Though much of the Toronto Maple Leafs’ core is established, there are some holes around the bottom of the lineup that will need to be filled. Some of these battles are between players on the bubble who are vying for roster spots, while some are between those who already have spots but will be battling for ice-time.
Not included in this list is the fourth-line centre spot. Some may argue Frederik Gauthier could challenge for a spot, but all signs point to Pär Lindholm at least starting the year in the role. So here are the exciting ones instead.
Third-Pair Right-Side: Connor Carrick/Justin Holl/Igor Ozhiganov
Connor Carrick has a spot on the Leafs. It’s just a matter of how much playing time he’s going to get. He’s fairly undersized for a third-pair defenceman and his style of play would typically fit more into a top-four role; however, he’s not quite at the level needed to play big minutes.
That being said, last year he showed more upside, despite splitting time with Roman Polak. I think the move with Carrick is to wait and see if at any point he could be a top-four defenceman.
It’s not very likely but if Carrick continued to improve and made more adjustments to his game, it’s always possible. According to TSN, when speaking about Carrick, Mike Babcock said “no one works harder at trying to get better every day.”
He’s not an easy player to play against and he can throw some big hits, but with Carrick, it’s likely eventual top-four or bust rather than a perennial third-pair defenceman.
How could the Leafs not open up a spot for a goal-per-game defenceman?
Many wondered how Holl would do if he got a chance to play some games in the NHL. He played great. Though Holl’s two-game goal streak will by no means solidify him a spot on the team, at 6’3” and 205 lbs, Holl would add more size to Toronto’s defence core. Holl would slot in great as a third-pair defenceman and just imagine a Travis Dermott-Justin Holl pairing.
There’s nothing left for Holl to do in the AHL and at 26 years old he’s really not getting any younger. One major positive sign for Holl supporters is that he’s been practicing with the main Leafs group during unofficial practices, while other hopefuls like Calle Rosen and Andreas Borgman have been practicing with the Marlies group, according to Sportsnet’s Luke Fox.
Ozhiganov is a bit of a wildcard because not many North American hockey fans have seen him play. Simply reading off his profile on eliteprospects.com and watching highlight videos rather than pretending that I’ve been following him his whole career, he’s a big body at 6’2” and 207 lbs and isn’t afraid to be physical. Stats would point to him being fairly reliable defensively as well– in his last three seasons with CSKA Moscow, he holds an impressive plus-45 rating. He’s added 47 points across 142 games in that time.
Ozhiganov’s style as a big, fairly physical player could be a great fit on Toronto’s third pair. An ongoing criticism for the team is having a weak defence core and adding size and experience could help.
I would love to see Justin Holl get a chance in the NHL and at some point during the season, but Carrick has made the team and there’s a great chance they want to get a good look at Igor Ozhiganov. Though Carrick was a playoff scratch, he did show more of an offensive upside last season and considering he was signed to a $1.3 million deal, it seems like his spot is safe. If throughout the season Carrick isn’t showing any more offensive upside than last year, maybe a change is made. But for now, his spot on the roster is safe.
Ozhiganov may have the edge over Holl, because similar to what was done with Andreas Borgman and Calle Rosen last year, coaches and management likely want to get a sense of how he can play before making any decisions. Ozhiganov is also older and though this is pure speculation, a player going on 26 years old may have less patience to make an NHL roster, compared to 22-year-old Borgman or a 23-year-old Rosen last year. Mike Babcock and Kyle Dubas will probably want to see what they have in him before making any decisions that could lead to Ozhiganov simply returning to Russia.
That being said, one big factor here is that Ozhiganov is waiver-exempt. This means that the only way the Leafs could be completely secure about keeping all three defencemen in the system is if Ozhiganov started the season in the AHL and Carrick and Holl started on the main roster.
This is assuming the team starts the year with seven defencemen and 14 forwards. The reason this is the likely scenario is because either Ennis or Leivo will occupy the 13th forward spot, while Josh Jooris was likely signed to be on the roster but not actually getting any ice time. Using Jooris as the 14th forward means a younger player can develop in the minors rather than being scratched every night to open the year.
It’s less likely that the team would go with 13 forwards and put all three of the defencemen on the roster because five of six defence spots are secured. This means the three defencemen would either be rotating to play every third game, which is a little nonsensical, or two players with genuine main roster potential are sitting out every game.
Obviously the reality is that whoever makes the team will have to earn their spot through training camp and exhibition games. But as a prediction, Carrick is a lock for a spot and I’d bet that if waiver-exempt roles were reversed, Holl would more than likely be the one sent down with Ozhiganov taking the last defence spot. But because there’s at least a semi-decent chance Holl would be claimed, I think Holl will finally get his shot in the NHL and Ozhiganov will start the season with the Marlies. That being said, don’t expect Ozhiganov to be in the AHL for long, one way or another.
Backup Goalie: Curtis McElhinney/Garret Sparks
Curtis McElhinney has exceeded any sort of expectations that could have been set for him once Toronto claimed him off waivers at the beginning of 2017. McElhinney is coming off an incredible season that saw him go 11-5-1 coupled with a .934 save percentage. He stole a few games for the Leafs and was a hero in the second half of back-to-back games. He’s been a perfect backup goalie.
