September 10, 2011
Time for Leafs' Cowan to shine
By LANCE HORNBY, QMI Agency
TORONTO - When his No. 85 matches his birth year, you know Dave Cowan is a little old to be at this Maple Leafs' rookie camp.
But the Leafs thought they owed one to the big defenceman from Calgary, who set an unofficial record for the shortest season by a Leaf when he suffered a year-ending shoulder dislocation two games into the club's 2010 freshman tournament last Sept. 12.
"Just heart-breaking," Toronto coach Dallas Eakins said Friday at the MasterCard Centre. "Good kid comes here (on tryout) and takes a terrible hit. We want to give him the chance he didn't get last year."
The 6-foot-4 Cowan was pursuing a puck against Ryan Schnell in a game against the Pittsburgh rookies in London when he was steered hard into the boards. Schnell, whom Cowan absolved of blame, made it as far as the AHL last year, while Cowan had a major operation in Toronto and stayed at home all winter.
"It was a long year and I'd forgotten how cold it could be in Calgary," Cowan joked. "There was a long rehab and I lost a lot of hockey. But that's the way hockey is sometimes.
"The injury took time to evaluate. In the back of my head, I wondered about coming back and maybe playing a bit somewhere, but I didn't want to rush it. I kind of knew I was done."
The graduate of tiny Robert Morris University near Pittsburgh had one pro game with AHL Norfolk Admirals upon graduation in 2010. The Leafs, with a dearth of size on the blueline at the time, were the only NHL team to offer a tryout. Since Cowan's injury, they've added Keith Aulie and Cody Franson in the role of hulking defencemen and with a group of draft picks and Marlie blueliners to be evaluated now, Cowan will liklely be starting at the bottom of the chain with the ECHL Reading (Pa.) Royals.
"He's a big, solid guy and it will be interesting to see how he does after having a whole year off," said Marlies' coach Eakins, who will be running the Leaf bench for the four-team tourney starting Saturday in Oshawa. Toronto will be facing the Chicago Blackhawks at General Motors Centre at 7 p.m., Pittsburgh on Sunday and what should be the most intense match, against Ottawa on Tuesday.
Cowan says he's ready for lots of ice time.
"After I was cleared to skate, I worked hard on my game and tried to start where I'd left off two summers ago. I decided to have my surgery right away so it wasn't a lingering injury. Now I'm back, feeling good and exciting to get going."
"I'm just here to contribute wherever I can and do what they need me to do. I'm big, but not expected to put up big offensive numbers. I'm a good skater, with a good reach and I'm a smart, first pass type guy.
"The Leafs were awesome when I came out here for my surgery, staying in touch and taking care of me. They gave me a lot of respect and I'm fortunate they gave me another opportunity."
Cowan was pleased to arrive at camp and see another Robert Morris grad here, Denny Urban. But the similarities end with them both playing defence. Urban is 5-10 and the smallest player at camp. His 40 points in 35 games for the Colonials last year doubles Cowan's four-year career with the Atlantic Conference team, where the main rivals are Holy Cross, Niagara, Army and Air Force.
"I just try to beat guys to positions," Pittsburgh native Urban said. "I know I won't beat them physically and knock them around, so I just use my quickness and ability. Dave and I played three years together and we kind of got some chemistry going."
Urban will be joining Cowan at Reading where the former spent a productive 14 games with nine points at the end of last season.
PLAYERS TO WATCH AT ROOKIE CAMP
G Mark Owuya
Leafs invested an entry-level contract in this kid, who has Ugandan-Russian parentage, was raised in Sweden and was a late-bloomer in the SEL with Djurgardens. Didn't have a great prospects camp, but should be more comfortable here.
D Jesse Blacker
Toronto kid keeps getting bigger and better, gaining valuable experience at last year's Memorial Cup. Can run up some points and play with an edge.
D Jake Gardiner
Former first-rounder acquired from Anaheim, he tied for the team lead in assists in his final year at Wisconsin. Had three helpers in a 10-game run with the Marlies late last season.
RW Matt Frattin
After leading the NCAA in goals with 36 at North Dakota, the Hobey Baker finalist was called up by the Leafs for one game. Edmonton native in the hunt for a third or fourth-line role.
LW Brad Ross
A pain to play against, the Portland Winterhawks had 69 points and a team-high 171 penalty minutes. Leafs' second round pick in 2010 will be a force down the road.
F Mitchell Heard
Made a surprising impact at the the prospect camp with a fine scoring touch. Undrafted Bowmanville boy must make the most of this tryout.