Too many healthy Maple Leafs means something has to give

Josh Leivo discusses his request for trade from the Maple Leafs, says he still wants to play for this team, but more so just wants to play hockey.

TORONTO – It’s not a roster crunch without some easy short-term fixes. But what makes Lou Lamoriello’s impending decisions so interesting is that his coach isn’t pointing him down the path of least resistance.

That Kasperi Kapanen will dress for a sixth straight Toronto Maple Leafs game on Monday night tells us that Mike Babcock considers him one of the organization’s best 12 options at forward – now ahead of Matt Martin, who is riding a stretch of scratches after being untouchable, and still ahead of Josh Leivo, who has requested a trade if the Leafs don’t intend to start playing him.

When you couple that with the fact that Lamoriello will have to free up a roster spot for winger Nikita Soshnikov by this weekend – his long-term injury conditioning loan is set to expire after Friday’s Marlies-Senators game – the Leafs are currently playing a game of musical chairs and the tune is about to stop.

The easiest solution would be sending Kapanen back to the American Hockey League because he doesn’t require waivers. Except it looks like the Finn has finally earned the trust of his coach during his eighth recall to the NHL.

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“Kapanen is an elite penalty killer, a real good skater and he’s got a real good tempo,” Babcock said before the Leafs hosted Anaheim. “Those are hard decisions you make [playing him over Martin]. They’re personal decisions for the player, but they’re not personal decisions for us. Just based on hockey.”

That leaves Lamoriello with some competing interests to balance while determining how best to manage his assets.

Does he sacrifice Kapanen to protect someone else from waivers, thereby leaving his coach without a preferred lineup option? Or does he instead subject Martin, Soshnikov or Leivo to the waiver wire?

A third possibility could see him create roster space through a trade. That’s something Leivo would welcome after playing just 30 total games between the NHL and AHL since the start of last season and it’s something his agent has made known to Leafs brass, as Nick Kypreos reported during our Saturday headlines segment on Hockey Night in Canada.

“I still want to be here. I still want to play,” Leivo said Monday. “I’ve just got to get in the lineup. Twenty games in two years is not enough and hopefully I can get in with the team and help them win. But I just need to play.”

It is a common refrain in an organization that has built up some impressive depth through a rebuild.

The Leafs had eight defencemen on the ice for morning skate at Air Canada Centre and were expected to activate Roman Polak from injured reserve to face the Ducks. The bruising righty missed two games with a viral infection – “It was bad, but I’m feeling good now,” said Polak – and it looked like Andreas Borgman would be sent to the Marlies to pave the way for his return.

“We think Polak’s important,” said Babcock. “A good player for us, a real good penalty killer. We gave up two power-play goals last game [in a 4-1 loss to Boston] and we think they’ve got a good power play even though the numbers may not look like that. We think [Anaheim is] real dangerous that way and so Polie fits in.

“Plus, [his defensive partner Travis Dermott] seems to really move the puck anyway.”

The Leafs have forwards to spare. When you factor in a recovering Soshnikov, they have at least 15 NHL-ready options right now and are known to have at least gauged outside trade interest on Soshnikov and Martin already.

During his tenure in Toronto, Lamoriello has vehemently protected his depth assets – losing only one player to waivers during that time. That was forward Seth Griffith, who was reclaimed by the Leafs roughly two months after he was lost to Florida last season.

Unless the Leafs file a written request to commissioner Gary Bettman requesting an extension of Soshnikov’s condition loan, as outlined in Article 13.9 of the CBA, they’ll need to make at least one roster move in the days ahead.

The organization is carrying the maximum 50 contracts and doesn’t have anywhere near enough ice time available to keep everyone in-house happy.

“We know we’re deep,” said Leivo. “I’ve just got to keep working and waiting for the opportunity. It’s a tough lineup to crack so I’ve just got to keep working.”

And waiting.

Something has to give.

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