As you’ve probably noticed, the Maple Leafs are back in town, marking the end of a summer that, frankly, seemed to drag by. Thursday was media day, and we got some fun behind-the-scenes content from the team social media accounts. (Hi, Timmy!)
However, as with any team, there are some things up in the air as we creep closer to October. Sure, we had a few points of interest cleared up: Mike Babcock says the Leafs are going with no captain for the year again, even though we all know where that C is going to be stitched one day. And per Lou Lamoriello, both Joffrey Lupul and Nathan Horton failed their physicals. A real shocker, there.
Also, we have a training camp roster now!
— Leafs PR (@LeafsPR) September 14, 2017
When all is said and done, though, there are more questions than there are answers. As we head into the preseason, here are some storylines that we’re keeping a close eye on.
Where Does Kapanen Start the Year?
Look. Kapanen should, by all rights, be a Maple Leaf. He’s proven that he can score prolifically at the AHL level, and last year he took a significant step, finishing the regular season at a point-per-game clip and going on to rack up eight points in nine postseason games with the Marlies. And of course, we all know what he did with the Leafs in the playoffs.
In case you forgot, here’s a reminder:
Here’s the thing, though. The Leafs are loaded with wingers. We’ll just run through them quickly: You have William Nylander (who, yes, could move to centre, but for now we’ll count him as a winger), Mitch Marner, James van Riemsdyk, Patrick Marleau, Leo Komarov, Connor Brown, Zach Hyman, and Matt Martin. And those are just the guys who are a lock for a spot on the roster. Kapanen will also be competing with Nikita Soshnikov, Josh Leivo, Jeremy Bracco, Eric Fehr (I know, I know), and a handful of others who are close to NHL-ready, if lacking some of Kapanen’s inherent talent.
In any case, we’re just about stuck between a rock and a hard place with Kapanen. He’s outgrown the AHL, but even if he finds a place on Toronto’s roster, it’s tough to see him getting significant minutes. Of course, that’s what I thought last year about Hyman going into last year, and he spent the year glued to Auston’s side, so take this speculation with a grain of salt. We’ll see how the Leafs handle this winger logjam, whether that’s working Kapanen in with limited time on ice, giving him some top six minutes, or completing a trade that suddenly opens some doors.
Keep an eye on this one, guys. It is, as they say, a developing situation.
Uh, Roman Polak is at Camp and the Third Pairing Is Not Set
Okay, everyone. No need to panic. Yet. Yes, I know Polak is at training camp on a PTO. And yes, I know Babcock is susceptible to the occasional blind spot when it comes to hard-nosed veteran defenseman.
Babcock says Polak is an unbelievable man who does everything right. "We're happy to have him."
— James Mirtle (@mirtle) September 14, 2017
And yeah, actually, maybe you should worry a little. It’s entirely plausible that Polak comes away from training camp with a one-year contract, pushing someone like Travis Dermott below the cut. So that’s not ideal.
The Leafs have five defensemen that are more or less guaranteed to dress for the season opener barring some strange circumstances. Jake Gardiner, Morgan Rielly, Nikita Zaitsev, Ron Hainsey, and Connor Carrick are your locks for the roster. In a perfect world, Hainsey is anchoring your third pair while Carrick takes a step forward and plays with one of Gardiner or Rielly, but if we’re being honest, Hainsey will probably end up with Rielly, at least to start the season.
Competition for that final spot is going to be pretty fierce. I wouldn’t bet on Timothy Liljegren being ready, although I’d be thrilled if he proved me wrong. The guys that should really be pushing for that third pairing spot are Martin Marincin (reviews are mixed, but over Polak? Yes.), Polak (he’s… physical, at least), Dermott (YES, PLEASE), Calle Rosen (he’s coming off of a nice year in the SHL), and Andreas Borgman (ditto). Rosen and Borgman are pretty fascinating, as they’re both touted to be sound two-way players who are very strong skaters. There will be an adjustment period coming to the smaller ice surface, but there’s some potential there.
Who’s Going to Back Up Andersen?
Last season, Frederik Andersen made 66 starts. (The only goalie who made more was Cam Talbot in Edmonton.) The Leafs would probably like to lighten Andersen’s load a bit this year to help him stay healthy and keep him fresh for the playoffs. Unfortunately, the back-up goaltender position isn’t something you’d exactly call a strength for the Leafs.
As you can see from Ian Fleming’s excellent SAVE chart (seriously, he has a junior version now, it’s amazing), there’s a pretty significant gap between Andersen and Curtis McElhinney, who’s currently next in the depth chart.
Does that mean there’s an opportunity waiting to be seized for some of the guys in the Leafs’ pipeline? Probably, yes.
Now, whether you’re a Garret Sparks or a Kasimir Kaskisuo person, one of the storylines heading into camp is whether either of them can overtake McElhinney for that back-up spot. It remains to be seen, but hey — this isn’t “3 Storylines Resolved Heading Into Camp.”
Sparks and Kaskisuo are the same age, but Sparks is probably a bit further along in his development. While he’s struggled with some little injuries the past year or so, he put together a very solid season for the Marlies, and if anyone’s threatening for that back-up spot (and remember, he’d probably play around 20 games in the NHL), it’s Sparks.