TORONTO — Summer has officially come to a close as the Toronto Maple Leafs opened their training camp for the 2023-24 season at the Ford Performance Centre on Wednesday.
Maple Leafs stars Auston Matthews, John Tavares, Mitch Marner and Morgan Rielly, along with head coach Sheldon Keefe and general manager Brad Treliving, met with assembled media on Wednesday morning, providing their perspectives on a number of key issues, including William Nylander’s contract negotiations, the new additions to the roster and the identity of the team.
Here’s what you need to know from the opening day of Maple Leafs’ training camp.
(All stats from NHL.com and MoneyPuck)
"Cool cat" Nylander to open camp at centre amid ongoing negotiations
William Nylander’s ongoing contract negotiation is the most compelling topic heading into training camp as the star forward enters the 2023-24 season on an expiring deal.
Nylander is coming off a career-best season and all indications seem to point to him re-signing with the Maple Leafs, even if a long-term deal is taking longer than all parties want.
Although Nylander wasn’t made available to the media Wednesday, he received several votes of confidence regarding his commitment to the Maple Leafs and his quality of play overall. Nylander stated at last spring’s end-of-year media availability that there’s plenty of time to get a deal done and Treliving warned against taking his nonchalant attitude for indifference.
"He's a cool cat," Treliving said of Nylander.
"I've always thought there's not a lot that bothers this guy and you get to know him: not a lot bothers that guy. It can be misinterpreted, this guy really does care. He cares about having success, he cares about who he is as a player. He works at his craft. I really enjoyed my time with Willy, he's a great kid."
"The kind of guy he is, I really think he's someone who's built to play in Toronto," Tavares said of Nylander.
Treliving also stated that the lines of communication remain open with Nylander and his agent, Lewis Gross, but he won’t be providing updates on the negotiation unless there’s a new development.
Nylander will also start at centre during training camp, giving the Maple Leafs a new wrinkle and an opportunity to gauge who may emerge as their first-line left wing. Treliving suggested the idea and Keefe is fully on board. Keefe noted that Nylander played centre in the AHL during their shared tenure with the Toronto Marlies. Nylander was also named MVP of the 2017 IIHF World Championship where he primarily played centre for Sweden.
Keefe also raved about Nylander’s 2022-23 performance, saying he’s eliminated the lulls in his game that he was previously prone to.
"Giving him some time, some opportunity to grow into that position through camp and have experience and confidence to do it, gives us a chance to see what it looks like, how it affects Willy's game, but also how it affects our team and the flow of our team," Keefe said.
Sheldon Keefe says William Nylander will start at centre in training camp tomorrow. "Moving from wing to centre is a lot more difficult on the fly than it is from centre to wing. Willy's been fully on board, he's totally comfortable playing at centre."
— Arun Srinivasan (@Arunthings) September 20, 2023
"It's something we haven't given a whole lot of runway with and we'll commit to it for a bit here. Not committing to any specific period of time, but just to say it's not going to be a one off or one day or one pre-season game thing."
It’ll be a compelling experiment, at least through the preseason. Tavares played on the wing for large portions of the 2022-23 season and was more effective at 5-on-5 on the wing as opposed to centre, with the majority of his offence coming on the power play. Nylander had to play some centre in the 11-forward format Keefe often deployed last year, so it’s not an unfamiliar concept. He was also drafted as a wing and coming off a 40-goal, 87-point season where he constantly drove the Maple Leafs offence, this could potentially unlock Toronto’s optimal lineup.
"I think Willy can do whatever he puts his mind to. He's that good," Keefe said.
Who will emerge as the first-line left winger?
Michael Bunting’s departure over the summer created a void at left wing for Toronto's top scoring line and while it was initially assumed that Tyler Bertuzzi would fill this role, the competition is wide open.
Bertuzzi, Max Domi, Matthew Knies and Calle Jarnkrok are all vying for the coveted slot, with Nick Robertson potentially in the mix as well. Knies excelled as a rookie during the postseason and became one of Toronto’s most essential players before a concussion ended his first playoffs prematurely.
Jarnkrok was Toronto’s most productive scorer during a March dry spell at 5-on-5 and elevated his game when paired with Matthews and Marner. Bertuzzi was the lone bright spot for the Boston Bruins during their first-round playoff exit, while Domi is capable of playing either centre or wing in a top-six role, despite his defensive limitations.
So, how does the coach see this battle unfolding?
