Drama builds as Leafs prepare for looming roster squeeze

NHL insider Chris Johnston sheds some light on the drama swirling around the Maple Leafs on both the Josh Leivo and Nikita Soshnikov fronts.

TORONTO – This is as close to drama as you’ll find at a morning skate in February.

We’re in silly season now – with two weeks to go before the trade deadline – and the Toronto Maple Leafs have more bodies than available roster spots. They need to make a move, pronto, and no one with the organization is hinting at how this might shake out.

“I don’t know what’s going on there,” head coach Mike Babcock said before Monday’s game against the Tampa Bay Lightning, when asked if he expects Nikita Soshnikov to return from his AHL conditioning stint.

“That’s the great thing about it: When they show up here I get to coach.”

While general manager Lou Lamoriello later confirmed to a handful of reporters that Soshnikov will remain on injured reserve when recalled to the NHL team, that’s not a long-term solution.

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Soshnikov just played five games with the AHL’s Marlies – putting up five points, taking 17 shots on goal, and dressing for three games in three days this weekend – and can’t be far away from a return to health.

Here’s how Marlies coach Sheldon Keefe assessed his play on Sunday night: “There’s times when I’m looking up and down the bench and trying to find guys who have some energy to them, trying to look past the guys that are clearly fatigued, and he didn’t seem to be fazed at any point in time. So that was good to see. I felt like I could always call on him.”

The 24-year-old winger will practise with the Leafs this week and should be activated sooner than later.

Before that can happen, Lamoriello needs to open a roster spot.

The easiest thing for him to do would be sending either winger Kasperi Kapanen or defenceman Travis Dermott back to the Marlies since neither requires waivers, but both have been fixtures in a lineup that’s won seven of eight games. The tougher option is trading or waiving one of the frequent scratches: Josh Leivo and Matt Martin.

Lamoriello is a master of never backing himself back up into a corner. He always seems to find more time. But the reality is the Leafs don’t need 15 forwards and other teams have been calling about potential deals.

In the meantime, the drama builds. The players aren’t immune from the chatter, but even they don’t know what to expect.

“They don’t tell me much, they just want me to play,” said Kapanen. “I think I’m doing pretty well right now and doing everything that they’re asking me to do. I feel confident. That’s all I can do, right?

“I can play and they can decide to do whatever they want to do with me. So we’ll see.”

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