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The signing of Mike Santorelli in the off-season has filled a lot of the openings up front created by all the losses in free agency (DARRYL DYCK/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
The signing of Mike Santorelli in the off-season has filled a lot of the openings up front created by all the losses in free agency (DARRYL DYCK/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Mirtle: Leafs betting on improvement from within after quiet off-season Add to ...

Last season, the buzz word coming from the Toronto Maple Leafs was “compete.”

As in, according to coach Randy Carlyle almost all year, they didn’t compete nearly enough.

This year, it appears the message will be similar, but different.

“A goal of ours was to leave some holes and create some competition,” team president Brendan Shanahan said of his team’s NHL roster last week at the Leafs development camp. “We want our young players, some of the guys that are out here at this camp, some of the guys that finished the year with the Marlies, to have job opportunities.

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“We want to have competition, we want to create that internal pressure and [the idea] that there are jobs to be had here.”

There are, but a lot of holes were also filled last week.

With the signings of Leo Komarov, Mike Santorelli, Petri Kontiola and Troy Bodie, and the trade for Matt Frattin, a lot of the openings up front created by all the losses in free agency are gone.

If you look at the projected roster, which I’ve outlined here by filling in some of the unsigned restricted free agents at estimated salaries, the competition for spots is more likely to come down to who plays on the second, third and fourth lines rather than who makes the team.

In theory, a young player can beat out another young player like Peter Holland or Carter Ashton for a spot on the roster, but what's more probable is taking a job from Bodie or Trevor Smith – two tweeners who will live somewhere between the Marlies and Leafs.

Otherwise, those 13-plus forwards look to be the group on the team, barring further signings or trades.

The good thing about what Toronto has up front now is they’ve got some options down the middle. Last year, when Joe Colborne was traded to Calgary after camp to give two roster spots to enforcers and Dave Bolland went down with injury early on, there wasn’t a backup plan, other than play Jay McClement until he dropped.

No wingers on the team could fill in at centre, and the Marlies were very thin at the position as well.

Next year’s team shouldn’t have that problem, even if finding a centre to take on the tough assignments will be, well, tough. Santorelli can play wing or centre, Komarov can, Kontiola can, and Holland will play down the middle, too.

The minutes that these players have to replace aren’t that substantial either. Losing Mason Raymond’s 45 points will hurt, and Nikolai Kulemin played well defensively, but most of the rest of the ice time was sub-replacement-level options.

Eight of the team’s 10 worst possession players, for example, likely won’t be back.

Having a fourth line that actually plays a regular shift and isn’t weighed down by a Colton Orr – as appears to be the plan, according to scuttlebutt from within the organization – could alone improve what the Leafs have up front.

But they’re also probably going to need a surprise showing from a Santorelli or a Holland to get enough offence from their depth players. There’s been considerable talk of late about integrating a lot of Marlies – which is positive – but it’s also a wild card in evaluating what this team is.

One of the key reasons Steve Spott was promoted from the AHL club was his familiarity with those young players, and he’ll be expected to be a counterbalance to Carlyle’s resistance to giving youth a chance on a regular basis.

“Last year, he got the most out of that [Marlies] team,” general manager Dave Nonis said. “Steve and his staff did a very good job of that.

“A lot of it was by developing players. If you watch how the Marlies played last year, it wasn’t just veterans carrying the ball. He used the young players all the time. He put them in different situations. He allowed some of those players to grow despite some of the mistakes that they were making.

“It is different at the NHL level, but not a lot different. We need our young players to have an impact. And the assistant coaches will have a major role in that.”

It’s not hard to see why they need youth to step up. Drafting and developing is really the only legitimate source for high end talent in the NHL these days, with free agency being as weak as it is every year, and Shanahan has instituted a franchise mandate that he doesn’t want to attempt to team build by signing UFAs.

“It’s a bad habit to try to build your team on July 1 year after year after year,” Shanahan said. “It’s not always a great day.”

“He made it crystal clear to the people in the room [at a dinner for the team’s prospect camp last week] that some of these kids are going to be vital pieces going forward,” said Jim Hughes, the Leafs director of player development. “We want to develop from within and build our own players and have our own foundation.”

That tied the Leafs hands in some ways, good and bad. Nonis wasn’t able to make a David Clarkson level error again – although there was an attempt to overpay Dave Bolland, as they offered only a few million less than what he got from Florida – but he also wasn’t able to dramatically improve the roster.

Overall, the team’s moderate makeover on the blueline – with Carl Gunnarsson, Tim Gleason and Paul Ranger out and Stephane Robidas, Roman Polak and an undetermined young defenceman (with Petter Granberg getting a lot of love lately from management) in – will be the biggest change, followed by the alterations to the coaching staff and the new depth forwards.

More moves could also come, with trades involving the team’s two arbitration cases, Cody Franson (likely) and James Reimer (less so, given the market), still possible.

Generally speaking, though, this is what the Leafs will be, and if it looks awfully similar to last year’s group, that’s because it is. Where they’re going to have to hope they’re better is in changes in philosophy more than anything.

The system they play has to change, and they’ve said it will.

They’ve also said they’re going to give young players more of a chance and start building around what they develop.

And they enter camp with a lot of cap space if something arises, which is a stark contrast from a year ago when financial headaches were the norm.

If you’re looking for positives, those are three out of this off-season right there. And they’ll need to go a long way for the Leafs to make a climb up the standings.

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