|The Toronto Maple Leafs have high hopes for prospect Nazem Kadri. (Veronica Henri/QMI AGENCY)
One of the biggest worries for Nazem Kadri and other Maple Leaf wannabes at the four-team NHL rookie tournament this weekend is getting caught staying out late.
Not carousing in hot spots in London, Ont., but handling ice-time discipline on the big stage.
"We are looking for players such as Nazem to do certain things and it's not necessarily about scoring goals," said Jim Hughes, director of player development for the Leafs. "It's about developing good habits; length of shifts and lowering turnover ratio. Those are the things we want to start keying on, starting with this week. It's very important that we keep hammering away at these points -- immediately.
"They're going to put that Toronto crest on their chest and therefore, we're going in to win some games and give these guys the ability to show what they have. Obviously Nazem's a guy we have high expectations for. This will be the next phase of his development."
Top rookies and newbies from the Leafs, Ottawa Senators, Pittsburgh Penguins and Chicago Blackhawks will be at the John Labbat Centre for games Saturday through Tuesday. Clubs such as the talent-laden Penguins aren't counting on top six forwards to emerge from such a greenhouse project, but the Leafs and their thin offensive depth chart have much more at stake in London.
General manager Brian Burke already has 2009 top pick Kadri projected as a No. 1 or 2 centre when full exhibition action begins in less than two weeks and likely will keep him at least the first month of regular season. Tyler Bozak, Christian Hanson and Viktor Stalberg were not on the radar before last year's rookie camp and they all used that ticket to make the parent team at different stretches last season, Bozak ending up as first-line centre.
When Hughes says the Leafs will have "all shapes and sizes" in London, he's not kidding. The roster ranges from 5-foot-9 forward Mike Liambas (the suspended OHLer trying to salvage a pro career) to 6-foot-3 Norwegian scarecrow forward Sondre Olden to 6-foot-5 netminder Jussi Rynnas, Burke's surprise signing from Finland.
"We have a really good balanced crew at forward with Brayden Irwin, Olden, Kenny Ryan and Jerry D'Amigo," Hughes said. "But they'll all get great opportunities to show what they are capable of doing.
"Olden is a match stick and he's young, but he will mature like all of them. He has got the height, but he can move and he has got great practice habits."
Everyone knows Burke wants a tougher NHL team and used his first pick this year, 43rd overall, on Bradley Ross, a Darcy Tucker type, whom one WHL opponent labelled "a dirt bag", much to Ross's delight.
"We're all interested to see how (Ross) plays the game at a high level, to see the different flavours he brings," Hughes said. "He's an agitator, an aggressive player and he will get the chance to show what he is made of."
The starting six or seven on the Leafs defence were spoken for once Tomas Kaberle returned and Brett Lebda and Matt Lashoff were added in the off-season. But that doesn't mean rookies Keith Aulie, Jesse Blacker and Simon Gysbers are out of the picture.
"It will give us an opportunity to see the different mechanics they have," Hughes said. "They all have different skill sets. We're looking for composure, patience, positioning, hockey sense, puck moving ability and passion. Blacker plays big and has great athletic ability, while Gysbers and Aulie are big guys.
Hughes is among many in the hockey office who haven't seen Rynnas play live, after Burke flew to Helsinki in the spring and put the Leafs in the hunt when it seemed Dallas and Edmonton had the inside track on the free agent.
"Obviously he comes highly regarded and it will be fun to watch him play," Hughes said. "Ben Scrivens is right out of college (Cornell) so we have two young prospects fighting for spots (with the Marlies) who will make each other better. They'll both be given good looks and opportunities."