TORONTO — The run to the top of the NHL standings has included some twists and turns for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
They’ve dressed 30 different players over the opening 20 games alone and practised Tuesday down seven bodies: top-six wingers Joe Thornton (lower body) and Zach Hyman (foot), who are both considered day-to-day; winger Wayne Simmonds (broken wrist), who is still a few weeks from returning; depth forwards Alexander Barabanov and Scott Sabourin, who both entered the NHL’s COVID Protocol after inconclusive PCR tests; and defenceman Jake Muzzin (broken bone in face) and goaltender Frederik Andersen (lower body), who have no clear recovery timelines.
The most likely of that group to dress for Wednesday’s rematch with the Calgary Flames is probably Barabanov. He needs one more negative COVID-19 test to rejoin the team. But it’s not out of the question that they’ll all be out.
“I think you expect it in a year like this,” said veteran Jason Spezza. “There’s going to be injuries and there’s going to be guys out of the lineup. I think it’s been talked about ad nauseam just how things have changed throughout the year, but when you go through it there is an [adaptation period].
“You have to pick up the slack.”
Spezza went on to add that he feels depth is one of the keys behind a 14-4-2 start for the Leafs.
With that in mind, here is a look at how each of the forwards occupying a spot on the fringes has played and where his stock currently rests with the organization:
Stock: Strong performer
Analysis: There’s a pretty strong case here for Spezza to get a look in the top six with Thornton and Hyman both out. He’s produced 2.92 points per hour this season in a limited role -- behind only Mitch Marner, Auston Matthews and Thornton among Leafs regulars -- and still moves surprisingly well around the ice at age 37. He’s also the team’s top faceoff man at 58.7 per cent and has a 52-per cent expected goals mark. The Leafs got him through waivers earlier this season, no doubt in part because Spezza’s agent said he’d retire if claimed by another team, but they probably don’t want to risk that again. He’s been that effective.
Stock: On the rise
Analysis: Not only do we run into sample-size issues here, but there’s also recency bias. Barabanov is a relatively unknown quantity coming over from the KHL and he didn’t look like a NHL player through his first seven games. Then on Monday he got a chance to play up the lineup with William Nylander and Alexander Kerfoot and generated three shots, plus another that rang off the crossbar behind Flames goalie David Rittich. He caught coach Sheldon Keefe’s eye with that effort: “I thought he had good jump from the early going in the game. He was on the puck. A strength of his game is when he gets to play in the offensive zone.” The challenge will be recreating it on nights he plays lower in the lineup because top-six opportunities aren’t likely to be too plentiful for him on this roster. But at least he’s put himself back on the radar.
Stock: Trending up
Analysis: He briefly lost his spot on the Maple Leafs roster to start the season, taking sharp public criticism from Keefe at the end of training camp. But Engvall has bounced back and performed well since assuming third-line centre duties after a tour on the wing. He’s a straight-line player that doesn’t bring much offensively, but is only being asked to keep things even during his minutes. And at six-foot-five there’s definitely potential for him to become an effective checker -- “I think a big thing for me is to be better at winning the pucks back, using my body to my advantage,” he said Tuesday, when asked about where he can find improvement. Engvall hasn’t locked down a full-time job yet, but he’s taken some steps forward in the last few weeks.
Analysis: Everything is heading in the wrong direction here. Vesey started the season on the second line after being signed as a buy-low free agent, but hasn’t been able to find any traction. He played a season-low 6:51 in Monday’s loss to Calgary and saw his point drought stretched to 12 games. On top of that, he’s been on the ice for 11 goals against at 5-on-5 while playing at least 100 minutes less than any teammate near him in that category. Some of that can be attributed to bad luck, but very little has happened offensively for Vesey despite dressing for all 20 games so far. He joined a power-play unit at Tuesday’s practice, which could be the boost he needs. His spot in the lineup looks increasingly tenuous.
Stock: Holding steady
Analysis: A poor showing at training camp relegated him to early taxi squad duty, but he’s made good on the opportunity since. Boyd scored in his Leafs debut at Calgary on Jan. 26 and is generating more offensively with the help of some power-play reps, firing 10 shots on goal in his last five games. The underlying numbers include some warning signs -- Toronto has 44 per cent of even-strength attempts and 44 per cent of expected goals with him on the ice -- but he’s been opportunistic with six points in 12 games. Said Spezza, Boyd’s most-common linemate: “He forechecks hard, he’s strong on pucks, but I think what separates him is his hockey sense. I think he gets in good spots, he makes it easy to play with and he’s a guy that’s shown he’s got some offensive touch around the net, too.”
Stock: Low trading volume
Analysis: It’s difficult to draw too many conclusions here. Petan has only played six games this season and the Leafs are basically sawing off his minutes with 49.02 per cent of shot attempts and 49.6 per cent of expected goals. He’s personally generated one assist and eight shots on goal so far. Pretty good given his usage and opportunity. However, beyond a further run of injuries, it’s hard to envision him carving out a bigger niche with this group.
Analysis: It remains to be seen when the former third-overall draft pick will make his Leafs debut. He was acquired in a Feb. 15 trade from Carolina and the focus now is on building him up before putting him in the lineup. Following Tuesday’s practice, Galchenyuk put in an extra session with skating development consultant Barb Underhill. Said Keefe of the 27-year-old forward, who is now on his seventh NHL organization: “He’s bounced around here and he’s trying to find a home and trying to solidify himself in the league again and within a lineup. So we don’t want to just rush and just put him in. We think we need to give him an opportunity at success. So there’s a couple things: Finding a comfort level around here with his teammates, the staff, our system, all of the surroundings. And then the other part of it is just his game. We think there’s a lot of areas we’d like to see him improve upon and reconnect with his skill-set and all of those kind of things.
"We’re in no rush despite the injuries we have here. We feel like the best thing for Alex is to really settle in and get comfortable and look to make improvements so that when his opportunity comes that he can be best prepared for it.”