by Bob Harwood
October 6, 2003.
-- Leafs TV
With the end of the Leafs pre-season schedule comes the most anticipated stretch of training camp, from the personnel point of view.
The thinking in Leaf country has been that as many as two to three regular spots have been up for grabs for the start of the season, considering the medical situation involving Bryan McCabe and Tom Fitzgerald or the possibility for change among the forward group.
Based on who saw action in the home-and-home series with the Red Wings that ended in a 4-2 Leaf win at home Sunday night, two forwards and four defencemen were still on the radar screen, but those numbers were trimmed with the assignment of Carlo Colaiacovo and Pierre Hedin to St. John's and the release of Jamie Pushor Monday.
For the most part, Pat Quinn's recent comments still apply: Can the team afford to have an understandably mistake-prone player or two occupy a regular spot at the NHL level with so much to learn on the job? Clearly management feels that Maxim Kondratiev and Matt Stajan will make the fewest mistakes of the rookie troop.
The 19-year-old Stajan has had a very solid camp, and was as poised in most game situations as he was in handling the constant media attention he received as a local favourite. Stajan scored a very impressive goal to help lead the Leafs over the Wings Sunday night.
| It appears Colaiacovo will get another year of seasoning on the Rock. |
(Dave Sandford/Getty Images)
He was lined up on the left wing with Sundin and Nolan, a sign that the Leafs are willing to give him the chance to adapt to a position change (he's been a center most of his career) and the opportunity to show he can make the most of playing with two veteran all-stars.
Stajan has displayed a lot of confidence with the puck and a grasp of subtle things like fore-check positioning and defensive zone coverage. He lost a few physical battles for the puck, but acknowledges that he must get stronger to prosper and survive at the NHL level.
Physical strength is one of Nathan Perrott's biggest qualities on the ice. He displayed a 'hit first, ask questions later' approach on the forecheck and brought an infectious energy to the seven preseason games he played on NHL ice.
Perrott was also at home in traffic in the offensive zone, on a team that likes to reward players who don't mind doing the dirty work it takes to score goals at close range. He's no stranger to scoring, although it's been seven years since a 30-goal season in Oshawa of the OHL. His playing time and status on suggests the waiver-protected list strongly suggests Leafs are stating that Perrott had a chance to grab a spot and hold onto it.
Early in camp, Pat Quinn stated almost from the beginning that there would be little benefit to keeping a young defenceman in anything other than a regular, starting role. Half a dozen rock-solid games later, Kondratiev has forced the team's hand and inherit exactly that. He bounces back nicely from mistakes, plays with a gritty edge that was easy to appreciate from a rink-side vantage point.
He is not especially big, but can take care of himself physically, and early in the exhibition season, displayed a real imagination with the puck. Without a history of big offensive numbers, Kondratiev told me Sunday night that he knows the Leafs are expecting balance out of him, a sense of two-way play that would compliment the existing blue-line corp.
Carlo Coliacovo is a blue-line quarterback in the waiting, but obviously disappointed at going to St. John's. Extremely confident in passing and shooting situations, he can balance that with a willingness to play the body aggressively, in his own zone. It will take some time, but his positional decision making will catch up to his great skating ability. The Leafs' decision came down to whether he would MOST benefit from the workload of a number one defenceman in the AHL, 20 to 25 minutes of work in all situations.
At age 25 and a veteran of the Swedish elite league, Pierre Hedin is the most experienced of the 'three young prospects.' That went a long way toward the comfort he showed in the overseas exhibition games. Since then, he's been a good decision maker with puck, but has struggled a bit with smaller spaces and explosive forwards on the NHL ice. That ultimately forced the decision to send him down. It's a loose comparison, but Hedin might benefit from exactly the type of conditions that helped Mikael Tellqvist improve his standing in the organization: plenty of ice-time in the lower-pressure atmosphere in St. John's, where he can learn the speed and scale of the North American version of the game. Patience is one of Hedin's most important qualities.