The Toronto Maple Leafs are officially halfway through their pre-season slate at this point, with every single player on their training camp roster having ample opportunity to state their case for a job on opening night.
That's an even playing ground, right?
With just how competitive the race for the final few roster spots is ahead of Saturday's regular-season opener, this past week has served as the perfect showcase for the club's group of hopefuls to prove their worth.
Whose stock went up, and whose went down? Let's find out.
It's kind of difficult to win a roster battle when you're not playing. So it's not exactly a surprise that Gaudette has fallen behind in the race for an opening night job over the past week or so, with his injury-related breather affording a few of his fellow hopefuls the chance to shine in his absence.
It's a shame, really. You always want everyone to get a fair shot.
But let's be real. Were Gaudette's odds of actually cracking the roster out of camp long to begin with, even if he were completely healthy? Absolutely. Then again, the guy did put forth a decent showing in Toronto's pre-season opener last week and didn't look entirely out of place alongside Mitch Marner and (the now-injured) John Tavares.
That's got to count for something, right? Right? Maybe I'm just being too nice here.
When you come down it, there are seemingly just too many more attractive options with him to fill out the edges of the lineup in Leafs camp this year – those ranging from some familiar veterans to younger, waiver-exempt prospects, and even to mid-20s tweeners like Gaudette who are just, well, better than him.
Gaudette will get a chance to boost his stock back up by drawing into the lineup for the Leafs' pre-season tilt in Montreal on Monday. Maybe he puts on the show of his life. Anything is possible. But don't hold your breath.
Stock Way, Way Up
We've been over this. The expectations surrounding Nick Robertson these days are ridiculous, framing what should be a totally normal development curve as a failure in the event he doesn't immediately stick in the Leafs' lineup.
Relax. He's 21 and has done nothing but rack up torrid AHL production since turning pro. You were eating Cheetos on a dorm room floor at that age. Who are you to judge?
That being said, it wasn't unreasonable to expect Robertson to do something to stand out this year. It's his third training camp with the Leafs, after all. The kid is well acquainted with the organization's expectations, and with a top-six lineup spot for the taking, the pressure is on. A player of Robertson's pedigree should do everything in their power to grab it.
Well, that's exactly what he's done.
Robertson has played like a man possessed following the Leafs' pre-season opener, racking up three goals and four points over his past two games, which includes a dominant two-goal performance against Ottawa on Friday during which Robertson was very likely the best player on the ice.
The raw stats are nice, sure. But the strides Robertson has taken in the nitty gritty aspects of his game have been the real source of encouragement.
Robertson is the rare player whose inner motor can cause him to do too much at times, over-complicating routine plays to the detriment of the team. It's a good problem to have, of course. But it's a problem nonetheless.
Robertson seems to have mostly ironed that wrinkle out this time around. There's an ease and fluidity to his game that hasn't been there in past years, with Robertson's instincts along the boards and in neutral ice now pushing him to defer to the simple play rather than the flashy but low-percentage one.
Frankly, the only thing keeping Robertson off the Leafs' opening night roster at this point is money. The realities of Toronto's cap situation is that the club will be operating about as tight as you can get to the ceiling all year long, with Robertson's combination of waiver exemption and higher-than-league-minimum cap hit possibly forcing the front office to start him in the minors until their books cool off.
It would be a shame, though. The kid has earned it. So far, that is.
That's "Second in NHL Pre-season Goal-Scoring, Dennis Malgin" to you.
Malgin came to Leafs camp this year with a lot to prove – namely, that he still existed. After a disappointing eight-game tenure with the club back in 2019-20 that was followed by two years overseas, Malgin arrived in Toronto about as far removed from the NHL roster picture as one can get. And, this time around, he would be battling it out with roughly five other forwards of varying pedigrees for a shot at employment.
Not exactly a great position to be in, no?
Well, to the surprise of many, Malgin has arguably thrust himself to the top of the Leafs' roster battle up front, instantly developing impressive chemistry with William Nylander, scoring in every game he's played in, and showing the patience and persistence away from the puck that was notably absent his first go-around.
What more could you ask for?
Things obviously haven't been entirely perfect. Malgin's slight frame has seen him get noticeably muscled off the puck on a few occasions. But if that's the tradeoff for a league-minimum asset with skill and offensive flair, Sheldon Keefe will probably pay it.
Malgin doesn't have a roster spot fully locked up quite yet. But based on his performance thus far, it would be pretty shocking to see him anywhere but Scotiabank Arena on Saturday night.
Stock Down (I think?)
Wayne Simmonds has a few things working against him in the fight to keep his NHL career alive.
For one, he's not waivers exempt, meaning that the Leafs will be forced to offer him up to all 31 other teams on the open wire if he doesn't crack the roster by Saturday. Number two is his cap hit, which comes in at $900,000 – the highest of bubble candidates competing with him. And, of course, there's Simmonds' on-ice ability, which simply does not seem to align with what the Leafs are looking for from their fourth line this season.
Put all the pieces together, and the puzzle is not a pretty one.
And yet, there's this feeling that I just can't shake.
Everyone loves the Wayne Train – the Leafs especially. Cap realities and systematic preferences aside, I just can't wrap my mind around Dubas & Co. actively jettisoning him from their locker room unless it is absolutely necessary. The guy isn't completely washed, after all. In fact, Simmonds indeed looks to have improved his footspeed somewhat over the summer – which could just be a mirage brought on by fresh legs in training camp, but I digress – and has also continued to set the tone physically whenever he's on the ice.
There are far, far worse glue guys to keep around a team than Simmonds. And if the Leafs can make the money work, you better believe that's what they'll do. But it's not looking good.
Stock Still Up
Aston-Reese has just been exactly as advertised – a no-nonsense, defensively-gifted forward who can forecheck with speed and tenacity, disrupt the cycle in his own end, and use his bigger-than-you'd-think frame to clear out space in front of the opposing net.
When it comes to a fourth-line winger on a team as loaded as the Leafs up front, what more could you want?
It's basically an open secret by now that the Leafs intend to sign Aston-Reese to a contract for the coming season, promoting him from the professional tryout offer they offered him ahead of camp. The hitch in the giddy-up is that it won't be for the league minimum, with Aston-Reese capable of commanding something to the tune of the $850,000 figure that fellow PTO success stories signed for last week. And, with how tight the Leafs' cap situation is this season (take a shot every time you read that sentence, by the way), they may have to move some money out or pull off some LTIR wizardry to fit him in.
Rest assured, though, Aston-Reese hasn't stuck around at Leafs camp this long just to wind up being cut loose over a few dollars and cents. He's earned a spot. The front office will make it work. It just won't be easy.
Stock Up (Relatively Speaking)
I didn't even include Steeves in the last roster battle overview because I honestly didn't think he had a legitimate shot of sticking around until opening night. That hasn't exactly changed over the past week, but I do think his pre-season performance warrants mention nonetheless.
To have a guy like Steeves – deceptively skilled, defensively responsible, good offensive instincts, nifty hands in tight – in your system is a luxury. The Leafs got him for free via the college free agent market in March of 2021, and Steeves has done nothing but take incremental steps forwards since, earning a brief NHL audition with the club last season while establishing himself as a consistent AHL scorer in the meantime, as well.
This pre-season has been no different. Steeves has racked up two goals and three points in three games thus far – one of the former being an empty-netter – and made the most of his limited ice time, impacting the play in all three zones and just generally looking far more attuned to the NHL spotlight than the year before.
Don't be surprised if Steeves tops his three-game cameo with the Leafs this season. He's turned some heads.