September 4, 2017, 3:12 PM ET [124 Comments]
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One happy byproduct of the Toronto Maple Leafs success last season is that with free agent additions over the summer and a bevy of young players within the organization, the battle for spots on the 23-man roster will be limited to support roles and depth positions.
With veteran Dominic Moore replacing the departed Brian Boyle, the Leafs are good down the middle for 2017-18, with Auston Matthews, Nazem Kadri and Tyler Bozak and Moore occupying the four center spots.
The goaltending tandem of Frederik Andersen and Curtis McElhinney appears to be etched in stone to start of the season and the only chance of that changing during the year would be due to injury or if head coach Mike Babcock loses confidence in the veteran backup, as he did with Jhonas Enroth last season.
The two areas where there will be some uncertainty are at wing and on defense, The battles are for third/fourth line and bottom pairing spots, but that does not make who wins those jobs less consequential.
Barring a trade before the start of the regular season, seven of the eight starting spots on the wing are locks. Newcomer Patrick Marleau, James van Riemsdyk, Leo Komarov, Zach Hyman, William Nylander, Mitch Marner and Connor Brown will be in the opening night lineup against Winnipeg next month.
Kasperi Kapanen, Matt Martin, Nikita Soshnikov, Josh Leivo, Eric Fehr and possibly former KHLer Miro Altonen are in the mix for one starting job and up to two extra spots.
Based on his performance in the playoffs against Washington, Kapanen has a good chance of making the Leafs, but that depends on how large a role Babcock gives the 20-year-old winger. If his responsibilities are limited to 8 to 10 minutes of fourth line duty and the odd shift as a penalty killer, then playing a primary role with the AHL Toronto Marlies may be a preferable option for his long term development.
Martin is thought of by many observers as someone who takes up a spot that could be used to greater benefit by a player with more speed or scoring ability, but that is not the opinion of Babcock and the Leafs decision makers.
The big winger led the Leafs in hits and fighting majors last season and represents the only deterrent to the opposition taking liberties with some of the club’s young skilled core group, which means that Babcock will find a way to have Martin in the lineup most nights.
With the addition of Marleau, that could mean that Hyman could shift to the right side.
Soshnikov plays a fiesty, energetic game that fits perfectly in a fourth line role, but durability is becoming a question mark for the 23-year-old, who missed the last three weeks of the regular season and playoffs with an upper body injury. With his waiver exemption still in place, Soshnikov could benefit from starting the season with the Marlies and being an option if injuries strike.
The same cannot be said for Leivo, who remained on the Leafs roster all last season because he would have been claimed had Toronto tried to sneak him through waivers. The fact that the Leafs protected him in the expansion draft shows that he has value (either to them or other NHL clubs).
With a $612,500 salary for next season and the ability to step in and be effective in a scoring role, Leivo is the perfect extra forward.
Both Fehr and Altonen have the versatility to play both center and wing, but their presence on the roster could be contingent on whether the Leafs want to carry 22 players and conserve cap space or the full 23-man roster.
Fehr suffered a hand inury in his first game with Toronto after being acquired from Pittsburgh at the trade deadline. The 30-year-old forward has a $2 Million cap hit for next season, which means the odds are slim that he would be claimed if the Leafs decided to send him down to the AHL.
Having a veteran like Fehr available would provide the Leafs with valuable insurance, but they could open up over $1 Million in cap space by burying him with the Marlies and calling him up as needed. Altonen was signed to a one-year entry-level contract and can go up and down from the minors without any concern of waivers.