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Photo Credit: © Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

Preseason Pre-Game #1: Five Things to Watch vs Ottawa

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.

Game Preview

There are too many preseason games. Like, way too many.

When the Leafs hit the ice in St. John’s, Newfoundland tonight (did you hear their training camp is in Newfoundland this year?) to take on what appears to be a peewee team disguised as the Ottawa Senators, it will be their first of eight preseason matchups over the next twelve days.

Why? What is the purpose of this?

Aside from giving a few career AHLers their annual moment in an NHL jersey, the only benefit of an extended schedule is to provide guys on the roster bubble an extra game or two to impress the brass. Which is great, don’t get me wrong, but let’s be real. Will that really be the difference? Will a secondary assist against the Laval Rocket in mid-September really launch Frederik Gauthier into the opening-night lineup over, say, Nick Shore?

Actually, this is Babcock we’re talking about here. Maybe it will.

Regardless, here are the expected lines for Leafs vs Sens Round One:

#1 – Kapanen is the New Hyman

When the King is down, a new heir must take his place.

Dr Mike Babcock confirmed to reporters earlier this week what most had long expected: Zach Hyman will miss the first 14-15 games of the year thanks to a pesky ACL tear he suffered back in April.

Look, say what you will about Hyman’s offensive ceiling, but the 27-year-old (Zach Hyman is twenty-seven?!) had a terrific 2018-19 season, hitting career-highs nearly across the board while playing alongside Mitch Marner and John Tavares and serving as a ferocious puck hound and forechecking presence on Toronto’s defacto top line.

Will we ever see another 20-goal season from Hyman again? That remains to be seen. But his absence opens a sizeable hole in the Leafs’ top-six that, for the time being, needs to be filled.

Enter; Kasperi Kapanen.

Tonight is a huge test for Kapanen. Despite the shiny three-year contract extension he signed over the summer, Kapanen is still a risky candidate for a first-line promotion when considering just how glaringly his flaws were displayed throughout the 2019 playoffs.

On a line with Auston Matthews, Kapanen struggled to find open teammates for the entire first-round, lost sense of the rush upon entering the opponent’s zone, and saw his overall impact wane in conjunction with his offensive production. For a first-liner, that simply can’t happen.

Not to mention, very few things will be different from Kapanen’s postseason usage to his new role tonight. He’ll still being paired with a superstar centre, still receiving difficult matchups, and still entrenched as the third-best player on his line. His role is practically identical; use his blistering speed to attack in transition and help feed those around him.

If Kapanen shows improvement as a facilitator, then the Leafs’ top line may get an offensive spark they otherwise wouldn’t with Hyman. But if his blinders are still there, and the lapses still show, this experiment will likely be short-lived.

Tonight won’t set anything in stone, but it’s a good showcase nonetheless.

#2- Jason Spezza is a Leaf

I know this picture is real, but you still can’t convince me it’s not photoshopped.

Pencilled in alongside Trevor Moore and Pierre Engvall for tonight’s contest, the inclusion of Spezza on the Leafs’ second line comprises what is, to me, the most intriguing trio of the bunch.

Why? Well, Moore is short and fast; Engvall is tall and fast. And Spezza, in spite of his old age, is still relatively spry himself. Put those three together, and not only could this combination serve as a sneakily effective unit that balances offensive flair and forechecking prowess, but it might very well end up as the fourth line the Maple Leafs enter the playoffs with come April.

Each player has proven to make those around them better, too. They are not products of their environment. Rather, they ARE their environment.

Even amidst a “down season”, Spezza elevated the hodgepodge of Mattias Janmark and Valeri Nichushkin he was given in Dallas, Engvall coaxed offensive explosions out of Michael Carcone and Dmytro Timashov upon becoming their centre on the Marlies, and Moore is likely the sole reason behind every goal Gauthier scored in 2018-19.

Now they all get to benefit from each other, at least for now. Fun!

#3 – Bracco on the PP

The long-awaited resolution to the Mitch Marner Saga on Friday night likely kiboshed the potential for an early-season NHL cameo by Jeremy Bracco, but that doesn’t mean he can’t still make his case for one anyway.  The 22-year-old possess what is perhaps the most intriguing yet puzzling skill set in the entire organization. He’s an enigma. And now entering into what will be his third year as a pro, it’s time for the former second-rounder to demonstrate that skill set can work.

When projecting Bracco’s future, it would be irresponsible to ignore that he straight up finished second in the entire AHL in points last season as a sophomore. The kid can produce — more so than any 21-year-old in AHL history, mind you — and the numbers on his resume didn’t happen by accident, either.

Bracco is a phenomenally gifted passer, a zone-entry machine and, in every sense of the term, a power-play god. He’s really that good. Thankfully for him, tonight’s contest will give Bracco the chance prove that last one while surrounded by elite talent on the Leafs’ top PP unit.

No pressure, kid.

Are Bracco’s odds of making the team out of camp perilously long? Honestly, yes. They are. And yet, if he flashes of these moves against even quasi-NHL competition…

Well, it’ll be hard to ignore.

#4- Muzzin – Barrie

When it comes to defence partners, going from Nikita Zaitsev to Tyson Barrie in one summer is like trading in a rusted-out unicycle with no seat for the friggin’ Batmobile. That might be underselling it, even.

Regardless of metaphors, Jake Muzzin is the biggest winner of the offseason. There is no challenger. Save for those six wonderful games he spent alongside Morgan Rielly to kick off his tenure in Toronto, Muzzin was otherwise superglued to the human icing call known as Zaitsev last season in an effort to prop up the latter’s long-flatlined production, Weekend at Bernie’s-style.

It worked, I guess. At least, enough to get Zaitsev traded. And now having been freed from Prison Cell #22, Muzzin gets to share the ice tonight with one of the league’s most gifted puck movers in Barrie, giving fans a glimpse at what could potentially be the Leafs’ top defence pairing this season.

On the flip side, those same fans will get their first look at Barrie in a Leafs uniform, providing a reminder of what an actual RHD both looks and plays like.

Keep in mind, Tomas Kaberle was traded in 2011. Any kids under the age of eight watching simply don’t know.

#5 – Korshkov’s First North American Preseason

It’s not Egor Korshkov‘s fault the Leafs picked him above Alex DeBrincat in 2016. And yet, that’s all he’s seemingly known for these days, having declined to leave the KHL for North American until the very end of last season.

Tonight will be Korshkov’s first opportunity to go up against NHL competition in a Maple Leafs uniform. It will also be the first true test for determining whether his skill set can stack up against it. Frankly, that is far from certain at this point.

Joining the Marlies in the second round of their most recent playoff run, Korshkov struggled to produce offensively — finishing with just a single goal in 9 games — and seemed sluggish and even tentative at times in his North American debut. What made this subpar showcase all the more disappointing is the fact that Korshkov is already 22 and rapidly approaching his exit from “prospect” status. A strong performance, both in the preseason and on the Marlies, is vital to him carving out a role within the Leafs organization.

Nevertheless, there are some intriguing tools there with Korshkov — namely, he’s more creative than you’d expect from someone his size — but those need to be displayed far more frequently than they currently are. Perhaps they will be tonight. We’ll have to wait and see.

Puck drop is at 5:30 PM EST.