The auditions for the two or three jobs available with the Toronto Maple Leafs were supposed to close Tuesday but injuries, particularly on defence, are holding up the show and creating more employment opportunities.
Cody Franson was the latest of a long line of Maple Leafs to fall at the hands of the Buffalo Sabres. He sustained a leg injury late in Sunday night's 3-2 shootout win over the Sabres at the Air Canada Centre. Also lost was forward David Booth, who sustained a bone bruise on his foot after blocking a shot. The extent of Franson's injury is not known but he had to be helped to the dressing room after Sabres forward Torrey Mitchell guided him into a high-speed fall into the end boards.
This brought the number of injuries to potential members of the Leafs defence unit to three if you include Stephane Robidas. After signing as a free agent, he came to training camp still recovering from a broken leg sustained in last spring's NHL playoffs when he was playing for the Dallas Stars. Robidas is cleared for contact and is expected to play in the Leafs' last preseason game Oct. 3. It is hoped he will be ready for the season opener Oct. 8 against the Montreal Canadiens.
If not, there will be two openings among the top six defencemen along with the spare seventh man. The seventh slot came open when Henrik Tallinder suffered a separated shoulder in Friday night's game in Buffalo. Also hurt in that game was winger David Clarkson. Now that Franson is injured, another job may be open among the top six defencemen as well. His injury brought the toll in the two games against the Sabres to four: Tallinder, Clarkson, Franson and Booth.
This gives Korbinian Holzer, the current favourite for No. 7 on the unit, more time to impress the coaches along with Petter Granberg and Stuart Percy, who are both second-year pros. All three were in the lineup Sunday night against the Sabres and all three had their ups and downs as it was a typical Leaf performance with its spotty defence. But both Percy and Granberg came away with a point as they drew assists on Phil Kessel's second-period goal.
Percy, 21, realizes most young defencemen get their chance in the show when a veteran gets hurt. But he resists any temptation to get excited when one of the regulars hobbles to the dressing room.
"You definitely don't want to really see that," he said. "Yeah, that's how you break into the league. But I guess you've got to keep working and prove yourself when you get an opportunity."
If not for the injuries, Percy and Granberg may have been sent to the Toronto Marlies farm team by now.
"Just survive the next day, that's my motto for the week," Percy said. "If I'm good for tomorrow, great, let's see what happens."
Also making a good early impression but living day-to-day is 24-year-old forward Brandon Kozun, a former Los Angeles Kings prospect who spent part of last season with the Marlies. At a listed height of 5-foot-8, his NHL chances have always been hampered by his size despite his big-league speed. But the injuries to Booth and Clarkson mean he will get a longer look along with Josh Leivo and Sam Carrick.
"For me, it's always been about getting to the next level," Kozun said. "I think there's another level I can take my game to."
This is a familiar position for Clarkson. Just what is it with this guy and the Buffalo Sabres? A year ago, he was suspended for the first 10 games of the season when he left the bench to chase Sabres goon John Scott in a preseason game, which set up his truly forgettable first season as a Maple Leaf.
So Clarkson finally gets over a preseason leg injury and his first game is Friday in Buffalo against the Sabres. He managed to score a goal but later decided to accept an invitation to dance with Sabres ruffian Cody McCormick. Clarkson received a solid punch in the face, had to miss the rest of the game and was sent to a specialist on Sunday to determine if there was a broken cheekbone or other serious injury to go along with his badly bruised countenance.
It was clear Carlyle thinks that at 30 years of age Clarkson should have learned enough around the NHL by now to decline challenges to fight in his first game of the preseason, especially one coming off an injury.
"There are certain times where you're better suited to turn the other cheek depending on the opponent and whatnot," the coach said. "But it's something that's done and we're going to have to deal with it and move on."
Despite the uneven defensive game, the Leafs managed to stay close because of goaltender Jonathan Bernier, who stopped 36 of 38 shots, and their top line, which played together for the first time in the preseason. Kessel, Tyler Bozak and James van Riemsdyk took a while to get rolling but Kessel scored on a smoking wrist shot and then van Riemsdyk tied the score late in the third period.
Peter Holland scored the decisive goal in the shootout five shooters in while Bernier stopped Mitchell to ensure the win.
The Leafs will play the Red Wings in Detroit Monday night and then repair to Collingwood, Ont., for a couple days of relaxation along with their hockey before closing out the preseason, also against the Wings.