BUFFALO — The Maple Leafs are halfway through their exhibition schedule and training camp, but still a long way from determining their Oct. 3 opening night lineup.
Here are five gray areas for the Blue and White as head coach Mike Babcock and general manager Kyle Dubas try to get the Leafs sorted out and also find the best alternate plan for those who don’t make the cut. In the next day or so, the roster will be split into more distinct NHL and AHL groups.
RELEASE THE HOUNDS
After John Tavares and Auston Matthews took turns with big goals and some jaw-dropping moves in four straight wins, it’s time to get them both in the same game. Babcock hinted that will be no later than the home-and-home with Detroit at the end of the week that wraps the pre-season schedule.
It’s especially important for power-play purposes if both are to have a role with most of one unit changed by the departures of James van Riemsdyk and Tyler Bozak.
Tavares seems to be making the adjustment to Babcock’s system just fine, while Matthews was encouraged by Saturday against the Sabres, where he, Patrick Marleau and Tyler Ennis combined on the best goal of the night, Matthews catching up to Ennis’s centring feed for one of his deft re-directs under the bar.
“I felt more like myself tonight, I had the puck more on my stick, more patience, was able to make more plays and lots of opportunities,” Matthews said. “My shot wasn’t there (even though he led the team with seven), I couldn’t pick the spots and their goalie (Carter Hutton) made some good saves, but at the same time I have to put the puck in the net. Hopefully, I’m saving for the regular season.”
After Zach Hyman suffered a hip pointer, others might get a shot at left wing with Tavares this week.
Every game the Leafs win and that Ennis shows he can keep up with the M and M men, gives Dubas less reason to fret that William Nylander isn’t here yet.
The restricted free agent’s contract will be resolved as players in similar circumstance start reaching agreements around the league. Nylander’s negotiators, his father Michael and agent Lewis Gross are entitled to keep pushing for the long-term megabucks, but there will be eventual compromise.
Meanwhile, the 5-foot-something Ennis is enjoying this personal revival after falling off the map in Buffalo and Minnesota. That he’s healthy again and shows spunk for a Smurf will quickly endear him to fans.
“I know the situation I’ve been given and that I’m lucky,” Ennis said. “I’m just trying to work hard and get better every day, but there’s a lot I can still get better at.”
Ennis wryly noted that Matthews “seems to get open a lot.”
“(Saturday) was a nice goal, a great pass by Patty to give it to me in stride. A pretty special play. It felt more like a regular season game,” said Ennis.
The committee approach that appears to have won out over temptation to chase an Erik Karlsson or another star has had some interesting twists.
After hearing a summer of public praise of Travis Dermott’s work in the second half of last season and the consensus that everyone would like hard working Connor Carrick rewarded with a spot, Babcock is not taking it easy on either. A slight shoulder injury also set Dermott back last week.
Meanwhile, big newcomer Igor Ozhiganov gets more comfortable every day and Babcock paired him with Calle Rosen in challenging situations. Usurped by countryman Andreas Borgman at last year’s camp, Rosen’s offence and a Calder Cup year with the Marlies might put him ahead. Justin Holl can fill in, too.
At the top, Ron Hainsey and Morgan Rielly are set, while Nikita Zaitsev and Jake Gardiner are moving on from individual setbacks last season.
Frederik Andersen isn’t just kicking back and enjoying the battle of the back-ups behind him.
The Dane knows he’s a huge piece of the playoff puzzle and has had rather sluggish starts to his two seasons as a Leaf. He played the first 40 minutes of two games and despite allowing two Sabre goals, called it a big improvement.
“I got some looks on the penalty kill (Sabres snipers such as Jack Eichel right in his face), got some extra work and that will be important to get dialled in. The first goal (Kyle Okposo on the power play) was tough, I have to fight through the screen a little bit.
“I have a good feeling coming in this year, especially some of the changes I’ve made to focus on moving well and be stronger.”
One sub-par outing by Garret Sparks on Friday shouldn’t take him out of the running for the No. 2 spot. But Curtis McElhinney, an ideal back-up, looks as poised as ever and Calvin Pickard was rock solid coming in cold for Saturday’s final period.
“They’ve all played well,” Andersen said. “But it’s something I don’t want to think too much about. It’s an individual time of year and the focus is doing what you can do to make yourself prepared for what’s ahead.”
AND WHAT ABOUT …
Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren are rocking it as Swedish blueline rookies. They won’t start in the NHL, but Liljegren is set for a big year on the farm and Sandin will either return to junior or his club team in the SHL … Par Lindholm as fourth-line centre, stepping right in from Sweden and forming an effective pairing with Kasperi Kapanen and Andreas Johnsson, the latter also trying to hang on to a hard-won job. Lindholm drew the Eichel assignment Saturday … All Josh Leivo wanted was a chance for a regular job on the big squad after waiting most of 2017-18 in vain. With Nazem Kadri and Connor Brown, he’s raised his profile and if he can show some jam down low on the power play, he’ll stay prominent … Adam Brooks with tireless efforts at centre has caught Babcock’s eye, while still supplying offence. “Last year helped a lot, going the distance (with Marlies) so intensity gets taken to a whole new level and it leads to this. Getting the opportunity with Ben Smith and Chris Mueller last year, helped a lot. Now I’m just taking it all in” … Linemate Jeremy Bracco has two goals. “He has a skill set, no question,” Babcock said. “Now he has to work on being a good pro, learning how to train and to eat. It takes some kids some time.” … Trevor Moore, who came from nowhere a couple of years ago to work his way into some prime time ice with the Marlies, continues to get fine reviews as well … Feisty Leafs farmhand Emerson Clark got into it with the larger Tyler Randall in a Saturday slugfest. “Camp has been awesome, it really has,” said the free agent. “Throughout the summer, we were talking and it was a good fit. Down 1-0, I thought (taking on Randall) would make an impact.”