Maple Leafs training camp preview

By Jason Menard

When older Leafs start to wilt and fall, it’s time to replace them with younger, more vibrant versions to maintain the health of the tree. This training camp offers Toronto Maple Leafs prospects something they began to have only last season – budding hope.

It’s been an off-season of change for the Leafs, most prominently behind the bench, where new coach Paul Maurice is much more willing to instigate a youth movement than his predecessor Pat Quinn. In addition, the Leafs entering training camp this year also have the comfort of knowing that their potential bench boss at the NHL level is quite familiar with their exploits at the minor league level, having coached the affiliate Marlies last season.

There have been a number of changes on the Leafs’ roster, and several grizzled veterans have been shown the door. And while several prospects have the right to expect to find their name on the NHL roster once camp breaks, the most intriguing situation may play out between the pipes.

Published reports indicate that General Manager John Ferguson Jr. will live up to an earlier promise to blue-chip netminding prospect Justin Pogge to allow him the opportunity to earn the starting role in Toronto. He will compete against the newly-acquired Andrew Raycroft. Should he not win that role, Pogge will certainly be sent down to the AHL Marlies for a season of seasoning as the clear-cut No. 1, since Tuukka Rask was traded to Boston in the Raycroft deal. This could be the most entertaining and enticing storyline of the early season as Pogge has shown flashes of brilliance, while Toronto’s existing trio of netminders don’t exactly instill a lot of confidence.

This camp projects to be a continuation of last year’s regular season, which ended up becoming an extended audition for a number of players. Due to injuries, the Leafs were forced to call up seemingly the entire Marlie blueline to fortify their ravaged defense corps. This year, players such as Ian White, Staffan Kronwall, Andy Wozniewski, and Jay Harrison look to parlay last year’s experience in an emergency situation into a more regular role, right from the start.

Expect the blueline battles to be fierce as the aforementioned three players will be battling it out for two remaining roster spots – and they’ll also face stiff competition with the return of Carlo Colaiacovo, an elite defensive prospect who’s trying to shake off the injury bug. The Leafs added Hal Gill and Pavel Kubina to the roster who, along with Tomas Kaberle and Bryan McCabe, look to form the top-two pairings. With Wade Belak an attractive seventh-man option, in all likelihood, those four blueliners will battle it out to form the third pair. One would have to expect Colaiacovo to have a leg up on the competition, which could make for an exciting four-way battle for the final roster spot.

Last year, the Leafs also enjoyed the emergence of players such as Kyle Wellwood and Alexander Steen, who took advantage of opportunities created by injuries to regulars and stepped up to more than adequately fill the void. This year, while the top two lines look pretty much set in stone, especially with the addition of Mike Peca, there are a handful of positions available on the third and fourth line that could signal an opportunity. Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear that there’s anyone ready to make the jump from the team’s pool of prospects. The lone exception could be Jeremy Williams, who enjoyed a brief call-up last season. While he’s not blessed with size, his speed is an attractive addition to a club that’s got more than its fair share of plodders in the forward ranks.

Highly-touted Robbie Earl made the jump to the professional ranks late last year and would benefit from a year acclimatizing to the faster-paced game in the AHL. Other than that, recent first-round pick Jiri Tlusty will be using this camp as an audition for the Marlies roster, as opposed to being sent down to the junior ranks. Due to his age and draft status out of Europe, Tlusty can play either AHL or junior this season.

In the end, the majority of the roster changes and battles during the Leafs’ training camp in the forward ranks look to be fought between youngsters such as Ben Ondrus, Alexei Ponikarovski, and Matt Stajan, as the remainder of the Leafs’ forward prospects are at least one or two years away from consideration.

As mentioned, the training camp netminding battle could be over quickly, depending on Pogge’s performance. With talk that the NHL club will be keeping three netminders on the big-league roster, Pogge may be forced to return to the AHL as part of the numbers game. However, with the window of opportunity open – even if just a crack – could create an air of intrigue that could energize the early parts of training camp.

But the bottom line for the Leafs’ training camp will be along the blueline. A four or five-way battle for one or two-spots could come down to the wire – and the battle to be a member of the Leafs’ blueline could get downright offensive.

Copyright 2006 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.