TORONTO – Dressed in a white Maple Leafs sweater, Phil Kessel was the first player to exit the ice at practice on Monday afternoon. He was followed closely by David Clarkson, donning red, seconds later.
Clarkson's actions one night earlier, leaping off the bench in defence of Kessel during a pre-season game against the Buffalo Sabres, will cost him the first 10 games of the regular season. The fallout will be written in how the Leafs manage in his absence.
“Now it gives another guy an opportunity,” head coach Randy Carlyle observed of his roster with the regular season opener around the corner on October 1st.
Inked to a one-year deal worth $1 million, Mason Raymond figures to see the most immediate boost in stock, and is likely to slide into a top-six role in Clarkson's absence. The 27-year-old skated with Nazem Kadri and Joffrey Lupul during the back half of Monday's workout.
Beyond Raymond though, opportunity figures to have opened even further with Clarkson shelved for the first three weeks of the regular season. There will be a little more daylight for the likes of Carter Ashton, Joe Colborne, Troy Bodie and perhaps even Trevor Smith to emerge.
With Clarkson out and Raymond likely climbing the depth chart in his place, the Leafs would appear to have two openings in their bottom-six – Jay McClement could also move up the lineup – as Frazer McLaren's status (finger) is largely in doubt for the opener in Montreal.
|James van Riemsdyk
“Every game so far you have to prove yourself,” Ashton said, the 22-year-old dressing in four of the first five exhibition games. “I don't think anything's changed. From the first day of camp, the intra-squad scrimmages, and [then] you take yourself into these exhibition games, you have to take every opportunity you get.”
Ashton made himself noticed over the weekend. In Buffalo on Saturday, he emerged victorious from a dust-up with Steve Ott, and added a hard-charging assist on Jay McClement's game-tying goal. The following night at home against those very same Sabres, Ashton notched two assists playing alongside Kessel and Tyler Bozak, also rushing to the aid of the former when John Scott readied himself for a throttling.
“You want to get noticed,” he said, noting his intent to impart a physical presence, “and you have to do things and for me bringing some physicality to the weekend and get in a couple scraps, that's just part of the game. There's different roles on every team so that's definitely one thing I was looking to do.”
Though he's yet to make the same definitive impression that Ashton has in recent days, Colborne believes he too is ascending with three exhibition games still to go.
“I feel like I've played better every game in camp so far,” the 23-year-old said, “and especially these last two games I've felt like I've really started to show what I can do.”
Teamed with James van Riemsdyk and Josh Leivo on Sunday, Colborne produced an assist on the eventual game-winner, also garnering significant opportunity on the penalty kill. Looking to crack his first NHL roster, Colborne believes those two elements in combination with a sturdy defensive game will help him emerge with a job in the final week.
“I've been generating some chances,” he said. “Stay the course and keep going out there and showing the coaching staff what I can do.”
Raymond quickly emerged as viable option for the Leafs early in the exhibition schedule, the speed and hints of offence immediately apparent from the 27-year-old. His value to the club also lies in the depth he offers, something that will now be put to the test with Clarkson absent.
Clarkson's impending absence will sting regardless. The organization targeted and eventually landed the 29-year-old when free agency opened this past July, believing his spunky veteran presence would help them take another step this season. The weight of his absence can be minimized though – Clarkson would be eligible to debut on October 25th – by a spark from those replacing him in the lineup, notably Raymond and whoever else wins a job in the coming week.
Ottawa lost their number one centre (Jason Spezza), number one goaltender (Craig Anderson) and number one defender (Erik Karlsson) for large chunks of 2013 and still managed to qualify for the playoffs, thanks in large part to the efforts of their young players.
And while the Senators conundrum was substantially more extreme – considering the value of the aforementioned trio – their ability to overcome offers a template in surviving adversity when faced with the loss of talent.
“We set a plan on the first day of training camp,” Carlyle declared. “Now I'd say that plan has changed. You have to adjust on the fly. You have to have plan A, B, C and D in the drawer. We're at plan B and C right now.”
For those lingering on the bubble like Ashton, the challenge is becoming a part of that plan.
“You don't take anything for granted,” he said. “Every opportunity you get, you have to prove yourself.”