Guys like Domenic Moore, Staffan Kronwall and Jiri Tlusty are fighting hard for a regular spot on the Maple Leafs roster this season and generally have impressed head coach Ron Wilson.
And then there's veteran forward Alexei Ponikarovsky, who is on the verge of playing himself not just off the Leafs' top line, but perhaps even further down the pecking order.
The Leafs have played only five pre-season games, but Ponikarovsky has done little to impress the club's intelligentsia. The fourth-year Leaf originally had been slated to start on the club's so-called top line this season, with Nik Antropov and newcomer Mikhail Grabovski.
That combination didn't last long, largely because of Ponikarovsky's inconsistent play. Antropov and Grabovski, who picked up nine points in 24 games with the Montreal Canadiens last season, have been matched with other players auditioning for a spot on the team's top line, including another new face, Nikolai Kulemin, last night.
The Leafs won last night's pre-season game 4-3 in a shootout against the visiting St. Louis Blues. Rookie defenceman Luke Schenn, who made three head fakes on Blues goaltender Manny Legace and then went upstairs on his backhand, to score the winner.
Ponikarovsky, meanwhile, has four points in four games, but is a minus-2 and would have been a minus-3 if not for a third-period goal by linemate Alex Steen. A goal that Ponikarovsky had little to do with, although he was rewarded later in the night with an assist. The big left winger was partly responsible for the first St. Louis goal, when he had his stick lifted by Andy McDonald in the Blues' end, resulting in a turnover and a Brad Boyes' goal.
"I know he can play better," Wilson of Ponikarovsky. "But I (also) know enough about Russian players that they like to be on the same line and they never like to see you move people around. When you play a little bit of Rubik's Cube with your lineup, those guys sometimes get upset. But this is pre-season, they just have to be patient until we find the right combinations."
Ponikarovsky was matched with Alex Steen and Niklas Hagman in last night's contest and that combination resulted in the Leafs' first goal, although Ponikarovsky, 28, had departed the ice for a change a few seconds before Hagman's goal tied the game at 1-1. The goal was Hagman's first point of the pre-season and he also scored in the third period as well. Though his numbers aren't spectacular, Hagman has played solid, two-way hockey.
"I know when we signed (Hagman) everybody rolled their eyes, but if you watched him closely in these exhibition games, he has been one of our best forwards," Wilson said. "He's a lot quicker than you think. (And) he's one of those guys who gets better if you show confidence in him."
David Backes scored for St. Louis seven minutes into the third period, beating Toronto goalie Vesa Toskala from right in the slot. Steen tied it less than a minute later. Hagman then was rewarded for some hard work behind the St. Louis net. After fighting off a defenceman, the winger crashed the net for his second goal and a 3-2 Toronto lead.
St. Louis tied it two minutes later on a goal by Andy McDonald.
Wilson opted to start a number of forwards fighting for a job last night, including Tlusty, Boyd Devereaux, John Mitchell and Kyle Rogers, while resting veterans Jason Blake and Matt Stajan, both of whom blocked shots in Buffalo on Saturday night and were limping after the game.
HITTING THE ROAD
The Leafs assigned seven players to the Toronto Marlies of the AHL -- forwards Bates Battaglia, Andre Deveaux, Alex Foster, Kris Newbury, Ben Ondrus as well as defencemen Josef Boumedienne and Jaime Sifers. The club also recalled forward Kyle Rogers from the Marlies and returned centre Chris DiDomenico to the QMJHL's Saint John Sea Dogs.
MATS ON CARPET
According to media reports, the New York Rangers have issued a ultimatum of sorts to free agent Mats Sundin: Make up your if you want to play for us. The Rangers, the Leafs, Montreal Canadiens, and Vancouver Canucks, had expressed interest in signing the veteran. The Rangers are attempting to sign veteran forward Brendan Shanahan.
BOY, OH BOYES
Former Leafs first-round draft pick Brad Boyes (24th overall in 2000) had six points in two games in the pre-season for the Blues, heading into last night's game. Boyes was part of that 2003 trade that turned out miserably for the Leafs -- a deal that saw the Mississauga native, along with Alyn McCauley and a first-round selection in 2003, shipped to San Jose for aging sniper Owen Nolan. Boyes recorded 43 goals and 65 points for the Blues last season.
Toronto G A P
Niklas Hagman 2 0 2
Alex Steen 1 0 1
Boyd Devereaux 0 1 1
Pavel Kubina 0 1 1
Nik Antropov 0 1 1
Alexei Ponikarovsky 0 1 1
Nikolai Kulemin 0 1 1
Mikhail Grabovski 0 1 1
Brad Boyes 1 0 1
David Backes 1 0 1
Andy McDonald 1 0 1
T.J. Oshie 0 1 1
Jay McKee 0 1 1
Lee Stempniak 0 1 1
Roman Polak 0 1 1
Tomorrow at St. Louis Blues, 7:30 p.m., LeafsTV.