Jake Gardiner is making like an unwanted guest, and the Toronto Maple Leafs could not be happier.
The Leafs’ defence is supposed to be a closed shop heading into the NHL season, with the seven roster jobs locked up. Training camp would decide who will get the job as the sixth defenceman and who will spend most of his time in the press box – Carl Gunnarsson or Mike Komisarek.
But as the days go by, Gardiner is taking the accompli out of fait accompli. The 21-year-old native of Deephaven, Minn., is the best defenceman at camp. This may require some more deliberation by the Leafs’ brain trust before the start of the regular season, but no one is complaining.
“We smile,” said Leafs vice-president of hockey operations Dave Poulin, who was the only big shot around Sunday to announce 14 cuts from the roster. Everyone else, including the players, had the day off.
“We’ve seen players emerge and players decide,” Poulin added. “It’s great when there is someone who maybe you didn’t have slotted in – we all knew what the talent was – but he’s carried the talent at a pretty high level. We’ll figure it out. It’ll figure itself out.”
There were no surprises among the Leafs’ second round of cuts. Centre Joe Colborne, who struggled with consistency, was sent down to the Leafs’ Toronto Marlies farm team. Also among the cuts were forwards Luca Caputi, Jerry D’Amigo and Mike Zigomanis, defencemen Jeff Finger, Jesse Blacker, Korbinian Holzer, and goaltender Mark Owuya. The Leafs now have 29 players in training camp – 17 forwards, nine defencemen and three goaltenders.
Zigomanis, Caputi and fellow forward Ryan Hamilton were placed on NHL waivers along with Finger. The only player likely to be claimed during the 48-hour waiver period, which ends Tuesday, is Caputi, 22, who was troubled by injuries last season. He had no points in seven games with the Leafs and five points in 13 games with the Marlies.
The players left in camp include injured forwards Mike Brown and Tyler Bozak, but it is still a larger group than head coach Ron Wilson wanted for the Leafs’ final three preseason games. Players like Gardiner and forward Matt Frattin are not making things easy for the Leafs’ brass.
In the end, it is likely Gardiner will be sent down to the Marlies because he does not have to clear NHL waivers if he is cut (Keith Aulie is the only other one of the top eight defencemen who also does not have to clear waivers).
But even though he looks good in preseason games, making the jump to the NHL from the University of Wisconsin (with a short stop with the Marlies at the end of last season) is not the best thing for Gardiner’s development. He still could be with the Leafs by Christmas if there are some injuries or an incumbent has a bad season.
“He’s played very, very well,” Poulin said, “which has prompted the next opportunity to play well, which he’s answered, which has prompted the next opportunity to play well. He’s the one that’s decided that he’s gotten the number of games he’s gotten. We’re all just watching and it’ll play out.”
There was more good news on the weekend when centre Matthew Lombardi was cleared for contact in practice. It is looking more and more like Lombardi, 29, will recover from a concussion in time to start the regular season, which is a big bonus to the trade that brought him and defenceman Cody Franson from the Nashville Predators.
If Lombardi is healthy, he will likely get the No. 3 centre’s job, which makes the competition for the fourth-line centre a three-man race between Bozak, Darryl Boyce and Phillipe Dupuis. Bozak is injured, but Poulin indicated he should return to play this week.