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School Begins Thursday For Young Leafs

by Mike Ulmer / Toronto Maple Leafs
The word you will hear over and over is process.

It’s a word head coach Ron Wilson returned to again in again Monday in laying out his vision of the 2008-2009 NHL season.

It’s a word that was reinforced, Tuesday, with the announcement that the Leafs had signed their first-round pick Luke Schenn to a contract.

“Luke’s got a bright future in the NHL and we are very excited to have him signed to a contract,” said GM Cliff Fletcher. “He had a great training camp during which he demonstrated a lot of poise and skill for a young defenceman.”

Last year’s promises by John Ferguson Jr. and Paul Maurice that the Leafs will be a playoff team are a distant, distant memory.

This year, Wilson, reminded, is a process, and it will not be an easy one.

“Wins and losses don’t matter,” he said. “We’re going through a process of learning how to win.”

That means development trumps immediate result. The problem is, like most teams, the Maple Leafs do not have talented 18-to 22 years olds, parachuting commando-style into the lineup.

Specifically, they have Schenn, easily the best story of training camp, Jiri Tlusty, Anton Stralman, Nikolai Kulemin and Mikhail Grabovski.

The progress of those five will define the worth of the season. And if you’re noticing that all this precludes discussion of wins or losses or playoff spots, well, you’re right.

“I’m not going to shorten our bench and play eight guys in order to desperately win a hockey game because that’s not going to help our team’s growth and development,” Wilson said.

The Leafs have until Wednesday to finalize their roster. They waived 28-year-old Mark Bell, Monday.

Wilson, meanwhile, had more good words for the 18-year-old Schenn.

“I’ll give you the most important thing,” Wilson said. “He did not play very well against Detroit at home (Saturday) and yesterday he was easily our best defenceman. So that showed a lot about Luke right there.”

The question, Wilson said, wasn’t whether Schenn deserved to play on the Leafs blueline but rather, where to stack the chips. Three years down the road will he be stronger for having played in the NHL at 18 or having played junior?

Regardless, Jeff Finger’s minor knee injury means there is roster room for Schenn and he can return to junior if he plays no more than nine NHL games.

School starts Thursday in Detroit.

“You’re going to see Mikhail Grabovsky and Jiri Tlusty and maybe Luke Schenn, the list goes on, play a ton of minutes to try and make them better hockey players,” Wilson said. “I will not play veterans 29 minutes in order to try to find a way to keep the game close.

"When the young players’ confidence grows, we’ll be a better team.”
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