By HOWARD BERGER
MINNEAPOLIS (June 24) – The focus of the hockey world shifts to the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul tonight for the 2011 NHL draft. Once completed, all attention will shift once again to that wildest day on the hockey calendar: July 1, when teams scramble to fill roster spots with unrestricted free agents.
One such commodity with the Toronto Maple Leafs is forward Tim Brent, who appeared in 79 games for the club this past season and carved a bit of a niche with his willingness and ability to block shots and sacrifice himself while killing penalties. In so doing, Brent – a Toronto native – became a fan favorite at the Air Canada Centre, and it’s unlikely any Leaf supporter would be disappointed if he re-signed with the club.
“I sure would like to stay in Toronto but I haven’t heard anything from the Leafs to this point,” Brent told me over the phone today from Pennsylvania, where he’s attending to a personal matter. “I think I’ve made it clear several times that I want to continue playing for the Leafs and I’m a bit disappointed we haven’t had any talks. When you essentially give everything you have to a team, you’d like to be rewarded and I had so many great experiences last season. But, hockey is a business and I’ve been through this before.”
TIM BRENT WANTS TO RE-SIGN WITH THE LEAFS
Indeed, bouncing around the professional ranks is hardly foreign to Brent, whose journey thus far has taken him through Cincinnati (AHL), Portland ME (AHL), Anaheim (NHL), Pittsburgh (NHL), Wilkes-Barre (AHL), Chicago (NHL), Rockford (AHL) and Toronto in both the NHL and AHL. That said, Brent would very much appreciate staying put for awhile. “That’s why I want to make Toronto my hockey home,” he emphasized. “I was able to put in a full season with the Leafs and I felt I contributed in kind of a unique way. The really special part is that my family and friends were able to follow me at home. It’s an experience I’ll never forget and one I’d like to resume.”
THERE’S NOTHING FANCY ABOUT TIM BRENT – JUST HARD WORK
Brent realizes he is not an stand-out player. At 6-feet, 188 pounds, he is an average-sized NHLer; perhaps a bit under-sized for the Leafs’ taste. His scoring numbers in 2010-11 (eight goals, 12 assists) reflected the defensive role he played, though he also saw time as a point-man on the powerplay after the Leafs traded Tomas Kaberle to Boston on Feb. 18. Where size and statistics cannot be measured, however, Brent stood as quite the giant. He had the heart of a tiger when it came to handling the so-called “dirty” aspects of the game – shot-blocking chief among them.
Neither did he pick his spots. Brent kept, as a trophy of sorts, a caved-in shin pad from dropping in front of an Alex Ovechkin bomb in Washington on Nov. 3. He electrified the Air Canada Centre on Feb. 3 by blocking four shots during a 5-on-3 Carolina powerplay, then similarly disrupted a Bruins’ man-advantage in a late-season game at Boston. Sacrificing oneself in this manner is not common among most NHL players, and that’s why Brent is disappointed the Leafs haven’t yet called.
TIM BRENT, DOING HIS THING – DROPPING IN FRONT OF
SHOT BY ANDREJ MESZAROS OF PHILADELPHIA
His agent, Mark Guy (of Newport Sports Management) has indicated that a job somewhere in the NHL is likely to materialize… if not immediately on July 1, then ideally before training camp. “The funny thing about hockey is you never know what’s around the next corner,” Brent said. “Not hearing from the Leafs to this point doesn’t mean I won’t hear from them tomorrow. I really don’t know what the Leafs are looking for in someone that plays my role. I felt I provided them a unique element and I would like to be back.”
In the top-six/bottom-six philosophy of Leafs’ GM Brian Burke, size and truculence are paramount – especially among the latter group of forwards. As mentioned, Brent is neither small nor large by NHL standards but he is hardly a roughneck. So, it’s very possible that Burke is looking to replace Brent with a bigger, tougher player (i.e. Michal Hanzdus or Zenon Konopka, who should be among those available, July 1). Such a move, however, could be risky. With his shot-blocking acumen and likable temperament, the 27-year-old fit in very nicely among an improving cast of Leaf players in the final third of the schedule.
“I’m willing to go anywhere to continue playing,” admitted Brent, a graduate of St. Mike’s. “Though I’d like to re-sign with the Leafs, it’s most important to go where you’re wanted. The career window in this game is rather small. So, you have to stay flexible.”
Other Leaf players slated to become unrestricted free agents next Friday are Fredrik Sjostrom, Darryl Boyce, Joey Crabb and veteran goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere.