TORONTO - Cody Franson and Mike Santorelli are gone and others could be on their way out before the March 2 trade deadline. But the Toronto Maple Leafs still have to finish out the season and ice a full roster.
That means players like defenceman Petter Granberg and forwards Richard Panik and Brandon Kozun should get ample opportunity for more ice time to prove they deserve bigger roles in the organization. A full-scale rebuild could be starting soon, so it's up to those players and others to show they belong.
"Everyone wants to play in the NHL," Kozun said Tuesday as the Leafs prepared to host the Florida Panthers. "That's the reason we play hockey is we've dreamed of it since (we were) kids. That's something I've strived for my whole entire life and I'm going to try and work as hard as I can to play here."
Panik stands to benefit the most as he's expected to be playing alongside Nazem Kadri. The early-season waiver-wire pickup from the Tampa Bay Lightning was already getting more minutes under interim coach Peter Horachek and now can showcase himself even further.
"It's a different feeling when you play 14, 15 minutes average than when you play like five minutes, and when you get some time on the (power play) as well," Panik said. "It really builds your confidence. I feel really confident now."
Horachek has noticed the 24-year-old winger's development and maturity continuing to improve. A restricted free agent after this season, Panik could develop into a top-six forward on a team that's bound to get younger.
The Leafs are already younger on defence with the 22-year-old Granberg up from the AHL's Marlies. Along with offensive lefty Morgan Rielly, the defensive righty could be a building block of Toronto's blue-line.
One thing's for sure: Granberg is not Franson, a power-play mainstay who was among the league's top-scoring defencemen. But he wants to be aggressive and hard to play against, not pretend to be something he's not.
"That's a little bit of a challenge when you're looking at the offensive side: It's hard to replace Cody in that situation," Horachek said. "But he's going to get some time, especially on the penalty kill."
Kozun, who made the team out of training camp but missed two months with a high ankle sprain, is in the lineup replacing the injured Joffrey Lupul for now. But Daniel Winnik and David Booth are unrestricted free agents this summer and Winnik is perhaps the most sought-after rental player left on the market, so Kozun could be sticking around for some time.
To do that, Horachek said Kozun will have to skate as well as he did at the start of the year. The 24-year-old winger is trying to worry more about that than replacing traded Leafs.
"I'm trying to show what I did at the beginning of the year and get back to the level I was at," Kozun said. "It's just hard work ??? coming up here and trying to bring some energy and hopefully bring as much as I can to the table."
Notes ??? Centre Olli Jokinen is set to make his Leafs debut Tuesday night against the Panthers, one of eight other NHL teams the veteran has played for. Horachek said Jokinen would play with fellow Finn Leo Komarov and David Clarkson. ... Jonathan Bernier makes his third straight start in net after losing to Montreal in a shootout Saturday.
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