Luke's using the force

Luke Schenn gets some advice from Leafs skating coach Graeme Townshend earlier this week. (Sun...

Luke Schenn gets some advice from Leafs skating coach Graeme Townshend earlier this week. (Sun Media/Mark O'Neill)

STEVE SIMMONS,SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 11:14 AM ET

Luke Schenn isn't going anywhere.

At least, not for a while.

In a Maple Leafs training camp almost devoid of pleasant surprises -- and too full of those who have squandered opportunities -- here is the kid, Schenn, looking every bit like he belongs.

He doesn't throw the puck away much. He doesn't seem to panic. He doesn't seem to pinch when he shouldn't. He competes in the one-on-ones. He plays with the kind of poise that cannot be taught and normally isn't associated with teenagers. Nothing, as of yet, overwhelms him.

There is no reason to return him to junior hockey.

And the sentiment is precisely the same in Los Angeles with Drew Doughty, in St. Louis with Alex Pietrangelo, in Atlanta with Zack Bogosian, the three defenceman drafted directly before Schenn.

"It looks like all three of them will be starting the season in the NHL," Leafs general manager Cliff Fletcher said. "They're all having good camps. Usually, it's much harder for a defenceman to make the adjustment."

The old wives' tales are taking a beating in professional sport these days. It doesn't take five years to develop a quarterback anymore. And kids -- talented, can't-miss kids -- can play defence in the National Hockey League.

If Fletcher and Ron Wilson can be happy about anything they have seen in training camp, the pleasure begins with Schenn, who is everything they anticipated and more from the player they traded up for in order to draft him last June.

"He looks like he has all the intangibles," said Fletcher, who still won't say that Schenn is starting the season with the Leafs. So we'll say it for him: Schenn is starting the season with the Leafs.

He is, right now, having seen little of Jeff Finger, no worse than the Leafs' fourth defenceman. You can make a case he's No. 3 behind Tomas Kaberle and Pavel Kubina. And in his own end, he may be better than both of those.

"He has a certain level of maturity you don't expect from such a young man," Fletcher said. "So far, he's handling things very well."

If only the same can be said for the rest of the Leafs hopefuls, especially the returning players. If there is a groan to be heard around Leaf-land thus far in camp, it is because none of the front-line incumbents have exactly emerged with still three pre-season games to go.

This hasn't been your typical NHL training camp. Here, all bets were off. Here, a new coach was coming in, not caring who did what in the past, looking to see what they can do now. Players ask for nothing more but a fair chance: The fair chance has come.

The results have been, to say the least, spotty.

The biggest surprise of camp other than Schenn: Forward John Mitchell. This is the same John Mitchell who has spent the past three seasons with the Toronto Marlies, improving his numbers each time out. At least, he's made a pitch to play on the Leafs' third or fourth line, which means the Leafs have several hundred candidates to play on their third and fourth line. What no one has done, other than Schenn, is show he can play on the first two lines and make a difference.

TOP SIX?

Fletcher has a time-worn theory: Almost every NHL game is won or lost by your top six players. You win because they make you win. You lose because they aren't good enough.

The Leafs' top six doesn't exactly excite anybody. There's Vesa Toskala, Kaberle, Kubina and WHO ELSE?

Nifty Nikolai Kulemin, before getting injured, looked like he was auditioning for the Marlies. Young Mikhail Grabovski, flashy so far in the pre-season, doesn't look like his game will translate to the regular season. The Leafs, having overpaid for him, will give him every opportunity to matter.

"We need guys to play with a sense of urgency," said Ron Wilson, saying that because so far not enough of his hopefuls have. "There's a lot at stake for a lot of people. We need people playing that way."

Luke Schenn is playing that way. He's basically alone. The Leafs have one building block. After that, who knows?


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