The transition from the dog days of the offseason to the dog days of the preseason is truly amazing. It feels like only a few days ago that we were longing for actual hockey. Now, the slog is upon us, folks. And boy, is it ever dragging.
Last night, roughly five actual Maple Leafs and a bunch of Marlies made the trek to the paradise known as Buffalo to take on a Sabres squad that was, quite frankly, indistinguishable from their regular-season product. Those Franken-Leafs lost, unfortunately, dropping the outing by a score of 5-3. But while the outcome may have underwhelmed, a few interesting tidbits to chew on revealed themselves nonetheless.
Let’s break them down.
#1 – Trevor Moore is Really, Really Good
*Wedding speech voice*
“Oxford’s dictionary defines ‘the perfect fourth-liner’ as ‘Toronto Maple Leafs undrafted winger, Trevor Moore’.
We only deal in facts over here, folks. There’s no point in arguing it. I mean, what more can you ask of the kid? Moore is blisteringly fast (which shockingly wasn’t always the case, by the way), treats loose pucks like he’s John Wick avenging the murder of the dog that symbolized his undying love for his recently-deceased wife, and possesses just enough offensive touch to allow the less fortunate — i.e; Frederik Gauthier — to chip in for themselves, too.
Then there’s the added bonus of the Leafs having Moore under contract at around-league-minimum until 2021-22. Put it all together, and you have yourself the ideal depth player.
In just over 13 minutes of ice time, Moore demonstrated last night the many reasons why certain bloggers have heralded his game for the past two calendar years. More importantly, however, his performance seemed to answer the lingering question “How will the Leafs’ PK survive the absences of Connor Brown and Zach Hyman?”.
This. This is how:
🚨 GOAL 🚨
— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) September 22, 2019
The goal is nice, of course, but what stands out most in the clip above is Moore’s abject refusal to let a crumbling play die. He attempts to feed the puck to a back-door Gauthier, continues to follow it through a clogged lane when it doesn’t work, circles behind the net, and then gets his patience rewarded by miraculously squeaking it home.
That degree of offensive instinct isn’t typically found in your average fourth-liner. But the Leafs found it in Moore, and now they’re reaping the rewards.
#2 – Rasmus Ristolainen: Earth’s First 6’4″ Infant
Look, I get it. Accepting the new role of “second-best right-shooting Rasmus on your own team” can’t be easy. Everyone has pride. Some people have more trouble letting go than others. But that still doesn’t mean Rasmus Ristolainen has the green light to take out his inferiority complex on the much-better Tyson Barrie.
Rasmus Ristolainen takes out Tyson Barrie pic.twitter.com/JDY5HqAefQ
— Brady Trettenero (@BradyTrett) September 22, 2019
It’s the preseason, man. You’re not on the roster bubble. Relax.
Trying to cripple an opponent in a meaningless late-September matchup might make you feel like a big boy wearing his finest big boy pants, but I can assure you, it’s nothing but a bad look all around. And given how you openly asked to be traded over the summer only to end right back up in beautiful Buffalo, New York, bad looks are becoming your speciality.
At least Rasmus made strides in the addition department. He’s even aware of how long the Sabres’ playoff drought currently is.
#3 – Michal Neuvirth Exists!
Even before training camp opened, a not-insignificant amount of people seemingly began to pencil Michal Neuvirth in as the Leafs’ backup to start the year. This is a little puzzling to me, given that Neuvirth is on a PTO, has missed most of camp due to injury thus far, and hasn’t experienced a “healthy” season since the NHL still viewed Milan Lucic as a coveted asset.
Miraculously, however, Neuvirth suited up in an actual hockey game last night. He even looked pretty decent, too, stopping 20 of 22 shots through two periods of action while avoiding the official “loss” tag upon his exit.
Frankly, Neuvirth’s first performance in blue and white was encouraging — especially when put up against Michael Hutchinson’s current body of work — which is likely all Leafs management can hope for from a tryout attendee. And yet, barring a sudden burst of dominance, there’s still an overwhelming sense that the organization will address their backup situation by seeking external options once the waiver wire really heats up.
This battle isn’t over. In fact, we likely haven’t even seen the true challengers yet.
#4 – Does Kapanen Replace Hyman?
During his stint as John Tavares and Mitch Marner’s third wheel thus far, Kasperi Kapanen has proceeded to rack up three points in two preseason games — including two assists last night — while also injecting a degree of speed and offensive flair into the unit that it seemed to lack with Zach Hyman.
This, of course, is a great development for the Maple Leafs Leafs. The connection between Marner and Tavares was undeniably lethal last season, coaxing out career-best years from both stars, and if adding Kapanen into the mix is now set to improve upon that result, well, then the sky’s the limit.
If he continues his current pace, Kapanen’s potential emergence will raise one important question, as well: What happens to Hyman?
As you’re assuredly aware of by now, Hyman is set to miss the first 14-15 games of the 2019-20 season thanks to a torn ACL he suffered back in April. The 27-year-old will return to the lineup eventually, however, and if Kapanen is still firing on all cylinders like he is now, swapping him out for Hyman will be a pretty tough decision to justify.
Hyman is a very serviceable player in his own right, that’s without question. But it’s also apparent how much he benefits from playing alongside his team’s litany of superstars. Take Hyman away from them, and does he justify his $2.25 million salary?
That remains to be seen.
#5 – The Engvall Centre Experiment Looks Good
Thought at first to be the brainchild of The Athletic’s Hailey Salvian (despite the fact that many other people also wrote about it last year. But I’ll let you have this one, Hailey), the Pierre Engvall Centre Experiment seems to have now carried the positive momentum it built last season into this one.
Engvall didn’t start the game as a centre. But after slotting down the middle for a brief stretch late in the second period, the 6’4″ Swede proceeded to blow by a Sabres defender, win a footrace, corral a loose puck, and throw it on net.
Somehow, it went in.
— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) September 22, 2019
Granted, it wasn’t Carter Hutton’s best night when it came to allowing goals from behind his own goal line on Saturday, but the result isn’t necessarily the point here for Engvall. Rather, it’s important to note how he used his blistering speed when attacking in transition, fought to keep the play alive, and was ultimately rewarded for his “pucks on net” mentality.
Engvall still has some work to do before reaching the NHL, but the former seventh-round pick only keeps inching closer and closer by the year. Hailey must be so proud.