At this point last season Stuart Percy already had eight NHL games under his belt after surprising many and making the Toronto Maple leafs opening night roster. However, the defenseman has only got one more look since then – a Jan. 21 loss in Ottawa.
Over a month into the Toronto Marlies 2015-16 season Percy has found himself in the press box watching on multiple occasions, and not because Marlies coach Sheldon Keefe is hoping the blue liner is learning by watching.
“That's certainly not the reason why we move the lineup around,” Keefe said.
In nine NHL games last season with the Leafs, Percy registered three assists and a minus-4 rating while averaging over 18 minutes a night in ice time.
This season, his third with the Marlies, the 2011 first-round pick has five assists and nine penalty minutes while being a healthy scratch twice.
“We want him to continue working on his skating, intensity beyond the puck and defend hard as well,” said Keefe. “He's an intelligent player, he's usually in the right spot. We just want to make sure he's competing and he's strong to win battles and things like that.”
Part of the adjustment for Percy, like many of his teammates, is learning the new systems implemented by Mike Babcock with the Leafs and imitated by Keefe with the Marlies.
“First and foremost our job is to prepare players to play for the Leafs for now and in the future. The fact that our systems are in line helps ease that transition when they go up,” said Keefe. “The foundation of the systems really are identical.
“We used a lot of their clips in the early going, both (the Leafs) and Detroit from last year for that matter in terms of really reinforcing the message that Babs wants.”
Percy, a 22-year-old native of Oakville, Ont., has noticed the difference in systems from years past.
“The D are skating a lot more, I feel, and it gets you in the game a lot better,” he said.
To help with the adjustment, Percy has been watching veteran NHL defenseman Matt Hunwick.
“He's really strong positionally, he skates well and he does the little things well that get noticed for sure,” said Percy. “I really like watching him play and I try to try and play like him a bit.”
Percy is in the final year of his three-year, entry-level contract, but that doesn’t mean the Leafs will be in a rush to give him another look.
With eight healthy blue liners already on the NHL roster, and Frank Corrado struggling to earn playing time, it’s hard to see Percy getting another opportunity to prove himself at the next level anytime soon.
But Percy knows what he has to do to earn the recall.
“Keep getting better on the 200-foot game,” he said. “That's the way (Babcock) likes the game to be played for every player out there. That's what I'm trying to work on.”