"We have a plan going in. We’re going to want to look at different things. It’s a long season, it’s a long preseason. An opportunity to look at different things. Obviously, Knies was in here during the playoffs but when you look at it, we have a lot of different options on that side. Bertuzzi, Domi, Knies, we also have Nick Robertson coming back healthy, we have some real competition there," Keefe said.
"There’s a lot of new faces there. We’ll see how it all works. We’re starting with Willy in the middle but we’re not going to put a label on what line is which," he added.
Parsing through Keefe’s answer, it remains an open competition and we’ll certainly get a better look as training camp goes on.
Treliving on Robertson: "Nick is a guy I'm really interested in seeing ... He is a driven kid. Pedal down all the time, which I love. What are his chances? Everybody has a chance." #Leafs
— Terry Koshan 🇺🇦 (@koshtorontosun) September 20, 2023
Jarnkrok will have priority over Robertson for now, as the 22-year-old needs to stay healthy and prove he’s capable of producing consistently in the NHL.
"In Nick’s case, he’s in a pretty similar situation that he was last season," Keefe said. "I think he’s done that at different times but his ability to produce consistently has been a challenge as it is for young players. Being healthy and available is a big part of it as well."
At this time last year, most thought Robertson was a lock to make the opening-night roster and were proven to be horribly wrong. Noah Gregor, who enters camp on a PTO, is a potential option at wing or centre in a bottom-six role. It’s an open competition and Keefe will certainly experiment like it’s The Manhattan Project throughout training camp.
Samsonov is the clear-cut No. 1 goalie, Murray to undergo "significant" surgery
Treliving revealed Matt Murray will undergo a "significant" surgery and will be out for months after reaggravating a previous injury over the summer.
"That's going to take place in the next week. For Matt's privacy, I'm just going to leave it at that. I'll be happy to update everybody once we're through that and once Matt's through it. It's been determined for a while now that he'd have to go down this path and we're looking forward to getting him better and on the path to recovery."
Samsonov went to arbitration this summer and received a one-year contract worth $3.55 million for the upcoming season — nowhere close to what Samsonov wanted after a career year where he finished 10th in goals saved above expected. The 26-year-old is now entrenched in the No. 1 role and Keefe said he’s taking a tremendous step from where he was last year.
Woll is a capable No. 2, finishing last year as the Maple Leafs’ starter when Samsonov was injured.
"You don't want to use the term surprised, really, because he's a really highly-touted goalie," Keefe said of Woll's play. "But he certainly sped up his development last season."
Martin Jones has been brought in to push Samsonov and Woll for their jobs. Although the Maple Leafs have expressed internal confidence in Jones, he’s been one of the worst goaltenders in the league over the past few seasons with minus-21.4 goals saved above expected as a member of the Seattle Kraken last year. There’s ample reason to believe he’s just a training camp and AHL body for now.
Maple Leafs stars buying into Treliving’s vision for the team
It was a whirlwind offseason with Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan autocratically taking the controls, installing Treliving as general manager when contract negotiations eroded with Kyle Dubas over the span of a week.
Keefe was retained on a two-year extension and Treliving went to work, adding several new faces to the lineup with the ostensible goal of making the Maple Leafs tougher and harder to play against.
Toronto’s core are buying into Treliving’s vision, at least initially.
"It’s different. It’s a little difficult. He had a tremendous impact on me both on and off the ice. He was probably the biggest factor in bringing me to Toronto," Tavares said of Kyle Dubas, who is now the general manager of the Pittsburgh Penguins.
"You understand the business side of it. Things just happened. [Treliving] has been tremendous. The page turned quickly. I think the group’s been excited, just from his opening remarks to the first conversations he’s had with everyone."
Matthews reiterated that Treliving is solely focused on winning a Stanley Cup immediately.
"It was a little bit surprising at the time. It's exciting to have new faces. As far as Kyle goes, I thought I had a good relationship with him and it's been really good to have Brad come along and express his expectations for the team," Matthews said.
"He has a great reputation within the league. I'm excited to work with him. His vision for the team is to get to the top of the mountain and that's where all our focus is at. He's going to do his job and we're going to do ours," he added.
Treliving overhauled the roster, adding Bertuzzi, Domi and Ryan Reaves among other signings, all of whom ought to make the Maple Leafs a tougher team to face. The core has been welcoming of the new-look roster in a pivotal year of the Maple Leafs’ timeline.
"I think all the guys we added are great. They all add some piss and vinegar — or snot, as everyone's been saying. Obviously (Reaves) brings a lot of energy. Max and Bertuzzi can play up and down the lineup, make a lot of plays around the net," Marner said.