Fierce battle on Leafs blue line

LANCE HORNBY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 9:33 AM ET

TORONTO - When the Maple Leafs offered new defenceman Matt Lashoff No. 29, an assignation more familiar with Toronto goaltending stars Mike Palmateer and Felix Potvin, he took it, no questions asked.

“I heard a nasty rumour that if you don’t accept what’s available, it’s bad luck,” Lashoff said Tuesday morning at the Air Canada Centre. “I asked for 55 in Tampa Bay and regretted it. So I figured I should take what I’m told. I like the number, it’s my (September) birthdate and the Cat wore it, so that’s not bad company.”

Lashoff needs everything, numerical superstition included, to work for him as selection process for the Leafs’ defence enters the serious stage this week. Coach Ron Wilson is now musing about using as many as eight defencemen when the regular season starts, but even that wider field wouldn’t guarantee former first-round pick Lashoff a job.

“When all seven or eight of them can play in the NHL, it’s (a matter of) dividing up the ice time,” Wilson said. “But it’s not a democracy where everyone plays 20 minutes. We’re going to have some feathers ruffled at some point.”

Wilson has identified Dion Phaneuf and Francois Beauchemin as his top pair, followed by Tomas Kaberle with Mike Komisarek. That leaves Carl Gunnarsson, Lashoff, Brett Lebda and Luke Schenn, with Keith Aulie on the horizon.

Lashoff played just five games in Tampa while on a yo-yo to the minors. The 23-year-old is still looking for his NHL niche after he didn’t live up to billing in Boston and was dealt to the Bolts in the Mark Recchi trade at the 2009 deadline. He came to the Leafs for minor leaguers Stefano Giliati and Alex Berry, a casualty like many on the Lightning of the ownership-management-coaching upheavals that dogged the team until Steve Yzerman took control as GM.

“Sometimes it takes guys a little bit longer to develop into what they’re supposed to and with me it’s been slower than people thought,” Lashoff said. “But I think I’m on the right track.”

Not to say the entire experience in Boston and Tampa was a waste for the 6-foot-2, 204-pounder. He grew to admire multi-faceted captain and fellow D-man Zdeno Chara in Beantown and the dedicated training that diminutive Martin St. Louis showed him in Tampa. Lashoff also enlisted Ben Prentice, a strength coach in Darien Conn., near his New York state home.

“I needed something that would put me over the edge,” Lashoff said “Ryan Shannon of the Senators trains there and (Islanders’) Matt Moulson. I’ve trained the hardest I ever have in my career this summer. I’ve never had that support cast around me. I’ve learned a lot of what it takes on a daily basis. This is the time when I have to show I can play. Getting traded here was a fresh chance to put all that other stuff behind me.

“But the only thing you can really learn from is playing in the games.”

Lashoff was to start Tuesday with Kaberle, Gunnarsson with Phaneuf. Like Lashoff, Gunnarsson wasn’t even on the radar this time last year, then filled in admirably when Komisarek was hurt. But the Swede can’t get content, either. Schenn is ready to put the sophomore jinx behind him, Lebda has won a Stanley Cup in Detroit and no Leaf defenceman is as big as the 6-foot-5 Aulie.

“I have one more year of experience and I know now what it takes,” Gunnarsson said. “The team told me to go home and gain a few pounds and strength is the biggest thing I’ve worked on. I’m going to try and do the same things as last year, but it will be a tough job with so many guys coming up.

“This is a new year and you can’t rely on what you did before.”

lance.hornby@sunmedia.ca


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