By: Nathan Kennedy
The Maple Leafs kicked off their pre-season against the Ottawa Senators this past weekend, posting a 4-1 win in Toronto on Saturday.
Although the Senators struck first in the scoring column, Toronto was dominant in their Game 1 victory. Veteran defenseman Mark Giordano led the Leafs in points with three assists, aided by Alex Steeves, who posted two goals, and solid play from Erik Källgren in net who saved 10 of 11 shots.
Toronto’s 4-2 loss in Game 2 was a much different story. Ottawa bested Toronto in pretty much every aspect of the game, posting more shots on goal (27-23), and more hits (46-31) than the Leafs, and winning 55 per cent of the faceoffs, according to a breakdown by ESPN.
Following the double header, head coach Sheldon Keefe was content with his players’ early showing.
“At the start of the second period, we started to find our legs. You could see some of the skill and speed of our team start to take hold,” said Keefe. “Overall, I was happy with what we got out of the game both collectively and individually.”
The Leafs are set to begin their 105th NHL regular season, and the expectations for this year’s roster are higher than ever.
In addition to Steeves, a few players to watch for heading into the next week of the pre-season are Fraser Minten, who was Steeves’ linemate in Game 1, and Denis Malgin, who played well with his star linemate William Nylander.
Last season, Toronto finished atop the NHL’s North Division with 77 points. Along with a North Division title, the Leafs ranked second in the NHL in goals scored (312), first in powerplay percentage (27.3 per cent), and first in the league in short-handed goals scored (13).
But after a disappointing Game 7 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round of the playoffs, the Leafs are eager to prove themselves this season.
The Leafs announced their 50-man training camp roster on Sept. 21, leaving much room to deliberate which players would slide into the opening night lineup at the end of the pre-season.
During the first 60 minutes of pre-season action, the team played with purpose — likely the result of the 50-man split-squad roster battling for positions on the 23-man active lineup.
While typically teams put 60 to 70 players on their training camp rosters, Kyle Cushman, NHL news editor for theScore, wasn’t surprised the Leafs selected fewer players.
“Toronto has opted for a smaller camp roster the last couple of years and that’s in line with what they have this time around as well,” he said.
Keefe said during a press conference that the team “needs some guys to come in and pop, not unlike the way [Michael] Bunting did last year.”
Cushman believes there are multiple players who fit the bill, even some who have yet to play.
“Two of the clear favourites are injured to begin the season. Timothy Liljegren, who could earn more minutes on the backend in 2022-23, will be out until November with a sports hernia,” said Cushman.
“Pierre Engvall also has a shot at sliding in on the second line alongside John Tavares and William Nylander,” he said, “but a foot injury has him sidelined for the first two weeks of camp.”
Nick Robertson is another player to keep an eye on heading into the season, according to Chris Brieda, content associate for TSN.
Since being drafted by the Leafs 53rd overall in the 2019 NHL Draft, Robertson has split time between the NHL and OHL, something that Brieda believes could come to an end this season.
“It’s his fourth season since being drafted, and I think everyone from the front office to the fanbase is eager to see what he can do with consistency in the Leafs lineup,” he said.
With only four players on the current Maple Leafs roster signed until the 2024-25 season, Toronto’s winning window with this current roster is dwindling.
“If you look at the Leafs, and all the heartbreak in the first round, and how no matter who’s in net, who’s the coach, the results are the same,” said Brieda, “It’s been so many years, and so many different ways that they’ve lost, that it almost feels like they’ve built up enough adversity to the point where they’ll get over the hump.”
The Leafs are set to square off with the Canadiens in their next pre-season match-up on Wednesday.