As Maple Leafs lineup takes shape, who’s fighting for final roster spots?

On this edition of Burning Questions, the Hockey Central panel discusses which player on the Toronto Maple Leafs has impressed them the most this pre-season, which team will finish first in the Eastern Conference, and more.

Two games and eight nights remain before the Toronto Maple Leafs shake off the cobwebs, breathe deep the smelling salts, and go again. 

With six pre-season games in the bag, the Maple Leafs head into one final home-and-away with Detroit to close out their preparations, before taking the ice for Game 1 of the new campaign next Wednesday.

But before they get there, lingering questions about how exactly this team will line up await answers.

Much of the squad is locked into place, the crowd of familiar faces suiting up in largely familiar roles as the machine grinds back into gear. But a few new arrivals — Tyler Bertuzzi up front, John Klingberg on the back end — figure to shift things some. As does the decision to convert William Nylander to a centreman, pushing either him or captain John Tavares into the bottom six.

Then there’s the question of where Matthew Knies begins his first NHL season, how the other new faces — Max Domi and Ryan Reaves — fit in around the rest of the club’s depth pieces, and whether any of the pre-season standouts have played their way into an opening-night role. While the netminders are all but set in stone — Ilya Samsonov the clear No. 1, Joseph Woll proving during last year’s post-season he’s ready to be the team’s No. 2, and Martin Jones in the mix in case of injury — the situation up front and on the back end is more fluid.

Monday night offered the clearest hint yet of how the arrangement might shake out, Sheldon Keefe sending out the closest thing we’ve seen to the team’s true lineup. With that in mind, let’s take a closer look at the spots still up for grabs, and who’s still in the running to claim them.

The Forwards

As was expected the moment Bertuzzi signed on to be a Maple Leaf, the 2023 post-season standout lined up alongside Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner on the top unit Monday night, and figures to stick there when the real games begin.

Tyler Bertuzzi – Auston Matthews – Mitch Marner

It’s how things shake out behind them that is still to be determined. Intent on giving Nylander some run in the middle of the ice, Keefe once again paired No. 88 with Domi on Monday — earlier in his team’s pre-season, the coach spoke glowingly of the potential he sees in that duo.

“I thought [William] and Max really connected a lot. They created a lot of our best offence,” he’d said after the team’s pre-season opener in Ottawa. “Max, in particular, showed his playmaking ability. I was really intrigued to see that with Willy, who’s one of our most dangerous people on the rush. It’s a real strength of Max’s game, to create and make plays under pressure, find people, and see the ice.”

Max Domi – William Nylander – Nick Robertson

Joining them Monday night was Nick Robertson, fresh off finding his first goal of the exhibition season, piling up 19 shots before finally managing to break through. Still, even amid the stretch of frustration before he fluttered the twine with that post-penalty breakaway sprint on Saturday, the fight Robertson’s showed hadn’t gone unnoticed by his coaching staff.

“He’s been all over it,” Keefe said after the third game of the club’s exhibition schedule. “He has had some great scoring chances. He looks really fast and confident with the puck. … He looks fast and explosive — all of the things you come to expect with him.”

Complicating matters for the young American is the impending return of NHL regular Calle Jarnkrok, currently sidelined with a neck injury, but a potential fit alongside Domi and Nylander when he returns.

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Behind that trio, the Domi-Nylander pairing pushed young Matthew Knies back onto a line with John Tavares, another duo that could stick once the real games begin.

Matthew Knies – John Tavares – Sam Lafferty

The Maple Leafs rookie has impressed through the preparation games to this point, leading the club with five exhibition points. But who lines up alongside him and the captain? On Monday night, it was Sam Lafferty, who figures to have an edge on claiming a spot over the young standouts that have turned heads over the past week — even more so given Keefe’s designs on Lafferty chipping in on the penalty kill this season.

“He’s done it before, he’s found a way to produce offence on the PK. Last season, he did a great job of that,” Keefe said of Lafferty after the team’s pre-season win over the Sabres. “We play a pressure penalty kill. There is great benefit to having guys who can skate as he does. We need guys to take a step. … There wasn’t a whole lot of opportunity for him last season, but there certainly is now.”

