Maple Leafs Notebook: Engvall misses cut, Dell staying with big club

Mitch Marner explains how Joe Thornton will have a positive impact on the Toronto Maple Leafs when it comes social media and expectations.

TORONTO — Rare is the occasion throughout his first year behind the Toronto Maple Leafs bench that Sheldon Keefe has called out a specific player and demanded better.

Publicly, at least, Keefe has been much more the encourager than the critic when it comes to individual analysis.

Yet in this sprint of a training camp that has made it awfully difficult for players to scramble up the depth chart, there’s been no mistaking who has been bumped down.

Pierre Engvall won a Calder Cup under Keefe in 2018. He played in the majority of the Maple Leafs’ games last season as an NHL rookie and earned himself a two-year, $2.5-million contract extension. During this camp, he was the first man up when a forward from the main group fell to injury (Alexander Kerfoot, leg).

And yet, on Monday, Engvall was among the first was on a path back to the Marlies after a deep round of roster cuts.

“I expect Pierre to be better, to be honest,” Keefe said Saturday night, following the Blue and White’s intrasquad scrimmage. “I think it might be coming up on, if not past, the one-year anniversary of his last goal.”

Ouch.

That Engvall, 24, scored in the scrimmage didn’t matter. That a player whose role in the bigs will be a defensive, bottom-six role committed turnovers did.

Keefe wants a stronger physical commitment from Engvall, who’s more likely to rely on his smooth skating than his outsized six-foot-five, 214-pound frame. And, of course, the occasional offensive contribution can’t hurt. Engvall went pointless in the Columbus bubble series.

Engvall’s last goal arrived on Feb. 22, when he scored on Carolina Hurricanes emergency backup David Ayers. He has one point in his past 25 games.

Who’s in? Who’s out?

In all, Toronto trimmed 14 bodies off its roster Monday, sending the following players down to continue their training with the Marlies:

Forwards Kenny Agostino, Joey Anderson, Justin Brazeau, Rourke Chartier, Engvall, Tyler Gaudet, Scott Sabourin, and Nic Petan; defencemen Mac Hollowell, Teemu Kivihalme, Timothy Liljegren, Martin Marincin, and Calle Rosen; and goaltender Michael Hutchinson.

The remaining group participated in an intense, 70-minute session at the Ford Performance Centre spread over two sheets and featuring battle drills, special teams work and line rushes. Music blared.

Keefe cautioned that by no means should these roster decisions be considered final.

“It’s going to be a fluid situation,” the coach said. “Throughout the season, we’re going to need a lot of people.”

As things stand, here is the projected lineup for Wednesday’s opener versus Montreal:

Thornton-Matthews-Marner

Vesey-Tavares-Nylander

Mikheyev-Kerfoot-Hyman

Barabanov-Spezza-Simmonds

Robertson-Brooks-Boyd (extras)

Rielly-Brodie

Muzzin-Holl

Dermott-Bogosian

Sandin-Lehtonen (extras)

Andersen

Campbell

Dell (extra)

Note: Robertson, Lehtonen, Barabanov and Sandin are all waivers-exempt.

Lehtonen’s development gives Dermott a shot

Until Monday, Mikko Lehtonen — the reigning KHL Defenceman of the Year and a fascinating new recruit — had been slotting to the left of Zach Bogosian on the third pairing, and the Finn’s offensive flair was on full display Saturday.

The Maple Leafs have decided, however, that the 26-year-old will be best served by watching some small-ice action from the press box and taking a step back to work on his reads and own-zone play in practice before making his NHL debut.

“Looking at last week for Mikko, the game the other day,” Keefe said, “we like a lot of things about him, [but] we think there are areas that need more time.”

T.J. Brodie assumed Lehtonen’s spot up top on the second power-play unit, and Travis Dermott slid in as third-pair left D.

Keefe has had direct conversations with Dermott. The defenceman has bounced up to the top four and down to the fourth pairing over the past year, and he’s been used on both the left and right side during this camp.

“I would really like to see Travis really latch on to his strengths,” Keefe said.

The coach has identified three elements for Dermott to focus on and improve: (a) puck retrievals and starting the Leafs’ breakout on dump-ins, (b) defensive-zone puck pressure and causing turnovers, and (c) gap control during the opponents’ rush.

Check those three boxes, and Dermott will help his own cause.

Waiver worry means carrying three goalies

Third-stringer Aaron Dell did not train with the main group, as a three-goalie practice rotation is seldom ideal. But it’s notable that Dell, 31, was not placed on waivers either.

There is a serious concern that Dell — a bargain at $800,000 — wouldn’t slip through the wire without being claimed. The New Jersey Devils, for one, are in need of goaltending depth in light of Corey Crawford’s recent retirement.

For now, Toronto will carry three goalies. On Monday, extra forwards Nic Robertson, Travis Boyd and Adam Brooks skated over to the Marlies pad after practice to shoot on Dell and keep him sharp.

“We like having the depth at the position. We feel it’s important in this season. So, that’s how we’re doing things here to start,” Keefe explained. “We’ve had some discussions about whether or not we utilize him at different times to back up here in the early going. We’re going to continue to discuss that.”

One-Timers

Alexander Kerfoot returned to his third-line centre spot Monday after missing the bulk of camp nursing a leg injury suffered Tuesday. Kerfoot explained that he’d lost balance and fallen awkwardly into the boards during a 3-on-2 line rush. “I feel good on the ice right now,” Kerfoot assured. The plan is to deploy Kerfoot for more D-zone draws this season. He has started 53 per cent of his NHL shifts in the O-zone…. Because all coaches are mandated to wear masks during practice, Keefe uses an electric whistle…. New assistant Manny Malhotra, who suffered a serious eye injury in 2011, smartly coaches with a helmet and visor on…. Marner on Thornton’s inability to carry stress: “I don’t think he has social media. He barely knows anything about social media. So, it’s great in that aspect.”… BREAKING: Mitch Marner now casually refers to Auston Matthews as “Tony.”

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