The 2023 NHL pre-season is (mercifully) winding down as roster cut-down day inches nearer on the horizon.
Earlier than Monday at 5 p.m. ET, groups throughout the league will likely be pressured into making some tough selections as they try to lock of their opening-night rosters whereas remaining – or, for some, changing into – cap compliant. That features the Toronto Maple Leafs, who boast the lethal mixture of getting only a few open roster spots, a metric ton of gamers vying for them, and, fairly actually, a detrimental quantity of cap house by which they will match.
That is what we name drama, child. So, let’s check out the place every hopeful ranks on the roster bubble earlier than it formally pops when the puck drops on the brand new season.
1. Noah Gregor, C/RW
If the Maple Leafs weren’t hydraulicly pressed up in opposition to the cap heading into this season, Gregor would have already got an NHL contract. The 25-year-old has finished nothing however impress as a new-age fourth-liner since becoming a member of the Leafs in camp on a PTO, showcasing his pace and tenacity on the push and within the forecheck all through his six pre-season video games for the membership to this point.
Gregor’s palms nonetheless have not fairly caught as much as his fleet toes, which held him again in San Jose, however he is surprisingly developed some nice early chemistry with David Kampf and Ryan Reaves whereas persistently placing himself able to attain regardless of restricted utilization. Whereas a few of Toronto’s youthful prospects have increased ceilings, Gregor is undoubtedly extra fitted to the fourth line’s open wing spot, and his capability to fill it at heart in spot obligation offers him the flexibility coaches crave when filling out their backside six.
As soon as the cap mud settles, anticipate Gregor to signal on the dotted line.
2. Fraser Minten, C
There is a purpose why the Maple Leafs have saved Minten at camp lengthy after his fellow CHL cohorts had been returned to main junior. There is a purpose why he was included on the crew’s annual Gravenhurst journey when prospects like Easton Cowan weren’t. There is a purpose why he centered the third line throughout the membership’s full-squad apply. And there is a purpose why he was given the nod to play of their ultimate residence pre-season recreation on Thursday evening with what was principally the opening evening roster.
Minten would possibly really make the crew. Keefe himself even mentioned so. And, frankly, he is earned it.
This was not the plan. Minten was named captain of the Kamloops Blazers forward of this season and was anticipated to return to the membership in a premier position for the primary time in his younger profession. A nine-game tryout within the NHL appeared as unlikely because the Toronto Blue Jays making competent pitching selections in a playoff recreation. However Minten has pushed the not possible proper as much as the brink of chance as roster cuts loom, incomes a professional nod because of his remarkably pro-ready recreation that’s anchored by an intense forecheck, deft stick and consciousness that’s nicely past his years.
Minten and Matthew Knies have developed unbelievable chemistry collectively all through the pre-season, hemming opponents within the offensive zone and creating scoring probabilities out of nothing. It is not simply that Minten has performed nicely. He is complemented the sport of these round him, thereby thrusting himself right into a lineup dialogue that he actually wasn’t part of when camp opened.
“His management qualities are what actually stand out, after which when he will get on the ice, he competes, he’s in the suitable spots, and he could make a play,” mentioned Keefe of Minten following the Leafs’ 3-1 victory over the Canadiens on Sept. 30.
“He is a good participant. We had been enthusiastic about him once we received him within the draft, however from what I’ve seen of his growth from final 12 months till now, it has been outstanding.”
3. Sam Lafferty, RW/C/LW
Lafferty is an NHL expertise with nice pace and the flexibility to play all three ahead positions, which makes him priceless to a blender-friendly coach like Keefe. He’ll nearly definitely make the crew out of camp, seemingly in a third- or fourth-line position, and be a serviceable power grinder all through an 82-game season that necessitates them.
That’s if Minten would not make the crew.
As soon as once more, the Maple Leafs’ lack of cap flexibility goes to be the tie-breaker for lots of their roster bubble selections, and Lafferty’s $1.15-million cap hit is not doing him any favors.
4. Nick Robertson, LW
It is not possible to not root for Robertson, a 22-year-old who has overcome the chances at each stage of his profession and is as soon as once more knocking on the door of an NHL job.
His pre-season hasn’t been dangerous, per se. Robertson has demonstrated what would possibly give him the sting in a possible tiebreak for a roster spot – particularly, his shot and unstoppable motor. Robertson undoubtedly has probably the most deadly shot within the group and has proven flashes of the expertise that earned him a spot within the bubble again in 2020. However it simply hasn’t been constant. And, frankly, you’ll be able to’t blame a child who hasn’t performed hockey in 10 months for being a bit rusty.
As irritating because it is perhaps for the child, beginning Robertson with the Marlies and letting him regain his confidence by taking pictures holes via the pads of AHL-caliber goalies is perhaps the perfect factor for his long-term outlook. And on condition that he would not require waivers to make that occur, it looks like a foregone conclusion.
