TORONTO — Auston Matthews called it “crispy.” Matt Murray reeled off the top-tier qualities that enabled it. Sheldon Keefe said it was simply a prime example of who Denis Malgin is.
As the Toronto Maple Leafs dominated their pre-season finale Saturday night at Scotiabank Arena — a final chance to hone their game and answer questions about their roster before the regular season arrives — it was Malgin’s display of just who he is that might’ve provided the biggest answer of all.
The reply came midway through the eventual win over the Detroit Red Wings, when the score was still knotted at 1-1. It started in Toronto’s own zone, with Malgin intercepting an errant Red Wings pass and tapping it to Alex Kerfoot, who shoveled it back to the quick-footed winger. From there, the former Florida Panther was off, racing up ice, weaving around defenders and flipping the puck to a patch of open ice before catching up to it himself and wiring it home.
It was a go-ahead goal the prospect-laden Wings couldn’t come back from. More than that, it was another statement to the Maple Leafs brass that the 25-year-old deserves a spot on the opening-night roster.
“He had a good camp. He obviously produced. That’s a big part of who he is and what he does,” Keefe said post-game of the Olten, Switzerland native, who’s finished this pre-season with four goals to his name. “He was also just competitive, hard on the puck, forechecked when it was time to forecheck.
“I think if you’re him coming in, if you made a checklist of the things you want to get accomplished, he did a good job of accomplishing it.”
As his coach pointed out, it was more than just the highlight-reel tally that raised eyebrows on the Leafs bench Saturday night — it was Malgin’s overall dedication to the fight to make the cut.
There was no clearer example of that than in the final minutes of the third period, after Toronto’s big boys had already run the score up to 5-1, when Malgin was still out there battling along the wall, fighting to win the puck back, fighting to win his spot.
“He’s looked unbelievable all camp,” Matthews said of the dynamic winger. “Just the confidence. He’s looked strong out there. It’s been a lot of fun to watch.”
Added Murray: “He’s played great for us. … Great speed, great hands, good hockey sense, finishing touch. He’s a pretty impressive player.”
While Keefe made clear he and his staff have taken note, the Maple Leafs’ bench boss stopped short of confirming Malgin’s earned a spot just yet.
“I think there’s still discussions,“ Keefe said of where he and his staff are in regards to ironing out the look of their opening-night roster. “And that’s why you want to let the games play out. As I’ve talked about, there’s a number of factors at play — salary cap, injuries, waivers, all these kinds of things. There’s a lot happening.”
For a club pressed up as close to the salary cap as the Maple Leafs are, any chance of impact performances from players who earn what Malgin will this season — $750,000 — will always be welcome. The absence of John Tavares, who remains sidelined with an oblique injury, makes the need for added offence even more pressing.
Whether Malgin gets the chance to be part of that solution and remain where he skated Saturday night — beside William Nylander, on the second line — and whether he sticks with the big club for an extended stretch in 2022-23, remains to be seen. It likely depends on a number of factors out of the winger’s control. But it’s safe to say he’s done all he can to will himself into Toronto’s lineup.
As for the rest of the forward corps, the heavy hitters made clear they’re ready for the real games, Nylander wiring home a pair of goals on the night, Mitch Marner and Matthews connecting on a couple highlight-reel finishes of their own.
The more urgent question marks, as always, remain on the back end. Saturday night offered Leafs Nation one sigh of relief on that front, as veteran Jake Muzzin made his pre-season debut after holding back to handle some back discomfort.
Aside from a few early bobbles — and a brief trip to the dressing room following a stick to the face — the former Cup champ looked steady in his return.
“I thought he was excellent, really, for playing his first home game,” Keefe said of the 33-year-old. “It was good to have him there, just the impact he has on the penalty kill. I thought he and Holl [played well] — Justin Holl was outstanding today.”
The Maple Leafs still have a few days to move pieces around and settle final discussions on how exactly they’ll deploy their forwards when the regular season arrives. The blue line, though, seems more set, with Morgan Reilly and T.J. Brodie reuniting to lead the unit and Mark Giordano lining up beside young Rasmus Sandin.
The group’s first true test will come Wednesday, at the Bell Centre, against the Montreal Canadiens. Let the games begin.