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Mirtle: Hard choices ahead for Leafs as deadline to trim roster looms

Peter Holland could be sent down Tuesday to get down to the 23-man limit.

Aaron Vincent Elkaim/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Matt Frattin had his game face on Friday morning, as the Toronto Maple Leafs prepared for their final preseason game and the media circled around his dressing room stall.

He was focused. He was also worried.

"This is the last preseason game," he said. "Last chance to show them what you can do.

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"Everybody's nervous. But that's part of the game."

It's the tough part for those who live on the NHL bubble. The Leafs have to pare down to the 23-man roster limit by Tuesday at 5 p.m. ET, and that's going to mean at least one or two bodies placed on waivers come Monday at noon.

Frattin, reaquired in the off-season for prospect Jerry D'Amigo in an attempt to bring back some of the magic of the 2012-13 team that made the playoffs, is one of the tweeners entering training camp's final two days. He dressed for five of the Leafs eight preseason games but went pointless, putting him in the same boat as fellow waiver candidates Peter Holland, Carter Ashton, Frazer McLaren and Colton Orr.

(Unlike Frattin, Ashton, McLaren and Orr played very sparingly, getting into only two or three games each.)

There is a lot of activity on NHL rosters right now. There could well be more than 100 players that hit waivers – putting them up for grabs essentially free – on Monday, which makes it an uncertain time for players and a busy one for management.

Some GMs rationalize that this is the best time to sneak players through waivers, with so many available and so few spots open around the league, which is why the Leafs have left their final three to five cuts until the very end.

Heading in, Toronto has 29 players on its official roster, but some are easy calls to go. Swedish prospect Viktor Loov is only listed there, for example, because the Leafs are trying to secure his release from his last team, Modo, so that he can play for the Toronto Marlies on the farm.

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That makes the magic number 28.

McLaren is another obvious candidate to be demoted, and it also appears unlikely the team's 18-year-old first round pick, William Nylander, will stick given the roster crunch and the fact he can play for the Marlies.

That would get them to 26.

Add in all of the Leafs currently dealing with injuries, and it's possible everyone else will have another week or more to show what he can do.

One additional roster spot is open for sure because winger David Booth will start the season on injured reserve with a broken foot. If defenceman Cody Franson (knee) and centre Tyler Bozak (lower body) join him there, the Leafs may only have to cut two players (not including Loov) to get CBA compliant.

More likely, Franson and Bozak's injuries aren't that serious and some of the bubble boys are in trouble.

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In addition to Frattin and Ashton, who headline that list, Holland, Orr, rookie Josh Leivo and newcomer Brandon Kozun – who had a terrific preseason almost out of nowhere with five points in six games – are candidates to be dropped up front.

On defence, the battle is down to being between Korbinian Holzer and Stuart Percy to be the seventh man, with Holzer the favourite given his age and the fact the organization wants Percy handling big minutes.

If Franson can't play in Wednesday's home opener, those two could both start the season as Leafs.

If that all isn't intriguing enough, consider this: Toronto could also take a long look at all those players on waivers around the league and see someone they like enough to claim.

In comes another body. Out goes another incumbent.

Barring that, here is a projection of who's likely in and who's likely out come Tuesday's roster deadline:

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Locks to make the Leafs

(16 players): Kessel, Lupul, Clarkson, Van Riemsdyk, Bozak, Komarov, Kadri, Santorelli, Winnik, Phaneuf, Gardiner, Robidas, Polak, Rielly, Bernier, Reimer

Likely to stick(seven players): Orr, Frattin, Leivo, Holland, Kozun, Percy, Holzer

Likely to be cut(three players): Nylander, Ashton, McLaren

Starting season in infirmary(two players): Booth and Franson

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