The last thing Jesse Blacker wants hanging off of him at Maple Leafs camp this year is a “malcontent” label.
This is, after all, quite a chance for a kid from Toronto’s Riverdale neighbourhood to play for the team he grew up watching. The Leafs need depth on defence and it’s about 20 minutes from Broadview and Gerrard to the Air Canada Centre as the 504 streetcar flies.
Blacker, a second-round pick off the Windsor Spitfires a ago, did not end the season with the Memorial Cup champions, moving to the Owen Sound Attack after a dispute over playing time that saw him go home until a deal was worked out.
At the time, Windsor had first-round picks Ryan Ellis (2009, Nashville) and Cam Fowler (2010, Anaheim) getting most of the minutes.
“They (the Spitfires) made it seem a little bit worse than it was,” Blacker said Tuesday, as the Leafs prospects worked out at the MasterCard Centre. “All I said was I wanted a little bit more of a chance. They said I wasn’t going to get it, so I simply asked for a trade.”
Blacker went to Owen Sound and recorded 30 points in 48 games, with 62 penalty minutes. His junior service done, he made a brief appearance with the AHL Marlies at season’s end. Windsor went on to capture a second consecutive Memorial Cup, but Blacker doesn’t dwell on regrets.
“I think (pushing for the trade) worked out well for me,” the 6-foot-1, 190-pounder said. “I got to expose my offensive side.
“I made the right decision. I don’t want (a bad rep), I’m a winning kind of guy and I do have the right attitude. But it wasn’t going to happen for me there in Windsor, I wasn’t going to get my chance, I wasn’t going to develop as a player.”
At this camp, he’s in a group of strong skaters, one or two of whom will emerge to contend for the sixth or seventh spots on the new-look Leafs blueline. Blacker already made a good first impression at last year’s September rookie camp.
“I love playing the part of the big, rough physical guy, who also has an offensive upside,” Blacker said. “I like to be a thorny guy on the ice and it pays off for me.
“I’ve always wanted to play at the Air Canada Centre, it has been my dream since I was old enough to skate. Now I actually have my chance and I want to make the best of it.”
But if there’s a ticket to the ACC up for grabs in September, Simon Gysbers is another GTA defenceman who wants to bid for it. Like Blacker, he gets his name dropped a lot to the media by general manager Brian Burke when the subject of developing defencemen in-house is raised.
Gysbers wasn’t drafted, coming to Burke’s attention after three years at Lake Superior State University. His roots are in Richmond Hill and Stouffville, where he grew up with Leafs assistant coach Keith Acton’s son Willy. Both played tier II together for Stouffville and both attended Lake Superior State, allowing Gysbers the benefit of many trips to the Acton household.
“Keith played in the NHL 15 years, he’s won a Cup and he’s given me great tips along the way,” Gysbers said. “He and Willy come to the same gym as me to work out, too.”
In college, Lake Superior’s slow finish did not deter the Leafs from offering Gysbers a contract. He played 14 games for the Marlies, too, with one assist.
“I grew up a Leafs fan,” Gysbers gushed. “I liked Wendel Clark, Doug Gilmour and, as a defenceman, Alex Karpovtsev was a player I admired.
“My parents drove up to see me at Lake State (in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich.) just about every weekend, but they would be very happy to watch me come and play close to home.”
Until the Leafs see exactly what they have, it’s likely Blacker and Gysbers will join Juraj Mikus and Keith Aulie as the core of the AHL Marlies defence.
“At this stage, I’d say Blacker is the more dynamic, but Gysbers reads the game well and has a lower panic level,” said Marlies’ coach Dallas Eakins. “Jesse will end up being more physical, but Simon has a bit more of the Carl Gunnarsson in him (a reference to last year’s camp surprise, a positionally sound defenceman, who does a lot of little things correctly).
“We hope they’re going to make it.”