September 17, 2011
Leafs like what they see
By LANCE HORNBY, QMI Agency
TORONTO - In a condensed training camp/exhibition schedule, Ron Wilson would love it if 75% of his forward lines were settled in one weekend.
That’s too early to put in stone, not to mention discouraging more than 30 other candidates at forward. But nothing from the Maple Leafs’ first scrimmages suggests the projected top three units are far off what the coaching staff scribbled on summer barbeque napkins.
“I’m impressed,” Wilson said when the players had dispersed at the MasterCard Centre. “We’ve got some chemistry already developing.
“Defence combinations are a work in progress, but what you’d call our top three lines all looked good today.”
Newcomer Tim Connolly looked comfortable between gunner Phil Kessel and last year’s late addition Joffrey Lupul, in a pair of 35-minute games. The team’s most reliable two-way troika of Clarke MacArthur, Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin won’t be tinkered with after last year, but the most encouraging sight was the instant karma among re-assigned Tyler Bozak between Nazem Kadri and Colby Armstrong. Each man is looking to prove a point to the club hierarchy.
Not only must they show they can play physical third-line hockey (which is Armstrong’s strength) they must demonstrate a scoring touch (Kadri’s speciality) and have some success on the draw and in coverage assignments. Whether Kadri and Bozak can play better defence (Bozak was a minus 29 last year), will determine if Wilson keeps them intact. In Kadri’s case, it means fighting off other young challengers for left wing.
“They’ve both got vision to see 360 degrees around the ice,” Armstrong said, after Kadri made a couple of jaw-dropping backhand passes to Bozak in traffic. “Hopefully we’ll improve with every day and start burying some chances.”
Bozak took great pride in being Kessel’s centre, but must now live with a lesser role. In trying to ease Bozak into his new duties, Wilson noted Bozak played better last year whenever he didn’t have the pressure of feeding Kessel.
“I’ve been told that, too,” Bozak said with a laugh. “Personally, I don’t really feel the difference.
“Maybe I tried to get Phil the puck a little too much last year. But he’s the guy I feel should get the puck. I might have forced it a few times more I would have on other lines.”
Armstrong has the motivation of putting last year’s string of bizarre injuries behind him, while Kadri would gladly trade all that hype around him last season when he was touted for No. 1 centre for job security as a third-line winger.
“I still have that kind of swagger and I think anyone who plays in this league needs that,” the first-rounder from 2009 insisted. “No one expects more out of me than myself. My confidence is sky high, knowing I worked hard in the summer to prepare for this season.”
With the chatty Armstrong and wise-cracking Bozak, this will would certainly be the team’s most quotable line.
“We’re all good friends, we’re not afraid to speak out and that makes it so much easier,” Kadri said. “(Getting) a comfort zone is so huge. Once you get comfortable with who you’re playing with, it makes it so much easier.
“We had a few lines jumping out there who should get players, management and fans jumping about this year.”
The first-liners were a little more guarded about evaluating one day of workouts, especially when a sloppy start by raw rookie goalie Mark Owuya inflated a 7-0 score in the first game and a rare Colton Orr backhand goal settled 1-0 nightcap.
“Obviously we have more work to do,” Connolly said. “But we’ll put it in and get things going.
“It was a good first day. The pace picked up from shinny hockey. Now we’re grinding, working harder and playing some defence.
“Phil’s a really dangerous player. I have to realize that if I look up really quick, he might have a step on a defenceman and I have to get it to him. Maybe you miss him and you see the play (that could) happen after. We’ll keep working, keep the lines of communication open and if you notice something, tell your linemate.”
The next test is the coming week, when real opposition checkers from Ottawa and Philadelphia will try and break up the band.