TORONTO - Luke Schenn would love it if new Maple Leafs teammate Matthew Lombardi tried to run him at practice.
Such a bold gesture would quickly end the trepidation at training camp regarding how much body contact Lombardi is ready for as his recovery from a severe concussion enters it’s final stage.
“You definitely don’t want to be the first guy to test things out,” Schenn said after the first outing that Lombardi was green-lighted for hits. “You’re looking out for him. He’s been cleared, but at the same time, he’s going to ease into it.
“I would feel more comfortable if he came into the corner and tried to rock me. I wouldn’t say I’d ease up on him, but you are definitely aware of who you’re out there against.”
Lombardi, wearing a gray sweater with fellow injured forward Mike Brown for easier ID, was jostling with fellow centre Mikhail Grabovski in one of Monday’s first drills at the MasterCard Centre. The latter followed him down the ice playfully whacking at him.
Lombardi was encouraged by the incidental contact that occurred during 5-on-5 work last week, with the next step a few more days of light rumbling. The milestone is a possible appearance in one of this weekend’s final two exhibition games against Detroit.
Having not played in almost 11 months since he tumbled into the boards two games into the season with Nashville, overall game fitness is his other concern. So he’s not about to guarantee suiting up this week or by the Oct. 6 season opener.
“With increasing the intensity and the contact coming, you definitely have to take it day by day,” Lombardi cautioned. “I’ve been thinking about (a game) for a long time. Things have progressed pretty quickly the past few weeks. I’m getting excited and it’s obviously in the back of my mind when I go home. I’m looking forward to helping this team take the next step.”
As Lombardi gets closer, coach Ron Wilson is thinking out loud about where he’ll fit in best, his natural centre position or perhaps left wing. But don’t expect the team to push its luck with Lombardi’s remarkably fast recovery. When they acquired him, defenceman Cody Franson and their cumbersome contracts from the cash-conscious Predators, Lombardi was not expected to start the 2011-12 season.
“Conditioning is going well,” Lombardi agreed. “Without forcing hits, you get bumped along the way and that kind of gives you a bit of confidence. You get that first hit and keep going from there. Obviously my first game will be a test.
“Everyone has been supportive here, no one is pushing me. The most recurring good piece of advice I’ve been getting is not to go too quickly, don’t feel too pressured. And here I am (on the verge of returning).”
Wilson said Lombardi might be best suited to return as a fourth liner, on centre or left wing, and then move up the chain.
“It has been 11 months and I’d think he’s champing at the bit right now,” the coach said.
“(On fourth line) he can get some games and some hits in. You don’t throw in a guy who is used to playing 18 or 19 minutes, who hasn’t played in nearly a year. We’ll find a spot for him somewhere.”
Lombardi isn’t picky, but the third and fourth liners are getting antsy wondering which of them he might supplant. Third-line centre Tyler Bozak and winger Nazem Kadri were just getting comfortable with Colby Armstrong on the third line, while Philippe Dupuis and Jay Rosehill would be affected if both Lombardi and Mike Brown groin) return next week to the fourth group.
“I just want to play, I have no idea where anyone is going to be,” Bozak said. “It’s whatever makes our lineup best and we’re going to find out when the time comes.
“Our line has been feeling pretty good together, both with Nazem and when Matt Frattin went in for a game. I’m getting chemistry with both guys and maybe we’ll get another couple of exhibition games to get going.”
Schenn assures that the wait for Lombardi will be well worth it. They were Team Canada cohorts at the 2009 world championships after Lombardi had one of his three 40-point NHL seasons.
“He’s an unbelievable player,” Schenn said. “The No. 1 thing that everybody will be amazed by is his skating and his speed. He’s one of the top fastest guys in the league and one of those under-the-radar guys who puts up points and is good at both ends of the ice.
“He’s a bit of an underdog coming in, but people will be surprised by him, that’s for sure.”