TRENTON – Matthew Lombardi's role with the Leafs is about to expand.
The 29-year-old is on the verge of moving up the lineup, set to centre the third line with Colby Armstrong and Matt Frattin against the Flames on Saturday.
"I'm looking forward to the challenge," said Lombardi, following the team's final day of practice at the RCAF Arena in Trenton. "I think the progression has been good so far. I've gotten into a bunch of different situations in the last couple of games; whether it's on the penalty kill late in the game, wing, centre, I've had a little bit of everything, so it's been good in terms of progression."
"Yeah, I've talked to him and he's starting to feel really good," explained Leafs coach Ron Wilson. "I see him improving every day and he feels better every day."
Tentative in his use of Lombardi during the first two games, Wilson admitted he was uncertain of what to expect from the Montreal native in the short-term.
"We'll just play it by ear," said Wilson, who has the option of using David Steckel in such a role, "[see] how he adjusts during the games and go from there."
Lombardi is still trying to shake off whatever rust and timing issues may remain after nearly a year sidelined by a concussion. He began the season with limited ice-time in a fourth line role. In the season opener against Montreal last week, he played just over 11 minutes, notching the shorthanded game-winner and an assist in the Leafs' 2-0 win. Two nights later versus Ottawa, he clocked in at 10:28, adding another assist on Phil Kessel's eventual game-winner in a 6-5 victory.
With good speed, keen offensive instincts, a knack for two-way play and the penalty kill, Lombardi offers an intriguing fit for Wilson in a third line position. Offense beyond the likes of Mikhail Grabovski, Nikolai Kulemin, Clarke MacArthur and Phil Kessel was difficult to locate last season, making the potential of Lombardi's contributions all the more interesting. He's scored more than 14 goals on five different occasions, including a 19 goal, 53 point campaign with Phoenix two seasons ago.
When he was acquired from Nashville in July, Lombardi wasn't even able to skate because of concussion symptoms, making his quick comeback all the more surprising. Anxious to return to his old form, he's put the concussion and all of its remnants in the past.
"That's kind of the way I'm trying to look at it," he said. "I don't want to dwell on anything. I don't want to sit back and be content in terms of getting one game in – obviously I want to keep getting better and push myself to get back to where I was."
Cody Franson, another former Predator, is primed for his first game with the Leafs. The 24-year-old is slated to make his season debut against the Flames on Saturday after sitting as a healthy scratch in the first two games. "I want to put my best foot forward and make it tough for them to take me out again," said Franson, who logged 80 games with Nashville last season. "I don't like watching games so I'm going to do my best to make it tough on them.
"It takes a kick at your pride when something like that happens. They say it's a matter of losing jobs or winning jobs back, I don't plan on giving mine up."
Franson saw his tentative place on the Leafs blue-line slip in training camp with the rise of 21-year-old Jake Gardiner. "I thought I was going to be one of the guys that kind of helped take charge and make the team go in the right direction early," he said. "It was just one of those things that didn't happen to work out that way. I kind of had to deal with that, bury my chin and keep working."
"He's got to move pucks. He's got to play well defensively and I know he can help our power-play for sure with the shot that he has," said Wilson.
The challenge for Wilson is integrating Franson consistently into the lineup. With three right-handed shot defencemen in Franson, Luke Schenn and Mike Komisarek, but only two slots available – Dion Phaneuf prefers playing the right – Wilson has but two positions for a group of three. With Schenn set alongside John-Michael Liles on the second pairing that number falls to one, making it likely that Franson is suiting up on the left, something he's never done before.
"I don't know how we're going to handle that," said Wilson. "We have more right-handed defencemen probably than any team in the league so somebody has to play left."
Jake Gardiner is the obvious choice to sit on Saturday. Komisarek has logged over 16 minutes in each of the first two games and appears to be regaining the confidence of prior days.