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With 16 games left, Luca Caputi and other Leafs youngsters get chance to learn

TORONTO - During a brief down moment in practice Wednesday, Toronto Maple Leafs goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere huddled with forward Luca Caputi and gave the rookie a few tips.

The team had been working on a power-play drill and Caputi's job was to get his six-foot-three, 200-pound frame in Giguere's way. Was he doing a job of it, the kid asked? Not really, the veteran answered.

"He told me it was better if I were to be screening him as the puck was being released by the defenceman, because then he can't see anything after that. Once he can see where the shot is coming from, then it's easier for him," Caputi said afterwards.

"I think that's my spot on the power play, and I'm going to take the information he gave me and work on getting better at it."

With only 16 games remaining in what will be a fifth straight playoff-less season for the Maple Leafs, having youngsters like Caputi take such lessons and put them into practice is the best way for the club to extract some value from the next month.

Caputi, who scored the tying goal in the third period of Tuesday's 4-3 overtime win versus Boston, was one of six rookies to dress for Toronto (Viktor Stahlberg, Tyler Bozak, Christian Hanson, Carl Gunnarsson and Jonas Gustavsson were the others) to go along with four sophomores (Mikhail Grabovski, John Mitchell, Nikolai Kulemin and Luke Schenn).

That level of youth requires guidance from the team's small sprinkling of veterans, and Giguere felt it was a positive sign that Caputi sought instruction.

"It's good to see that from a young guy because you can tell he wants to improve and he wants to do the little things right," he said.

"The older guys are going to have to be leaders in a way, but everybody can be a leader, even the young guys. I think Luca showed a lot of leadership by asking me and by not being intimidated by an older guy, and coming right out and asking am I doing it right?

"That's the kind of leadership we're going to need from the old guys, and the young guys, too."

None of the youngsters should need any sort of reminder of the opportunity in front of them, either.

At 21-33-12, the Maple Leafs are fighting hard to avoid finishing last overall and the kids have a chance to be part of the solution. The experience they gain playing teams fighting for the playoffs like the Bruins or the Tampa Bay Lightning (27-27-11), whom they host Thursday, will only help them down the road.

"It's intriguing, because if we can prove that we can win here down the stretch they're going to give us all a chance to be here and be here for a while," said Caputi. "I think the goal for any young guy on this team right now in the position we're in is to try and prove that we're a young core they can build around."

Inherent with that is the growing pains that come with icing such an inexperienced lineup, and that's something head coach Ron Wilson understands he must live with.

As much he liked beating the Bruins, he was also lamenting the way his players failed to consistently use their speed and play their game.

"We have to be on the edge and some of these guys are learning that it's hard to prepare for four games a week, let alone two or three," he said. "That's the process we're going through right now."

And patience in this case is more than just a virtue, it's a necessity.

Sophomore forward Nikolai Kulemin, for instance, has played some of his best hockey this season of late and only now seems to building on his solid rookie season.

The 23-year-old's overtime winner versus Boston gave him 13 goals and while Wilson said he had hoped the Russian winger would have 20-25 by this point, Kulemin has made other strides.

"I feel more comfortable this year," said Kulemin. "Last year was my first year, it was a change of game, a change of rink, everything changed, I didn't understand English, it was hard for me.

"I get more (playing) time now and I can show what I can do on the power play and in penalty killing."

The final month of the season can help others like Caputi, 21, build up their confidence for next season, too.

His goal Tuesday was his first since coming over from Pittsburgh as part of the Alexei Ponikarovsky deal, and the Toronto native is still coming to terms with his status as an NHLer.

By next season, that awestruck feeling should be a thing of the past.

"It's starting to sink in a bit and become a reality that I'm here and this what I'm going to be doing, playing for the Leafs on a daily basis," said Caputi. "I think I need to get stronger, for sure, to be able to hit a Zdeno Chara and have an effect on him.

"There are such big, skilled players in this league, but with time I think that's going to come. I'm getting more comfortable, I'm starting to really believe that I can play at this level and play here on a full-time basis."

The Maple Leafs and their fans hope to feel the same way, too.

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