The Toronto Maple Leafs took a great step forward last season, finally becoming a playoff team, but that does not breed much familiarity with head coach Randy Carlyle.
When the Leafs open the regular season Tuesday in Montreal against the Canadiens, there could be as many as seven new faces in the lineup, depending on just who wins the three remaining open spots at forward. Carlyle declined to give any hints on Friday on who has a leg up on the vacancies, saying he would use the Leafs' final two preseason games – a home-and-home set with the Detroit Red Wings that finishes Saturday at the Air Canada Centre – to make his final decisions.
However, it is clear where Carlyle is headed with the defencemen, even if he chided reporters who asked him to confirm the obvious: Veteran John-Michael Liles is headed for NHL waivers and then the AHL Toronto Marlies farm team if no one wants the three years left on his contract at $3.875-million (U.S.) a year.
Since Liles, 33, played in just two preseason games thus far and was not expected to play Friday in Detroit, it is clear he does not figure in Carlyle's plans. He becomes a casualty of the salary cap, as the signing of defenceman Cody Franson requires some ruthless roster trimming from general manager David Nonis.
"You guys do a lot of talking about who is and who isn't. We try to ignore what you have to say," Carlyle said when Liles's name came up. But the coach finished his admonishment of the media by giving a broad hint of Liles's fate: "We think that people have separated themselves, both positively and negatively."
The result should mean a stronger Leafs defence this season, assuming a couple of things fall into place.
The most important one is the continued improvement of Jake Gardiner. He played his way into Carlyle's good books in last spring's playoff series against the Boston Bruins, but has had an uneven training camp.
Paul Ranger, 29, is also an unknown quantity on the defence. He was a solid defenceman for the Tampa Bay Lightning and then left the NHL in 2009 for personal reasons. Ranger played well for the Marlies last season, and if he can resume where he left off in the NHL, it represents a solid upgrade at the position for the Maple Leafs.
Another potential jump in quality comes in goal, where Jonathan Bernier was obtained from the Los Angeles Kings and handed James Reimer's job as the No. 1 goaltender. Bernier, 25, has long been touted as a potential star by hockey executives and scouts and was sprung from the shadow of Jonathan Quick to prove it. Reimer still regards the top job as his, and will provide the new fellow a powerful incentive to prove himself.
Gone from last season's forward lines are Mikhail Grabovski, Clarke MacArthur, Matt Frattin and Leo Komarov. But the Leafs will still be a team that can score, with James van Riemsdyk and Phil Kessel anchoring the top line and a step up expected from centre Nazem Kadri and a healthy Joffrey Lupul.
Once newcomer David
Clarkson returns from his 10-game suspension on Oct. 25, he should bring a dose of grit and scoring to Kadri's second line. In the meantime, another new face, Mason Raymond, hopes to prove the Vancouver Canucks should have kept him.
The questions surround the third and fourth lines, as five players are chasing three openings. Dave Bolland has the third-line centre's job but no one has nailed down a job on the wings and the broken finger suffered by Frazer McLaren means there's a spot on the fourth line open. Joe Colborne, Trevor Smith, Troy Brodie, Carter Ashton and Jamie Devane are in the mix for those jobs – but here is where the salary cap plays a big role. Ashton, 22, has the largest salary of the group at $1.04-million, followed by Devane at $700,000. Since Ashton is also the only one who does not have to clear NHL waivers to be sent to the Marlies, he had better hope he scores a couple of hat tricks this weekend.
The Leafs also should be better on special teams, as their offensive firepower will continue to fuel the power play. With Bolland signing on from the Chicago Blackhawks, the penalty killers should show more improvement.