Hockey is back, folks! And we here at The Leafs Nation couldn’t be more excited about it, which is why we’re changing some things up before the action truly kicks off.
Be honest; do you really need a standard pre-game preview? How much does a by-the-numbers post-game recap really tell you about what you just spent the last three hours watching with your own two eyes? That’s what I thought.
What you want out of your game-day content is some juice, baby. Some spice. And in order to give you that, we’re moving away from the tired old format in favour of a different direction.
Welcome to the Five Thoughts Era™! You’ll get the hang of it as you read on.
The Ottawa Senators snuck out a 3-1 win against the Maple Leafs in what was a thoroughly sloppy preseason tune-up. And good for them, honestly. They need to be reminded of what winning feels like. Might as well get it out of the way before the regular season.
#1- The Goat REALLY Wants to Make This Team
Look, perhaps we were hasty about this. Everyone pencilled Frederik Gauthier out of the Leafs’ lineup once the team decided to sign all the depth centres on the free-agent market over the summer. And that assumption will likely be proven right, but that doesn’t mean The Goat isn’t going to go down without a fight, either. No, sir.
Gauthier was arguably the Leafs’ best player throughout the entire first period. Kicking off his first shift with a near uncontested breakaway, Gauthier had an extra two or three Grade-A scoring chances later that had him staring skyward, putting in an effort that very well could have seen him rack up a hattrick. It was like an out-of-body experience, really. Sure, Gauthier couldn’t finish on any of the open cages he stared down (some things never change), but this looked like a more motivated and aggressive player than the one who graced the ice in 2018-19.
Again, Gauthier likely won’t make the Leafs out of camp. His $650,000 cap hit means the team can call him up at any point in the season if they manage to sneak him through waivers. But Gauthier’s performance tonight was a BIG step forward for him, and Mike Babcock took notice.
Mike Babcock tonight: “I liked Goat. I thought Goat was strong. I thought he broke play. I thought he was good without (the puck), and good with it. I thought he was a factor for us for sure.”
— Jonas Siegel (@jonassiegel) September 18, 2019
#2 – Jason Spezza’s Still Got It, Man
Gauthier may have looked good, but Jason Spezza was the best player on the ice.
My word, can this guy ever still ball. While not as fast as he once was, Spezza displayed some of the offensive craftiness against the Senators that harkened back to his glory days playing for them. It was incredible to watch. The crown jewel, in fact, came during a sequence in the first period where the Moore-Spezza-Engvall line sustained offensive zone pressure for about a minute, lobbed a couple of high danger chances on net, and then capped it all off with a drawn penalty — courtesy of Spezza himself. It was a Kyle Dubas dream. Save for an early goal against, it’s hard to imagine Spezza showing more in his first game as a Leaf.
There cannot be a scenario here where anyone other than Jason Spezza is the Leafs’ 4C on opening night. He injects a degree of skill and flair into a fourth line that sorely needed some in years past. Don’t overthink it. Make him your guy.
#3 – Babcock’s at it Again
On the flip side, you can’t tell Mike Babcock not to overthink things. The guy will “Saskatchewan Science” any situation into a disaster just because his gut tells him to. And right now, his gut appears to be lurching away from Spezza. For what reason? Beats the hell out of me, man.
Babcock tried Jason Spezza on the PK and had this vague comment on his role: “I’m definitely going to figure it out, right? I tried lots of spots. He’s trying to figure it out if he's interested, we’re doing the same.”
— Lance Hornby (@sunhornby) September 18, 2019
What does that even mean? Seriously, spell that one out for me, Mike.
Spezza signed a league-minimum deal as a free agent centre to play for the Leafs and the Leafs alone. There was likely more money available out there on the open market, but Spezza took the bare minimum he legally could to don the blue and white. That says something about his dedication level, wouldn’t you think? Spezza even framed this season — and this is a direct quote from him — as one he’s intending to play “for the love of the game”.
I dunno, he seems pretty interested to me.
Can Babcock just not? Seriously, this isn’t hard. You have a veteran centre with size, offensive flair, faceoff dominance, and the handedness you’ve been longing for since the team entered a contention window. What more does he have to do for you? Spezza has played one game, it went very well, and now you’re spouting off to the media about whether or not he’s interested in playing hockey?
#4 – Tyson Barrie Looks Great
He’s not Ron Hainsey. He’s not Nikita Zaitsev. And he can make a basic, baseline, beginner-level pass in his own zone and in neutral ice.
That’s all you really need to know about Tyson Barrie‘s first performance in a Leaf uniform. And yet, even with a bar set so cavernously low, Barrie looked every bit as advertised as the RHD Toronto spent the past decade searching for. Hallelujah.
Watching him and Jake Muzzin continue to build chemistry this season is going to be fuuuuuun.
#5 – Preseason Hockey is Sloppy
It goes without saying, but preseason hockey is not exactly the pinnacle of the sport. It’s sloppy, disorganized, and oftentimes chaotic in all the wrong ways. So, when Mitch Marner straight up gives a goal away in front of his own net, or Frederik Andersen lets a lil squeaker in from the point, there should be a reasonable assumption that they won’t do these things when the games start to matter.
Enjoy the action before you, but don’t it as gospel. Theses are extended practices, really; an outlet for players to find their bearing in game-like situations. They, frankly, don’t matter. And this sentiment becomes even more important when considering how Cody Ceci‘s debut is on the docket for tomorrow.
Relax, have some fun, and don’t let a preseason performance ruin your evening.