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Competing For The Last Forward Spot

by Mike Ulmer / Toronto Maple Leafs
Can you only have one truly available spot at forward the season after you finish 10th?

At a get-together golf tournament on Tuesday, Leafs GM Brian Burke posited that the team’s only opening up front is on the left side of the third line.

The candidates to work with Tyler Bozak and Colby Armstrong, Burke said, are Nazem Kadri, Joe Colborne and Matt Frattin.

“We’ve left one spot open ,” Burke said. “We do want to have competition for that spot.”

Each player possesses his own merits. With Bozak rounding into a dependable two-way pivot and Armstrong strong on both sides of the puck there is room on the unit for the kind of speed and panache the 20-year-old Kadri would bring.

Burke has hinted that Frattin, who dazzled in a single game with the Leafs on the last night of the schedule, might be able to step right into the NHL. At 23 he is physically more mature than Kadri. Colborne has played 81 professional games and at six-foot-five he gives a smallish crop of forwards a little more heft.

If you are looking for clues that the expectations for this season are light years removed for those held going into last year, consider those words: one spot.

Suddenly, internal competition, a non-factor at the last four or five camps comes very much into play. After a commendable 29-goal season, centre Mikhail Grabovski enters into the third year of his contract. He should, and probably is a lock to retain his second-line status.

But Matthew Lombardi has begun skating and he could pose a legitimate threat to Grabovski’s job, especially if Lombardi proves able to handle a full season after losing a year to concussion issues.

While you are at it, chew on Burke’s promise to tender Ron Wilson a new contract but only if the team performs well.

“I do think he is the right guy,” Burke said of Wilson. “I didn’t think we have to extend him to show my loyalty. I have done that time and again.”

But replacing Keith Acton and Tim Hunter with Greg Cronin and Scott Gordon, Burke has stoked the coaching staff as well. Gordon has head coaching experience with the Islanders and Burke has developed a highly-regarded up and coming coach in the Marlies’ Dallas Eakins.

Burke is still confident that he will sign defenceman Luke Schenn and would love to spend to the cap if he could find someone who would help. A big winger who could fill a spot on the third line might be free agent Trent Hunter but it’s hard to see another body being thrown into the mix.

For what it’s worth, the defence is also crowded with Dion Phaneuf, Keith Aulie, the unsigned Luke Schenn, John-Michael Liles and Cody Franson penciled in. That leaves one opening for either veteran Mike Komisarek, returnee Matt Lashoff or third-year Leaf Carl Gunnarsson.

Management is likely unwilling to break up the line that was last year’s best: Grabovski between Clarke MacArthur and Nikolai Kulemin. The fourth unit will involve Mike Brown and pugilists Colton Orr or Jay Rosehill. Joey Crabb, maybe Phillipe Dupuis and or Darryl Boyce will be in the mix as well.

No one is confusing the Leafs with the 1959 Canadiens. Despite last season’s success, James Reimer must put up another full season of solid work to erase any doubts that he can lead the team into the middle of the decade. Connolly has rarely delivered the level of offence the Leafs are coveting. Neither Liles nor Franson are considered shut-down defensive types so Schenn is important.

But with only one vacancy going into the season up front and three intriguing candidates to fill it, there is a feeling of emerging depth with the Leafs.

Jonas Gustavsson now has 65 NHL games under his belt and while there are no conclusions to be drawn from his play so far, he would give the Leafs a palatable option should injury or the sophomore jinx vex the Leafs Reimer.

Colborne and Frattin are challenging Kadri’s status as the number one forward prospect and two more rookies on the blueline, Jake Gardiner and Korbinian Holzer will apply more pressure hoping to make the jump to the Leafs blue line.

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