TORONTO – This is a time of teaching for Ron Wilson, a season in which the head coach will measure progress for the Toronto Maple Leafs by the on-ice growth of his players rather than by wins and losses in the standings.
It’s into this environment of learning that 2008 first-round pick Luke Schenn will make his NHL debut.
Although the Maple Leafs won’t finalize their roster until Tuesday morning, they confirmed Monday that the 18-year-old defenceman taken fifth overall last June is going to open the season with the big club.
General manager Cliff Fletcher also said that forward Mark Bell has been placed on waivers and will be assigned to the AHL Marlies should he not be claimed, as the roster’s paring down neared a conclusion ahead of Thursday’s season-opener at Detroit.
“We still have a couple more decisions we have to make,” said Fletcher.
Keeping Schenn, of course, was one of the team’s biggest decisions and the choice will doubtlessly be debated ad nauseam in the Toronto fishbowl.
Both Fletcher and Wilson singled him out as the biggest surprise of training camp, taken by his poise and composure during the pre-season. A better litmus test, however, will come once the games count and Schenn competes against rosters trimmed of training camp fat.
The Leafs can hold on to him for nine games before his contract as a junior-aged player kicks in, and over that span they’ll carefully assess whether playing against the elevated competition encourages or hampers his growth.
“I could easily say he’s on our team and it makes me a better coach because I have a better defenceman than some of the other guys,” said Wilson. “But we have to think about what’s best for Luke’s development, where is he going to be as a player in three years if he plays here, where is he going to be in three years if we send him back to junior.”
Schenn may have sealed his roster spot with a strong effort in Sunday’s 5-4 shootout loss to Columbus, playing nearly 23 minutes, five of them shorthanded.
That came after a rough effort in Saturday’s 4-3 loss to Detroit, when he was a minus-2 in 19 minutes of action.
“The most impressive thing was (Sunday),” said Wilson. “He did not play very well against Detroit at home and yesterday he bounced right back and was easily our best defenceman last night.
“That showed us a lot about Luke right there.”
If Schenn sticks beyond October, it will mean Wilson believes the Saskatoon native is ready to handle significant minutes. A key goal for the coach is to let his young players grow through real-game experience, which means tolerating mistakes, even if it leads to losses.
That approach is likely to cause consternation among the jaded faithful, but he believes it’s the necessary foundation in building a winner.
“Wins and losses don’t matter, we’re going through a process of learning how to win,” said Wilson. “You’re going to see Mikhail Grabovski and Jiri Tlusty and the list goes on and on, maybe Luke Schenn, play a ton of minutes as we try to make them better hockey players, period.
“And I will not play veterans 29 minutes in order to try and find a way to keep a game close. And I think in doing that, these young players, their confidence will grow and we’ll be a better team. So it’s all about the process for me.”
Evidence of Wilson’s steady guidance are showing up all around the team, from his managing of expectations with media to his help for mascot Carlton the Bear, who struggled to break a champagne bottle while inaugurating a promotional trailer for the team Monday afternoon.
Wilson pointed out a jagged edge that would get the job done, and Carlton finally smashed the bottle on his sixth attempt after his previous tries did little more than dent the trailer.
Similar patience with his hockey may be tough to come by soon enough should the dire predictions for the Maple Leafs turn out to be correct.
That’s why Wilson has wisely avoided making any sort public declarations of what to expect from the team, aside from the mandatory staple of hard work.
“The last thing our team needs is a set of goals, we have to win 40 games or we have to do this, because they’ll be looking at the end result and all the little steps that go into making yourself a winner,” said Wilson.
“Believe it or not, I really believe defensively we’ve shored things up, we’ve cut down scoring chances (during training camp). What we’re going to need when the regular season starts is our goalies to perform up to their capabilities. They were a little off in training camp, they know and there’s still a lot of work ahead of them. The rest of the team is gradually figuring out how to play.”
Having the roster settled and some time to practise as a smaller group should help, too.
Fletcher said there was little going in trade talk as teams worked toward finalizing their rosters by Wednesday’s 3 p.m. ET deadline, with many taking a wait-and-see approach to examine what finds might turn up on the waiver wire.
The Maple Leafs, meanwhile, are close to being set, something Wilson is looking forward to after nine exhibition games in 14 days left little time to practise and for the team to jell.
“Training camp in our situation this year, a lot of guys competing, fairly open team, there’s a lot of pressure and you become concerned about yourself and making the team,” said Wilson. “Now they can really start to worry about becoming a team and supporting each other.”
Notes: It sounds like defenceman Ian White, who played the last three games at forward, may have added to his value by showing well during the experiment. “He can play a little on the point on the power play, he can play some defence, if he can play some right wing too then you have an asset that could come in very handy,” said Fletcher. … Bell, who came over from San Jose with goalie Vesa Toskala two summers ago, had 10 points (4-6) in 35 games for the Leafs. He missed over two months of action while recovering from a broken orbital bone and also had to serve a 15-game suspension for a drunk-driving conviction.