Once the Olympic hiatus is over, the boys in the Toronto Maple Leafs' junior class can consider themselves grads.
Head coach Ron Wilson practically handed out the diplomas yesterday for Christian Hanson, Tyler Bozak and Viktor Stalberg as the Leafs prepared for their last game before Sunday's Olympic break.
"They're going to be NHL players, more than likely [with]a good shot at playing the rest of the season up here," Wilson said. "They can use this opportunity to make themselves better players and be more prepared the next time around."
The "next time around" was a reference to next season, since that is what the Leafs are realistically preparing for instead of a late charge to the NHL playoffs. By then, management's expectation is that each of those three forwards will have a lock on jobs among the Leafs' top six forwards.
Bozak, 23, quickly established himself when he was promoted from the Leafs' farm team on Jan. 9. He did have the good fortune to play most of his 14 games since then with winger Phil Kessel, but Bozak has shown a creative streak in playmaking that for now allays concerns about his size.
The Leafs media guide lists Bozak at 6 foot 1, 195 pounds, which sounds like an optimistic estimate of where the team would like him to be when training camp opens next September. Then again, not even Stalberg, 24, and Hanson, 23, who are much bigger at 6 foot 3, 210 pounds and 6 foot 4, 228 pounds, respectively, are as strong as the Leafs expect them to be.
Wilson said all three players grew accustomed to the Leafs' system while playing for the Marlies. But the biggest step is "the transition to the speed, size and strength of NHL players. There's a big difference."
Bozak, the coach said, is already playing at the level of a "No.1 or No.2 centre" with 11 points in his 15 NHL games. He is using his hockey smarts and speed to compensate for a lack of size.
"[Bozak]is moving the puck, he's skating really well," Wilson said. "He's using his body, [although]he doesn't have much of one right now. He's got to really work on that.
"But what he has, he uses really well to gain an advantage. He gets in [the offensive zone]quick and he's not afraid. But it's going to be important for him to get stronger over the summer."
The biggest of the trio, Hanson, said he is now trying to use his size more than he did in two previous stints with the Leafs. Hanson was recalled on Feb. 2 after general manager Brian Burke shipped out almost one third of the roster in two blockbuster trades. Stalberg was called up Monday for his third stint with the team.
"To have an impact in this league you have to be able to use your size," Hanson said. "Guys in this league are so strong you definitely need that."
Hanson reported he is feeling much better after spending Sunday night and Monday recovering from what turned out to be food poisoning. Both Hanson and winger Fredrik Sjostrom, who was also stricken, were able to practice yesterday.
"I got up at about 3:45 [a.m.]and it felt like somebody kicked me in the stomach 20 times," Hanson said. "I hugged the toilet for the next eight hours."
The players said they ate at the same Toronto restaurant on Sunday, although at different times. Wilson offered some belated advice on eating seafood.
"Don't eat seafood if it flew further than you to get there," he said. "They had a couple of bad shrimps somewhere and had food poisoning."
The comfort level for Hanson is much better in his second crack at winning a job with the Leafs this year. He is back at centre after an attempt to convert him into a power winger and will play tomorrow night against the St. Louis Blues between left winger Lee Stempniak and Stalberg.
"I've played centre all my life, so coming up and playing the wing was a transition," Hanson said. "When I came up [the first time]they said playing the wing I have too much of a centre's mentality, a pass-first mentality.
"So now that I'm back in the middle I don't think it's too bad to have that mentality."