Battle for Maple Leafs’ fourth centre job ‘very unclear’

Maple Leafs roster hopeful Dominic Moore says getting to know teammates, and coaching staff is the kind of thing that takes time, but each day he's feeling more comfortable.

TORONTO – This is a battle we could not foresee.

When it became apparent that Brian Boyle, the most recent Toronto Maple Leaf with a tenuous grip on the fourth-line centre role, would be headed to free agency, the club phoned Dominic Moore as soon as the negotiating window opened in June.

Moore, a former Leaf and GTA native who acts as his own agent, wasted no time flying to Toronto to meet with club president Brendan Shanahan and general manager Lou Lamoriello in person. Moore declined other offers, and pen met paper on July 1.

“We added a veteran forward to go into our fourth-line slot, who can kill penalties and also move up in the lineup if necessary,” Lamoriello said upon finalizing the one-year, $1-million contract. “He has great legs, he still skates well and fits in with the type of game Mike [Babcock] plays, so we feel very good about that.”

Done deal. Slot filled. Let’s move on.

Well, not so fast.

For Monday’s pre-season tilt against the Montreal Canadiens, Babcock iced an NHL lineup that should be a reasonable facsimile of what fans will see when the puck drops for real on Oct. 4 in Winnipeg.

Moore, 37, did not dress.

In his stead was 24-year-old Miro Aaltonen, a comparative unknown pickup out of the Kontinental Hockey League via the Swiss Elite League.

Roster contests in a Leafs camp short on question marks are few but fierce: 6D and 4C, if you’re playing lineup bingo at home.

Starting with Wednesday’s exhibition, a Canadiens rematch in Quebec City, Babcock will give plenty of pre-season ice time to players on the bubble.

Ben Smith and Eric Fehr look like long shots for the fourth-line gig. Fehr, a $2-million cap hit through June, tells us his finger is unlikely to ever be 100 per cent after he broke it blocking a shot in Columbus last March. (“It’s still not moving the best,” Fehr says, “but it’s working well enough.”)

The coach insists he’s running a meritocracy.

“They’re playing games, and they can figure it out. I’ll watch,” Babcock says. “[When camp ends] we’ll probably still not know what’s going on, but we’ll have to submit a lineup [on Oct. 3], 23 men. Over 10 games or so, we’ll probably get it right after that.

“There is a lot very unclear yet.”

Babcock denies that Aaltonen has surpassed expectations in his first small-ice pro camp; the Leafs signed the “greasy” forward because they knew he could play.

After the 5-foot-11, 176-pound Finn starred for five seasons in Sweden, Aaltonen made a smooth transition to Russia. His 19 goals and 44 points in 59 games for Podolsk Vityaz in 2016-17 made him the KHL’s top point producer under the age of 24, but he lost more faceoffs than he won.

“Skating is the biggest thing in my game,” Aaltonen says. “Here, I need to play PK and fourth-line centre, but I think I can make that.”

The only teammate Aaltonen knows well is global citizen Leo Komarov. The fast pals carpool to practice pumping Finnish rap music.

“He’s been great,” fellow centre Tyler Bozak beams of Aaltonen. “The Finnish, Swedish and guys from Europe are really smart hockey players. They think the game very well. He has a good stick and knows where to be on the ice. He thinks the game well and makes a lot of really smart plays.”

If Babcock opts for the younger, faster, smaller pivot over Moore, it could mark a philosophical tweak. Typically, the 4C brings savvy, eradicates man advantages, and wins the majority of his draws.

That’s 12-season veteran Moore, one of the league’s most trusted and well-travelled faceoff men. He’s coming off a bounce-back season in Boston, where he chipped in 11 goals and 25 points while starting just 33.8 per cent of his shifts in the offensive zone.

Babcock praises the Harvard grad’s intelligence, confidence and personality.

“[Moore] has gotten better every single day. He missed a little bit before camp so he wasn’t skating,” Babcock says. “He’s in a battle with some other guys here. Dom’s a big boy; he’s been battling his whole career. That’s what he does.”

Moore’s dialogue with his new head coach, a man he’d never met prior, has been limited to a few seconds here and there. Camp is busy. Developing rapport with his new teammates is “a work in progress.”

He says he can’t focus on being shuffled to the B group, only learning the Leafs’ systems, finding his rhythm, and displaying the dogged work ethic that has kept the 2000 draft pick in the league.

“Every camp is kind of never what you expect. Every camp is competitive, so that’s nothing new for me. I always try to prepare the same way,” says Moore, now on his 12th NHL wardrobe change.

“New team, new faces, new systems. It’s not something I haven’t been through before, but at the same time, it takes time to get comfortable.”

Decipher the tea leaves: Does Aaltonen appear like the fourth-centre frontrunner because he’s getting reps with Connor Brown and Matt Martin? Or does Babcock simply want to see more of Aaltonen because Moore is a known commodity?

Aaltonen could inject fresh legs into a fourth line that, if it includes 20-goal man Brown, could present another scoring threat. Moore could be the reliable 13th forward you can plug and play.

For now, the message from the bench is simple.

“You know you’re in a battle. Here it is,” Babcock says.

“There’s no sense being anxious. You might as well be loose and driving. Get out there and play.”