BUFFALO -- Cutting down the roster in the next 48 hours won't necessarily reduce the tough decisions Brian Burke and Ron Wilson have to make.
An undetermined number of moves will be made in the wake of Saturday's fifth exhibition game, a 3-2 loss to the Sabres. Coach Wilson wanted the roster down to about 26 players for the last three pre-season matches that begin Tuesday in Ottawa, with an eye to the final roster of 23.
Mixed signals in goal, on defence and up front are complicating what had seemed like simple decisions a week ago. Young players such as Jake Gardiner and Nazem Kadri have stepped up, while others such as Matt Frattin and Joe Colborne have been equal parts impressive and raw. But now it's time to think about opening night Oct. 6 and work on issues such as offence (the Leafs have seven goals in the past four games) and penalty killing (four against in back-to-back losses against Buffalo).
"Tonight was the last look for a few guys and they helped make the decision easier," Wilson said coyly. "I still picture Matthew Lombardi will be ready (he's now cleared for full contact). Hopefully we can get him into a game on the weekend. He can play centre or left wing and he's a road runner.
"We still have three games left, but I haven't got the lineups (decided). We have to get our numbers down first "
"I'll leave that to the coaches as far as the numbers they want to manage," Burke had said between periods at the First Niagara Center.
But he insisted Wilson knows any young players kept after opening day would have to get quality ice time to stay in the NHL. There are 47 on the roster at present, though many are destined for the AHL Marlies, with a couple of juniors still to be returned. The Leafs also have another injured forward, Mike Brown to think about.
Gardiner had another nice couple of rushes, but again looked unsure what to do with the puck the last 10 feet. The defenceman later had to take a tripping penalty to cover up his giveaway in the slot. But on another offensive foray, he did use his wheels to get back and break up a 2-on-1.
If he can't make the top six and if he does start with the Marlies it would allow the club to avoid a decision on putting $4.5-million-per-year veteran Mike Komisarek in a reduced role.
"Gardiner has played his way into the decision making, but he's far from a lock," Burke said. "There are things I'd like to see him get better at. But he has played himself into the mix."
To which Gardiner replied "sounds pretty good".
If Friday's 2-1 home loss to Buffalo was a test run for Toronto's kids on offence, Saturday was a measure of their toughness.
Fired up by the presence of many Leafs fans in the sold- out building, both clubs came out with big hits. Colborne and Frattin were up against the likes of Patrick Kaleta and Paul Gaustad, while Sabres had their giant defenceman Tyler Myers in the game. Fireworks followed an early disallowed Buffalo goal after a scrum formed on Jonas Gustavsson's doorstep and the Sabres jammed it over the line after the whistle. Colborne was out at the end with Gustavsson on the bench.
"That's what I live for, to be the guy the team looks for to score the big goal," Colborne said. "Hopefully, I'm still kicking around tomorrow.
"We showed some character and they had a veteran lineup."
An over-zealous hit by Colby Armstrong led to a Buffalo power play goal. In an all-to familiar scenario, Gustavsson lost a puck behind the net on Drew Stafford's goal, but Matt Lashoff couldn't tie up Stafford when the puck ricocheted hard off the boards and back in front from the other side. Gustavsson did stack the pads on a nice stop with the Leafs' fourth line under siege in the second period.
Colborne and Frattin had big shifts with some NHL vets, Frattin with Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin and Colborne with Joffrey Lupul. Grabosvki ended up with both Leafs goals, his second making it a one-goal game late in the third.
Darryl Boyce continues to battle Philippe Dupuis for a plumber's role, with both playing Saturday. Boyce has a leg up playing on a good camp line with Armstrong and Kadri, who has thus far stayed even or ahead of Colborne and Frattin. Burke had a mixed message in praising Kadri in his second attempt at making the Leafs.
"He's dangerous with the puck, no question about that -- sometimes for the wrong team."
Burke was refering to Kadri's offensive turnovers, a frequent complaint the Leafs have had.
"Some things need to be worked on," Kadri said. "But the majority of time, I have it under control."
Every move the kids' make will be under scrutiny now.