TORONTO — There was a sense of caution from Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe following a much-hyped intrasquad game at Scotiabank Arena on Saturday.
"I expect our group to grow," Keefe said. "But as far as changes to the main group, I don't think you'll see much of that."
And you can't blame him.
With just ten days and no exhibition games to prepare for a 56-game season, The second-year NHL head coach had to act fast.
On the first day of on-ice activity, the Maple Leafs split their 40 players into two groups. Every player expected to be a part of the opening night roster or on the bubble was in Group 1. The players in Group 2 faced a virtual wall.
It all comes down to time or lack thereof. It's a new reality.
"Normally, they'd get multiple exhibition games to be able to make their mark and get comfortable and really show you who they are," Keefe said of the players in the second group. "It's those guys that this affects the most."
With provincial government regulations keeping camp closed off to the media through Friday, a Team Blue vs. Team White intrasquad game drew a lot of interest. Both TSN and Sportsnet (co-owners of the Maple Leafs' parent company Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment) simulcasted the match.
Apart from daily briefings via Zoom video conferences, there wasn't a lot known about how players performed.
Saturday's game gave us some clues.
Defenceman Mikko Lehtonen looked comfortable out on the ice. The 26-year-old Finn signed a one-year contract worth $925,000 in May and the rookie appeared to fit the top-six role he has assigned at camp.
"I have watched a lot of NHL games and I talked with the guys who have played here," Lehtonen said of the adjustment to playing in North America. "It's not a big surprise, but smaller things where you can adjust your game."
Lehtonen is also getting power-play time alongside forwards John Tavares, William Nylander, Zach Hyman and Jason Spezza. He showed off his skill by setting up Team White's fourth goal. A pass to Nylander as time expired with the man advantage.
While Lehtonen's role appears secured, it doesn't look as though Pierre Engvall should get used to the fill-in role he's been occupying as the team's third-line center.
After a leg injury to forward Alex Kerfoot earlier in the week, Engvall was moved over from the second group to the first group to fill the spot. Kerfoot has resumed skating again, but the timetable for his return is not yet known. It doesn't appear as though Engvall did enough to make Keefe's decision difficult should Kerfoot return in time for the team's season opener against the Montreal Canadiens on Wednesday.
"I expected better play from him with the puck," Keefe said of Engvall. "It was good to see him score a big goal, but I was hoping for better from him today."
Keefe generally liked what he saw from his top players, including veteran Joe Thornton, who played on a wing with Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner.
"Those guys who you expect to be good, I thought they were," said Keefe.
The team has Sunday off before preparing for their roster decision. It'll be a difficult balance for the team to get under the $81.5 million salary cap while keeping the maximum amount of players (23) on the active roster. They will likely stay under the active roster max by taking advantage of the taxi squad. The one-time-only provision allows for teams to carry an additional four to six players (at least one must be a goaltender) along with the club. Those players are exempt from the cap, but must be called up to the active roster before playing in a game.