It became clear in Game 2 of the preseason the the Maple Leafs look serious about Noah Gregor, a player on a PTO. Everyone covering the team seemed to have got the impression he was in as a fourth line option before that game. The jersey number of 18 is also a big clue that the NHL contract is coming.
Nominally on the second line for the game with Ryan Reaves and David Kämpf, he was out as part of a second unit PP and played a key role in Easton Cowan's goal, but his role, if the Leafs decide to sign him, will be to joust for the roll of playing with Ryan Reaves full time. If you watched Game 2 you got a look at Reaves' skating. This is not a guy who is going to beat the odd-man rush against ever. The other two players on his line have to play alone with the defenders some of the time. That's just how it works when you put someone who is that unskilled at some aspects of the game on the ice. I wouldn't choose this, but I'm not in charge. The job of Treliving and Keefe, now that Reaves is here, is to make it work.
Gregor, and Simon Benoit, who was signed to a contract, are very similar players, and I've seen them described by their body size or how often they had hits last season as proof that they're here to just run around and bang into guys. After all, meme-Treliving must be meme-Dubas's polar opposite in all things.
I think this analysis misses the point in several ways. First, the truism that if you're hitting you don't have the puck can obscure the cause and effect. If you're playing on a team that never has the puck – well beyond your own ability to influence that – then you might be hitting a lot just to be doing something to try to get the puck back. In other words, neither Benoit nor Gregor made the Ducks or the Sharks into a terrible Corsi team. They didn't fix it either, but if you're looking at guys like this and hanging the responsibility on them, I think you're looking in the wrong place.
The bad team not trying to win is the key to the similarity of Gregor and Benoit. And David Kämpf before them. All three were playing on dreadful teams who were dreadful on purpose. The main way you get dreadful on purpose is to get rid of anyone who is going to get you wins and play your depth way over their heads.
Benoit played a ridiculous 19 minutes per game last year, and 14 the year before on the Ducks. Gregor had two seasons at around 60 games each averaging 13 - 15 minutes a game on the Sharks. He played a mixed bottom-six role, but mostly at third-line minutes. And yes, his rate of hits is pretty high because the Sharks were pretty bad.
But this is actually very good. Surprisingly good for a depth player.
Maybe I shouldn't be surprised, though, because a dig into his past in junior reveals some offensive power. He landed on the Moose Jaw Warriors at 17 and put up a point per game with 28 goals in 72 games. Now, okay, you have to take into account that the three other guys in the top four in points on the team were Dryden Hunt (last year's try at a good depth guy), a guy named Brayden Point you may have heard of, and Vegas's elite version of Gregor, Brett Howden.
The next season he repeated the trick with junior sensation and former Barracuda teammate Jayden Halbgewachs. You have no idea how glad I am the Hurricanes have him on the tryout and we have Gregor. Gregor's transition to pro hockey has come slowly, and without a lot of AHL offence, but he's been played in the NHL a little every year because the Sharks needed a guy who could actually play a basic game at that level. Last year, he busted out with 10 goals in 57 games, and that chart above says it's not just luck.
In 2021-2022 with the Sharks, when Gregor was played less, his defensive impacts were fine – dead on zero. Last year, they weren't fine, and like Benoit and John Klingberg, the gamble the Leafs are making is that these guys, when taken out of that environment, will be able to achieve a result that at least does no harm. I have more hope Gregor can do it than Klingberg, and with Gregor, there's nothing to lose by rolling the dice.
On the fourth line, Gregor is an offensive threat. A real one, not the imaginary potential of Nick Robertson. But it's necessary that he also be a dull enough player – not a big risk taker, not someone who drives too hard and gets too much separation on his anchor – that the line works all over the ice. I think Sam Lafferty has a problem, and it is that his skating might be too fast for the role he'll be thrust into. And fast is really all he's got.
Look, here's the truth: Brad Treliving and the entire media cadre covering the Leafs are all, "hur hur, big man smash," over Ryan Reaves. It creeps me out (for a couple of reasons) but the way this works, the way these guys get their "hur hur" and the true believers in the "keeps the flies off" narrative get to proclaim its utility, is to have someone pick up after Ryan Reaves and do the hockey parts he can't. It needs to be emphasized that Reaves is not without any hockey skill. He's in the NHL for more reasons than the hur hur stuff, but he's past the point in his career where it's reasonable to hope for more than null effect on the things that actually do matter.
Enter Gregor and a low risk, modest offensive reward game.
Why a PTO? Well, for the same reason Zach Aston-Reese was signed on October 9 last season. The Leafs need to sort out the cap, enjoy the waivers experience and then find a way to fit him in.
This is not an exciting acquisition, but at 25, Gregor is at the peak of his game, so why not skim off the cream of his pro career and get a known commodity, not some hopium fuelled prospect? For fourth liners the rule should be: first do no harm. Gregor looks like a man for that job whose second trick is valuable enough, an occasional third-line shift would be fine.
As for Reaves? Well, this one's for you, Ryan: