Leafs looking forward

STEVE BUFFERY -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 9:01 AM ET

The competition for spots on defence is going to be heated the next couple of weeks as the Maple Leafs prepare for the regular season.

But that's not to say there won't be some surprises -- and new faces -- up front as well when the Leafs open against the Detroit Red Wings on Oct. 9.

Three players who have never played a game in the NHL -- Tim Stapleton, Nikolai Kulemin and John Mitchell -- have a chance to crack the opening-day lineup.

Stapleton, whom the Leafs signed as a free agent out the Finnish Elite League in July, Kulemin and Mitchell, a late Toronto draft pick from 2003, practised with the so-called "first team" at training camp yesterday at Ricoh Coliseum. All three are expected to play in at least one of the club's first two exhibition games, starting tonight against the Buffalo Sabres at the Air Canada Centre. That means a player or two who did spent time with the Leafs last year, perhaps Jiri Tlusty or Boyd Devereaux, could start with the AHL Marlies this year. Of course it's early, but the Leafs management is expecting big things from the three rookies.

Kulemin, 22, has been a top performer in the Russian league the past two seasons, picking up 33 points in 57 games for his hometown club Magnitogorsk Metallurg last season. Yesterday at camp, he was matched on a line with NHL veterans Niklas Hagman and Alex Steen.

"When you have as many young guys as we do, you just don't hand them jobs, they have to earn them," head coach Ron Wilson said yesterday. "And that's why we're playing the exhibition games. We've got nine (pre-season) games. That's a lot of auditioning for a lot of people and a chance to gain experience. How far they go will be entirely up to them."

Stapleton is an intriguing find for the Leafs. Only 5-foot-9 and 160-pounds, the La Grange, Ill. native put up some big numbers for Jokerit in the Finnish league, including 29 goals in 55 regular-season games last year, as well as 10 playoff points.

The University of Minnesota-Duluth product played on an explosive line for Jokerit with former Vancouver Canucks farmhand Tommi Santala and Ville Leino, who broke the Jokerit franchise record for regular-season points with 77, and was subsequently signed by defending Stanley Cup champion Detroit. It certainly helped Stapleton's cause that his coach at Jokerit, Doug Shedden, is a former head coach with the St. John's Maple Leafs.

"My dream, my goal was to play here," Stapleton said. "A lot of players go to Europe and come back here (to the NHL) and I was trying to do the same. Fortunately, it worked out with the Leafs and hopefully I can stick."

The Leafs brass has been impressed with Stapleton's speed and scoring touch and yesterday he played on a revolving line with Mitchell, Devereaux and veteran Mark Bell. Mitchell has size and scoring ability and Kulemin also has a bit of everything, including excellent skating skills.

'TREMENDOUS TALENT'

"(Kulemin) has a tremendous amount of talent, is very powerful, but I have to make sure he understands the game without the puck, which will be important if we're going to be successful," Wilson said.

Waterloo native Mitchell put up good numbers with the Marlies last season, posting 51 points in 79 games, but more impressively, 12 points in 19 playoff games. He has been waiting patiently for a chance to play with the big team since being drafted by Toronto, 158th overall in 2003.

"Sometimes it's a little bit frustrating," he said. "I've been in this organization for a while and you feel that you've been playing well and producing. But it's up to the GM and coaching staff."


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