Maple Leafs Training Camp Preview: Can Robertson make the cut?

On the Maple Leafs edition of Over/Under, Shawn McKenzie and Chris Johnston debate how many points fans can expect from Joe Thornton.

An all-Canadian North Division in which they should slot in as the house favourites.

A big-budget, superstar-loaded squad that has had four cracks at the post-season and come up empty every time.

And an overhauled blueline and leadership corps that makes for the best, deepest and most balanced Toronto Maple Leafs roster — on paper, that is — of this century.

When training camp opens in January, the intrigue around this Cup-dreaming group will be as heavy as the collective disappointment and hope they’ll carry into this sprint of a 2020-21 campaign.

“The pressure is truly a privilege. When there’s pressure, that means there’s great opportunity. And you’re a part of something that people care about,” head coach Sheldon Keefe said.

“It’s a fresh start with a fresh training camp. Fresh team, if you will, because there are significant changes and a chance to really get to work with what I’d like our team to be about — to win.”

Current salary cap space: $0
GM: Kyle Dubas
Head coach: Sheldon Keefe
Assistant coaches: Dave Hakstol, Manny Malhotra, Paul MacLean
Unsigned players: None

1. How good does Joe Thornton and the new guys look? And where the heck will they all fit?

Freeing salary in the Kasperi Kapanen and Andreas Johnsson trades, Dubas treated free agency like Cyber Monday, bargain-hunting with strategic vengeance.

The list of new Maple Leafs arriving at training camp under the belief they can secure an opening-night spot is as long as it is intriguing: Wayne Simmonds, Joe Thornton, Jimmy Vesey, Travis Boyd, Alexander Barabanov, Joey Anderson, T.J. Brodie, Zach Bogosian, Mikko Lehtonen, Aaron Dell… did we forget anyone?

Toss in the hearty group of players already fighting at the fringes — Nicholas Robertson, Pierre Engvall, Egor Korshkov, Nic Petan, Kenny Agostino, Adam Brooks, Denis Malgin, Rasmus Sandin, Travis Dermott, Timothy Liljegren — and Toronto will be better equipped than most to fill their expanded taxi squad for the shortened season.

Dubas overloaded the bottom half of Keefe’s lineup options with the purpose of ratcheting up internal competition and making everyone feel a little less comfortable. Urgency is the word of the day.

With so many potential combinations, Keefe’s early line combinations will be fascinating. As will the conditioning of last-chance leaders like Thornton and Simmonds, both re-energized but coming off subpar performances.

Does Thornton simply seize Alexander Kerfoot’s spot as third-line centre? Does his elite playmaking earn him some reps in the top-six, perhaps on the left flank? Or does the oldest forward in a speedy league tumble to the fourth line?


2. Can Nick Robertson make the cut?

The day miracle baby Robertson entered the world, Boston Bruins star Thornton was already heading into his fifth NHL training camp.

Now the players will be showing up for the same audition, one striving to prove he’s got enough, the other that he’s not lost too much.

The much-hyped Robertson made his NHL debut in the bubble playoffs — with literally no fanfare but metaphorically tons of it — and (fun fact) scored the team’s last 5-on-5 goal.

Eager to stake his minutes amongst a crowded forward group that has added six new bodies with more NHL experience than he, Robertson remained in Toronto over the off-season to train four times per week at Ford Performance Centre.

“Quick, elusive, taking it to the net, not afraid to shoot it,” Mitch Marner said of the pre-camp game of Robertson. “He hasn’t gone back home since the season ended. He stayed here in Canada so he wouldn’t have to quarantine when he came back. As soon as the rink opened back up, I believe he was the first guy here, working on showing that he wants to be here, which is amazing.”

If the rookie’s internal drive and the fact he has nothing left to prove at the OHL level (55 goals in 48 games, thank you) give him an edge, his waiver-exempt status on a cap-crunched roster does not.

The 19-year-old looks every bit the steal of the 2019 draft’s second round, and it would be foolish to discount such a motivated kid outright, but Robertson will have to win his way into the opening night lineup. Otherwise, he’ll be a helluva taxi squad option.

3. What tweaks get made to the special teams?

Sixteen months have passed and much has changed since the Leafs last opened a regular-season training camp. Significant roster tweaks from the net on out, a new head coach and three new assistant coaches.

Surely all that jostling of personnel will result in some fresh 5-on-4 and 4-on-5 strategies.

For three seasons running, Toronto’s penalty killing has gotten worse, finishing a disappointing 21st overall (77.7 per cent) in 2019-20.

Safe to say, bruisy defenceman Bogosian will play a prominent role in helping to reverse this trend. But who else? Does Vesey create extra value for himself here? Does Engvall use the PK as his path into the lineup? Do the Maple Leafs realize the value of using a centreman on the top penalty killing unit?

As for the Leafs’ vaunted $45-million top power-play unit, we’re curious to see how aggressively Malhotra — taking over for Paul McFarland — makes his stamp during his first foray as a bench coach.

KHL Defenceman of the Year Lehtonen was imported, in part, to quarterback the second unit. But how does Toronto maximize Thornton’s vision and Simmonds’ net presence with the man advantage? Do the Fab 5 get broken up for different looks? Is there room for Robertson to get his wicked shot off here?

Stay tuned.

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