Throughout this training camp, one message has been echoed from management down through the coaching staff to the players looking to play for the Maple Leafs — you get what you earn.
While many onlookers take that message with cynicism given the realities of a modern day NHL, its contracts and other nuances of the off-ice game, there are many players whose path to Toronto are a reflection of the aforementioned attitude.
There may be no better example of that mentality in the organization than forward Byron Froese — a player who has earned his shot with the Maple Leafs this season on the back of hard work and persistence.
"I think I've done that my whole life — just never quit and keep going no matter the circumstance," said Froese.
Froese arrived in Toronto this past Dec. 9, joining the Marlies on loan from the ECHL's Cincinnati Cyclones. He asserted himself quickly within the Marlies forward core and earned an AHL contract to finish out the season.
His arrival also coincided with the club's second half push towards a playoff position. A sluggish start to the season dug the Marlies a hole early on. A talent infusion that included Froese, William Nylander and, later on, Brendan Leipsic pushed the team to the playoffs.
Froese's play, coupled with the other new additions to the team, helped set the tone for a revamped Marlies club.
"There were great players there. I got to play with really good players like Willy Nylander and Matt Frattin," said Froese. "When I got here I just wanted to be confident in my game and my skill and ability and just work as hard as I can every night and I think that pays off every time you're playing on any team. That was my mindset going into it. "
"Last year was a great opportunity for me to get up here and play a lot of minutes with the Marlies. I think I got a lot better as a player and I'm hoping to keep going up. "
That mindset paid dividends. His work earned him a two-year, two-way contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs signed on July 3. With Froese in the Leafs' cupboard of players who are eligible to play NHL games, they've locked in a versatile player who can work in all three zones at all three forward positions.
The organizational changes in system and structure — putting added emphasis on forwards aiding defenders, utilizing the middle ice and cranking up the pressure in each zone — lend itself to Froese's north-south style. His high work rate and willingness to shoot the puck will be a welcome skillset.
"I'm not a summer hockey player where I have a lot of skill and finesse but I like to get to the net and get pucks to the net," said Froese. "The way I find success is when I'm getting pucks in deep, getting pucks to the net and getting my body to the net."
Success has found Froese since his arrival with the Marlies. A renewed commitment to shooting has taken his offensive game to another level and adds a facet to his responsible, two-way play.
The realization that shooting more yields better results became apparent during his time in Cincinnati with the Cyclones. He has preached the benefits to shooting more to his teammates, in addition to firing away himself.
"Starting in Cincinnati I found that shooting the puck works," said Froese. "I took it up here with myself and I always talk to Willy about it too — if you get the puck, shoot it. You have a lot better chance to score if you shoot the puck than if you pass it."
Froese will look to carry his recipe for success through the conclusion of Leafs training camp. Through a week, he has enjoyed the tempo and competition at camp, "the pace is pretty high and I want to keep elevating my play as much as I can."
The 24-year-old got a taste of the next level in Leafs colours when the club went to Ottawa to take on the Senators in split-squad action on Sept. 21. It was his second trip to Canadian Tire Centre — the Marlies took on the Binghamton Senators in Ottawa last season.
While the opportunity was an exciting one, Froese feels he has room to grow after his showing.
"It was awesome — I played in Ottawa — it helped that we played there last year with the Marlies, it made me feel a lot more comfortable," said Froese. "I thought I was okay, I didn't think it was my best game."
With a season of steady progress under his belt with the Leafs, Froese has put himself in a position to catch the eye of top brass. If he continues on his current trajectory, his most recent road trip won't be his last with the big club.
"I've just got to keep going up."