Ron Wilson is looking for a few good men to play Western Conference-style hockey for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
“It’s hard-nosed, down low, I guess manly game,” Wilson was saying after practice on Thursday. “I’d like to get our team to play like that.”
It’s a style practiced by Nik Hagman, signed as a free agent off the Dallas Stars and by his sometime linemate, John Mitchell.
The 23-year-old Mitchell has spent three seasons with the Marlies. He timed his breakout playoff nicely. After a 20-goal campaign, Mitchell potted eight more goals over three playoff rounds to lead the team in regular season and playoff goaltending.
Mitchell has yet to score in five games but when he was shifted from centre to right wing against St. Louis Wednesday night, the Waterloo native was one of the best Leafs. He played with Hagman and Mikhail Grabovsky in place of Nikolai Kulemin
. The Russian winger has a sore knee and is expected to miss the final week of the exhibition season.
Mitchell is that rare animal, a centreman who shuns the open ice to work along the boards and in the corners.
“I love playing centre and being able to have open ice,” Mitchell said, “but I also like going into the corner, getting a bang, coming out with the puck and getting it to the other players on my line.”
“He’s shown me a lot,” Wilson said. “He’s got really good speed, that showed in all our testing. He’s been able to bring that speed to the game. He makes plays. He made a couple of great plays last night and he plays with a little bit of an edge.”
But if Mitchell is to play his first NHL game Thursday in Detroit, he will have to prove his night in St. Louis was no fluke.
Mitchell has to be hockey’s version of a baseball utility man. He needs to be fast enough to keep up, tough enough to grind along the boards and smart enough to read the play and keep his man within reach. The recipe, for those keeping track at home, is bit of grind, a bit of speed and a tonne of smarts.
“He’s a natural centre but because of our depth at centre, if he wants to make the team he’s going to have to play a little bit on the wing,” Wilson said. “I think he’s going to be comfortable with that. At his age, beggars can’t be choosers.”
“I just have to play hard every night,” Mitchell said. “I can’t take any shifts off, especially someone young like me trying to make the team. I know Ron is not guaranteeing anyone spots, but it’s more so even for me.”
Two previous training camps have taught Mitchell what happens on the ice is directly related to what happens for the other 21 hours in a day.
“What I’ve learned the most about is preparation. Before a game in the past, I’d have a bump and say ‘I don’t really need to ice it.’ Now, every time I feel a slight bruise, I reach for the ice.
“It’s stretching, riding the bike, getting warmed up before you go out on the ice. Preparation is also the day before a game, getting the proper rest, eating the proper food.”
Wilson said Thursday that Jason Blake will return soon after being hit in the boot with a puck against Buffalo. He and defenceman Pavel Kubina will be in the lineup as soon as Friday night’s contest in Detroit. Luke Schenn
’s already-solid prospects for staying in Toronto were boosted by word that Jeff Finger
will be out of the lineup for the first week of the season with a sore foot.