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Maple Leaf training camp and pre-season can be a yawn, but not for players on the roster ‘bubble’, like Carter Ashton…

It’s probably been said here at VLM a few times over the years: after following the Maple Leafs for lo the past now 55 years (I don’t count the time until I approached my Dad, at the age of 4 or 5, and asked him if it was OK if I cheered for the Leafs, because we were a longstanding ‘Hab’ family), training camp just doesn’t excite me much.  In the sense that real hockey is just around the corner, sure, but for the most part it is all about trumped up story lines to fill space in the daily newspapers (and now, on the internet).  I get it.  I understand all that.  I do it myself, I guess.  And I like anticipation as much as the next guy.  (In fact, sometimes anticipation is better than the actual event…)  And it's not as though there is nothing for fans to bat around when it comes to the Leafs, as I noted here the other day.  I just don’t take the results at this time of the year in the hockey calendar all that seriously, whether this particular guy played well or not or whatever.

Hey, we’re still a ways off from when the games even count.  And then there’s mid-season hockey, the stretch drive and of course, that whole other world which is playoff hockey.  Now that matters.

But having said all that, I have no doubt that for the coaches, it is indeed a valuable and much-needed assessment time.  And for those players who are on the bubble—achingly close to earning an NHL salary versus being a much lower-paid Marlie or being sent back to Europe or the junior ranks—it means a whole heck of a lot.

The blue and white begin their next glut of exhibition games Thursday night in Ottawa, having already pared their inflated training camp ‘roster’ by quite a bit on Tuesday of this week. There were, to me at least, no real surprises in terms of who was dispatched. 

In fact, the thing that I’m finding somewhat confusing—if rather entertaining— is just trying to figure out where all the players fit.  Yes, McLaren is out for a bit with his pinkie issue, but if we assume (and we can) that the lines will shape up more or less this way (I’m just putting wingers on the wing, not worrying about left or right)...

Lupul    Bozak   Kessel
van Riemsdyk   Kadri   Clarkson
Kulemin   Bolland   (fill in the blank)
Orr   McClement   MacLaren

Phaneuf   Gardiner
Gunnarsson  Ranger
Fraser  Liles

...things still aren't exactly clear to me.  Now, setting aside our defense for a moment, assuming McLaren is back soon, that leaves only one spot available on game nights.  (I realize we can have extra guys hanging around—what’s the current CBA roster limit, 23?)  We can’t fit in all the guys that folks are talking about onto a 20-man game roster.  The Leafs have signed both Colborne and Mason Raymond to be with the big club on one-way contracts, right?  Unless there are injuries in the short term, how does that work—especially when you throw in names like Carter Ashton? Here is a young player who has been biding his time for the past couple of seasons with the Marlies, and developing his game so he can take advantage of an any opening in the Maple Leaf lineup.   Is he really ready now?  He has showed some jump and physicality at camp.  Would he be on the big club's roster in some other organization?  At 22, he is still young enough to be in the legitimate "prospect" category, but he seems to have moved from that realm to "on the doorstep". If he doesn't stick with the Leafs this fall, all things being equal, he's likely seen internally as the first guy Nonis and Carlyle will call up when injuries strike.

But regardless of Ashton's status, it still means that, depending on who you deploy, someone like Colborne would be playing out of position, unless we move McClement up to the third line on the wing. (Then he is out of position.)

I guess it’s a good “problem” to have, but again, they can’t all be here, eh?

Similarly, on defense, you always need to be ten-deep, absolutely, in terms of NHL ready defensemen.  But even with one guy sitting upstairs, the above defense pairings (even if we move them around) assume Rielly goes back to junior (and I think Carlyle wants him to stay) and that Franson won’t re-sign here.  If T.J. Brennan is the “7th man”, no other promising defender makes the grade, it would seem. And what if Franson does eventually sign?

In short, it looks to me as though for all the talk about possible lineup surprises, we won’t be much surprised.  I don’t doubt all those guys on the bubble think they have their shot at impressing the brass—and are even convinced they are chasing a roster spot.  But are they, really?

I concede I may be missing something, so let me know what I’m not seeing.


  1. Hey Michael,

    My goodness have the pre-season games to this point been boring or what - I almost couldn't stand to watch (note the almost - lol).

    And I couldn't agree with your assessment any more than I already do.

    The main roster is set - I think the bubble guys and others are playing to set their place in the depth chart rather than an actual opening day roster spot.

    This situation can only change if we have a string of pre-season injuries, suspensions or trades.

    Anon from Scarborough

    1. History suggests things will pick up as we get closer to the regular season, Scarborough Anon. But the media (and we!) have to talk about something! Take care and stay in touch...

