Marner, Hyman absences crank up battle for Maple Leafs wings

Maple Leafs’ Morgan Rielly and Frederik Gauthier obviously want Mitch Marner back, but with training camp about to open, his contractual status can’t be their main concern right now.

MILTON, Ont. – It used to be, in a time not so long ago, that cracking the Toronto Maple Leafs’ lineup as a not-so-proven winger fell somewhere between impossible and good luck.

But salary-cap-based managerial decisions and a series of unfortunate events have cracked open a window and that welcoming light of opportunity is now shining through.

Consider the volume of forwards who played in the 2019 post-season but won’t be wearing a Maple Leafs sweater on opening night: Patrick Marleau (UFA), Connor Brown (traded to Senators), Tyler Ennis (joined the Sens as free agent), Nazem Kadri (traded to Avalanche), Zach Hyman (tired of playing on a torn ACL), and possibly Mitchell Marner (needs a contract, you may have heard).

Versatile new additions Alexander Kerfoot and Jason Spezza are the safest bets to centre the bottom two lines, but it’ll be open season on the wings as the club boards Thursday’s charter bound for St. John’s.

GM Kyle Dubas has gone out of his way to stuff those seats with hungry maybes, a bunch for bubble forwards in their twenties who devoted their summers to getting stronger and quicker. And all of them make less than $1 million on short-term deals, leaving the executive with as much wiggle room as possible to take care of Marner.

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Even the most job-secure of the bunch, Trevor Moore, who impressed as a fourth-line call-up last winter, isn’t taking anything for granted, saying he needs to first worry about making the cut before vying for a promotion to the top-six.

Striving to outduel Moore for ice time is a diverse cluster of forwards that includes Pontus Aberg, joining his fifth organization in three seasons; Nick Shore, who scored thrice in 37 games for Magnitogorsk Metallurg in 2018-19; Kenny Agostino, now on his sixth NHL team; big-bodied Russian import Ilya Mikheyev; Toronto’s 2013 first-round pick, Frederik Gauthier; 2019 trade deadline acquisition Nic Petan; plus emerging Marlies stars, like Jeremy Bracco, eager to prove doubters wrong.

"Everyone says I’m not the best defensive guy. You gotta be able to play 200-feet to play in the NHL, so I’m gonna try to show that here in camp," says Bracco, who exploded for 79 points in 75 games as an AHL sophomore, tacking on another 16 in 13 playoff games. "This time of year is exciting."

A native of Freeport, N.Y., Bracco went home for "a combined three days" over the summer, electing instead to clock in at the Leafs’ practice facility, working on with the club’s strength coach and taking one-on-one skating lessons from Barb Underhill.

So… no vacay after three playoff rounds?

"Nothing. Negative," Bracco says. "I’m not a huge summer vacation guy."

Bracco could be seen pushing himself in small-group skills work with the likes of John Tavares and Spezza, with whom he’s constantly tapping for "stories from back in the day." He’s even joined the veteran to take in some of Spezza’s daughter’s soccer games.

"Skating with Spezz a lot this summer," Bracco says. "A guy like that, 20-year veteran in the league, played 1,000 games, you can learn a lot."

On the other side of the country, a similar zeal for improvement was taking place in B.C., where Petan trained with a competitive crew that included Kerfoot, Morgan Rielly and the Reinhart brothers.

The 5-foot-9 Petan failed to stick with the Jets and only appeared in five contests after being added to Toronto’s deep winger chart.

"For me, it’s another fresh start," says Petan, who ratcheted up his conditioning through high-paced summer-league shinny. "I’m coming in confident and comfortable. My body feels good so I’m just going to go out and play.

"Coming in as a smaller guy, I want to make sure my speed is up. I feel like I’m comfortable in that area."

Petan was also comfortable switching his sweater number upside down, going from 19 to 61 to accommodate Spezza, without holding him hostage for a Rolex. "A nice paragraph text message was good enough for me," Petan says.

If Petan’s size is a knock against him in the eyes of a coach who prefers some heft in his bottom-six, then Gauthier’s size should give last season’s 4C some solace even as he could be seen taking shifts on the wing during pre-camp skates.

Six-foot-5, 235 pounds every night, Gauthier skyrocketed from a mere nine NHL games played in 2017-18 to 70 in 2018-19. But nothing has been promised.

A summer of change has turned the bottom of the Leafs’ depth chart into a puzzle with too many pieces to fit.

Gauthier realizes the importance of a strong camp to cling on.

"They signed a lot of guys in the off-season," he says. "It’s going to be a nice battle and get the best out of us."

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