The stars of the Toronto Maple Leafs were overseas in the much publicized NHL Challenge tour in Sweden, but that didn’t matter to thirty-six players who were looking to make a favorable impression on new St. John’s bench boss Doug Shedden and Toronto scouting guru Barry Trapp. Held at Kitchener’s Memorial Auditorium complex the week of September 15-20th, the Leafs ‘B’ camp was an opportunity for veteran players like Aaron Gavey and Jamie Pushor to show they belong with the big team, and a chance for new recruits like 2003 draft picks Jeremy Williams, Martin Sagat and John Mitchell to show the team they made the right decision with their selections.
The players were divided into two teams, and participated in daily 50 minute scrimmages, as well as practices and off-ice sessions. The on-ice sessions were led by Shedden and his assistant, former Oiler Kevin McLelland. Former Leafs captain Wendel Clark lent a hand during the practice sessions, while the Leafs scouting staff kept a close eye on things from the stands. Shedden, a coach known for his hard-working, aggressive teams in Memphis, was anxious to put his stamp on his new charges. The majority of the players at the camp will make up the roster for the Baby Leafs in St. John’s this year, and were receptive to Shedden’s teachings.
The camp scrimmages were a chance for Shedden to start tinkering with potential line combinations and defensive pairings for this year’s Baby Leafs squad. Kyle Wellwood and Brad Leeb displayed some chemistry working together up front, and rearguard Jay Harrison appears to be on the verge of enjoying a break-out season in St. John’s. Youngsters Williams and Sagat were the most pleasant surprise of the sessions, pairing up to form a dangerous offensive combination. While they are not eligible to suit up on the Rock this season, they gave observers a tantalizing look at what can be expected in the future.
Here’s a look at some of the players of interest who participated at the camp. The stats listed are from the camp scrimmages.
Jeremy Williams – Center
The Maple Leafs selected the Swift Current Broncos star in the seventh round of the 2003 NHL entry draft. Passed over in the 2002 draft, Williams exploded in the 2002-03 season, recording 93 points to lead the Broncos in scoring. He was easily the most impressive forward at the camp, playing with confidence and effectiveness. Williams is a very heady player, who has the ability to make the players around him better. While a bit on the small side, Williams is a fearless player and won many battles in the corners and in front of the net. His biggest strength is his playmaking ability. He consistently finds the open man, and moves the puck smartly. He will spend the 2003-04 season in Swift Current, and is eligible to turn pro next year. Don’t be surprised to see Williams on the Baby Leafs roster in 2004-05.
Martin Sagat – Left Wing
The Leafs second pick in the 2003 draft (91st overall), the young Slovakian winger clicked immediately with Jeremy Williams. Sagat is very big at 6’3″, and is similar to players such as Nik Antropov and Alexei Ponikarovsky who have come through the Leafs system before him. Sagat uses his size to his advantage, and has very soft hands for a man his size. He displayed creativity with the puck, and the intelligence to move into the open spaces in the offensive zone. Sagat is a good skater, and will only become more effective as he gains mass and strength to his lanky frame. He was drafted in the CHL import draft by the Kootenay Ice, where he will look to acclimatize himself to the North American game after playing in the Trencin organization in Slovakia. Sagat is at least three years away from challenging for a spot in Toronto.
John Mitchell – Center
The Leafs selected the big Plymouth center in the fifth round of the 2003 draft. Mitchell is a good skater who prides himself on his two-way game. Mitchell displayed excellent face-off abilities in Kitchener. He plays with a bit of an edge to his game, and did not back down from any of the older, more experienced Leaf prospects. He will most likely be a defensive player if he makes it to the NHL, although he did demonstrate a good shot and offensive instincts at the camp. Reminiscent of former Plymouth Whaler and Leaf prospect Kris Vernarsky, Mitchell will play a much bigger role with the Whalers this season. Mitchell has two more seasons of junior eligibility remaining.
Jamie Pushor – Defense
The 30-year-old NHL veteran was invited to the Leafs training camp too late to participate in the Sweden trip, and had to settle for impressing the scouts in Kitchener. He worked hard all week long, and his attitude had a positive impact on the younger players in camp. Pushor has the size and the experience to play the reliable, defense-first style the big club needs from a sixth or seventh blue liner.
Dominic D’Amour – Defense
D’Amour has the size to be a dominant physical presence in the defensive end. He plays a similar style to fellow prospect Jay Harrison, although not as developed at this point. D’Amour needs to work on his skating and consistency if he is to earn a contract with the team this season. The Leafs must re-sign D’Amour by May 1st, or he is eligible to re-enter the entry draft. D’Amour will finish his QMJHL career with Gatineau (formerly Hull) this season.
Todd Ford – Goalie
The big goalie from the Western Hockey League was back for his second camp with the Leafs. Ford impressed the Leafs brass last year, and his performance this year should convince the organization that his development is on schedule. Ford moves very well from post to post, and has a quick glove hand. He handles the puck very well for a goalie, and is learning to use his imposing 6’4″ height to maximum advantage. Ford still needs to work on controlling his rebounds, a problem that has got him in some trouble in the WHL in the past, especially in Prince George where the defense was prone to allowing 40 to 50 shots a night. The Leafs have to sign Ford by next May 1st to retain his rights, so they will be watching his progress closely this season. Ford has the potential to be a starter for the Leafs down the road.
