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Preseason Pre-Game #4: 5 Things to Watch for the Leafs in Buffalo

After the first official home game of the preseason last night, the Leafs are heading to Buffalo for their fourth preseason game. We’re almost halfway done with the exhibitions — almost.

At points it might seem like the preseason is way too long — and that’s a valid point — but it’s always nice to see some of the rookies and prospects play with some talented players. Rather than watching them on grainy streams on a line with your future electrician, we get to watch them in full high-definition with some NHL stars next to them.

With not that much room to take spots on the Leafs, this is an opportunity to show management, the coaching staff, and some fans, what exactly a young player looks like in a simulated NHL game.

Tonight in Buffalo, the Leafs will be significantly stocked with players destined for the Marlies when the calendar turns to October. While Buffalo will try to put out their most “talented” lineup for their first home game of the preseason.

Lineups

If there has been a main storyline with this group of forwards in the past few weeks, it’s been the controversy surrounding Jason Spezza and Frederik Gauthier. The former has had a long history of domination and was featured on the wing just last season for the Dallas Stars, while the latter is a fringe NHL forward at best.

Gauthier has looked good, but it’s preseason. While Spezza has been doing nothing spectacular, the two of them playing together with Trevor Moore, might be a strong signal that that line will be the fourth line on Oct. 2. Despite some of the predicted outcries for Pontus Aberg or Kenny Agostino to take that spot over Gauthier, in the end, it means so little.

What will be interesting is if Ben Harpur and Jordan Schmaltz could look at all like capable defenders against the Sabres. If they’re given the duties against some of the top Buffalo forwards, it might be an interesting night.

The Sabres haven’t released the exact forward lines, but the roster will be “stacked” against the visiting Leafs. Jack Eichel, Casey Mittelstadt, Sam Reinhart, Jimmy Vesey, Marcus Johansson, Jeff Skinner, Dylan Cozens, Victor Olofsson — there could be some interesting scoring chances against the lackluster Toronto defenceman if these forwards get their opportunities.

On the blueline will feature some offensively-gifted blueliners like Rasmus Dahlin, Henri Jokiharju and a defensive stalwart like Colin Miller. Rasmus Ristolainen and Marco Scandella are also playing, kind of.

1) The “Fourth Line”

As mentioned before, the whole Gauthier, Spezza, and Moore thing is going to be interesting right until the puck drops against the Ottawa Senators on Oct. 2. It could end up being the fourth line when the exhibition games are completed, especially that this has already been a line previously in the preseason.

No matter who plays centre between Gauthier and Spezza doesn’t really matter. They’re both able to take faceoffs on their strong side and Moore will be able to continue forechecking like he’s out for blood.

If everything clicks tonight — and in future games — this could end up being a capable depth line if Babcock’s plan works out. If not, it might make more sense to add another skilled player, rather than having Gauthier continue to bring the line down.

2) Jordan Schmaltz and Ben Harpur

I hate to say it. But this will probably be the bottom pairing.

If they’re able to stay competitive and be even somewhat productive, they could be a mediocre pairing, but it would take a lot of improvement. Schmaltz seems to have some tools — skating, mainly — but some decisions that he has made on the ice during his time with the Blues and the minimal time with the Leafs, has made some of the more optimistic fans doubt his ability to be on a Cup-contending team.

Ben Harpur is tall, that’s it.

3) Engvall Darkhorse?

Despite Engvall reportedly taking a stumble and needing help off the ice during morning skate, he has recovered but will still be a gametime decision. Whether he plays tonight or he doesn’t, the forward has still been able to show enough of his skill to warrant some discussion.

Due to the logjam of depth forwards the Leafs have going into the season, it’s unlikely that the 23-year-old will make his NHL debut in October. But considering the other options, management and the coaching staff might see Engvall as a possible winger to come up if a regular gets hurt.

He was able to move to centre for most of the season last year with the Marlies, playing 70 games and scoring 19 goals and 32 points. Not the most explosive point production, but if he is able to improve with more of a role in just his second full year in the AHL, he could be someone to look at when it comes to cheap depth for the Leafs.

4) The Backups

Michal Neuvirth will be the starting goaltender tonight, as he hopes to win the job to be Andersen’s backup. With Sparks gone and Hutchinson not looking great this preseason, it’s essentially Neuvirth’s job to lose at this point.

If he’s able to have some solid periods tonight, then we could be seeing another contract signing. He lost most of his season last year due to injury — holding a .897 sv% through seven games with the Flyers — but he has shown flashes in the past to be a more-than-capable backup for a team that hopes to be lifting a trophy in June.

5) The Top Guns

John Tavares, Mitch Marner, and Kasperi Kapanen are the only forwards playing tonight that will play a prominent role this season for the Leafs, so all eyes will be on them to produce tonight. With Hyman out, Kapanen has found his way to Tavares’s left and has been able to show his speed this September.

His game has essentially not changed — rush up the wing and hope something falls on his stick — but Tavares and Marner will surely boost his point total by season’s end.

Last year, with William Nylander not signed when the season started, Kapanen was Matthew’s winger to start the season and he was able to net most of his goals last season during those couple of months. Maybe he’ll do the same as yet another top-six winger’s replacement.

Tonight’s game will be on Sportsnet. Puck drop at 7:00 pm ET.