Leafs defenceman Matt Lashoff says pre-season games are like playoffs for him

TORONTO – The nerves and excitement are still there for Matt Lashoff.

It might only be the first game of pre-season—the first of nine, no less—but the Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman couldn’t wipe the smile from his face just hours before facing the Ottawa Senators on Tuesday night.

Lashoff is now with the third organization of his pro career and knows it will be tough to earn a spot with the NHL team. But the former first-round pick figures a strong showing during the exhibition season will help his cause.

“I think pre-season is my playoffs,” said Lashoff. “Being traded (here), there’s a lot of people from around the organization that don’t know exactly what you can do. Obviously, somebody—whether it be the general manager or scouting staff—picked you for a reason in the trade.

“The main thing for me is to show to the coaching staff and to show to everyone around that I can be a contributor on this team.”

The Leafs were scheduled to dress 10 veteran players on Tuesday against Ottawa, including captain Dion Phaneuf, goalie Jonas Gustavsson and off-season acquisitions Kris Versteeg, Colby Armstrong and Brett Lebda. It’s the first of nine exhibition games in 12 days for the team.

Lashoff considers this the most important stretch of his career. He’s appeared in 63 NHL games with Boston and Tampa Bay and hopes to start adding to that total when Toronto opens the regular season on Oct. 7.

The top six defencemen appear to be set—Phaneuf, Tomas Kaberle, Francois Beauchemin, Mike Komisarek, Luke Schenn and Carl Gunnarsson—leaving Lebda, Jeff Finger and Lashoff on the bubble. The organization still hasn’t determined how many blue-liners it will carry this season.

“The defencemen are battling for ice time,” said coach Ron Wilson. “I think it’s pretty clear the seven or eight defencemen that we would start the season with. We haven’t sat down and spoken about whether we’re going to carry eight D or seven D.

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“When all of them can play in the NHL, it’s dividing up the ice time.”

Time has taught Lashoff not to fret over the depth chart.

Not quite 24, he’s already experienced plenty of the ups and downs that come with pro hockey. Lashoff was drafted 22nd overall by Boston in 2005 and made his NHL debut with that organization, but got dealt to Tampa after a house-cleaning in the Bruins front office. When similar changes were made with the Lightning over the summer, he found himself in Toronto.

He’s entered training camp with a good mindset.

“You can’t bank on anything happening,” said Lashoff. “Before maybe I would have worried about things that I can’t control. Now it’s just concentrating on what (I) do best, (my) strong points of playing the game.

“If you go out and show you can play, things will eventually fall into place.”

It’s a good piece of advice for any player on the bubble with an NHL team—especially a young player like Nazem Kadri.

Wilson said Tuesday that one of his main goals for the exhibition season is determining whether the 19-year-old centre should start the season with the Maple Leafs. Over the next week or two, the coach expects Kadri to put up points and show that he can be a responsible player in the defensive end.

Kadri was scheduled to get his first start of the pre-season against the Senators on Tuesday.

“It’s my second swing of the bat,” he said. “Obviously, last year I had a pretty good run (at training camp) and it taught me a lot. …

“We’ve got tons of exhibition games here. You don’t necessarily have to dominate the first game—you have to progressively keep getting better and better each game. That’s exactly what I’m looking to do.”