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PPP Roundtable: Who makes the Leafs?

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Our staff take a look at the players fighting for jobs and make their picks.

NHL: Preseason-Toronto Maple Leafs at Buffalo Sabres Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports

Acting the Fulemin: Good morning everyone. We're down to a mere six days before opening night, and only a couple more preseason games. It's time to state your thoughts on the bubble boys scrapping for jobs at the edges of the lineup.

The Defence

Fulemin: Let's start on defence. We've assumed that Martin Marincin, Travis Dermott, Calle Rosen, and Andreas Borgman are the four contenders to take the third-pair LD slot, playing alongside Connor Carrick. Who do you expect to get the job, and who do you want to get the job?

Arvind: I think Rosen is still the favourite to get that job, though I'm less confident of that now than I was a few days ago. It'd be a kind of lightweight third pair with him and Carrick (who despite being feisty, is a smaller defender). I'm fine with any of those guys playing though. Marincin has the track record and can PK, which makes him useful, but he's had a poor preseason and looks a lock to be the 7D. Dermott and Borgman are both pretty green, and would be fun to watch, if only to give me an excuse to check out their Instagram's.

Katya Knappe: Mike Babcock wants Borgman. He might be prepared to push forward with an emphasis on speed and puck control, but that doesn't mean he doesn't want some Bam Bam. But he's never yet put a guy in the NHL too early. So Borgman and Dermott, who was never in contention, are AHL bound.

It's been Rosen v. Marincin since the start, and it will stay that way. So my answer is they both are the 6D and the 7D. If the Leafs play the Jets, who will roll over the lightweight Rosen, Marincin goes in; if the Leafs play the Hurricanes, Rosen gets to outskate them. If you need scoring from the D or an extra PP guy, Rosen. If you really need to emphasize the zone denial, Marincin. This way, Babcock can alternate who he's exasperated with, because they both will provide lots of opportunities.

Species 1967: It’s going to be Borgman.

Fulemin: It's going to be Rosen, and I'm reasonably happy about that. He's not perfect and I am deeply worried he's gonna get concussed at some point, but the Leafs are a wolfpack on speed. Rosen can run with the wolves. The best defence is a five-goal lead, kids.

Marincin is the 7D thanks to experience, size, and waivers, but the way he's been going I'm not sure he'll shuffle in and out smoothly. Marincin has had a pretty reasonable chance at an NHL job and he's been not-taking it for a year now (and this is coming from someone who actually likes him.) If he doesn't do better than he has been, he's going to be out more than in. Borgman I think may be the guy with the best long-term potential and he bashes like a battering ram, but there's plenty of time for that in the future. Ditto Dermott. I've enjoyed the forecast of things to come, though.

Brigstew: At this point I’d say Rosen seems the most likely guy to win the spot out of the gate, with Marincin being kept around as the 7th D if only because he specializes in something that the other three don’t, and we know the Leafs don’t like getting rid of an asset if they don’t have to. Mind you I don’t think having a job out of the gate means much, given how much roster turnover the Leafs had after the first 5-10 games last season (Michalek, Holland, Griffith, Corrado... Marincin started the first game on a pairing with Rielly!) so I don’t think this ‘tryout’ will be over just because the regular season starts.

Elseldo: I expect Rosen to get the job and he was my pick after watching the preseason. I'm higher on Dermott overall, but if he and Nielsen pair up on the Marlies that won't hurt him at all.

Kevin: I continue to be impressed with Travis Dermott, and his lateral quickness is awfully impressive for a heavy defender. However, there is little to no chance that they rush him to the NHL, and this comes down to Rosen vs. Borgman for me. Marincin’s poor preseason to date should land him a spot in the pressbox.

Borgman is stronger than Rosen, and this comes in handy on the penalty kill. With Roman Polak and Matt Hunwick out of the equation, I expect that Mike Babcock will be desperate to play above average penalty killers, and it is tough to see him relying on Rosen here. Rosen seems to be the popular choice here, but I am certainly not ruling out a bit of a surprise.

The 4C

Fulemin: Most of us assumed that Dominic Moore was a lock for this one, based on his being signed at the start of July and his non-exempt waiver status. Instead, KHL signing Miro Aaltonen has put in a serious fight for the job, and forgotten spare part Eric Fehr has reasserted himself with some surprising physical performances.

So who’s our fourth-line centre to start? Is it Moore, Aaltonen, or Fehr? First person to say “Ben Smith” gets banned.

