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Toronto Maple Leafs second round draft pick Jesse Blacker at the 2009 NHL entry draft in Montreal Saturday, June 27, 2009.

Ryan Remiorz

They may have been dressed as Toronto Maple Leafs, but almost everyone involved is an awfully long way from doing so in a game of any consequence.

But so it goes that 42 youngsters are taking the ice at the Leafs' practice facility this week - in early July, no less - to try and catch the eye of Toronto brass.

It's a group of recent draft picks, free agents and warm bodies that includes plenty of long shots and no-hopes, some of whom may not even land ECHL deals.

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And the truth is that even those at the top of the depth chart are essentially playing for spots with the AHL club, two-and-a-half months before training camp opens.

After all, the Leafs' most NHL-ready prospects taking part in this week's camp are two defencemen in Jake Gardiner and Jesse Blacker, but after dealing for two top-six defenders in John-Michael Liles and Cody Franson in the past couple weeks, there's a logjam at the position.

As many as nine Toronto blueliners will have NHL contracts by this fall, with restricted free agents Luke Schenn and Matt Lashoff's deals to come.

Jeff Finger's bloated contract will be headed back to the minors, which eliminates one hurdle for a youngster, but the best someone such as Gardiner or Blacker can hope for is to play well enough to force general manager Brian Burke to deal a more experienced body away.

Judging from Leafs director of player development Jim Hughes's take after Tuesday's spirited scrimmage, that's pretty unlikely.

"With those two guys, we've got to be patient," Hughes said. "We've got to be intelligent and we've got to make sure that we take our time so that they can build a real good foundation in the American League."

The NHL? That can wait.

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Up front, the story is much the same, as after Clarke MacArthur and Tyler Bozak both re-signed Tuesday, there are 13 forwards under contract who are expected to make the team, with the health of Matt Lombardi and Colton Orr the only question marks that could create holes.

(Two forwards likely to take those roles, meanwhile, aren't even at the prospect camp, with Matt Frattin and Joe Colborne deemed high-profile enough to sit this one out.)

That leaves this summer camp to fill an informational and developmental role more than anything, with players receiving Leaf-sponsored training on everything from diet to social media in the hope that it helps them succeed.

One final bit of persuasion came from Burke at the end of the day on Tuesday, as he addressed the group in typically grandiose fashion, encouraging them to push hard this summer to make an impact.

What's been most remarkable about the week is all the attention these prospects are getting, with four camera crews on hand to document Tuesday's 50-minute scrimmage despite the almost non-existent impact it will have on next year's team.

Then again, there's always interest when the future is the topic in Toronto. Even if the Leafs roster is basically set until mid-September, when the few real roster battles left will begin.

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About the Author
Hockey Reporter

James joined The Globe as an editor and reporter in the sports department in 2005 and now covers the NHL and the Toronto Maple Leafs. More

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