TORONTO – The Toronto Maple Leafs’ big-budget, superstar-loaded squad has now taken five cracks at the post-season and come up empty every time.
When training camp opens Wednesday, the intrigue around this Cup-dreaming group will be as thick as the collective disappointment they’ll carry into 2021-22. Which could well be the final shot this management group, head coach and/or core is granted.
Sure, training camp debates are fun fodder, but playoff success is paramount.
Jobs should depend on it this time.
“For better or worse, I believe in this group. I believe that they are going to get it done and that they are going to win,” said general manager Kyle Dubas, after making only off-season tweaks to the fringes.
“I understand that this comes with certain doubt because we have not broken through in the playoffs, but it is my belief that they will. I believe in them as players. I believe in them as people. I know that the decision lies on me and the risk is for me in going ahead that way.
“I am comfortable with it. I believe we are going to see the best version of this group [in 2021-22] that we have seen yet. I am willing to bet everything on that.”
Current salary cap space: $0
GM: Kyle Dubas
Head coach: Sheldon Keefe
Assistant coaches: Spencer Carbery, Dean Chynoweth, Paul MacLean, Manny Malhotra
Unsigned players: Nikita Gusev (PTO), Joshua Ho-Sang (PTO)
1. WHO’S A LOCK ON LEFT WING?
One player will not replace what Zach Hyman brought to the Maple Leafs last season (and will now bring to the Edmonton Oilers). The versatile top-line left wing can kill penalties, drive the net, score points, fetch pucks, shutdown top forwards, and inspire his teammates with a relentless work ethic.
So, Dubas instead opted to patch that $38.5-million hole with an inexpensive and interesting committee, as two top-six winger slots now need filling.
Soo alum and Scarborough native Michael Bunting, 26, took less in free agency, in part, because of the star power he could flank.
“He has the ability to play with good players, as he showed in Arizona, and contribute and score in and around the net, which I think is important for our group all throughout,” Dubas said. “He will get a good opportunity, but he is going to have to earn everything that he gets.”
The rugged Nick Ritchie, 25, will bring a heightened level of physicality, thanks to a chip on his shoulder deposited by the Boston Bruins when they left him unqualified in July.
Ilya Mikheyev — he of the unfortunate 6.5 shooting percentage — is getting antsy for more offensive opportunity. Yet despite his (denied) trade request, the Russian is fine value ($1.645 million) and should be inspired to impress in his contract year.
UFA gamble Ondrej Kase, a natural right wing, is healthy and raring to get back to the level that had him shining as a 20-goal talent in Anaheim three years ago. (William Nylander would be fine sliding to the left.)
And while prospect Nick Robertson, 20, might be a long shot to make the roster, his no-off-switch demeanour means he’ll be scratching and clawing for his chance all season.
In short: There is a ton of imperfect options, two new assistant coaches with opinions, and it will be fascinating to see how Keefe sees the left side lining up in the post-Hyman era.
“I really don’t know who’s going to be in that spot yet. It’s a little bit of a trial for that left spot, and guys are going to be hungry for it,” Marner said. “It should be an exciting time, coming up to training camp here to start seeing who’s going to be in that role.”
2. CAN HO-SANG EARN A CONTRACT?
Dubas’s eye has been the enigmatic Josh Ho-Sang since the young executive was debating between Ho-Sang, Jared McCann and Robby Fabbri for the Soo Greyhounds’ first pick in the 2012 OHL selection draft.
Be it his multiple false starts with the Islanders or his brief stint overseas in Sweden, the 25-year-old winger has yet to maximize his potential.
Could the Toronto native gain confidence with the Marlies and eventually impact the big club in 2021-22? The Alex Galchenyuk project of 2021 may be the blueprint here, and the club’s deep training and development staff poured in hours with Ho-Sang this summer.
His skill, particularly on the fun side of the red line, has stood out during the Leafs’ pre-camp scrimmages.
“Obviously, it hasn’t hit for him yet,” says Dubas, who loves a low-cost player with something to prove. “We just view him as a supremely talented player. It was a zero-risk proposition on a PTO.
“Come training camp, he will be given every opportunity to go out and do what he does, which is make plays and use his mobility and playmaking, which we think could be a good fit with us.”
Dubas characterizes this trial as “a make-or-break situation for Josh.”
"Give me a sheet of ice and a jersey and I'm happy."
Throwback to the time Josh Ho-Sang talked about cartoons, bigger nets and orangutans. One of my favourite hockey interviews: https://t.co/IJ94WgkSft
— luke fox (@lukefoxjukebox) July 28, 2021
3. WHO QUARTERBACKS THE TOP POWER-PLAY UNIT?
A gallon of ink will be spilled speculating and debating the future of Morgan Rielly, the Maple Leafs’ top power-play quarterback and best offensive D-man.
The longest-tenured Leaf averaged nearly three minutes of PP time per game in 2021, greater than a minute more than any other blueliner on the club.
And yet, when prospect Rasmus Sandin — who’s developing into Rielly’s potential successor — was called up late in the season, the rookie scooped some of those prime PP shifts. Even in the playoffs.
On one hand, Toronto (and the player himself) must maximize Rielly’s contract year. On the other, the Leafs need to push Sandin to take a step and utilize the young playmaker’s greatest strengths.
Looming over this Rielly-Sandin decision is the atrocious finish of Toronto’s power play in general. So we could see a few tweaks in the personnel and deployment of its 5-on-4 units this training camp.