  2. Historically, I find that even the training camp jockeying for open roster positions, while interesting, does not set the ultimate roster. If I am not mistaken often players who make the team out of training camp can be demoted or switch positions with players who, while initially cut, have fast starts on the farm. It is at about the ten game mark that we start to see the final roster and at about the twenty game mark that we see the team’s potential.

    Of course, the salary cap reality may throw these presumptions out the window, however I expect that a similar pattern should follow this year as with others. Injuries or possibly suspensions or trades will have an impact on more marginal players’ possibilities of moving up the depth chart or into roster spots. Usually there is a surprise or two, maybe Ashton, maybe Brennan, who knows, but I think we have to wait until about the ten game mark to really know who they will be.

    1. You're right on the money, Bobby C.- generally speaking the "opening night" roster is not what we end up seeing anyway. All kinds of moves usually follow.

      And I'm with you on the 20-game marker. Barring out of the ordinary events, that's the point where we begin to see if a team seems to be going somewhere- or not. Thanks Bobby.

  3. The most interesting thing to me this training camp is getting a look at Bernier.

    I am a Reimer fan.
    I like his story, the way he battles, his demeanor, all of that.
    I like calling him Optimus Reims or the Reiminister of the defense.
    But after his first game, I want another look at Bernier.
    I was very impressed with Bernier's initial performance. I got the sense that the other team would have to be very lucky to get one by him. To me, Bernier seemed so technically sound and he seemed to be very, very confident with the puck.
    It almost seems like the time when Belfour first came to the Leafs to replace Cujo. We all loved Cujo for the way he battled but Belfour was the better goalie and it was obvious.

    Will be an interesting battle to follow this season.

    1. The goaltending competition should be interesting, for sure, apollo678. It's clear Bernier has talent but there is a lot we still need to see, obviously. Goalies go hot and cold. Like Price in Montreal, fans love them when they're on, not so much when they struggle. (And as good as Belfour was here in his first couple of seasons, if only we'd had him in his prime!) Thanks for visiting.

  4. You're right Michael in that the pre-season games are less than thrilling, but it is interesting to watch those fighting for jobs, and some of the new faces. A good example is Mason Raymond, here on a tryout. Here's an experienced NHL forward (still relatively young, just turning 28), who is a fast 2-way player who can put up some points. He can also fill in at center if needed. All he needed to do in camp is prove that had indeed recovered from his previous back injury problems, and has returned to form. Based on what we're seen so far, that seems to be true. Signing him to a contract this year won't be a huge cap hit, but may mean other roster/cap decisions for Nonis.

    As far as your line suggestions, I can see Raymond filling out that 3rd line winger position. With respect to that 4th line, I'm still of the opinion (as many are), that you don't need both Orr and MacLaren in the lineup. One is more than plenty. Likely MacLaren starts the season on the IR, so it may be a mute point for the next month. In today's NHL (and especially on Carlyle's team) there still seems to be this idea you need an enforcer, so Orr (and later MacLaren) will be on that 4th line most nights.

    Earlier I had been thinking Colborne would get a shot on that third line, but now I really wonder how best to utilize him. He has developed a good 2-way game, but is he going to be comfortable/successful on that 4th line? I still see a lot of potential in Colborne and would hate the see the Leafs risk waiving him, or having to trade him.

    I haven't been overly impressed with Ashton as yet. Maybe he is better suited to bump and grind out on that fourth line, but I see much more upside in Colborne's game. Maybe we'll see how Colborne does in tonight's pre-season game as he has been practicing at center the last 2 days between JVR and Clarkson.

    On the D-side I keep hearing people saying good things about this Andrew MacWilliam. I must admit I have not watched him enough to comment, but 6 or 7 D-man typically can go unnoticed, yet do a very good job. Rielly looks like Gardiner did his first season with the Leafs, but the Leafs depth chart has changed since then. Not sure Rielly learns anything if sent back to Juniors but unfortunately AHL is not an option.

    The two big questions lingering are what happens to Liles and Franson. Several different scenarios could unfold. Anyone's guess at this point. Hopefully they find a why to get Franson signed.

    1. Where Colborne fits (if at all) will indeed be worth watching, Don (TML_fan). You may well speak for a lot of Leaf supporters in referencing Carlyle's apparent desire to see both Orr and McLaren in the same lineup and wondering why they both need to be there.

      Franson would seem best advised to be in camp, but I'm not in his shoes and we are left to assume his agent and the player know what they are doing in terms of what is best for his career- and future.

  5. Gone are the good old days when players competed for positions and the best man won. Now a player's cap hit, above and beyond his talent level, may determine whether he makes the team. A player such as John Michael Liles, while talented enough to make the team, may be doomed by his $3,875,000 salary where much cheaper alternatives such as T. J. Brennan and Korbinian Holzer are available.

