Leafs' prospects go all out

Garret Sparks makes a save during the Maple Leafs prospects camp on Thursday, (ALEX UROSEVIC/QMI...

Garret Sparks makes a save during the Maple Leafs prospects camp on Thursday, (ALEX UROSEVIC/QMI Agency)

LANCE HORNBY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 10:35 PM ET

TORONTO - What’s not to like about hockey in July, with big hits, fights, a late-game sixth-man goal and overtime with a shootout winner by a first-round pick?

That’s the kind of fireworks the Maple Leafs wanted to see at this September’s rookie camp. But they arrived two months early, when 42 prospects wound up a three-game scrimmage tournament on Thursday — sending management a few messages to ponder.

“We got a bang for our buck,” said player development director Jim Hughes, after the Whites beat the Blues, 3-2 on Stuart Percy’s shootout winner. “We were hoping the Whites would tie it up, then it was overtime and a (seven-round) shootout. We got our money’s worth.”

Many of the Leafs most promising draft picks did well throughout the week and a few “popped off the page” in Hughes’ opinion, to merit a chance as walk-ons to the rookie camp in Oshawa. Defencemen Percy and Jesse Blacker, deep OHL rivals just a few weeks ago, drew up a play during a last minute timeout to force the extra period. Blacker tipped a Mitchell Heard shot that gave the latter a two-point game to support a four-goal camp.

In a morning match full of evil-eye glares, trash talking and pushing and shoving, 5-foot-10 German tryout Martin Buchwieser punched away at the 6-foot-3 Kevin Tansey to a draw.

“It was the last game and everyone wanted to make their final impression,” said forward Tyler Biggs, who along with Percy were the marquee 2011 first-rounders coming into camp. “Those are the games that you want to be part of. I definitely learned I have my work cut out for me (here next year). I had a blast going through all this. There’s a lot of intensity going on and you have to bring it 24/7.”

The next stage is for players such as Percy to attend the Canadian junior team camp in August and for the Leafs to set their rookie roster for their tournament against freshmen from Ottawa, Pittsburgh and Chicago. It will take place at GM Place in Oshawa, prior to the main Leafs camp. With NCAA picks such as Biggs unable to play in September, 90% of the Leafs will be formed from their OHL, WHL and Euro picks, 16 forwards, eight defencemen and three goalies, including a handful of walk-ons. Last year, the Leafs invited OHL exile Mike Liambas for a tryout and he eventually caught on with the University of British Columbia.

Hughes doesn’t have final word on the non-drafted players, but a contender has to be the Bowmanville native Heard.

“He did a good job this week, (but) we have all our draft picks we need to give an opportunity to grow and develop. We’ll grab some invites and get them into the mix.”

Forwards David Broll and Josh Leivo, also 2011 picks, did well this week, while thumper Jamie Devane had a couple of goals. The team liked the fiery temper of Guelph goalie Garret Sparks.

But Jerry D’Amigo, an up and coming winger a year ago, who sought to speed up his career by leaving school at RPI for the Kitchener Rangers, was not as dominant as hoped.

“He’s made some jumps forward and taken some backward,” Hughes said. “We’re hopeful for all our kids, though some grow faster than others. It’s a mental mindset. He’s got the skills, he just has to keep working on the mental side. He’s got to work and play, have a longer leash and be allowed to make mistakes.

“We have to be patient with some players, expedite the process with others and just leave some kids alone, such as Percy and Biggs. This experience alone for them was enough. With others, we will intensify the relationship a bit, push their buttons harder. This was an awakening, an arrival, to play against those two, three or four years older.”

Blacker is expected to stay all the way to the big camp to stack up against those trying to fight for the sixth and seventh jobs, the likes of Matt Lashoff and Jeff Finger.

“That’s what camp is about, making good impressions on people,” Blacker said. “You have to worry about what you can control, instead of everything else. The next step is the rookie touranament, another level higher.”


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