Luke Schenn now knows exactly what the formidable challenge is for him to make the Maple Leafs.
In separate interviews yesterday, GM Cliff Fletcher and coach Ron Wilson said the first-round draft pick has to crack the top four of the Leafs' defence to avoid being sent back to Kelowna of the WHL.
"If he proves he can play among the four, around 18 minutes a night, he can be in there," Fletcher said last night.
But both GM and coach saw no point in keeping Schenn in the fifth or sixth spot, playing as little as 10 minutes a game.
To make the top four, Schenn would have to be in the company of leading blueline scorer Tomas Kaberle, veterans Pavel Kubina and Mike Van Ryn, and $14 million US free-agent signing Jeff Finger, and stay ahead of newcomer Jonas Frogren and a young cast of defencemen, including Carlo Colaiacovo, Ian White, Anton Stralman and Staffan Kronwall.
With an eye to Schenn's future free agency, the Leafs are wary of using up a year of NHL service if he's not going to be a regular contributor.
Unless something radical happens in the next three weeks, such as Mats Sundin's return, Fletcher estimates the Leafs will enter the regular season with $10 million in cap room.
"People ask: 'Why don't you spend it on a good player?' But there aren't any out there right now," Fletcher told the Fan 590 yesterday.
Fletcher wasn't worried at offending any Leafs by stating last week that the team had just one bona fide top-six forward in Nik Antropov.
"I hope it's a challenge to Alex Ponikarovsky, Alex Steen and Matt Stajan," Fletcher said. "That's what this team needs -- challenges. We have to get started somewhere and one way is to get these players to improve."
A BIG DEAL
The smallest Leaf among the 60 players in camp today is 5-foot-7, 165-pound forward Dan Rudisuela of St. Mary's University, not forward Tim Stapleton, who is two inches taller.