Twenty shootout attempts in, Saturday night’s Toronto-Buffalo exhibition took on a particularly absurd feel when Maple Leafs defenceman Paul Ranger narrowly missed scoring the winning goal by kicking the back of his stick to launch the puck.
It was a goofy attempt he identified as being worth it, given that nothing was riding on the outcome. Ranger’s circus shot and the light-hearted way the players and coaches reacted to it – not to mention the marathon tiebreaker itself – will have many arguing the night proved that the NHL’s pre-season is basically pointless.
But what shouldn’t be lost on anyone is that there was still plenty of value in the 65 minutes that came before the skills competition.
The pre-season games are crucial for players like Carter Ashton, Joe Colborne, Troy Bodie and Trevor Smith. There certainly isn’t room for all of those forwards on the opening night roster. Judging by the armada of Leafs front office staff taking notes in the press box during Saturday’s game at First Niagara Center, the players battling for jobs were being closely scrutinized.
And with just four of eight exhibition games remaining, starting with a rematch with the Sabres on Sunday, the pressure is building for those on the fringes.
“As you get towards the end the games get better – maybe not more entertaining but sometimes harder to play,” said Leafs general manager Dave Nonis. “You see (if the younger guys) can continue with their performance. Some start to fade a little bit, which might just indicate that they need a little more time before they’re ready.”
Against the Sabres, Ashton looked like he might be the most ready of the bunch. The 22-year-old winger made his presence felt for the first time in the pre-season. Not only did he answer the challenge physically by dropping the gloves with veteran Sabres agitator Steve Ott – something right up Leafs coach Randy Carlyle’s alley – he was also driving hard to the net and causing a distraction for goalie Jhonas Enroth when Jay McClement tied the score in the third period.
“He’s worked hard,” Carlyle said of Ashton, which amounts to high praise from a coach who’s been tight-lipped during training camp.
The game also gave goaltender James Reimer a chance to get more comfortable in the crease, and make his case for the No. 1 job. He didn’t feel right in his only previous appearance – surrendering three goals on 17 shots during half a game against Philadelphia – and felt much better about the way things went Saturday night. That showed in the shootout when he stopped all 15 Buffalo attempts before McClement sealed the 3-2 victory for the Leafs.
With a career 3-9 record, the tiebreaker has been a sore point during Reimer’s career and he is anxious to see that change.
“I’m not going to give away my secrets or anything, but (the shootout) is something I worked on a bit this summer,” he said.
For the third straight game Mason Raymond turned in a strong performance. Unlike the previous two, he failed to find the back of the net, but it wasn’t for a lack of quality chances.
These have been important outings for a 27-year-old that is in camp on a professional tryout. At this point it would rank as a surprise if the former Canucks winger didn’t earn a contract from the Leafs, although Nonis made it clear that the decision will not be made by him. He has a strong comfort level with the player after drafting him in Vancouver and wants to make sure his coaching staff feels the same way.
“[Carlyle is] picking the team,” said Nonis. “I can’t tell him to put someone in the lineup that he doesn’t want. That doesn’t really work. He has full control over who makes this team and who doesn’t.”
Sure, the standings don’t mean a thing in September. But the only way Carlyle will know what works is by watching the players on the bubble in action. And even though these games aren’t anywhere near as enjoyable as the real thing to watch, that’s why the pre-season isn’t pointless.
Just ask the Ashtons, Reimers and Raymonds of the world.