Tlusty hanging in there

LANCE HORNBY -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 7:55 AM ET

On a day when many first-round picks around the National Hockey League found themselves going back to junior or the farm, Jiri Tlusty remains a Maple Leaf.

It's still a long way until Oct. 3, with a traffic jam of forwards to get past, but it behooves the playoff-challenged Leafs to give Tlusty a fair shot. He played last night against the Ottawa Senators, moving from centre to an experiment on right wing and is hopeful of at least one more exhibition game.

"We're interested in seeing what he can do against better players," said coach Paul Maurice of facing tougher lineups in the remaining three matches. "Every time he's played (one assist in two previous games), he has competed. We'll have him on the right side against Ottawa and see how versatile he is."

Matt Stajan and Nik Antropov are the only Leaf first- round picks of recent vintage to make an early impact, both becoming starters within two years of their draft years. Tlusty, chosen 13th overall in 2006, spent a year in the Soo, hampered by an ankle injury, but still managed 51 points in 50 games.

At six-feet tall and 209 pounds, plus that first-round pedigree, he can't be easily discarded. But nor can the Leafs carry him on the roster and not play him regularly. Options include sending him back to the Soo, or the most likely eventuality, starting the year with the Marlies.

"We'll see what happens the next couple of games," Tlusty said. "If I score, it would be nice, but I want to make improvements in my whole game.

"I'm feeling more comfortable being part of team. When we lose, I hate it like everyone else. I'm still here, but I don't want to feel too (content). It's too early for that."

Injuries to Kyle Wellwood, Boyd Devereaux and Mark Bell's suspension have opened some roster space up. But there already are a couple of dark horses playing their way into management's favour, such as Simon Gamache and Tony Samalainen. Tlusty can be kept in the NHL for 10 games without losing the last year of his junior eligibility.

"I could go back to junior, but if I did start with the Marlies at least I'd get a lot of ice time," Tlusty said.

He's getting plenty of counsel from fellow Czechs Pavel Kubina and Tomas Kaberle, the latter sharing a hometown address in Kladno.

"We've taken him to dinner and helped him along," Kubina said. "He's really improved a lot of things since his first year. I know what he's up against. I played a year in Moose Jaw and it was very lonely.


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