TORONTO (CP) -- Ian White, Andy Wozniewski and Jay Harrison are ready to be part of the revamped blue-line brigade with which the Toronto Maple Leafs will open the new NHL season.
Bryan McCabe, Tomas Kaberle, Hal Gill and Pavel Kubina are the top four, and competition for the remaining spots thinned when Carlo Colaiacovo became ill and Staffan Kronwall and Brendan Bell went down with injuries during camp.
|Andy Wozniewski is looking to be a fixture on the Leafs blueline in 2006-07. |
White, Wozniewski and Harrison got tastes of the big league last season while playing the majority of their games with the Toronto Marlies AHL farm club under new Leafs coach Paul Maurice, and they are the prime candidates to skate under the bright lights when the Leafs open the regular season at home against the Ottawa Senators next Wednesday.
White, 22, would be Toronto's smallest defenceman. The five-foot-10 native of Steinbach, Man., fit in nicely during 12 NHL appearances last season and has the agility and smarts to excel in the speed-oriented style now in vogue.
"In this day and age, you've got to be able to bring the puck out of your own end and make plays,'' White said after practice Tuesday. "The league has changed a lot.
"Even the big guys, they've got to be able to move the puck now. A lot of the clutching and grabbing is gone so a guy has to be able to make plays _ that's the long and short of it.''
Maurice loves what he's seeing from the offensive-minded defenceman.
"I think his game is better here than it is at the AHL level,'' Maurice says of White, who was a minor-hockey teammate of Leafs forward Alex Steen when they were youngsters in Manitoba. "If players can use those kinds of skills, it doesn't matter how big they are or how much they weigh.''
Wozniewski, 26, played 13 games with the Leafs last season. He's a six-foot-five, 225-pound player who is amazingly swift for his size.
"We played him very close to 30 minutes a game in three (exhibition) games in three nights and he's as strong as an ox,'' says Maurice. "He's fit and can continue that pace.
"He doesn't move necessarily with the same ease that Kaberle or White do across the blue-line but very few men that big can move as well as he does. Woz moves well for a big man.''
The big-league exposure the Illinois-born defenceman got last winter has been of great benefit to him in this camp.
"Mentally, that's huge,'' he said. "I got through the jitters last year. That's over with. I'm building on last season. Things are coming together.''
Harrison, 23, who is from Oshawa, Ont., is six foot four and 211 pounds, and like Wozniewski is playing with more consistency and confidence. He appeared in eight NHL games last season, and he's worked hard to be quicker.
"When you fall behind half a step you're penalized for it more than ever and it's costly,'' he said. "You simply can't afford to be a liability.
"Systems of play in the NHL are at a lot higher pace than in the AHL. You've got to really step up to get into that upper echelon of talent.''
Maurice has seen a steady improvement.
"As we've gone forward, he's been much stronger,'' he says of Harrison.
A photo taken in Moscow's Red Square five years ago shows Harrison with Brad Boyes all goofy smiles and with big Russian fur hats on their heads. Boyes, Jason Spezza, Dany Heatley, Mike Cammalleri, Nick Schultz, Barret Jackman, Steve McCarthy, Jay Bouwmeester, Steve Ott and Raffi Torres all eventually emerged from that winter's Canadian junior team with big-league jobs.
"I definitely would like to join the ranks of those guys who've made the jump,'' said Harrison. "It's something I've dreamt about and wanted and have been working towards.
"Hopefully, things will come together and I can make it a reality.''
Toronto's defence has been viewed in recent seasons as a team weakness, but it should be a strength this season given the depth of talent that has been assembled.
Colaiacovo, Kronwall and Bell will be knocking on the door when they are healthy.
Colaiacovo, who hasn't skated since feeling woozy and leaving early on the first day of camp Sept. 15, has resumed off-ice workouts. The headaches are gone. He'll be back on the ice "in the next couple of days.''
"I feel a lot better,'' he said Tuesday.
Specialists told him that his setback "isn't related to the (concussion) I suffered last year.''
"I'm working hard to get myself back into shape,'' he said.
Kronvall is out at least three weeks with a sprained ankle, and Bell will be sidelined with a bruised foot.