NHL pre-season doesn’t matter? Try telling that to a handful of Leafs who have had their fortunes – and NHL candidacy – affected by the previous four weeks of training camp and were rewarded (or punished) accordingly as the club announced their opening night roster.
Matt Frattin, Jake Gardiner, Carl Gunnarsson and Philippe Dupuis were among those whose September efforts paid off, while Keith Aulie, Matt Lashoff, Joey Crabb, Darryl Boyce and Cody Franson all felt the pinch in one way or another.
Frattin and Gardiner beat the odds and secured not only roster spots, but prominent roles with the big club. Frattin, who had two goals and three assists during the pre-season, earned himself a second line role (for two games, anyway) alongside Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin in place of the suspended Clarke MacArthur. While his long-term role with the club is unclear once MacArthur returns, he found some chemistry in third line duty alongside Tyler Bozak and Colby Armstrong.
Gardiner, meanwhile, made an impression on an already-deep blue line thanks to his smooth skating and play-making vision that belies the fact that he’s just 21 years old. The team knows he’s going to endure his share of screw-ups much like an 18-year old Luke Schenn three years ago, but he entered training camp fighting for a spot and he earned it (one goal and four assists). He will start the season as part of the third defensive pairing with fellow September standout Mike Komisarek, who will mitigate some of his mistakes by being looked to as a sturdy, stay-at-home rearguard.
Gardiner isn’t the only blue liner who benefitted from a solid pre-season. Gunnarsson was on the fringe of even making the club when training camp opened and still had the stink of a brutally slow start to the 2010-11 season on him. However, hockey is all about chemistry and Gunnarsson happened to find it with team captain Dion Phaneuf, helping boost him all the way up to – that’s right – the top defensive pairing.
Of course, when you are only allowed to carry 25 players on a roster, the rise of some will directly connect to the decline of others. Aulie’s demotion was simply a product of being outplayed by Gardiner (it’s just a matter of time as to when Aulie will be back with the Leafs), but the other moves carried more risk and intrigue.
The easy thing to do would have been to demote Frattin and Gardiner for the time being knowing that they could be sent down to the Marlies without clearing waivers and then remain free to return to the team at any time. Instead, keeping them in Toronto (well, at the Air Canada Centre) came at the possible cost of Lashoff, Crabb and Boyce, all of whom will have to clear waivers. None of the three will likely be stars, but they are all 28-and-under talents with NHL experience who (particularly Crabb) fit the Burke mold of size and truculence, as well as defensive depth in Lashoff.
Dupuis and Franson find themselves in similar situations relative to their respective position. Both start the season as the extra guy – Dupuis as the 13th forward and Franson the 7th defenceman. This isn’t necessarily bad news for Dupuis, who wasn’t guaranteed to make the team anyway, but it has to be considered a demotion for Franson, who entered training camp with a chance at top four duty. Both will be press box risks on a nightly basis, but Dupuis can bring strong face-off skills and exceptional penalty killing to the table (some call him a poor man’s Tim Brent but he might be more of a Fred Sjostrom) and Franson will get his chances to play and would be the first player called upon in the event of an injury to any blue liner.
So, ladies & gentlemen, here are your 2011-12 Toronto Maple Leafs (at least for now):
Joffrey Lupul / Tim Connolly / Phil Kessel
Nikolai Kulemin / Mikhail Grabovski / Matt Frattin
Colby Armstrong / Tyler Bozak / Mike Brown
Jay Rosehill / Matthew Lombardi / Colton Orr
Extra: Philippe Dupuis
Injured: Nazem Kadri (2-4 weeks)
Suspended: Clarke MacArthur (2 games)
Dion Phaneuf / Carl Gunnarsson
Luke Schenn / John-Michael Liles
Mike Komisarek / Jake Gardiner
Extra: Cody Franson
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Written by Ben Fisher