TORONTO – Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Ron Wilson is looking to spark his team after its latest moribund effort and hopes shifting John Mitchell to the first line does the trick.
The rookie centre will move up from the fourth unit to skate between towering wingers Nik Antropov and Alexei Ponikarovsky when the Ottawa Senators visit Saturday night (7 p.m. ET).
With Matt Stajan set to miss his fourth straight game due to a freak eye injury, Wilson is still looking for the right replacement part to get his most productive line going again. Shifting Antropov from the wing to centre and promoting Lee Stempniak wasn’t particularly effective, and after a dismal team-wide performance in Thursday’s 4-1 loss to the Buffalo Sabres, Wilson decided to shake things up.
“He’s got to be ready to go – don’t test the water, dive in the deep end and away you go, start paddling,” Wilson said of Mitchell after practice Friday. “I think he understands that a bit better and here’s an opportunity for him to play with two gifted people and contribute some offence for us.”
Mitchell ended a 21-game goal drought Thursday and has been a solid contributor in a limited role so far this season, with three goals and seven assists in 33 games. His minus-10 rating isn’t pretty, but his focus has been on improving the defensive part of his game and killing penalties, not scoring goals.
A first-liner for the Toronto Marlies in the AHL last season, the change in roles has required some adjustment, one that the 23-year-old is happy to make.
“I’m not a Sidney Crosby or someone that can kind of just walk in and be given first line, second line treatment,” he said. “I spent three years in the minors so obviously I had to work to get here and I’m going to have to work to climb up in the lines. …
“It’s an opportunity for me to hopefully show some of the skills that I have and utilize those two guys that are out there.”
Antropov and Ponikarovsky haven’t been nearly as effective in Stajan’s absence as they’ve been with him, generating just one assist in the first three games their centre has missed.
Asked if they missed Stajan, Antropov replied: “Of course. When you get chemistry with somebody, you just go out there and play, you know exactly where they’re going to be or what he’s going to do. When a new guy comes in, he kind of plays half-a-step back, just trying to be on the defensive side more than the offence.”
Added Ponikarovsky: “(Mitchell) has got speed, he’s got skill and he can score. We’ll adjust to whatever he’s going to bring in.”
Mitchell’s promotion won’t be the only change.
Vesa Toskala will be back in goal after back-to-back starts for Curtis Joseph provided him with a short break. He had allowed 14 goals in his three previous starts, all losses.
“If I would decide I would play all 82 games but sometimes it’s good (to take a break),” said Toskala. “You can have some quality practice … sometimes it’s a little mental break, too.”
The Senators (13-17-5) could prove to be the right tonic for what ails the Maple Leafs (15-17-6).
While they head into this latest instalment of the Battle of Ontario with just one win in their last five games, the road-weary Sens come in with just three wins in their past 11 outings.
One of those victories came Tuesday night in Edmonton, ending a 12-game road winless streak, improving them to 1-3 on their current eight-game swing. They don’t play at home again until Jan. 10 versus the New York Rangers.
“We have to get on them early,” said Wilson. “Although they won the last game, they’ve struggled on (the road trip) and it’s going to be up to us to apply some heat early, and if they feel a little good about themselves, take that away from them early in the game.”
A big night from Toskala would help, although Wilson believes his team needs to improve in all facets of the game.
“We need a spark from our goaltending to say the least and they have to be a little more consistent than they have been, but that’s in general for everybody,” he said. “We’ve got to do a better job defensively, get some timely saves, and for us, our offence comes in generating a lot of volume on shots on goal and creating scrambly situations.”
Notes: The Maple Leafs re-assigned Jiri Tlusty to the Marlies after practice Friday, after he played in the loss to Buffalo. The team didn’t announce a corresponding move, although the team’s website added defenceman Anton Stralman to the roster. … Forwards Stajan, Jeremy Williams (shoulder) and Andre Deveaux (foot), plus defencemen Luke Schenn (knee) and Mike Van Ryn (concussion) all remain day-to-day. Schenn practised with contact Friday and Wilson expects him to play Tuesday against Florida. … Saturday will be Canadian Forces Appreciation Night at the Air Canada Centre. Gen. Walter Natynczyk, chief of the defence staff, will handle the ceremonial faceoff. He’ll be accompanied by his two sons and daughter, who also serve in the military.