Here we are: about a week away from the Sept. 16 opening of Leafs’ training camp and GM Brian Burke has laid out what’s on the line.
Burke acknowledged that most of the spots up front would be established heading into camp, although he opened the door to a battle for the third-line winger slot, as well as an opportunity to stay with the big club as the 13th forward.
Already in place are the club’s top two lines, with Tim Connolly stepping right in to centre the top line between Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul and last year’s successful Clarke MacArthur / Mikhail Grabovsky / Nikolai Kulemin trio back intact. The fourth-line grinder roles will likely fall to some combination of a healthy Colton Orr, Mike Brown, Joey Crabb, Jay Rosehill and/or Darryl Boyce, with Matthew Lombardi ready to step in once he gets back to 100% health.
As for the two open slots, well that’s what training camp is for. But even before the players hit the ice, it seems that four front-runners have already emerged: Nazem Kadri, Joe Colborne, Matt Frattin and Philippe Dupuis.
The court of public opinion already has Kadri as the odds-on favourite to land the third line role alongside Colby Armstrong and Tyler Bozak, but Leafs brass has yet to show an inclination towards handing Kadri a job and shouldn’t start now. With how many ups and downs we’ve already seen in the former London Knight’s attempts to stick in the NHL, it’s easy to forget that he is still a month shy of his 21st birthday. While a strong training camp would leave Kadri with an undisputed spot with the Leafs, it’s hard to see his playmaking skills being best utilized along with two guys not known for their finish (although Armstrong had 37 goals in his two seasons previous to arriving in Toronto). Meanwhile, you don’t often hear much emphasis on Kadri’s potential benefit to the Marlies, where he could help guys like Kenny Ryan, Greg McKegg, Jerry D’Amigo and Marcel Mueller develop into offensive threats.
The promotion of Colborne may seem a little premature, but don’t forget that Burke highlighted his NHL readiness when proudly speaking on his acquisition as part of last season’s Tomas Kaberle deal. They say that you can’t teach size and at 6’5” and 213 pounds, no one would need to teach Colborne a thing even if they could. He would also fit nicely alongside the physical Armstrong to form a tandem looked to less for offense than for dominant, shutdown play. But that might be the biggest issue – Toronto will not want to stifle Colborne’s potential offensive development, nor will they want to place all the scoring pressure on a top line who could take some time to find chemistry and a second line who will already face more pressure this season. With just one game of NHL experience under his belt, training camp (and the pre-season) will highlight just how far Colborne still has to go to adapt to the speed and physicality of NHL-level hockey, as well as what can be expected from him offensively.
Frattin is a fascinating case – a 23-year old Hobey Baker finalist who is short on pro hockey experience, but could surprise some in camp with sniper instincts and maturity gleaned from holding a ton of life experience. The University of North Dakota product was kicked off his Fighting Sioux team in 2009 after a DUI capped off a string of brushes with the law but after a humbling stint living with his parents back home, Frattin begged his way back onto the team (he said he had “unfinished business”) and grew into a leader on and off the ice. That kind of growth could position him nicely to make the most of the opportunity, but within all of his life experience, the one thing he doesn’t have experience in is playing at the NHL level.
Even in hockey-mad Toronto, you don’t hear much about Dupuis, the most experienced of any Leafs’ training camp hopeful. The 26-year old spent parts of two seasons with the Avalanche before getting a full-time role with the club last season and appearing in 74 games. His six goals and 11 assists didn’t light the league on fire, but his 101 shots on net (which would have placed him ninth on last year’s team) speak to his accuracy and his defensive instincts suggest a guy who will be an asset on the penalty kill. Think of him as a better, younger Freddie Sjostrom. Dupuis could certainly be outshone in camp by those with higher upside and surpassed on the depth chart, but I’d be happy to see a depth forward spot go to a guy with a defined defensive role who can also put pucks on net when needed.
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Written by Ben Fisher