Swedish Leafs trio out to prove they can handle NHL’s physicality

Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Jake Gardiner joins Tim and Sid to talk about the expectations going into this season and more.

TORONTO – "Swedes aren’t chicken anymore," defenceman Calle Rosén said at the outset of Toronto Maple Leafs training camp, in a nod to a dusty narrative from days gone by.

It may be a much different-looking NHL than when Borje Salming first crossed the Atlantic 40 years ago – subjecting himself to a litany of physical challenges in the process – but the institutional memory of that period remains for some today.

Rosén summoned the outdated stereotype without any prompting. He figures the best avenue to cracking the Leafs lineup is proving that he’s a little meaner than his 10 penalty minutes in 41 Swedish Hockey League games last season suggest.

So, how do you become meaner?

"Start cross-checking guys," said Rosén. Even if it’s illegal? "Yeah, but you can do it when the ref’s not looking."

Teammate Andreas Borgman has opted to show his brawn in a more traditional fashion. He’s already delivered a couple huge body checks in his two pre-season appearances – the first he’s played on North American soil.

One of them led directly to his first career fight, when Ottawa Senators forward Mike Blunden took issue with an open-ice hit on Tuesday night.

"I’m trying to hit a lot out there so I kind of expected it," said Borgman. "At some point someone was going to try and fight me. I was just trying to be calm. Just like ‘Yeah, OK, let’s go.’ Get it over with.

"So now I’ve done the first fight – get rid of that."

It was a rite of passage of sorts. In Sweden, players receive an automatic suspension if they drop their gloves, so Borgman was wading into the unknown when he squared up with Blunden.

He managed to get through it no worse for wear.

"I think I did pretty OK actually," said Borgman. "It wasn’t much of a fight, it was more wrestling. I got a few punches on him and he didn’t get any on me, so that was pretty good."

"It’s fun to watch," said Leafs prospect Carl Grundstrom, another Swede who doesn’t shy away from contact. "I think he did a great job there. He landed a big hit on that guy and stood up for himself real good. Fun to see."

While none of these players is expected to become an intimidating presence by the organization, it’s telling that each stated a desire to show he can handle the physical rigors of the sport during training camp.

On some level, they feel there’s something to prove.

A big part of it is simply the smaller dimensions of the ice. They’re all adapting to a surface with less room and therefore more contact, and know that management is closely monitoring how they handle the change.

Grundstrom came over for the American Hockey League playoffs in the spring and fared extremely well in those six games with the Marlies. He’s likely still a year from becoming a full-time NHLer – he’ll be back in Sweden with Frolunda if he fails to stick with the Leafs now – but feels that his physicality is already an asset while working along the boards.

"It’s part of hockey," said Grundstrom. "If you can win the battle by running someone over it’s always fun to do that."

Rosén and Borgman are each battling for the open spot on the Leafs third pairing. One of them is likely to start the season with the big club.

Rosén is an above-average skater and puck distributor and won’t ever be confused for a punishing defender. But he’s planning to make it hard on opponents who come to the net.

From a profile view, Borgman looks a little like Brock Lesnar. Tattooed with bulging muscles on his arms, you can quickly understand why he won’t back down from a fight.

"He’s a bigger man than most of our guys on the back," said Leafs coach Mike Babcock. "He’s really evasive. We’ve got to help him with understanding how we play and his stick a little bit, but he does lots of really good things that we can teach easy. And we can’t teach 227 (pounds) or whatever he is.

"He’s as strong as an ox."

His new teammates were pretty excited when he dropped the gloves with Blunden. They showered him with praise after he returned from the penalty box.

"They liked it," said Borgman. "They asked me if I fought before and stuff like this. They were pretty impressed."