With the NHL rolling out their Return to Play Plan earlier this week, the hockey world is set for an unprecedented finish to the 2019-2020 season. Everything about this is going to be different than what we’re used to. From empty arenas, to the number of teams involved and the format they’ll play under, right on down to the number of players that teams will be allowed to carry for this unique undertaking.
Couple of other notes from Return-to-Play protocol: Two exhibition games per team; 28 skaters and as many goalies as you wish to carry.
— Elliotte Friedman (@FriedgeHNIC) May 27, 2020
It’s safe to assume that everyone who was on the Leafs’ roster when the season was put on hold will be a part of the expanded roster, including the likes of Calle Rosen and Denis Malgin. Jake Muzzin and Ilya Mikheyev will be ready to return from the injured list, Nick Robertson will be joining the team after his dominant season in the OHL, and Marlies leading scorer Kenny Agostino has reportedly been asked to return to Toronto as well.
Marlies leading scorer Kenny Agostino will soon make his way north from New Jersey and begin serving his 14-day quarantine, so he can practise in Toronto and join Maple Leafs’ extended playoff roster.
— luke fox (@lukefoxjukebox) May 27, 2020
Even with Andreas Johnsson still on the shelf, that leaves just four spots on the expanded roster up for grabs. The Maple Leafs’ management group along with Sheldon Keefe and his coaching staff will have to balance positional needs with stylistic needs as they decide who will fill out the bottom of their roster. Here are the most likely candidates to be with the Leafs when the season resumes:
The 24 year old center finally got into his first NHL games this year after injuries had stalled his progress for much of the last two seasons. Brooks is a smart but undersized center who is effective at both ends of the ice, with his vision and passing ability being his strongest attributes. A top six forward for the Marlies with 20 points in 29 games, Brooks would likely be a fourth line option for the Leafs but his ability to facilitate for his teammates combined with his commitment to the defensive part of the game make him a versatile player. Though he played sparingly in just 7 games with the Leafs, he generated 3 assists to go along with a 54.35 xGF% showing that he’s capable of handling NHL minutes. Brooks will likely fill a spot on the 28 man roster.
While Petan hasn’t been able to make good on his opportunities to stick with Toronto’s big club to this point, he’s been a very effective player for the Marlies. He managed 10 goals and 21 assists in just 25 AHL games this season and even though it has yet to translate to the NHL, his offensive ability could make him an enticing option for a Leafs team that struggled to generate secondary scoring for long stretches this season. Petan also offers more positional versatility than the other candidates, having played center and both wing positions in the past which could prove invaluable if injuries begin to pile up.
The 23 year old Russian had a mostly successful first season in North America. He showed flashes of offensive flair with a few highlight reel goals among the 16 he scored for the Marlies this season and he picked up his first career NHL goal in his lone appearance with the Leafs. At 6’4″ and 214lbs, he’s big enough – and mean enough – to be a factor on the fourth line and his offensive tools could make him a potential fit in the top nine if someone like Mikheyev or Hyman is lost to injury.
— Toronto Marlies (@TorontoMarlies) February 15, 2020
It was a rough year for Bracco following a season where he led the Marlies with 79 points in 75 games. He failed to produce at the same rate this season and was forced to watch several of his Marlies teammates get the call to the NHL while he continued to ply his trade in the minors. He also took a leave of absence for personal reasons in early February but returned to the team shortly before the AHL season was paused. Despite little going his way this season, Bracco is still one of the most talented playmakers and power play quarterbacks in the organization. He’s not the kind of player that can slide up and down the lineup but if the Leafs want players for specific roles, Bracco could be valuable insurance if one of their offensively gifted right wingers goes down at any point. His entry-level contract is set to expire this offseason and he’ll have to clear waivers in order to be assigned to the AHL next season so what the Leafs choose to do with him now could tell us a lot about their plans for him in the future.
The Leafs acquired Salomaki in a minor league deal with the Nashville Predators before February’s trade deadline. He got into just 8 games with the Marlies before the season came to a halt, adding 2 goals and 2 assists to the 15 points he registered with Milwaukee prior to being traded. Over the last two seasons, Salomaki suited up for 42 NHL games with the Predators, playing mostly fourth line minutes but driving play to the tune of a 54.53 xGF%. He’s a tenacious winger who registered almost 11 hits per 60 minutes over those 42 games, more than any forward on the Leafs roster aside from Kyle Clifford. His 167 games of NHL experience are more than most of the names on this list combined and that experience, along with his physicality, could earn him a spot as a depth option for the fourth line.
Aberg was an effective scorer for the Marlies with 44 points in 55 games but struggled to get his footing in 5 games with the Leafs this season. Nevertheless, he’s a talented offensive player who has shown he can score at the professional level in the past. His performance with the Marlies this year along with his prior NHL experience make him a dark horse for a roster spot.
The 2017 first round pick got his first taste of NHL action this season as injuries mounted on the Leafs’ blue line and while he struggled at times, he didn’t look out of place facing NHL competition. Prior to being called up, Liljegren was enjoying a breakout season in the minors as he tallied 30 points in 40 games while making significant strides in his defensive game on his way to representing the Marlies in the AHL All-Star Classic. He is a very skilled puck mover and could find his way back into the lineup if one of Toronto’s other mobile defencemen get hurt. With a few games under his belt and the organization already pegging him as an option for next season, Liljegren is a safe bet for a spot on the expanded playoff roster.
Marlies GM Laurence Gilman says Timothy Liljegren took another step this season: “I will be surprised if he doesn’t play in the top seven or eight with the Toronto Maple Leafs next year.”
— Chris Johnston (@reporterchris) May 11, 2020
With 11 different defencemen playing games for the Leafs at one point or another this season, it’s easy to forget that Kevin Gravel was one of them. Gravel got into just 3 NHL games earlier this season and spent time on the injured list upon his return to to the AHL. He was employed in a shutdown role for the Marlies when healthy but would be nothing more than third pair depth on this expanded roster. He’s got the most NHL experience of the blue line candidates listed here so the coaching staff could still see him as a reliable option.
Kivihalme quickly became acclimated to North American pro hockey this season after signing with the Leafs as a free agent last summer. He played at Colorado College for three years before returning to Finland for two seasons so the adjustment to the smaller ice surface likely wasn’t as difficult for him as it is for some European free agents. He played significant minutes, including some time on the power play as Marlies teammates such as Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren were summoned to the NHL to fill in on the Leafs’ ailing blue line. Though he’s a long shot for a spot on the expanded roster with so many defencemen ahead of him on the depth chart, it’s worth noting that Kivihalme was called up to Leafs at one point earlier this season.
The Leafs lineup is mostly set in stone as they look ahead to their play-in series against the Columbus Blue Jackets but playoff hockey forces teams to rely on their depth at the best of times, never mind during these extenuating circumstances. After such a long lay off, you can bet that teams will have to dig deep into their depth charts at various points this summer. No decision or roster spot is insignificant and when the Leafs finally get back on the ice, the choices they make now could help determine their fate.
*statistics via NaturalStatTrick.com and HockeyDB.com