Moving Towards Opening Night

While the makeup of the Leafs, especially the defence, is still very much in the air they at least know that they will be facing Martin Gerber on Wednesday night. Emery is out injured as he continues to recover from wrist surgery.

Ninja over at Raking Leafs had a good look at the evolution of the lines since training camp.

These were last night's lines and Paul Maurice noted that they were pretty close to what the team would be on opening night -

Nik Antropov - Mats Sundin - Jason Blake
Alex Ponikarovsky - Matt Stajan - Alex Steen
Chad Kilger - John Pohl - Darcy Tucker
Boyd Devereaux - Kris Newbury - Bates Battaglia

The top line has shown quite a bit of chemistry as Blake's speed has given the Antro-Sundin duo an added dimension.

After arguing against trading Matt Stajan in order to keep Mike Peca he has repaid my faith in him with a great showing this training camp. His face-offs are still hit and miss but he is playing much more physically and effectively along the boards. The play that summarised what he has to do this season to be successful was the Kubina goal that he set up against the Sabres with a strong puck pursuit and good distribution of the puck.

As for Steen, playing with more offensive-minded linemates will certainly help him exploit his own skills. He has seemingly decided to shoot much more frequently as he leads the team in shots this pre-season. This should match up well with Stajan who more often than not looks to pass.

The third line could be a nice surprise this season. Kilger has had a hell of a camp and is scoring at well above his usual 1 goal per 300 chances rate. John Pohl has carried over his strong play from last season and is a great example of a played taking his chances as they come. He looks to have held off the challenge of Simon Gamache as the small, fast, feisty forward with hands. That leaves Tucker on the third line. That may ruffle some feathers considering his salary but Ninja sums up the situation well:

Tucker mans L3 rightwing, which is where he should be. If that upsets you, think of it as the first checking line. I want Tucker on the ice in spurts to set tempo. I don't want Tucker on the ice too much which slows the tempo.

Along with the third line, the fourth line will give the Leafs two units that can change a game's momentum with their physical play. Bates and Devereaux are two examples of JFJ's small deal genius and Newbury, as Maurice has said, is a guy that looked at what the Leafs needed and adapted him game to fill that need.

The defence is a little tougher matter. The top pairing is a gimme as the Czechmates - Kaberle and Kubina - will pick up where they left off last season.

The second pairing will feature the Leafs' official whipping boy (especially if Antro keeps up his play), Bryan McCabe. Last year his game improved once he was playing fewer minutes and he was paired with Colaiacovo but with the youngster looking set to miss the beginning of the season his partner is up in the air. A lot depends on whether Ian White keeps his place in the top 6. With him the last two pairings are most likely:

McCabe - Kronwall/Wozniewski
White - Gill

Without him the pairings would likely be:

McCabe - Kronwall
Wozniewski - Gill

Either way, as it stands, I would guess that Stralman starts with the Marlies since he can go down without passing through waivers. He has had a good camp but it would definitely help his development more to play big minutes in all situations in the AHL.

Either scenario leaves the odd man out as the extra defenceman while it looks like Jay Harrison will start another campaign with the Marlies if he can pass waivers.

The team's final cuts will be made after tonight's final pre-season game.

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