“We’ve rotated back and forth now for four games. Are we going to do it for two more? Or is this now, you know, the National Hockey League and the best guys play?” — Mike Babcock
TORONTO – The Toronto Maple Leafs are taking another step toward solidifying the lineup they believe in.
Coach Mike Babcock announced an end, at least temporarily, to his rotation of bubble players, and Toronto will dress the best version of itself Thursday, an attempt to snuff out a two-game skid and swipe Round 1 from the mighty Tampa Bay Lightning, the Leafs’ closest thing to a franchise measuring stick.
Skilled forwards Jason Spezza and Nic Petan have seized the lead for the full-time gigs on Frederik Gauthier’s fourth line, surpassing — for now — KHL recruit Nick Shore and Marlies grad Dmytro Timashov, respectively.
And right-shot Justin Holl has thus far outduelled lefty Martin Marincin for the pleasure of skating with rookie phenom Rasmus Sandin on the club’s third defence pairing.
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Spezza, Petan and Holl will each dress consecutive games for the first time this season, a decision coaches and management don’t take lightly — and is, by no means, final.
With the caveat that the only permanence is change, coach Mike Babcock says evaluating the six players on the bubble through four exhibition games plus two regular-season tryouts apiece has given the candidates a decent sample size to prove their capabilities.
“Any way you look at it, the guys have had quite a bit,” said Babcock, following a snappy and lengthy practice Wednesday. “Not only do we want to be right, we want to give the guys a fair chance, and we think we’ve done that. That doesn’t mean it’ll be the same next game, but that’s what we’re doing.”
Particularly when it comes to the forwards, it would be difficult to argue for the contrary.
When anchoring Timashov and Shore, Gauthier’s line posted a 46.2% Corsi rating at even strength in a scrambly opener versus Ottawa and plummeted to 14.3% versus Montreal — the one game, Babcock says, he was not impressed by his roster’s performance.
Spezza and Petan joined the Goat for a sparkling 100% Corsi rating (5-on-5) during Friday’s victory in Columbus and an impressive 71.4% rate in Monday’s loss to St. Louis, the type of grinding outfit more in line with the style of play Toronto will be challenged with come April.
Toss in the fact Petan and Spezza, with some nifty midair stick work in tight, helped orchestrate Gauthier’s second goal in a week, and the decision to give that trio another chance against a testy Tampa squad is a smart one.
Surely Gauthier was chuckling to himself when he hashtagged his goal-celebration Instagram post #ontheroadto50, but a winter with a couple of skilled wingers like Spezza (a versatile face-off and special-teams weapon) and Petan could see the Goat track well past his previous career high of three goals.
Spezza’s trials in the early going here have been well-documented, but the plights of the lesser-known Petan and Holl are compelling for different reasons.
Acquired at the trade deadline from Winnipeg and struggling to win over a coach who prefers some size in his bottom six, the five-foot-nine Petan devoted his summer to upping his speed so that he could be quick on the forecheck.
Left outside of the Leafs’ opening-night roster, Petan cleared waivers, which, ironically, makes him a more valuable asset. He can be sent up and down to the Marlies without paperwork for the next three weeks.
Holl, a late-blooming 27-year-old, is enthused at the prospect of dressing back-to-back games — something the defender had to wait until March of last season to accomplish, despite being on the NHL roster all season.
“Getting two in a row will be really good,” said Holl, a smile splashed on his face. “Staying in the lineup and keeping your skills sharp, it’s something to build off.
“Every player wants to play every night. When you’re in and out like that, it’s harder to get momentum going in a positive direction. That being said, everyone has to find their own way. If that’s how you gotta get in, you gotta be prepared to play whether you’ve played recently or not.”
Enjoying fast chemistry with fellow Marlies grad Sandin, whom, Holl says, communicates well during shifts, the righty is making a concerted effort to increase the physical aspects of his game.
Holl needn’t be reminded how tenuous his grasp on a career with Leafs is, but if he can limit mistakes and log a tough 10 to 13 minutes, the spot alongside Sandin could be his until Travis Dermott (shoulder) returns to action.
Babcock has suggested that the clear eyes and open minds of new assistant coaches Paul McFarland and Dave Hakstol have helped form fresh opinions in recent weeks on players that had already been in the system.
Holl and Petan fit that bill.
“I think Hak is great. He’s got really good structure on the PK — and good little tips that are helpful. He brings a nice presence,” Holl explains.
“For me, it’s just important to play as well as I can and try to impress everybody. That’s the main trial, whether it’s Hak or Babs. Just making sure they appreciate the way I play.”
So far, so good.