TORONTO - Six months of recovery from knee surgery was nearing its end for Matt Frattin as he geared up for a long-awaited season debut with the Marlies.
It was early November and the 24-year-old was just two weeks away from his first game-action since May when he tore the meniscus in his left knee during the final moments of a Marlies victory in the Western Conference Final. With the NHL lockout extending into its second month, extra eyes would be focused on the exploits of the American Hockey League and its new wave of talent. Returning from a significant knee injury, Frattin wanted to be sure he was prepared physically to prove himself with the added layer of scrutiny. "Before I started playing games I told [the team], I was like 'I want to be 100 per cent' because as soon as you play in that game you know people are going to be watching so you want to be showing your best at every game," Frattin said, noting the value of increased intensity training during the lead-up to his November 16 debut in Hamilton.
He scored twice that night against the Bulldogs and now has five goals in five games upon his return. The Edmonton native has swiftly picked up where he left off in the postseason late last spring, precisely the start required of a player expected to make a permanent jump to the NHL (lockout notwithstanding) this season. Frattin offered flashes of his potential in Leafs duty a year ago - scoring eight goals with a versatile skillset - before exploding for 10 goals and 13 points in 13 playoff games with the Marlies. While he'd surely prefer to be lining up in the NHL at the moment, the 2007 fourth round pick can certainly see some degree of upside in his current AHL stead.
"I feel like I get a lot more playing time down here," he said, noting full strength in his left knee. "Last year I was getting maybe 12 minutes, 11 minutes on average [with the Leafs]. Obviously you want more, but that's where you've got to earn your stripes and earn your role. You look at a guy like Jake Gardiner and he definitely made an impact on the organization and that's why he was playing 25 minutes a game. And I think that's what I was going into training camp this year [thinking]. I wanted for sure have my knee 100 per cent but as soon as I could start playing I wanted to make that impact and earn my spot.
"Prove that I could play and stick and make an impact with the Leafs this year."
At six feet even and a sturdy 200 pounds - boosted by a low centre of gravity - Frattin has the frame to make a difference physically, a facet of his game he's looked to impart with greater consistency this winter.
"It's interesting, a guy like that that can shoot the puck and get into open areas I think a lot of people say 'Well he just has to score'," Marlies head coach Dallas Eakins opined. "Well when he's finishing his checks he's getting a ton of chances, when he's not he's getting none. So it's not that he has to score, it's he has to drive his legs and be physical and the other stuff looks after itself." Eakins has been pleased with the early results.
But like other NHL hopefuls currently earning their stripes in the American League, Frattin has a bar of expectation that he must ascend. With brass from management milling around ubiquitously at Ricoh Coliseum and the presence of Randy Carlyle and his Leafs coaching staff a constant, Frattin can ill afford to take a step back in his performance. Cognizant of that reality, he's laid out a simple and yet honest goal for himself.
"For myself, I think the odd time I'll start off good but maybe I'll take a couple shifts off where I'm kind of invisible and just going with the flow, going with the motions," he explained. "I've got to make an impact every shift. That's what I want to do personally and I think that's what they want me to do too."