Despite being two years removed, the Toronto Maple Leafs’ 2015-16 campaign feels like a bad dream in the distant past.
It might be hard to believe now, but it was only two years ago that the Mike Babcock era began for the Toronto Maple Leafs
The first group of forwards Babcock had to coach for the Leafs weren’t all that great.
Allow me to refresh your memory:
It’s actually not that bad from a depth perspective, but it’s short on elite talent and has way too many support players in prominent roles. Although it was just two years ago, the days of Nick Spaling and Brad Boyes are thankfully long gone and the future is finally now.
But the Toronto Maple Leafs will run into another problem heading into the 2017-18 season; too many solid wingers in the organization to play at once.
Out of all of the problems an NHL club can face, having a surplus of NHL-caliber wingers is definitely down the list (probably near the difficulty of juggling cap space, in order to sign a trio of rookie sensations in the next couple of years).
Here’s where the Leafs stand:
With eight total spots at wing, the Leafs have eight wingers that are locks to make the team and five bubble guys.
The locks: William Nylander, Mitch Marner, James van Riemsdyk, Patrick Marleau, Zach Hyman, Connor Brown, Leo Komarov and Matt Martin.
Bubble wingers: Josh Leivo, Kasperi Kapanen, Nikita Soshnikov, Eric Fehr and Kerby Rychel.
Unless one of these bubble guys has an outstanding camp or a locked winger gets injured prior to the regular, it’s blatantly clear who’s making the team – but the problem is that Leivo, Kapanen and Fehr are probably better players than some of the locks.
Some of the problem could easily be solved by moving Nylander to centre and trading Bozak, but that would still leave the Leafs with an excess.
Of the five wingers listed, 22-year-old Kerby Rychel is, other than Soshikov, the least likely to find a spot on the Maple Leafs in 2016-17.
Despite leading the Marlies in points (52) and penalty minutes (118) during the regular season, and being about as NHL-ready as anyone can be, there just isn’t room on the roster for him at this time.
As long as the Leafs insist on dressing Matt Martin, and keeping Nylander on the wing, there doesn’t seem to be a path to the main roster for Rychel.
A personal prediction; look for him to be part of a packaged deal for a solid defenseman, if the situation arises. His 6-foot-1, 214 pound frame and offensive flash makes for an attractive piece in a potential trade.
You almost forgot the Leafs still have Eric Fehr, didn’t you?
Since arriving to Toronto in a salary dump from Pittsburgh, Fehr played just one regular season game, in which he blocked a shot and injured his left hand.
While that injury forced him out for the season, Fehr still has one year left on his contract, and has always been an effective NHL player. It is likely he could play centre and be better than Dominic Moore.
Still, at this point Fehr is a depth player. He will be available in case of injury and will most likely watch from the press box most nights as the 14th forward on this Leafs team moving forward.
Nikita Soshnikov is an interesting case going into the upcoming season.
In that dreaded 2015-16 season, he was one of many rookie call-ups and performed quite well.
However, overshadowed by the likes of Matthews, Marner, Nylander, Hyman and Brown, Soshnikov found himself on the Leafs’ fourth line with Matt Martin and Ben Smith for the majority of the season.
Buried with a couple of subpar players, he was unable to find his groove, ran into some injury trouble and never regained the hype surrounding him coming into 2016-17.
That hype was likely undeserved. Soshnikov might not even be an NHL player and is most likely headed to the Marlies.
There is no doubt that 21-year-old Kasperi Kapanen is NHL-ready.
In his 14 (regular season and playoff combined) NHL games this season, he played on the fourth line with Martin and Brian Boyle.
Although he scored just 3 goals in that time, every goal was immensely important. On top of that, he registered 43 points in 43 games with the Marlies and 8 points in 9 games throughout the Calder Cup playoffs.
Kapenen should definitely be a regular on the Leafs this season, if not for a logjam at wing. In fact, given his possession and shot-suppression stats, eh is a player the Leafs should clear the logjam for.
It will be interesting to see how this pans out, but my best guess is that Kapanen will start the season with the Marlies and hope for an injury, as he, like Soshnikov, is still on a two-way deal.
If placed in the AHL come October, Kapanen will without a doubt be the Leafs’ No. 1 call-up at wing.
It’s times like this when the Matt Martin deal leaves me perplexed.
Supposedly, Martin is an important role player, a father figure and the bodyguard on the ice for the Maple Leafs, but is he really worth the roster spot?
Like Martin, Josh Leivo was protected by Toronto in the Expansion Draft this past June, leading Leafs Nation to believe that the front office had a plan for him.
Before the Marleau signing, it looked like Leivo had a good shot to make teh Leafs, but now his role is reverted to enigma-status once again.
Leivo played just 13 games with the Leafs this season, but put up an impressive 2 goals, 10 assists during that span. He led the Leafs in p/60.
Additionally, while on the left side of Komarov and Nazem Kadri, his possession numbers (keep small sample size in mind) were really solid (55% Corsi For).
You can’t help but feel bad for Leivo at this time. He’s toughed out three full seasons with the Marlies waiting for his chance and now he’s essentially in limbo once again.
I don’t see him beating out anyone on the roster other than Martin, but even that is a long shot considering how much Toronto’s management values the rugged winger.
He will most likely play another season as the Leafs’ 13th forward and premiere black ace.
Unfortunately for Leivo last season, there were virtually no serious injuries to any of the Maple Leafs’ forwards the entire year. In theory, one would hope for the regulars to stay healthy, but it’s probably not going to go as perfectly as it went in 2016-17.
Leivo will find time at some point, but will get nowhere near the amount of games he truly deserves.
It’s clear that the Leafs have switched gears to win-now mode, which inadvertently puts a few wingers in tough situations.
Hypothetically, it would be great to see all 13 wingers somehow find a spot on this year’s above-average Leafs roster, but it’s just not going to happen.
Better to have an excess of deserving, NHL-caliber bubble wingers ready to go when a worst-case scenario happens, than to have Troy Bodie, Carter Ashton and Ryan Hamilton as a backup plan.