Wayne Simmonds, other Maple Leafs depth forwards get final chance to make impression

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GRAVENHURST — In his previous 14 seasons in the National Hockey League, Wayne Simmonds doesn’t figure he has been part of a hockey team as solid as this Maple Leafs group.

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“Extremely strong from top to bottom,” Simmonds said on Thursday after the Leafs concluded practising at the Centennial Centre. “I think this is the deepest team that I’ve been a part of. It’s pretty impressive, the depth the Leafs have collectively.”

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That depth has kept Simmonds in the hunt for a job as the pre-season winds down with a home-and-home set against the Detroit Red Wings this weekend.

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Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe has said a few times during the past couple of weeks that this has been the most competitive camp he has overseen in Toronto since taking over from Mike Babcock nearly three years ago. As such, there will be some difficult decisions for Keefe and the front office once the final horn sounds on Saturday night at Scotiabank Arena.

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Some players who have done nothing wrong throughout camp will be cut.

“There’s still time to go and the players’ performances will have a say on how this all shakes out, the salary cap is going to have its say on how this shakes out, injuries and such,” Keefe said. “There is a lot of things that can happen over the next little bit.

“I’m really happy with all the guys that have been in the competition for spots. They haven’t let up.”

The situation has been a different one for Simmonds, who broke in with the Los Angeles Kings in 2008-09 and never has played in a game in the American Hockey League. When he was a healthy scratch at times last season, it was a clear sign that his lock on an NHL job was being loosened and would not be a guarantee in the future. To Simmonds’ credit, he worked diligently over the summer in trying to be a bit quicker, and he has had a spirited camp.

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At the same time in the bottom six at forward, newcomers Zach Aston-Reese (still on a PTO), Nicolas Aube-Kubel and Adam Gaudette have had varying degrees of success. Nick Robertson and Denis Malgin, who have worked their way up the depth chart, have been excellent throughout camp. And though he might come up short now, Alex Steeves has made Keefe’s decisions a little more difficult.

We might have got an idea of Simmonds’ immediate future when the Leafs tweeted their roster for the game on Friday night in Detroit. Simmonds will make the trip west down the 401, one of the few full-time NHLers who will suit up for Toronto.

Also on the roster for Friday are Kyle Clifford, Pontus Holmberg, Gaudette, Robertson, Malgin and Steeves.

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Aston-Reese, whose has done enough to earn a contract, and Aube-Kubel won’t play in Detroit.

Keefe has said that the group that plays on Saturday in Toronto will be closer to his opening-night roster.

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“It has been little bit different for me,” said the 34-year-old Simmonds, a veteran of 1,019 NHL games. “Kind of on the bubble here and I know that, battling for my job.

“You just have to put that in the back of your mind and come out and do everything the right way.

“Everyone’s cognizant that not everyone is going to make the team, but we’ve done a good job pushing one another in a positive way.”

When Keefe considers the experience Simmonds has built in the NHL, how much does that matter in the end?

“There is a track record and a history, not just in the league, but with our team,” Keefe said. “You put a great value on that.

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“When you’re a player that played at the bottom end of the roster, and you’re a team that is trying to get better, there’s going to be competition.

“Simmer is caught in that mix, but when I isolate him in his camp, I think he’s done a good job in his effort and his execution and his attitude in how he has handled it, knowing that he is in a battle. He has been a true professional in that sense.”

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