The 2019-20 NHL regular season is just days away and most rosters around the league are beginning to trim down to the final 23 players. For the Toronto Maple Leafs, most of the decisions left to make consist of depth players both on defence and on the wing.
The injury of Zach Hyman in last year’s playoffs will force him to sit out the first 15-20 games of this season. As a result, head coach Mike Babcock and company will have to try and fill the void up front for most of October and November. With Hyman on IR, here is how the Leafs top-nine forwards will likely shape up based on preseason outings:
Assuming these nine skaters are a lock for the top three lines, that leaves Jason Spezza and Frederik Gauthier on the fourth line, with either one capable of playing centre. As a result, the rest of the Toronto Maple Leafs preseason is essentially an audition for the forwards vying for the 12th and 13th spots with the aforementioned 11 skaters all but guaranteed a spot.
Luckily for the Leafs, there remains a strong crop of forwards at camp capable of earning an NHL roster spot. Amongst those, here are the two strongest candidates to fill out the team’s remaining forward spots:
Toronto Maple Leafs Fourth Line Frontrunners
The safest bet within the group to make the opening night roster is former Winnipeg Jets winger Nic Petan. Petan was acquired from the Jets back in February in exchange for Par Lindholm. Obviously the organization saw him as part of the future as they signed him to a two-year extension on March 21st.
What separates Petan from the pack is his playmaking ability. In 2017-18, he tallied 52 points in 52 games with the Manitoba Moose in the AHL. Prior to that, Petan put together three straight seasons of 74 or more assists playing in the WHL for the Portland Winterhawks. While he has struggled to find this production at the NHL level to date, at only 24-years-old the potential for a breakout season is still there (see Andreas Johnsson in 2018-19.)
Pros and Cons of Petan
The biggest knock on Petan early in his NHL career is his size and strength. Standing at only 5’9″, the Delta, B.C native is known more for his speed and skill than his physical prowess. In Gauthier and Spezza, Toronto has two physically strong players who lack any notable speed in their game. With this in mind, perhaps Petan is the perfect candidate to give the Leafs fourth line a different dynamic.
Last Monday night’s performance in Montreal was the ideal audition for Petan to crack the opening night roster. After being excluded from the NHL group’s session, he responded to the tune of two assists in a 3-0 win over the Montreal Canadiens. Petan admitted post-game that his omission from the top group stung, but he chose to use the setback as motivation he told Leafs Nation Network’s, Paul Hendrick.
For Babcock, Petan’s performance at the Bell Centre was noteworthy for other reasons. Speaking post-game with TSN’s Mark Masters, the Leafs head coach highlighted the positives Petan brought beyond the scoresheet:
Nic Petan had two assists, but that's not what stood out to Mike Babcock
"What you see & what I see might be different. He was physical, he was on the puck, he didn't turn the puck over. That's what matters for me."
— Mark Masters (@markhmasters) September 24, 2019
For Petan, the challenge will be to match the intensity he demonstrated in Montreal last Monday. If he can play away from the puck on a consistent basis, his skill set will be the cherry on the top that earns him a regular spot in the Leafs lineup to start the year.
Few would have pegged Dmytro Timashov as a candidate for the Leafs roster prior to the start of training camp. Pontus Aberg, Kenny Agostino, and Nick Shore all came in with something Timashov lacked: NHL experience. Since then, the 22-year-old has outperformed much of the field and emerged as a darkhorse candidate to crack the opening night roster.
For the past three seasons, Timashov has played for the team’s AHL affiliate, the Toronto Marlies. The Swedish youngster has made strides each season at the pro level playing under head coach Sheldon Keefe. Jumping from 24 points in 2016-17 to 49 in 2018-19, his powerplay proficiency makes him an intriguing option for the Leafs second unit.
It’s worth noting Timashov was drafted by the Maple Leafs back in 2015 and has already played within the organization. Similarly, he is the youngest player of the group and is likely only to improve in the coming years. While veterans such as Shore and Agostino could likely fill a void for Toronto, Dubas’ model for success is more focused on graduating players through the system rather than acquiring depth players externally.
Perhaps this was one of the reasons Timashov was skating with the main group early last week. The question remains whether Babcock will see things the same way as his general manager. In speaking with Terry Koshan of the Toronto Sun, Babcock mapped out what Timashov brings to the table for Toronto:
Timashov have a chance? Babcock: "Why not? He protects the puck. He is smart defensively. He is not a tall body but he is a thick body, he can play with really good pace. His biggest area of concern is when he gets it sometimes he turns it over too much." #Leafs
— Terry Koshan (@koshtorontosun) September 23, 2019
If Timashov can keep it simple and play smart defensively, he’ll have a chance to play regularly moving forward.