The Toronto Maple Leafs opened their preseason slate with a split-squad doubleheader on Saturday, giving every single player on their training camp roster the opportunity to receive some game action.
That's an even playing ground, right? With just how competitive the race for the final few roster spots are on this Leafs squad, Saturday served as the perfect showcase for their group of hopefuls to prove their worth.
Whose stock went up, and whose went down? Let's find out.
Stock Up (Sorta)
While undoubtedly a longshot to make the team out of camp, the Leafs seem to really believe in Gaudette, with Sheldon Keefe singing his praises to reporters on numerous occasions and backing up those words by giving Guadette the prime wing spot alongside John Tavares and Mitch Marner for Toronto's preseason opener.
And, you know what? Gaudette looked pretty good. He was hungry on the forecheck, wiggled himself free for a few key chances, and generally looked like someone who desperately wants to be employed in a week's time.
This isn't to say there weren't drawbacks, though.
Gaudette has an odd, hunched over stance in his stride, something which caused him to look a half-step behind his two star linemates on a few plays in transition, while Gaudette also showed little finishing ability on the open looks he got.
The former point is the most crucial of all. The Leafs made a concerted effort to inject speed into their fourth line this summer after trotting out an old and slow unit last season. It's unclear whether Gaudette can keep up with his fellow depth candidates. So, while he did look alright in his first taste of game action, it's hard to definitively say whether his stock has changed either way.
"It seemed like every time he touched the puck, something happened."
Keefe was efusive in his praise of Malgin following the Leafs' win over the Senators on Saturday afternoon. And why wouldn't he be? Malgin was a forced to be reckoned with in the preseason opener, zipping around the ice like a water bug, gelling perfectly with new linemates William Nylander and Pontus Holmberg from the get-go, and managing to free himself for three or so Grade-A looks -- one of which he ultimately buried.
If anyone needed a strong performance yesterday, it was Malgin. After an underwhelming first stint with the Leafs back in 2019-20 followed by two years overseas, the 25-year-old was at risk of being forgotten by the organization and fanbase on the whole -- that is, outside of being the subject of a few memes by the latter group.
And, you know what? Malgin delivered. Aside from Nylander, who looked like Happy Gilmore beaning kids with dodgeballs all afternoon, Malgin was Toronto's best player, thrusting himself back into a conversation he was originally on the periphery of.
The only question is whether or not he can play a depth role, specifically one that doesn't necessitate offense. With the second line left wing spot destined to be filled by Alex Kerfoot or Calle Jarnkrok, Malgin's only hope will be in the bottom-six. Can he handle the grinding nature of those minutes? That remains to be seen. Regardless, Malgin did himself quite a few favors on Saturday and certainly earned himself another look.
Mete just didn't really do anything. He didn't stand out. Just entirely unmemorable.
Perhaps that's a good quality to have from your seventh defenseman. But given how well Mete's playing style should fit with how the Leafs operate in theory, I was expecting a little more.
Mete didn't really generate much at all offensively on Saturday, actually getting himself caught once or twice in transition heading back the other way. His footspeed helped him ultimately recover before any damage could occur, but given the quality of the preseason split-squad roster he was up against, those fumbles won't be so forgiving in the regular season.
There's just not much to write home about here. If Rasmus Sandin continues his holdout and the Leafs carry seven defensemen to start the year, Mete is probably the extra one. But he didn't do much to help his case, and that's kind of a bummer.
Stock Way Down
Every year, the Leafs seem to invite a defenseman to training camp whose skillset flies completely in the face of the typical Dubas mould before building him up as having a real shot to make the team. Ben Harpur comes to mind, for example.
Well, Jordie Benn is that anti-process defenseman. And if his fate with the Leafs follows anything other than the exact same script Harpur's did, something will have gone horribly, horribly wrong.
Benn was slow. His first passes were sloppy. His positioning was completely out of whack.
Pretty much everything about his game clashes with how the Leafs defenders tend to operate, with Benn being unable to hit wingers in transition while also showing no ability to drive possession himself.
Maybe someone plucks him off waivers before the season starts. That would be nice. But he won't find an NHL job here.
Robertson didn't look bad on Saturday, by any means. His forechecking was noticably more agressive, and his ability to find open space was an underrated positive was unfortunately overshadowed by Jarnkrok's explosive debut.
At the end of the day, Robertson's stock certainly didn't go down. But it didn't go up, either. Which, when you think about it, is more of a net-negative anyway.
Let's be clear, though: Fans are way too hard on Robertson.
The kid is still just 21, was a second-round pick, has fought through injuries ever since turning pro, and has done nothing but rack up torrid AHL production at a very young age. Frankly, the Leafs did Robertson a disservice by giving him games in the 2020 Postseason Bubble, thereby setting an unrealistic expectation of how close he was to the NHL as an 18-year-old which now, two years later, makes his uncertain roster status seem extremely disappointing.
It's not. Even without the injuries, Robertson's developmental trajectory should not have landed him in the NHL by now. He was always going to need time to marinate and ensure his frame was ready for big-league action. Relax.
And yet, you would have liked to pinpoint him as one of the best players on the ice during a split-squad preseason game. Robertson wasn't. And that is worthy of criticism, but not tanking his stock.
Stock Up (I guess)
Simmonds knows he's fighting for an NHL job. He knows he needs to be faster to fit in with this revamped Leafs bottom-six, and he knows that his $900,000 cap hit will make it difficult for the club to keep him around as an extra forward given their current situation.
It's refreshing to see a player so open and honest about their own situation, with Simmonds approaching a decidedly unique situation with newfound intensity. And, you know what? Simmonds does look a tad faster. He's not burning rubber, by any means. But compared to his speed towards the end of last year, Simmonds looks far more capable of keeping up with the pace of the NHL game these days and admitted to working extremely hard in the offseason to ensure it.
That being said, Simmonds didn't do much in a tangible sense on Saturday. He threw a couple big hits, of course, but was otherwise unremarkable as the game wore on.
Still, it's hard not to root for a guy like that. Simmonds truly needs to show some real results through the rest of the preseason to snatch a spot away from his young, faster, and cheaper counterparts. But don't count him out, either.
Yeah, this guy won't be on a PTO for much longer.
If the Leafs had the cap space to do it, Aston-Reese would have a shiny new contract under his belt right now, with a spot on the fourth line (and perhaps even the penalty kill) all but in his grasp.
It's only a matter of time before both things happen, anyway.
Aston-Reese was the quintissential depth winger on Saturday. He created separation in the corners, was never out of position, and even used his big frame to screen the opposing goaltender and allow for Justin Holl's point shot to squeak by.
If you're looking for offense, disappointment is what you will find. But that's not Aston-Reese's calling card. This is a guy you can trust to tilt the ice in a positive direction, taking on bottom-six matchups and emerging victorious on most nights.
And, in his first game as a Maple Leaf, that's exactly what he did.