Katya Knappe: Ben Smith is going to the AHL even though he was weirdly dominant against the Habs second line last night. (Ban me, just try it.) Eric Fehr might be the third popcorn eater after Josh Leivo and the extra defender, just to see if he can be traded for a pick of some sort.

And now that I’ve stalled with that, I have to answer the question: Moore v. Aaltonen. This is a genuine conundrum. This isn’t a chocolate or vanilla ice cream question. It’s do you want ice cream or a ham sandwich. It rather depends, doesn’t it, on the circumstances.

I think Moore is a highly predictable player who will perform exactly as expected most of the time as a classic fourth liner. Aaltonen is going to drive the play to the offensive zone. He's fast, and he's a good passer. And while he's an okay shot, don't expect his career of power play goals to sprout into NHL points on the fourth line. He could make hay against other fourth lines who are often slow and rely on physicality to defend, but he will get spun around like a top by real NHL forwards.

Babcock said this a few days ago: "Say you have a match up line, say that’s Naz’s line, but you like to have another group that you can match up against the best people in case you miss. Plus, on the road, you don’t always get what you want, and this way you can get what you need."

So if that really means Matthews' line is the second group, then he can go with Aaltonen on that fourth line. That's the preexisting condition you need for the much demanded roll four lines of "skilled" players. So, fine, he'll go with Aaltonen and play Leivo a lot, and you know what, I don't buy it. The reward for ten minutes of slightly improved offence for the investment of having to carefully use them like they're Bozie's boys is too small to be worth it.

Moore gets the job. The 4C job, that is. Because what if this business of Miro Aaltonen, offensively focused power play specialist, getting a make over into a 4C is all just misdirection while Babcock decides if he’s a good enough replacement for Tyler Bozak? Either for a couple of months this spring or for a lot longer than that.

Arvind: I’m not going to believe it’s anyone but Moore until we see it happen. Moore is such a prototypical Babcock 4C, and Aaltonen is .... not. I don’t think Fehr is a realistic option, so it is really down to those two.

Aaltonen is an interesting player. If Connor Brown is indeed on the fourth line, perhaps it makes sense to pair him with someone who has more offensive skills. Moore is not a black hole offensively, but he’s 37 and has seen his skills diminish over time. And considering most fourth lines play against the fourth lines of other teams for a large chunk of their minutes, I do like the idea of trying to really take advantage of those times. Maybe Babcock does too. But I can’t see him going away from a years-long track record of behaviour at this point, and not for Miro Aaltonen. So I’ll go with Moore for now.

Species: You all have forgotten someone has to go to Robidas Island. Who else will take care of Bobby the lizard? It will be Moore.

Fulemin: I think it’s Moore, but...I don’t know. I think Aaltonen is genuinely competitive for the job and Moore hasn’t exactly blown my mind. If this faceoff violation thing actually wrecks Moore’s effectiveness in the dot, then suddenly I think Aaltonen becomes a much more serious threat, but I figure Moore will adapt.

What gives me pause is that the 4RW looks to be Connor Brown. Brown may not be an offensive dynamo but he’s absolutely capable of putting some pucks in. Playing him with Matt Martin and end-of-career Dom Moore seems like a good way to halve his point total. Whereas if you can slam the opposing fourth line with goals, that’s a game-changer.

Moore gets it to start. But he’s not a lock to hold it, at least not every night.

Elseldo: I think Aaltonen and Moore will split time in this position, swapping press box seats.

Brigstew: I’m with seldo, for the same reason I think the Leafs go with Rosen as 6D and Marincin as 7D to start the year. Aaltonen’s had a good pre-season, Moore... less so. I don’t think seeing Aaltonen used so much means Babs already likes him Moore, I think it means he’s thinking about it and wants to see the Finn as much as he can before he has to make a decision.

Kevin: Miro Aaltonen keeps lining up between Matt Martin and Connor Brown. This leads me to believe that he will be the 4th line centre on opening night. The Leafs were practically devoid of offensive skill on this unit last season, and playing Aaltonen here could help to generate clean zone entries and create more offensive zone time.

I thought Moore was a virtual lock for this role before training camp began. As Arvind said, “I’m not going to believe it’s anyone but Moore until we see it happen.” We do appear to be heading in this direction though.

