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Preview: Maple Leafs face the Sabres as the practice lines tell a story about cuts to come

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Some tentative player decisions are apparent from the lines in yesterday’s and today’s games.

Toronto Maple Leafs Headshots
Rasmus Sandin is committed to trying to make his boring Swedish hair look fun.
Photo by Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images

Preseason Game Four: Toronto Maple Leafs at Buffalo Sabres

Game time: 7:00 pm on Sportsnet and MSG-B

Opponent Site: BeDeadBeforeTheyTradeRisto

The Roster:

Tonight’s lines from yesterday’s practice:

This game is about the least important game to be played by people wearing the Leafs uniform this year. The Alumni Game at training camp was at least fun. What’s at stake tonight is mostly Michal Neuvirth’s chance to prove he’s healthy enough to stay in the game for backup with the Leafs, while the sideshow of Jason Spezza v Frederik Gauthier plays out on the ice in front of him.

The two groups of skaters that broke from training camp to split the first two preseason games against Ottawa have been tweaked, with the group from Game Two adjusted to play Game Three, while tonight’s roster is largely the leftovers. Jake Muzzin and Tyson Barrie are there along with the John Tavares line, but the way the players were sorted out yesterday seems to have left most of the serious contenders for jobs on the other squad.

Frederik Andersen and Michael Hutchinson were ported into the Matthews group yesterday, leaving Neuvirth to play with Kasimir Kaskisuo on the Tavares team tonight. Also swapped out was Ben Harpur, who is now on this roster with Jordan Schmaltz instead of plying with Rasmus Sandin. Sandin, you’ll have heard about, was played on the second pair yesterday. Harpur is now in with Schmaltz, Justin Holl and Kevin Gravel and competing against Martin Marincin for a depth job and, well, it sure looks like Sandin is in the running here.

Is this serious-looking serious look at Sandin really what it seems? Or is it training camp smoke and mirrors? I’m not sure right now, but the difference in how Sandin and Timothy Liljegren are perceived is obvious. Liljegren is definitely going back to the AHL, but he’s also definitely taken more seriously than Mac Hollowell, as he should be.

Sandin on a pairing with Martin Marincin after a tour with Harpur, is a sign he’s truly on the list of possible winners of that coveted spot on the third pair that will vanish the second Travis Dermott is back. Let’s not forget how low the stakes are here. Might the Leafs play Sandin for a bit? Sure. More than nine games? Maybe, they might keep him around until Dermott is back, which is likely to be 14 or so games. He’d be right back in the AHL at that point, however, ready to learn the set of tasks the team has for him. But this is the closest I’ve ever come to buying in on a young prospect genuinely earning a roster spot out of camp when that wasn’t a given.

Will it actually end up Marincin/Schmaltz/Harpur until Dermott is back? Yeah, likely. But I think I’m telling you there’s a chance.

The forward issue under consideration tonight is Spezza on the wing with Gauthier as the second line. This looks like a goad to Spezza to prove he’s worth taking Gauthier’s job, and I’ll tell you honestly, on his record, he’s got it, but on his play so far.... nope.

The only other notable thing is that Nic Petan, who dazzled offensively against the almost-real Senators on Wednesday, is down on an AHL line today. One thing you can learn from listening to Mike Babcock’s comments about Ilya Mikheyev is that he’s not looking for dazzle. He’s looking at all the rest of the forwards’ games. That ever-so-annoying play away from the puck and along the boards that coaches seem to care about for mysterious reasons that mostly just help you win the game. Weirdos, coaches, all of them.

Yesterday’s roster contained the wingers looking to challenge Trevor Moore for a temp job on the third line. That line seems to be locked in with Mikheyev and Kerfoot as the pair who won’t change, with whatever winger takes the right wing spot until it becomes Kapanen’s regular spot. I don’t think Moore falls off the playing roster, so he’s at least the fourth line left wing if he can’t grab that third-line spot. So that leaves one other winger job, seemingly the fourth-line right wing, and Spezza is now a candidate for that too. (There’s no reason the winner of today’s contest can’t be both he and Gauthier.)

Looking at the Matthews group shows that Pontus Aberg had been ahead on the race for the one that matters — a chance to play with Kerfoot and get meaningful minutes to prove himself.

Aberg has an interesting history. When he’s good, he’s very, very good, and when he’s not... well, just look at last night’s game where he was arguably the worst forward on the ice. Something seems to be up there, Michael Russo gossiped about him on his podcast last summer when he was post facto telling everyone why he’d known all along Paul Fenton was a bad GM in Minnesota. Russo didn’t provide any details, since that’s not how this game works, but he says he only needed one phone call to tell him why the Ducks were eager to dump the only guy on their team who was scoring goals when they traded Aberg.

This is a new start for Aberg, though, and it will be different reporters who will knowingly say nothing concrete about him with one eyebrow up. Some players just seem to attract this. The unwritten rules about what you say and don’t say about players get rewritten for some, and it can leave fans with vague feelings of dislike. Me, I like numbers, so let’s see how he performs, and let the past lie.

Aberg lost a lot of ground to Kenny Agostino, who was excellent playing a utility role last night. Omar, who is more tuned into the Habs than I, says that Claude Julien tried to make Agostino into a classic depth player last year, and that sounds very intriguing. In the AHL, Agostino is a scoring player. On the Leafs, on the fourth line, he could use both sets of skills.

Along with Aberg and Agostino, the top contestants for the winger jobs seem to be Spezza and, of course, the switch-hitting Moore. Kalle Kosilla is hurt right now, but he might stage a run at one of these jobs if he gets back in the lineup. Nic Petan is in that conversation for me, but it doesn’t look like Babcock agrees, at least not judging by this roster.

This is all much ado about not much, however, since the returns of Hyman and Dermott will bring on the short-roster era and the only jobs then will be one defender, most likely Marincin, two forwards to play with Moore on the fourth line and one press box/practice player. Don’t count out Matt Read for that job.

The irony is that the players who get cut the day Hyman and his big cap hit come off of LTIR are the most likely to be lost on waivers. After all, other teams know how this is going to go on the Leafs, and why take the tweeners they think the least of? Wait a few weeks and grab the ones they judged as best.

Now about those Sabres playing tonight...

Given the Amerks-heavy roster last night, this will be closer to a real team and will be a challenge for the Leafs roster that’s on the ice.

We’ll update the lines later on today if we get more information.