The night before finding out he was staying in Toronto for the foreseeable future, Luke Schenn
was under an altogether different microscope, one that made playing for Leafs Nation seem like the easiest thing in the world.
Standing in front of a room filled with executives from Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment as well as every player, manager, trainer and wife from the Maple Leafs and Toronto Raptors, Schenn and fellow rookie John Mitchell
had to sing Happy Birthday to Raptors center Andrea Bargnani.
A little welcome-to-the-family hazing if you will.
WHAT FANS ARE SAYING
"You can’t get any points being on the bench..."
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"The stand-up play of youngsters like Schenn..."
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"Expectations for the Leafs this season were very low..."
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"There had to be a few hundred people there, some big name people like the owners of the Leafs and Raptors, all the management and coaches and wives," Schenn told NHL.com. "It was pretty bad. Everyone was laughing."
Unless he cracks a joke, that may be the last time people laugh at Luke Schenn
. The 18-year-old Leafs' defenseman has played in only 10 NHL games entering weekend play, but he's played well enough for coach Ron Wilson to call him the team's best defensive defenseman so far this season.
"That’s good enough for me," Wilson said. "He probably makes the best outlet pass on our team consistently. He'll identify somebody and take a hit to make a play without putting himself at risk. He's had good coaching along the way. He has a sense that you don't teach."
If he didn't, odds are Schenn would be playing in the Western Hockey League right now. He still could go back to the Kelowna Rockets, but since he's already played in more than 9 games the clock on his entry-level contract is running. If he plays in at least half the games this season, he'll be one season closer to free agency.
Who cares, says Wilson, who is playing Schenn more than 21 minutes a night.
"He's one of our players. I don't look at their age or their contract. That doesn't concern me," Wilson said. "You don't put people on your team because you're worried about 5 or 6 years from now. That's backward thinking. I said if he were a Top-4 defenseman on our team than he would play. He's definitely in our top 4."
Schenn, who recorded his first NHL point in Wednesday's 6-5 shootout victory in New Jersey, hasn't had any trouble in adapting to that role or to being a professional hockey player in one of League's toughest markets.
He's from Saskatoon, Sask., a city of about 235,000 folks, but Toronto is a different beast. If you're a highly regarded prospect like Schenn, it's a city that can break you as fast as it can make you.
Schenn either doesn’t know enough to care, or really is as mentally strong as everyone says he is.
Go with the latter.
"Oh yeah it can (break you), but everyone makes mistakes," Schenn said. "I try to just worry about myself, not what everyone else thinks. There is going to be a million different opinions out there, but I have high expectations for myself. I want to be a great player. As long as I worry about myself, we can see where that takes me."
For right now, Schenn is the toast of the town.
Reporters huddle around his locker every day. Television cameras are always in his face. A member of Toronto's media relations staff compared the attention he gets on a daily basis to what former Leafs' captain Mats Sundin
dealt with for more than decade.
That's amazing, and somehow it rolls right off Schenn's back. He shrugs his shoulders when it's brought up that he is a darling in Toronto now. He says he takes it all in stride, that he's just learning as he goes and he's thrilled to be a student in such an incredible hockey city.
"You guys were the ones reporting that of all the players in the draft this year he was the most likely to play in the NHL, but he's not supposed to play in Toronto because the Toronto market is too hard on a player?" Wilson said. "Why would they say Luke Schenn
is ready to play in the NHL? It's because he's emotionally mature. We've seen that. He's a level-headed, smart kid who knows what it's all about."
It was a little over 4 months ago when Schenn first donned the famous blue and white sweater. Ever since, he said it feels like he's been on a train rumbling down the tracks without any brakes.
He is most definitely on the fast track.
"It's pretty hard to believe," Schenn said. "It's pretty cool to be in this situation."
Schenn's play and his attitude have earned him the respect of his teammates. Age doesn't seem to be a factor.
"He's one of our players. I don't look at their age or their contract. That doesn't concern me. You don't put people on your team because you're worried about 5 or 6 years from now. That's backward thinking." -- Toronto Maple Leafs' coach Ron Wilson on Luke Schenn
When the Leafs are home, Schenn said he goes out for dinner a lot with defenseman Jeff Finger
and center Matt Stajan
. When the Leafs are on the road, Jamal Mayers
extends Schenn an invite to go out to dinner with a few of the boys.
"They have all been awesome," Schenn said of his teammates. "Even though there is an age difference, I try to feel like I'm just one of the guys on the team. Obviously you want to be respected by your teammates, so you have to be a good guy and show a lot of respect to all the veteran players that are here."
Even when they're laughing at you, like they did Sunday night.
Hey, he's still a rookie.
Contact Dan Rosen at firstname.lastname@example.org