Columnist image
Kristen Shilton

TSN Toronto Maple Leafs Reporter

|Archive

TORONTO — The Maple Leafs’ infirmary gained two more members this week. And their limited salary cap space can’t keep up.

Goaltender Petr Mrazek (groin) and defenceman Justin Holl (illness) are both unavailable for Toronto’s tilt against Ottawa on Saturday, and the Leafs’ are so close to the flat $81.5 million salary cap ceiling they can’t afford to recall another player. Instead, Toronto signed University of Toronto netminder Alex Bishop to a one-day amateur tryout, so he can back-up for Jack Campbell and keep Toronto cap compliant. 

If it weren’t for Holl being sick, the Leafs could have sent defenceman Timothy Liljegren to the American Hockey League's Toronto Marlies and brought up Michael Hutchinson. But ultimately Toronto would rather have 18 skaters in the lineup than worry about who’s sitting on the bench. 

“Whether you're a coach or a player, you don't give much thought to the backup goaltender,” said coach Sheldon Keefe following Toronto’s morning skate on Saturday. “It has nothing to do with what we're trying to do here tonight. A lot of [these] things aren't my department but really it just comes down to the fact that this flat cap has created some situations that are a lot more difficult to manage than they were a year ago.”

Last season, NHL clubs were allowed to carry a four-to-six-player taxi squad that had to include at least one goaltender. Teams could bring those individuals in and out of the lineup when needed, without having them count against the cap. 

No such provisions exist now; Toronto has simply had to get creative. Per the NHL’s current regulations, by signing Bishop to the one-day contract, the Leafs are effectively going to be short one player on Saturday. That will allow them to recall Hutchinson (presumably) on an emergency basis come Sunday, so he can play behind Campbell without any additional cap hit. 

The Leafs are still hoping to have Mrazek back quickly. He made his first start of the season in Ottawa on Thursday and injured his groin as the second period buzzer blew. Campbell came in to finish what was a 3-2 loss for Toronto, but Mrazek may have dodged a bullet with the severity of his injury.

“He's still being assessed in terms of just how long he's going to be out, but it's not looking like it's going to be long-term,” said Keefe, adding the Leafs aren’t expecting to need Long-Term Injured Reserve for Mrazek.

As for Holl, he’s been presenting cold-like symptoms and hadn’t received his COVID-19 PCR test results prior to the morning skate. Whether Holl tests positive for the virus or not, he wouldn’t be well enough to play on Saturday. 

That opens the door for Liljeregn to make his season debut, on the Leafs’ second pairing with Jake Muzzin. The 22-year-old has appeared in 13 NHL games since 2019-20, and Keefe believes he’ll translate a strong performance through training camp and preseason into Saturday’s game.

“I know he's excited,” Keefe said. “He’s played well, and he'll go right in and do a job for us. He has done that before; it's not new to him, in the sense of when he's come up and played in times when we needed him and he's done a good job, so we expect more of that.”

Keefe had Liljegren playing with Muzzin during exhibition, and felt it was better to keep them as a unit rather than disrupting his third pair of Rasmus Sandin and Travis Dermott

While Liljegren is undoubtedly looking forward to getting in some game action, it’s unlikely (although not impossible) that Bishop will earn an NHL stat line. 

And he won't be the first U of T goaltender the Leafs have tapped in this position, either. Back in October 2013, an injury to James Reimer forced Toronto to sign Varsity Blues’ netminder Brett Willows to a one-day amateur contract as backup to Jonathan Bernier

In that instance, Reimer was hurt mid-game and the NHL didn’t have an emergency goaltender in every building on standby like they do now. Willows got the call from a coach to grab his gear and head to Air Canada Centre, where he suited up to watch the third period from the dressing room. 

Bishop had a little more notice about what was coming. And he even managed to impress a few teammates at morning skate, despite not playing a game since Feb. 16, 2020 due to the pandemic. Prior to that, Bishop put together a 20-6-0 record in 2019-20, with a .922 save percentage and 2.40 goals-against average. 

“I haven't spoken to him yet; I just saw him on the ice,” said Alex Kerfoot. “But I didn't score any on him, so he looked pretty good. It's a quick turnaround, he's in here right away and getting going. It's an unfortunate situation [with the injuries] but it's a good opportunity for him.”

In other injury news, Auston Matthews (wrist) took part in both a pre-morning skate skills session and the skate itself. Matthews will miss his third straight game on Saturday while still recovering from off-season surgery, but according to Keefe, all signs point to Matthews getting back sooner than later. 

Given the Leafs are 1-1-0 to start the season and have scored one only 5-on-5 goal thus far, getting a healthy Matthews involved will be a much-needed boost. 

“He's feeling good, he's progressing,” Keefe said of Matthews. “In terms of his schedule [to return] and all that, there is no set date. My talk with him today was very positive. It's been positive throughout, but I'd see even more so, he seems to be progressing well.”