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Looking To Open Eyes At Rookie Tourney

by Mike Ulmer / Toronto Maple Leafs
Dallas Eakins deals in a tantalizing truth.

Eakins, the Marlies newly-appointed coach is running the Maple Leafs rookie tournament. The camp starts Sunday in Kitchener. It includes four exhibition games and ends Thursday.

Players are sent a one-way ticket to Kitchener and they carry with them a message Eakins drives home whenever he can: “why not you?”

“We’re a rebuilding club and we are looking for young players,” he tells the prospects. “Why can’t one of those be you? Last year we had two players, Luke Schenn and Nikolai Kulemin come to our camp and stick. It can happen.”

To that end, Eakins doesn’t want to talk about tickets home or how prospects can’t be too disappointed if they fail to advance. Those elements will sort themselves out. He acknowledges that a prohibitive number of rookies need more time in junior, overseas or in the American League with the Marlies. It will take a knockout in the big camp for a young player to unseat a veteran. The odds of playing in the NHL, for the 14 forwards, seven defence and three goalies who will attend the rookie camp are prohibitive.

“But the biggest thing I don’t want to hear is that ‘we’re young and we have time to develop,” Eakins said. “The time to make a hockey team is always right now.”

Eakins has been impressed by the efficiency of Swedish defenceman Carl Gunnarsson. The six-foot-two, 189-pound Gunnarsson is a defence-first player who brings some offence. He managed six goals and 16 points in the Swedish Elite League. “You have to appreciate his defensive game and the efficiency in what he does,” said Eakins, himself a former defenceman. “He’s sort of flown under the radar but he played in the World Championships on a good Swedish team.”

No member of the defence at the camp is smaller than six-foot-one. They include junior players Jesse Blacker and Adam Wallace, both of the Windsor Spitfires, Shawinigan rearguard Simon Lacroix, Western League player Brandon Manning of Chilliwack, B.C., Barron Smith of the Peterborough Petes and six-foot-four, Slovakian rearguard Juraj Mikus.

Goalie Andrew Engelage, who won 46 of 51 decisions for the Spitfires, will share the net with James Reimer. Reimer is expected to challenge for the number one job with the Marlies this season. Jonas Gustavsson, a much-ballyhooed free agent signing, will begin his climb to the Maple Leafs crease at rookie camp.

The intrigue will revolve around the centre position. Start, of course, with Nazem Kadri, the Leafs 18-year-old first-rounder, a 23-goal scorer for the London Knights.

Centreman Tyler Bozak, signed as a free agent out of the University of Denver, was lauded by scouts for his skating, competitiveness and offensive imagination. He has a meaningful chance to make advance to the Leafs’ roster.

So too does Swedish left winger Viktor Stalberg. Stalberg impressed GM Brian Burke with his willingness to go to the trouble spots. He is a natural scorer and six-foot-three, 210 pounds he brings top-shelf size. His skating is excellent and after three years of American Collegiate hockey, the 23-year-old Stalberg has outgrown his competition.

Two more Burke signings, former Notre Dame power forward Christian Hanson and Newfoundlander Robert Slaney will be at camp.

The sole European at forward, Mikhail Stefanovich, scored 49 goals in 56 games for Quebec. Rounding out the forward corps are Alex Berry, who got eight games with the Marlies last season, Joel Champagne, Mississauga project Jamie Devane, Marlie Stefano Giliati, Richard Greenop of the Winsor Spitfires, John Kurtz, a 21-goal scorer with the Sudbury Wolves, Dale Mitchell, another Spitfire and Greg Scott, a 32-goal scorer last season with Seattle.

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