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Are The Kids Alright?

by Staff Writer / Toronto Maple Leafs

TORONTO (CP) -- A feeling of nervous excitement hung in the air of the Maple Leafs dressing room Thursday while a group of rookies talked in hushed tones about their chances of cracking the team's lineup.

With less than a week to go before the start of the regular season, the Leafs still have a large group of young players in camp and all of them think they are ready to play in the NHL this season.

"We know that there's an opportunity for us here," said 21-year-old Alexander Steen, who has been one of the most impressive players in training camp. "With the new rules it's opening up the game a lot for us young guys."

Standing in front of his stall just a few feet away, winger Kyle Wellwood summed up the situation in much the same way.

After two seasons with St. John's in the American Hockey League, the 22-year-old feels like he's ready to make the leap to the NHL.

"I'm just trying to bring a lot of energy to the team as a young guy, a lot of enthusiasm," said Wellwood. "It's an anxious time, but I'm really excited."

Toronto will conclude its pre-season with a home-and-home series against Detroit starting Friday night at Joe Louis Arena.

Leafs coach Pat Quinn will then decide which players to keep for the regular season opener against Ottawa on Oct. 5.

Essentially, Quinn has to decide whether young players like Steen, Wellwood and defenceman Carlo Colaiacovo deserve a place on the team ahead of veterans like Steve Thomas.

"You have to measure in your mind whether or not you believe they'll continue to grow," Quinn said of deciding to whether to keep a young player or not. "These young men have to learn to play at this level and there'll be challenges all along.

"What you're trying to do is say, `Are they ready to take up that challenge?"'

Steen and centre Matt Stajan, a 21-year-old with one NHL season already under his belt, both seem likely to start the season with the big club.

Wellwood might be the odd man out among the young forwards, especially if Eric Lindros and Jason Allison are both healthy enough to start the season.

But nothing can safely be assumed because there are so many question marks surrounding the team.

Quinn still has 31 players in camp and says he isn't yet sure which of them will remain with the team when the season starts.

"A lot of the factors lean towards . . . as many as five of the (young players) being in the lineup," he said.

That means 23-year-old defenceman Staffan Kronvall could potentially play for the Maple Leafs along with Colaiacovo, Wellwood, Stajan and Steen.

The opportunity is right there in front of them, but the decision is out of their hands.

While admitting that it's tough not to be distracted by thoughts of making the team, Wellwood said he has an even bigger concern at the moment.

"The game in Detroit (on Friday) is a big one for me," said Wellwood, a native of nearby Windsor, Ont. "It's the closest I've played to home in years."

Quinn hopes to see the young guys play with enough passion in the final tuneups against the Red Wings that he has no choice but to keep them around.

Roster positions are there for the taking.

"They've been reminded that an opportunity is there for them, but not for passive people," Quinn said. "We want people to be assertive in their quest for a job on this team."

It'll only be a few days before they find out if they've earned one.

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