Jiri Tlusty, the Maple Leafs' No. 1 draft pick this past June, already is making a lot of friends in the dressing room.
After a fine rookie camp skating on a line with Brent Aubin and John Mitchell -- no doubt helping Aubin earn his coveted contract last week -- the sure-handed Tlusty shone, as did Erik Westrum and Robbie Earl, in yesterday's Blue and White game at the Ricoh Coliseum. Two picture goals, one in regulation and another in shootout, delighted 8,021 fans and earned him some glowing reviews from teammates and management.
"I thought I was there on his shootout goal, but he put it right under the crossbar," goaltender Mikael Tellqvist said. "He's a skill guy and he'll be a good player in this organization for sure."
But where in the chain the 18-year-old centre/winger starts remains to be seen. General manager John Ferguson picked him out of Europe, which makes him available for the Leafs, the American Hockey League Marlies or the junior Soo Greyhounds, who hold his Ontario Hockey League rights.
"We're just three three days into the main camp," Ferguson cautioned, though he said he likely will get the young Czech forward into a National Hockey League exhibition game as soon as possible, perhaps even tonight's pre-season opener against the Buffalo Sabres at the Air Canada Centre.
"I thought he was good in the rookie tournament, but I thought he was better today," said coach Paul Maurice, who let his assistant coaches run the intrasquad game while he watched from a centre-ice suite. "I still think he's very young, but the thing I notice is the way the puck comes off of his stick. There's a quickness to it and it's not average by any means. His body has to change and he needs to get older and all that, but that (skill) part of his game is already there."
Westrum, a journeyman with his home-state Minnesota Wild, did well on his own yesterday, scoring the game's first goal from Earl and tying the match 3-3 for the Blues at 19:28 of third period with goalie Justin Pogge on the bench.
Westrum had 98 points for the AHL Houston Aeros, but just one in 10 games for the Wild.
When on-ice workouts began on Friday, the eager Westrum was the first of 54 Leafs on the ice at Ricoh.
"I just want to do what I can to stick with an NHL team," the 27-year-old said. "I don't expect to come in here and be a first- line guy, but a role player and to earn my ice time."
Maurice saw Westrum a couple of times last year when the Marlies tangled with Houston.
"Regardless of the league, you get 98 points, it shows you have a certain intelligence," Maurice said.
The Whites won 4-3 in a sudden-death shootout that went eight rounds before Colin Murphy beat Pogge. John Pohl, Andy Wozniewski and Jeremy Williams scored for the Whites.
The game started sluggishly -- Andrew Raycroft didn't face a shot in the Blues goal for about eight minutes -- but increased in intensity. The referees were ordered to call the game as tight as an NHL contest, resulting in 28 one-minute minors.
Jeff O'Neill and Kris Newbury went off for a crease-shoving match and several clean bodychecks were thrown.
"There was an edge to it," Maurice said. "I set a lot of goals in this camp and one of them was pace. But if your key guys don't do it in practice, it won't happen. I'm pleased with the way the veterans have pushed themselves."