TORONTO - The Maple Leafs jammed eight defencemen on the plane to Edmonton on Monday, but something will have to give by the time their road trip ends in Vancouver.
On one hand, this is what coach Ron Wilson and general manager Brian Burke envisioned in training camp, an intense battle for six jobs that will benefit the whole team in the end. But in the first 29 games, too many candidates made it too easy for the coach to stroke a pen through their names on the lineup sheet.
But a crowd began to form when captain Dion Phaneuf came back two games ago from a leg injury and bumped up against rookie Keith Aulie, while Mike Komisarek is about to return from a hand injury.
Suddenly, Tomas Kaberle is piling up the points, scoring his first goal of the year Saturday, while Francois Beauchemin led the defence in blocks and hits against Montreal. Luke Schenn has played well all season. Carl Gunnarsson and Brett Lebda are also in the picture and if a workable mix is found before Komisarek comes back, then Wilson will have a tough call.
“You have to earn your ice time,” Wilson warned.
“If you have a bad period, you might find yourself with reduced ice time in the second or third. It’s very competitive and I prefer to have it that way. (Having players think) ‘I’m going to play no matter what’, is not the way a coach wants to operate.”
Komisarek was looking forward to the three-game Western trip for a couple of reasons, getting back in the lineup and the chance to settle himself, away from what has become a home-ice pressure cooker. He’s made a lot of gaffes, to the delight of critics of his $4.5-million US annual salary. Pre-game announcements of his name as a healthy scratch has prompted some audible cheers at the ACC.
“We’ve given the fans some reason and ammunition to get on us,” Komisarek said. “But you can’t blame them. If we play better, bring our best foot forward with more intensity and have better games at home, they’ll get behind us, just like they let us know when things aren’t going well.”
Komisarek damaged his hand in a fight in Pittsburgh on Wednesday and has had trouble gripping his stick.
“I’m looking to get back in the lineup to get healthy and get my game where it needs to be,” he said. “You want to play every game. It’s up to the trainers and the doctors, but as a player, you don’t like missing practices or games. If not tomorrow, (he’ll be ready) definitely by Thursday.”
Gunnarsson, whose playing time was limited late in the Montreal game, is crossing his fingers.
“(Komisarek’s return) won’t make it easier on me,” he agreed. “But it’s the way it should be.
“I had ups and downs on Saturday. The whole team stopped skating in the second period and I only played a couple of shifts in the third, but I killed a penalty with Luke. We’ve had Keith coming up a couple of games now and it means you have to go hard in practice. That’s good for everyone.”
In Calgary, you can bet Wilson will put ex-Flame Aulie into the game as part of the grand reunion of those players involved in the big swap between the team almost 11 months ago. Winger Fredrik Sjostrom will be going ‘home’, while ex-Leafs Matt Stajan and Niklas Hagman will be stoked.
“I’m looking forward to the whole trip,” insisted Phaneuf, who was born in Edmonton and expected to hook up with friends and family there on Monday night.
“I played a lot of games in that (Rexall Place) building.
“I don’t know what the reaction will be (in Calgary). I didn’t asked to be moved. I have no hard feelings. Both buildings will be lively and there will be a good atmosphere in Vancouver, too.”