NHL rookies forcing the issue in Northeast Division

Gardiner looks to crack the Maple Leafs roster after an impressive camp. Courtesy davidgsteadman.  (gardiner)

Defenceman Jake Gardiner is making things difficult for Toronto Maple Leafs’ management.

The former Wisconsin Badger put up 41 points in 41 NCAA games last year and has been such a pleasant surprise in the pre-season that he is essentially forcing Toronto’s hand when it comes to adding him to the roster.

Dave Poulin, VP of hockey operations for the Leafs, realizes that being faced with these types of difficult decisions means the Leafs are improving their depth

“It’s good that we have to make tough decisions,” said Poulin, on the team’s official website. “This is what we want, we want it to be really difficult to decide who gets on the Toronto Maple Leafs.”

Gardiner, 21, started by notching two assists in his first pre-season action against the Senators and with impeccable skating has maintained his impressive play.

Matt Frattin, a 23-year-old winger from Edmonton, may also crack Toronto’s starting lineup come opening night.

With two goals in an exhibition game with the Flyers and two assists in Saturday’s contest with Buffalo, Frattin seems to be clicking in the Leafs offence and is worthy of fourth line duty.

Elsewhere around the Northeast Division

Ottawa has a fine crop of rookies to choose from, as they are now in official rebuilding mode.

Mika Zibanejad appears to be the front-runner to fill Peter Regin’s roster spot after the latter suffered a shoulder injury. Drafted out of Sweden sixth overall in the 2011 draft, the 18-year-old Zibanejad quickly made his mark as a goal scorer.

Burying an exhibition game one-timer in overtime against Boston, batting a goal out of mid-air against Winnipeg and tucking home a nifty tally against Toronto, Zibanejad seems to have that special quality that is unique to goal scorers.

Rookies Jared Cowen and David Rundblad are both big prospects on the blue line, an area that Ottawa needs to rebuild badly.

“[Our rookies] have made it difficult, they’ve played well, but there’s lots of things to consider,” said Paul MacLean, head coach of the Senators on the team’s official website. “The injuries to [Jesse] Winchester and Regin opens up a door for [Zibanejad] obviously.”

The defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins have a very solid lineup, but there is still a rookie on the radar.

Jordan Caron plays an all-around style coupled with an element of physicality that certainly isn’t frowned upon in Bean-town.

With 23 NHL games under his belt last year, the big-bodied winger has a bit of big-league experience and seems poised to fill a bottom-six forward’s role for the Bruins.

In Montreal, right-winger Brendan Gallagher has managed to the other prospects at Canadiens camp.

A product of the Vancouver Giants, Gallagher’s chances of landing a bottom-six role with the Habs is fairly strong considering current injuries on Montreal’s front end.

Scoring 91 points and earning 108 PIM in 61 games in the WHL last season, Gallagher is working to progress his gritty and skilled style of play.

“The best way to develop is to surround yourself with players who are better than you,” said Gallagher on the Canadiens’ official website. “I know the intensity level goes up a notch when the regular season starts, but right now, I feel comfortable.”

Buffalo Sabres prospect Luke Adam remains the top rookie in camp after Marcus Foligno and Zack Kassian were sent to the AHL’s Rochester Americans.

Adam is a big forward from St. John’s, N.L. who has offensive upside. Since Buffalo is solid in its first two forward units the youngster is likely a bottom six option, but Tyler Ennis showed Sabres fans that a rookie can make a difference just one year ago.

Against Toronto, Adam impressed with a goal and an assist to complement strong two-way play.