Brandon Prust is no stranger to tryouts. As a teenager, Prust used a camp invite to crack the London Knights roster ahead of the 2002-03 OHL season. He eventually helped the Knights capture the franchise’s first Memorial Cup in 2005.
Now, at 32, the veteran of 486 NHL games is relying on the experience of his successful OHL tryout to help him with his latest camp invitation.
The Toronto Maple Leafs invited Prust to training camp on a professional tryout, and the London native, who had a season to forget last year, is hoping to follow Brad Boyes’ footsteps in turning a PTO into a contract.
“That was kind of before I had any idea,” Prust said of his inexperience going to Knights camp. “I was just kind of going out – I had an invite to camp. Went out, did my thing and made the team. You take your experiences, especially being an older guy. You take all your experiences [from] throughout your career. It’s kind of what makes you a little wiser as you get older.”
Last summer, heading into the final year of his four-year, $10 million contract, Prust was dealt from the Montreal Canadiens to the Vancouver Canucks in exchange for Zack Kassian. In his first game against the Canadiens, on Oct. 27, Prust suffered a left ankle injury, which derailed his whole season. He initially missed 11 games due to the injury.
Seeing his teammates go 3-5-3 in his absence Prust says he was over aggressive in his rehab attempting to return.
“I had never had an ankle injury before so I definitely pushed myself,” Prust said. “I wanted to get back. The team was struggling a little bit. You want to get back and help. Pushed it a little bit. Obviously looking back, I might’ve waited a little longer.”
Prust appeared in 35 games for the Canucks last season prior to being placed on waivers in February. The 6-foot, 195-pound forward appeared in nine games with the AHL’s Utica Comets before mutually agreeing with the Canucks to part ways. The decision to move on was key for Prust, who knew he was heading into unrestricted free agency. Being healthy enough to have a proper summer of training was crucial in order for Prust to show interested clubs he could still play at the NHL level.
“Obviously that was important for me, just didn’t feel confident and comfortable with injury last year,” he said. “That was the main objective: getting [the ankle] straightened out and figured out so I can focus.”
Prust finished his ninth season with just seven points and 59 penalty minutes – his lowest totals since his rookie season. Asked to assess his year in the Canucks organization, Prust was blunt.
“Well obviously it wasn’t very good, right? It was one of my worst years as an NHLer,” he said. “Got to bounce back from it.”
Prust had a few camp offers to mull over this summer, but his decision became clear when the Maple Leafs came calling. Growing up two hours outside of Toronto, Prust was admittedly a Leafs fan as a child.
“I always watched the Leafs growing up and always dreamed of playing for the Leafs and putting on the blue and white jersey,” he said. “That’s one of the reasons I kind of chose Toronto. I knew my heart would be in it and it would definitely bring that passion out in me.”
With Leafs camp set to open this week, and his ankle feeling “back to 100 per cent”, Prust has been busy working with skating coach Barb Underhill to regain, and refine, his stride.
“It’s tough because you’ve had habits for so long and had a certain way,” Prust said. “You definitely have to really focus. You’re not a sponge where you can naturally do it. You really have to practice, and really have to mentally think.
“Since I’ve been with her, I even told her, ‘I’m laying in bed at night thinking of my stride and changing my stride and what I got to do’. She’s like, ‘I didn’t want to do that to you’, but that’s just natural, that’s how you are. I think just being at my age, it’s kind of what you’ve got to do. You’ve got to drill it into your brain.”
Prust admitted his game could’ve benefitted from working with Underhill two or three years ago.
“It’s just little tweaks and little things that, if you can make it natural, if you can practice enough, you can change some things,” he said. “Obviously not going to turn myself into the fastest guy in the league, but little things to get me to the puck quicker, little things that can make me move better laterally – they’re going to help me in the long run.”
Though Prust would like to see his childhood dream come to fruition, the numbers are stacked against him heading into camp. Toronto signed rugged forward Matt Martin to a four-year, $10 million contract on July 1. Rich Clune, who split last season between the Leafs and Marlies, is still with the organization on an AHL contract. On top of that, the Leafs have just two contracts remaining before they reach the max of 50.
“I know if I go out and play my game, and show them that I can still move, I know that I’ll get a fair shot,” Prust said. “I know I can crack the lineup if I prove it. I know what I’ve got to do.”