When the Toronto Marlies and Grand Rapids Griffins open the AHL season next week, the rosters should look similar to the ones the Maple Leafs and Detroit Red Wings put on the ice Saturday night at Air Canada Centre.
This was an NHL preseason game, the finale for both teams, but it wasn’t much of a dress rehearsal for the regular season. Two dozen players expected to start in the minor leagues helped decide the Leafs’ 3-1 win.
Watch: Leafs beat Red Wings 3-1 in preseason action
One of those players was Toronto defenceman John-Michael Liles, who scored on the power play in the second period and picked up a primary assist in the third. Waivers could await the 32-year-old, who’s likely on the outside of the Leafs’ picture on the blue line.
“We’ve got a lot of depth on the blue line, a lot of really good players — good, young players, as well,” Liles said. “It’s never easy. There hasn’t been a camp in my NHL career where it’s your position set in stone. It just makes it even tougher when you’ve got kids pushing you. You’ve got some great, young blue-liners in this organization, and they should be proud of the camp they had.”
Liles has a $3.875-million salary-cap hit, and his contract has two years left on it after this one. The Leafs have Dion Phaneuf, Carl Gunnarsson, Jake Gardiner, Mark Fraser, Paul Ranger and the recently signed Cody Franson ahead of him, and that’s not even counting prospect Morgan Rielly.
Rielly’s status remains in question, and the Leafs must decide whether to keep the 19-year-old around for at least a nine-game cameo or send him back to Moose Jaw of the WHL. He was satisfied at how he acquitted himself during the preseason, but coach Randy Carlyle wasn’t revealing much when asked about Rielly’s chances of playing in the NHL right now.
“I think Morgan Rielly’s very close,” Carlyle said. “To say that, unequivocally, he’s ready to play in the NHL is a tough question to ask and a tougher question to answer at this point. We know he’s played very well for our hockey club, he’s a talented young man and he’s only going to get better. Those are the tough decisions that you’re faced with.”
Carlyle also mentioned the idea of tough decisions when asked Saturday to review Liles’ play in his previous two preseason games. Liles was largely a nonfactor with a plus-2 rating in those games.
Toronto is over the cap ceiling and the roster the team submits Monday at 5 p.m. is expected to have fewer than 23 players. Right-winger David Clarkson’s 10-game suspension complicates the situation in general, but it’s likely not something that factors in with Liles.
Instead, he very well could be on the bad end of a numbers game. If nothing else, Liles may have used an afterthought of a preseason game to show another team why he deserves a chance to stick around in the NHL.
“I think every time you step on the ice you’re trying to build toward something,” Liles said. “For me, this is my third preseason game, you’re trying to build toward the regular season. I don’t necessarily think it was a conscious thing to say, ‘I need to go out there and assert myself.’ I think you’re trying to build and prepare for the regular season, and that’s all you can do as a player. I’m no different than any other guy.”
Liles’ performance probably won’t make enough of a difference within the Leafs’ organization, but in the long term forward Josh Leivo made a nice impression. The 2011 third-round pick who is about to embark on his first professional season scored twice Saturday and was the first star of the game on national television.
“I slid under the radar my whole life, so I think today was a pretty big game for me, and hopefully I can keep it going,” Leivo said.
Leivo’s first goal, a deflection that was “a little bit of luck and a little bit of skill,” was made possible by Franson’s shot from the point. Unlike Liles, Franson knows he will be around Tuesday when the season opens at Montreal. But that was a late-camp development after the 26-year-old signed a one-year, $2-million deal Thursday.
Goaltender James Reimer’s spot in the opening-night lineup isn’t so secure even after a strong preseason that wrapped up with 24 saves on 25 shots against a Red Wings team that dressed one over the minimum amount of veterans required for preseason games. Competing with Jonathan Bernier for playing time, Reimer finished the exhibition season with a .923 save percentage.
“I tried to prove myself every day in practice and preparing myself and taking care of myself off the ice,” Reimer said. “I feel like I’ve done the best that I can, and now it’s up to Randy.”
Carlyle already said Reimer and Bernier would split the regular season’s first two games. Who starts the season opener “probably’s going to be the toughest decision,” the Leafs’ coach said.
“Those are good decisions,” he said. “It’s tough on coaches and tough on management to pick one guy when both have played well. But the underlying fact is it’s a great decision because we have 1A and 1B quality goaltenders. Both guys can start.”