Thoughts from the Rookie Tournament, Game 4

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    In the final game of the rookie tournament, the Leafs‘ rookies were beaten soundly — to the tune of 7-1 — by their Ontario rivals, the Ottawa Senators.

    Although I was not able to attend this game in person, fellow Leafs die-harder ‘Bell’ was in attendance for all of the games and has kindly provided some thoughts about the action (or was it inaction?) at the Aud last night, and the tournament as a whole.

    Here is a rundown of our conversation, following the game.

    GB: A 7-1 final?  Ouch.   

    Bell:  Reimer had a bad game, plain and simple.  He isn’t ready yet, and might need to watch his back given the way Engelege played in relief of him.  Kid came in and made some excellent saves.   Reimer looked like a guy who thinks he has a job already.  Engelege played as though he was trying to take a job away from someone.  And he just might.

    GB:  Given how Reimer progressed last season the Leafs‘ AHL backup role is probably still his to lose.   Good on Engelege for providing solid relief – he should earn a job somewhere, if not with the Leafs‘ ECHL affiliate (Reading), then in another team’s system.

    Bell:  Well, it didn’t help that the D was weak again.   Blacker looked okay, when the play gets behind him he has trouble recovering, that was no exception tonight.   But when the play is in front of him and he is able to anticipate, he is solid.  

    GB:  Assistant GM Jeff Jackson was complimenting his play the other day on the Fan.  Probably ticketed back to the OHL, as he has eligibility remaining and the Leafs have so much depth.

    Bell:  Yeah, another year in the ‘O’ would be good for him.   He isn’t ready to make the jump yet, but the potential is certainly there, I think we’ve all seen that.   Gunnarsson and Manning are two other guys on the blueline who have flashed some potential also, although both struggled a bit tonight.

    GB:  I think Gunnarsson will be coming over from the SEL this season, so we should see him on the Marlies this year.   He wants to play in North America, and the team wants him here.   Like all prospects he has a few things to work on, but he is an intelligent player who has a lot of room yet to grow skill-wise.  Keep an eye on him.

    Bell:  Speaking of which, how about Manning?   Sharp kid, but he’s got to get stronger.   Got tossed around like a rag doll out there.   Positionally, however, he looks solid.  Makes smart plays with the puck also.

    GB:  He could make it as a shutdown defenseman, if he commits to adding some muscle.   Guys in his weight class only find success at the pro level if they are named Brian Rafalski, and he is not that type of player. Back to the WHL would be my guess, I think he is still eligible.

    Bell:  Wasn’t impressed with Joe Ryan.  He got into it when an Ottawa guy hit his teammate knee-on-knee, good to see him standing up for the guy.  Other than that, though – he’s done nothing except make bad plays.  He’s my “going nowhere” guy, if I had to pick one.    

    GB:  He didn’t look sharp against the Penguins the other night.   Wasn’t reading the play well, has a lot of work to do if he wants to remain in the Leafs system.   So we’ve got your “going nowhere” guy … who is your “out of nowhere” guy?

    Bell:  John Kurtz.   Didn’t do anything too special, but was steady.   Very good stickhandler, decent skater, he has some moves.   For a guy who no one seemed to have heard of, he did a nice job.   People watching on TV probably didn’t notice him much, but at the game where you could see all of the play, he was far more of an asset than a liability.   Knows where to be, when he needs to be there, and what to do when he gets there, especially in the neutral zone.

    GB:  Certainly, he has looked good in the context of few really knowing much about him prior to the tournament.  Could fly under-the-radar if he can keep the same sort of consistency with the Marlies.  I don’t think he is going to be a big-time offensive threat, but could turn into a reliable defensive forward, quiet but steady.  Maybe a Dave Reid or Garry Valk type.

    Bell:  Speaking of steady, you know who I really liked out there tonight?   Dale Mitchell.   Pure heart and soul player, goes all out on every play.   Wouldn’t be shocked to see him wind up wearing an ‘A’ on the Marlies this year.   Not the most talented guy but makes the most of what he has.  The effort he puts forth on every shift puts a lot of the guys you might call more highly-talented players to shame.

    GB:  I couldn’t agree more.  If only every player had his attitude.

    Bell: [laughing] You mean like Stefanovich?   Most frustrating player there.   Had moments with the puck where he really looked like he could be something … and then he would disappear.   Too bad those moments where he flashes his abilities are so few and far between.    He’s a long ways off at this point.

    GB: Well, even the Tin Man found a heart in Oz, so maybe Stefanovich can do that in the Q.   Project player, for sure.