    I think you are correct Michael, in that the roster is pretty well set. I believe Colborne (he with the $600,000 cap hit) is a lock to make the team and that he will play substantial minutes as a 3rd line winger. He has experience on the wing in junior and the Marlies if memory serves. Also, I don't believe that Raymond has a contract, only the promise of one if he makes the team.

    Franson seems to be the only true wild card and I cannot see the Leafs giving in to his demands. His position is not much different to that of Kadri. At the beginning of last season both were much questioned as to their talent level and place on the team. Both started the season playing sheltered minutes and both improved to 2nd line/defense pairing status. Both earned raises and deserve a two year bridge contract, giving them the opportunity to prove that they are worthy of a long term big money contract. Franson is in no position to make demands as Subban discovered. He cannot afford to sit out and he cannot go anywhere else unless the Leafs trade him.

    I do think there will be a trade in the not too distant future. Calgary and Edmonton, now that Burke and Eakins have trekked west, seem to be prime trade partners. No matter how the Franson situation is resolved it seems as if a trade will be necessary either to free cap space to sign him or to move him..

    1. My preference is that players work at their natural position, but it would certainly appear as though Colborne may well have to play the wing to be a factor on the big club, Pete Cam.

      As for Raymond, I was under the impression he had in fact signed a contract (one-way deal?). Maybe someone could confirm that for us. Not that that guarantees him a spot, but it would be somewhat unexpected for him to have a guaranteed deal and not be with the Leafs.

      I have no idea how the Franson stalemate will end. We'll see- at some point. Thanks Pete.

  6. "...we won’t be much surprised."

    As you know I follow the prospects closley, so this is one of my favorite times of the year.

    There have have been some player surprises in this preseason.

    The most surprising player? Andrew MacWilliam

    He looks mature, steady, dependable and mean. At 226 lbs, he is a full-sized man among men. He can clear the net. Think of Mark Fraser with more emphasis on hitting.

    In my mind he has jumped ahead of Holzer and Blacker on the depth chart. He will get a long look, espeically if Franson holds out.

    Reilly will get a look but I don't think he will be here more than 9 games. I am reminded of the words of Ken Holland, who said they like Detroit prospects to to be "overripe." Reilly is not "overripe."

    A little bit surprizing have been Broll and Devane. I thought they could be better hockey players than Orr but was not expecting goals and assists this early:

    Watch Broll get the assist on Ranger's goal. Colton Orr doesn't make hockey plays like that!

    Broll sure looks like the enforcer of the future...235 lbs, fights, decent skater, can hang on to the puck and make a pass...and actually play the game.

    Here's Devane's goal:

    Both these guys seem a little more focused on contributing to the score sheet. They could be quite useful in the future, and depending on injuries might be there on opening night and for a few games to start the season.

    I don't think Carter Ashton will make the team. I don't remember any goals or assists from him in the preseason. He needs some. I believe he needs to go back to the AHL and dominate. Just 19 points in the AHL last year says that he is not ready.

    Ashton needs to get over 40 points in the AHL this year and then he has a chance for next year. For comparison, last year Colborne had 41 points in 65 AHL games.

    1. I know you follow the developing players closely and respect your thoughts on that subject, DP.

      As those who visit VLM regularly may know, I'm of the "don't call them up to the Leafs until they are so ready, they never have to go back" to the Marlies persuasion. I guess that would place people like me in Holland's camp, as you note. I still feel that way about Rielly. Tons of talent- and it will still be there when he has all the other NHL "essentials".

      I guess the next few days and exhibition games will provide further opportunities for Carlyle and Nonis to assess the youngsters you refer to today. You've mentioned both Broll and Devane here before, and they do seem to project as capable enforcer/player types.

      As for Ashton, he has a challenge ahead of him, it seems. But he is still, as you note, awfully young. There's time. Thanks DP.

  7. Unless things have changed in the past couple of days, I believe that the Leafs and Raymond have a $925,000 deal in place contingent on his making the team but at this point no contract has been officially signed.

    Cap Geek does not show him on the Leafs roster and they are usually up to date on signings.

    1. Correct, Raymond only has a PTO (Player Try Out) signing at this point. If Leafs want to add him to their roster for opening day, they need to sign him to an official contract. Might be a good idea to sign him soon. If he has a great camp his value will go up considerably, and other teams may take an interest and willing to pay more than the Leafs have to offer.

  8. Here are the line ups for tonight:


    van Riemsdyk-Colborne-Clarkson





    Jonathan Bernier gets the nod for Toronto. Craig Anderson will play the first two periods for Ottawa; Nathan Lawson will try to close it out.

    Ashton is in, so it's time to shine.

    1. Like any player on the bubble, Ashton needs ice time, but he'll have to make himself stand out in a positive way to have a shot even in limited time, I'm thinking...

    2. Good point, Don...hadn't considered that he is still obviously, then, available to other teams.