Franson & Connolly In, MacArthur & Grabovski Out


Photo: Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

After a 2010-11 season in which their five consistent top six forwards – Phil Kessel, Tyler Bozak, Mikhail Grabovski, Nikolai Kulemin, and Clarke MacArthur – missed zero man games due to injury, you knew lady luck wouldn’t be so friendly to the Leafs‘ key offensive contributors in 2011-12. The off-season addition of Tim Connolly alone guaranteed as much. Connolly returns tonight from his second injury in six weeks, but the Leafs will be without a third of their regular top six scoring cast as Mikhail Grabovski and Clarke MacArthur are sidelined. Grabovski is out at least two weeks with what looked to be a banged up knee, while we should know more about MacArthur’s condition after he goes through a few more tests today.

The Leafs‘ top six is expected to shape up like so: Lupul – Bozak – Kessel; Kulemin – Connolly – Frattin. This leaves a third unit comprised of some combination of Lombardi, Steckel and Crabb. As opposed to inserting Rosehill or Orr (Orr is actually sick anyways) on unit four, James Mirtle expects the Leafs to go with seven defencemen in order to give Cody Franson a shot against his former team in the Nashville Predators. None of the Leafs‘ top six blueliners have fallen to injury or played their way out of the lineup yet, so to accommodate Franson’s insertion Jake Gardiner could be taking even strength shifts up front on the wing a la Ian White. Gardiner played forward until his final year at Minnetonka High School and obviously has offensive skill, so it should make for an interesting experiment.

As for Franson, you wonder what the implications could be if he doesn’t fare well against his former team tonight. Burke is adamant that Franson is still a part of the plans in Leafland, and that moving him would almost certainly guarantee an injury on the backend shortly thereafter, but surely Burke will start entertaining the trade offers he’s receiving a little more seriously if the struggles continue. The season-ending injury to Marlies defenceman Matt Lashoff does not help solidify the defensive depth behind Franson, but the Leafs may be in a better, more secure position to move him once Keith Aulie gets back to full health.

I shouldn’t write off Franson so early, but he certainly looked to be struggling to adjust to a new, less sheltered system – one that puts a lot more pressure on its defencemen than he was perhaps used to in Nashville – in his four appearances so far, to the tune of a -5 plus/minus rating. Still, Burke isn’t ready yet to give up on the idea of Franson playing a bigger role down the road, and Franson for his part has been patient and has said the right things after an inauspicious start in that regard. Let’s hope a chance to get some momentum going against his former team – the club that dealt him for Lebda (bound to leave a bad taste in anyone’s mouth) – is just what the doctor ordered.

Onto the links:

James Mirtle on the new look lineup for tonight.

Brian Burke’s Fan590 interview, where he discusses much of what I talked about above.

Over at PPP, Draglikepull tracked the Leafs’ possession numbers against the Coyotes.

Brian Burke donated a horse to the Toronto Police Mounted unit, named after the late Brendan Burke (whose nickname was “Moose”). reports: “Patrick Burke told us that gay rights have also been named a “priority” by the Toronto Police Department, and they want to use ‘Moose’ to show support and inclusion.”

The Leafs Nation: Cap Hit of Injured Players: Leafs Not So Lucky This Year. JP Nikota shows the Leafs are up from 7th lowest last season to 7th highest this year in the rankings.

The Punk Test: The Big Bad Bruins run amok. A great piece from Steve Dangle on the message the Bruins are sending to the rest of the league. Many have criticized the Sabres’ lack of response to the Miller incident, but they’re not the first, and probably not the last, to back down from the league’s bully.

Justin Bourne follows up over at The Score with a look at the Bruins’ toughness up and down the lineup.