Leafs' college experiment

LANCE HORNBY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 10:22 AM ET

The Maple Leafs aren’t even sure what Ron Wilson’s end game is with a flurry of line changes on Wednesday, so pity the assistant coaches on the Buffalo Sabres.

There could be four new units to start the home game Thursday, one player is making his NHL debut, a change of goaltenders and perhaps a wrinkle on defence.

Up front, in short, the Frat Pack is reunited, Toronto native Brayden Irwin gets initiated on a GTA line with Luca Caputi and John Mitchell, while Phil Kessel and Nikolai Kulemin welcome Mikhail Grabovski to centre. Lord knows who will be the fourth line.

The changes began in the late stages of Toronto’s 3-2 loss to Atlanta on Tuesday.

“We had to do something to shake things up,” said Fredrik Sjostrom, who likely will be in some combination with Rickard Wallin and Colton Orr. “(Viktor) Stalberg, (Tyler) Bozak and (Christian) Hanson played well together and we’ll see if we get some other combinations going, too.”

The trio Sjostrom mentioned are all college grads, one-time roommates with the AHL Marlies, but rarely playing partners.

Stalberg, however, raised his profile with a two-goal game. Stalberg and Bozak bring the speed and creativity, Hanson the pick and shovel. Hanson split time between centre and wing all season and returns to the right side.

“We have a bit of everything,” Stalberg said. “We play relaxed out there (because of their off-ice familiarity) and I think that helps. You’re not squeezing the stick.”

The 6-foot-5 Irwin provides size down the middle, but his audition is limited with just five regular-season games remaining.

“He gets one game and we go from there,” Wilson said.

Irwin is keeping things very conservative, including his comments.

“I want to keep it simple,” he said. “Just get pucks out, play within the system.”

But Stalberg, who was Irwin’s pal at the University of Vermont, knows what kind of excitement is percolating.

“This will be a big night for him, a Toronto kid, with a lot of friends and family in the stands,” said Stalberg, who had an assist in his debut in October. “He should just enjoy it and cherish the moment because you only experience it once.”

Jean-Sebastien Giguere starts in goal after Jonas Gustavsson’s winning streak during the rotation was halted at seven. Jeff Finger could be back on defence after Wilson took some verbal swings at his veterans following the Atlanta game.

Wednesday was one of the rougher workouts this season. Mikhail Grabovski, who has a short fuse to start with, shoved Tomas Kaberle after Kaberle accidentally pushed him into the boards on a 1-on-1. Wayne Primeau took a puck in the face on a tip and Sjostrom absorbed a Dion Phaneuf blast in the mid-section.

In trying to fire a puck through the penalty timekeeper’s speaking hole, Wilson destroyed the whole pane of glass.

lance.hornby@sunmedia.ca


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