead. The fact that Soshnikov might not even be able to start the year, having yet been cleared for play after a concussion suffered last year, removes all doubt.

Waiver exemption is a key motivating factor for both of these players as well.

In Soshnikov’s case, it means he’s not limited to the window of a conditioning stint to get himself back to the level he was at before the injury and before being limited to the fourth line.

For Kapanen, it makes it easy for them to slide him down to the Marlies to continue to work on the offensive side of his game. While he showed up when it mattered down the stretch for the Leafs, they’ll still be wanting more than 15-20 points a year out of one of their top prospects. It’s probably for the best, too; playing him on the fourth line come playoff time was fantastic experience, but having him attempt to be the creative force on a line with Martin and Moore for eight minutes a night all season is probably not beneficial to his development.

Most importantly, it buys the Leafs time with several of their other players. Toronto already has Josh Leivo, Kerby Rychel, and Eric Fehr who are also on the outside looking in for next year’s roster, all of whom don’t have the same exemptions. Fehr’s $2 million contract mean’s he’s likely to clear, and if last year was any indication, the Leafs likely feel that Leivo is the best option to have available as a 13th forward if anybody in the Top 9 gets hurt. Rychel’s fate will be interesting; the 22-year-old was the Marlies’ top scorer last year and ranked 34th among U24 skaters in points per game, and could be a risk to get claimed on a quiet day.

Not to mention, Babcock teams historically have eight defencemen available whenever possible; for this to remain consistent this year, Toronto can really only have one extra, healthy forward.

With all of this in mind, I wouldn’t be too attached to the idea of seeing Kapanen or Soshnikov on the opening night roster. Both will remain candidates to be called up in the event of injury, and you’ll very likely see a lot of them this year, but in the mean time, the idea of them not being pencilled in for October 4th isn’t absurd.

If anything, it’s the safe bet.

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