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Schenn settling back into life with Leafs

TORONTO – Luke Schenn entered the home dressing room at Scotiabank Arena last week.

He made a move towards what used to be his locker before catching himself.

It had been almost 11 years since the defenceman’s first stint with the Maple Leafs ended.

Old habits, however, die hard.

“Didn’t mean to do it,” Schenn said. “It’s just sort of flashbacks. There’s been so much time in between.

“And then at the same time, it’s nothing but memories.”

Toronto reacquired the 33-year-old from the Vancouver Canucks ahead of the NHL trade deadline as another depth option for a team with designs on finally making a long playoff run.

The organization originally selected Schenn with the fifth overall pick at the 2008 draft, but dealt him to the Philadelphia Flyers for winger James van Riemsdyk following four success-starved seasons.

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The Saskatoon native hasn’t had an easy road since.

Schenn played for six NHL teams after getting dealt from the Leafs more than a decade ago, has passed through waivers multiple times and had stints in the American Hockey League.

A dependable, straightforward defender, he eventually found a niche and resurrected his career with the Tampa Bay Lightning as part of that team’s Stanley Cup victories in 2020 and 2021.

“Actually pretty surreal,” Schenn said of his Toronto homecoming. “Still hard to believe. I got the chance to start here – just young and probably naive to a lot of things. You figure out more things with experience and age and maturity.”

He added being a young player in an organization lacking success – the Leafs never finished with more than 85 points during his first tenure – in an intense media market was a challenge.

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“A lot of years you’re out of it by all-star break,” said the six-foot-two, 225-pound Schenn, who made his NHL debut at age 18 in October 2008. “You’re always talking about the next year and the next wave of guys.

“Taken a long time to get it right.”

Toronto winger Michael Bunting remembers watching Schenn play for the Leafs when the former was growing up with NHL dreams in the city’s east end.

“Same player he was back in the day – big boy, laid the hits, plays really good defensively,” said the 27-year-old Bunting. “He’s the guy that’s done it before by winning championships in this league.

“Big part of this team already.”

Schenn, who has 41 goals and 190 points in 922 regular-season games over his 15 seasons, sees similarities with Toronto’s roster and what was in Tampa – a team with a skilled, talented nucleus that had endured plenty of playoff heartbreak.

Looking to advance in the post-season for the first time since 2004, the Leafs added Schenn, forwards Ryan O’Reilly, Noel Acciari and Sam Lafferty, along with fellow defencemen Jake McCabe and Erik Gustafsson ahead of the deadline to complement Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and Co.

“Both teams are based around a core of four or five guys,” Schenn said of the Leafs and Lightning, who appear poised for a rematch of last spring’s playoff meeting Tampa took in seven games. “You add a couple of good trades in there and guys that help move the needle along. You expect to learn from past experiences and failures.

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“You want to keep working on it and hopefully get it right.”

Schenn, who got a rousing ovation Friday at Scotiabank Arena in his second home debut, hasn’t played a ton of hockey in recent weeks and is still finding his groove.

The Canucks sat him down to avoid injury before the trade and he stayed on the West Coast awaiting the arrival of he and wife Jeska’s third child, a girl name Romee Grace born March 10.

“Been through a lot and there’s been a big adjustment,” Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe said. “And I’m sure a lot of nostalgia at the same time.”

Schenn spent Sunday looking at a few places to rent in Toronto with his family set to join him soon. He also had dinner at Marner’s house alongside a few teammates as he continues to get reacclimated with his old/new surroundings.

“It has changed a lot,” Schenn said of the city. “There’s lots of new buildings downtown.

“Still know my way around. But at the same time, it seems like it’s just busier.”

Returning to Toronto was something he thought about in passing through the years.

Schenn just didn’t believe it was in the cards.

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“Always been in the back of my mind,” he said. “I enjoyed it so much and never experienced the organization or the city with a ton of team success.

“To get the second chance to come back under these circumstances, I’m very fortunate.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 20, 2023.

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