TORONTO - Jim Hughes need only mention Jake Gardiner and Matt Frattin to show how far a ticket from the Maple Leafs prospect camp can go.
A year apart, the two made full use of the annual July gathering of draft picks, free agents, trade acquisitions and walk-ons, using the stepping stone to the rookie camp and eventually the big team last season. Hughes, the club’s director of player development, says there’s nothing like a taste of the NHL life to get a prospect pumped.
“It gives them exposure to so many things,” Hughes said Thursday as 42 players began arriving for the July 1-5 sessions at the Leafs’ MasterCard Centre base.
“It’s getting to know our management, staff, coaches, social media, discipline, habits, nutrition and sports psychology. It’s a barometer for where they’re at and where they can hone in on strengths and weaknesses. Some guys get it immediately, they sit up in their chairs and apply it to their own games. With some guys, we still have to push their buttons to move forward.”
The newest recruits include all 2012 draft picks, led by first-rounder Morgan Rielly, fellow defenceman Matt Finn (35th overall) and forwards Dominic Toninato (126), Connor Brown (156) and Ryan Rupert (157).
At least two players are using this camp strictly as a North American cultural primer for the NHL.
Leo Komarov, already projected to play among the Leafs’ bottom six forwards, is among the oldest here at 25. Signed from Moscow Dynamo six years after GM John Ferguson drafted him from the Finnish juniors, he’s already looking at homes in town this week.
“We’ll get him used to our facility and up to speed on a lot of other things,” Hughes said. “His English is great (Komarov was born in Estonia). In fact, he speaks several languages.”
And there’s goalie Ander Alcaine, the first Spanish-trained player to play pro outside the country, with Briancon in France. He is more a curiosity than prospect, as a guest of Francois Allaire.
“A few players, such as (defenceman) Jesse Blacker have been around the block here before. But down the road, we hope it all kicks in, so we don’t have anyone saying: ‘I wish you would have told me to expect this or that’. It’s for them to take the information we give here and step up to the plate.”
The camp will have three Blue and White scimmage games with referees, while power-skating lessons with new adviser and former Canadian pairs champion Barbara Underhill have been arranged.
FIVE PROSPECTS TO WATCH
The Leafs have some investment in this mystery man, whom they were in contact with all season to lure away from the KHL. With 50 points in his last 98 games for Dynamo, he has obviously been promised at least a shot with the Leafs.
“There are plans to put him right in the fire,” confirmed Hughes, one of the Leaf scouts who saw Komarov play his last KHL season. “He’s ready to come over. We’ll get him acclimatized on the ice and he’ll sit in for some of our seminars. He’s already a real well-rounded player,” Hughes said.
Komarov was picked 180th overall in ’06, but the next year, the Leafs took current regular Carl Gunnarsson at 189.
Hughes wanted to get one thing straight about Biggs’ surprise move to leave college at Miami (Ohio) after one year.
“We wanted to stay out of his way and make sure that was a family decision. We realize he is trying to expedite his career. But he’s also walking into his second camp and with a chance to make a run at the big club.”
Biggs had nine goals and eight assists with Miami. If he doesn’t make the Leafs, his options are the Marlies, or more likely the OHL Oshawa Generals, who own his OHL rights.
“In junior, he can play 18 to 22 minutes a night, play on the power play. He will have ownership of his own situation and that’s a burden he needs to shoulder every night.”
His entry-level deal after a fine world junior tournament with Sweden has the club hoping they’ve unearthed a strong stay-at-home defender at 116th in 2010.
“He was an integral part of their gold-medal team, a big, burly (6-foot-2, 201 pounds) shut-down guy, but still a bit cerebral.”
Granberg has just two goals in 91 games in the Skelleftea club’s program since 2008, underlining where on the ice his speciality is.
“We’d like to see him go as far as our rookie camp,” Hughes added. “But it’s more than likely he goes back. He’s in a very good spot in Skelleftea and it could be best to leave him there one more year and be that more prepared next year.”
Last year’s co-first rounder with Biggs, had some injury issues in junior (held to 27 points in 40 games), but thanks to the Marlies’ long playoff run, where he played a game and worked under Dallas Eakins, he has a head start on this camp.
“He’s not wet behind the ears any more,” Hughes said. “When he was healthy with Mississauga, he was a leader and we expect he’ll have a leadership role with the Marlies.”
Born in Jaca, near the Pyrenees Mountains, the 20-year-old has an e-mail address with Hasek’s name in it because he was called ‘the Spanish Hasek’ by teammates on the local hockey team. That part of Spain does have some rinks and hockey history.
He had a 2.78 goals-against average with his French club team, but has also represented Spain in the A division of the world championships.