Maple Leafs Training Camp Preview: Battles, Questions, Squad Picks

The confetti from another Stanley Cup parade in another city not called Toronto had long since been swept off the streets, and another off-season of tweaks was in full swing.

Sheldon Keefe attended his first in-person draw as Maple Leafs coach prior to his first “regular” season in the position.

And yet, Keefe said, not much had changed.

The disappointment of yet another postseason too soon, another squandered home advantage, still haunted his mind with all those possible line combos.

But the positives from his group’s record-breaking regular season and the two-time champion’s heart-pounding playoff test hadn’t changed either.

Keefe plunged into the Leafs’ summer improvement projects with a surge of optimism, encouraged by “the faith we have in our group and how close we felt we were going to beat a really, really good team. But motivated nonetheless because, well, “we just couldn’t pull it off again.”

The hope is that the combination of a bitter, narrow defeat and the sweet, infectious belief that the hockey club is about to break through has resulted in minimal change in the roster.

Aside from the new guys in pads, most players reporting to Ford Performance Center for medical exams on Wednesday will know each other as well as long summers.

Keef is right. No, not much has changed.

Some tweaks here and there, starting this week at camp, and maybe the result will be too.

Current salary ceiling room: $0
General manager: Kyle Dubas
Head Coach: Sheldon Keefe
Assistant coaches: Spencer Carbery, Dean Chynoweth, Manny Malhotra, Curtis Sanford (goal-tending)
Unsigned players: Rasmus Sandin (RFA), Zach Aston-Reese (PTO), Dylan Ferguson (PTO)

THE POINTING QUESTION: Where – and when – does Rasmus Sandin fit?

While the other Leafs report for medical examinations and prepare for the ice, Sandin is still waiting.

One of the NHL’s few outstanding restricted free agents to have dug into a contractual stalemate, the 22-year-old defender has long stood on trust and promise. But his resume and influence are short.

If the left-wing gunman isn’t interested in signing an agreement similar to friend Timothy Liljegren’s two-year pact of $2.8 million, a one-year piece of evidence may be the easiest way to put this distraction on the back burner. (Mikey Anderson’s recent $1 million one-year deal with Los Angeles could provide the template.)

How the Sandin saga shakes out will have a ripple effect on the roster.

If the Swede signs for decent money, should another salary be dumped into the trade so the Leafs can file a complaint before Opening Night? (Righty Justin Holl is the bait of the rumours.) And which lefty moves to the right so Sandin can get more shifts? (Mark Giordano feels like the only candidate.)

However, if Sandin and Dubas cannot find common ground, the seventh defender opens up the opportunity for a cheap recruit like Jordie Benn or Victor Mete to impress in the pre-season. That flexibility in the roster could save a tweener from the October waiver thread.

Conversely, with Liljegren missing camp due to injury (as first reported by Chris Johnston), Sandin would find he had more influence — and Ice Age.

(The Leafs will comment on the nature of Liljegren’s injury on Wednesday.)

We are fascinated to see how it all ends.

TRAINING CAMP BATTLE TO WATCH: Making puzzle pieces from the bottom six

Keefe will once again be blessed with elite game-breakers at the top of his lineup. Further down the bank, however, the intrigue — and competition — should increase.

For now, we’ll draw the unsung 50-point nutsman Alexander Kerfoot on the left wing alongside John Tavares and William Nylander in the top six, knowing the coaches are content to throw Kerfoot everywhere and will likely give other forwards a chance to produce on such a premium place.

(Calle “Four More Years” Järnkrok, Pierre “I Think I Can Score 20” Engvall, Nick “Time to Pop” Robertson, and Adam “Did You See Me at the Worlds?” Gaudette are all candidates for an offensive and would a little higher in the lineup.)

The configuration of the bottom six will be especially interesting, and there’s no shortage of options.

We see Stanley Cup winner Nicolas Aubé-Kubel as the only fourth-line lock.

If that’s true, it leaves two spots open for Gaudette, surprise PTO Zach Aston-Reese, respected veterans Wayne Simmonds and Kyle Clifford, and Marlies like Robertson, Joey Anderson and Curtis Douglas to move across.

As with so many teams that are overstretched, the final cuts may not be made entirely on merit.

Considerations regarding limits, eligibility for waiver, experience and role all come into play.

PROJECTED SETUP FROM THE CAMP

Michael Bunting–Auston Matthews–Mitchell Marner
Alexander Kerfoot–John Tavares–William Nylander
Pierre Engvall–David Kämpf–Calle Järnkrok
Zach Aston-Reese-Adam Gaudette-Nicolas Aubé-Kubel

Morgan Rielly–TJ Brodie
Jake Muzzin–Justin Holli
Mark Giordano–Timothy Liljegren

Matt Murray
Ilya Samsonov

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