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Brandon Prust aims to impress in Maple Leafs tryout

Veteran forward hoping he can supply Toronto with 'a little more sandpaper'

by Dave Stubbs @dave_stubbs / Columnist

The doorbell of Theresa and Kevin Prust's home rang on July 1, 2012, and on their London, Ontario, porch stood Montreal Canadiens coach Michel Therrien and the team's director of player personnel, Scott Mellanby.

The two men held a Canadiens jersey and had a question: Would your son like to play for us?

Brandon Prust would, and he did, signing a four-year, $10 million contract that afternoon.

Following three seasons with the Canadiens and part of last season with the Vancouver Canucks, Prust is an unrestricted free agent again. But no one has been on his parents' porch with an offer this time around.

On Monday, the Toronto Maple Leafs extended a tryout offer to Prust for training camp next month, and the hard-nosed 32-year-old forward will try to "steal a job" in hopes of playing in the NHL again.

Ten seasons into his NHL career, Maple Leafs camp will be more than a bit of déjà-vu. In 2002, undrafted by any Ontario Hockey League team, Prust made the London Knights as a camp walk-on, and three years later was a member of the Memorial Cup-winning Knights. In between, in his third year of eligibility, he was selected in the third round (No. 70) by the Calgary Flames in the 2004 NHL Draft.

Video: BUF@VAN: Dorsett feeds Prust to beat Ullmark

"It's a little different now than it was four years ago," Prust said Tuesday, riding a train from London to Toronto, where he was going to see the Toronto Blue Jays host the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. "But I know there's still interest out there and we were trying to find what was a good fit. I feel like the Leafs need a little more sandpaper, some grit. They have a lot of young guys and they need some veteran presence.

"Growing up a Leafs fan, I know that's kind of where my heart is. I've always wanted to play for the Leafs. I figure this will be a great opportunity for me."

In his youth, Prust adored Maple Leafs captain Wendel Clark, patterning his game after the hard-rock forward.

"Wendel was my man," he said. "I always want to play like him and be like him. He had skill, he was tough as nails and he was a great leader. That's the guy I idolized growing up as a Leafs fan. I've watched Toronto's playoff runs and I know all about their history. To be a part of it will be amazing."

Maple Leafs general manager Lou Lamoriello described the offer to Prust as "no risk." Prust's agent, Claude Lemieux, goes back with Lamoriello to their days with the New Jersey Devils. Lemieux and the Toronto GM chatted, then Prust and Lamoriello met for about 15 minutes a month ago "and kind of got on the same page," according to Prust.

"I think this is risk-free for both sides," Prust said. "I'm just going in there with the mindset of turning heads and stealing a job. I've always done that, so I believe I'll do it again.

"Ten years ago, I might have thought, 'What do I have to lose? I'll just go in and play my game and show what I've got.' That's partly still the same now, but I'm putting pressure on myself to make sure that if the Leafs don't sign me, there'll still be a bunch of teams out there that have seen me and watched me play some exhibition games and say, 'We need him in our lineup.'

"But I want to stick with Toronto. They know what I can do and what I can bring. I just have to prove that I've still got it."

Prust knows what he's up against as he works his way back from surgery in May on an ankle he injured Oct. 27 in a game against the Canadiens.

His recovery lingered. He had disagreements with the Canucks, believed he might have returned to action too soon, and eventually was waived, reporting to Utica of the American Hockey League for nine games before he and the Canucks mutually agreed to end his season.

Prust said he and Lemieux spoke with a "handful" of teams this summer, and he wasn't yet ready to consider work in Europe or the Kontinental Hockey League before the Maple Leafs made their offer.

"I kind of figured I could catch on somewhere," he said. "October rolls into November and teams realize what they're lacking."

He's been skating for six weeks, happy with where he is, but admits the ankle has been a concern with teams that have expressed tentative interest.

"Every team wants to see that my ankle and my foot speed are good before I get a contract," he said. "That's one of the reasons nobody was willing to give me a contract outright - nobody was really sure how my recovery was or how I'd bounce-back from last season. I just have to earn it now, prove that I'm back to 100 percent."

In 486 regular-season NHL games for the Flames, Phoenix (now Arizona) Coyotes, New York Rangers, Canadiens and Canucks, Prust has 115 points (40 goals, 75 assists) with 1,036 penalty minutes. He understands the Maple Leafs aren't considering him for his soft hands around the net.

Over a Montreal lunch in September 2012, before he had played his first game with the Canadiens, Prust volunteered his career's path in a few sentences:

"What's helped me is that I've never thought about my future," he said. "I've just kept going. I couldn't afford to think about next year. To keep playing, with someone always ready to take my job, I just had to keep battling. When I was finally drafted by the Flames, I knew I'd have to work my way up in the minors. I knew I wouldn't be given anything, because I hadn't been given anything my whole life."

Prust considered the words as they were read back to him, another stiff challenge on his horizon as his train rolled toward Toronto. He said they're as much his motto today as they were when he spoke them almost four years ago.

"I've always had to prove myself, every shift I got, every bit of ice time I've had," he said. "I've kind of done that my whole career, from the day I walked on with the Knights. I've just kept going. It's always worked out well, so hopefully I can continue to do that a few more years."

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