TORONTO - Every time Dallas Eakins walked past a Nazem Kadri media scrum at last year’s rookie tournament in London, you could see the coach’s dark eyes smouldering.
Eakins had nothing personal against Kadri, but all the attention the first-round pick generated became a huge distraction, moreso when Kadri didn’t stand out in his hometown as hoped.
“That stuff was driving me crazy,” Eakins said, as he prepares for this year’s four-team tourney starting Saturday in Oshawa. “It was discounting the other players, and what I wanted to do.”
This year will be a lot different and not just because Kadri has graduated, eventually finding his niche with the big club late last season. With the prospect cupboard slowly being restocked and the Phil Kessel draft debt to Boston settled, there should be more for management to evaluate. Fewer jobs are up for grabs with the Leafs, so there won’t be that pressure on one player in the coming games that Kadri had attached to himself.
“I was just talking about that to (general manager) Brian Burke last week,” Eakins said. “We’ve got more young players coming through and next year should be even better. It’s not like we’re working with a lot of guys from other organizations. (Amateur scouting director) Dave Morrison and his men logged a lot of air miles, put a lot of mileage on their cars and spent a lot of time at the rink getting these guys this far.”
The young Leafs will have one practice Friday and then play three games in four nights against Chicago, Pittsburgh and Ottawa.
“We’re going to see where a lot of players are at,” said Eakins, who’ll be assisted by his Marlies staff of Derek King and Gord Dineen. “First and foremost, we’re looking to see who competes for the puck, who decides: ‘It’s mine and I’m getting it from you any way I can’.
“I want to see who backchecks hard, who helps a winger or who blows him off because he thinks getting the points himself will impress people.
“The guys who are here but not drafted, such as (Plymouth Whalers centre) Mitchell Heard, the guys who’ve been injured and overlooked ... that’s who I pull for at a camp like this. (Leafs’ 18-year-old 2011 first-rounder) Stuart Percy knows he has three of these camps to show us something, where Heard must be saying: ‘This could be my only shot’.”
Forward Tyler Biggs, picked just ahead of Percy, will not be at this year’s camp while at Miami (Ohio) University. Percy knows he has to get bigger and needs another full year on the blueline at St. Mike’s. Defencemen Jake Gardiner and Jesse Blacker have been mentioned as contenders for jobs with the Leafs this year, but there are at least eight defenceman with NHL experience already going to the big camp on Sept. 16, if Luke Schenn re-signs by then.
Rookie camps, meanwhile, can provide surprises.
“You look back at guys such as Tyler Bozak, Viktor Stalberg and Jonas Gustavsson all did well,” Eakins reminded. “I buzzed by the weight room two weeks ago and there were 28 guys working out (many of them rookies). They’re not even (officially) under our thumb yet. That tells me they care about their fitness level. The best player can have the crappiest fitness level.”
But if the young Leafs think staging a fight is going to impress Eakins or the brass, they might as well leave their gloves on.
“In all sports, there’s conflict, but there’s nothing I hate more than two guys lining up for it. If it starts because two guys come up hard after fighting for a puck, I’m fine with it. When I was at Washington’s rookie camp and we played Philly, there were 10 fights a game and you’re wondering; ‘What is this?’ I would want to win the game and show what I have.”