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Leafs key battles coming into focus Add to ...

This is the week when NHL teams finally begin to take their shape, as preseason ends on Sunday and decisions are finally made.

In Toronto, there are only 29 players left for this final week of training camp and 23 jobs to be had. (Perhaps even 21 or 22 if they decide to carry fewer extra players on the roster.)

That's going to prompt at least two or three hard calls for the Leafs brass, with many of those in the next round of cuts requiring waivers (and re-entry waivers to come back) in order to be sent to the minors.

That complicates things a little bit. Often when those types get sent down, they stay there all year, as we saw with Mike Zigomanis last season.

Here's who's left in camp for Toronto heading into Tueday's preseason game in Ottawa:

Goal (3): Reimer, Gustavsson, Scrivens

Defence (9): Phaneuf, Liles, Schenn, Franson, Gunnarsson, Aulie, Komisarek, Gardiner, Lashoff

Forwards (17): Kessel, Connolly, Lupul, Grabovski, MacArthur, Kulemin, Armstrong, Bozak, Lombardi, Brown, Orr, Dupuis, Boyce, Kadri, Frattin, Crabb, Rosehill

Of all those listed, only Ben Scrivens, Jake Gardiner, Keith Aulie, Nazem Kadri and Matt Frattin don't require waivers to play in the AHL this season. That makes it almost a lock, for example, that Jonas Gustavsson starts the year as the team's backup despite the fact his .903 save percentage is well off of Scrivens' .958 in preseason.

The organization's not ready, at this point, to simply waive Gustavsson and lose him for nothing.

It's also likely that only one of Gardiner or Aulie will make the team, making that one key battle to watch. The only way both make it is if Toronto decides to carry eight defencemen, something that doesn't make a lot of sense given both players are still developing.

Coach Ron Wilson made sure to point out at practice today that Aulie's in one of those battles to make the team, even though he had a 40-game audition with the Leafs last year - the majority of which came when the team was winning.

"It's very competitive right now," Wilson said. "Last year, at the end, we weren't very deep on the back end and he was able to get in there and play well. Now we have to see can he play well when there's a little bit of competition and pressure from other people. He's in a fight."

So there are two likely cuts: Scrivens and one of Gardiner or Aulie.

Matt Lashoff and Jay Rosehill also should be among those sent down in the next wave given the lack of openings for their skill set.

That leaves two or three more bodies that won't make the team, with the return to health of Matt Lombardi (who has now been cleared for contact) and Mike Brown (who's on the road to recovery after off-season groin surgery) adding a couple question marks.

"I can't predict when either one will be ready or available," Wilson said. "I was hoping an exhibition game or something like that. I'm not really sure although it's still a possibility."

Wilson spoke at length today about how he wants to get the players who will be on the team into as much action as possible in the team's final three preseason games.

"I told our team today we only have three games, we have 29 guys here, part of my responsibility is to get the guys who I foresee being on our team ready," Wilson said. "It's nice now until the season starts that we're down to a manageable number and one group practises and they all hear the same messages."

Assuming Lombardi and Brown are healthy, here's betting that Joey Crabb and Matt Frattin are the odd men out. Based on some of the pairings and lines we've seen in practice of late, that would leave this as a projected roster for opening night at this point:

MacArthur - Grabovski - Kulemin Lupul - Connolly - Kessel Kadri - Bozak - Armstrong Lombardi - Boyce - Orr

extra: Brown, Dupuis

Gunnarsson - Phaneuf Liles - Schenn Aulie/Gardiner - Franson

extra: Komisarek

Reimer Gustavsson

The biggest surprises so far in camp have been Lombardi's remarkable comeback from postconcussion symptoms and Gardiner's ability to play at the NHL level. Other than that, Wilson has essentially ended up with the group he expected when camp opened 10 days ago.

Follow on Twitter: @mirtle

 

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