James Mirtle has a look at five storylines to watch during the Toronto Maple Leafs' training camp.
1. How does the battle in the crease shake out?
The competition hasn't even begun and already the issue's been debated to death. Will newcomer Jonathan Bernier take over the Leafs crease? Or does James Reimer have another terrific season and ward off the challenge? Despite the fact he has only started 54 NHL games, the smart money at this point is on Bernier, as the Leafs brass will likely give him every chance to succeed given his contract ($2.9-million a season) and the assets (two young players and a second-round pick) they gave up to get him.
Then again, Reimer has often been underestimated and undervalued throughout his career and isn't likely go down without a fight. This one could take a while to sort itself out, but the preseason will offer an early glimpse at who's in top form and who will get the start opening night in Montreal. "Having both Jonathan and James in net gives the coaches a lot of options," Leafs GM Dave Nonis said. "Goaltending, you can't win without it. It's really impossible to win without quality goaltending. And we feel we have two of the top young guys. Which guy ends up taking the bulk of the starts really depends on how they play. But we're very comfortable in both goalies."
2. Can Morgan Rielly make a case to stay?
The Leafs 19-year-old top prospect has his work cut out for him again this year, as Nonis has added a few veteran options on the back end that will likely crowd Rielly out. Coach Randy Carlyle revealed Wednesday he may play Rielly in up to eight preseason games, and his only hope to stick with the big club is to blow Nonis and Co. away the way Jake Gardiner did two seasons ago. Otherwise it's back to Moose Jaw for one last junior season and another go-round with Canada's world junior team.
"To have him in our lineup, we don't envision him playing sparing minutes," Carlyle said. "His minutes have to be in excess of 12 to 15 minutes. Does he have to play every game? No I don't think he has to play every game. But what he has to do is continue to show growth.
"Is it better for him to play with our hockey club for 12 to 15 minutes a night when he plays and to practice than going back to his junior situation? Those are tough decisions. Those will be decisions we'll go back and forth on and thoroughly discuss."
3. Will Paul Ranger's presence help solidify Toronto's blueline?
Back in the NHL for the first time since October of 2009, Ranger is one of those vets taking a spot that could have been offered to a prospect like Rielly. The biggest wild card at camp, he is a big, mobile defenceman who was playing more than 20 minutes a night for the Tampa Bay Lightning four years ago before leaving hockey altogether due to personal reasons.
Ranger was emotional when he met with the media to talk about his return on Wednesday, and Nonis has high hopes for what he can bring to a back end that desperately needs more safe options.
"We think Paul has the ability to play possibly in the top four," Nonis said, "if he gets his game to where it was when he was with Tampa. Last year, at times, he looked too good for the American Hockey League. But it was his first year back and he hadn't played for a while and it was important for him in his own mind to play a full season of hockey to get the game back underneath him.
"Where he fits in the lineup is really going to be determined by his play. I can tell you he is prepared. He's not come in here and said let's see how I do. Paul is prepared for this. He's physically prepared, he's trained hard and he wants to be a Leaf."
4. Does Mason Raymond's tryout become something more?
Another player looking for a second chance, Raymond had a long summer of sitting idle on the free agent market before accepting a tryout with the Leafs. Nonis had enquired about his former draft pick from his Vancouver Canucks days for several months, but with Toronto fairly tight against the cap – especially once free agent defenceman Cody Franson is signed – Raymond will likely have to accept a dramatic pay cut from the $2.275-million he earned last season to stay.
The Leafs could certainly use his skating and offensive abilities to give them some depth on the wing, but another team could also easily step up and offer him a larger contract during camp.
"I still believe in my ability to play in this league," Raymond said. "I think I'm an NHL player. So the pressure that's put on me is from myself. I just need to go out and prove that to myself more than anything."
5. Will the salary cap claim a victim?
The Leafs front office has insisted all off-season that they have more than enough cap space to get Franson's deal done and squeeze under the $64.3-million limit, but it would hardly be a comfortable fit if they attempt to carry more than the 20-man minimum on the roster and injuries hit.
That makes it plausible that Nonis looks to pull off a minor trade to free up some room during preseason, with names like John-Michael Liles, Mark Fraser, Nikolai Kulemin and even Franson potentially on the move.
"There's the realities of where you are," Nonis said of the Franson negotiations. "We have x amount of cap space. We have players that are going to try to make this team that may eat up some of that. There's only so much we can do to get a deal done. I understand his position; he doesn't feel this is fair. We want him signed. I'd like to have Cody at camp. But he's not here.
"You know, we've made him an offer that we want him to take. He's declined to take it. At this point we're going to move ahead with the players we have in camp."