Photo Credit: © Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

Maple Leafs Pre-Game #1: 5 Things to Watch in Tonight’s Home Opener

No more RFA talk. No more trade rumours. No more intermission shows geared specifically towards eliciting outrage from its viewers. No more nonsense.

The Toronto Maple Leafs are back tonight, mere hours out from puck drop on an actual hockey played for actual points in front of a sold-out crowd. It doesn’t get better than this.

So, before the most anticipated home opener in recent memory gets started, let’s go through 5 things to watch for.

Projected Lines – Toronto

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Projected Lines – Ottawa

Jesus Christ. 

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1) No Jason Spezza

Jason Spezza will not be playing tonight. In the home opener. In his home town. For his hometown team. in front of his family and friends. Against the team that drafted him and will very likely raise his number to their rafters one day. Cool.

Why? Because Spezza MUST become a penalty killer, of course. You know the penalty kill, right? That thing Frederik Gauthier has never been forced to learn? You got it. I mean, accountability does matter, after all. And nothing preaches accountability quite like forcing Spezza to morph into a PK wizard over the next 48 hours while a 24-year-old with 6 career goals and 19 career points rests easy knowing his eight minutes of 5v5 time will be safe and sound forever.

Happy home opener, everyone!

Let’s be clear here; does this matter? No. Of course, it doesn’t. Spezza wouldn’t have made a difference in tonight’s outcome at all. He’s a 37-year-old on a league-minimum deal coming off two down seasons. It’s not like the Leafs are sitting Matthews and Tavares while down a goal in a game seven. Can imagine what kind of coach would do that?

Needless to say, the name of fourth-liner probably shouldn’t be trending on Twitter mere hours before the Leafs embark upon their best shot at a Cup since Y2K. But it is — which is kind of the problem.

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Mike Babcock made it matter. He didn’t have to, but you better believe he did.

After an endless summer of contract talk and cap anxiety, tonight’s home opener was, in part, meant to give fans the release they’ve been waiting for — the release they deserve. And don’t get me wrong, that will still happen. Just, not to the extent it could have. Because rather than letting hockey fans focus on actual hockey for the first time in months, the highest-paid coach in the sport galaxy brained himself into scratching a hometown veteran playing in likely his final NHL season — and for “the love of the game”, mind you — all to lock down MAYBE 20 seconds of PK time by a completely superfluous amount.

“It’s the fourth line, Mike. It doesn’t matter.” 

Yeah, that’s the whole point, man. It doesn’t matter. Manufacturing an uproar for no reason on the first morning of the regular season when standing pat wouldn’t have made a difference anyway projects as a move done with petty, or self-serving, or misguided intentions. Neither one reflects glowingly on the coach, particularly one who reportedly was pretty darn close to getting canned six months ago.

This isn’t all on Babcock, though. How could it be? I mean, if Spezza REALLY wanted to get minutes he isn’t suited for, he should’ve spent the first chunk of his career in San Jose, waited until reaching the doorstep of age-40, and then signed for three years in Toronto rather than one.

Now THAT’S how you stay in the top-six.

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2) Scott Sabourin is Probably Gonna Do Something Dumb

Scott Sabourin: Working Class Hero™ has officially made the Senators’ opening-night lineup, which should probably tell you all you need to know about where that franchise is.

Armed with a $70,000 pay stub and enough moxy to make him the beacon of the Every Man, Sabourin has drawn into Ottawa’s lineup purely to avenge the absolute clowning he received from Auston Matthews during a preseason game back in September. It was hilarious. The pinnacle of comedy. And given how this still seems to be a talking point in the Sens’ dressing room even a full two weeks after the fact, something tells me sportsmanship won’t be Scotty’s first priority tonight.

I don’t know, just a hunch.

Working in the Leafs’ favour, though, is that Sabourin is not a good hockey player. Like, at all. This is a guy whose 8 points in 43 games for Calgary’s AHL team last season actually stood as an improvement upon his offensive totals from the year before. There’s a reason Sabourin is making his NHL debut at 27. If he even shares a second of ice with Matthews tonight, it will be because the D.J. Smith specifically made it so.

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Let Scott have his fun, and prepare for the inevitable Sabourin v. Muzzin wrestling match that will close out the first period.

3) The Goddamn Captaincy

At this point, the motives or the spin influencing this decision do not matter. John Tavares will officially be named captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs tonight. It will likely happen (relatively speaking) in unexpected fashion, confirmed for good when Tavares skates out during introductions in front of a sea of hometown fans with the preface:

“From Mississauga, Ontario, number 91, YOUR CAPTAIN, John Tavares!” 

In that moment, nothing else will matter.

Imagine travelling back to the Peter Horachek era and telling yourself that, four years from then, John Tavares would be captaining the Maple Leafs into a contention year. To them, it would sound like total gibberish. In fact, I probably would’ve murdered Future Me out of pure disbelief, therein causing a tear in the space-time continuum and breaking the fabric of our world as we know it.

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Thankfully, time travel is still a little ways off, so we can rest easy — for now. Tavares is captain. He’s a Maple Leaf. Life is good.

4) Sandin’s First Real Test

Rasmus Sandin defied the odds and cracked the opening night lineup, sure. But the first true test of his young career has yet to begin.

Sandin was absolutely phenomenal throughout the entirety of his preseason play. So good enough was the 19-year-old, in fact, that earned the distinction of perhaps Toronto’s second- or third-best defenceman, anchoring whichever pairing the coaching staff placed him on and excuding a level of confidence rarely seen from a kid who only just reached the legal drinking age.

Sandin earned his big league job on merit alone. But those merits might not be able to outweigh the complexities of the Leafs’ cap situation in letting him keep it. Basically, Sandin can’t merely be “good”. He needs to be great.

Given the higher NHL cap hit of his ELC, Sandin’s performance must be so impressive that it forces the Maple Leafs to roll with a shorthanded roster just so they can keep him around. Is it unfair to load such lofty expectations onto the shoulders of a rookie before his NHL game? Yes, it is. But that’s just the world we live in right now.

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Sandin’s first test begins tonight. And given how all his previous ones have gone, there’s a good chance he passes with flying colours.

5) Just Have Fun

Hockey is back. And that means a little more this year than it has in the past.

Think about what the past six months have offered. It’s been a constant sea of contract talk and boardroom squabbles, threatening to drown us all in with its intolerable might. It was exhausting, personally. The sagas of the summer (really one in particular) drained my passion for the game and soured my mind against the sport my livelihood is based upon.

All of that is over now. Real, tangible, distraction-free hockey has returned. Predictions are over. All that rests onward are results.

So, have some fun tonight. The Leafs are a decidedly different team than they were back in April. It might even take some time for all those new faces to adjust. Actually, it definitely will. Don’t lose your mind when things aren’t silky smooth right off the hop. But, even if the Leafs drop this game, their season isn’t over and your life still has meaning. There are 82 of these for a reason, after all. Anything can happen.

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Sit back, relax (yeah, right), and enjoy the beginning of what could be the best year this franchise has seen since man landed on the Moon.