Top 5 Toronto Maple Leafs Training Camp Battles to Watch in 2014
With that morning chill back in the air, along with leaves beginning to turn, it can mean only one thing: NHL training camps are nearing with the Toronto Maple Leafs looking to make the disappointments of 2013-14 a distant memory.
Change will be in the air at the Leafs camp, and there should be some intriguing battles for fans to follow.
New faces mean new challenges to players who played in Toronto last season. Let's take a look at the top five battles that fans can expect at the Maple Leafs training camp this fall.
5. 3rd-Line Wingers
One of the secondary battles should involve the the third-line wingers. The Leafs will need this line to be very good defensively, but also able to chip in with some offense when needed.
David Clarkson is likely to be on this third line, but there are a number of candidates otherwise. Daniel Winnik, Petri Kontiola and Leo Komarov could all see time on the wing. While Kontiola does play the centre-ice position, he could see some significant time on the wing.
Of course, these lines are never written in stone. Individual play, the scoreboard, the opposition, developing chemistry between linemates and so forth will all dictate who might play on this line.
The Leafs will not be able to afford to have this group play anything less than 10 to 12 even-strength minutes on most nights. Expect this to be one of the better battles at the Toronto camp in a few weeks.
A winger who can win battles down low, create scoring chances, play on the right side of the puck in the defensive zone and be quick on the transition will win this battle.
4. Top-Pairing Defensemen
Dion Phaneuf is going to be on the Leafs' top defensive pairing in 2014-15. There are no surprises there.
What is questionable, is who his regular partner might be for the bulk of the season.
While many are likely to argue that Roman Polak would be a good fit here, there's no way he should get those kinds of minutes. Logically, Jake Gardiner would make the most sense here.
Gardiner has displayed some very good possession numbers, relatively, for the Leafs, per Cam Charron's insightful work for The Leafs Nation. While he hasn't always played against the top competition, and he does make mistakes with the puck, at times he does much more good than bad when he's on the ice.
The Leafs need to utilize players that can tilt the Corsi numbers more in their favour. A great place to start would be for Gardiner to continue his ascent as a big minute-eater for the Leafs in 2014-15.
Expect Stephane Robidas and Polak to get significant looks as top-pairing defenders at camp also.
3. 2nd-Line Winger
The Leafs need even more from their second line than what they got in 2013-14. This line needs to be a threat to score on every shift. Speed, dynamic offensive play and an ability to transition quickly out of the defensive zone have to be the hallmarks.
Nazem Kadri and Joffrey Lupul are likely to make up the first two members here. Expect Winnik, David Booth and Leo Komarov to get heavy consideration here. Rookie William Nylander could also be in this mix.
The Leafs were very top heavy in scoring last year. Tyler Bozak, James van Riemsdyk and Phil Kessel had great offensive seasons in leading the team in scoring on point-per-game basis.
Kadri did a lot without a lot of ice time. He routinely played less than 20 minutes for various reasons. He must get stronger, increase his faceoff percentage and his overall defensive play must continue to evolve.
Mason Raymond was a good fit on this line at times last year, but he's a Calgary Flame now.
The line could use some additional creativity along with someone who is willing to make sacrifices to set up the talented duo of Kadri and Lupul. The Leafs need Lupul to be a top threat once again while staying injury-free.
This could be one of the best battles in camp. Komarov can add a physical dimension to the line and has the potential to do a lot of the spade work for this line.
Booth seems to be the likeliest candidate at this stage if he can regain some of his confidence and scoring touch.
2. Starting Goaltender
While some might believe there is no battle in net, it says here that not only will there be a battle, but that James Reimer could even win the spot.
Is it likely? No. Is it possible? Absolutely.
Jonathan Bernier had an excellent first season in Toronto. His .922 save percentage was remarkable given the defensive play of the team in front of him. He faced not only a high volume of shots in 2013-14, but he saw a lot of quality shots on a nightly basis.
Reimer was not as strong in 2013-14. The former Red Deer Rebels star had a .911 save percentage and posted just 12 wins in 36 appearances.
While not as fundamentally sound as his counterpart, Reimer is a battler who will go into camp with the mindset that the starter's job is there for the taking.
The Leafs would like nothing more than to have two quality keepers in the fold who will push each other to be better on a daily basis.
1. 1st-Line Centre
Most observers will have Bozak positioned as the Leafs' No. 1 centre heading into the 2014-15 season. Forty-nine points in 58 games was certainly a good offensive year, but given the talent level of his linemates, a point-per-game pace from the first-line centre should be expected.
While Kadri has not produced at that pace yet, increased ice time and regular first-rate offensive linemates could help his cause. Kadri is a gifted offensive player who has the tools to be a No. 1 NHL pivot.
Whether or not he can realize that potential is the bigger question.
Kadri is not going to overwhelm anyone physically, but in the Eastern Conference, that is not as important as it is in the heavier West. Size matters much more there.
If belief is part of the battle, then Kadri seems to be on his way. He recently told the National Post's Michael Traikos: "Me and [Bozak] work well together, we’re great friends. In order for this team to be successful, we’re going to need both of us. So it’s not like you’re picking one or the other. It’s probably a 1A and 1B thing."
Kadri will need to keep thinking this way if he wants to take Bozak's job. This could be one of the key storylines to follow when the Leafs hit the ice in short order.
All stats can be found on NHL.com unless noted otherwise.
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