The only thing predictable about the Maple Leafs opening roster is how unpredictable it will be.
Since the off-season began, Leafs Nation has been drawing up their version of what the Leafs roster will look like. I’m yet to see two of the same roster projections, which is a telling tale as to how difficult it is to pencil in who will wear the brand new Leafs sweater as we enter the centennial season.
Certainly there will be the odd pre-season stand out who earns a spot, or the inevitable injury early on (*cough* Lupul *cough*). But overall we can narrow down who stays and who goes based on contract status.
The buyout window has come and gone, and the only move was the struggle to axe Jared Cowen – no surprise there. However management passed on the opportunity to buyout potential candidates such as Milan Michalek, Brooks Laich, and/or Joffrey Lupul. I assume the plan is to naturally allow these contracts to expire with the expectation to use their leadership when/if they aren’t occupying time on the injury reserve. Nonetheless, there is no magic wand to vanish these contracts, so I assume they will suit up come October.
As the youth movement continues, the roster will showcase an abundance of young players from top to bottom. It’s a foregone conclusion that Auston Matthews, William Nylander, Mitch Marner and Nikita Soshnikov will all crack the lineup on opening night. These 4 guys are really the only “rookies” that I would bet money on playing with the big club from start to finish.
That currently brings our total up to 7 forwards who all have a legitimate case to assume will have a spot on the 23 man roster. In addition, the obvious players like James Van Riemsdyk, Nazem Kadri, Leo Komarov, Tyler Bozak, Matt Martin, and Peter Holland have NHL contracts to fill out the core 13 forwards.
However, this is where the log jam begins. Zach Hyman was a Babcock favourite from the moment he was called up. In previous interviews with Mr. Babcock, he has said in regards to Hyman, “He’s here to stay.” If the coach has anything to say about it, I definitely see Hyman sticking around.
Speaking of Babcock favourites, the forgotten Byron Froese – who is signed for 1 more year – was playing decent minutes (not to my liking, however) when healthy. And the same can be said about Colin Greening, a player who came over via trade and earned his place in the lineup every night. Both guys would have to clear waivers to be sent down, maybe an option as the season approaches.
In another group of players I call, “Finished with the AHL”, we have Josh Leivo and Connor Brown. Both guys could put away the Marlies jerseys for good and become full time NHLers. Especially Leivo, who would have to pass through waivers to even go back to the AHL. However given the log jam we have at the forward position, I really don’t see how either of these two will begin the season on the Maple Leafs, unfortunately.
In regards to the Marlies, I see a hand full of players who will likely start with the baby club, despite either having prior experience up with the Leafs, or the potential to make the jump as early as October if given the chance. That list consists of Kerby Rychel, Kasperi Kapanen, Tobias Lindberg, Frederik Gauthier, Andreas Johnson and Brendan Leipsic, just to name a few. It would be a long shot to project these young men as NHL players at this time.
In my estimation, assuming all significant moves are finished, no more buyouts, no more signings, and this is who we have to work with, I predict the forward roster will shape up to look like:
JVR – Bozak – Marner
Soshnikov – Kadri – Komarov
Lupul – Matthews – Nylander
Martin – Holland – Hyman
Extra: Michalek, Laich
Sent down/waived: Leivo, Brown, Greening, Froese
Actual lines may vary, overall I combined previous lines, previous duos, and hints from Babcock as to who will play along each other.
The defensive group, in my opinion, is a lot less of a log jam. I guess that could be a reflection of how thin we are on the back end, however with a young group being taught by Mike Babcock, they could evolve into much more than people give them credit for.
Heading into the season, our D core remains the most untouched from last year. Led by Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner, returning with new contracts are Connor Carrick, Martin Marincin, Roman Polak, Frank Corrado, and newly acquired Nikita Zaitsev. In addition, still under contract is another Babcock go-to, Matt Hunwick.
The pipeline isn’t as intriguing as our forward group, but looking to make their name in the NHL is Victor Loov and Rinat Valiev – both of which saw time with the Leafs last year. A bit more of a stretch would include Travis Dermott and Andrew Nielsen, although to see either of these two as anything more than a brief call up would be a shot in the dark.
By my count, there is a total of 8 NHL defensemen fighting for 6 or 7 spots. One would assume somebody will be put on waivers and sent down, and I believe that person will be Frank Corrado. Connor Carrick showed he is above the AHL, and is primed to enter a full time NHL career. As I said above, Matt Hunwick is highly liked by Babcock, and everyone else is already proven NHLers (we’ll include Zaitsev as a sure thing to start in the big leagues), so the odd man out is likely Frankie.
My line projections are:
Rielly – Marincin
Gardiner – Zaitsev
Carrick – Polak
Sent down/waived: Corrado, Loov, Valiev
Lastly, I see absolutely no log jam in the goaltending position. With a fresh duo between the pipes of Frederik Andersen and Jhonas Enroth, it seems as though Garret Sparks and Antoine Bibeau will be back to splitting time for the Marlies. It’s a breathe of fresh air and a sigh of relief to no longer go back and forth between a “1A and 1B” scenario.
The Leafs 100th season is just weeks away from being underway – with a beautiful brand new jersey to kick it all off, your guess is as good as mine as to who will wear it from start to finish. That being said, with the expectation set on low, win or lose it should be highly entertaining watching the “Shanaplan” take shape.