As National Hockey League training camps wind down and teams get set for the start of the regular season, final cuts have to be made to determine who will be on the 23-man roster for opening night.
For the Toronto Maple Leafs, there aren’t a lot of decisions left. Rasmus Sandin has proven he’s ready to at least get a look in the NHL, leaving one spot open for a defenceman, and up front there is a similar scenario. The top two lines were all but locked in at the start of camp, and the emergence of Russian winger Ilya Mikheyev seems to have solidified the third unit.
But there remains a competitive battle for what is likely just one remaining spot on the fourth line. Jason Spezza and Frederik Gauthier look to be slotted in alternating between centre and right wing, leaving three players to battle on the left side: Nic Petan, Dmytro Timashov, and Yegor Korshkov.
Petan was acquired from the Winnipeg Jets last February in a trade for Par Lindholm and was frequently a healthy scratch last season. Korshkov was a 2016 second-round pick who has spent his entire career (save nine AHL playoff games last year) playing in Russia, and Timashov was a 2015 fifth-rounder who has spent the last three seasons with the Marlies.
With the Leafs edging closer and closer to their full-time NHL roster, they sent what was largely their AHL squad to Montreal on Monday to see who could step up with their backs against the wall. Korshkov and Petan were on that roster, while Timashov was not.
Playing against a Canadiens team full of NHL regulars, Korshkov and Petan were difference-makers. The Russian scored twice in the 3-0 victory, and Petan tallied two assists. Leafs head coach Mike Babcock praised both players post-game.
“I thought Korshkov had a real good game,” Babcock said in a scrum. “(Petan) was physical, he was on the puck, he didn’t turn the puck over. That’s what matters for me.”
At the team’s morning skate the next day, Babcock was asked once again about Korshkov and how his performance impacted his decisions moving forward.
“His hands and his hockey sense for a man that big — I mean, he makes plays every time he has it,” he said.
“The other thing is we often say he’s not very quick, but then I saw him (go) by three NHL defensemen last night. Maybe he is just that big that he doesn’t look that quick. He is a good player. We like him. We’ll just keep going with the process.”
Korshkov’s impact was reaffirmed Thursday when the Maple Leafs released their lineup for Friday’s game in Detroit. It contained many of the same players who played on Monday in Montreal, including Petan, but Korshkov’s name was left off. This means he’ll likely get a look on the NHL-calibre squad on Saturday when they’ll host the Red Wings.
Timashov, who played Wednesday in Toronto against the Habs, was also listed on the team. Clearly Korshkov has made a good impression on the coach, but the fact he plays the right side works against him.
Babcock seems to like having two natural centremen in Spezza and Gauthier. So with only the left side open, Petan and Timashov have an instant edge.
Long-term, Korshkov will benefit from a full year in the AHL playing a prominent offensive role, and clearly Babcock won’t have any hesitation calling him up in the future. Timashov is in a similar boat but may stick around as an extra forward since he’s already developed in the minors.
Petan is on a much tighter clock. This will be his fifth season trying to become an NHL regular, and if he isn’t given the opportunity here, he’ll likely seek a trade elsewhere. His performance in Montreal proved that he’s ready to be in the big league full-time, and right now the job appears to be his to lose.