TORONTO – Luke Schenn’s rapid rise from green rookie to competent big-leaguer was one of the bright spots in another non-playoff season for the Toronto Maple Leafs and playing in the IIHF World Hockey Championship will further enhance his development.
He can’t wait.
As the players split Monday, Schenn was excited about the prospect of flying to Switzerland later in the week after accepting an invitation to play for Canada that was extended through Joe Nieuwendyk, the former NHLer who’s special assistant to Leafs GM Brian Burke and who also is an assistant to Canada’s GM Doug Armstrong.
“Getting the chance to play with some different players from around the league to see what they do and learning from other defencemen will be good for me,” said Schenn. “At the world level you’re playing against the top players in the world who aren’t in the NHL playoffs so it’s going to be a good experience.”
Other Leafs will continue playing, too: Ian White for Canada, Jason Blake for the United States, Niklas Hagman for Finland, Martin Gerber for Switzerland and, perhaps, Mikhail Grabovski for Belarus. As well, Burke and head coach Ron Wilson have similar titles with the U.S. team.
Blake had a playful warning for Schenn, his 19-year-old Leafs teammate.
“I’m going to crush him,” said Blake.
Schenn said he’s content with his first NHL season.
“I thought I could make the team coming in and I got more and more comfortable playing at the pro level and adjusting to everything as I went along,” he said.
He’s one of Burke’s building blocks for the future.
“To have stepped right in and to have done the things he did, he should be proud of himself,” Blake said of Schenn. “For him, it’s a great honour to go over and play in the world championship in Switzerland.”
Blake then took another playful poke at the teen.
“Just keep your head up, Luke,” he said with a grin.
As for Blake, the veteran forward has got three years left on his contract so is another probable returnee.
“It’s disappointing that we’re not in the playoffs but as a team that is rebuilding and that is a young team I think we made some good strides,” Blake said. “We learned a lot and there were nights we looked like a playoff team.
“On other nights, we didn’t, so here we are – season over and we’ve got four or five months to sit back and enjoy yourself. I’m sure the organization is going to make changes so we’ll see what next year brings.”
The Leafs had a “decent year” in Blake’s reasoning.
“Obviously, we’re not where we want to be and the main focus going into next season will be to be a playoff team and a Stanley Cup contender,” he added.
And how far are the Leafs from being a contender, Jason?
“Not far,” said Blake. “There’s obviously some pieces missing and Brian and Ron will address that during the summertime.
“Overall, we have a good core group in the locker-room. We’ve got great guys on the team who stuck together all year. If you add a few pieces and we play more consistent as a team and defensively … I’m not going to sit here and tell you we’re going to make the playoffs but our chances are better than what they were.”
Despite the franchise-record fourth consecutive playoff miss, work ethic was rarely in question with this roster.
Brad May, who’ll be an unrestricted free agent July 1, said the Leafs could be as close as one year away from being a contender. His rationale: Anaheim, with Burke as GM, did it when he was with the Ducks, so why not the Leafs.
“I guarantee you that’s the plan here,” he said. “Teams can make that kind of turnaround awfully quick now with the salary cap system.”
It’s a bummer for a veteran with a Stanley Cup ring being on the outside, said May.
“Missing the playoffs isn’t fun,” he said. “It stinks.
“The worst place to be is on the sidelines being jealous of every guy who’s playing in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
“We probably knew it a few weeks ago we weren’t going to be in, maybe even longer than that, but there’s an opportunity here to get better over the next five months and know what we’re playing for and that’s to be in the playoffs.”
Nikolai Kulemin and Jonas Frogren are on the Toronto Marlies roster for the AHL playoffs.
Pavel Kubina, citing unspecified family reasons, and Tomas Kaberle, who has had hand injuries recently, said they’ve declined invitations to suit up for the Czech Republic in Switzerland.