But McElhinney is 35 years old. He isn’t going to be around for many years to come and isn’t ever going to be a starter and this could be a great opportunity to take a look at someone who could be one day.
Garret Sparks has done all that he can in the AHL. He was voted as goaltender of the year last season after going 31-9-1 with an incredible .936 save percentage and 1.79 goals against average. He was crucial in leading the Toronto Marlies to their Calder Cup win. Sparks has said that he expects to be in the NHL this season and he’s right. He needs his chance in the NHL.
His 17-game stint two years ago wasn’t excellent by any means but that was with the Leafs team that was tanking to get Auston Matthews, not the one that just added John Tavares. Sparks is a full decade younger than McElhinney and it’s time to see what kind of an impact Sparks can have.
There’s an article on the site that goes more in depth on the McElhinney/Sparks debate (shameless advertising), but long story short, Sparks needs his chance. Surely nobody feels good about pushing out McElhinney especially considering how consistent he’s been and how he’s owned his role and done an incredible job with it.
But if Sparks doesn’t get his chance here, he’s going to ask to get it somewhere else and the Leafs would lose a potentially great asset and get 10 cents on the dollar in return. Sparks has developed extremely well and he’s exactly the type of goalie teams hope to get when they drafted someone out of junior hockey. Who knows, maybe he won’t turn out as expected, but he should be given the chance to show us one way or another.
For those worrying about losing McElhinney, a proven, reliable backup, it’s important to keep in mind that Calvin Pickard, a former NHL starter (result of an injury, but it still counts), is waiting in line. Should Sparks have a rough stint in the NHL, Pickard could always be brought up and would do a great job in the role as well. The most likely scenario, provided that Sparks performs well in camp, is that Sparks does get his chance and McElhinney is placed on waivers.
Fourth-Line Left Wing: Tyler Ennis/Josh Leivo
Tyler Ennis was kind of an out-of-nowhere signing, but one that could prove to be an incredibly smart one. Making well under $1 million, Ennis is a few years past the peak of his career, but through most of his time with Buffalo, he averaged over 40 points per season (or was on pace to). Even with Minnesota last year, he contributed 22 points in 73 games, which wouldn’t be bad at all if he delivered those stats playing on Toronto’s fourth-line.
With James van Riemsdyk gone, there is a bit of a hole among left wingers on the Maple Leafs. That being said, Zach Hyman and Patrick Marleau are both already penciled in to play in the top-six and Andreas Johnsson is just about locked in the third-line left wing spot. This means Ennis would almost surely be placed on the fourth-line, but he doesn’t necessarily suit the style of play to fill that role. At 5’9” and just 161 lbs, Ennis is fast but can’t necessarily add any physicality to the bottom-line. Not saying physicality is necessary, however Ennis’ style of play makes him a much better fit in the top-nine, but he likely won’t get a shot there due to Toronto’s forward depth.
Part of me just really wants Leivo to finally get a legitimate chance. Leivo has been strung along as a 13th forward for two full years now but that’s just not where he belongs. What’s wild is that we’ve now seen Leivo play in parts of five seasons now but still don’t really have any idea of what his full potential is.
He’s 6’2” and 210 lbs and seems like he’d be a perfect fit on the fourth line. He adds energy and physicality every time he’s on the ice and a Josh Leivo-Pär Lindholm-Connor Brown fourth-line would look incredible.
Leivo has a wicked shot and when he does get to play he’s even spent time on the power play. Considering much of the last two years have been spent filling in a bottom-six role, Leivo producing 14 points in those 29 games is pretty impressive as well.
Both Ennis and Leivo will end up on the roster, it’s just a matter of who’s playing and who’s in the press box. I’d love to see Mike Babcock do something similar to the rotation he did with Dominic Moore and Eric Fehr as well as Andreas Borgman and Calle Rosen last year. Have Ennis and Leivo split the first ten games of the season and see who pulls out ahead. In my opinion, Ennis is a real x-factor because if he was able to get back to his 40+ point form from his years in Buffalo, he could add a lot of skill to an already stacked forward group. However for me, Leivo’s style of play is a much better fit for a fourth-line.
Another reason as to why Leivo may make more sense is due to the different stages in career. Tyler Ennis will be 29 years old and is looking to revive his NHL career. Chances are if he actually got back to form, he could be positioned for a better contract in free agency next summer and Toronto wouldn’t get anything for him. With Leivo, he’s just 25 years old and will still be restricted. This relates a bit to Toronto’s cap situation. While signing John Tavares won’t stop the Leafs from holding on to the likes of Mitch Marner or William Nylander, it will affect many bottom-six forwards getting any sort of better contract. The truth is, if either player performed well enough to deserve even a decent raise in salary, Toronto wouldn’t be able to afford them. So if Leivo’s stock rose rather than Ennis having his stock rise, the Leafs may be able to get a solid pick back for him whereas Ennis would walk. Is this looking too far into the future? Absolutely. But it’s something worth keeping in the back of the mind. As for who gets the spot, the most likely possibility is just to see who performs better in the first few games of the season and go from there.
Maple Leafs training camp will begin Sept. 14 in Niagara Falls at the Gale Centre Arena.