Leaf rookie notes: A good time for Finn to come back

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Roni Hirvonen’s meeting with Nolan Dillingham on Wednesday went much more smoothly than the last meeting in July.

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As the Maple Leafs’ summer development camp ended with a scrimmage play, big defenseman Dillingham gave the Finnish draft pick a concussion with a thunderous shoulder check.

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It broke the unwritten rule to avoid violent contact in such games, but Toronto later signed OHL free agent Dillingham to an American Hockey League contract. He and Hirvonen are on great terms now, as the Leafs’ rookies practiced before taking the bus to the Traverse City (Mich.) Prospects Tournament.

“We talked, he apologized,” said Hirvonen. “It’s hockey, it happened quickly and that was maybe a bad read for me (head down in the neutral zone). But (the injury) is all good. He’s a good guy and it’s great to have him in our squad now.”

Hirvonen is one of three Finnish picks on this rookie team, along with defensemen Mikko Kokkonen and Topi Niemela, all of whom saw limited action with the AHL Marlies.

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“It’s a big help for me,” said Niemela. “Roni is my good friend and we also spent some time together in the summer. Mikko too, I know him, we have a good dinner and spend time together.”

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Marlies coach John Gruden will coach the kids starting Thursday in games against Columbus, Dallas and Detroit.

The diverse group of 14 forwards, nine defensemen and three goaltenders includes last year’s highly touted NHL playoff signing Matthew Knies and a pair of Russian picks: forward Dmitry Ovchinnokov and goaltender Vyacheslav Peska. Gruden overcomes the language barrier between the two.

“I was sitting with them and you can tell they’re kind of joined at the hip,” Gruden said with a laugh. “One thing I noticed is that they have personality, they definitely have that sparkle.”

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GRU crew

There’s only so much Gruden and his team can accomplish with one practice and three games in four days. Gruden said Leafs management takes the lead in selecting lines, defensive pairings and choosing which goaltender (Peska, Dennis Hildeby and free agent Luke Cavallin) in which game.

Knies and last year’s top pick, Fraser Minten, skated together on Wednesday.

“I’m sure they’ll put all the guys in a position to be successful and show what they’ve got,” Gruden said. “We’re not going to try to reinvent the wheel here. We want the boys to feel comfortable and understand what the expectations are for work etc.

“Our staff is focused on helping them get to the open ice, and once they’re there, it’s on them. When you don’t have the puck, you come back hard like the Leafs do and play defense to get the puck back.”

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Knies, a Phoenix native, strongly supported GM Brad Treliving’s addition of retired Coyotes star Shane Doan to Toronto’s front office this summer. Scottsdale’s Auston Matthews is already well established, while Treliving spent time in the Coyotes’ front office and also signed former Coyotes forward Max Domi.

“I absolutely love Shane, he’s been a role model since I was a kid,” Knies said. “It’s great to have such a familiar face here.

“It’s fun to see the sport of hockey grow in Arizona and then see it all here.”


London Knights forward Easton Cowan, this year’s first-round pick, credits his mother for giving him a little more weight last summer. “She made me a lot of meals, pasta…and I’m a big chocolate milk guy.”…Cowan is in awe of Knies, both his size, his skating and his skill with the puck. “One day you want to be there,” Cowan said…Gruden had an observation about Knies’ influence at that camp: “People follow leaders. He completed every exercise today at top speed and didn’t cheat on anything. For a young man, he’s pretty impressive.”


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