TORONTO – Fighting rising adversity and stalled growth, the Leafs will get a little help on the back-end in the coming days.
Mark Fraser is ready to return from a left knee injury and hopes to play against the Devils, his former team, on Friday. The 27-year-old has been sidelined for all but two games this season with a grade-2 MCL tear.
"I think I can say today was my best day yet," said Fraser, following an hour-plus practice on Wednesday morning. "There really wasn't any concerns today in practice. I think that's a pretty good green light indication for myself."
Randy Carlyle wasn't ready to say if Fraser would immediately rejoin the lineup, but did at least concede to the looming possibility of change on a defence that's had trouble this season. Guardedness from the coach aside, Fraser figures to find a place upon his return from injury. He was among the team's top-6 defenders when the season began in Montreal – he played with Paul Ranger that night – and offers the kind of meat-and-potatoes defensive game his team has lacked early this season.
Where he fits and who exits the lineup in the interim is more the question and one Carlyle and the coaching staff have surely been pondering.
"We have decisions to make," Carlyle said, revealing little in the way of plans.
The odd man out when the season opened on Oct. 1, Morgan Rielly played a season-low 14 minutes in Vancouver on Saturday. The 19-year-old has had the predictable ups and downs of a rookie defender, averaging nearly 18 minutes alongside Cody Franson in the slot Fraser occupied last season. Like Rielly, Jake Gardiner and Paul Ranger have also been inconsistent options to date. They've offered limited patches of good on a third pairing, but nothing sustainable. Their troubles with the puck and in the defensive zone have been an obvious concern.
Much like last season, the Leafs have struggled to find consistency beyond their top pair of Dion Phaneuf and Carl Gunnarsson. Carlyle has typically employed Franson and Rielly against second-tier offensive options (often subbing the rookie with Phaneuf), but they've proven uneven in the role, both players more refined offensively than defensively.
Carlyle found success teaming the 6-foot-4 Fraser with the 6-foot-5 Franson last season; though the pair had difficulty at times with greater competition as the year wore on. Because of Rielly's inexperience and the inconsistency of Gardiner and Ranger, this may be the best option for the Leafs at the moment – with any one of the aforementioned three exiting the lineup initially, likely on a rotating basis.
Ultimately, Carlyle will have to determine where Fraser fits best in helping to stabilize the defence.
"You're going to make the decision that you feel is best for your hockey club, what's going to give you the best chance to win," said Carlyle.
Fraser's return, needed as it is, highlights the instability of a Toronto defence that received no external upgrades in the offseason. Leaf management had limited options via free agency and ultimately stood pat on the trade market, adding only Ranger from the Marlies. It was and remains a hope for the club that Gardiner rounds into playoff form, that Ranger continues to improve after a four-year NHL absence and that Rielly continues to show growth. The results remain inconclusive to this point.
Fraser exuded a workmanlike effort in snatching a spot with the Leafs last season; he led the defence in both blocked shots and hits. Though the pain and discomfort in his left knee have subsided, he will be required to wear a brace upon returning from long-term injured reserve, one that he'll likely keep for the remainder of the season as a precaution. "Finding some sort of comfort in it," he said of the adjustment. "It just feels like a very restrictive piece of equipment that seldom stays in the same spot so it's just getting beyond that. Like anything it just takes some getting used to."
More constrictive than the brace is the medical tape he must wear, stretching from the thigh to below the knee. The protective equipment, he said, won't affect his skating stride nor does it restrict him from any typical movements.
Though he figures to help a club that has had difficulty defending – 37 shots against per game – his addition is just one small piece to a group that has yet to play anywhere near its best hockey (10-5-0). In what was likely their worst performance of the season on Saturday, the Leafs allowed 40-plus shots for the third straight game, shut out for the first time all year in a 4-0 loss to the Canucks.
"I think we need physical," said Carlyle, asked if Fraser's physical presence was needed. "I think we need puck-moving. I think we need to quit the turnovers. I think we've got to get back to more a workman-like game versus the cute game I think we've been trying to play."
They'll be challenged to do so without two of their top centres. Tyler Bozak (hamstring) is out for the foreseeable future (Nov. 21, his earliest return date) and Dave Bolland (ankle) has hit injured reserve for a period that remains unknown and figures to be longer rather than shorter. Hoping to plug the holes and survive in the meantime, the club signed 34-year-old Jerred Smithson for the remainder of the season, also bumping James van Riemsdyk to centre. Previously with the Marlies on a pro tryout, Smithson spent last season split between Florida and Edmonton.
"We look at our team to play a tighter brand of hockey and to continue to show some growth," said Carlyle. "We think the growth has stalled for our team. We don't think that we've played to the template that we've created and some of the things that we're struggling with are things that we have to overcome or we're not going to give ourselves the best chance for success."