Three biggest questions facing Maple Leafs entering training camp

Auston Matthews joins Tim and Sid for NHL Media Day to explain why the mixed reviews about his new stache doesn’t bother him, the loss of Marleau, and why he expects William Nylander to bounce back.

“Hey, you know who any of these guys are?”

Mike Babcock is hanging over the railing at the Toronto Maple Leafs’ practice facility motioning to the dozens of blue and white skaters buzzing around the ice during a pre-camp practice. He flashes a smile.

The head coach is joking but only half.

Kyle Dubas put in some serious work this off-season, refurbishing the top of the defence and the fringes of everything else, including the men joining Babcock on the bench.

Energy, excitement and introductions are the order of the day as another high-expectations, high-paced campaign gets underway. Jobs and raises, legacies and demotions—it’s all on the line. (By the way, anyone seen that Marner kid lately?)

“New faces in. You get to be around some old ones. It’s just good energy. Guys are excited,” says Morgan Rielly, suddenly one of the old guys, at age 25. “We’re in a good place, and you can tell guys worked hard this summer. They’re all happy to be back. It’s just about the energy and the excitement, and we’re looking forward to getting going.”

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But with so much turnover, so much talent joining the Atlantic (hiya, Florida!), and so many familiar characters — Nazem Kadri, Patrick Marleau, Jake Gardiner, Ron Hainsey — continuing their journey elsewhere, have the Maple Leafs actually improved?

“It’s a tough question,” considers goalie Frederik Andersen. “We’ll find out sooner rather than later.”

Here are three more questions we’re eager to learn the answers to…

Current cap space: $0
GM: Kyle Dubas
Head coach: Mike Babcock
Assistants: Dave Hakstol, Paul McFarland
Unsigned player: Mitchell Marner

1. When will Mitch Marner join the Maple Leafs?

Dubas doesn’t want Leafs Nation to fret about that big doughnut you see to the right of the club’s “current cap space.” Math wizard Brendan Pridham has a mapped a plan to squeeze the Maple Leafs’ leading scorer — when/if he signs his second contract — under the ceiling, be it short- or long-term.

Injuries to regulars Zach Hyman (knee) and Travis Dermott (shoulder), who will start the season on injured reserve, and heavy use of LTIR (Nathan Horton, David Clarkson) will permit the Leafs with enough wiggle room for their star winger, whether he signs on Sept. 12 or Dec. 1.

As concerning as the Marner stalemate may be and as large as the gap is believed to be — Marner’s camp preferring a commitment in Auston Matthews’s ballpark (five years at $11.6 million); Dubas thrilled if he could keep this thing to seven digits — there are good reasons to not lose sleep over this sticky bit of business:

1. Marner is but one of several high-profile young stars trying to move the goalposts coming out his entry-level deal.
2. An offer sheet, despite rampant rumour and speculation, never materialized.
3. Neither side is exploring the trade route, and neither is bashing the other in the press.
4. Toronto is a rare club with enough offence, power-play weapons and winger depth to survive a few weeks without an elite player like Marner.
5. Marner’s greatest chance to be paired with a centre that compliments his game and lift a Stanley Cup is right here in his hometown. No offence to the Zurich Lions.

That said, Marner’s agent, Darren Ferris, has a track record of dragging these things out longer than necessary. And, thanks to the great William Nylander fiasco of 2018, so too does Dubas.

Who blinks first? How much of a toll could a prolonged absence take on Marner’s season? Who steals that coveted spot on John Tavares’s right side in the meantime? Will the Marner deal bulldoze a new standard for RFA wingers?

The intrigue might kill Leafs fans before the salary cap does.

2. How will Toronto fill the holes opened by injury?

Since Dubas joined the franchise, there has never been a camp as bustling with so many unknowns as 2019’s. Marner’s standoff and Hyman’s rehab (a return to action at any point in October means a speedy recovery) results in Tavares taking faceoffs on opening night between two fresh faces. Patrick Marleau is gone.

Top-six slots on the NHL’s fourth-most-prolific offence are ripe for the taking. Special teams time has presented itself as well.

Auston Matthews, William Nylander and Tavares needn’t worry; Andreas Johnsson and Kasperi Kapanen, given nice raises in the summer, represent the next tier. But there is space for a prized and patient farm-system product like Trevor Moore or Jeremy Bracco — or stud KHL import Ilya Mikheyev, 24 — to make some noise during the more creative shifts.

“[Hyman’s injury] opens opportunities to move up the lineup. Us guys who want to make the team have to be ready because it might be your best opportunity right out the gate here,” says Moore. “The biggest thing with Hyms being out is the penalty kill. I hope I can make an impression there.”

On the back end, newbies Cody Ceci and Tyson Barrie supplant the minutes-munching Ron Hainsey and Nikita Zaitsev (both off to Ottawa) on the right side of the top four, but Dermott’s delay creates a wide-open contest for the blue line’s third pairing.

The fate of first-rounders Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren should create headlines either way as we debate whether the kids have been given enough time to develop or management is preventing its best talent from rising to the top.

While low-risk acquisitions, Ben Harpur and Jordan Schmaltz, arrive hungry to stick with their second big-league franchise, others like Justin Holl and Martin Marincin strive to keep their NHL dreams afloat.

Earn your ice, fellas.

3. Is this the year the Leafs finally name a captain?

Our guess: Yes, it is.

Why else would Dubas, a month ahead of puck drop, publicly announce he’s “a lot more close” to slapping a C on one of his players’ sweaters than he used to be. Surely, he doesn’t want to fuel more debate around a topic that has long grown wearisome 42 months after Dion Phaneuf left town.

There is truth to the theory Babcock has essentially been captain as well as coach. It’s time for the players to take more on themselves.

Very telling was Frederik Andersen’s choice to answer an on-ice question last week — In which area do you see the most improvement from September of 2018? — by invoking something less tangible.

“Mostly off the ice,” Andersen said, “the leadership of the group that’s been here for a while now has been growing a bit.”­

More interesting than the symbolism of the extra letter is the actual leadership dynamic at play in a dressing room that has now shed the last of the old guard (Nazem Kadri and Jake Gardiner) and whose core revolves around one goalie, just one defenceman, and seven solid forwards — each capable of 20 goals.

Rielly (longest serving), Tavares (most accomplished) and Matthews (highest paid, greatest ceiling) — the three finalists for the honour — are all in their prime, all devoted to their craft and the organization. All go about their business a little differently, however, and they have one NHL playoff series victory between them.

If management elevates one top dog in the room, how does that shape the egos and atmosphere behind the doors?

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