TORONTO - Nazem Kadri made his hyped season debut with the Toronto Maple Leafs, but it was his Marlies teammate that made an impression Saturday night.
Keith Aulie, who was called up with Kadri from the AHL, didn't score or pick up a point in Toronto's 5-3 loss to the Vancouver Canucks, but the defenceman still managed to impress Leafs coach Ron Wilson.
"Keith Aulie played very well for a defenceman at his age in his first game," said Wilson. "He skates very well, moves the puck, made heads-up plays and defended in our zone really well.
"He's better now than in training camp when we were pretty impressed with him."
Aulie, 21, was acquired by the Leafs last season from the Calgary Flames as part of the Dion Phaneuf trade. While deemed by many to be a throw-in, Toronto general manager Brian Burke made it clear at the time that Aulie was someone he'd had in his sights for a while.
Aulie lost much of last season to injury and started the season with the Marlies, recording one goal, three points and 25 penalty minutes in 14 games. He was quick to point out that the pace of play in the NHL is much faster.
"It was quicker," he said, "and I find the game a lot smarter here. That can work in your favour, too—guys are where you expect them to be."
At six-foot-five, 217 pounds, Aulie is a big man who plays a physical game. He admitted a couple of bodychecks early in the contest helped take his mind off the situation and settled his nerves.
"I like getting bumped around, I like to throw a few hits and when I'm doing that I'm playing my best," said the Regina native.
Aulie was drafted by Calgary 116th overall in 2007. He first came to national attention while playing for Canada at the 2009 World Junior Championship alongside reigning Calder Trophy-winner Tyler Myers. The "Towers of Powers" (Myers is 6-7) were Canada's go-to shutdown tandem during the team's gold-medal run.
Now he's a Maple Leaf and was happy with his first night at the office.
"I felt pretty good getting out there," he said. "It's your first game and you never know what to expect, but I felt good through the whole game."
He looked good, too, using his long reach to break up some early offensive chances for Vancouver and playing a solid 14:00 in the game. How long he sticks with the big club will depend on how he progresses, but he's excited and expects a lot from himself.
"It's going to be a big learning curve here and I'm just looking forward to getting better," he said.