Jay Harrison – Defense
The big St. John’s rearguard showed up to camp in great shape and poised to make a move up the club’s depth chart. Harrison learned a lot in his first pro season, as was evidenced by his improved skating and defensive positioning in the camp. Often likened to Oiler’s captain Jason Smith, the comparisons aren’t far off the mark. Harrison has great size, and plays the body effectively. He also has the potential to be a team leader, as he has a great attitude and work effort that his team mate’s respect. As his confidence in his game is growing, it is clear that Harrison is getting more involved offensively. He has a good, hard shot and consistently makes smart passes. Harrison will be a leader on the young defensive corps in St. John’s this year. He could get a call to the big team before the season is through.
Ian White – Defense
The Swift Current Broncos star made a name for himself in Halifax at the World Junior Tournament last Christmas with his deadly shot from the point. White is a great skater who has tremendous offensive instincts. While there is a concern among scouts that his lack of size may hold him back at the pro level, he is rarely overpowered by larger players. With his new contract with the Leafs in his back pocket, White will look to finish his WHL career as the Broncos all-time leading scorer amongst defensemen.
Shaun Landolt – Right Wing
The Leafs’ final selection in the 2003 draft, Landolt is a strong winger who plays a determined game. He is a good skater, and excels on the penalty kill. Landolt did not look out of place in the Kitchener camp, and created a few scoring opportunities here and there; however he has limited offensive upside at the pro levels. Landolt has the size to compete in the pros, but he must continue to work on his skating and defensive play if he wants to play professionally. Landolt will play for the Calgary Hitmen of the WHL this season.
Tyson Marsh – Defense
Tyson Marsh was signed to a contract last fall after impressing Leafs management as a training camp invitee. Marsh has good size, and is a reliable presence in all three zones. He had a solid camp, although he did not stand out particularly on the offensive end. He was returned to Vancouver of the WHL, where he will finish his junior career captaining the Giants.
Regan Kelly – Defense
The former collegian is entering his sophomore season in the AHL. He had a good start to the year in St. John’s last season, but may have hit the NCAA wall as the longer AHL season wore on. Kelly played well in Kitchener, showing an ability to join the rush and carry the puck. He has good size at 6’3″, but isn’t as aggressive as he could be. Kelly will have to continue to work hard if he wants to retain his spot in the Baby Leafs line-up, where competition will be fierce along the blue line.
David Turon – Defence
While Turon didn’t stand out on the score sheet, the young Czech blue liner played a consistent error-free game in Kitchener. He moves the puck well, and demonstrated an ability to get the puck on the net. After impressing in Hamilton at last year’s training camp, Turon had a difficult season recovering from a broken collarbone and not adjusting to the WHL style of play as quickly as he would have liked. He has pro-size at 6’3″ and is a good skater. Turon is adept at moving the puck out of his own end, but has limited upside offensively. Turon may be the odd man out in the congested Baby Leafs blue line competition, and may have to start the year in Memphis of the CHL.
Kyle Wellwood – Center
The gifted offensive center is looking to make a smooth transition from Windsor to the AHL. He performed well at the camp, displaying an ability to generate scoring chances in creative fashions. He paired with Brad Leeb and Nathan Barrett to form what could be a preview of a scoring line in St. John’s this year. Wellwood’s obvious shortcoming is his lack of size; he was clearly the smallest player on the ice. While he is probably only about 5’8″, he has added strength to his frame, and to his credit, did not back down from anyone during the scrimmages. He displayed enough speed to burst into open spaces on the ice, although he does occasionally get caught by opposing defensemen and is effectively taken out of the play. This will be a tough year for Wellwood in St. John’s, as he will have to rethink his game to some extent to succeed. He enjoyed enough success at the Kitchener camp that 30 to 40 points in his rookie AHL season is a reasonable target this year.
The Maple Leafs invited a few undrafted junior prospects to the camp to see what they may be able to offer the team down the road. Ben Ondrus, a forward from Swift Current (and teammate of Jeremy Williams and Ian White), made his second trip to a Leafs camp, and impressed everyone with his effort. The 20-year-old clicked well on a line with Williams and Sagat, crashing the net with meaning, and consistently getting open for his more talented linemates. Ondrus’ efforts earned him a longer look with the Leafs in Toronto. He could earn a spot in St. John’s, effectively replacing Riley Cote in the organization, who left the team to join the Syracuse Crunch during the off-season.
Andre Benoit of the Kitchener Rangers and Chris Campoli of the Erie Otters impressed with their play along the blue line. They were both reliable defensively, and each showed confidence when they jumped into the rush offensively. Benoit was returned to the Rangers a day before camp ended to participate in his team’s home opener, and responded with an eight point effort. Both players will be worth following this year in the OHL.
Other players who participated in the camp included Belleville forward Rane Carnegie, St. Mike’s forward Craig Foster, Brampton forward Tyler Harrison, and Kitchener forward Nathan O’Nabigon. Carnegie was nursing a sore ankle throughout, and did not get to participate in all of the scrimmages. Tyler, a huge 6’6″ center, is the younger brother of Jay Harrison. All of the invited players put in good efforts, and the experience should help them in their upcoming junior seasons.