TORONTO — The price of much-needed roster flexibility was a piece of the goaltending depth Kyle Dubas amassed this off-season.
The Toronto Maple Leafs lost goaltender Aaron Dell on waivers Monday before he even had a chance to play for the team. The closest Dell got was serving as Jack Campbell’s backup in Ottawa on Saturday night and now he’s off to New Jersey, where the Devils have been searching for more help since Corey Crawford’s retirement in training camp.
Toronto knew it had little chance of sneaking a 31-year-old with more than 100 games of NHL experience through the waiver wire, especially in this marketplace. There have been five goaltender claims since the NHL season began and it’s believed Edmonton was going to grab Dell if New Jersey didn’t take him first.
The move was necessitated by the fact the Leafs were only able to carry 18 skaters under the salary cap ceiling and lost Nick Robertson to a left knee injury that will sideline him for at least the next four weeks.
“[Robertson] had an MRI yesterday. The results we got back ... I guess we would classify it as good news considering how it was looking,” Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe said before Monday’s game against Winnipeg. “But he is going to miss some time.”
The fact Robertson will miss at least 24 days and 10 games allows him to be placed on long-term injured reserve while he’s out. In waiving Dell and veteran centre Jason Spezza, who cleared and was assigned to the taxi squad in a paper move, Toronto was able to get just under the $81.5-million cap ceiling before placing Robertson’s salary on LTIR.
That should make it easier to move players back and forth from the taxi squad, giving Keefe more options to work with in the coming month. He put that directly to use by bringing up Mikko Lehtonen for his NHL debut against Winnipeg as part of an 11F/7D rotation.
“We want to get him going here today and really try to get a feel for how he can compete in the league, and give him a chance to do that,” Keefe said of Lehtonen. “The greatest challenge for players like him is the nature of training camp and no exhibition season is you can’t really get the kinks out, you can’t make the adjustments, you can’t make the mistakes in those games that don’t matter and then have it cleaned up by the time you’re playing for real.”
It shouldn’t be long before Rasmus Sandin, Travis Boyd and Adam Brooks jump up from the taxi squad and get some playing time as well.
Depth is necessary to get through every season, but the challenges are even greater with the compressed schedule and the lingering threat of positive COVID-19 cases.
That’s part of the reason why the Leafs brought in both Dell and Michael Hutchinson on one-way contracts in October despite already having Campbell and Frederik Andersen in-house.
“We did that before we knew what the schedule was exactly going to look like and we just wanted to make sure that we had as much depth as possible,” Dubas said earlier this month. “Not knowing the way that things were going to be, we just felt that having as many capable NHL goaltenders was going to be important.”
Hutchinson moves up to the No. 3 role with Dell on his way to New Jersey.
That could wind up being a big opportunity for him career-wise but it had to be tinged with a whiff of disappointment. Dell only got to pull on the Leafs sweater in an intra-squad scrimmage during training camp and to serve as the backup over the weekend, and never put his Felix Potvin-inspired pads in any real action as a result.
“He’s a quiet guy that just goes about his business and stays ready,” said Keefe. “That’s really what you’re looking for in terms of personality and how he’s handled himself. … He’s an established goaltender in the league and we knew when signing him that it would be difficult to get him through waivers if it came to that.
“Here we are.”