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(CHRIS YOUNG)
(CHRIS YOUNG)

Burke shapes Leaf roster Add to ...

Monday was decision day as far as finalizing the Toronto Maple Leafs' 23-man roster, but the truth is all of the decisions that really mattered for this team had already been made.

Rookie Nazem Kadri's no-show throughout preseason (and demotion to the minors Monday) guaranteed the top two lines were set, and with general manager Brian Burke offering a stern defence of overpaid defenceman Jeff Finger, the blueline was, too.

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Meanwhile, the two young forwards who did play hard and likely deserved to stay - Luca Caputi and Christian Hanson - were also the easiest to get rid of given they don't need to clear waivers to be sent down.

Centre John Mitchell does, however, and despite going pointless and recording only one shot on goal in four preseason games, that was enough to keep him on the roster.

Sending Mitchell - or Finger - down would essentially be a year-long banishment given a call-up later in the year would make either available to every other team for half price, sticking Toronto with the rest of the bill.

These days, that's often the way it works in the NHL, as players' contract status can have as much of a say in who stays as anything that happens on the ice.

"If you go based on the way training camp went, I think Luca and Christian could both make a real good argument that this isn't a fair result," Burke said Monday. "They both played well.

"But Luca had to knock out an incumbent... [and]didn't do it in our estimation. And Christian Hanson is not a guy we want playing six minutes a night. He's a young player that needs to play. Same with Luca. Those two guys I think can make an argument, 'this isn't fair.'"

The only legitimate surprise Monday was the fact that 26-year-old career minor leaguer Tim Brent made the Leafs as their third-line centre, benefiting from both Kadri's disappearing act and the fact the GM knows him well from the Anaheim Ducks system.

On a team trying to make steps forward and compete for a playoff spot, he's the type of player who serves merely as a placeholder until the Leafs can make an upgrade at centre, where they are woefully inexperienced and undersized.

With all 30 teams needing to squeeze down to 23-man rosters by 3 p.m. ET on Wednesday, there's a chance another body could soon become available via waivers or a trade.

"I would say we've got some people on a Chihuahua leash," Burke said.

Toronto is down to 24 players after waiving or demoting seven bodies Monday, with injured defencemen Brett Lebda and Matt Lashoff giving Burke some wiggle room given they're unlikely to play in the season-opener Thursday against the Montreal Canadiens.

The moves were all on the fringes of the Leafs roster, players who will play 12 minutes a game or less and have only a minor impact on where they finish in the standings.

And while that roster depth may yet be an issue this season, it's not nearly as pressing a concern as the play of some of the key cogs like Mike Komisarek, who was a team-worst minus-6 in seven preseason games.

Burke's biggest free agent addition in checking forward Colby Armstrong wasn't any more impressive, with only one point and a minus-5 in seven games, ensuring he'll start the season as one of the NHL's more well-salaried third liners.

Burke said Monday, however, that he believes this team to be "dramatically tougher to play against" than the group that finished 29th last season, and that improving on special teams will be a big factor in how high they can climb.

"It's not a secret here: My view of the organization since we got here has been we didn't want to win badly enough," Burke said. "We turned that group over, we think we have a group that wants to win and will pay the price to win. And we'll find out starting on Thursday if I'm right or not."

If not, it won't be because of the decisions made on Oct. 4, with the roster long set. It'll rest with the Komisareks and Armstrongs, those guaranteed a spot and expected to deliver.

Leafs' projected opening night lineup after Monday's cuts:

Forwards

Versteeg - Bozak - Kessel Kulemin - Grabovski - MacArthur Sjostrom - Brent - Armstrong Orr - Brown - Mitchell Zigomanis

Defence

Phaneuf - Beauchemin Kaberle - Komisarek Schenn - Gunnarsson Finger

Goal

Giguere Gustavsson

Injured: Lebda and Lashoff

 

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