Schenn may be ready to play

MIKE ZEISBERGER -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 8:53 AM ET

Luke Schenn "must overwhelm us."

That, Maple Leafs general manager Cliff Fletcher said yesterday, is what it will take for Schenn, the fifth overall pick in the 2008 entry draft, to be on Toronto's opening-night roster in Detroit on Oct. 9.

Let the debate begin.

From the moment Schenn arrived in Toronto yesterday in preparation for this weekend's rookie tournament in Kitchener against prospects representing the Pittsburgh Penguins, Ottawa Senators and Florida Panthers, he became one of the hottest storylines of the next month.

The pro-Schenn camp will lobby that the hulking defenceman can learn more at the NHL level than elsewhere. If the Leafs are, in fact, dedicated to a youth movement, they argue, then why not give Schenn some seasoning with the parent club, even if his game might sport the warts of inexperience?

Not so fast, insist those who caution against rushing Schenn.

These are the people who are wary about the dangers of fast-tracking a young prospect into an environment where a kid's confidence could be siphoned with every mistake made, perhaps hindering his entire career.

Schenn has come to town setting the bar high for himself. He's not making any promises, but it is obvious he wants to make the Leafs -- now.

"It's definitely a goal of mine," Schenn said last night. "I've come here to work hard, learn from the older guys and get better. At the same time, I don't want to just come to Toronto for the experience. I want to compete for a job."

With the Leafs' rebuilding process still in its infancy, Fletcher is wise not to force Schenn into the lineup. And, the blue line battle already is a logjam.

Besides, Leaf history warns us of the dangers of rushing young defenceman into the NHL too fast.

In 1981-82, the Leafs featured three teenaged blue liners: Bob McGill and Fred Boimistruck, both 19, and 18-year-old Jim Benning, the sixth overall pick in the 1981 entry draft.

Looking back, Benning, now the assistant general manager of the Boston Bruins, admits he was not prepared.

"I think I was rushed," Benning admitted yesterday. "I don't think, at least physically, I was ready. But I had no choice. That's the direction management went. I just had to go along."

Given his own experience, it stands to reason that Benning would recommend Schenn get experience either in junior or the minors.

Not necessarily.

This past spring Benning was scouting the Western Hockey League playoff series between Seattle and Kelowna when he saw a tough-as-nails Rockets defenceman impressively smear a couple of opponents into the glass.

Jim Benning, meet Luke Schenn.

"I think the impressions of the two guys he hit are still (imprinted) in the boards," Benning said. "He's a bear. He hits to hurt."

Hence his nickname of "The Human Eraser."

"Is he ready for the NHL? Every situation is different," Benning said. "With Schenn, he has the size, the strength, the physical stature to step in. He has aspects of his game that show he is ready to play. At the same time, another year in junior might not be a bad thing."

DIFFERENT GAME

Benning said the changes the sport has undergone over the past three decades work in Schenn's favour.

"I think defencemen are much more protected than when I played," he said. "Forwards help defenceman much more now. Teams play more of a collapsing system. And Ron Wilson is a great defensive coach."

In the end, the Leafs are correct in taking the cautious approach with Schenn. At the same time, maybe, just maybe, the young defenceman will be able to "overwhelm" the coaching staff and start the season with the Leafs.

Jim Benning certainly would not bet against it.


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