Incumbent: Curtis McElhinney
Challengers: Garret Sparks, Calvin Pickard
The lowdown: The Leafs goalie situation has been talked about endlessly over the past few weeks. As Kyle Dubas said in his interview with Bob McKenzie, the players themselves know what the deal is. Two goalies will make the roster. One is Frederik Andersen. That leaves three players, one spot, and zero eligibility for waivers.
One of these three will be the Leafs backup goalie. The other two will pass through waivers or be traded.
McElhinney is the incumbent, a journeyman career backup who had one of the best seasons of his career last year. Since 2013/2014, he has been a slightly below average NHL goalie, which is way above what you would expect out of a backup. That said, it’s a small sample, despite it representing four seasons. He’s played basically two seasons of a starter’s workload in that time, and his success over recent years followed an uninspiring earlier section of his career where he was essentially a replacement level goalie. Given that most goaltenders don’t get better as they age into their mid and late 30s, most have dismissed his run in the last few years as being on the positive side of variance. We’ll see if the Leafs agree. He has one more year left on a bury-able contract ($850k) in what may be the last deal of his NHL career. Working in his favour this year is that Mike Babcock, his teammates, and the front office seem to love him and his understanding of his role. If you’re a backup, by definition, you’re non-essential, and you have to be low-maintenance and a good teammate. By all accounts, McElhinney is.
Sparks is, in most fans’ eyes, the Leafs next goaltender. After repeated excellence in the AHL, it seems pretty clear that he doesn’t have a whole lot to prove at that level. His NHL experience came in 2015/2016, and despite a sterling debut, it was not pretty for Sparks. But it’s been three years, and the team in front of him would be far better now than it was then. Given his age (25) and lack of waiver eligibility, Sparks seems to be the favourite to be the backup. Sparks’ contract also expires after this season, after which he’ll be a restricted free agent. It’s possible the Leafs trade him if they don’t want him to be the backup (for whatever reason), but given that every team in the league knows the Leafs need to either waive or trade a goalie (or two) in the next month, I can’t imagine the market being wild for him. Especially since many other goalies will also be passing through waivers soon.
Pickard is a bit of the forgotten man here. Like Sparks, he had a rough time in the NHL backstopping a truly awful team. Like Sparks, though to a lesser degree, he was good in the AHL. He is owed $800,000 this season, after which he’ll be an unrestricted free agent. He has an outside shot at the backup job, but most seem to be pencilling him in to being back with the Marlies.
Third line RW
Incumbent: Connor Brown
Challenger: Kasperi Kapanen
The lowdown: Connor Brown is a known quantity. He works hard, he tries to execute the system, and he has enough skill to look decent while doing it. Babcock has used him in a variety of roles in his young career: on depth scoring lines (with Tyler Bozak and James van Riemsdyk), on nominal first lines (with Auston Matthews and Zach Hyman), and on matchup duties (with Nazem Kadri and Leo Komarov). He’s a chameleon in some respects, and that holds a lot of value in the eyes of the coaching staff.
When you dig into the numbers, Brown usually comes out as a solid middle-six option, and really, there’s nothing wrong with him being the third line RW behind two borderline elite players in William Nylander and Mitch Marner.
However, many fans would be more excited to see Kasperi Kapanen on Kadri’s wing instead. About 2.5 years younger, Kapanen seemingly holds more offensive upside, and his tremendous speed poses direct problems for the opposition in a way that no singular skill of Brown’s does. In limited minutes, Kapanen has shown a real nose for the net and generating chances and goals. The passing aspects of his game have not really been shown at the NHL level, in part because of his linemates. It’s reasonable to expect that in a higher role, Kapanen’s offensive upside would be realized and that he’d be a more skilled linemate for Kadri to bounce off of, while not giving up anything defensively relative to Brown.
However, given how much Babcock likes Brown, and how frequently he’s paired him with Kadri, I would expect him to win this job initially.
Fourth line LW
Challengers: Josh Leivo, Tyler Ennis, Trevor Moore (longshot)
The lowdown: We all know the story of Josh Leivo. After the departure of James van Riemsdyk, fans of his were hoping he would be earmarked for the fourth line LW spot on the Leafs. Instead, the Leafs made a cheap bet in Tyler Ennis, who will compete for that spot with him. To be clear, this is the smart thing to do. Sympathy for Leivo aside, creating internal competition for depth roles is a good thing, especially when it comes at minimal short-term cost and zero long-term cost.
I find it hard to believe that Leivo will win this battle, simply because Babcock has always chosen the alternatives over him. As for the other options, Ennis is a legitimately useful player who has had a couple horrific years due in large part to his shooting percentage.
I expect Ennis to win this battle with Leivo to frequent the press box again, or potentially be traded/waived.
With an amazing camp, Trevor Moore might put himself into this conversation, but I expect to see him playing a larger role on the Marlies this season, with an eye towards a depth spot in 2019/2020. The same holds true to a lesser degree for Mason Marchment.
