Today is the first day of training camp for many NHL teams, including the Toronto Maple Leafs. Generally speaking, a good rule for training camp is to ignore any lines you see sent out, because it’s simply too early to make a judgment call on anybody or anything. The exception, however, comes when a team looks decidedly true to its roots, and if you stitch together all the various loose reports, the pathway to an NHL depth chart seems pretty straightforward.
Looking at lines that involved potential 2017/18 Leafs, you’ll find…
Zach Hyman – Auston Matthews – William Nylander
Patrick Marleau – Frederik Gauthier* – Leo Komarov
James van Riemsdyk – Tyler Bozak – Mitch Marner
Matt Martin – Miro Aaltonen – Connor Brown
Nikita Soshnikov – Dominic Moore – Kasperi Kapanen
Josh Leivo – Ben Smith – Eric Fehr
Jake Gardiner – Calle Rosen*
Morgan Rielly – Ron Hainsey
Andreas Borgman – Connor Carrick
Travis Dermott – Timothy Liljegren
Andrew Nielsen – Martin Marincin
Marc-Olivier Duquette – Roman Polak
A few observations here:
- Nazem Kadri and Nikita Zaitsev were both absent from scrimmages and drills. I’m not quite sure why that is and no one has posted any background info on their situations, but they weren’t there. One could likely assume that Gauthier, who is still on the road to recovery from his late-season leg injury, was Kadri’s fill-in on the Marleau/Komarov line, and that Calle Rosen was Zaitsev’s fill-in on the Gardiner pair.
- With the above in mind, it’s not crazy to assume that Marleau’s spot-to-lose is on that Kadri-Komarov two-way, tough minute line. That’s a good spot for him if that’s the case; his two-way game is still very solid, and if teams are going to get a bit more aggressive on Toronto next year, they’re going to need that line to be able to make a combative jump themselves, which upgrading from Connor Brown to Marleau presumably gives them.
- Brown, as such, appears to have lost the top-nine war, finding himself on the fourth line with Matt Martin and… hey wait a second.
- While many had Dominic Moore penciled in as a lock for Toronto’s fourth spot, Miro Aaltonen was the one in between the two players who have jobs to lose, rather than ones to gain (Kapanen and Soshnikov). That should be a very interesting battle to watch throughout camp; while Moore is a very good “traditional fourth line centre” option, having Aaltonen and Brown in the places where Smith/Gauthier/Boyle and Soshnikov/Kapanen were last year would make that line one that could legitimately play a shift to win, rather than to survive. The 24-year-old is coming off of a 0.75 points/game season in the KHL last year with Vityaz; that rate of production is higher than what Komarov put up as a 26-year-old in his Olympic sabbatical back in 2013/14.
- For Aaltonen to make the team, however, Toronto would likely have to opt for a 14 forward, 7 defenceman arrangement rather than the 13/8 that they had last season. Josh Leivo is probably a safe lock for #13, while Moore would take the 14th spot. As we can see above, though, Toronto dressed six whole pairs that were mostly stocked with defencemen auditioning for spots.
- I’d say that the first three pairs are a pretty safe lock, off the bat. Babcock mentioned wanting to start with Rielly and Hainsey over the summer, and a lot of very good things have been said about Andreas Borgman’s odds over the past several weeks. Seeing him with Connor Carrick, who had his off nights last year but was still a very capable (and right-handed) defenceman throughout, gives you the belief that he has the inside track on that third pairing, left spot.
- With Zaitsev taking a day off, it would have been very, very easy for the Leafs to have thrown Roman Polak on Jake Gardiner’s right side. That he’s playing with Marc-Olivier Duquette, a camp invite who is mostly known for being young and tall, hints that he’s seen as a stretch option at best, and most likely here to get himself up to speed and catch the eye of another team.
- Conversely, if Toronto does decide to go with the 14/7 approach, they’ll need a mobile defenceman that can play on both sides of the ice. Rosen was hyped up as having that degree of versatility when he was signed in the offseason. Is he good enough to allow them to hold just one extra defenceman? Pairing him with Gardiner, for now, might be be his first proving ground.
- Seeing the pairing of Travis Dermott and Timothy Liljegren return for the second game of the rookie tournament is interesting. They appear to be a solid fit for each other; if the pair stays together throughout camp, it may be a way of them testing the waters to keep Liljegren in the AHL for this season. Of course, that all goes out the window if Dermott plays his way up and steals a spot from Rosen or Borgman.
- Lastly, the Nielsen-Marincin pair. I don’t think Nielsen has as much of a shot to make this team as people are hyping him up to have; he needs at least another year of seasoning with the Marlies before he becomes an option over the field. Pairing Marincin with him is interesting; besides being another pair with #size, combining its existence with everything we’ve mentioned above could lead you to believe that Marincin hits the waiver wire to keep Aaltonen up.
Again, it’s the first day of Training Camp, and a lot can change in the next two weeks. But this lineup looks very close to what an opening night lineup could be like, and if you read between the lines, there seem to be a few pocket-battles that are forming, mostly thanks to the European free agent signings made at the end of the season. That shouldn’t be too surprising; Aaltonen, Borgman, and Rosen are all valued across the organization, and perhaps weren’t getting the offseason written buzz as legitimate roster spot threats thanks to unfamliarity. But I’d keep a serious eye on them above everybody else; any changes to the opening night lineup will likely flow through their performance, upward or downward.
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