When Scott Pellerin was drafted 47th overall by the New Jersey Devils in 1989, the beginning of his transition to the NHL was simple, spartan and straightforward. But for Pellerin – now the Maple Leafs’ director of player development – and Toronto’s young players in attendance for the organization’s 2016 development camp, the modern-day road to improvement as a talented young competitor is much more complex and beneficial.
“These guys are lucky, because we just got a letter,” said Pellerin, who was drafted by then-Devils GM and current Leafs GM Lou Lamoriello. “We just got a letter (saying), 'Show up at this time, be ready for training camp'. So this is a great opportunity for all these players.”
Forty-one Leafs prospects were invited to this year’s development camp, which began Sunday with a team dinner and a video presentation providing youngsters with a history of the franchise and establishing standards and responsibilities they have as a member of the organization. Players then traveled to the Buds’ practice facility in the west end of Toronto Monday for physicals, a seminar on nutrition, and a general analysis of their skating courtesy of team consultant Barb Underhill.
A huge media contingent was on hand Monday to see the new crop of young Leafs talent – including 2016 No. 1 overall pick Auston Matthews – as they made their way through a few drills. And Matthews understands the interest in and passion surrounding the future of both himself and his teammates is part-and-parcel of playing for such a storied, popular franchise.
“This is the hockey mecca of the world, and with that, comes a lot of media and pressure. but it’s definitely something you want to embrace,” said Matthews, who wore No. 63 on the ice Monday and was rooming with 2015 Leafs draft pick Dmytro Timashov. “It’s a pretty special feeling, just to put on the Maple Leafs sweater. It’s awesome.”
Timashov, 2015 first-round draft pick Mitch Marner and 2015 third-round selection Jeremy Bracco were among the Leafs prospects attending their second development camp. All three forwards said they were more comfortable with the process this time around, and hoped to help rookies such as Matthews acclimate to their new environment.
“Off the ice, I think I’ve grown as a leader, and helping people out,” said Marner, who is coming off a phenomenal season with the Ontario League’s London Knights. “And on the ice, I’m just trying to get better as much as possible – skating, stickhandling, shooting. There’s always situations to get better at, and coming here (to development camp), there’s people on the ice that know exactly what you need to get better at. It’s a big help throughout the year.”
“I think you’re kind of looked upon as a leader the second time around,” added Bracco, who spent most of last season with the OHL’s Kitchener Rangers. “Learning from guys like (Leafs and Marlies forwards William) Nylander and (Kasperi) Kapanen last year (at development camp), kind of what they went through their second year, you take (in) what they talked to you about.”
Regardless of the round any Leafs prospect was selected in, all of them now begin a new, clean slate with Toronto management and are competing for opportunities at the NHL, American League and amateur levels. And the feeling-out process goes both ways: the players must become accustomed to the Buds’ methods and blueprints for success, and the organization has to grow in terms of understanding what type of players each of them are and how best they can be motivated and educated.
“We’re here to teach them all how to be good pros,” Pellerin said. “Listening to the direction from (Leafs head coach) Mike Babcock all the way down to (Marlies head coach) Sheldon Keefe, and from Lou and (Marlies GM) Kyle (Dubas) and the whole management staff, all the way to the development team, we’re all on the same page and it’s about teaching them to become good professionals and good people.
“Now it’s an opportunity for us to really get to know the players. A lot of them are new, we just met them, a lot of them introduced themselves last night at our team dinner. And (we’ll be) getting to know them more as the week goes on.”
All-in-all, this development camp experience – which will continue Tuesday through Friday as the camp moves to Niagara Falls, Ont., – is a toe dip into the deep waters that come with being a professional NHL player. And Pellerin and his development team are there to help Toronto’s prospects navigate those waters.
“This is July, and we’re here not to make any real big statements or anything like that,” Pellerin said. “We just want to help them get ready for training camp, get ready for their seasons.
“(With) all the input and the information and the resources that we have here, these players are very fortunate. And they’re taking advantage of it in a great way, not a selfish way. It’s good to see that team atmosphere.”