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Photo Credit: © John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Preseason Pre-Game #8: 5 Things to Look For in the Maple Leafs’ Final Tuneup

Well, we’ve finally made it, folks.

After weeks of AHL lineups and roster speculation, the Maple Leafs have mercifully made it to the end of their preseason schedule with one final home date with the Detroit Red Wings. Tonight will also serve as fans’ first real glimpse at the Leafs’ projected opening night roster. What a time to be alive, truly.

With a few roster spots still up for grabs and more than enough players fighting to fill them, here are five things to watch for ahead of Toronto’s preseason finale.

1) No Jason Spezza?

It’s been eleven days now since Jason Spezza’s first official game as a Maple Leaf and, in that time, the 37-year-old has embarked upon quite the journey. It all feels like a blur.

Entering camp as an intriguing depth signing, Spezza first made his mark with an encouraging debut in Toronto’s preseason opener, then quizzically saw his interest level called into question by Mike Babcock, dealt with the inevitable speculation that followed while continuing to perform at a high level nonetheless, and, now, is apparently such a lock to make the opening night lineup that he can sit out the team’s final tuneup in order to give the bubble guys one last showcase.

Jeez, I need a cigarette after writing all that.

Given the hoopla surrounding Spezza’s future as a Leaf, his absence prior to what should be a regular-season dress rehearsal would otherwise be a noteworthy development. Not according to Babcock, though. In fact, when addressing Spezza’s status at the Leafs’ pre-game skate this morning, the veteran coach could not have offered a more “on-brand” explanation:

I’m starting to think Babcock’s contract includes a clause that prohibits him from ever giving a straight answer. It’s either that, or the guy gets a kick out of handling reporters the same way a fairytale troll only lets you cross his bridge if you answer his riddles three. Babs just loves to mess with people. Honestly, I respect that.

Regardless, Babcock made it clear that this noted lack of Spezza doesn’t really mean much. Like, at all. And why would it? There’s still an entire group of roster hopefuls clawing to earn a spot among the final 23, and tonight’s simulation of a meaningful game will serve as their last chance to prove their worth.

Let Spezza rest up while the bubble guys duke it out.

2) Could Korshkov Really Make This Team?

This is probably the most unlikely story of the Leafs’ preseason.

After nearly three years in the KHL, Egor Korshkov finally made the leap to North American late last season by joining the Toronto Marlies for the final nine games of their playoff run. His performance during that brief cameo was, well, not all that great.

The former second-round pick struggled to keep up with the pace of his new surroundings, showing few signs of explosiveness and, perhaps most alarmingly, appearing far too timid than anyone with his 6’5″ frame really should. This initial showing even led me to wonder if Korshkov had an NHL ceiling at all. It’s not like he’s still a teenager with unlimited time to grow, after all. Korshkov is already 23, far further along his development curve than other Leaf prospects, and is fast approaching the point in his career where the organization decides if he factors into their future or not.

This preseason has made that question a heck of a lot easier to answer now.

Korshkov has been phenomenal throughout his first preseason action with the Maple Leafs. He seems quicker than he did back in May, far more aggressive, and, really, just more comfortable in his own skin. In a dramatic twist, in fact, Korshkov has now gone from someone thought to be fighting for regular minutes on the Marlies to having a real, tangible shot at opening his season as a Leaf.

Babcock seems to be a fan, too. Bouncing between the two rosters, Korshkov has continued to receive the power-play time coaches typically don’t hand out to players with no real spot on their roster. That means something, and could very well hint that Korshkov sits atop the roster bubble, if only for the moment.

With a strong performance tonight, Korshkov could prove once and for all that we, the unwashed masses, know nothing.

3) It’s Put Up or Shut Up Time For Nick Shore

Look, I never expected Mike Babcock to fall in love with Nick Shore. Why would he, really?

Shore is the type of player whose glistening advanced metrics cause Ian Tulloch to shutter himself indoors on a gorgeous July afternoon and craft tweet threads about his zone entries and other mathematical concepts beyond my limited comprehension, for which Babcock has typically shown little love. Precedent isn’t exactly on his side here.

Still, it’s been somewhat surprising to watch Shore, who entered camp with actual NHL experience, positional versatility as a centre/winger, and the handedness Babcock seems to covet down the middle, consistently get slapped with AHL-calibre linemates all preseason long. You’d think he’d get more to work with, given his relative analytical brilliance. Alas, that hasn’t been the case, and tonight will be Shore’s first real chance to strut his stuff in a lineup filled primarily with NHLers.

No pressure, dude.

In the most literal sense of the term, Shore will either make or break his odds at NHL employment tonight — at least to start the year. He’ll need to stand out from the pack far more than he has thus far, and, pencilled onto a line with Korshkov and Frederik Gauthier, that might be easier said than done.

No Leaf might have more riding on tonight’s outcome than Shore does.

4) Is This the Last We See of Justin Holl?

Justin Holl is expected to play tonight, sure, but Toronto’s blueline already appears to be set in stone. This, unfortunately, leaves Holl on the outside looking in once again. With Rasmus Sandin and Martin Marincin both locks to hold down the third pair on October 2nd, Holl’s future with the Leafs is now cast serious doubt.

He isn’t necessarily guaranteed to get the boot, of course. In fact, the team could choose to keep Holl around as a 7th or 8th D until Hyman and Dermott come back as a means of stockpiling defensive depth. But, after how last season played out, would Holl really be cool with spending another chunk of his career chained inside the press box? I doubt it. Frankly, if Holl doesn’t make the opening night lineup — which seems almost certain at this point — he wouldn’t be entirely wrong to ask the Leafs to waive him in the hope that another team opts for taking a flier on a RHD with some puck-moving ability.

Holl is certainly fighting for a roster spot tonight, alright, it just might not be with the Leafs.

5) Remember to Overreact to Everything

It might still be the preseason, but a regular-season roster clearly necessitates regular-season reactions. It’s the only natural way to watch the game, really. Basically, everything that happens tonight is bound to happen when the games actually begin to matter. Trust me, I’m a doctor.

Frederik Gauthier scored a beautiful goal? Pencil him in for 20! Cody Ceci completed a beginner-level outlet pass? Fire up the Legend’s Row mould! Mitch Marner looked a bit sluggish? Better check CapFriendly to see if his contract is buyout-proof.

I don’t need to tell you why that’s all a bunch of malarkey. You’re smart enough to get it. I trust you. Still, the only performances worth putting any stock into tonight are those of the players fighting for their professional lives. Everyone else is just going through the motions, doing everything in their power to avoid getting injured by a Red Wing goon with nothing to prove.

There’s a ton of hype surrounding tonight, and justifiably so. It’s exciting. Just, don’t lose your mind if your favourite player looks a tad off or your least favourite player starts lighting it up. Chances are, things will go back to normal very soon.