The Wingers

Fulemin: For our final category: the Leafs have an estimated 13,000 wingers competing for approximately zero NHL jobs. Pending a trade or an injury, the Leafs have eight NHL wingers slotted in (Zach Hyman, William Nylander, James van Riemsdyk, Mitch Marner, Patrick Marleau, Leo Komarov, Matt Martin, and Connor Brown) and not a lot of room for the bubble boys coming up behind him.

This is rough news for Josh Leivo, who scored in bunches last year and has impressed this preseason, and Kerby Rychel, who looks farther from an NHL job than ever. Both of them seem like press box candidates to begin the year. Then there’s playoff hero Kasperi Kapanen, who is obviously NHL-ready but is probably going to the Marlies, and Nikita Soshnikov, who is a more complicated version of the same. This is without even getting to Carl Grundstrom or Andreas Johnsson, who have both impressed this preseason.

Do any of these players get NHL ice-time? Who, when, and how?

Species: This mess needs to be resolved by a trade, and I suspect they will make it happen before the start of the season. Having Kapanen and Soshnikov hiding in the AHL is a waste of resources. There will be a move before the season starts, but it won't be JvR.

As for Rychel, at this point I think he’s going to be the surprise survivor who clears waivers, sticks around, and makes the team as a call-up. They’ve had ample opportunity to trade him, and if there were no takers for that, there won’t be one on waivers. I’d like to see him get the chance to show us what he can do (Rinat Valiev too).

Brigstew: I guess the good news is if they actually have any injuries this year they’ll be ready for them. It’s funny how years ago I’d be ecstatic at the pre-season performances of Kapanen, Grundstrom, Johnsson, Rychel, Leivo, and others... but because they’d be making the team, not because they provide good depth. Though now that I think about it watch the Leafs have lots of injuries but none of them to wingers. It’ll all be their centers, defense, and goalies. We all hear that Leivo seems likely to be kept in the pressbox at least since he’s out of flexible roster options, but I remember Babs saying he treats the first 20 games (or something like that) as the time to tinker with a roster and lineup. If we see any of the other wingers come up and replace someone else, it’ll happen in this time I think. Otherwise they’ll all have to wait for an injury. If an injury comes, I’d expect Kapanen to be the first call up followed by Johnsson.

Katya Knappe: Josh Leivo has a tiny bit of trade value because his salary is minuscule. Kapanen could get thrown into the deal that never seems to come for Sparky the Unicorn RHD, or he could retire as a Leaf. Grundström is going back to the SHL for a year. The rest of those guys are essentially irrelevant. Rychel isn't going to sit in the Frank Corrado memorial chair because there's too many other Rychels in the system to bother. If it comes to it, the same is true of Leivo.

So the winger plan seems to be that Kapanen is next man up, but Leivo will be pressboxed for the start of the season and usurp Kapanen’s spot until someone moves off the team.

Fulemin: I’m going to be the optimist here and say I do not think Matt Martin’s 4LW job is an iron lock. It’s still likely he’s in there a lot of nights, but the use of Leivo-Aaltonen-Brown in the preseason makes me wonder if Babcock would experiment with a step-on-their-throat, offensive fourth line (as Katya’s mentioned above.) When you want shot suppression and physicality, Martin-Moore-Brown are your boys; when you want a bit of extra scoring (possibly when you’re at home), you can try Leivo-Aaltonen-Brown. I’m not sure this is something the Leafs will sustain, but I could see some back and forth. Brigs is right about the tryout being ongoing. Babcock has said the first ten games of the regular season still involve some experimenting.

So: I think Leivo gets a bit of time this year. Rychel I don’t think has a future in the organization. Kapanen comes up when there’s an injury or a trade that allows him to do so, but he’s buried back a couple of spots till then.

Elseldo: Nothing changes from last season on the wing for the first couple of months. If we don't see a trade now, we won't until December earliest. It's not ideal but that's probably how things will shake out. Like the last place season in 2015-16, we may see more Marlies come up post Christmas.

Kevin: Kasperi Kapanen is going to force his way onto the Leafs by the end of the season. His speed is such a weapon on the rush, and he continues to make strides in terms of his two-way ability. Someone is bound to get injured eventually, and Kapanen will be ready to take that spot.

Grundstrom appears to be one year away. I am not expecting to watch much of Johnsson or Soshnikov at the NHL level this year. Leivo looks ready to contribute in the NHL, and this is the player who could have some trade value to a team such as the Golden Knights. I do not think they will put him on waivers or trade him for nothing.