TORONTO – Jason Allison feathered a pass to Robert Slaney and the first-year pro fired the puck into the back of the net.
Allison has certainly done this before, but not for a while. He’s trying to make a second comeback to the NHL after being away for more than three years.
But he showed during the first scrimmage of the Toronto Maple Leafs’ training camp Sunday he can still generate offence.
“It felt good getting back out there, getting back into the swing of things, and getting the pace back down,” said the 34-year-old Toronto native. “Your vision of the game and reading plays and stuff comes back to you.
“I just have to get used to the speed again. That’ll probably be the biggest challenge right now.”
Allison knows all about challenges.
A neck injury in 2003 took him out of the NHL until he made a comeback with the Leafs in 2005-’06, registering 17 goals and 43 assists until a wrist injury prematurely ended his season. It was his lack of speed that induced then-GM John Ferguson Jr. to decline re-signing him. He didn’t want to play anywhere else.
“Part of the reason I wasn’t playing was because I just wasn’t mentally there and, number two, I didn’t want to be away from my kids,” he said. “I don’t regret that. It was the right decision at the time.
“Now, seeing there’s an opportunity here, it was absolutely the right thing to do come back and give it a shot. I missed three years and came back as a 31-year-old. There’s not much difference between 31 and 34. I’m in much better game condition and my timing is much better this year than it was the last time I came back.
“I ended up getting a point a game that year. They’re looking for scoring and making guys around them better and that’s what I’ve done my whole career. Hopefully, they’ll see that. I’m 100 per cent confident in myself that I’ll do that this year – make guys better and produce offensively.”
The lanky six-foot-three forward skated all summer preparing for this tryout. He kept his shifts short Sunday, which was a wise way to start getting back into the groove.
Trouble is, the Leafs have a gang of new prospects such as Slaney and Tyler Bozak bent on winning the same job Allison covets. Coach Ron Wilson is keeping an open mind but makes it clear Allison will have to make some eye-popping headway to crack the opening night lineup.
“He doesn’t have a spot on the team,” says Wilson. “He’s going to have to steal somebody’s job and earn it.
“If he does that, we’ll make room for him, but the onus is on him. He’s got to show he can play on the first two lines.”
The first exhibitions are at home Wednesday against Boston and Thursday against Philadelphia in London, Ont.
“He’s going to get a lot of action this week,” says Wilson. “If he earns it, he’ll have a shot, but he’s been out of the game a long time and it’s an entirely different game than the one he left. There’s no hooking and holding and stuff like that.
“He’s not a great skater to begin with and he was able to get away with hooking and holding and grabbing but the game is different now. It’ll be interesting this week to see how he’s adjusted.”
Allison was an OHL star in London so look for him in the lineup Thursday.
“It’ll be great,” he said in looking ahead to seeing game action. “It’s been a while since I had a game.
“This was a nice warmup (Sunday) and, hopefully, I’ll get better every time out.
“I’ve always taken pride in being a competitive guy, just wanting to win and compete every night, and when that passion is gone it’s hard to replace with anything else you’re going to do.”
Allison said wouldn’t be attempting this if he didn’t believe he could do it.
“I didn’t beg them for a tryout and they didn’t say, ‘Well, we’re kind of full, but we’ll give you a shot,’ ” he said. “To me, it was based on the fact that I’ll come on a tryout basis, but not if you’re not expecting me to make your team.
“Don’t do me any favours. I’m not a charity case, you know. If they didn’t think I might be able to help their team, I wouldn’t be here.”
If it doesn’t work out, it won’t be the end of the world, Allison says.
The Leafs were able to sign Slaney, a native of Newfoundland and Labrador who played junior last winter for the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles, and Bozak, a Regina-raised smoothie who starred at the University of Denver, because free agents feel they have a better shot at jumping directly into the big league with teams that miss the playoffs. They were two of the most impressive rookies to be promoted out of the Leafs’ rookie camp last week and are gradually adapting to the pro grind.
“It’s definitely been tough,” Bozak said after the camp’s second day. “We had our fitness testing (Saturday) and it was a grind, for sure.
“This (Sunday) was a good little skate. We had a nice practice then got to scrimmage. It was my first taste with a lot of the pro guys in a hitting scrimmage so it was definitely nice to get a feel for it.”
Bozak was the most sought-after free agent out of the college ranks last spring.
“I had a lot of scouts tell me that I could possibly be ready for the NHL,” he said. “I’ll stick to what I do, not try to do more and hopefully it all works out.
“I definitely want to make the Leafs. That’s my mindset. I’m not going to be devastated if I do get sent down. It’d be tough, obviously, because my dream and No. 1 goal is to play in the NHL, but a lot of guys have to play in the AHL and if I get sent down it’ll be good motivation for me to work hard and fight my way back up. (GM Brian) Burke like me when I was in college and, hopefully, he still likes me now.”
Added Wilson: “He’s going to challenge somebody for a job for sure. He’ll get a lot of play in exhibition games. You can’t predict anything but, among our young people I’ve seen so far, he’s been the most impressive.”
Meanwhile, Wilson says he’s decided his top two defence pairings will be Mike Komisarek with Tomas Kaberle and Luke Schenn with Francois Beauchemin.
“The rest of the spots will be wide open,” he said.
Garnet Exelby and Ian White, who were junior teammates in Swift Current, Sask., looked good together in the scrimmage.
And a mystery has been solved.
The list of 62 players at camp did not include a skater wearing No. 81, but there was an 81 participating in the scrimmage. Turns out it was Bill Thomas, an American who was with Pittsburgh’s AHL farm team last winter and got into a few games with the Penguins, too. They didn’t re-sign him. He was awoken from a nap at his Phoenix residence Friday afternoon when his agent called to tell him he’d landed a Toronto tryout. He hopped on a plane.
“I’m honoured to be here,” Thomas said. “I just want to play hard and do the best I can and, hopefully, there’s a spot for me somewhere.”