TORONTO - The Maple Leafs have 70 names to track at this training camp who provide almost as many different story lines.
Those who are a lock to make the team as starters are almost all identified at this point, but the trials of a six-month season can cause a lot of detours and bring some unexpected names into the mix. Last year the Leafs used 47 players in nine exhibition games and around 40 in the regular season.
With the help of hockey operations vice-president Dave Poulin, here’s a look at some intriguing story lines:
MONSTER IN THE CLOSET
His timing would be off by a year, but what if Jonas Gustavsson does put his health and his game together and gives James Reimer a challenge?
The Leafs haven’t had two good young goalies in their mid-20s since Felix Potvin and Damian Rhodes. Gustavsson’s competitive streak burns as much as Reimer’s and he’s had six months of watching the latter steak his thunder.
“This is the best Jonas has looked, one of our guys at this camp probably in the healthiest state they’ve been in,” Poulin said. “There’s nothing (heart-related) at all. He’s in the best place he’s been.
“You factor what he has gone through (the deaths of both parents in four years, the injuries), let alone the cultural adjustment. You get an appreciation because I played a year in Sweden and know what it’s like to sit in a locker room in another country, another language, when everything around you is happening very fast.”
If Reimer were to slip - and first half goaltending has been a Leaf curse of late - Gustavsson could restore himself with a strong support role. Just establishing himself as a quality back-up makes him an asset the Leafs could use at a later date.
QUI EST PHILIPPE DUPUIS?
With all due respect to how well Tim Brent and Darryl Boyce centred the muckers last season, Dupuis also made an impact in his first full NHL season. But few Leaf fans watched the Colorado Avalanche, so Dupuis is a dark horse here. He can play three positions and is on a two-way contract. Both Poulin and new player personnel boss Rick Dudley were big fans of Dupuis in the AHL a couple of years ago.
“This is a very versatile player who gets very involved,” Poulin said. “He’s a good skater, kills penalties and he has good size (six feet, nearly 200 pounds).
“When you create depth and competition it’s all good. His expectations are very high and they should be.”
HEARD IS THE WORD
One of a handful of undrafted players invited to the July prospects camp, centre Mitchell Heard went from prospect camp to rookie tournament. Others in the same boat of unsigned players include defencemen Dave Cowan, Garrett Clarke, Denny Urban, Mike Schwindt and Matt Stanisz. But Heard, who had 50 points for Plymouth in the OHL last year, is a scoring centre in an organization quite shy in that department.
“That’s the value of a prospect camp,” Poulin said. “It saves the first training camp. It used to be you drafted a kid, brought him to camp, kept him five days, sent him home and called him back the next year. We’re well past that. Look what that camp has produced for us in just two years, a player such as Andrew Crescenzi, (another undrafted player who signed a three-year entry-level contract in 2010).
“The onus on (amateur scouting director) Dave Morrison and his staff is to come up with the top player and top positional need. So from a centre standpoint, we really liked Mitchell. He was on our list, we didn’t get to draft him, but he was our first call afterwards.”
FINGER WILL LINGER
This is the last year of Finger’s onereous contract, another $3.5 million US tied up with the Marlies. Or will it be?
Poulin toes the company line that the 31-year-old Finger is encouraged to beat someone out, though his chance to test management’s sincerity last year was wiped out by an early camp injury.
“From a conditioning and injury-free standpoint, this is the best he’s probably been the past two years,” Poulin said. “We know he has faced a lot of scrutiny in the past couple of years. But if anyone earns a spot, they’re going to get a spot. You don’t have to look further than Joey Crabb, Brent or Boyce. You give us no choice, you’re going to play. The term Brian uses is ‘punch a hole in the lineup’.”
The Leafs are deeper on the blueline this year and Finger’s name might not come up. But if it does it might be because the club tries to do something with the increasingly unwieldy $4.5 million contract of fellow defenceman Mike Komisarek.
JUMPIN' JAKE FLASH
Coach Ron Wilson said Friday there will be more emphasis on defencemen joining the rush this year. The high-flying Gardiner, a former first round pick of the Ducks, might get the green light at some stage.
Player development director Jim Hughes spoke of the 21-year-old Minnesotan’s “God-given” ability to skate smoothly without having to dig in and slow his stride. Gardiner does get into trouble if his defensive partner and other teammates can’t read his mind, but he can also zip back and cover for his mistakes. The Leafs have a new offensive blueliner in John-Michael Liles and Jesse Blacker is going to give Gardiner a challenge among the rookie rearguards. But if Gardiner shows he can take care of his own end, his ticket to the ACC will come soon enough.