Stakes high with bumps ahead

Play­ers on the bub­ble claw for ice-time scraps as Hy­man nears re­turn

The Peterborough Examiner - - SPORTS - KEVIN MCGRAN

There is a cer­tain com­fort an NHL coach gets when there’s stiff com­pe­ti­tion for lineup spots.

But it is not joy, ac­cord­ing to Leafs coach Mike Bab­cock.

“You enjoy every­thing ex­cept telling the guy he’s not play­ing,” Bab­cock said. “You want ev­ery­one to be their best play­ing, and be­ing happy. The re­al­ity is on re­ally good teams, though, that doesn’t hap­pen all the time.”

The Leafs are al­ready in that sit­u­a­tion, with three healthy play­ers scratched ev­ery night. Ja­son Spezza, Dmytro Ti­mashov and Martin Mar­incin didn’t play in Tues­day’s win over Los An­ge­les de­spite per­form­ing well in Satur­day’s vic­tory over Philadel­phia. The coach said they had done noth­ing wrong, but Nic Pe­tan got a rare start and Trevor Moore played on the fourth line.

The stakes are likely to be even higher when Zach Hy­man re­turns to the lineup. Un­less there’s an in­jury or two be­tween now and the for­ward’s re­turn from knee surgery — which could hap­pen in the next week — some play­ers will have to be re­moved from the ros­ter en­tirely. Three Leafs earn­ing around $750,000 (U.S.) will have to waived and sent to the Mar­lies or traded to make room for Hy­man’s $2.25-mil­lion cap hit.

“No­body has said any­thing to me,” Spezza said. “I as­sume I’m here help­ing the group. And I don’t know if you’ve heard things that I haven’t heard, but for me, I’m try­ing to build and help this group out.”

Who stays? Who goes? Of the Leafs who have been healthy scratches, Pe­tan has missed 11 games, Mar­incin nine, Spezza seven, Ti­mashov has missed four, Nick Shore three, Justin Holl two. Moore hasn’t missed any, but hasn’t nailed down a line.

How does the coach choose?

“It’s all about the team, and what I mean by that (is): Do you do some­thing that can help the team win?” Bab­cock said. “Do you have a skill set? In the Na­tional Hockey League your depth guys have to have skill sets that can (help). Are you a power-play guy? A penalty kill guy? A heavy guy? What do you do? So that’s what we’re try­ing to fig­ure out as we get to know the group.”

Of the play­ers who have been scratched, Shore has en­deared him­self to the coach the most.

He wins face­offs and cen­tres a fourth line that Bab­cock has bragged about.

“Ev­ery­body has a role on this team,” Shore said. “And when you’re out on the ice, you’ve got to do your part. There’s a lot of com­pe­ti­tion, so it keeps ev­ery­body mo­ti­vated.”

Pe­tan has had a puz­zling ex­is­tence as a Maple Leaf. He was sent to the AHL’s Mar­lies over the week­end and had five points over two games, then was re­called in time to play on the top line Tues­day. On Wed­nes­day, he was prac­tis­ing as if he would be a scratch on Thurs­day night, when the Golden Knights visit. What does he make of it all?

“In the dark as you are,” Pe­tan said. “It’s been like that since day one, so play where you’re told, I guess, and try and stay pos­i­tive at all times.”

Spezza has the big­gest cheer­ing sec­tion, be­cause he’s from Toronto and for all that he’s achieved in 17 years in the league. The 36-year-old scored his first goal as a Maple Leaf on Satur­day.

“When the coach puts you in, you play, and you don’t let your days you don’t play af­fect the days that you do,” Spezza said. “You have to be strong-willed.

“Over the course of my ca­reer, if any­body’s ever asked me ad­vice on what to do (when you’re not in the lineup) I’d tell them to go to work and to keep work­ing on your game, and to try to stay sharp. Now I have an op­por­tu­nity to prac­tice what I preached over the year. It’s im­por­tant for me to stay ready and to be sharp when I do get in.”

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