After three weeks and eight exhibition games, the result of that competition was a roster that, for the time being, includes forwards Brandon Kozun and Carter Ashton and defenceman Stuart Percy — and not enforcers Colton Orr and Frazer McLaren.
Orr, McLaren and defenceman Korbinian Holzer were placed on waivers Monday as the Leafs prepared to open the season Wednesday night against the Montreal Canadiens.
"It doesn't mean that Frazer or Colton won't be with us at some time during the year," general manager Dave Nonis said. "We also made a statement earlier on that if certain players played well enough to make our team then we would have to make room for them. I think that you guys would all agree that there has been a couple of players that have come to camp and made it difficult for us not to keep them here."
Kozun, Percy and winger Josh Leivo, who's dealing with a bruised foot and could go on injured reserve or be sent to the AHL's Marlies before the season opener to get the Leafs down to 22 players, certainly fit that bill. Kozun and Percy are set to make their NHL debuts against the Canadiens.
The five-foot-eight Kozun in particular stood out in camp and with five points in the pre-season.
"We felt that he could be a depth player, that he could give us some games because of his skill-set and because he's a very driven and tenacious player," Nonis said. "Did we see this camp coming? No. I think everyone thought he would come in and push for a job and prove to us that he could be a good depth player, but he's performed at a different level than we anticipated."
Not keeping Orr and McLaren looks like a seismic shift in organizational philosophy under new president Brendan Shanahan. The Leafs led the league in fighting majors over the past two seasons, and coach Randy Carlyle has made no secret that he likes the intimidation factor of having an enforcer in his lineup.
Carlyle said this wasn't a "philosophical change," and he and Nonis left the door wide open for Orr or McLaren to come back at some point if they're not claimed off waivers.
"The message is: 'You're not here today. Who knows what the next 24 hours brings, but you're still a part of our organization if there is not a claim put in,'" Carlyle said. "Because those players are not on our list today doesn't mean that they won't be on our list on Friday or Saturday or the day after or whatever."
Without Orr (119 career fights according to HockeyFights.com), the Leafs' leader is David Clarkson with 86, counting regular-season and playoff games. Clarkson, Toronto's leading fighter last season, suffered a cheekbone injury when fighting Cody McCormick of the Buffalo Sabres in a pre-season game Sept. 26.
Nonis said there has to be a "pack mentality" of players looking out for each other. Carlyle has called it "team toughness."
There is still grit in the lineup, but this is a different bottom-six forward group than the Leafs featured last season. Beyond the first line of Tyler Bozak between James van Riemsdyk and Phil Kessel and the second line of Nazem Kadri between Joffrey Lupul and Kozun, there's balance.
During Monday's practice, the third line was Mike Santorelli between Leo Komarov and Clarkson and the fourth was Peter Holland between Daniel Winnik and Matt Frattin.
"I think our third and fourth lines are going to look different than they have in the past," Nonis said. "I think they're probably interchangeable."
On defence, Nonis said it's "unlikely" that Cody Franson will be available to face the Canadiens as he's dealing with a soft-tissue injury in his knee. In his place will be Percy, paired with Roman Polak, while captain Dion Phaneuf and Stephane Robidas are the first pairing and Jake Gardiner and Morgan Rielly the second.
"I think our depth is definitely improved over last season," Nonis said. "I think you've got (the) experience factor, as well: Jake Gardiner with another year, Morgan Rielly with a year. Those things should help us as we move along."
Notes — First-round pick William Nylander will play this season for MODO in the Swedish Hockey League. The 18-year-old could have played for the AHL's Marlies or another team in his native Sweden but chose to go back to MODO. ... Nonis said Swedish defenceman Viktor Loov will be assigned before Tuesday's 5 p.m. roster deadline. It's uncertain whether he'll go back to MODO or to the AHL.
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