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Photo Credit: Marc DesRosiers-USA TODAY Sports

Preseason Pre-Game #2: Five things to watch as Leafs road trip back to Ontario

The Leafs lost last night to the Senators B squad in St. John’s. It happens. It’s the preseason, winning isn’t really what we should be watching for or expecting. We should be focusing on who is working well with who, who’s skating well, and generally just watch players go through the motions of removing their rust. The Senators team last night was filled with a bunch of career AHLers who see this year as their best chance at earning a job in the NHL, the Leafs roster was filled with a bunch of guys looking to scrimmage after a few days of practice.

That’s not to say there weren’t players on the Leafs last night with something to prove, it just wasn’t at the top of the roster and that makes a difference.

The Leafs projected lines for tonight contain no carryovers from last night, and the same can be said of the Senators roster for tonight as well…

Remember, that’s likely their A squad.

Anyways here’s what to watch for…

1. Return of the Living Dead

Both teams are looking forward to go head to head with the worst parts of their roster from last season. The Leafs will be facing Ron Hainsey, Connor Brown, and Tyler Ennis (who really wasn’t bad, but we’re not going to act like we miss a fourth liner.) and the Sens will be facing Cody Ceci and Ben Harpur. I’m not really sure what happened to Nikita Zaitsev who was reportedly playing, but kudos to DJ Smith for doing what Babcock never would and scratching Zaitsev.

It should be a night where fans on both sides can collective sigh whenever their new player is on the ice, and collectively have sighs of relief when their former player is on the ice. It should be worth noting that I really want Cody Ceci to prove me wrong, but I’m comfortable with having to eat my words rather than simply give him the benefit of doubt.

How great would it have been to trot out Jason Spezza in a Leafs uniform in Ottawa tonight? That’s a huge miss. He got to face his former club last night, but I can’t help it would have been more meaningful to have him in Kanata.

2. The Kerfoot Center Experiment

Up until now it’s been perfectly fine to just label Kerfoot a center and have him take line rushes as such in practice. Tonight he has to play center against a real opposition, something he has done before, but not a lot at the NHL level, and never with the Leafs. Giving him Mikheyev and Petan as his linemates points to the fact that Kerfoot isn’t going to have a whole lot of support until Hyman returns and Kerfoot inherits Kasperi Kapanen as his RW, but this will be a good chance to see if Petan can be a contributor as well, and we’ll all get our first real look at Mikheyev as well. As far as the forward lines go, this is the worth we should be paying attention to.

3. Bottom Six Wingers

I don’t think Gaudet or Kossila have much of a shot at making the Leafs, despite hearing a couple of favourable things about Kossila, but the wingers in the bottom six for this game are all interesting options.

Nick Shore is a player that it seems a lot of us adopted as the front runner for the fourth line center job based on his pre-KHL shot differentials, and the fact that he has the size and game style suited for the role. Instead, we’re seeing Shore clinging to a 4th line wing job in his preseason debut, and the reality that he could be Marlies bound is setting in.

Pontus Aberg is the most established offensive option of those fighting for a 4th line job this year, and if that’s a skill set the Leafs want, we may see him win the job.

Kenny Agostino’s offensive numbers in the AHL last season also make him a threat, and Matt Read’s speed and penalty killing abilities might make him a contender, though his pro tryout status likely puts him at the back of the pack.

If you are watching the preseason for the roster competitions, this is the battle ground.

4. Rielly-Ceci pairing

We’ve heard a lot about Cody Ceci’s history of lousy defensive partners, but really the same can be said of Morgan Rielly. I mean, he’s paired with Cody Ceci. He’s paired with Cody Ceci on a night when the Leafs play against Ron Hainsey. You could say I lack a certain optimism about this pairing, but it appears to be a marriage of convenience as it’s in the best interest for the Leafs to give Rielly the green light to join the offensive zone attack as much as possible, and perhaps Cody Ceci having a low outlet pass option in Rielly, who can carry or move the puck out of the defensive zone will decrease his tendency to throw stretch passes across the neutral zone.

Like the Kerfoot center experiment, we could see the wheels come off this idea tonight, we could see it work, or we could see it fail spectacularly in the eyes of everyone but Mike Babcock. It seems any of these options are possible, and that’s certainly as good a reason as any to watch preseason hockey.

5. A Taste of Swedish D

Both Sandin and Liljegren find their way into the lineup tonight, and I’m thrilled to see if they can push for a potential roster spot.

Liljegren being paired with Kivihalme, who is making his Leafs debut is a bit more straight forward that situation that Rasmus Sandin is being served up.

Sandin will be playing on the right side when he normally plays on the left. He also has been handed a much more uphill battle in terms of having to carry a defensive partner in Ben Harpur. On the surface this seems pretty confusing, but I put on my thinking cap and think I can break this down.

Once Dermott returns to the Leafs, Sandin’s best chance at being on the Leafs this year would require him to play on the right side. Rielly, Muzzin, Dermott is pretty established and unlikely to be disrupted unless there’s an injury. The Leafs right side gets a lot shakier after Barrie, and somehow we’re identifying Cody Ceci as the only other lock on the roster. Sandin playing on the right allows him to compete now for a permanent roster spot, and would just have to show he’s ahead of Schmaltz, Holl, and Liljegren to earn it. On paper, he should be the front runner assuming he can figure that out. Potentially the Leafs are also considering Harpur as an interim replacement for Dermott and as unfortunate as that sounds, it justifies the pairing and the situation that Sandin presently finds himself in.

I wouldn’t say that Sandin is locked in with Harpur throughout training camp, but he can’t really use him as an excuse.

As for Liljegren, a big night tonight would go a long way of bringing him into the Leafs conversation as well.

Game starts tonight at 7:30 PM ET and can be found on TSN 4 if you live in Ontario.