After Travis Dermott was called up by the Toronto Maple Leafs on January 5th, the Toronto Marlies had graduated their fifth player to the big club this season. He is accompanied by Kasperi Kapanen, Frederik Gauthier, Nikita Soshnikov, and Calvin Pickard. That’s not including Martin Marincin or Calle Rosen because at the time they hadn’t been developed by the Marlies in any meaningful capacity. Of those five, Dermott was the only newcomer to the NHL. That begs the question of who will follow. The two most likely players to follow are Miro Aaltonen and Andreas Johnsson.
Finding the Next Toronto Maple Leafs Call-Up
Behind a glut of depth forwards, and with Connor Brown on the 4th line, you may question why two forwards with no NHL experience have a better chance of a call-up than a defenceman with SHL and NHL experience in Rosen. There is a date that some people forget is fast approaching.
The trade deadline is February 26th. The Leafs are nearing decision time on three major pending unrestricted free agents. Given the current play of James van Riemsdyk, the Leafs will not only have a tough decision to hold on to him for a playoff run or give in to the temptation to flip him for picks. If moved, the team will have a tough time replacing his production. The oft-ignored Josh Leivo would be the obvious fit, however the dip in ability may be too much to spare.
Bozak and Komarov on the Block?
Tyler Bozak‘s lacklustre defensive play has him on the chopping block of many armchair GMs, especially considering the faceoff success of other Leafs centermen. Auston Matthews, William Nylander, Patrick Marleau, Frederik Gauthier, and Dominic Moore all have higher faceoff percentages. One of his major selling points is already covered by players within the organization. On top of that, being the eighth highest scoring forward, while seeing power play time, does not do much to secure his spot on a competitive team.
Leo Komarov is the last of the three, and to be blunt he has been disappointing this season. If Bozak’s offensive output is worrying, Komarov having less points per game than Matt Martin is damning. It could be argued that Komarov’s worth lies in his defensive play, however his consistently declining point production coincides with the thought that Komarov may be seeing overall regression. Players of his age with similar play style seem to see this dip. The tie may go to the veteran in Mike Babcock‘s eyes. However, Komarov is being outright surpassed by not one, but multiple young players looking for a chance.
Possible Line-Up Changes
Looking at the big picture van Riemsdyk has earned a spot on this playoff push. Bozak and Komarov are expendable and should be moved if a reasonable offer is made. After Soshnikov returns from injury, he and a combination of Kapanen, Gauthier, and Leivo appear to be more than ready to take the reigns.
If Bozak is moved, one could see Marleau or Nylander shift to centre. Meanwhile, Leivo, Kapanen and Soshnikov would all be candidates to fill the gap left by a departing Komarov, or another winger shifting to centre higher in the lineup. Another option would be finding a centre from the Marlies. The most obvious pick is Miro Aaltonen, who made a rather large push for the fourth line centre position in training camp. He remains pushed out by Dominic Moore because of Babcock’s “tie goes to the vet” philosophy.
Aaltonen’s AHL Success
Aaltonen has joined Johnsson and Kapanen on a dominant line in the AHL. The trio combined to score 30 goals in 37 games to date. Aaltonen’s six goals and 13 assists in 34 games is good for fifth in scoring on the Marlies. Also taking into consideration Aaltonen’s KHL success, he could be a good fit on the Leafs third line. This would slot him with van Riemsdyk and Mitch Marner. His poise with the puck is what makes Aaltonen a threat in the offensive zone. He is a great passer who doesn’t seem to be the massive defensive liability that Bozak can be.
Earlier in the season, he would not have been seen as capable of matching Bozak’s offensive output. With Bozak’s struggles, that seems less of a concern at this point. It would be a large risk to trade Bozak in the hopes of Aaltonen being NHL ready. However, he could be given the chance at the third line centre job. The Leafs having the option of moving Marleau or Nylander to centre mitigates a lot of that risk.
Andreas Johnsson likely won’t be a player looked at this season. The main reason for this is the Leafs depth on the wing. If Kasperi Kapanen is any example, there may be an opportunity for Johnsson to force his way into the lineup in the playoffs. He may just have to serve his time until then. Even Kapanen isn’t playing regularly with the Leafs yet. If there’s one thing Johnsson has going for him (and his hopes of a recall), it’s his dominance of the American Hockey League.
Marlies head coach Sheldon Keefe had this to say about Johnsson after the conclusion of their 2016-17 playoff run: “Andreas Johnsson is one guy who hasn’t been mentioned very much, but he’s a young guy playing his first year in the American Hockey League and he’s been reliable for us all year. He doesn’t get mentioned a lot because he just kind of does it every day.”
Earning the Opportunity
Soshnikov and Kapanen were exceptional at that level, and earned their chances last year because they fit the needs of the big club. This season, Johnsson has dominated every aspect of the game. He has the defensive ability and penalty killing talent of Leo Komarov; the speed and puck retrieval skills of Zach Hyman; and a little bit of the Swedish vision and passing that William Nylander shows off oh so regularly. Johnsson is as complete a player you will find at the AHL level. and His 25 points in 32 games proves that and is good for 16th among players aged 24 and under in the league. Johnsson is the ideal product of a successful AHL development program. In his 5th year in the organization, he may finally find his chance to prove himself.
We may not see anyone this season who shows the potential that Dermott does. There are still plenty of Marlies left that the Leafs can lean on in the event of injuries. Johnsson and Aaltonen may be battling for 17th on the Leafs forward depth chart, but this does not mean they are not NHL ready. All things considered, one may get a look before the conclusion of the regular season.
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