TORONTO – It was competitive enough in Anaheim – the top team in the West mind you – that Teemu Selanne would see his ice and opportunity in Orange County decline to levels that would sour the end of his Hall of Fame career.
While now fighting simply to make the playoffs in Toronto, former Duck and new Leaf Daniel Winnik envisions similar competition for minutes amongst a revamped Maple Leafs forward collection. Competition amongst that group stands as the most curious roster battle to watch as training camp unfolds.
"There are people that are expecting to be here that are probably on one-way contracts that aren't gonna make our team," said Maple Leafs general manager, Dave Nonis, recalling training camp in 2013 when Tim Connolly and Matthew Lombardi failed to make the cut. "We did that by design. This wasn't [a situation] where we wanted to leave two spots open and say 'let's have two guys fight for it', we wanted to approach this a different way. There are no spots open and someone's gonna lose their job."
The potential for improved depth and competition at the position stands to offer returning head coach Randy Carlyle increased flexibility, backup in the case of injuries, and better balance to a lineup that was all too imbalanced at points last season.
Not only do jobs figure to be on the line, but simple positioning within the forward ranks figures to be competitive. There's versatility with this group too – players who have the skill-set move up and down the lineup – meaning Carlyle can move pieces around more freely if they don't fit, an opportunity to get creative if the need arises.
David Clarkson, for instance, will have competition from the likes of David Booth, Mike Santorelli, Petri Kontiola and Matt Frattin for a spot on the second line, not to mention time with the second power-play unit. Peter Holland, who landed in Toronto when depth proved ill amid injuries to Dave Bolland and Tyler Bozak, will have to fight for minutes and an opportunity to play regularly.
"We think that that's a healthy environment that we can create, competition for the position," Carlyle said, even toying with an idea of returning Joffrey Lupul to a first line with Phil Kessel and Tyler Bozak.
Toronto didn't have much in the way of depth last season, punctuated by the sparing use of a fourth line that offered almost nothing in the way of value. Lacking balance amongst his forward combinations, Carlyle leaned heavily on his top assets, often overburdening that top line of Kessel, Bozak and James van Riemsdyk.
With new assets in the fold, he is afforded the opportunity to balance out the minutes and contributions of his forward group, even employing a defensive fourth line to slug it out with the opposition's best (he appears intent on using three lines for offence).
"If you've got good third and fourth lines you can take away some of the tough minutes from your top guys," Winnik said, "try to give some rest for Phil and Tyler and James, when we're up by a goal or two goals, that they don't have to be playing as much as they used to be."
"I think the coaching staff, they have more in their bag and players are going to have to perform or they're not going to get the ice-time they expect," Nonis said.
Added depth is also a benefit in case of injuries (or suspension).
By October 10 last fall – with David Clarkson suspended and others out with injury – the Leafs were forced to recall two prospects, Josh Leivo and David Broll, who had never played an NHL game before. That isn't likely to occur this time around with Leivo, Broll, Trevor Smith and Carter Ashton staring at positions with the Marlies, and those like Frattin, Holland and Troy Bodie, simply competing for jobs.
"You look up and down the roster that we have at training camp here and there's tons of good guys that definitely it's going to be tough to find ice-time," Frattin said. "You've got to try and get your job and hold onto it."
Frattin is among the forwards with something to prove this season, having faltered in stops with the Kings and Blue Jackets. Clarkson, too, would surely like to prove last season was a one-year nightmare while Kontiola aims to resurrect an NHL career he long ago left behind.
All of which should make for an intriguing competition, one that begins in training camp and continues anew throughout the regular season. "It kind of pushes everyone to be better," Winnik said of the battle. "When you have two bad games you know you've got to step it up for the next two or else you're going to be sitting and watching in the press box."