Leafs Training Camp Observations and Surprises So Far

Oct 2, 2016; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Maple Leafs forward William Nylander (29) celebrates an overtime goal scored by defenseman Matt Hunwick (2) against the Montreal Canadiens during a preseason hockey game at Air Canada Centre. The Maple Leafs beat the Canadiens 3-2 in overtime. Mandatory Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 2, 2016; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Maple Leafs forward William Nylander (29) celebrates an overtime goal scored by defenseman Matt Hunwick (2) against the Montreal Canadiens during a preseason hockey game at Air Canada Centre. The Maple Leafs beat the Canadiens 3-2 in overtime. Mandatory Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports /

This season’s Leafs Training Camp has been a little different than past years in that there haven’t been too many real surprises so far but as we move past the halfway point of the preseason exhibition schedule, there have been a few. Most of these have been  of the “mildly pleasant” variety, with a handful of the slightly disappointing variety.

The first round of cuts have been made with only one small and insignificant aspect on the list of those players sent packing raising an eyebrow. That would be the fact neither Orlando Solar Bears bound Ryan Massa or pro journeyman Jeff Glass, in Leafs training camp on a PTO, saw any preseason game time between the pipes. Other than that, every other name on the list of first cuts from camp and recently, of five more players cut, was as expected.

With Nikita Soshnikov nursing a wonky hamstring, the logjam for roster spots on right wing has been alleviated somewhat, but only to a minor degree. There are still some difficult decisions to be made and it is when this season’s opening night roster is announced that we might bear witness to the real surprises of Leafs Training Camp.

So far we have seen a handful of players stand out in preseason game action, while arguably a few have displayed shortcomings on the ice that may result in having their names added to the next list of cuts.

Mitch Marner came to this camp a different player than the undersized, timid teenager we witnessed last year. His speed, puck handling and mostly big league decision making on the ice, have illustrated that he is NHL ready. Soshnikov, who is also a right winger, being on the shelf for the next few weeks, may have solidified an opening night roster spot for Marner.

Leafs Training Camp, Matt Hunwick
Feb 11, 2016; Edmonton, Alberta, CAN; Toronto Maple Leafs defensemen Matt Hunwick (2) skates during warmup against the Edmonton Oilers at Rexall Place. Mandatory Credit: Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports /

Matt Hunwick has been noticeably good this preseason with consistently strong defensive play, while also uncharacteristically contributing to the score-sheet. As a Mike Babcock favorite and after demonstrating he belongs on the team, those of us who had him shipped off to parts unknown for a bag of pucks, must now concede the errors of “our” thinking.

The same can be said of Peter Holland, who has demonstrated at the very least that he brings versatility to the table. A natural centre slotted in on the wing as a result of a positional numbers game, he has shown a set of deft hands and some creativity playing with some of the Leafs emerging talent.

Holland’s age, with presumably many more productive years ahead of him and the intangible of his playing for a contract extension, make him a viable candidate for a roster spot. A good showing this season would make him a very trade-able asset or even a keeper, if he finally puts it all together on a consistent basis.

It was nice to see third string goaltender Garret Sparks have a couple of decent preseason outings with the Leafs. As a pawn in last season’s tanking efforts, he seems to be intent on clawing his way back to the NHL and has looked good so far in his efforts. He also seems to have put to rest any notions of Antoine Bibeau passing him on the Leafs goaltending depth chart.

A completely different type of case can be made for the impressive camp showing of 19-year old defenceman Andrew Nielsen. No one expects that he will survive the next cut, but his play at both the Leafs rookie tournament and during the early stages of training camp have arguably catapulted him upwards on the defensive depth chart.

As a result of this preseason, Nielsen could be considered for an injury replacement call up as early as this coming season for the Leafs. He will no doubt be an important player for the Marlies as he hones his skills and waits for his NHL debut.

There have been disappointments as well, poor or unremarkable showings by players that needed to be better for any chance of securing a roster spot.

First I would like to respectfully say goodbye to Brooks Laich. There are many who would argue against this contention but from what I have seen of the Leafs preseason so far, (which is every televised  minute of it), Laich is having trouble keeping up with the preseason pace. This is a terrible indication of how he might fare during the regular season.

Leafs training camp, Brooks laich
Mar 9, 2016; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Maple Leafs forward Brooks Laich (23) shoots the puck prior to the game against the New York Islanders at the Air Canada Centre. Mandatory Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports /

Despite Laich’s claims of being in the best shape of his life and his penchant for saying all of the right things about his potential role as a mentor to the younger players, his place on the team should not be a given. He could just as easily serve as a mentor for the Marlies, the reality of his untradeable contract also making his being claimed on waivers when sent down very unlikely.

Many hockey pundits seem to think that Leafs brass have already handed Laich the fourth line centre role, but I am not so sure. In my opinion, he has yet to demonstrate that he is a better choice than Holland or Byron Froese.

Mildly disappointing is probably the best way to describe the play of Justin Holl this preseason. This assessment is not for lack of effort on his part however, it is more the acknowledgement of how his type of efficient defensive game does not lend itself well to standing out.

When Holl is playing his best, he is mostly unnoticeable, going about his business methodically until he makes one of his mostly wise choices to jump into the rush to contribute offensively. He also has a knack for being the defensive anchor to an offensive minded blue-line partner.

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As a right-shooting, right defenceman who appears to be headed back to the Marlies, it is my hope that Sheldon Keefe pairs him up with left shooting Nielsen. A move I feel that would bring out the best in both players, especially if a chemistry is developed similar to what we witnessed between Holl and the now departed T.J. Brennan from last season.

Aside from the two goaltenders mentioned earlier not being given a shot to show their stuff, the same could be said of Josh Leivo and Trevor Moore. Both have seen limited action in the preseason, utilized infrequently as spare forwards just a couple of times each on exhibition game rosters.

Where Leivo has been in the Leafs organization for three years now, with success at the AHL level and having a taste of NHL action in previous seasons, Moore has no such body of work at the pro level to demonstrate if he is NHL ready or not. This reality virtually guarantees that Moore will be cut and will have to impress enough for call up consideration while playing for the Marlies.

It was just a few days ago that I submitted my guess of what the Leafs opening night roster would look like to one of this site’s round-table discussions. With the injury to Soshnikov and with an expanded glimpse into how this year’s Leafs training camp is unfolding, my revised opening night roster is as follows:

Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Opening Night Roster
Left Wing
Right Wing
Leo KomarkovNazem KadriMilan Michalek
James van RiemsdykTyler BozakMitch Marner
Zach HymanAuston MatthewsWilliam Nylander
Matt MartinByron FroesePeter Holland
Colin Greening and Josh Leivo would rotate in.
Left Defense
Right Defense
Martin MarincinMorgan Rielly
Jake GardinerConnor Carrick
Matt HunwickNikita Zaitsev
Roman Polak
Goaltenders: Frederik Andersen – – – Jonas Enroth
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

As a broad overview I feel it is safe to say there hasn’t really been anything take place during preseason that could be described as shocking or truly surprising. Aside from Soshnikov’s injury and earlier reports of Joffrey Lupul failing his medical exam prior to camp, there hasn’t been much in the way of news from Leafs sick bay.

Next: Leafs Trade Speculation - The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

When the smoke clears over the final few days of training camp and preseason, I believe the Leafs’ opening night roster will look a lot like what is depicted above. No dark horses or unheralded rookies will emerge to steal a roster spot. We can expect that heading into the season we will witness the constant juggling of line combinations and defense pairings, until coach Mike Babcock truly determines what he likes best.

What additional observations have you made concerning the Leafs’ training camp and preseason?