|Leafs prospect Nazem Kadri has one game left to impress team management. (QMI Agency/Veronica Henri)
TORONTO - Ron Wilson says he won't turn the bus around and that stranded Maple Leaf wannabes such as Nazem Kadri will have to chase it.
The last stop it's likely to make before next Thursday's NHL season opener is Wednesday in Ottawa, where Kadri and likely fellow centre John Mitchell need to make up for their ordinary training camps in a hurry to get back in the good books of Wilson and general manager Brian Burke. After Wednesday, the assignments for the weekend home-and-home series with Detroit will be given almost entirely to the regular-season starters, of which Kadri is now excluded.
But Wilson had no sympathy for late-comers who didn't heed his pre-camp sermon two weeks ago.
"When the puck drops on the first day, you better be ready to go," Wilson repeated Tuesday at the MasterCard Centre. "No tip-toeing around. No: 'oh, the water's cold, I'll wait until it warms up a bit'. Nope, you're diving in and the guys who didn't, as Burkie said, they're waiting by the bus stop. Well, they missed it, the bus already left. Now their job is running down the road hoping they can get on.
"A couple of guys will be in the lineup (Wednesday) and that will be their last chance to show what they can do."
Wilson was obviously aiming those comments at Kadri and Mitchell, who joined Mike Zigomanis, Jay Rosehill and Luca Caputi as purple-clad segregated forwards at the end of Tuesday's practice. It's looking like Caputi will be kept at least as an extra forward given his strong camp, while Rosehill has value as added muscle.
Of course, an opening stint with the AHL Marlies will not be a life sentence for Kadri, who is still a week shy of his 20th birthday. Nor should any alarm bells ring that the Leafs made a bad pick at seventh overall in the 2009 draft. But this story matters because the Leafs were very high on Kadri earning a job this month, having not traded for insurance at centre in what they believe can be a playoff year.
If Kadri and Mitchell do not make a late bid, the opening night four centres, in order, are Tyler Bozak, Mikhail Grabovski, Tim Brent and Christian Hanson, with only Grabovski weathering two full NHL seasons thus far.
With management and media heat on Kadri, it was career understudy Brent who benefitted from "flying under the radar" and getting close to his first regular job after brief stints with Anaheim and Chicago.
"The fans probably haven't heard a whole lot about me," said the 26-year-old Cambridge native. "All I can basically say is I'm like them. I grew up right here and was a huge Leafs fan. I have a connection with them without them knowing it."
Wilson doesn't sound like a man willing to tinker with the roster that beat the Buffalo Sabres 5-4 on Monday, other than perhaps using Caputi somewhere on left wing with Kris Versteeg in Chicago to get his Stanley Cup ring. Wilson will certainly plug left winger Fredrik Sjostrom back into the third line with Brent and Colby Armstrong.
Caputi played well, but returning from a long stint recovering from shoulder surgery, the speedy veteran Sjostrom is the logical choice to solidify that line.
"Obviously I hope to have a big role on the team," Sjostrom said, "First of all, it's about getting back on the ice and feeling good and getting the timing down."
It's expected Wilson will play Sjostrom in Ottawa and in one of the Detroit games, but Sjostrom would welcome three in four nights.
"We'll have extras at the start of the season," Wilson added. "They'll just have to make themselves ready."