Leafs give it the old college try

LANCE HORNBY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 7:41 PM ET

TORONTO - The Maple Leafs shouldn’t bother with the national anthems on Thursday, rather play the college fight songs of the Badgers and Fighting Sioux.

They will be putting two NCAA grads into the starting lineup against the Montreal Canadiens, defenceman Jake Gardiner and winger Matt Frattin, and they aren’t hiding them, either. In Frattin’s case, he’s getting some meaningful ice with two-thirds of the Leafs’ most effective line, Nikolai Kulemin and Mikhail Grabovski. The sniper from North Dakota will be the short-term replacement for the suspended Clarke MacArthur.

Gardiner is the electric defenceman from Wisconsin, who might have enough offensive magic to let the Leafs live with the risk factor for a while.

“It’s a multi-level challenge for them,” said assistant coach Greg Cronin, who departed the Northeastern program to join the Leafs this year. “The first is the social challenge (of being college kids). When I was in the NHL 13 years ago, it was a bit of a dog-eat-dog world and now there’s more acceptance.

But they still have gone from being the superstars in their locker rooms to just a guy trying to make the team. Psychologically, that’s difficult.

“The second is their athletic level. Both have proven themselves in different snap shots. The challenge now is to sustain whatever visibility they’ve create. A lot of guys get called up from the minors and kind of fade into the herd, usually back in the AHL. These two’s ability to stick is now based on their ability to compete every shift. We look for that from everyone, but they’ll have a bit more of a challenge.

“When you step on the ice, it’s a man’s world and you can’t fake it. Jake has had a little bit more of a buzz around him, where Matt’s had some shifts where he’s good and then fades into the game a bit. But they’re both quiet, which is a nice way to break into the NHL. They let their actions do the talking.”

Senior advisor Cliff Fletcher, one of the first general managers to tap the NCAA market in the 1980s while with Calgary, says four years of school often means such players are more mature for what awaits them in the NHL.

“You play against more physically developed players in school because they’re older. Half the battle when you come out of junior is the size and strength of players you now have to cope with.

“It also depends on what league you come from in the NCAA. Gardiner and Frattin come from the Western Collegiate Hockey Association, the most competitive in college hockey. The WCHA seem to play in more games and are more competitive. Look at North Dakota, Wisconsin, Denver, where we got Tyler Bozak, from Colorado College ... They’re all good programs.

“Generally speaking the top prospects still come from junior hockey. The NCAA route definitely helps players who are late bloomers after age 18 or 19. But whether Gardiner stayed in school or came north to play junior, he was a first rounder with potential to be an NHLer.”


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