When asked about the most pressing roster issue facing the Maple Leafs after the last preseason game, Mike Babcock wasn’t very helpful:
Babcock on clarity he's gathered towards the goaltending position after watching Sparks vs. McElhinney in preseason: "Yeah. Freddie is going to start on day one."— Kristen Shilton (@kristen_shilton) September 30, 2018
Everyone has an opinion on what the Leafs should do about their goalie situation, but so far, the Leafs have chosen to do nothing. Not yet, anyway. While this looks planned — they signed Justin Peters to a PTO, and he’s in the second chair for the Marlies now — they can’t keep this up beyond the Tuesday roster deadline.
As of yesterday at noon, the Leafs roster is now at 26 players, not counting the unsigned William Nylander. Four of those players are goalies.
That makes the Leafs roster, based on usage in the preseason, look like this (no one listed as an extra is waiver exempt):
Patrick Marleau - Auston Matthews - Tyler Ennis
Zach Hyman - John Tavares - Mitch Marner
Josh Leivo - Nazem Kadri - Connor Brown
Andreas Johnsson - Par Lindholm - Kasperi Kapanen
Jake Gardiner - Nikita Zaitsev
Morgan Rielly - Ron Hainsey
Travis Dermott - Igor Ozighanov
Martin Marincin - Justin Holl
As of Friday’s game vs Detroit, Babcock seemed satisfied that Josh Leivo would be on the Nazem Kadri line for now, although he’d been unhappy about the state of that line prior to that game.
When Nylander signs, the most likely thing to happen is that Tyler Ennis takes the spot on Kadri’s wing, and then two decision have to be made:
- Which of Josh Leivo, Andreas Johnsson and Kasperi Kapanen come out of the lineup?
- Does Frederik Gauthier stay on the roster?
One thing the first three names in question one have in common is that they aren’t centres. With Josh Jooris and Adam Cracknell cut from the roster, the next available centre in case of injury is Patrick Marleau or William Nylander. That worked fine last year when it was Auston Matthews who was out, but if Par Lindholm either flames out in real NHL action or is injured, that would mean playing a highly valuable player on the fourth line just to have a centre there. Looked at in that light, Gauthier on the roster makes sense. H/T to Kevin for predicting this before the last preseason game.
The only way the answer to number two becomes a no is if the Leafs find someone better as the Plan B fourth line centre. Which brings me to the third question, as brought up by Kevin yesterday:
Should the Leafs be shopping for a waiver claim or a trade to improve on the quality of that extra centre?
One simple solution is to wait and see if it is really a problem that needs to be solved. If Par Lindholm survives the first 10 games in the NHL ad no worse than just a little boring, then it’s probably good as is. The perennial problem with the Leafs trying to solve their centre depth issue via the waiver wire is that anyone they could successfully claim, they likely don’t want.
That’s the easy questions, now for the two hard ones:
- The goalie issue.
- The defence issue.
We’ll know later today, likely, what the Leafs have decided to do about both of these things. The goalie issue seems to be half an easy problem — Calvin Pickard will clear waivers and go to the Marlies if they can’t trade him. The other half is the hard issue. It’s not really about choosing between Sparks and McElhinney right now, it’s about keeping options open depending on how the first few starts for whichever backup go.
Without seeing Sparks in real NHL action, everyone is left to guess how he’ll do. Eliminating the guesswork seems necessary for good decision making. If the choice comes down to who to risk on waivers, the answer should likely be McElhinney, even though he has the recent successful record as an NHL backup. Unless the Leafs goalie coaches think Sparks can’t possibly do the job, it would be odd to just toss him aside. Waiving goalies on Monday in a rush with all the other waived players, likely with several goalies as well as Pickard, will give McElhinney the maximum chance of clearing.
My speculation is the following: the reason this is an issue at all is that Babcock doesn’t think Sparks is suitable for the job of backup. Not the actual goaltending part, all the other parts of it — being a practice goalie, working with the scratches, taking shots in warmup, being ready to go all the time, etc. etc. The Leafs have been very spoiled by McElhinney’s suitability for that side of the job as well as his run of abnormally good results on the ice.
It’s not a fight about who is the best goalie or even asset value vs known commodity. I think it’s a fight about temperament and personality when one of the players is very known to the coach and the other is a virtual stranger. I still say this is all a distraction from the lack of goalie prospects in the system. But like genuinely good depth centres, goalie prospects of merit don’t grow on trees.
The defence issue seems very much to be a case of waiting on a trade for Connor Carrick. I think the Leafs have already picked Justin Holl over both Martin Marincin (who would likely clear wiavers) and Connor Carrick (who likely won’t).
To make the numbers work out so the only skater they have to waive is Marincin, all Kyle Dubas has to do is block the number for Nylander’s agent until he’s sorted out a trade for Carrick.
Once that’s done, and with Nylander bumping a winger into the press box, those three seats would be filled with Holl, Gauthier and whoever that winger turns out to be. If it’s really impossible to trade Carrick, then waiving Gauthier seems like the next best choice to clear a space. Meanwhile the Marlies are nicely stocked with players who can be called up to fill in for injuries if those three aren’t enough.
Come back at noon-ish for the real answer to all these questions, but for now, riddle me this: Will the Leafs make a trade by Tuesday at 5 p.m.?
Will the Leafs make a trade by Tuesday’s roster deadline?
|Nope, they’ll have to risk some players on waivers
|Yes, Carrick should be easy to place
|They’ll move a goalie for sure
|Just waive Gauthier now, why is this a question?