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There’s a good chance Lafferty or Jarnkrok wind up alongside Tavares when the real campaign gets underway. But of the key storylines to emerge out of camp, one of the most intriguing has been the emergence of Fraser Minten, who might’ve played his way into Keefe’s regular-season lineup.

“It’s an old cliche, ‘mature beyond his years,’ but he is,” Keefe said of Minten after the win over Montreal on Saturday. “Not only in the way he plays but on the bench, he’s the most talkative guy. And there’s not a lot of fluff in what he’s saying — he’s directing traffic. He’s coaching, in a lot of ways. 

“His leadership qualities are what really stand out. And then he gets on the ice, he competes, he’s in the right spots, and he can make a play. He’s a great player.”

Also working in Minten’s favour is the chemistry he’s shown specifically with Knies, the pair’s ability to play off each other translating to the scoresheet regularly throughout this pre-season, at even-strength and on the penalty kill.

“They’re two guys who are hard on the puck,” Keefe said of the duo that same night. “They have good size and good length. They are both skilled guys. They are both young guys, so they get along well and are in it for the same reasons, in terms of trying to impress, adjust to the league, and all of those kinds of things. Quite honestly, I think both of those guys would do well no matter where I had them, with the way that they’re playing and the types of players they’re showing themselves to be.

“Purposefully, by design, we have kind of separated them from a lot of our top guys and most experienced forwards to give them these opportunities. We think they’re ready for more, ready to show what they can do against greater competition, without being insulated by some of the others.”

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And then there’s young Easton Cowan, the club’s first-round pick from this past NHL Draft, who’s perhaps been the story of the team’s pre-season so far.

“It seems like every day he’s out there, you come away thinking he’s one of the best players on the ice,” Keefe said of the 18-year-old early in the pre-season. “Just keep stacking together good days and see what happens. Enjoy the time here. … I’m really excited about him. He’s been great to have. He comes every day with a smile and good energy, and yet when the puck drops or he’s in a drill, he is serious and competitive. Those are all of the things you like to see in any player, regardless of their age.”

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The young London Knight has forced Keefe’s hand a few times during games, his limitless confidence with the puck on his stick prompting the coach to keep sending him over the boards.

“It was hard not to,” Keefe said after the club’s second exhibition tilt with the Senators. “Every minute that he was out there, he was making something happen. I stopped talking myself out of it and started playing him more.”

“He is an incredible player,” added Knies. “He’s a talented young man. I think he is going to be a hell of a player — he skates really well, he can shoot the puck, good hockey IQ. Getting to meet him off the ice, he’s a really good kid. He’s super smart. I love being around him.”

The strong camp showing aside, conventional wisdom suggests the best route for the teenager is a return to the OHL to continue his development. The club’s plans this week seem to align with that thinking, as Keefe noted Monday that Cowan wouldn’t be joining the regulars on their team-bonding excursion to Gravenhurst, Ont., though he’ll remain with the team ahead of their final two pre-season games.

Minten, however, did get the invite to join the Gravenhurst group.

Outside of that top-nine group, the opening-night fourth line figures to look much like it did Monday, as David Kampf and Ryan Reaves seem locked into their spots, and the other slot seems to have been earned over the past week.

Noah Gregor – David Kampf – Ryan Reaves

“I like the ability to have three good options there, and then David Kampf is on Line Four,” Keefe said of the arrangement, with Nylander’s shift to the middle pushing Kampf down to the fourth unit. “He is as trustworthy of a guy as we have. It’s a good mix with the way it all comes together.”

Given the unique role he was brought into fill for the bottom six, all signs point to Reaves remaining locked into his spot on the right side of that fourth line. Which leaves just one slot open in the bottom six for the rest of the camp hopefuls. 

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While Pontus Holmberg got some run there last season, as did Bobby McMann, former San Jose Shark Noah Gregor seems to have made good on his PTO opportunity, and played his way into the lineup.

“He’s brought lots. I think he’s a confident guy — he should be,” Keefe said of Gregor after the fourth tilt of the pre-season schedule. “We have made it very clear to him that we like him and there is an opportunity here for him to just go out and be himself. He’s played a lot in the league. He has lots of reasons to be confident there. I think he’s done a good job.” 

