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Coming Back For More

by Adam Proteau Proteautype /

For a number of years prior to this fall's Maple Leafs training camp, the turnover among roster members was notable, and for good reason: as every team does, management was evaluating its components and frequently bringing in new players in an attempt to improve. But there's something different about this year's Leafs team - there's next to no turnover.

Sure, a couple of Leafs in 2016-17 have moved on, but for the most part, Toronto's forward lines, defence pairings and goaltending tandem is intact. That's made the organization's current camp less of an exercise in the players gaining familiarity with each other and more of a situation in which teammates are building upon the foundation they created last year. And for some of the Leafs veterans who've been in town the longest, that's a predicament that bodes very well for the team's competitive chances in the coming campaign.

"It's interesting, I think the amount of guys we have back this year from last year - I don't think I've ever been on a team that's been like that," winger James van Riemsdyk, who's been a Leaf since 2012, said Thursday at the team's practice facility. "I think a lot of guys went into the summer the right way and were really proactive in making sure they were taking responsibility to come back now a better player. That's exciting to see."

"It certainly does," added centre Nazem Kadri - who played his first NHL game in 2010 - said when asked if more returning faces at training camp makes things easier. "It obviously becomes a little better when you're more familiar with everybody and know them on a personal basis."

The Leafs' fortunes have been on an upward trajectory for a while now, and although it's never a great idea to put too much stock into what happens during the pre-season, Toronto's on-ice performances have improved as the Buds have made their way through this year's spate of pre-season games. After losing their first two contests to the Ottawa Senators, the Leafs have won four in a row - including a 4-2 win over Montreal Wednesday in Quebec City, a win that was that much sweeter because (a) it featured a lineup of mostly young Toronto prospects who aren't likely to spend much time in the NHL this season; and (b) it came against a Canadiens team that had most of its NHL players, including star goalie Carey Price, on the ice.

So, on the one hand, the Leafs have a great deal of consistency in terms of returning players, and on the other hand, they've got a deep collection of developing youngsters who are constantly striving to position themselves as one of the first players to be called up to the NHL level should injuries or other circumstances dictate the need for change. That's genuine competition, and it filters down from the very top of the NHL lineup through the entirety of the organization.

In other words, that's exactly what any team should be aiming for.

"That's something I like to see," Kadri said of the young Leafs' win in Montreal Wednesday. "That's healthy competition. That's fun to see when you have a competitive lineup and (the Canadiens) have a lot of familiar faces that are probably going to be in their opening-day lineup, and we go in there and manage to find a way to win, especially with a top-tier goaltender in net for them. So you've got to appreciate that competitiveness."

"It just goes to show the depth we have here, and that's definitely something I've noticed from my first year here to now - just the depth we have up and down at every position," added van Riemsdyk. "So that's huge to have, and things can change pretty quickly (with) injuries and stuff like that, so it's important to have stuff like that so you don't miss a beat."

That's also music to the ears of head coach Mike Babcock, who is entering his third year behind Toronto's bench. In his first season with the Leafs, he noted there were not enough players for the number of NHL positions that were available. But that changed in a big and positive way last season, and the change is even more pronounced so far this fall. The result? Even players who've been regular, day-in-and-day-out NHLers have to raise their games to continue to receive the amount of ice time they have before now.

And if they want more ice time? Well, the onus is on them to demonstrate that they're worthy of the opportunity.

"Some of these guys that made our roster in the past, they were at a lower level than the players who have to be now to make the roster," Babcock said Thursday. "They were just given minutes. It's not like that anymore. It's too competitive."

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