|Phil Kessel, Jason Blake and Coach Ron Wilson joke around during Leafs practice at the MasterCard Centre for Hockey Excellence. (Dave Abel/SUN MEDIA)
Come to Maple Leafs practice Thursday and you might see Rickard Wallin, Wayne Primeau or even Darryl Sittler centring Phil Kessel.
That seems to be the coach Ron Wilson’s state of mind about trying new people with the talented right winger, whose career 10-shot night in Tuesday’s impressive debut opens up a world of possibilities for the goal0-starved club.
A day after saying he’d be patient with Matt Stajan in the role, giving he and Kessel some time to create sparks, Wilson put John Mitchell with Kessel and left winger Jason Blake. Wilson saw something in the closing minutes when Mitchell and Kessel were paired.
“I like the way Mitchy played last night...his speed matches up,” Wilson said at the MasterCard Centre. “It’s about finishing your opportunities. He’s been on the ice for a lot of goals for (a better plus minus than Stajan, who has two more points). I’m just experimenting, nothing more, nothing less.”
If Stajan was taken aback by the quick switch and the inference he’s not as quick as Mitchell, he was diplomatic about it.
“Well...I think this game changes every day,” Stajan said. “All we can do is go out the first shift next game try and score and get back where you were.
“Sometimes people look too much into who is playing on which line in practice. Things change with lines all the time in games. It’s a matter on finding out who works best.
“For success on any line, you need guys to complement each other. I don’t think you ever have one guy on a hot streak.”
Stajan earned full marks from teammates for going after Tampa defenceman Mattias Ohlund after he flattened a distracted Kessel, albeit on a clean hit, that welcomed the latter back to the NHL after six months off with shoulder surgery. A more burly player than Stajan, Mitchell will also have to watch out for his smaller linemates.
“Staje jumped in and good for him,” Mitchell said. “But I’ll have to do that. They aren’t the biggest guys and I’ll have to do what I can to make sure they stay safe.”
Mitchell, who was used primarily as a checker at wing and centre as the Leafs’ first 13 games unfolded, is trying not get too excited about the chance of playing with the explosive Kessel tomorrow in Carolina.
“(Wilson) didn’t say anything specific,” Mitchell said. “I have the opportuinity to play with Phil and I have to (exploit) it. Let’s not forget about Jason. He works hard, he grinds it out and he has to be a rat out there, that’s when he plays his best; chippy and getting right in the goalie’s face. If he plays like that, it gets everybody going.”
Kessel was also careful not to favour one centre ahead of the other.
“I thought our line played pretty well last night, but our coach is looking for some chemistry, changing guys in and out and trying to get some wins,” Kessel said. “I thought (Tuesday) went okay. I’m a little tired. Ten shots...you have to get one to go in. I have to bear down a bit more and bury my chances. I think we’re going in the right direction.”