The 25-year-old’s been sent over the boards by Keefe to close out games more than once during this pre-season run, and moved around the lineup to see how he fits into different arrangements. Wherever he’s played, the footspeed and responsible play has drawn praise from the coaching staff.

The Defence

Like the forward corps, the top of the blue line appears set, Morgan Rielly and T.J. Brodie taking up their usual spots Monday night.

Morgan Rielly – T.J. Brodie

Behind them, veteran Jake McCabe lined up alongside Timothy Liljegren for the club’s most recent match-up, though the latter’s spot is sure to be filled by off-season acquisition John Klingberg when health permits, the veteran brought in to quarterback the club’s power play and fill out the top four.

Jake McCabe – John Klingberg

Which leaves Keefe with some options for the final pair. With full health across the board, the likely arrangement would be Liljegren alongside Mark Giordano, the duo having logged plenty of time together in the past.

Mark Giordano – Timothy Liljegren

But early in the pre-season, the coaching staff was given much to consider as defender Connor Timmins came out of the gates on fire, intent on earning a spot. An injury quelled that pursuit, and will keep Timmins sidelined on a week-to-week basis moving forward.

If he can recover the form he was beginning to show down the line, though, that third-pair plan might begin to shift.

“He’s put in a ton of work, not just over the summer but from the trade deadline on, he was really in development mode,” Keefe said of Timmins prior to the team taking the ice for their first exhibition game. “He’s had a great attitude and worked extremely hard. He’s a guy we expect to be in here pushing.”

And push he did, Timmins coming up with a four-point night against Buffalo in Game 3 of the pre-season.

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“He creates offence. … I left watching the video back saying, ‘Timmins could’ve had three or four points tonight if some guys finished their chances on the end of some of his plays,’” Keefe had said that night. “He finds a way to score or set up offence and create — we saw that last season when he played for us as well. … Like with most guys who have the ability he does, it’s a matter of consistency. In his case, it is not necessarily consistency on offence — he has found ways to score and produce, he produced at a high rate for us last year. But there is more to playing the position than that. 

“It’s being consistently reliable breaking the puck out, reliable defending, reliable playing against good players at times, and not having to be sheltered. All of those kinds of things are important in order to take a step. He has worked really hard to give himself a chance to compete here in camp. It is good to see him get rewarded.”

Then there’s the big-bodied Simon Benoit, who similarly saw his efforts to make the lineup hampered by injury, but who’s given Keefe more to think about all the same.

“He is different than the makeup of a lot of our other guys,” Keefe said of the former Anaheim Duck before Monday’s game. “He’s bigger and more physical. It hasn’t been ideal that he’s missed most of camp to this point, for a new guy coming in, but we are trying to get him up to speed. … We like a lot of what he brings. It’s just now a matter of seeing how he fits in with the group.”

Add young Mikko Kokkonen to that mix, too.

“Kokkonen, for me, has been maybe the surprise of the camp,” Keefe said of the 22-year-old before Monday’s game, which saw Benoit and Kokkonen get a shot as the third pair. “He’s just been very, very solid all the way through. If you look at where he was last year to now, it’s been remarkable. From Traverse City right through to pre-season, he’s been under the radar, but every day has been very solid.”

Of course, standing in that young trio’s way is Liljegren.

Steadily building over the past half-decade, the 2017 17th-overall pick took a step in 2022-23. And now, according to his coach, it’s time for a bigger role with the club.

“We’re going to be looking to count on him. I think he’s earned it,” Keefe said of the 24-year-old midway through the pre-season. “He’s climbed his way through, and at times there’s been some adversity, and to me, he’s dealt with that very well. … I’ve talked to some of his teammates that are a part of the leadership group — they want to see him step up and take a greater role, being that kind of next guy to help and have a voice within the leadership, too. All of that is symbolic of what we need from him, and also how we feel about him.

“He has a spot in the lineup, and he’s going to play a lot,” the coach added later. “He’s going to kill penalties. He has shown an ability to play on the power play — Guy (Boucher) really likes him there. He’s going to play a lot for us, no matter how he slots in.”

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