TORONTO– When the Leafs host their annual rookie tournament in early September, it will give their prospects one more chance to show if they deserve a spot in NHL training camp this year or, even more optimistically, with the Toronto Maple Leafs. It also gives GM Brian Burke and his staff a momentary look at where much of his young talent lay in terms of their level of competition and where they should play next season.
Of the 28 players who participated in last year’s rookie tournament, 21 showed enough skill to earn themselves a spot with the Leafs at training camp. Of those 21, not one skater made the Leafs opening night roster. Instead, the majority were assigned to the Toronto Marlies, Reading Royals or sent back to junior. Even though no rookies earned a position with the Leafs out of camp, unlike Luke Schenn in 2008, five did see a call up at some point during the season. Those five were Nazem Kadri, Keith Aulie, Marcel Mueller, Korbinian Holzer and Ben Scrivens.
This year 25 hopefuls will take part in three days worth of game day practises followed by evening exhibition games against rookies from the Chicago Blackhawks, Pittsburgh Penguins and Ottawa Senators.
The rookie roster will be made up of 15 forwards, 8 defensemen and 2 goalies. Most are draft picks from the past two seasons but camp will also include invitees. 17 of those players spent last season with Canadian Hockey League teams while four are coming from the NCAA. Surprisingly, only two of the Leafs rookies are from Europe; both being from Sweden.
Taking a look at the names on the list, there is much talent that one day will see time in the NHL, whether it be with Toronto or somewhere else.
Forwards Sam Carrick, Andrew Crescenzi, Jerry D’Amigo, Jamie Devane, Greg McKegg, Josh Nicholls, Sondre Olden, Brad Ross and Kenny Ryan are all Leafs choices from previous drafts who will return this season after participating in last year’s rookie tournament.
Crescenzi and McKegg each spent some time with the Marlies at the end of last year however an agreement between the American Hockey League and Canadian Hockey League limits them from joining the Marlies due to age. The same rule applies to Carrick, Nicholls and Ross. It is likely each of them will play one more year of junior before turning pro.
Olden, a native of Norway, has been developing his craft over in Sweden since being drafted in 2010. However, this off-season he committed to the Erie Otters of the Ontario Hockey League and will be playing hockey in North America this year.
D’Amigo is certain to have a spot on the Marlies this year. The product of Binghamton, NY started last year with the club and, even though he was inconsistent which lead to a demotion, he came back at the end of the year and showed that the AHL is where he should be next season.
Devane and Ryan will both be turning pro, it’s just unclear where they fit into the system. They are not NHL ready but should make Leafs training camp after doing so last year as well. Based on the line up coach Dallas Eakins has in his mind, plus depending how well camp goes this year, both have a shot with the Marlies; but starting in the East Coast Hockey League with the Reading Royals has more potential.
The only defensemen returning to this year’s tournament are Jesse Blacker and Dave Cowan.
Blacker just completed his fourth year of junior and will start the season with the Marlies. Originally drafted in 2009, the offensively gifted D man has already become a top prospect in the Leafs system and has been on watch for much of the last two seasons.
Cowan on the other hand is hoping to get his look this season after missing all of the 2010/11 season with an injury. After four years of college hockey, Cowan signed last season to play with Reading and was invited to the rookie tournament. Unfortunately, he dislocated his shoulder on a hit into the end boards and was shelved for the season. At 6’4”, the Calgary native has already signed on to play this year with the Royals.
2011 draft selections Stuart Percy, Josh Leivo, David Broll and Garret Sparks will be participating for the first time. The chances that any of these four players make the Leafs at this point in time are slim so it’s likely all of them will be returned to their junior clubs for the upcoming season. Missing from camp are the five other 2011 draft picks including the Leafs first selection Tyler Biggs. Biggs, along with Tony Cameranesi, Dennis Robertson and Max Everson are committed to NCAA programs and have gone down south to start school. Tom Nilsson, the only European taken in this year’s draft by Toronto, will stay in Sweden another season as he looks to develop in the Swedish Elite League.
