Leafs' Gardiner sticking around

Jake Gardiner during a Leafs scrimmage. - Ernest Doroszuk /QMI Agency

Jake Gardiner during a Leafs scrimmage. - Ernest Doroszuk /QMI Agency

STEVE BUFFERY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 4:07 PM ET

The Maple Leafs banished 14 players to the old agricultural barn on Princes’ Blvd., on Sunday and surprises were anything but aplenty.

Rookie defenceman Jake Gardiner has been the biggest and most pleasant surprise at camp and he made the cut — for now — as the Leafs reduced their roster to 29 players on Sunday with three pre-season games remaining.

“We smile,” said Dave Poulin, the Leafs’ VP of hockey operations, when asked what the team will do about the current log-jam on defence, brought on partially by the fine play of Gardiner, acquired with Joffrye Lupul in the Francois Beauchemin deal.

‘High level’

“It’s great when there is someone who maybe you didn’t have slotted in (to make the big club). We all knew what the talent was, but he’s carried the talent at a pretty high level. But we’ll figure it out. It will figure itself out. We didn’t tell James Reimer that he’s the No. 1 goalie (last season). He played his way to the No. 1 position.”

The Leafs have nine defenceman still on the roster and, as much as GM Brian Burke would probably like to see a rookie such as Gardiner sent down to the farm for seasoning, the 21-year-old has made it difficult for the team to demote him.

There is a chance the Leafs could carry nine blue-liners heading into the season. Or, Mike Komisarek might be the odd man out, though the veteran has a limited no-trade clause and Burke doesn’t seem eager to move him.

The Leafs defence is one of the best young staffs in the league, with the likes of Dion Phaneuf, Luke Schenn, Cody Franson, Keith Aulie, Carl Gunnarsson, Matt Lashoff and Gardiner. Only Komisarek and John-Michael Liles could be considered grizzled veterans. So the logjam is a good problem to have.

Of the 14 players assigned to the Marlies on Sunday, only rookie forward Joe Colborne was considered a young player who realistically might have stuck around with the Leafs a while longer. But his demotion wasn’t totally unexpected. Colborne, whom the Leafs acquired in the Tomas Kaberle trade with Boston last February, played four pre-season games with one goal and was a minus-4. And while he’s looked good at times and is highly thought-of within the organization, his play has been inconsistent.

Poulin says the Leafs have to be down to 23 players by the club’s regular season opener on Oct. 6 against the Montreal Canadiens, so there are more cuts on the way.

It’s generally thought that there’s one spot on the third line open and the battle is on for it between Nazem Kadri and Matt Frattin.

Frattin and Kadri have both played well, at times, during the pre-season. But this is Kadri’s third camp with the Leafs and, at this point, it appears he has the upper hand to stick. And while it’s not make-or-break time yet for the club’s first round pick in 2009, management does expect the crafty Kadri to step to the forefront this season, after playing the bulk of last season with the Marlies.

“I don’t think he’s getting beaten down at all.” said Poulin, after a reporter suggested that Kadri gets unfairly criticized. “He’s had a good camp (but) it’s about as we get better as a hockey team, the bar keeps getting higher and higher. It’s not good enough just to make the team. You have to make the team and you have to contribute. I think his maturity level will handle that. I’m fully confident he sees the big picture. He wants to be an NHL player at a high level.”

Of the 14 players assigned to the Marlies on Sunday, four were placed on waivers, Jeff Finger, Mike Zigomanis, Luca Caputi and Ryan Hamilton.

Another young player who remains with the Leafs as a result of a surprisingly strong camp is goaltender Ben Scrivens, who has played as well as James Reimer and Jonas Gustavsson, though he’s also earmarked to star the year with the Marlies. Still, like Gardiner, Scrivens’ play has opened some eyes.

“It’s very simple. Goalies are little more quantifiable than players are. They really are. A goalie it’s pretty clear-cut. And he’s played very well. He’s stopped the puck,” said Poulin.

With the roster down to a manageable size, the Leafs coaching staff now has an opportunity to work on some key elements of the game, such as the power-play and penalty-kill.

“This will be a real nice time for the team to jell,” said Poulin.

LEAFS CUTS

Forwards Luca Caputi, Joe Colborne, Jerry D’Amigo, Ryan Hamilton, Marcel Mueller, Kenny Ryan, Greg Scott and Mike Zigomanis. Defencemen Jesse Blacker, Jeff Finger, Simon Gysbers, Korbinian Holzer, Juraj Mikus. Goaltender Mark Owuya.


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