GM Burke in good mood

STEVE BUFFERY, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:06 AM ET

KITCHENER -- You never would know from the perpetual scowl on his face, but Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke really likes what he has seen of his team so far at the club's rookie tournament.

In fact, Burke actually smiled when asked about a few of his 2009 free agent signings and draft picks.

"There's more depth and more competition for jobs here than there's been in the past," Burke said. "Some guys that were with us last year (with the Maple Leafs) better be nervous."

WIN, OT LOSS

The young Leafs have played two games so far at the rookie tournament, being held at the venerable Kitchener Memorial Auditorium, and have posted a win and an overtime loss. Scoring certainly hasn't been a problem.

Three of Burke's free agent signings this past year -- college forwards Christian Hanson and Tyler Bozak and Swedish goaltender Jonas Gustavsson -- have played exceptionally well, as have a couple of 2009 draft picks, centre Nazem Kadri (seventh overall) and defenceman Jesse Blacker (58th overall).

Hanson picked up three goals in Toronto's 6-5 overtime loss to the Boston Bruins yesterday. Kadri scored his first goal of the tournament, and hit his second goalpost. He also had an assist on an excellent two-on-one pass for Hanson's first goal. Bozak had a goal and an assist.

But a revelation of sorts here -- not to mention in the couple of playoff games he played for the Marlies last year after finishing his season at the University of Vermont -- has been the play of 2006 draft pick Viktor Stalberg, who played on an explosive line yesterday with Kadri and Hanson.

"The sky's the limit for that kid," Burke said. "He's big, he can skate, he's physical, very skilled with the puck. I think he's going to be in the hunt to make the big club."

Stalberg certainly has solid credentials coming into the Leafs' main camp this year. Last season with Vermont, the big Swede led the Catamounts to a Frozen Four appearance and was a Hockey East Conference first team all-American, picking up 24 goals and 22 assists in 39 games. He has size (6-foot-3, 210 pounds), skating ability and vision on the ice. He also was drafted way back in the sixth round (161st overall) three years ago. The knock against Stalberg is that he is inconsistent and, at 23, not a really a kid.

Still, the Gothenburg native is considered one of the "big four" forwards at this camp (along with Kadri, Bozak and Hanson) -- rookie players in their early 20s who could crack the Leafs lineup.

"What impresses me the most is that they're all three-zone players, they're all very conscientious defensively," Burke said. "Obviously they've been well-coached. Usually offensive players are one-dimensional. These guys aren't."

Dallas Eakins, the Marlies' head coach and coach of the Leafs' rookie squad here, said that Stalberg has to work on "minute details" to make it to the NHL level.

STALBERG ON THE WAY

"Small things," Eakins said. "In college, he's able to rush the puck up the ice and at the blue line he's challenged by a defenceman and he goes by him. But when he gets to the pros, he's going to have to make a decision -- whether he turns the puck over there and is on the bench the rest of the game, or he chips it in deep and uses his speed to get by the defenceman. There are also some things defensively he has to grasp."

For Stalberg, the time is now.

"I want to play for the Leafs, there's no point hiding that. I've put pressure on myself to do that," said Stalberg, who was a later bloomer as an athlete, standing 5-foot-6 and 135 pounds at age 16.

STEVE.BUFFERY@SUNMEDIA.CA


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