The use of the word truculence may or may not be verboten in Leafs’ land, but looking down their rookie camp roster, there are certainly many who fit the description. For one of the team’s most abrasive prospects, Brad Ross, it’s not about the fists, but about the heart.
“It’s not so much about the tough guys, but character guys,” Ross explained. “You have the Ruperts [twin brothers Matt and Ryan], they’re character guys. They go out there and they battle hard. You’ve got [Jamie] Devane and [David] Broll who are going to stand up, change the game like they did last night.”
Ross has made an impression at the Toronto Maple Leafs’-sponsored 2013 Rookie Tournament, getting under the skin of opponents, drawing penalties, and playing a physical game. It’s something that comes naturally for the Lethbridge, AB native.
“I’ve been playing that style since I was 16 and I don’t see why I should change it now,” he said. “It’s how I want to make the NHL and I just try to go out there and show the staff that I can do it.”
For Ross, the challenge is to know where the line is — and how not to trample all over it. In his final three years of junior with the Portland Winterhawks, he racked up 203, 171, and 163 penalty minutes, respectively. He admits that he’s had help making sure he doesn’t go too far over the edge.
“How do you know where the line is? It’s a different answer every time,” he said. “I just try to go out there and play with a lot of emotion. Sometimes I cross the line.
“In junior, I had Mike Johnson, my coach, to pull me back. And then Dally [former Marlies’ coach Dallas Eakins] to pull me back, so sometimes the coach has to go, ‘Ross, settle down.’ But most of the time I know what to do.”
Toronto Marlies’ head coach Steve Spott, who served as the head coach of the Leafs’ rookie camp squad, said understanding where that line is will be the key to Ross’ future development.
“I think it’s the Sean Avery Rule,” Spott said. “You have to make sure that you’re not a distraction to your own club. I tell you what, the way he played [Saturday night in a 3-2 shootout win over the Pittsburgh Penguins’ prospects], the energy that he brought was infectious to our club and we’re going to need that every night.
“He’s a veteran player now, so for me if he plays the way he played last night — he didn’t take penalties; he’s the guy that’s going to have to draw penalties — that’s what he’s going to have to do to play.”
Last year was a bit of a disappointing one for the 21-year-old former 2010 second round selection. He only appeared in 40 games and finished with eight goals, three assists, and only 29 penalty minutes. Ross said those stats aren’t reflective of who he is as a player.
“I think it’s hard to judge my games played [last year] by my points because, honestly, for 25 games I played, I only played six shifts,” he said. “No matter who you are, you could be Sidney Crosby, it’s hard to put up points when you’re only playing six shifts.
“That was hard, I’ve never been through that before. But I dealt with it and now we’re a lot younger, so now I’m going to try to put it in fifth gear, show everybody what I have, and hopefully I can get those minutes this year.”
But a maturing Ross said that he’s taking last season as a learning experience and is a better player for it.
“Oh yeah, for sure. First of all, I got a lot better in practice just practicing against guys like Jake Gardiner and Matt Frattin and all those all-stars,” he said. “But secondly, just watching everybody helped my game a lot.”
And despite talk about the diminishing nature of the physical game at the pro level, Ross said he’s confident players like him will always have a role — as long as they can back up their mouths and fists with their skates and stick.
“For sure, there’s always going to be physical play, there’s always going to be talking,” he said. “The game’s getting a lot faster, so if you want to do that you have to have the speed, you have to have the skill, you have to have the shot — you have to have it all along with the physical play.”
With the rookie tournament wrapping up, Ross is looking forward to the main camp. He’s hoping to use both to show how he’s grown as a player.
“I just wanted to play well and show the staff that I had a good off-season, that I put in the work, and that I’m ready for camp,” he said, adding that while he’s looking forward to playing a more important role on the Marlies’ roster, a couple of turns in “The Show” would be welcome.
“It’d be nice to play a couple of games with the Leafs, but I just want to make myself a better hockey player and a better person, and then we’ll see.”
Follow Jason Menard on Twitter via @JayCMenard