One of the youngest teams in the NHL got a little younger in time for opening night.
Two rookies were named to the Toronto Maple Leafs roster on Monday, as the team’s final cuts came down, with winger Matt Frattin and defenceman Jake Gardiner landing spots after strong showings in the preseason.
Leafs head coach Ron Wilson called Gardiner “the biggest surprise” of training camp, as he beat out Keith Aulie and will enter Thursday’s season opener against the Montreal Canadiens as one of the team’s top-six defencemen.
“Jake’s been excellent up to this point,” Wilson said. “He’s earned a spot on the team. Simple.”
A smooth-skating, offence-first defenceman who was playing at the University of Wisconsin as recently as mid-March, Gardiner had five points in six preseason games and was thrown into all situations by Wilson.
While he struggled at times in his own zone, Gardiner’s talent was hard to miss. He’ll bring a much different element to the team’s back end than a big, stay-at-home blueliner such as Aulie – although Wilson was careful to note he will shelter Gardiner a little at first.
He compared Gardiner’s skating ability with Christian Ehrhoff, the Buffalo Sabres blueliner Wilson coached for several years in San Jose.
“We’ve had him in some situations that we’ve decided he probably wouldn’t be playing in in the regular season,” Wilson said, referring mostly to the penalty kill. “Just to see if he could. He still has a few things to learn there.”
Gardiner and Frattin are both considered late bloomers, to some extent, and were long shots even a year ago to be playing in the NHL.
While Gardiner – a 21-year-old from Deephaven, Minn. – was taken midway through the first round by then-Anaheim Ducks general manager Brian Burke in 2008, he only began playing defence in his senior year of high school after a college recruiter told him to switch from forward.
He had 41 points in 41 games last season in Wisconsin, and turned pro shortly after now-Leafs GM Burke brought him to Toronto in a trade last February.
Frattin, meanwhile, only began to get noticed by major-junior teams as an 18-year-old and ended up playing in the Alberta Junior Hockey League before going to the University of North Dakota.
The 23-year-old from Edmonton had 28 goals in his first three years in the U.S. college system before exploding for 36 in 44 games last season as a senior to lead the National Collegiate Athletic Association Division I.
Both players acknowledged after practice Monday, that while they’ve made the team for now, it won’t last if they don’t continue to play well.
“My job’s never secure,” Gardiner said. “I’ve got to keep playing well if I want to stay up. But right now, I’m really excited. It’s going to be a fun night out there [in the city]tonight.”
Aulie was one of five casualties on Monday, as the Leafs got down to the 23-man roster limit prior to Wednesday’s deadline.
Darryl Boyce, Joey Crabb and Matt Lashoff were placed on waivers, while Aulie and Mike Zigomanis were sent directly to the Toronto Marlies of the AHL.
Wilson said the organization felt Aulie struggled during camp and needed time in the minors to “reassert himself.”
“There’s no reason why he got beat out other than Jake had a really good camp,” he said. “We’re not discouraged at all by Keith’s play. I anticipate him being back sooner than later.”