TORONTO – The Leafs rewarded two training camp standouts with opening night jobs.
21-year-old Jake Gardiner and 23-year-old Matt Frattin both survived the final round of cuts Monday as the Leafs trimmed their roster down to 23 players in anticipation of the regular season opener on October 6th. Keith Aulie and Mike Zigomanis were both assigned to the Marlies, while Darryl Boyce, Joey Crabb and Matt Lashoff were placed on waivers.
"You see a jersey in your stall and there you go," said Frattin excitedly. "Didn't get called into the [coach's] office so I was definitely excited about that."
"I think if I wasn't going to be here now I was pretty close," added Gardiner. "Either way I would've been happy. I'm obviously a lot more happy now."
A long-shot to make the team amongst a sea of more experienced blueliners, Gardiner – the 17th overall pick in 2008 – enjoyed a standout preseason, totaling five points in six games. His poise with the puck, knack for joining the play, and speedy stride convinced Leafs brass that he was ready for NHL action immediately. He'll begin the season paired with veteran Mike Komisarek.
"He's been excellent up to this point," said Ron Wilson, following a lengthy two-session practice at Mastercard Centre on Monday afternoon. "I'd have to say he's been the biggest surprise of our training camp, of how well he played, so he's earned a the spot on the team."
Frattin meanwhile, showed impressive versatility in seven exhibition games – notching two goals and five points – bouncing effectively from third line duty to spot stints on the top line with Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin. Clarke MacArthur's two-game suspension lands him a spot on the top unit when the season opens against Montreal on October 6th.
"Matty's done a really good job of playing in any role," said Wilson. "Right side, left side, he's killed some penalties, been on the power-play and with Clarke out it's a logical move to get him up in the lineup."
Of the five cuts made on Monday, Aulie was certainly the most unlikely – at least when training camp began. The 22-year-old was pegged to join Dion Phaneuf on the top pairing – after a successful second half together last season – but struggled during the exhibition campaign and was surpassed by Gardiner for a spot on the roster. With only 40 games of NHL experience under his belt, he'll certainly benefit from heavy duty under Dallas Eakins with the Marlies.
"There's no reason why he got beat out other than Jake had a really good camp [and] we're a little bit deeper on the back-end," said Wilson. "We're not discouraged at all by Keith's play. He just wasn't as good as Jake right now. I anticipate him being back sooner than later."
Aulie is replaced by the steady Carl Gunnarsson alongside Phaneuf. John-Michael Liles and Luke Schenn assume the other pairing, while Cody Franson enters the season as the seventh defenceman.
Boyce may have been the most difficult cut for Wilson. Last season, the 27-year-old jumped from near-anonymity with the Marlies into a fourth-line job for 46 games. He was beaten out by Phillipe Dupuis, who earned a slight edge for his penalty killing experience in Colorado last season.
Injuries certainly muddled Wilson's training camp and have the roster in limbo with the season set to open on Thursday. Tim Connolly sat out practice again on Monday (upper-body) and was dubbed "50/50 right now" to play on opening night according to Wilson. Tyler Bozak – who was also injured during the preseason – has temporarily assumed his spot alongside Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul.
Matthew Lombardi meanwhile, is likely going to begin the season with the team's fourth line, as they attempt to ease him back into more regular duty. Lombardi missed 80 games last season with a concussion.