|Nazem Kadri will get an excellent first chance to impress Leafs coach Ron Wilson. (QMI Agency/Dave Thomas)
Nazem Kadri, Jerry D'Amigo, Jussi Rynnas and Matt Lashoff will be the new Maple Leafs in the spotlight Tuesday as Toronto starts five exhibitions in as many nights, beginning with the Ottawa Senators.
But apart from auditioning Kadri as a No. 2 centre, D’Amigo as a potential winger, giving Lashoff, Carl Gunnarsson and Brett Lebda a chance to battle for the 6-7-8 slots on defence, coach Ron Wilson wants his 29th-place team to show a mean streak right away.
“What I like is that you’ve seen the intensity already in our scrimmages,” Wilson said at the Air Canada Centre. “It’s nice to build that up. We’re playing a rival (in the Battle of Ontario) and there will be some heated discususins on the ice. I think both coaches will welcomes that.”
All eyes will be on Kadri, last year’s No. 1 pick, who will get an excellent first chance to succeed, insulated between incoming wingers Kris Versteeg and Colby Armstrong.
“I have to see if Nazem can play,” Wlson said. “We’re not handing him a job.
“He has to put points up and he can’t let us down defensively. The centreman’s job is a huge one and not many 19-year-olds come in and earn a first or second line position. In our case, maybe third line is reasonable for him, but if we have three guys playing better (from among Tyler Bozak, Mikhail Grabovski, Christan Hanson and John Mitchell), we have to decide what to do.
“I’m not going to kill him with eight or nine exhibition games and he limps out of camp with no energy. He will play in three of the five games, nothing back-to-back, so he’ll be rested.”
Lashoff will be partnered with Tomas Kaberle on Tuesday and Gunnarsson with captain Dion Phaneuf. Wilson has identified Phaneuf and Francois Beauchemin as his top pair, followed by Kaberle with Mike Komisarek. So Gunnarsson, Lashoff, Lebda and Luke Schenn have to work hard and hope the Leafs carry eight blueliners insead of seven as Wilson mused about on Tuesday morning.
“Being up and down with Tampa, I know what it takes to play on a daily basis,” Lashoff said. “This is a time where I need to show I can play on a daily basis.”
Whatever happens on defence, the Leafs appear to be in much better shape depth-wise this year.
“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.
“We’re giving lots of opportunities (to forwards and defence) the chance to steal a job. We have a lot of guys who played last year who deserve the benefit of the doubt, but if one of your younger players or one of our newer players comes in, not unlike Viktor Stalberg did last year, we will find a spot for him.”
“We have 11 or 12 guys (playing Tuesday) who’ve never played for the Leafs and maybe seven or eight rookies who’ve never been in an NHL exhibition. (But) this isn’t the only game they’re going to play.”
Jonas Gustavsson will play half the game in net and then be relieved by rookie Rynnas.
“We’re giving five of the six goalies opportunities in the first five games,” Wilson said. “Jean Sebastien Gigure wanted one (start), Gustavsson will play a complete game I think in (Buffalo on Saturday). With the exception of Andrew Engelage, the other five will all get an opportunity, half a game, two periods, it doesn’t matter.
“I hope (Gustavsson) finishes off where he did last year. He won seven in a row in March. He was playing the way we expected him to after he got some experiece under his belt. I thought he found his game and he has a good relationship with Jiggy.”
Tuesday's Toronto lineup
Jonas Gustavsson, Jussi Rynnas
Tomas Kaberle - Matt Lashoff
Carl Gunnarsson - Dion Phaneuf
Brett Lebda - Simon Gysbers
Kris Versteeg - Nazem Kadri - Colby Armstrong
Jerry D’Amigo - Brayden Irwin - Marcel Mueller
Jay Rosehill - Christian Hanson - Mike Brown
Ryan Hamilton - Mike Zigomanis - Joey Crabb