Down to the last audition.
The Maple Leafs’ roster mostly is set heading into the final pre-season game on Saturday night against the Detroit Red Wings, but coach Sheldon Keefe will remain in evaluation mode at Little Caesars Arena.
“It’s a good chance to see a lot of guys that are competing for spots or competing for callups, a chance to see them against an NHL lineup,” Keefe said after practice at the Ford Performance Centre. “We’re going to see much of Detroit’s best.
“As closing out the pre-season goes, it’s a good opportunity to go in with a lot of young and inexperienced people that are competing.”
The group of hopefuls at forward playing on Saturday includes Noah Gregor, Fraser Minten, Pontus Holmberg, Sam Lafferty and Nick Robertson.
Gregor gets one last shot to prove his professional tryout should result in a contract offer, while Minten, who has four points in five pre-season games, gets another opportunity to earn at least a nine-game look to start the regular season before possibly being sent back to Kamloops of the Western Hockey League.
If Lafferty loses his job in the top 12, the thinking is Gregor would be the replacement. Holmberg and Robertson don’t require waivers to be sent to the Toronto Marlies, a potentially significant factor considering the Leafs’ salary cap situation.
Easton Cowan will get one more game with the Leafs before he is returned to the London Knights.
The continued inclusion of Minten and Cowan and defenceman Mikko Kokkonen through the end of the pre-season, along with Matthew Knies making his mark before them, has pumped some fresh optimism into the organization.
“The scouting staff should feel really good watching their guys out here flourishing, especially at a time when we’ve traded a lot of picks over the years,” Keefe said. “To have guys come in that are competing earlier than you would expect them to, that’s really exciting. It has complicated things.
“That’s the players’ job, to come in and make it hard for you. How it all shakes out in the end remains to be seen, but what’s clear is we have players that are coming, some quicker than we thought. It has added a whole other element to the camp.”
Kokkonen, along with fellow defencemen Simon Benoit, William Lagesson and Maxime Lajoie, will play in Detroit.
The top six on the blue line, though, is set. Pairs at practice on Saturday were Morgan Rielly-TJ Brodie, Jake McCabe-John Klingberg and Mark Giordano-Timothy Liljegren. None will play in the pre-season finale.
Joseph Woll start against the Wings and was expected to get the full game in goal.
Forwards not going to Detroit include Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, captain John Tavares, William Nylander, Max Domi, Knies, David Kampf and Ryan Reaves.
The Leafs will have Sunday off before practising on Monday, one of two on-ice workouts slated before the regular-season opener at home against the Montreal Canadiens on Wednesday.
There remains work to be done off the ice. The Leafs remain close to $3 million over the salary cap, with final 23-player rosters due (and cap compliant) to the NHL at 5 p.m. on Monday.
Goalie Martin Jones, if he is placed on waivers, could be among those playing for a new team later this week.
And for those who were concerned after goalie Ilya Samsonov took a high shot from Calle Jarnkrok at practice on Friday, Samsonov was back on the ice on Saturday.
“Puck is a little bit faster than me,” Samsonov said. “Hit in the neck (area). Little bit bad after, but today is better. Just a little bit sore, my muscle. I feel good.”