5. Bobby McMann, LW
With a full coaching camp, McMann would have very seemingly been a shoo-in for a fourth-line winger job because of his dimension, outstanding AHL season in 2022-23, and mere $762,500 cap hit that ought to be simpler than most to squeeze underneath the cap ceiling.
Alas, that has not been the case, because the 27-year-old entered camp on the shelf with an damage stemming from final season and, even after resuming skating in direction of the top of the pre-season, didn’t get right into a recreation. Whereas all the opposite hopefuls round him had been in a position to assist or harm their respective circumstances with tangible recreation motion, McMann was caught in impartial. Provided that the story of the pre-season has been the variety of gamers who elevated themselves into roster competition, that is not an important final result.
Nonetheless, McMann appears to suit exactly what the Leafs try to do with their fourth line, bringing dimension, tenacity and a contact of scoring prowess that might transfer the needle in opposition to lesser competitors. His manufacturing within the AHL over the previous 12 months suggests there’s little left for him to be taught at that degree, as nicely. The celebs actually had been aligned for him to make the bounce.
The excellent news for McMann is he wants waivers to go again to the Marlies, which could shield him from a demotion, on condition that Robertson and Holmberg do not. However when who could be greatest for the roster proper now, it is robust to position him above both identify.
6. Pontus Holmberg, C/LW
Holmberg has had an important camp, persevering with the promising play from his early-season audition with the Leafs in 2022-23 that made a scout sitting subsequent to me within the press field evaluate him to Bob Gainey.
I’m not making that up. It actually occurred. Observe your desires, children.
The draw back right here is that Holmberg would not essentially carry a ability set that elevates him from the pack. He isn’t an elite shooter like Robertson. His pace is not on Gregor’s degree. He would not have McMann’s dimension. And he isn’t fairly as efficient on the forecheck as Minten. Add in a dose of waiver exemption, and he is beginning the 12 months on the farm.
1. Simon Benoit, LD
Earlier than you freak out, that is solely resulting from his NHL pedigree.
Benoit has had a tough pre-season. Between Thursday’s penalty hat trick with the principle squad and a few horrendous puck administration on Saturday with the understudies, Benoit has not put himself in a great place together with his play.
However that is the NHL. And Benoit has what GMs love: dimension, expertise and dimension.
He is kind of this 12 months’s model of Jordie Benn, a participant greatest fitted to the AHL who can, on the very least, not give away the entire recreation if given sheltered minutes on the third pair when accidents crop up.
2. Conor Timmins, RD (Injured)
This one was an actual kick within the shins.
Timmins was main the complete NHL in pre-season scoring previous to his damage final week, and after years of stops and begins in his NHL journey, he actually appeared on the cusp of incomes an actual spot.
I’ve all the time been increased on Timmins than most, because of (boomer alert) his dimension and offensive instincts. He isn’t a bodily participant by any means, however Timmins is a puck-moving right-shot defenseman who can use his physique to create house for himself and all the time appears to supply on the NHL and AHL ranges every time given constant taking part in time.
This pre-season, Timmins demonstrated a poise that hadn’t been seen from him within the large leagues. It wasn’t simply the objectives and assists that moved the needle right here. It was Timmins’ improved hockey sense and barely swifter foot pace that had beforehand held him again.
Squeezing him onto the roster was all the time going to be a trouble given his $1.1-million cap hit, however Timmins had earned a glance. Now, the can has been kicked roughly eight weeks down the street, throughout which period the Leafs can determine whether or not or not he’d be a greater seventh choice than Benoit.
(Spoiler alert: He’s).
3. Mikko Kokkonen, LD
“Once you take a look at the place he was final 12 months in comparison with now, it is unbelievable,” praised Keefe of Kokkonen, labelling him the shock of camp that, up to now, has featured just a few.
To have gotten a nod for Thursday’s recreation that featured a lot of the NHL lineup was a large boon for the younger defender, whose regular and accountable recreation on the rookie match in Traverse Metropolis and all through coaching camp has saved him afloat in a crowded battle for the ultimate blueline spot.
Frankly, if the Leafs want to hold an additional defenseman on the roster with Klingberg’s standing unsure, Kokkonen is the man. He is blown expectations out of the water for the reason that league calendar turned and has earned the belief of the group at each ranges.
Kokkonen is not an elite offensive menace from the slot, and he isn’t a stay-at-home maestro. He simply does most issues rather well, takes care of the puck and makes protected performs that sometimes assist tilt the ice in his crew’s favor.
If he weren’t waiver-exempt, he’d be No. 1 on this listing. Alas, life is just not excellent.
4. Max Lajoie, LD
Lajoie is a superbly serviceable AHLer. A “Justin Holl who did not make the leap,” if you’ll. He’ll be an important Marlie, be a nice instance for his or her younger blueline prospects, and everybody will stay fortunately ever after.
Lajoie is the buoy for this 12 months’s crew. He isn’t dangerous to have round, but when you end up in want of his providers on the NHL degree, you’ve got gone too removed from shore.
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