The dream is alive.
After spending Sunday afternoon with teammates watching football at Colby Armstrong’s place, rookies Jake Gardiner and Matt Frattin spent a restless night wondering if their efforts at training camp and in the NHL pre-season were enough to make their dream of making the NHL come true.
After driving to practice together, they got the good news.
Actually, they didn’t really get good news. But others got the bad news, that they were being sent to the minors or put on waivers, so through the process of deduction, the kids figured out they were alright. They will, indeed be on the Leafs opening night roster. Whether both play against the Montreal Canadiens Thursday night remains to be seen, but with the injuries plus a suspension affecting the forwards you’d guess Frattin will be in and the fact management said they’d only keep Gardiner around if he were going to play, he should be a safe bet, too.
Gardiner was all smiles as he met with the media following practice at MasterCard Centre Monday afternoon.
“I think a few guys had meetings and were told they were sent down,” said Gardiner, who was drafted 17th overall by the Anaheim Ducks in 2008 and traded last season to Toronto along with Joffrey Lupul for defenceman Francois Beauchemin. “The guys who didn’t
have a meeting, well, we just figured we made the team. It has been my dream for a long time to play in the NHL and I’m really excited to put the Maple leafs jersey on for the first time.”
Frattin was projected to make the Leafs, based on comments by Leafs management through the rookie camp and again through training camp, but Gardiner, who has a huge offensive upside for a young blueliner, was on the bubble and made it at the expense of Keith Aulie who played 40 games with the Maple Leafs last season. Aulie will start the year with the AHL Marlies.
“Not many people expected me to make the team right away,” said Gardiner, who scored 10 goals and had 41 points with the University of Wisconsin last season before turning pro. “I played well in the pre-season and I impressed the right people and I definitely think I played myself onto the team.”
That said, Gardiner admitted he was prepared for the worst.
“Whatever happened, I wasn’t going to be too upset about it,” he said. “I’m glad to be here, but if I was in the AHL I’d keep working hard. Nobody’s spot is ever secure. Even though I am on the team now, I know there are guys in the AHL who will be fighting to get back up here. Every day is a tryout. (GM) Brian Burke means it when he says guys can beat other guys out for spots. It’s never really your spot on the team if somebody is fighting to take it.”
The Leafs insisted players could play themselves onto this year’s team and that is exactly what Gardiner did, scoring a goal and five points in six pre-season games.
“He played really well,” said captain Dion Phaneuf. “He’s a great player. He sees the ice very well and he skates well. I think it’s great that he pushed for a job and he earned a job. It looks really good on him and I’m excited for him. I like him as a player already; not just his upside. I think he’s confident and can skate the puck extremely well.”
Added coach Ron Wilson: “Jake has been excellent up to this point. I’d have to say he’s been the biggest surprise of our training camp with how well he has played. He earned the spot on the team. Everybody is enticed with his speed, for sure. He seems to have a knack for making safe plays. Sometimes he skates himself into trouble and he manages to figure a way out of it by knowing where the openings are on he ice. That is what has impressed me the most.”
Wilson said Gardiner, in some ways, reminds him of Christian Ehrhoff, who he coached in San Jose. Ehrhoff finished seventh in NHL scoring among defencemen last season with Vancouver and signed with Buffalo as a free agent in the off-season.
“There’s a similar sound when he is skating in terms of how light he is on his feet,” the coach said.
Frattin’s story has been told and told again. He was sent home from the University of North Dakota and had his scholarship revoked because of some teenage pranks, but returned to the team, at his own expense, and became one of the best college players in the nation. He was a cut above the rest of the pack at rookie camp and didn’t skip a beat when he joined the Toronto veterans. Frattin also had five points, including two goals, in the pre-season.
He said he really wasn’t overly surprised that he made the varsity squad.
“Well, maybe a little bit,” he said. “We have a bunch of guys out and Clarke MacArthur is suspended. I got put into his role s hopefully I’ll play on that line for the first two games. Every game you get opportunities and you just have to build from there. You have to take advantage of them. Coming to practice today I had no clue what to expect. We did a workout and the next thing I know I’m on a line with Nikolai Kulemin and Mikhail Gabovski. I had a great practice today and I feel good.”
By no means have the Leafs given up on Aulie.
“For some reason he struggled at camp and would have been our eighth defenceman,” Wilson said. “In his case, since we’re only playing two games in the first two weeks, he needs to go and play and reassert himself. There’s no reason why he got beat out, other
than Jake had a really good camp. We’re deeper on the back end. We’re not discouraged by Keith’s play; he just wasn’t as good as Jake. I anticipate him being back sooner than later.”