Toronto Maple Leafs were forced to make some tough decisions to its roster in an effort to get down to 24 players before the start of the regular season Thursday night.
Goaltending took care of itself, despite impressive showings throughout the pre-season from Ben Scrivens. James Reimer came in as the No. 1 netminder and Jonas Gustavsson will play back up for now – something Leafs fans are used to hearing.
Where the hand of the Leafs was forced, however, came from beyond the goal-line.
Nazem Kadri has been viewed as the future of the Leafs since the day Toronto general manager Brian Burke drafted him in 2009. But a sprained knee will keep the No. 7 overall pick between two and four weeks, giving Matt Frattin a shot on the third line.
Frattin had two goals and three assists in the pre-season and proved he could learn quickly while playing in different situations. The Edmonton native appeared composed with the puck and was not a defensive liability for the blue and white. It was no secret he was battling with Kadri for the final spot, but eventually he ended up with no competition for a spot on the big club.
Philippe Dupuis, Colton Orr and Jay Rosehill might not have played their way onto the opening-day roster, but with Clarke MacArthur receiving a two-game ban for an illegal hit to the head there, was an open spot. When Kadri and MacArthur return at least two of the four players will find their way down to the AHL’s Marlies, or on waivers.
Toronto’s blue-line was an even bigger issue last season. No suspensions or injuries came into play when picking the group of seven that would protect the prized No. 1 goaltender James Reimer.
Cody Franson, Jake Gardiner, Carl Gunnarsson, Mike Komisarek, John-Michael Liles, Dion Phaneuf, Luke Schenn and Keith Aulie make up a solid unit.
In case there is any confusion, I did say Komisarek is a solid player, but I’ll add that he can be effective only when he stays home instead of his deluded image of being an offensive-minded superstar.
But what tough guy wants to be a stay-at-home anything? Hopefully he can figure it out. He dropped 20 pounds in the off-season and throughout the pre-season he looked confident in his ability with his role. His game has looked much simpler this year and he could be a great complement for a partner who likes to join the rush.
So who is the odd man out? It’s Aulie, which means Jake Gardiner, the prospect acquired in a deal that brought Joffery Lupul to Toronto from Anaheim for the dearly missed Francois Beauchemin (insert comment about not missing Beauchemin here), captured a spot on the final roster.
Gardiner is an excellent skater and very careful with the puck. That doesn’t mean he is hesitant, just patient. While it’s exiting to watch, there is a big downside to young defencemen who think offence first. Questions come up as to whether they grasp the fundamentals of the position. Gardiner had a rough night in the final pre-season game against Detroit on Saturday, but it wasn’t because of carelessness. He had slight positional issues, but that could be a result of the Leafs being down a man so often.
The fact is Gardiner has given the Leafs no choice but to give him the nine-game test when the season begins. Aulie is an NHL-calibre defenceman and the move to the Marlies is shocking, but from the list of eight to choose from, it had to be somebody.
We may see him soon, but if Gardiner continues to impress, who knows when that day will happen?
As the opening-night tilt with the Montreal Canadiens approaches, Frattin, Komisarek and Gardiner will have to prove they belong. The rookies risk being sent down to the Marlies, while Komisarek might be chased by a mob out of Toronto good.
However, the team the Maple Leafs plan to put on the ice on Thursday will not be short of players who have earned their spot.