    Bell:  Robert Slaney.  Now there is a kid with heart.  Wasn’t sure the first two games, but he’s gotten better with each one.   Forget about the end result for a second, this kid battled hard tonight, and the game before.   Work ethic is a visible thing, and you can see it with him.

    GB:  Agreed, it is a visible attribute, for sure.   Marlies’ fans ought to be pleased with him this season; if he can keep working as hard as he has, the points will come.

    Bell:  Some people may be tempted to knock Hanson and Stalberg for exactly that. They both looked really tired tonight, and just weren’t the same players they were in the first two games.   But I think it has more to do with the schedule than the effort they are putting in, they showed me too much in the first couple games to question their work ethic.

    GB:  I think you’re right.   Four games in five nights is a lot for anybody.   People need to remember that this tournament is these guys’ first real action since the offseason.   Not everyone is in prime physical condition just yet.   Training camp will solve issue that real quick, especially with Ron Wilson running the show.

    Bell:  The other college kid, Bozak, hasn’t looked too worn out.   He looked good despite the loss.  He’s come to play, and to win a spot.  That offseason program they put him on looks to have paid off.

    GB:  It was a cycling-based program from what I read, which is likely why his legs didn’t disappear as quickly as others’ did.   He’s probably the best bet to win a spot with the big club out of camp.  He’s ready.

    Bell:  I’d really like to see Kadri get some games at the NHL level to start the season.   Give him a taste of the pros, then send him down before the contract stipulations kick in.   His effort throughout the tournament was impressive – tonight he did not back down, or let up, regardless of the score.  He’s going to be special.

    GB:  I don’t know if that’s the best thing for him or not.   The question is, where do you play him?   There are a number of vets on the roster as it is, and assuming Bozak makes the big club there is nowhere really to play Kadri that would benefit him.   It’s a tough call.  I can see where you are coming from, but in my opinion it would be better for him to go back to London, spend the season getting stronger, be a top player in the league and get that WJC experience.   There is no need to rush him, at this stage.  

    Bell:  You don’t think he deserves a shot?

    GB:  It’s not about what he deserves, it’s about where to play him.  Look at the depth chart – it’s easy to say you could bump a veteran, but you have to be careful with that when dealing with guys who have earned their stripes.   Even Bozak will have a hard time finding regular minutes at first, for the same reason.  He’s never played an NHL game, so like everyone else not named Crosby or Ovechkin, he will have to start at the bottom (fourth line) and earn his way up.     So the question is, how beneficial would fourth-line minutes be to Kadri, for the eight or nine games he would play before getting sent back to the OHL?

    Bell:  I think there is some value in it, but it depends on how the roster shakes out, for sure.   If a couple vets get waived or demoted the way Burke suggested they might, I could see it happen.

    GB:  I certainly won’t rule it out as a possibility.  Kadri has played well and Burke is clearly impressed with him.   Either way, his future is a bright one.   Can’t wait to see him play with another fifteen pounds packed on.

    Bell:  I think, getting back to tonight’s game, that the team just looked spent.   I mean, it’s a rookie tournament, and the final scores really don’t matter.   Heck, it’s not even NHL-level competition these guys are facing.  More like a cross between ECHL and AHL at best.   So it’s hard to judge how a guy will really do at the next level.    What you want to see out of something like this is which players have room to grow, who shows flashes of talent that can be tapped, that sort of thing.  And I think there has been a lot to feel good about, regardless of whether the game was a 3-1 win or a 7-1 loss.

    GB:  You are right, it’s tough to gauge from this sort of event exactly what the future holds.   Gustavsson and Bozak look ready to make the jump at first glace, but the truth is the preseason will be a much better indicator of their immediate futures.   I would be willing to venture a guess that Stalberg and Hanson  could see NHL action this season, based on where they appear to be in their development.    I think you can also derive from this tournament that Slaney and Mitchell will bring a lot of character, and a good dose of offense, to the Marlies as they continue to work toward future NHL roles.   And kids like Blacker, and especially Kadri, have given us something to look forward to in the coming years.   

    Bell:  They certainly do.  The thing I get out of this tournament is, despite the team’s poor overall play, the prospect cupboard is far from empty.     

    GB:   That’s exactly right.   And that is what I, too, hope fans take away from this tournament.  Not the final scores, but rather the potential seen in several players, and the room they have to develop and grow.   There is, for once, sense of hope for the future of this team and as you said, the cupboard is clearly no longer bare.

    With thanks to Bell for providing his insights, post-game.

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