Kivihalme getting in gear to stake a claim on the Maple Leafs’ blue line

Kivihalme getting in gear to stake a claim on the Maple Leafs’ blue line

By: Terry Koshan – Toronto Sun

When Teemu Kivihalme was making his decision to sign with the Maple Leafs in the spring, a rather significant factor stuck out.

Several, actually.

“I watched a little hockey last season when I was in Finland (playing for Karpat of the Liiga),” Kivihalme said with a smile on Friday, “and the way they play and how they involve their defencemen in the offence, how they are always active – that’s how I like to play.”

The 24-year-old Kivihalme is the oldest player participating for the Leafs at the prospects tournament hosted by the Detroit Red Wings at Centre Ice, and with that comes an experience factor that his young teammates can’t boast.

Kivihalme, whose father Janne played college hockey in the United States and went on to become a long-time high school coach in Minnesota, figures his past two seasons with Karpat should play in his favour, not only in the prospects tournament but possibly once the Leafs’ main camp opens.

With a couple of spots on the blue line available with the Leafs, Kivihalme has been included in the conversation among those who could put a legitimate claim on one of the jobs.

It’s not a small group of contenders by any stretch, and includes Ben Harpur, Jordan Schmaltz, Martin Marincin, Justin Holl, Kevin Gravel, Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren. Barring injuries, one of the jobs will evaporate when Travis Dermott returns from a shoulder injury and surgery, likely several weeks into the regular season.

Kivihalme signed a one-year entry-level contract with the Leafs in May and is exempt from waivers, and will be competing for work against some vets who would require waivers to be sent to the Toronto Marlies.

That’s not on the mind of the Kivihalme, who was born in Cloquet, Minn., and spent three seasons at Colorado College before heading overseas. More importantly, what weighs on the six-foot, 180-pound Kivihalme is what he can accomplish in the coming weeks to ensure that Mike Babcock and his staff have plenty to chew on when the final roster decisions are made prior to to the regular-season opener on Oct. 2 at home against the Ottawa Senators.

“Consistency,” Kivihalme said. “Being able to show them I can play defence. I think they know I can play offence, being involved in the play and all that. The big thing is being able to play solid defensively, not getting beat.

“(At the prospects tournament), I want to get used to the systems, get used to game situations and get used to how things are run here, get a little more comfortable going into next week (when Leafs camp opens on Sept. 12).”

A left-handed shot, Kivihalme led Karpat defencemen in scoring last season with 30 points (nine goals and 21 assists) in 60 games.

“He is one guy I am really excited to watch,” said Marlies coach Sheldon Keefe, who is running the Leafs bench at the tournament. “I know the entire organization is. He is an older player, a more experienced guy, has played professionally over in Europe.

“Those are the kind of guys you expect to stand out a little bit more, but he is also one of those guys who should really benefit from this experience for what is really on his radar, which is the Leafs camp.”

Kivihalme, originally selected by the Nashville Predators in the 2013 draft, had offers from other National Hockey League clubs before he took the Leafs’ and signed it.

Catching glimpses of Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner in highlight packages every so often last season made his decision rather easy.

“There are a lot of good young players on the team and their future is only going up,” Kivihalme said. “Being able to hopefully be a part of that is going to be something definitely special.”