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Projecting Maple Leafs' opening night roster

Nick Robertson was impressive during the Maple Leafs' training camp and preseason. (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)
Nick Robertson was impressive during the Maple Leafs' training camp and preseason. (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images) (Getty Images)

Nick Robertson broke into an exclusive club that only two other players in the storied history of the Toronto Maple Leafs entered during the 103th season in franchise history.

The pandemic has warped our sense of time to be sure, and if we track back to the 2020 playoffs, it may as well feel like another lifetime ago. Robertson, in his first glimpses of NHL action, during the highest-leverage situation you could possibly ask of a rookie, scored a goal during Game 3 of the qualifying round against the Columbus Blue Jackets. The diminutive winger joined Jack Hamilton and Ted Kennedy as the only Maple Leafs to score in the postseason before they turned 19.

For a brief second, it appeared a star was born. As we know, the pandemic laid waste to the best-laid plans but finally Robertson was afforded another opportunity. In a matter of cruel fate, Robertson suffered a knee injury during his 2021 debut, then fractured his right fibula in October 2021 during a stint with the AHL’s Toronto Marlies.

Robertson played like a man possessed during the preseason, posting three goals and eight points in five games, essentially cementing his place among Toronto’s vaunted top-six forwards. It is somewhat silly to use compete level as professional-grade criteria but Robertson, who is the smallest player on the ice, is trying to skate through his opponents while ripping pristine bullets from just outside the circle.

He’s not going to convince anyone he’s a power forward but given his past injury history, Robertson is unafraid of getting into the dirty areas, all the while knowing his high-end skill set is his ticket to further NHL minutes.

As for advice to be gleaned from the rest of Toronto’s veterans? Robertson’s shot, even among the best-of-the-best, stands out as a new weapon to be added to the Maple Leafs’ arsenal.

“I can’t really teach him anything because I think he shoots it harder than anyone on the team,” Auston Matthews said of Robertson on Oct. 3 to Sports Illustrated’s David Alter.

Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe also told reporters this preseason is the best stretch he’s ever seen for Robertson. Two years after making Maple Leafs history, Robertson is now well-suited to help the club seize the Atlantic Division’s top seed and help this iteration of the team shatter the stigma associated with six first-round losses. This is his shot and there’s no better time than the present to take it.

How will the Maple Leafs' opening night roster take shape?

For all intents and purposes, the Maple Leafs’ roster is largely set, which makes the training camp battles even more heated with just a few spots available for opening night. Before we dig into the camp battles, let’s make a list of players who are absolutely locked into the roster:

Forwards: Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander, John Tavares (injured), Michael Bunting, David Kampf, Alexander Kerfoot, Calle Jarnkrok, Nicolas Aube-Kubel, Pierre Engvall, Zach Aston-Reese

Defense: Morgan Rielly, TJ Brodie, Jake Muzzin, Justin Holl, Mark Giordano, Rasmus Sandin, Timothy Liljegren (injured)

Goaltenders: Matt Murray, Ilya Samsonov

There are some non-linear developments we have to take into account here. As mentioned above, Robertson has clinched his spot on the team and it would be a genuine shock if he’s dropped to the AHL. Denis Malgin has also strongly impressed during his second stint with the Maple Leafs and after a two-year hiatus from the NHL, if training camp performance is what matters most, he’s earned a top-nine spot.

Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman first reported Sunday that Wayne Simmonds is available, and they want to ensure he ends up on an NHL roster.. Simmonds has never played in the AHL and with the Maple Leafs evidently feeling that he’s been surpassed on the depth chart, they want to do right by the 34-year-old veteran. By placing him on waivers, Simmonds will get a chance to extend his NHL career in a bottom-six role.

Calle Jarnkrok and Zach Aston-Reese excelled as defensive specialists throughout camp and have been rewarded internally. Jarnkrok signed a four-year, $8.4 million deal with the Maple Leafs this summer so he was always going to get an extended look, but the team tried him out on defence on an emergency basis, and his flexibility is a major asset.

Aston-Reese is perhaps the best story of Toronto’s camp. The shutdown winger entered camp on a player tryout option and earned a spot with the big club. After the wave of cuts came on Saturday, Aston-Reese signed a one-year deal worth $840,000. The former Penguins and Ducks forward won’t produce anything meaningfully on the scoresheet, but he is a pain to play against and will rarely allow his opponents to score, while having the range to play either centre or wing. This is a major win for Kyle Dubas and his staff.

Pierre Engvall missed most of training camp due to a foot injury but he has less to prove than the rest of the hopefuls, and he looked fine during his return to action in Saturday’s 5-1 victory over the Red Wings. His spot is secure.

At the time of this filing, John Tavares isn’t expected to play on opening night due to injury.

On the back end, it’s far less complicated. Toronto’s top-six defencemen are more or less set and Liljegren will likely be back in a top-four role alongside Jake Muzzin once he’s ready to return.

Victor Mete and Jordie Benn are both NHL-caliber defenders and Mete’s relative youth and competency in his own end makes him an appealing option. At this juncture, they’re not going to unseat the existing core. It was somewhat surprising that Mete was waived, but if he doesn’t find another NHL team, the Maple Leafs should come calling again.

And with due respect to Filip Kral, he won’t be on the ice on Oct. 12, but will benefit from another standout year in the AHL.

Projection for opening night against the Canadiens:

Michael Bunting–Auston Matthews–Mitch Marner

Nick Robertson–William Nylander–Denis Malgin

Pierre Engvall–David Kampf–Nicolas Aube-Kubel

Kyle Clifford–Alexander Kerfoot–Calle Jarnkrok

Zach Aston-Reese

Morgan Rielly-TJ Brodie

Mark Giordano-Justin Holl

Jake Muzzin-Rasmus Sandin

Jordie Benn

The unknown commodities between the pipes

Toronto sent Erik Kallgren to the AHL on Saturday, cementing the team’s starting duo entering the season. Matt Murray will begin as the presumptive No. 1, while Ilya Samsonov will be afforded room to challenge him on the depth chart.

"I've gotten to know Ilya, and we get along well. We push each other, yeah, but we also help each other. That chemistry is important in a goalie tandem," Murray told NHL.com.

Samsonov is an outstanding athlete, relying on his huge frame and lateral ability to make stops and he was largely great against the Red Wings on Friday, despite the box score suggesting otherwise. With the majority of the Maple Leafs starters sitting out, Samsonov was subject to a ton of high-danger chances and acquitted himself well.

“I think he has had a great camp right from the time he has come through our doors in our facility even before camp began,” Keefe told reporters Friday. “The work he has put in to get himself ready for the season has shown. I think it is all we could really ask for. We are really happy with what we have gotten out of him.”

The goaltending pairing may ultimately dictate Toronto’s season as the star-laden forward group is a known quantity, while the team’s blue line has benefited from internal development and continuity over the past few seasons. At this juncture, it’s difficult to get a read on how they’ll play during the season, but both Murray and Samsonov have earned Keefe’s confidence ahead of the opener. Kallgren will be waiting for a promotion if either goalie falters.

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