BUFFALO – The Leafs may have two surprise additions to their opening night roster.
A long-shot to make the opening night roster, the 21-year-old Gardiner continues to blow away expectations. On Saturday at the First Niagara Center, he logged a game-high 26 minutes, chipping in with his third assist in four preseason games.
"It's far from a lock," said President and GM Brian Burke, during the second intermission of a 3-2 exhibition loss to the Sabres. "There are still some things I'd like to see him get better at in his own end, but he has put himself in the mix."
"I don't feel any pressure," said Gardiner, "but I do feel, like he said, [that] I'm playing my way into a tough decision for them.
Despite a clog of NHL defencemen in front of him – including Mike Komisarek, Cody Franson and Carl Gunnarsson - Gardiner is quickly making himself a very real option for the club for the opener on October 6th. There was guarded hope internally that he'd be ready to make an impact at some point this season, but not this soon.
"[He's] really made a pretty solid impression on all of us," said head coach Ron Wilson. "Generally, he's almost been our best defenceman in every game so we have to continue looking at him."
"He's an explosive guy that does smart things with the puck at high speed," added Burke. "Those guys are valuable."
An impressive skater, Gardiner's knack for joining the rush and creating offensively has him knocking on the door of an NHL job. His neutral-zone feed to Mikhail Grabovski on Saturday kick-started the Belarusian's second goal of the night versus the Sabres.
Lombardi meanwhile, continues to stride in the right direction. The 29-year-old – acquired in a trade with Nashville – missed 80 games last season with a concussion, but has been skating since mid-August and has now been cleared for full contact at practice. Wilson was even hopeful at the prospect of getting him into an exhibition game, potentially next weekend against Detroit.
"I'm not going to tip my hand," said Wilson, clearly intrigued by Lombardi's presence, "but he can play centre or probably left wing.
"He brings another element of all-out speed. We've been watching him in practice and he's a roadrunner. Probably up front would be the fastest guy on our team, even quicker than [Mikhail] Grabovski or [Nikolai] Kulemin. You can never be too fast and he's got some experience which will help too."
Even the suggestion of playing Lombardi on the wing hints at the early returns of Nazem Kadri and Matt Frattin. With the top six seemingly locked up, the only available position for Lombardi would be third line left wing. Kadri and Frattin were both vying for that job, but Wilson's inference suggests that neither has done quite enough to grab hold of the position.
"That's hard," said Wilson. "We've still got three games left."
Kadri has just one assist in four preseason games, while Frattin has tallied two goals and two assists. Said Burke of Kadri, "He's dangerous with the puck, sometimes for the wrong team. We're still seeing too many turnovers high in the attacking zone, but he's definitely improved and does some good things."
The Leafs will make their second round of cuts on Sunday, likely dropping down from 47 players to a number in the mid-twenties.
"Overall, I'm happy the way camp is going," said Burke. "I think the guys we brought in to do certain things are doing them. I think the young guys are pushing which is their job in a camp. Matt Frattin's pushing, Kadri's pushing, Colborne I think has played well, Jake Gardiner, these are young guys that are pushing and that's what training camp is all about."