Maple Leafs Training Camp Preview: Battles, questions, roster picks

Toronto Maple Leafs forward Mitchell Marner (16) celebrates his goal with teammates Auston Matthews (34), Morgan Rielly (44) and Alexander Kerfoot (15) during second period, round one, NHL Stanley Cup playoff hockey action against the Tampa Bay Lightning, in Toronto, Monday, May 2, 2022. (Nathan Denette/CP)

The confetti from another Stanley Cup parade in another city not named Toronto had long been swept off the streets, and another off-season of tweaks was well underway.

Sheldon Keefe was attending his first in-person draft as Maple Leafs coach ahead of his first “normal” season in the position.

And yet, Keefe said, not much had changed.

The disappointment from another too-swift postseason, another squandered home-ice advantage, still rattled around in his head with all those potential line combos.

But the positives gleaned from his group’s record-busting regular season and nail-biting playoff test of the two-time champions hadn’t changed either.

Keefe threw himself into the Leafs’ summer-improvement projects with a bounce of optimism, encouraged by "the belief we have in our group and how close we felt we were to beating a very, very good team." Yet motivated because, well, “we failed to get it done once again.”

The hope is that combination of bitter, thin-margin defeat and sweet, contagious belief that the hockey club is on the precipice of breaking through has led to minimal change in the roster.

Outside of the new guys in pads, most of the players who report to Ford Performance Centre for medicals Wednesday will be as familiar with each other as they are long summers.

Keefe is correct. No, not much has changed.

Some fiddling here and there, starting this week at camp, and maybe the outcome will.

Current salary cap space: $0
General manager: Kyle Dubas
Head coach: Sheldon Keefe
Assistant coaches: Spencer Carbery, Dean Chynoweth, Manny Malhotra, Curtis Sanford (goaltending)
Unsigned players: Rasmus Sandin (RFA), Zach Aston-Reese (PTO), Dylan Ferguson (PTO)

THE PRESSING QUESTION: Where — and when —does Rasmus Sandin fit?

As the other Leafs report for medicals and prepare to take the ice, Sandin still sits and waits.

One of the NHL’s few outstanding restricted free agents dug into a contractual stalemate, the 22-year-old defenceman is long on confidence and promise. But his résumé and leverage are short.

If the left shot isn’t interested in signing a deal similar to pal Timothy Liljegren’s two-year, $2.8-million pact, perhaps a one-year prove-it paper is the simplest way to put this distraction on the back burner. (Mikey Anderson’s recent one-year, $1-million agreement with Los Angeles could provide the template.)

How the Sandin saga shakes out will have a ripple effect on the roster.

If the Swede signs for decent money, does another salary need to be dumped in trade so the Leafs can be cap-complaint for Opening Night? (Righty Justin Holl is the rumoured bait.) And which lefty moves to the right side so Sandin can get more shifts? (Mark Giordano feels like the only candidate.)

If Sandin and Dubas can’t find common ground, however, the seventh defenceman slot opens opportunity for an inexpensive free-agency recruit like Jordie Benn or Victor Mete to impress in preseason. That roster flexibility could save a tweener from the October waiver wire.

Conversely, with Liljegren missing camp due to injury (as first reported by Chris Johnston), Sandin could find himself with increased leverage — and ice time.

(The Leafs will comment on the nature of Liljegren’s injury Wednesday.)

We’re fascinated to see how it all plays out.

TRAINING CAMP BATTLE TO WATCH: Puzzle-piecing the bottom six

Keefe will once again be blessed with elite game-breakers at the top of his lineup. Farther down the bench, however, the intrigue — and competition — should heat up.

For now, we’ll pencil unsung 50-point utility man Alexander Kerfoot at left wing alongside John Tavares and William Nylander in the top six, knowing full well the coaches are content to throw Kerfoot anywhere and will likely give other forwards a crack to produce in such a premium spot.

(Calle “Four More Years” Järnkrok, Pierre “I Think I Can Score 20” Engvall, Nick “Time to Pop” Robertson, and Adam “Did You See Me at the Worlds?” Gaudette are all candidates to take a step offensively and could get some run higher in the lineup.)

The configuration of the bottom six, particularly, will be interesting, and there is no shortage of options.

We see Stanley Cup winner Nicolas Aubé-Kubel as the only fourth-line lock.

If true, that leaves two spots open for Gaudette, surprise PTO Zach Aston-Reese, respected veterans Wayne Simmonds and Kyle Clifford, and Marlies like Robertson, Joey Anderson, and Curtis Douglas to scrap over.

As with so many overextending teams, the final cuts may not entirely be made on merit.

Cap considerations, waiver eligibility, experience, injuries (Engvall is nursing something already), and role will all come into play.


Michael Buntin­g–Auston Matthews–Mitchell Marner
Alexander Kerfoot–John Tavares–William Nylander
Pierre Engvall–David Kämpf–Calle Järnkrok
Zach Aston-Reese–Adam Gaudette–Nicolas Aubé-Kubel

Morgan Rielly–T.J. Brodie
Jake Muzzin–Justin Holl
Rasmus Sandin–Mark Giordano

Matt Murray
Ilya Samsonov

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