Leafs go back to college

LANCE HORNBY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 9:04 AM ET

In listing all the hometown players he admired as a Torontonian, Brayden Irwin hit the right notes singling out Mats Sundin, Doug Gilmour and Gary Roberts.

But his unabashed favourite, rookie Viktor Stalberg, might surprise a lot of people, until they realize the two were roomates/teammates for three years on the University of Vermont Catamounts -- and could have a future on the same line here.

Irwin is to report to the Air Canada Centre on Tuesday morning and plans are to keep him here the remaining six games. Coach Ron Wilson will discuss any chance of an Irwin-Stalberg reunion after the morning skate.

"It's great to know someone where you're going to a new team," Irwin said Monday at his Toronto home, where his family celebrated the two-year entry-level contract the free agent officially signed. "But I'll play anywhere they want me."

Irwin perfectly suits general manager Brian Burke's new-age Leaf prototype, a 6-foot-5 centre, 215 pounds and most notably, 72 penalty minutes in his last year at Vermont. Size down the middle is a concern for the Leafs, the scoring talents of Tyler Bozak and Mikhail Grabovski notwithstanding. Next year, first-round pick Nazem Kadri will make a bid to join the team and while he and Bozak are committing to detailed off-ice conditioning programs, they're barely six feet.

The undrafted Irwin was not well known to National Hockey League scouts before 2009-10 when he made a commitment to combine his skill, large frame and mental approach for a team-high 15 goals and 19 assists.

Burke has likened the discovery of late-blooming NCAA talent to "finding a wallet" and though most NHL powerhouses aren't relying on college kids as much as the Leafs, Bozak, Stalberg and Christian Hanson have taken advantage of the regular ice time the rebuilding Leafs have provided.

When perusing Irwin's Hockey East log book, it's just as important from Burke's perspective that he compiled so many PIMs this season as part of a renewed commitment to making it as a pro.

"Viktor might have had a hand in that," said Vermont coach Kevin Sneddon, "telling Brayden to make every shift count, to go over the boards and make something happen.

"At times they played together and had some great chemistry. Brayden has always had a Stalberg around (Viktor's younger brother Sebastien had a great freshman year as the other joined the Leafs) and Brayden took on more responsibility and leadership this year."

Sneddon, however, said Irwin's penalty total did not reflect any hot-headed tendencies.

"Being 6-foot-5, that's huge at this level, but more stuff is called here by the officials. He was just 180 pounds and underdeveloped when he got here, but I think he has learned how to finish his check. He has got good hands, a good release, he's good down low and on faceoffs. He was motivated this year, he put a lot of pressure on himself to get past his inconsistent play."

The former St. Mike's Buzzer will have the same challenges all Toronto-born Leafs encounter.

"This is a great opportunity for me," said Irwin, whose grandfather played for the U of T Blues, while father Grant was at Western Ontario. "I look forward to working hard every day for this team."

Sneddon, who is from Burlington and is the son of former NHL goalie Bob Sneddon, said Brayden knows the potential pitfalls of playing under the hometown microscope.

"We talked about the media and everything, but he chose to look at the positives," Sneddon said. "What better way to be successful than try it in Toronto?"

LANCE.HORNBY@SUNMEDIA.CA


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