TORONTO – Life “in the dark,” as he terms it, has Nic Petan bumping around beyond his control from the farm club to the top line to the press box to trade rumour mill to the waiver wire.
“Petey,” as they affectionately call him, is a talent without a niche, a one-time 120-point Western Hockey League tornado who’s been shoehorned onto fourth lines and scratched, cut and recalled to the point of frustration.
Too skilled for American League, he believes, and not wowing enough to boot anyone in the Toronto Maple Leafs’ top nine — or the Winnipeg Jets’, for that matter — out of a job, Petan is forever on the NHL bubble.
He’s available as he is hungry.
“I stay in the dark of all that. I don’t really look at anything, so obviously there’s rumours and things like that, and I’m just here not knowing. Show up, work hard. Whatever happens, happens,” Petan tells Sportsnet between his showcase start on the Leafs’ top line Tuesday and another trip to the waiver wire Thursday.
“Isn’t it difficult going to work with your blinders on?” we wonder.
“It sucks,” Petan says, twice. “It’s not fun. But you gotta do what you gotta do.”
What the Maple Leafs have to do is clear money off the books to accommodate the pending return of winger Zach Hyman. Despite his modest $775,000 cap hit (through 2020-21), Petan joined seventh defenceman Martin Marincin in getting cut (again) Thursday simply because the organization looks at all the pieces in the box and shrugs when asked where to place Petan.
“Yeah, that’s a great question,” coach Mike Babcock said Wednesday. “We’re trying to figure that out for him. Pete loves hockey, works hard. He’s a good guy, make plays. Where can he fit in so he can help the team and help himself? We’re trying to figure that out.”
As a result, Petan, who already cleared waivers out of camp, is available for nothing more than the price of his contract.
On a level playing field, it’s difficult to imagine an inexpensive 24-year-old not being able to snatch a middle-six, second-power-play gig on a club starved for depth scoring. Paging: Detroit, Columbus, San Jose, Minnesota, Edmonton and Los Angeles.
Could he not be worth taking a flyer? Look at how Josh Leivo carved a niche in Vancouver.
Petan made a statement in his two-game stint with the Marlies over the weekend, piling up five points and bringing the best out of prospect Jeremy Bracco, according to AHL coach Sheldon Keefe.
“Dominant. Outstanding with the puck. That’s the Nic Petan that I remember coaching against in the American Hockey League a few years back or whatever it was in Manitoba,” Keefe said. “When he’s on the ice, he controls the play.
“It was nice to have him come down with a great attitude.”
Petan was boarding a flight with the Marlies to Laval when he got the call that he was to unpack his bags and join on the Leafs’ top line at home versus L.A. Tuesday.
In a one-game showcase alongside John Tavares and Mitch Marner, Petan helped the unit shut down the Kings 5-on-5 while generating 72 per cent of even-strength shot attempts and a game-high four scoring chances. He skated 12:57, his most ever as a Leaf.
He didn’t get on the board, he laments, but for the first time in a while, he felt like himself on NHL ice.
“I was fortunate enough that happened, and I do believe that I should be in this league instead. It was just nice to go out and get playing get some minutes,” Petan says. “My game feels good. Obviously, I feel better playing more minutes, but it’s not up to me.
“It’s tough because I don’t consider myself a fourth-line player, but I’ve been playing this fourth-line situation in my NHL career. It’s tough to produce, but once you get into that role, your mind changes from offence to defence a little bit. But [Tuesday] night was a little bit of change: you have to get the puck a little more, more touches.
“I thought our line did what we were supposed to do.”
Petan poured his summer efforts into upping his speed and clearing his mind. At the outset of camp, he announced “another fresh start.”
Yet battling the congested Toronto winger depth chart has turned things stale.
“It’s all about opportunity, and obviously there’s a crazy amount of skill and talent on this team,” Petan says. “I don’t think you can explore everything when you’ve got 12, 13 minutes of ice in one game. But it was nice to be out there.”
Marner says Petan is “definitely” an NHL-calibre winger, one capable of creating space for himself and his linemates with his speed and handle.
“He’s got the skill. He’s got the fight in him, too. He gets to that net, and he’s very mobile in the offensive zone,” Marner says. “Even if D-men don’t know him, I think he’s still one of those guys when he when he has the puck that D-men are scared to approach and try and go at.”
So, as Petan’s tenuous future with the Maple Leafs once again hangs in the balance, he’s slapping on the blinders and trying to generate positivity from within.
“It’s just important that I have confidence in myself,” he says, “so whatever they decide is whatever.”