Toronto Maple Leafs coach Randy Carlyle called it his most difficult decision coming out of training camp.
Should he start James Reimer or Ben Scrivens in goal?
In reality, Carlyle has had a whole series of similar dilemmas this past week, needing to make tough calls on all areas of his lineup to prepare for Saturday’s season opener in Montreal.
Here’s a look at some of the still unresolved questions as the Leafs approach Friday’s 5 p.m., 23-man roster deadline:
Should they keep Morgan Rielly?
The 18-year-old Moose Jaw Warriors defencemen has had good and bad days at Leafs camp, but up until Thursday’s practice, it appeared Carlyle was leaning toward giving him five games in the NHL to get his feet wet.
The only issue is, if they do, someone else on the blueline may have to clear waivers, while Rielly can return to junior any time without being lost to another team.
If they do choose to keep him, Rielly could skate alongside captain Dion Phaneuf, holding a spot on the left side until Jake Gardiner returns from a concussion. If they don’t keep him, it’s good news for the other depth defencemen Toronto has in camp.
I say give him the five games to see where he is in his development and get prepared to play in the NHL next season full time.
Should they carry 14 forwards and seven defencemen or 13 forwards and eight defencemen?
Dumping Tim Connolly and Matt Lombardi opened a lot of holes up front, meaning it’s now much more likely they carry only 13 forwards instead of the usual 14. That will allow Carlyle to keep eight of the nine defencemen currently in camp, with either Rielly or one of the Marlies blueliners on the way out.
If Rielly stays, Carlyle’s choices are between Mike Kostka, Korbinian Holzer and Mark Fraser, all of whom have either impressed in camp or are high on the organization’s radar. They like Kostka because he’s been one of the best defencemen in the AHL this season; they like Holzer because they feel he has a future in the organization and can develop further. And they really like Fraser because of his size and toughness, something lacking on this team if Mike Komisarek isn’t ready for a full-time role.
Expect Carlyle to keep eight defencemen, if only because Gardiner’s status is unknown and if Rielly stays, it’ll only be temporary.
Do Nazem Kadri and Matt Frattin both make the team?
Again, here the absence of Connolly and Lombardi really helps two young players. But if they keep only 13 forwards and want their checkers, it’s likely one gets the axe, if only because neither player requires waivers to go up and down.
And given Kadri received high praise from Carlyle on Thursday, Frattin would seem to be in danger of starting the NHL season back in the minors.
Do they really need someone like Colton Orr?
No. But it’s clear from the lineup in camp that Carlyle believes they do, as Orr skated on a regular fourth line, often with Jay McClement.
It looks like he’ll make the team, even if it’s just as a 13th forward who plays when they need a puncher. Not that any team ever really does.
And, finally, who should start in goal?
Here’s why this is such a tough decision: Your nominal No. 1, Reimer, hasn’t started a hockey game in roughly 10 months. And the backup is in mid-season form and on a hot streak in the AHL.
Scrivens looks more ready in camp and deserves to start in the very near future, but here’s betting Carlyle attempts to get Reimer going by starting him on Saturday. Montreal is an easier opponent than Buffalo (who they face Monday) or Pittsburgh (Wednesday) anyway.
Although expect Scrivens gets the nod in at least one of those first three games.
Considering all that, what follows is a best guess at how the Leafs roster will shakeout to start the year:
Lupul - Bozak - Kessel
MacArthur - Grabovski - Kulemin
Van Riemsdyk - Kadri - Komarov
Steckel - McClement - Brown
Gunnarsson - Phaneuf
Liles - Franson
Kostka - Komisarek
ex: Fraser - Holzer
Sent down on Friday: Frattin, Rielly