Kids are always welcome at the Air Canada Centre, except on the ice with the Maple Leafs.
Cracking another veteran-laden Pat Quinn team remains a challenge for prospects in the Leafs system, even though this year's list of training camp hopefuls is among the most promising in years. The youngsters' choices are clear: Either burn their post-1980 birth certificates, apply fake whiskers or just knock the coaching staff's socks off when camp begins on Monday.
"We have kids this year that we want to watch closely," Quinn said yesterday. "I'm getting good reports from the rookie camp on Alex Steen and the big Swedish kid (6-foot-3, 209-pound defenceman Staffan Kronvall).
"But it's a fact that guaranteed contracts set up the roster you're going to have. If (kids) do make it, the decision becomes whether you eat one of those big contracts."
In addition to Steen and Kronvall -- their first and last picks in the 2002 draft -- returning forwards Matt Stajan and Kyle Wellwood and defenceman Carlo Colaiacovo will be vying for attention next week. Quinn already has ruminated about playing Steen with countryman Mats Sundin next week.
But Stajan and Wellwood likely will have to make it on the wing, where the arrival of Mariusz Czerkawski, and possibly Mike Keane, reduces their chances.
Quinn's plans to start camp with swing man Wade Belak on defence with incumbents Bryan McCabe, Tomas Kaberle, Aki Berg, Ken Klee and newcomer Alexander Khavanov puts the squeeze on Colaiacovo and other youngsters. Don't expect Ferguson to keep a talented kid around as a seventh defencemen when that person can cross the street to the Ricoh Coliseum and play regularly with the Marlies.
In 1998, the first of Quinn's eight camps in Toronto, rookies Danny Markov, Tomas Kaberle and Yannick Tremblay all earned positions on defence. But since then, there has been little attempt at a youth movement. With the Leafs in perennial 100-point territory and well-served by veterans in the playoffs, there likely won't be a big shift this year, either.