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Evaluating Toronto’s Final Roster Decisions

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The Maple Leafs chose wisely with their final roster spots, and four former Marlies will make the jump.

Tampa Bay Lightning v Toronto Maple Leafs
Garret Sparks did not have a strong preseason, but his work with the Marlies last season won him a NHL job.

My ideal selections for the final four roster spots were Garret Sparks, Justin Holl, Martin Marincin, and Frederik Gauthier. The Leafs ended up agreeing with me, which is fantastic, as I am still scarred over the Brendan Leipsic vs. Matt Martin decision from back at last year’s expansion draft. This article will go in-depth into these decisions, and who knows, maybe some of the same thoughts went through Kyle Dubas’ head as well.

Garret Sparks wins the backup spot over Curtis McElhinney

I have no idea how Sparks’ AHL success will translate to the NHL level, but he certainly deserves an opportunity. McElhinney was fantastic last season, but 18 games isn’t going to swing my evaluation of a 35-year old goaltender, and this is ultimately a player who the Leafs claimed off of waivers in the first place.

This decision was never about how good McElhinney was in 2017-2018, but rather how good he will be in 2019-2020. I see him as an average backup, and one who is certainly not used to a heavy workload. Even if almost everything goes wrong for Sparks this year, it’s hard to envision him being much worse than an average backup, and he’ll be better prepared to step in for a long stretch given that he played in 62 games last season. Let’s not forget that injuries happen.

The worst case scenario for either player is similar. Sparks posted a 0.893 save percentage in his 17 game NHL stint, and the nightmare scenario is that he can’t stop NHL scorers. Meanwhile, McElhinney posted a .890 save percentage across 18 games just two years ago, and at the age of 35, it’s easy to envision some sort of decline in performance. Even Carey Price is capable of a dreadful season, so regardless of how Sparks performs I will not criticize him for this in hindsight. Goalies are voodoo as they say, and there’s was always a similar, somewhat realistic, worst case scenario for both players.

The best case scenario for each player is where we see a major difference. If McElhinney had a great year, he would be a fairly sought-after 36 year old goalie on the free agent market next offseason. However, if Sparks has a great year, he’s a 26-year old restricted free agent who could become a nice trade chip. As mentioned above, it’s easier to envision him excelling over a long stretch if Andersen ever got hurt, as McElhinney has not been a starter’s workload in years.

I’m willing to gamble on Sparks becoming at least an average NHL backup. He’s a little bit too aggressive at times, and he did play behind a dominant AHL defence last year, but he was also the team’s most valuable player. He bailed his defenders out plenty of times throughout the season, and a poor stretch of games in the preseason shouldn’t overrule his larger sample of work. We have seen Andersen struggle to start the season in the past, and we know better not to judge a goalie based on a handful of games.

Frederik Gauthier becomes Toronto’s 13th forward until Nylander returns

If the Nylander signing is not imminent, I would claim a forward off of waivers. For the time being, Gauthier is the right man for the job, and the job is sitting in the press box. If there’s a last minute illness or injury before the game, he can take defensive zone faceoffs and penalty kill, while receiving minimal minutes at 5-on-5. I want Trevor Moore to play regular minutes with the Marlies, and I want Adam Cracknell to be down there to play next to Jeremy Bracco.

Gauthier seems to be well-liked by the coaching staff, and you can reward him for having a positive attitude with a NHL pay cheque. I also believe that he enjoys puzzles, and that seems like the perfect activity to do in the press box. If needed, it’s certainly easier for a centre to shift over to the wing, rather than vice-versa. Ideally, he’s only here for emergencies anyways.

Claiming a forward off of waivers would be mostly about helping out the Marlies. The team lost Kasperi Kapanen, Andreas Johnsson, Ben Smith, and Miro Aaltonen up front, and regardless of what kind of steps their young players take, it’s going to be tough to replace that production. I would like to see Timothy Liljegren playing in a winning environment, and while the team looks fairly strong on paper as it currently stands, they aren’t quite as strong as they were last season. The Leafs can use the claimed player if an injury occurs prior to Nylander’s return, then try to slide him through waivers when the time comes. There’s minimal downside to doing this, and while the Leafs can afford to pay an AHL player close to $1 million, many other teams won’t bother to claim the same player.

Martin Marincin and Justin Holl make the team, while Calle Rosen and Connor Carrick do not

Connor Carrick is one of my favourite players to root for, but Igor Ozhiganov was more impressive this preseason, Justin Holl is a more valuable asset, and Martin Marincin plays the left-side. Babcock clearly did not trust Carrick on the penalty kill, to the point where he played Roman Polak over him last year. It’s tough to imagine Babcock putting faith in Carrick in a playoff series.

Justin Holl is 6’3”, a regular penalty killer, and probably a slightly better puck mover. He’s a more natural fit to sub-in for any of Toronto’s right-shooting defenceman as a result, and his contract is also key to consider here. Holl is signed for next season at just $675k, and the Leafs are in desperate need of an affordable seventh defenceman as they go through a cap crunch. Carrick makes twice as much this year, and may have gotten a raise as a RFA next offseason, so any sort of tie must go to Holl.

Carrick’s numbers were a little bit less encouraging once you account for usage (visual obtained from HockeyViz.com):

As you can see, his isolated impact is underwhelming, particularly for a player who does not play on special teams. He played with good teammates, but did not score at a strong clip at 5-on-5. He was not a standout in terms of preventing zone entries, and was one of the team’s worst players in terms of penalty differential. I will root for him in Dallas, but Babcock clearly did not trust him, and he struggled greatly in the preseason. Having another penalty killer on the roster could lighten Ron Hainsey’s workload, and free up Morgan Rielly to play more at 5-on-5.

Calle Rosen generated plenty of hype at the start of this preseason, but there was never much of a role for him. I would not use him on their NHL powerplay, and I don’t see him as a strong penalty killer. He can play in a sheltered third-pairing role if one of Toronto’s left-shooting defencemen is hurt, but the 26-year old Marincin is more than capable of sitting in the press box and subbing in if needed.

Final Thoughts

Tough decisions had to be made, and it’s easy to understand those who disagree with what they did. Garret Sparks is no sure thing, Curtis McElhinney is coming off of a strong season, and Connor Carrick performed well with both Jake Gardiner and Travis Dermott during his time with the organization. Nevertheless, I agree with the 23-man roster they chose, and now it’s up to Mike Babcock to put all the pieces together.

The opening night lineup is rarely a finished product. Just ask Milan Michalek, Dominic Moore, or Matt Martin. I would like to see Holl get a reasonable chance on the third-pairing, Andersen with a few more games off, and both Johnsson and Kapanen used higher up in the lineup. I would also like to see Hyman on Kadri’s right-side, helping him to be more of a playmaker on a checking line. Nevertheless, it’s tough to make a bad lineup with this current roster, and this team should be incredibly fun to watch this season.