The Toronto Maple Leafs are down to the 23 bodies that will attempt to get them back into the playoffs.
And, once again, this is a young, inexperienced group.
“We’re even a little bit younger, which is hard to believe given where we were last year,” Leafs GM Dave Nonis said of his club, which was tied as the second youngest team in the NHL last season.
Nonis confirmed on Friday that the team would be returning defenceman Morgan Rielly to junior and sending Matt Frattin and Tim Connolly to the minors to finalize the team’s roster.
Nonis made clear it was possible all three could be in a Leafs uniform down the road.
“Depending how far his junior team goes, there’s a chance you’ll see Morgan back here in Toronto,” he said of Rielly, before later adding: “We’re still very high on Matt Frattin. He’s going to be a good player in this league.”
Leafs coach Randy Carlyle explained that Rielly was in part a casualty of the lockout, as without a full camp and preseason, it was hard for a player that young to settle in and stand out.
“He didn’t do anything wrong,” Carlyle said. “With six days of training camp, taking 30 guys and picking an NHL team, it’s unfortunate for him that he didn’t get an opportunity to show us more in scrimmages and exhibition games. We just aren’t afforded that in these circumstances.
“We don’t want to put a player in a situation where he could possibly regress. That was our message to him: That he did nothing wrong. He has NHL quality skills. Does he need to work on some things? Sure he does.
“The next time you see him will probably be towards the end of this year. We have the right to bring him back, to the Marlies or here, and we said [to him] you’re going to see us very shortly again.”
The Leafs also designated defenceman Jake Gardiner (concussion) as a non-roster player until he is ready to return.
That leaves Toronto with 13 forwards, eight defencemen and two netminders in advance of Saturday’s season opener in Montreal.
Lupul - Bozak - Kessel
MacArthur - Grabovski - Kulemin
Van Riemsdyk - Kadri - Komarov
Orr - McClement - Brown
Phaneuf - Kostka
Gunnarsson - Komisarek
Liles - Franson
ex: Fraser - Holzer
Here’s a transcript of Nonis’s comments on Friday:
What are the key differences between this year’s team and last year’s team?
“We haven’t started playing yet so I can’t give you a great answer. We think the work ethic has been exceptional in the short camp and we’re going to have some new bodies in the lineup. We’re even a little bit younger, which is hard to believe given where we were last year.”
What went into your decision on Morgan Rielly?
“Morgan played pretty well in a short camp, but he wasn’t given any opportunity to play exhibition games. We need to get ready to play and it’s pretty tough to put an 18-year-old player in the lineup without actually getting to see him play against NHL competition. He’s had a good year. Depending how far his junior team goes, there’s a chance you’ll see Morgan back here in Toronto.”
Was there no fit for Matt Lombardi and Tim Connolly?
“At this point, we didn’t see a great fit for them. They’re both NHL players. Matthew, I gave him our word that if he wasn’t going to be playing a significant role here then we would look to move him. There were some teams that wanted him. We feel that we have some younger players that we could put in the lineup and that it was their time and they worked hard to get that opportunity. We needed to turn the page.
“At the same time, we felt it was the right thing to do for him and his family. He’s given a lot here even though he didn’t play a lot of games. What he went through to get back to the NHL, how hard he played to become a Leaf last year, it was the right thing to do.
“With Tim, it was nothing he did. He worked hard. He’s a good player. He’s got a tremendous amount of skill. But in our lineup and the way Randy wanted to play, we needed to make a tough decision on waivers and he cleared. So we’ll assign him to the Marlies, and there’s definitely a chance we’ll see him back here again.”
Did you look into trade options for him?
“Not at this point, no.”
How confident are you in your two young goaltenders?
“I told them both, and I talked to James again today, I think it’s a constant question for them and I know it’s a topic for people. So I talked to him today to give him the same answer.
"Do I like our goaltending in terms of quality and are they capable? The answer’s yes. Do we have a veteran presences, do we have experience? The answer’s no. That’s the concern that we have.
"We’re going to start the season with them. It’s up to them to play at an NHL calibre and our players have to play as hard as they can in front of them. If we can upgrade and get some more experience, we will. But not at the expense of moving some young players that we think would be very important moving forward.”
Do you feel this is a playoff roster or do you have to make changes to get it there?
“We’re going to continue to build the team as best we can, which means adding pieces that will help. There’s nothing we can do in terms of turning the roster over completely. That’s not going to happen. We’re happy with a lot of the players. We’re happy with the way they’ve come in and their commitment and we’re going to continue to add to the roster as we can whether it’s the odd free agent or making deals. But we need to continue to add pieces that will be there for a long time.”
What do you think of your defence as a whole? You’ve got a couple Marlies there and who aren’t that proven.
“Well, they’re not proven. They haven’t played a game. But when we started this camp, we told them that if you play well enough, you’re going to stay. That has to be the message to the players moving forward: If you’re going to play well enough, you’re going to play, regardless of your contract, regardless of how much money you make or how little money you make. We feel that’s been a big part of the competitive nature of camp so far. Our defence is not overly deep, but we’re going to have nine players who we think can play in the league.”
What happened with Frattin being sent down?
“Matt Frattin is an NHL player who’ll be playing in the AHL next week. That’s going to be up to him to change that. You have to give him credit; he’s coming off a pretty significant injury. He had a great start with the Marlies and he hit a bit of a wall and that’s kind of understandable for what he’s coming off of. We’re still very high on Matt Frattin. He’s going to be a good player in this league.”
Is this roster part of a plan set in place before you took over as GM or a bit of a rebuild?
“Well it’s giving people a chance. It’s really not much different than saying that. If you earn a chance and you put the time in, we can’t keep talking about giving young players an opportunity and never doing it. The coaches have the say as to who they want to play. I never went into the room and said 'Randy you have to put young players in the lineup.' But he’s embraced it. Randy’s happy with how the young guys have played.
"It also gives the players with the Marlies a little bit of hope. We have some good young players there, who are still in their second or third year of their entry level deals. When they see guys get an opportunity, they know that when we tell them if they play well enough, you’re going to be in the big leagues, that we’re not lying to them.”