Leafs impressed with Aulie so far

ROB LONGLEY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 9:13 PM ET

TORONTO - As a sometimes clumsy teen, Keith Aulie thought playing with a shorter stick would make him a smoother puck handler and therefore a better defenceman.

That all changed the day he arrived in the Brandon Wheat Kings dressing room to find his junior coach Kelly McCrimmon had other plans.

“I always thought a shorter stick would help my stick-handling,” the strapping rookie Leafs defenceman said following Monday’s practice at the MasterCard Centre. “I came to the rink one day and my sticks were already made up for me and they were a lot longer.

“(McCrimmon) made it mandatory that I had to use a longer stick. He told me if I got used to that, it would help me with poke checks and in the lane and that I’d be a lot better player.”

Turns out McCrimmon was on to something.

As raw as he is, the first impression of Aulie is a giant one. To go with that 6-foot-6 frame (yes, he has grown an inch) are long arms and legs that when matched with the tallest stick in the Leafs dressing room helps form quite a package.

A solid skater and passer, the Leafs are enthused about Aulie’s future, a big reason general manager Brian Burke insisted the Saskatchewan native be included in the deal that brought captain Dion Phaneuf here from Calgary.

The big edge Aulie may have if and when he develops into a bonafide NHL blueliner is his reach. It’s why when he watches hockey on the tube, he pays close attention to other big D-men Zdeno Chara of Boston and Philadelphia’s Chris Pronger.

“I watch the game more to learn from it than for entertainment value, but to watch the little things those guys do to defend top players is key,” Aulie said. “You learn in a hurry that if you can get in the right position or cut down a passing lane or a shot lane you can really take away time and space and take away an opposing player’s options.”

It doesn’t hurt to have a stick that reaches his mouth while on skates. Aulie takes the standard issue stick and adds a six-inch plug to get it up to size. It may not be as long as Chara’s but when used properly, it’s an effective accessory.

Just ask a forward who has had to go up against some of the league’s giants of the blue line.

“If they learn how to gap up properly, it’s damn near impossible to get by them,” Leafs winger Kris Versteeg said of tall defencemen such as Chara and Pronger. “If they are beat, they still know how to use their stick and get back in the play.

I think that’s something (Aulie) can learn from them over time and he will.”

In his Leafs debut Saturday against Vancouver, Aulie logged 14 minutes, including some crucial situations in the third period when whatever jitters he had were gone. Leafs coach Ron Wilson already knew about Aulie’s strong skating ability, but what impressed him most in his NHL debut was his command with the puck.

“When you can skate, you can get yourself out of trouble a lot,” Wilson said. “I was impressed with his poise with the puck. It was on his stick and he moved it right away. To be honest with you, some of our veteran (defencemen) don’t move it as quickly as he did.”

With just one NHL game under those impressive wings, Aulie knows he’s just getting started on what he hopes will be a long journey.

After Monday’s practice, there was extra work to be done with Leafs skating coach Graeme Townshend plus plenty to soak up with defensive assistant Rob Zettler and his first NHL playing partner, Brett Lebda.

“The more experience I get up here playing, the more calm and composed I will be out there,” Aulie said. “It’s all a valuable experience and I’m just trying to soak it in.”

rob.longley@sunmedia.ca

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