Jay Harrison and Brendan Bell stood shoulder to shoulder at the 2001 draft, sat together on long bus rides with the Toronto Marlies and know the thrill of being National Hockey League defence partners with the Maple Leafs.
But mutual support is never more important for the 23-year-olds than today, with many fans and media doubting their ability to handle full-time work. They are a combined minus-6 the past two games, in which the Leafs gave up eight goals and had their strong offensive effort undermined by generally suspect defensive play.
Neither Bell nor Harrison shirked from accountability yesterday at Lakeshore Lions Arena, but they aren't writing themselves off, either.
"We're young guys and mistakes will be made," Bell said. "Jay has played four games this year and I've played two. It's too early to pass judgment. Check us out again after five or 10 games."
Whether coach Paul Maurice changes the pairing, adjusts their ice time or makes a lineup switch will be evident this weekend when the Leafs play in Columbus tonight and home to the New York Rangers tomorrow.
When Bell finally returned from a pre-season ankle injury a week ago, veteran Pavel Kubina had gone on the injured list for a month with a knee ligament strain. With top tandem Bryan McCabe and Tomas Kaberle getting their customary big chunk of ice time and fellow youngster Ian White settled with veteran Hal Gill, Maurice gave his two former Marlie backliners a whirl. Bell went from 12:18 of ice time against the Calgary Flames to 14:40 against Colorado, with Harrison's increase slightly smaller.
"For two guys just coming into the league, I think they're doing fine," Maurice said. "Brendan's moving the puck well; Jay's going through the same adjustments all young defencemen do with the speed, size and strength of NHL players."
Maurice said the rest of the Leafs, particularly the forwards, were guilty of not coming back to help in Wednesday's 4-1 loss to Colorado, putting further pressure on the young defence. McCabe and Kaberle did not distinguish themselves, either. To compound matters, McCabe has yet to score this season and Gill was beaten on the winning Colorado goal.
"I think all the young defencemen will be fine," McCabe said. "They have to play to learn, just like I did."
Harrison was hurt in pre-season, but he and Bell have been in the Leafs' good books since late-season auditions in 2005-06 and high scores in summer fitness testing.
"Brendan and I, we've both seen ups and downs," Harrison said. "But we were drafted around the same time (second and third rounds) and we're both in the NHL, when some people thought we would never make it."