TORONTO – Stephane Robidas remembers what it was like to be a healthy scratch more than 20 times early in his NHL career.
“You can’t take anything for granted,” the veteran defenceman said. “There’s always people that are coming in and they want to steal your job, they want your spot, they want to be in the lineup.”
Early in the season for Toronto Maple Leafs, Stuart Percy has been that job-stealer. The first defenceman in franchise history to put up a point in each of his first three games in the league, Percy has at least temporarily taken Jake Gardiner’s spot in the lineup.
“It’s just how it goes,” said Gardiner, who was a healthy scratch for a second straight game Tuesday night against the Colorado Avalanche. “It’s a business. If someone’s playing really well or you’re not playing your game, you’re not going to play.”
In the process, Percy has given the coaching staff a good problem to have with seven defencemen vying for six spots. In his fourth career game, the 21-year-old was second on the Leafs in ice time with a steady 23:34.
“We’ve said right from the beginning that we’re going to create competition for positions,” coach Randy Carlyle said. “If they compete for the position and they earn it, it’s a novel concept.”
Percy was a first-round pick in 2011, so his growth into an NHL player shouldn’t be a surprise. But he entered training camp staring at three veteran left-handed defencemen firmly ahead of him and Henrik Tallinder with the Leafs on a tryout as the favourite to make it as the No. 7.
A shoulder injury to Tallinder and a knee injury to righty Cody Franson opened the gate for Percy to show what he could do. So far, so good.
“The poise that he has with the puck, the decision-making, he always seems to make that good decision, hold onto the puck when it’s time, move when it’s time,” Robidas said. “He’s very reliable defensively, very good stick, always in good position. He’s been very effective on the power play, as well, and played against some really good players.”
Carlyle praised Percy for reading where the forecheck is coming from, exiting the zone with one pass and making the right pass in all zones on a consistent basis.
Percy, a native of nearby Oakville, Ont., said he takes pride in playing a 200-foot game. His offensive skills were never a question, according to Carlyle, just Percy’s ability to adapt to this level after one full season in the American Hockey League.
Percy showed a flash of being ready in Toronto’s season opener, when he assisted on a Tyler Bozak power-play goal with a perfect setup from below the goal-line.
“Maybe I didn’t expect (to adapt this quickly), but I definitely strived for it,” Percy said. “I’m just playing my usual game. It’s how I’ve played most of my career. Just sticking to it, keep things simple, be assertive out there and always have your head moving.”
Carlyle, who enjoyed a 17-year career as a defenceman, knows that the position comes with a steep learning curve. Playing more games with less practice time and at a quicker pace can go against young players, he said.
With that in mind, Percy is taking to heart some advice he got from another former NHL defenceman, Steve Staios, who’s now in player development for the Leafs.
“For me just to keep my foot on the gas and don’t let up,” Percy said. “Just to keep playing hard and practising hard every day and working as hard as I can to stay here every day.”
Percy’s ability to stick beyond a game or two came at the expense of Gardiner, who hasn’t played since Saturday night against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Well removed from his shuttling back and forth between the Leafs and AHL’s Toronto Marlies, Gardiner signed a US$20.25-million, five-year contract in the off-season, but that didn’t keep him from sitting in the press box two games in a row.
“This happens,” Gardiner said Tuesday morning. “It’s happened to me a few times before and it happens to everybody. You can’t play great all the time. Just rebound the next time I get an opportunity.”
Gardiner said he has watched a couple of video clips and believes he has to tighten some things up defensively.
Carlyle said Gardiner simply needs to “play better.”
“We feel that we have a quality hockey player that can play to a higher level, and he agrees with that,” Carlyle said.
Meanwhile, Percy is playing at perhaps as high a level as can be expected for someone with three games of NHL experience. But with what Carlyle called a “comfort zone” as far as on-ice instincts, Percy has shown evidence he can stick around for some time.
“We understand there’s going to be valleys and there’s going to be hiccups along the way,” Carlyle said. “But I don’t think that’s any different than any of our other young defencemen.”
Percy has simply been better than the Leafs’ other young defencemen, Gardiner and second-year player Morgan Rielly. All three are lefties, and with captain Dion Phaneuf on that side now there isn’t room for all of them at once.
“We have a healthy, I guess, competition to stay in the lineup and that’s always good for the team knowing that the team’s going to get everybody’s best efforts,” Percy said.
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