TORONTO - Brian Burke claims some Maple Leafs players are on a very short leash. Or, as he refers to it, a “chihuahua leash.”
Count John Mitchell as being one of those.
Mitchell was outplayed at training camp by fellow forwards Luca Caputi and Christian Hanson. Yet, when the team announced which players were ticketed for the American Hockey League Marlies Monday, it was Caputi and Hanson who were headed to the farm, not Mitchell.
In this particular case, Mitchell’s previous service with the parent club went into the team’s decision.
“He got a call from the governor on this one,” Burke said. “He got a reprieve. He’s going to get a chance to show us what he can do.
“He hasn’t earned that this time around, but he earned it with his past contributions.”
Burke said the choice came down to “a balancing act.”
“You want to be fair to the players involved,” he said. “There’s a ‘body-of-work’ concept that we employ, too.
“I don’t think Mitchell has played as well has he can or should have. But we’ve seen what Mitchell can do for a couple of years.
Unlike Hanson, Caputi and Nazem Kadri, Mitchell would have had to clear waivers in order to report to the Marlies and was a likely candidate to be snapped up by another team.
As well, Burke said he did not want Hanson and Caputi playing six minutes a night, a scenario that may have very well played itself out had they remained with the parent club.
“Sometimes, if you’re a new guy, you’ve got to be better than the incumbent,” Burke said. “If you go the way training camp went, I think Caputi and Hanson could both make a real good argument that this isn’t a fair result.”
When Burke suggests some players may have received a reprieve, he might very well have been referring to defenceman Jeff Finger.
With speculation running rampant for weeks that Finger and his annual $3.5-million US contract might be shipped to the minors in order to create cap space, his name was not among the names listed for demotion to the Toronto Marlies Monday.
That could still change, of course. But for the time being it appears the veteran has avoided the axe.
Burke said he has overheard players talking about avoiding another disastrous start like the one the team endured a year ago, a tailspin in which his Leafs stumbled out of the gates winning just one of its first 13 games.
“You just can’t do that because it takes too much energy to make it up,” he said. “We learned that the hard way a year ago.
“At one point — I think it was in December — we were within three points of a playoff spot. But the efforts made to climb out of the hole we had put ourselves in ended up taking a toll.
“You just can’t put yourself in a position like that.”
The Montreal Canadiens could get a boost on the blue line against the Leafs for Thursday’s season opener at the Air Canada Centre with the potential return of defenceman Roman Hamrlik, who practised with his teammates for the first time Monday since spraining his knee during an off-season workout.
The Canadiens were also buoyed by the participation of injured defenceman Andrei Markov, who underwent knee surgery in May. Markov would not predict when he might return.