One of the Maple Leafs best young players has somehow escaped the spotlight of the Toronto media thus far in training camp.
Defenceman Luke Schenn spent his first two seasons with the blue-and-white having every move criticized by both fans and media as one of the few promising prospects in the team’s system.
In this camp, all the pressure has has shifted toward 2009 first-round pick Nazem Kadri to provide a spark to the Leafs’ offence. Still, Toronto allowed 263 goals last season, and cutting that number down will be paramount if the team is to have any chance of playing meaningful hockey in April.
Former general manager Cliff Fletcher traded up to fifth overall in the 2008 draft to select Schenn, but many pundits felt the blue-liner was a spare part on the defence after Brian Burke acquired Dion Phaneuf from the Calgary Flames last January.
After enduring a sophomore slump last season, Schenn arrived at camp in much better shape, and has impressed Toronto head coach Ron Wilson.
“This year he’s focused, in good shape,” Wilson told the National Post. “He’s up to 225 [pounds] now – he’s grown into his body and, with the experience he’s gathered over the two years, he should have a real good, solid season.”
The Saskatoon, Sask., native had a solid freshman season as an 18-year-old, named to the NHL’s all-rookie team. He struggled in the first month of the 2009-10 season, and eventually saw his ice time reduced to the point of being a healthy scratch for the first time in his young career.
“I’m still a young player trying to develop in this league,” said Schenn. “It takes a while, I guess, until you hit your prime and I feel like I’m getting better over time.”
Although the defenceman struggled, the organization was content with his game in the final months of the season, and preached patience.
“The general suggestion is [defenceman] take longer because when they make a mistake, it’s more critical,” said Fletcher. “Forwards make a mistake, the defence covers up. If the defence makes a mistake, the goaltending has to be outstanding.”
Schenn, who will turn 21 on Nov. 2, acknowledges the difficulty in breaking into the NHL, especially playing in a fishbowl like Toronto.
“Playing in Toronto, there’s always going to be all eyes on you,” Schenn said. “It’s not like you can go away and hide or anything until you find your game. People are going to be watching you the whole time, but sometimes, the focus seems to shift to the new guys and stuff like that.”
This certainly seems to be the case heading into the Leafs’ season opener against the Montreal Canadiens on Oct. 7.