The Leafs wrapped up four days of 42 youngsters playing in a summer prospect camp yesterday, and while it's unlikely any of those in attendance will make the NHL club, it was a chance to evaluate some of the organization's top prospects in game situations.
Here are a few thoughts on the top players that took part (note that Nazem Kadri, Joe Colborne, Jussi Rynnas, Ben Scrivens and others with a season of pro experience weren't there):
Jake Gardiner - About to go pro full time and be a big part of the Marlies blueline, Gardiner's skating and athleticism stood out above everyone else in camp. He was very confident among this group and made a few end-to-end plays that showed how dynamic he can be. A few mistakes in his own end show he has things to work on, but he was the closest to the NHL of anyone there. The skating coaches, in particular, loved him, with the phrase "the real deal" being thrown around.
"I'm trying to work my hardest, trying to prove I can make that team next year," Gardiner said. "It starts here, midsummer, continues onto rookie camp and then the main camp ... [Making the Leafs]is definitely closer, now that I've signed pro, it's obviously a lot closer. Whether it's the AHL or NHL, I'm happy to be there."
Jesse Blacker - Now 20, Blacker has nothing left to prove at the junior level and will play for the Marlies this season, where it'll be interesting to see how well he can make that jump. His stock has risen considerably since he was a late second-rounder in 2009, as he put up a huge season in the OHL last year and has drawn rave reviews for his playmaking ability. His defensive game has been a work in progress, but he's made it a focus as his ice time has risen to the 30 minute a game level.
"Experience really is a big key for me," Blacker said. "I wish I had of known last year what I know now in terms of positioning and patience with the game. Learning that last season was a big thing. The help of [Leafs development coach]Jim Hughes and my coaches in Owen Sound, it's made a big impact on me."
"He's got a passion for the game," Hughes said. "He's got a willingness to listen and learn ... He's grown up so much and he's matured so much and he's come so far in a short amount of time. It's good to see. He's well on his way now."
Greg McKegg - It's hard to imagine he has much more to prove in junior after scoring 49 goals and 92 points with Erie, but because of his age, McKegg can't play in the AHL next year and will almost certainly be back in the OHL. A little undersized and not the fastest skater, he's going to be one of those players who has to earn whatever he gets at the NHL level.
"There's bigger guys up there, it's faster, you learn how to deal with things like that," McKegg said of the two games he played in the AHL last year when his OHL season ended. "It's a good experience."
Brad Ross - After receiving a ton of attention at last year's camp as the Leafs highest pick (43rd overall), Ross was a bit of a forgotten man here, but he's gotten considerably bigger in the interim and looks much more like a pro player. He said he's up to 182 pounds and hopes to get to 190 this summer, which should help him improve on the 31 goals and 69 points he had with Portland last year. He said his goal is to win the Memorial Cup next year.
"In all the testing, on ice and off ice, I improved," Ross said. "That was pretty big. I've just been training hard."
Tyler Biggs - The Leafs top pick this year, 22nd overall, is only two months removed from his 18th birthday and was at the camp mostly to give him a taste of how much he needs to improve. He's already got NHL size at 6-foot-2 and 210 pounds and will have a few years to develop in the NCAA at Miami of Ohio. Biggs' next stop is the U.S. world junior team camp in August.
"I've definitely got my work cut out for me," Biggs said. "But it was fun, it was a great experience."
Stuart Percy - The Leafs other first-rounder, 25th overall, continued to look comfortable playing his understated game on the back end, teaming up with Jesse Blacker on what was probably the camp's best defence pairing. (And one that could be on the Marlies fairly soon.) Only 18, he's still years away from the NHL and needs to improve his speed.
"I learned that the game's very fast, even at just this level," Percy said. "Lots of NCAA guys here that are really fast. I'll work on my speed and my agility and if I do that I should be fine."
Jerry D'Amigo - Struggled badly as a Marlie a year ago, so much so that he earned a trip to the OHL, after a breakout turn at the world juniors in 2010 had some thinking D'Amigo could play in the NHL. Only 5-foot-11, he came to this camp a year ago at almost 215 pounds (and some said not in great condition) but was much trimmer this time around at just under 200. He has something to prove to the Leafs brass at the AHL level.
"Just knowing that I have a lot of competition," D'Amigo said of what he's learned in the past year. "I came in last year not knowing I was going to sign and this year it's a whole different story. I've got to prove to the management, the coaches that I can make it and maybe play in the NHL this year. That's my goal."
"He's made some jumps forward and then he's taken some steps backward," Hughes said. "It's going to be a process for him. It's a mental mindset that he has to continue to work on and develop."