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Schenn fighting sophomore slump Add to ...

Luke Schenn angled a teammate over to the boards in his own end, placing his arm high up on his opponent's chest before thumping him into the boards.

The Toronto Maple Leafs coaching staff had asked their blueliners to pick up the intensity and physical play in practice yesterday, and their youngest delivered it, again and again.

"That's what we want right now," coach Ron Wilson said. "Hopefully it carries over to the game. The most physical guy we had today was Luke, and that was nice to see because he's struggled a little bit."

A struggle is one thing. But under what Wilson again called "the electron microscope" of playing in Toronto, Schenn's particular battle has become something else. And after practice, the look in his eyes said that he wouldn't mind laying one more hit, this one directed at the next reporter to ask him about a sophomore slump just seven games into the season.

But if not a slump, then it's at least certainly far from what the Leafs wanted from their prized prospect. It may only be seven games in, but Schenn's already been on the ice for more 5-on-5 goals against (eight) than any of his teammates and has a minus-5 in the plus-minus column to prove it. His ice time has also dipped dramatically, falling to just 13 minutes 11 seconds in a 4-1 loss to the New York Rangers last Saturday - the lowest mark of his career save for a game he was injured in last season.

While Schenn didn't like the line of questioning yesterday, his coach has a theory about second-year players and just why they always seem to struggle.

"They actually read the papers too much," Wilson said of his sophomores, a group that includes forwards Mikhail Grabovski, John Mitchell and Nikolai Kulemin. "Somebody said they had a good year last year, and … you're not as ready the next year when you come. It's a different challenge altogether.

"The pressures change. You expect more of yourself. Now you expect to do more and you have trouble dealing with the little failures. In your first year, you don't expect anything."

Expectations were anything but sky high last year when Schenn left his junior team in Kelowna, B.C., and stepped right onto the Leafs roster as an 18-year-old, but he ended up logging big minutes - finishing second only to Los Angeles Kings blueliner Drew Doughty with more than 21 a game - and often playing a shutdown role against the opposition's top forwards.

After leading the team in short-handed ice time a year ago, however, Schenn's now slipped to sixth in the statistic, giving up many of those minutes to free-agent additions François Beauchemin and Mike Komisarek.

A right-handed shooter, he has also spent more time playing on the left side - something he admits is more of a challenge - and with a rotating set of partners.

Still a teenager for another 12 days, Schenn also remains, by far, the youngest player on the team, with the other six Leafs blueliners all 25 and older.

He said yesterday the coaches have told him to move his feet and the puck faster and to be more involved in the play in his own end. As for the slump, Schenn would only admit he had yet to play to his capabilities.

"I've got to be better," he said. "I'm not happy about it, but I'm working as hard as I can. Every day I come to the rink, I want to get better. These practices are helping to get more confidence, working on a couple different things, but no, I don't believe the sophomore slump has been a question for me."

Wilson, meanwhile, doesn't sound so sure.

"I could have predicted that these guys would struggle," he said of his second-year players. "You're just happy to be there [as a rookie] The second year, you kind of change that. Sometimes you don't think you have to work as hard or you forget how hard you worked in your first year and you take some things for granted."

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