Another year, another cast of Toronto Maple Leafs hopefuls.
Training camp opened on Wednesday morning at the team’s practice facility with a full slate of 59 invitees, with only defenceman Cody Franson not in attendance as he continues to negotiate a new contract.
Many of those on hand are destined for another season in the minors or junior leagues, but roughly 30 of these players have a legitimate shot to make what will be a 20- to 23-man NHL roster.
Here’s a closer look at where all 59 players fit in and where the most heated battles are likely to be:
Locks: 17 players
Forwards (11): Phil Kessel, Joffrey Lupul, David Clarkson, Dave Bolland, Tyler Bozak, Nazem Kadri, James Van Riemsdyk, Nikolai Kulemin, Jay McClement, Colton Orr, Frazer McLaren
Defencemen (4): Dion Phaneuf, Carl Gunnarsson, Cody Franson**, Jake Gardiner
Goal (2): Jonathan Bernier, James Reimer
Analysis: What the Leafs lineup will look like both up front and in goal is largely set already, with the only real battle at camp coming at either position likely going to be one for a third or fourth line spot on the wing and as a 13th forward.
The blueline, however, is much more up in the air, especially if Franson’s contract situation** drags into the start of the season and puts an extra spot into play.
If not, Franson’s new deal will eat up all of Toronto’s remaining cap space and leave GM Dave Nonis and coach Randy Carlyle with some tough decisions for their remaining defencemen, many of whom will require waivers to go to the AHL.
In for a battle: eight players
Forwards (4): Joe Colborne, Mason Raymond (tryout), Jerry D’Amigo, Trevor Smith,
Defencemen (4): Mark Fraser, Paul Ranger, John-Michael Liles, T.J. Brennan
Analysis: Colborne is as close to a lock as there is among the forwards, as he signed a one-way contract and would need waivers to go down. Consider him likely to take on the fourth-line centre spot, especially if McClement is bumped up to play a third-line wing role full time.
That leaves an opening for former Vancouver Canucks winger Raymond to claim the last forward spot and serve as a depth option who can move up the lineup if injuries hit anyone in the top six. His main challengers will be youngster D’Amigo, who has emerged as a solid penalty killer in the minors, and Smith, a veteran minor leaguer who has had solid production at the AHL level.
What happens with this group of veteran defenceman is the biggest question mark. Liles’s sizable contract makes him difficult to move and sending him to the minors brings only minimal cap relief, which may force tough decisions to be made on the likes of Fraser, Ranger and Brennan, all of whom are relatively cheap third pairing options.
If Franson re-signs and prospect Morgan Rielly makes a push to play some games at the NHL level, Nonis will need to clear out someone from this group.
Long shots: six players
Forwards (3): David Broll, Carter Ashton, Troy Bodie
Defencemen (3): Morgan Rielly, Petter Granberg, Korbinian Holzer
Analysis: Much of the NHL-ready talent that has been on the Toronto Marlies the past two seasons has already been promoted to the Leafs or shipped out of town, but there is an outside shot one of the above players pushes their way into the conversation to make the roster.
Rielly and Granberg are the most interesting stories here, as Rielly is too young to play in the AHL and must go to either junior or stay with the Leafs, and Granberg has played at the highest level in Sweden recently and could surprise.
Back to the AHL, ECHL, junior or released: 28 players
Forwards (15): Josh Leivo, Greg McKegg, Tyler Biggs, Brad Ross, Kenny Ryan, Sam Carrick, Frederik Gauthier, Spencer Abbott, Andrew Crescenzi, Jamie Devane, Connor Brown, Ryan Rupert, Matt Rupert, Carter Verhaeghe, Fabrice Herzog
Defencemen (9): Jesse Blacker, Stuart Percy, Andrew MacWilliam, Kevin Marshall, Dylan Yeo, Kevin Raine, Zach Yuen, Trevor Murphy, Matt Finn
Goal (4): Drew MacIntyre, Garret Sparks, Antoine Bibeau, Chris Gibson
Analysis: From the looks of this group, the Leafs farm club is going to be very young and very green, with new Marlies coach Steve Spott likely having his work cut out for him to shape them into a competitive AHL squad.
The good news is this group will be bolstered by whoever doesn’t make the Leafs, especially on the blueline, and MacIntyre should be able to cover for any lapses defensively given his surprisingly strong showing last season. If Bernier or Reimer are injured, expect him to fill the No. 3 role despite having just four games NHL experience at age 30.
Projected opening night lineup:
Van Riemsdyk – Bozak – Kessel
Lupul – Kadri – Clarkson
McClement – Bolland – Kulemin
Smith – Colborne – Orr
Gunnarsson – Phaneuf
Gardiner – Franson
Fraser – Ranger