TORONTO - The Maple Leafs like the various brands of beef they’ve brought to their farm this week, but there’s one skinny Norwegian forward who needs to fatten up.
When the bodies started flying Tuesday at the first Blue and White scrimmage of the prospects camp, North Americans such as Tyler Biggs, Jamie Devane, Mitchell Heard and David Broll showed better jump and took the initiative. But 6-foot-4 centre Sondre Olden was getting pushed off the puck, a weakness the Oslo native can better address now that he just signed with the Erie Otters of the Ontario Hockey League for his last year of junior.
Olden, picked 79th overall in 2010, made strides in Sweden under the guidance of ex-NHLer Markus Naslund, the general manager of the club Modo, but he did not accept their latest contract offer for the senior team.
“You have to be really good, because they don’t let juniors play so much,” Olden said after his Blues were whipped 5-2 by the Whites at the MasterCard Centre. “Other teams in the Swedish Elite League use juniors more. I think Modo will do it now that Naslund and (the retired) Peter Forsberg are the leaders there. But I wanted to try something new and now I’m ready to come over here.”
In an e-mail to QMI Agency, Naslund praised Olden as “a good skater for his size and has decent skills as well”. The Leafs believe they can fast-track him on this side of the pond.
“He needs to start learning how to play the North American style,” said Jim Hughes, Toronto’s director of player development. “He needs coaching every single day, with nurturing on and off the ice. He’s a kid who gets a great chance to shoot the puck and he wants to pass it. But once we get him over here, we can get him acclimated to the way we play.”
Olden has put on more muscle since the Leafs brass saw him at last year’s camp, but he’s still listed at just 176 pounds.
“It was a tough game today with a lot of hits, but the (regular) season is always like this,” Olden said of his learning curve. “I got in a hit, but the White team was very physical. I’m a little stronger than last year, when I didn’t know what was waiting for me. I was ready for this camp and built up a little more speed.”
Most players the Leafs expect will make the jump to the full rookie camp in September lived up to their billing on Tuesday, led by defencemen Jake Gardiner, Jesse Blacker and Stuart Percy. Gardiner, 21, was acquired from Anaheim in the Francois Beauchemin trade and looked every bit a player with three years of NCAA hockey under his belt, and some world championships experience.
“Those 1993 guys were probably pretty nervous today,” Gardiner said. “I know in my first year I was shaking in my boots. I’m just working hard to try and prove I can make the team next year. It starts here and carries on through the rookie camp and the main camp.”
Gardiner’s team was behind most of Tuesday’s game, but Hughes noted that the Minnesotan didn’t quit.
“You could see him saying, ‘Let me do something here’. He got a couple of good rushes and all of a sudden, they were able to pump one into the net.
“Jake is already an elite level skater and we expected big things from him. He can activate and jump into the transition. He’s got God-given ability, the way he uses his edge and skates on top of the ice. It’s like (general manager) Brian Burke said, he’s a little bit Duncan Keith and Scott Niedermayer. I don’t want to jump ahead too far, but he really is a beautiful skater. Now we need to take our time with him, make sure we don’t rush him before we put him on the next stage.”
Tuesday was also a chance to see long-time OHL rivals Percy and Blacker on the same team, after they fought tooth and nail through two playoff encounters last spring in the league final and Memorial Cup.
“Stuart had five or six tremendous passes,” Hughes said. “Jesse lets the game come to him now, where three years ago, he was chasing. In a lot of shifts today, you didn’t notice him and that’s a good thing. He moves the puck and does his job.
With those two, we have to be very patient and make sure we build a very good foundation in the AHL, so they can rely on that when they hit some speed bumps.”
Forwards who hit hard yesterday were rewarded, Mitchell Heard with two goals for the winning team, Plymouth teammate and scrapper Jamie Devane with the opening goal.
“We had some kids that came off the chart today,” Hughes said. “Fitting in here is not good enough. We’ve asked them to try and separate themselves, take yourself to another level, make yourself an asset. So that when Burkie is driving home tonight, he’s thinking about a guy such as Jamie.”