At the halfway point of their eight-game exhibition schedule, the battle for the few spots up for grabs on the Toronto Maple Leafs' opening-night roster are as “as clear as mud”. That is how head coach Mike Babcock phrased it after the club’s 3-1 victory over the Buffalo Sabres on Saturday.
“I think that is real important for any good organization, you got to have jobs to fight for and you gotta have a bunch of guys fighting for them and that is what is so nice about this camp.” Babcock said.
After a pair of sluggish losses to Ottawa, the Leafs swept both ends of the home-and-home against the division rival Sabres, with players on the bubble stepping up to make a good impression.
Rookie Miro Aaltonen is challenging veterans Eric Fehr and Dominic Moore for the fourth line center job. The 24-year-old former Anaheim Ducks draft pick scored 44 points for Podolsk Vityaz of the KHL last season, but is being asked to be less offensive and play more of a well-rounded game for Toronto.
“I’m trying to play a good game both ways," Aaltonen said in Niagara Falls last week. "I’m a center, so I need to win faceoffs and battle hard. (My defensive game) is better now than it was last year playing in the KHL.”
The two-way game is the strong suit of both Fehr and Moore. The 32-year-old Fehr provides a big bodied presence and can play both center and wing, while Moore, 37, has not lost his speed and scored 12 goals as a fourth liner in Boston last season. Both veterans had good nights against the Sabres, Fehr registered an assist and won nine of 12 draws, while Moore matched up against Jack Eichel on numerous shifts and won eight of 10 faceoffs.
The battle for spots on the wing appear more clear, since some of the candidates for the job would have to be placed on waivers to be sent down to the American Hockey League.
Matt Martin is one of the few players who provide a physical deterrent on the roster and that means the big left winger will be in the lineup on opening night. Josh Leivo saw time on a line with Aaltonen and Connor Brown on Friday and was moved up into more of an offensive role during the game.
Carl Grundstrom has been impressive in camp and played on Toronto’s first power play unit against the Sabres on Saturday, but the 19-year-old is likely destined to be sent back to Frolunda of the SHL for another year.
Nikita Soshnikov and Kasperi Kapanen both scored against Buffalo and have shown at times why they are capable of playing in the NHL, but their waiver exemption allows them to be sent to the Toronto Marlies to start the season and prevents Leafs management from having to make a tough choice.
There is no clear leader in the blueline battle between Swedish imports Calle Rosen, Andreas Borgman and rookie Travis Dermott, but the struggles of Martin Marincin have made it more possible that two of the young defensemen could survive the final roster cut.
Rosen had an assist on Kapanen’s third period game-winning power play goal on Saturday and showed more confidence in jumping into the offensive attack. Borgman, who won the 2017 SHL Rookie of the Year, was equally as impressive and physical on Friday, laying out Sabres forward Evan Rodriques with a check along the boards.
Here was the big hit by Borgman that sent Rodrigues out of the game. We'll see if he comes out for the 3rd pic.twitter.com/uCbisNAbko
— SabresFanatics (@SabresFanatics) September 23, 2017
"(Borgman) is a man out there." Babcock said. "I'm impressed by him. He's got a heavy shot, he's got evasive moves with the puck, he's just gotta learn about his stick and his gap a little bit."
Dermott does not seem phased by the competition and has played well in camp, but the fact that his competition has a few years more experience could be a determining factor in Babcock’s final decision.
Marincin was the seventh defenseman and healthy scratch on most nights last season, but was forced into action during the playoffs and proved to be a liability. The 25-year-old made a costly giveaway that resulted in a Logan Brown power play goal against Ottawa last Tuesday and took two minor penalties after being beaten to the puck on Saturday.
The lanky Slovak has the size and skating ability to be an effective NHL blueliner, but has proven to be an enigma over his two seasons and the Leafs patience may be wearing thin with other options available to them.
The Leafs face the Montreal Canadiens at Ricoh Coliseum on Monday, after which the roster of 49 players will be whittled down significantly to get the club prepared for the season opener in Winnipeg on October 4.
“I’ve got four games (left), I’m gonna dress some real good lineups in a couple of those games, as far as NHL players go and then we’re gonna have some NHL practices.” Babcock said. “That doesn’t mean anything will be in stone, but it will give (the media) something to write about and talk about for a couple days before we really decide what we’re doing.”