NEW YORK –- Too bad for Toronto Maple Leafs centreman Ben Ondrus that he arrives in the NHL just as the Leafs start falling apart in what is looking like will be an unsuccessful playoff run.
On an aging Maple Leafs team seemingly going nowhere fast, the solid, no-frills checking role that Ondrus has filled since being recalled from the Toronto Marlies has been a bright spot.
Ondrus plays an honest game, and his addition to the Leafs’ stock of 12 nightly forwards has been a pleasant addition. Aleksander Suglobov, acquired from the New Jersey organization for Ken Klee at the NHL trade deadline, has since joined Ondrus as part of the trickle of Toronto youngsters who should find themselves auditioning for full-time NHL work next season.
The Leafs have been slammed for what is perceived to be a bare cabinet of prospects, but there are some bright, if unflashy spots at the AHL level. Along with Ondrus and Suglobov, at the very least Kris Newbury and Jeremy Williams remain prospects up front, and a handful of other forwards might possibly be lumped into that group. The some young potential among the Marlies’ defence as well.
Last Saturday in a 5-2 Leafs loss to the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden, Ondrus centred a line with Clarke Wilm and Tie Domi and saw some time on the Leafs’ penalty kill. Saturday night, the Garden, Hockey Night in Canada, that is rather heady stuff for a youngster just getting used to the NHL game.
“It’s pretty similar,” Ondrus said of the difference between the NHL and the AHL and the role that he fills. “I’m probably considered a defensive forward. But you come up here, and there are a lot of big guns, a lot of skilled players. I’ve pretty much played this (role) my whole career, and you just have to be able to adapt and do whatever they ask of you.”
Both Ondrus and Newbury have found first-year Marlies head coach Paul Maurice to have been a big help in pushing along their careers. Ondrus, a sturdy 23-year-old and the chippy Newbury, 24, entered this season running the very real risk of drifting off and picking up a label as AHL journeymen.
Having Maurice, a newcomer to the Toronto organization, provided a clean slate for the two youngsters and the rest of the holdovers from last season’s St. John’s Maple Leafs team. Assistant coaches Joe Paterson and Dallas Eakins both are new to the Marlies as well.
“The whole coaching staff has helped us a lot,” Ondrus said. “They do a good job of preparing us, and practices are really intense. Their main goal is to prepare us for this step, and I think they’ve done an outstanding job.”
Said Newbury, an OHL product: “From day one, Maurice looked back at my stats, realized I had some offensive potential, and he was willing to give me the opportunity. He gives some time to show what you can do. Obviously this year, playing with some good players, I’ve done that.”
“Ice time obviously helps, and with that comes confidence.”