Mitchell building a case

LANCE HORNBY, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 8:48 AM ET

Ron Wilson took shots at those already writing off his Maple Leafs after four meaningless games, but it seems rookie centre John Mitchell has used his brief audition to full advantage.

"We've got to find a spot for him," the coach said yesterday at Lakeshore Lions Arena. "I don't know how (the roster) will shake out, but he's done a good job, he can play nasty and he's a better skater than I anticipated."

Mitchell was pardoned by the coach for a last-minute cross-check in Buffalo that helped set the stage for the Leafs' 3-2 overtime loss on Saturday. In fact, there was no mushroom cloud over the west-end rink yesterday.

Instead of an attention-grabbing skate or a 90-minute refresher on basics, Wilson decided the club's third loss in a row, and second consecutive third-period meltdown, would be best absorbed on the grass of the adjoining football field, with the players wearing shorts and T-shirts for a sun-splashed aerobic workout.

"That was an exhibition game," Wilson snorted of the contest on Saturday, in which Buffalo struck three times in 3:24 to steal a victory. "We're not going to win the Cup this year, there's a news flash for you.

"We're going through a long process here. We'll be a picture that changes every minute."

The message on forward Nik Antropov's shirt yesterday -- "Suicide will kill you" -- reflected the coach's conciliatory mood.

"It's still too early (to panic)," Antropov said. "We're still learning new tactics and systems."

The Leafs aren't half the distance through camp yet, but will reach the midway mark of their nine-game pre-season schedule tonight at the Air Canada Centre against the St. Louis Blues. It's hard to get an accurate read on most of the newcomers among the 31 players still in camp, but Mitchell definitely is going to challenge for a job in the middle.

The timing for the former fifth-round pick from 2003 is excellent, with Mats Sundin leaving a gaping hole on the depth chart and the Oakville native coming off a strong year with the Marlies. As a fourth-year pro, he would have to clear NHL waivers to be returned to the farm, but an assist and team-best 10 faceoff wins in Buffalo are among deeds keeping him in general manager Cliff Fletcher's good books.

"If he keeps going, he's going to make that (waiver) decision easy for us," Fletcher said. "I thought he had a great playoff with the Marlies (a team-high eight goals)."

Wilson is giving the creative Mikhail Grabovski every chance to get the first-line centre role, allowing the Leafs to keep Antropov on the wing for now.

Grabovski earned the coach's respect for getting himself ready for the Sabres following multiple stitches on his chin after a mishap on Friday in a game against Pittsburgh. Then comes a group of centres with various strengths and weaknesses: Checker Matt Stajan, the surprising Dominic Moore (two short-handed goals so far), converted winger Alex Steen and Mitchell.

Antropov and winger Mark Bell also can be utilized at centre.

But Wilson said there would be no guarantee the Leafs would have their desired starting lineup for the final tuneup on Sunday against the Columbus Blue Jackets.

"It would be ideal, but it never works out that way," Wilson said. "We have five games in seven nights coming up and I won't kill our (starting) team. I'd like to flip about six guys in and out every game."

Wilson wouldn't get into details about tonight's lineup, but Luke Schenn probably will be back on defence and Vesa Toskala gets the start in goal with an eye to Curtis Joseph playing against one of his former teams back in St. Louis on Wednesday.

The Leafs have three days of practice before opening the season in Detroit on Oct. 9, by which time the coach and GM hope some other players rise above the crowd.


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