Fourth line C
Challengers: Par Lindholm, Josh Jooris, Adam Cracknell (maybe)
The lowdown: Among forwards, this is probably the most interesting decision the Leafs can make, because it may signify a lot about what exactly they want their fourth line to be. I am no expert on his play, but from what I’ve seen and heard, Lindholm is not a prototypical Babcock 4C.
He played on an offensive line in Sweden, and while he appears to be a heady player who understands spacing, systems, and how to execute them, he was not known as a defensive stalwart by any means. However, Kyle Dubas and Babcock have made some comments indicating their excitement about him, and who am I to cast aspersions on their judgement (though I’ll note that they said the same thing about Calle Rosen and Miro Aaltonen).
Would playing Lindholm indicate that the Leafs are aiming to run a somewhat offensively focused 4th line, with Ennis and Brown/Kapanen on the wings? Would they use that trio to hopefully dominate the 4th line vs 4th line minutes that were previously stalemates for the Leafs?
Or maybe they go with Jooris who is a more typical defensive fourth line centre, the type to win you faceoffs, play on the penalty kill, and earn the ire of Leafs Twitter.
Would this indicate that the Leafs want to use their fourth line to actually soak up some harder minutes than average, making a bet that the Leafs fourth line will do better against opposing stars than opposing fourth lines will against Leafs stars. When you have Auston Matthews and John Tavares, that’s not a bad bet to make, in my opinion. In general, I tend to think that sheltering depth players is not ideal, if you can avoid it. If you can find depth guys who can handle harder than average minutes, then your top guys can feast, and they’ll likely blow up easy competition, because that’s what elite players do. The trick is getting depth players who can survive (or even thrive) in atypical fourth line usage. But with the Leafs absurd depth at forward, they might be able to do just that.
The decision of Lindholm vs Jooris doesn’t directly correlate to how the Leafs plan on using their fourth line. Certainly, they could bet on a Lindholm-led fourth line playing harder than average minutes with skilled wingers, or a Jooris-led fourth line sticking traditional fourth line usage. However, the vastly different skillsets the two have might tell us a bit about how lineup philosophy will change (if at all) in the Dubas era.
Third Pair RD
Incumbent: Connor Carrick (sort of?)
Challengers: Justin Holl, Martin Marincin, Igor Ozhiganov,
The lowdown: Leafs Twitter may rejoice, as Roman Polak is gone! In his wake, we have a plethora of somewhat intriguing options to be the lowest member of the depth chart at the Leafs’ weakest position.
Connor Carrick has the most recent NHL experience of anyone on this list. Like Leivo, we know the drill. Babcock doesn’t trust him - when he does play Carrick, it’s in highly sheltered minutes. To be fair to Carrick, he performs fairly well in those minutes, and I think most analysts would agree that being a 6D on a poor defensive team isn’t really playing him above his talent level.
Holl has been a trendy pick to become a depth NHLer for some time now. He had a brilliant year in the AHL, where he was one of the Marlies best and most used defenders, and one of the best league-wide. Impressively, his scoring at the AHL was done almost exclusively at even strength. He’s aggressive offensively; in boxing terms, you’d describe him as a player who’s willing to take a punch to land a punch. He also has familiarity in playing with Travis Dermott in the AHL, which may help him in this race. He also plays the PK (or at least he did on the Marlies). If the Leafs are looking to reduce the minute load on Ron Hainsey, Holl might be a fit. Working against him is that his defensive abilities have been called into question before, and at age 26, he is what he is.
I’m sure many fans are groaning that I even brought up Marincin. Despite how ugly his game looks, the numbers don’t lie; Marincin has been effective at the NHL level. Over his last three years of NHL games (92 games), Marincin has positive shot and goal impacts. Amazingly, he hasn’t been terribly sheltered either - certainly less than Carrick has been. Yes, he’s prone to making braindead errors that make Jake Gardiner blush. Yes, he cannot handle the puck to save his life. Yes, his game sense is lacking. But he puts up results, he can play the left and right side, he can penalty kill effectively... as a 6D, you can do a LOT worse than Martin Marincin. This is without mentioning his sterling play at the AHL level, where he was arguably the Marlies best defenseman (non-Dermott division) last season.
Igor Ozhiganov is a mystery box to me. I have no clue what to expect from him. Luckily, Katya does.
Press box Defenseman
Challengers: Andreas Borgman, Calle Rosen, everyone mentioned in the previous battle
The lowdown: In addition to the Leafs 3RD spot being up for grabs, there’s a chance for one (or two) defensemen to join Josh Leivo in the press box, collect NHL cheques, and not play much. Andreas Borgman was a competent enough 3LD last season, but was outshone by Dermott and didn’t impress in his brief time on the Marlies at all. His handedness and inability to play the penalty kill means that he’s in tough to make the roster in a meaningful role. The same also applies to Calle Rosen, though the latter definitely had a sweeter end to his season, playing key minutes on the Marlies Calder Cup team. The losers of the previous training camp battle mentioned might also factor in here. Mike Babcock might decide to run eight defensemen on the active roster (which would come at the cost of only running 13 forwards) in order to keep his options open for longer.
While the top of the Leafs roster is set, there’s sure to be a lot of intrigue lower down. We’ll find out how it breaks down over the next month or so.