Other skater’s taking part in this year’s tournament for the first time are Tyler Brenner, Matt Frattin, Mitchell Heard, Kyle Neuber, Garrett Clarke, Jake Gardiner, Mike Schwindt, Matt Stanisz, Denny Urban and Mark Owuya.
Frattin perhaps is the most recognizable of the group after suiting up with the Leafs for the final game of last season. Realistically, he has the most potential out of any of the prospects to make the Leafs this year; however it is still believable to think he will start with the Marlies. Burke has always insisted on player’s experiencing AHL hockey as part of their development especially if there is no need to rush him into the league. Plus the right side of the ice is set with Phil Kessel, Nikolai Kulemin, Colby Armstrong, Colton Orr and Mike Brown interchanging through the four lines.
Brenner and Gardiner will both be big parts of this season’s Marlies squad after showing in July’s prospects camp that they can compete with the best of their class.
Both graduates of the college system, they joined the Marlies late last season and never looked out of place. Brenner, from Linwood, Ontario, scored 26 goals his final season at RPI before putting up six points in eight games with Toronto. Gardiner, from Deephaven, MN, skates with ease and will be a power-play quarterback; something the Marlies needed desperately last season. Along with Blacker, the product of Wisconsin should make break outs from their own zone easier on the forwards.
Owuya was signed in June and saw his first bit of ice time in North America at this year’s prospects camp. Coming in from Sweden, the 24 year old stated he would indeed be playing this year in North America but because Jussi Rynnas and Ben Scrivens are ahead of him on the depth chart, he will likely start in Reading; unless loaned elsewhere.
Heard, Neuber, Clarke, Schwindt, Stanisz and Urban are invitees given an opportunity to show what they have to offer and maybe secure themselves some sort of pro contract.
Heard broke out at this year’s prospects camp leading all scorers with four goals in three exhibition games. He was looked over in both the NHL and OHL draft but this past season put up 48 points in 66 games; showing he has some talent. He recently signed an amateur try-out contract and even if the Leafs choose to keep him, he will likely do another year with the Plymouth Whalers.
Neuber is the only one of the bunch to have ever been drafted when the Columbus Blue Jackets took him 197th overall in 2009. Scoring 188 penalty minutes in his final season of junior, the enforcer from London, Ontario went on and played right-wing for 15 games last season with the AHL’s Springfield Falcons. If he fails to sign any sort of contract, he will be considered an unrestricted free agent.
Clarke, hailing from Windsor, NS, was tossed around the QMJHL last season; playing for three separate clubs. He scored 29 points and had 136 penalty minutes as a blue liner. He too has another year at junior level where he can work on both his mental game and offensive rushing abilities.
Schwindt had spent the last three seasons in the OHL with Niagara Ice Dogs before being traded this off-season to the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds. A stay at home defenseman who works to defend his own goal, he will go back to junior.
Stanisz is another OHL’er and, as an over-ager, played alongside Blacker with the Owen Sound Attack. 43 points in 61 games helped his team win the OHL championship and his plus 25 showed he could handle his own end of the rink too. A truly great rookie tournament could get him through to training camp however where he plays next season is unknown.
Urban finished last season with Reading after playing four years with Cowan at Robert Morris University. He left the school as its highest scoring defenseman of all-time with 121 points in 136 games. Serving as an alternate captain for two seasons, Urban has maturity and enough offensive skill to play pro somewhere this season. It won’t be the Marlies; Royals at best if it’s within the Leafs organization.
The truth is that this year’s rookie tournament doesn’t have that one hyped player who has all the pressure on him to make the big club. Unlike Kadri, who went through it last season, this year’s prospects will be allowed to go out and focus solely on the ice. That doesn’t mean though that there is limited talent. In fact, this year’s tournament has a large amount of talent; talent not worth rushing.
This year’s group of rookies will offer the Marlies, as well as the rest of the development levels, a solid core that will show its impact at the NHL level two to three seasons from now.
Marlies coach Dallas Eakins should be excited. He has another solid year of development coming his way.
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