A casual hockey observer simply following the media coverage of the Leafs’ pre-season could be forgiven for believing that the team’s season will ultimately hinge on Nazem Kadri and Michael Liambas.
Well, Liambas has already been cut and Kadri isn’t exactly forcing his way onto the squad through three pre-season contests (although his shoot-out goal against Philly last night was impressive). Kadri, the Leafs’ first-round pick (seventh over-all) in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft, still has a shot to make the club, but that doesn’t make him the only player with something riding on this ‘meaningless’ pre-season.
So what, exactly, is on the line as Toronto prepares for the 2010-11 season?
By that I mean other than Phil Kessel, of course. Even with the new additions, no other Leaf has potted more than 22 goals in a season.The obvious pressure falls on newcomers Colby Armstrong and Kris Versteeg, but greater contributions will have to come from more unlikely sources in order to achieve a truly balanced attack. Clarke MacArthur, for instance, has been praised for his toughness but also his scoring instincts and soft hands. Even holdovers Nikolai Kulemin, John Mitchell and Fred Sjostrom could do well to establish more of an offensive presence.
For the top guys who hold secure spots at the NHL level, the pre-season is less about earning a place on the team as it is getting acclimated to your surroundings and gelling with your teammates. On a team like the Leafs, this is of particular importance given the quantity of new faces being ushered in. Already this pre-season, a promising line of Kadri, Armstrong and Versteeg didn’t seem to click as coach Ron Wilson had hoped. Perhaps Versteeg could join Tyler Bozak and Kessel on the top line, while Armstrong could find a match with, say, Kulemin and MacArthur or Mitchell on a No. 2 line. Ultimately, it all comes down to the right fit, something that Wilson hopes to learn plenty about in the coming weeks.
On the blue line, there are enough veterans from last year’s team that the pairings should be made a little easier. We’ve already seen Dion Phaneuf and Tomas Kaberle placed together on the team’s No. 1 unit. Francois Beauchemin and Luke Schenn also look like a match, while Mike Komisarek could see time with Carl Gunnarsson on the third pairing. This would leave Brett Lebda out as an extra rearguard, something that could also change over the next few weeks.
While it may not be possible to have too many hard-nosed types on your team (especially when Brian Burke is your General Manager), there are a limit to how many you can find room for amidst a group of 13 forwards. Up front, Colton Orr has a roster spot securely in place, leaving it to Mike Brown, Christian Hanson, Jay Rosehill, Luca Caputi, Brayden Irwin and Marcel Mueller to fight for the remaining two or three slots (depending on whether a skill forward like Jerry D’Amigo can crack the roster). On defence, most fans pretty much know the breakdown: Matt Lashoff, Keith Aulie and Jeff Finger are looking to crack a top seven that is pretty well established. Lashoff appears primed to be the first defenceman called upon as an injury replacement, while Aulie will probably get some more seasoning and Jeff Finger, who is currently hampered by a knee injury, and the $7 million remaining on his contract for the next two years will likely remain stuck in the AHL.
The goaltender depth chart
This much we know: Jean-Sebastien Giguere is the Leafs’ starter heading into the regular season and Jonas Gustavsson is the back-up. No drama there. But the team’s additions of Jussi Rynnas and Ben Scrivens in the off-season have made the position hotly contested beyond the NHL level. Rynnas, Scrivens and incumbent James Reimer will continue to do battle not only for the Marlies’ top job, but also to position themselves well for a potential future call-up. Rynnas appears the most NHL-ready, but Reimer is still well-positioned as the youngest of the three options and also the lone holdover from last season.
Clearly the 63 players invited to training camp this year didn’t all arrive with realistic expectations of making the big club, but the pre-season is every bit as much about offering youngsters a taste of the big time as it is getting players ready for regular season action. Barring stunning circumstances, Kadri will be a full-time Leaf at some point, whether that is this season or another one. The list of other young prospects primed to get a shot with the Leafs down the road is a long one: forwards Mueller, D’Amigo, Brad Ross, Kenny Ryan, Greg McKegg and Mikhail Stefanovich; defencemen Aulie, Simon Gysbers, Korbinian Holzer and Juraj Mikus; goaltenders Rynnas, Scrivens and Reimer. All of these players are gaining valuable experience playing alongside NHL veterans, even if they are destined to find themselves in the minors shortly.
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Written by Ben Fisher