John Ferguson pulled no punches when asked about the ailing state of his wafer-thin defence corps last night.
"The competition for the jobs may turn into the survival of the fittest," the Maple Leafs general manager said bluntly after seeing his team skate to an impressive 5-1 pre-season victory over the Montreal Canadiens.
Just two hours earlier, Ferguson had watched young Staffan Kronwall writhing in pain on the Air Canada Centre ice after sliding awkwardly into the boards. The towering Swede was helped to the dressing room where he was diagnosed with a sprained right ankle.
While the news could have been much worse, Kronwall will not accompany the team for games in Montreal against the Canadiens tonight and to Halifax for an exhibition tilt versus the Ottawa Senators tomorrow. Instead, he will remain behind in Toronto where he'll be re-evaluated over the weekend.
With nicked-up defencemen Pavel Kubina and Tomas Kaberle also not making the trip, young blue-liners Ian White, Jay Harrison, Andy Wozniewski and Brendan Bell will get even more audition time during the team's swing through eastern Canada.
"These are the types of challenges you face," Ferguson said. "If you have some depth, you can get through it."
At the beginning of training camp, White, Harrison, Wozniewski, Bell, Kronwall and Carlo Colaiacovo were said to be vying for Nos. 5 through 7 slots on the blue line. Now, with Kronwall temporarily hobbled and Colaiacovo suffering headaches, the door is open for the remaining four.
"It seems to be a curse to be a defenceman in this organization the past two years, what with all the injuries," said White, who was named the game's second star last night. "Guys are dropping like flies but hopefully none are serious. I don't think they are.
"In the meantime, we have a couple of more chances to show what we've got."
The diminutive White, to his credit, has made an impact just one week into camp. He was part of an effective power-play unit last night that also included McCabe, Mats Sundin, Darcy Tucker and Kyle Wellwood.
That quintet produced a pair of goals with the man advantage in the game's first 3:06, with Tucker and Sundin doing the honours to give the Leafs an early 2-0 lead.
Wellwood, one of the craftier players on the ice, finished with a pair of assists and worked well with Sundin.
"A little bit is confidence," Wellwood said. "But you are also expected to make a little bit of a leap.
"The power play is an important aspect. We just hope to have the same power play success we had last year."
The Leafs were among the league leaders in power play goals with 107 during the 2005-06 season.