LONDON, Ont. -- Warnings that rookies must be more than six feet and built like streetcars to get on the ride at Maple Leafs training camp could be stretching the truth.
On a team that wants to get meaner, the best goals and game-changing hits in Saturday's 6-3 opening win over the Chicago Blackhawks in the four-team NHL rookie tournament came from some kids who rely on spunk instead of size. They included the top picks from the past two seasons, Nazem Kadri, Bradley Ross, Greg McKegg, Kenny Ryan and Jerry D'Amigo, all standing at or below 72 inches.
"Once you realize that and gain that experience, it's really going to help me out," said first star McKegg, an 85-point centre last year with Erie of the OHL.
Marlies' coach Dallas Eakins, who is coaching Toronto's rookies here, has been trying to help the forwards in particular not get too carried away with dimensions.
"Last year was a good draft by us (McKegg and Ross) and obviously our scouts did their homework," Eakins said. "That's the interesting thing. In a perfect world, could your guys be big, fast and quick? Yes, but I've been on them to be fast and be strong. You just have guys that are going to compete and our guys did tonight."
The two best big men on the night at the John Labatt Centre were Sondre Olden and goaltender Jussi Rynnas. Rynnas, general manager Brian Burke's secret Finnish project, debuted with 28 saves, 10 of 11 in the second period where he survived a 5-on-3. The 6-foot-5 Rynnas, who bears an uncanny facial resemblance to a young Tom Barrasso, did have one brain cramp on North American ice, penalized for playing a puck in the corner.
"He learned a new rule tonight," Eakins said, unable to hide a smile
"I was thinking I was at home," Rynnas said. "Then I felt so stupid. I have so much to learn, but the rink is so small."
He spread his body nice and low for a big man, already showing some signs that goalie instructor Francois Allaire's work has paid off.
After hometown star Kadri drew a penalty by giving David Gilbert a hard ride into the boards, inviting retaliation from Mirko Hoefflin, Ross danced into the slot and protecting the puck, snapped the Leafs into the lead. Shortly after, a Kadri hit led to Olden's goal, first ever by a Norwegian in Leafs colours.
McKegg dangled the puck on a 2-on-1 to beat beleaguered Hawks goalie Alec Richards, D'Amigo tipped in a Simon Gysbers shot, while Olden went from wing to point on a power play and made a key save at the line to keep the play alive for Ryan's goal. Ryan and McKegg had two-point nights and Gysbers a late goal.
Before the tourney began, Eakins gathered goalies Rynnas, Cornell grad Ben Scrivens and Marlie sophomore Andrew Engelage and asked how they'd like to divvy up the three games. He was pleased when they opted to take a start each.
"Let them have a little ownership," Eakins said approvingly. "I personally hate seeing goalies split games. They're going in cold or one guy's having a great game and then gets pulled at the 10-minute mark."
Scrivens will play Sunday against Pittsburgh and Engelage goes Tuesday against the Senators, who could be using Robin Lehner, considered the top prospect in their organization.
The loudest ovation of the night was saved for Kadri, proudly wearing a Leafs sweater in his junior hockey town. The first-rounder from '09 knows he'll have to keep elevating his game from now on as he's projected to be the first or second line centre in the majority of exhibition games after main camp starts next week.
"It's only natural," Eakins said of the expectations. "He has an NHL camp under his belt. There are probably things he'd wished he's done last year that now he's aware of.
"We've given him a lot of great tools. (player development director) Jim Hughes has been with him a lot this year. This kid wants to make it. He wears it on his sleeve. He has got a little cockiness to him and that's what you want from your top players.
"A year of maturity and a year here in London with the Hunter brothers will go a long way."
Eakins isn't supposed to play favourites as far as ice time is concerned at this tournament, but that doesn't mean the young Leafs aren't out to win.
"I will put everyone in the best position and give everyone the best chance (but) in a game and in the heat of battle, I'm as competitive as they are. Sometimes you will shorten the bench, but in my mind I want everyone to have a chance. It's important for (hockey department leaders) Brian, Dave Nonis, Dave Poulin and Claude Loiselle. But if we have a power play and it's 2-2 late in the game, Kadri's going over the boards."