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5 Maple Leafs on the Bubble Heading Into the 2021-22 Season

The Toronto Maple Leafs’ have a number “bubble” players. These are players who might be part of the team’s regular-season roster; or, who might not be. Some of these players have been with the organization for a while; others are newer to the team. In this post, I’m once again collaborating with well-known Maple Leafs’ fan Stan Smith to review five of these players.

Related: Maple Leafs Nick Robertson: The Cost of Chasing His Dream

Bubble Player #1: Nick Robertson

There’s a good chance the Maple Leafs will be really cautious with Nick Robertson. Last season, Dubas stated at training camp that he felt he didn’t give Robertson a fair shake the season before. Robertson made the team coming out of training camp, and started the second game of the season. But, he was hurt two minutes into that game following a hit along the boards.

Nicholas Robertson Toronto Maple Leafs Draft
Nicholas Robertson, Toronto Maple Leafs, 2019 NHL Draft (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Because of a change in the rules due to COVID-19, after he healed Robertson was allowed to play in the AHL. It was an option he didn’t have during the previous season and wouldn’t have had under usual circumstances this season. Robertson ultimately played 21 games for the Marlies, but suffered two more injuries – an oblique injury and a concussion.  

The 5-foot-9 and 165 pound Robertson’s only 19 years old. He’s an amazing talent and plays fearlessly; however, you can’t ignore that his size might be a problem, even in an NHL that is a lot more forgiving for smaller players. 

What happens to Robertson this season? Because he’ll be 20 years old in September, he’ll be eligible to play in the AHL. More importantly, he’s waiver-exempt. The same can’t be said for his competition for the other 12 forward spots, or maybe nine spots, on the Maple Leafs roster. Does anyone really want Robertson playing on the fourth line?

Related: NWHL Roundup: Boston’s Big Roster Reveal

Because the Maple Leafs can send him to the minors without losing him to waivers, unless Robertson shows exceedingly well during the training camp – as we know he can, we believe the organization must ultimately decide where he’s better off playing. Will it be top-line minutes for the Marlies or a smaller, possibly bottom-six, role for the Maple Leafs? It might be the Marlies.

Bubble Player #2: Adam Brooks

Adam Brooks will be battling for the 13th forward spot on the Maple Leafs’ roster with Kurtis Gabriel and, if he’s healthy, Ondrej Kase. Who wins the battle between Brooks and Gabriel depends a lot on what the team is looking for in its 13th forward. If the team wants a smaller center who has speed and more offensive talent, that’s Brooks. If the team wants a big, bruising, winger, that’s Gabriel.  

In the past, we think Brooks would have won hands down, but with all the talk from Dubas and maybe more importantly from Maple Leafs’ President Brendan Shanahan about the Leafs needing some size and grit up front, maybe Gabriel gets the nod. 

Adam Brooks Toronto Maple Leafs
Adam Brooks, Toronto Maple Leafs (Photo by Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images)

Whoever loses the battle for the 13th forward must clear waivers to go to the Marlies. Are the Maple Leafs willing to risk losing a player in Brooks who they’ve worked to develop for five seasons? On the other hand, if they feel he can’t become an NHL regular by the age of 25, they might believe he’ll never be a roster player and move him. 

If Brooks’ potential is seen as topping out at being fourth-line center, other choices exist. That said, we don’t see that happening. In fact, we wouldn’t be surprised to see him have a bit of a bottom-six breakout season.  

Bubble Player #3: Carl Dahlstrom

Is Carl Dahlstorm the new Martin Marincin? He’s big, like Marincin; and, he’s a defensive defenseman, like Marincin. Like Marincin, Dahlstrom doesn’t seem to be very physical, averaging 0.69 hits per game in his 64 game career. (Marincin averaged 0.62 hits per game in his NHL career). 

For Maple Leafs who remember Frederik Gauthier, the “gentle giant” every fan wished would hit more, the Goat averaged 1.2 hits per game, almost double the number of hits for either Dahlstrom or Marincin. By the way, last season Gauthier signed with the Arizona Coyotes, but played only two games in Phoenix. He played 18 games with the Coyotes’ AHL affiliate the Tucson Roadrunners and is currently an unsigned RFA.

Dahlstrom’s a left-shot defenseman. If he can’t play the right side, it’s tough to see him making this roster. If he can play the right side, he could be in a battle for spot as the Maple Leafs’ seventh defenseman. We suspect he’ll be waived early in the season. If he’s not claimed, he’ll end up with the Marlies. 

Bubble Player #4: Ondrej Kase

Ondrej Kase was an interesting signing for the Maple Leafs. In short, Kase has NHL talent. He’s a puck-control playmaker who can score. He had 31 goals and 20 assists (for 58 points) in 96 combined games during the 2017-18 and 2018-19 seasons. Because he’s a right winger, he’s not going to move into either Marner’s or Nylander’s spot in the team’s top-six unit.

Ondrej Kase Boston Bruins
Ondrej Kase, when he was with the Boston Bruins (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Since he was traded to the Boston Bruins at the 2020 trade deadline, he’s basically been shut down because of concussions. Health is his biggest issue. He’s had five concussions during his last five seasons and spent all but three games on the LTIR for the Bruins last season.

In Kase, the Maple Leafs seem to be taking a complete flyer. If he can regain his health, he could become a great addition to the team. But that’s a big “if.” THW reader Stan Smith noted that he’s surprised doctors are even allowing him to play and that there’s an insurance company willing to insure him to play.  

Related: Pavel Bure – A Tribute to the Russian Rocket

Unless there’s something we don’t know, we see him starting the season on the LTIR. The team will be exceedingly careful with him. But, if he’s deemed healthy enough to play, he could become a useful forward.  

Bubble Player #5: Brennan Menell 

Brennan Menell was a curious signing for the Maple Leafs. Menell’s a 5-foot-11, 177-pound, right-shot defenseman. He was undrafted, but since he moved into the Minnesota Wild’s system at one point he was ranked in their top 10 prospect list. He played five games for the Wild in the 2019-20 season, but elected to play for Minsk Dynamo in the KHL last season. There he had a bit of a breakout season, scoring five goals and 33 assists (for 38 points) in 47 games and averaging the most minutes of any KHL player. 

His scouting report reads, “offensively gifted, lacking in defensive skills.” He’s signed to a two-way contract that pays $750,000 in the NHL and $400,000 in the AHL. He also has to clear waivers, which we believe might be difficult. 

Brennan Menell Minnesota Wild
Brennan Menell, formerly of the Minnesota Wild (Jenae Anderson / The Hockey Writers)

We believe he’ll push Timothy Liljegren during training camp and has a chance to become the team’s seventh defenseman. Certainly, if one reads beat writers who cover the Wild, there are supporters for Menell in Minnesota. 

What’s Next for the Maple Leafs?

In reference to this post, it’s stacking up to be an interesting training camp. As Herb, one of THW’s regular commenters noted in the Discussion the other day, that’s what happens when you have a successful regular-season team like the Maple Leafs trying to get better and make a playoff run. Training camp used to be ho hum; now, not so much. 

Related: Maple Leafs Radical Trade Rumors: Nylander, Ekblad, Nurse & Subban

There might be a number of changes to this lineup before the start of the 2021-22 season. Undoubtedly, some of the players we’ve named here will be part of those changes. Right now, we don’t know to what extent. But that’s what makes these speculations fun if you’re a fan.

[Note: Stan Smith’s profile is https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=687747632]

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