After a week of education, testing and competition, Maple Leafs prospects wrapped up the organization’s 2016 development camp Saturday morning with a spirited scrimmage at MasterCard Centre in Toronto. The score of the contest was of interest to diehard fans who’d crowded around windows at one end of the rink and to thousands more watching a live online feed of the game, but for Leafs management and the players who’d participated in the camp, the most important takeaways had far more to do with the ongoing growth of the group as a whole and the talented young individuals on the ice.
“The education process is much more important than the hockey here in the summer,” said Leafs head coach Mike Babcock, who came to camp Friday in Niagara Falls and Saturday at the team’s practice facility to watch the prospects scrimmage. “(Toronto’s development team) educate(s) these guys on how to be good pros, and understand the improvements in the details of how you live and how train and how you eat. Those things are important for them. And whether it be the media training, whether it be the mental health training, whether it be just how to handle yourself in the community, those things are important for a pro athlete. That’s what these guys want to be, so we’re trying to help them.”
Although much of the media’s focus during the development camp was on 2016 No. 1 overall draft pick Auston Matthews and 2015 No. 4 overall selection Mitch Marner, the Leafs could point to dynamic youngsters such as forwards Dmytro Timashov (selected 125th overall in 2015), Adam Brooks (92nd overall in 2016) and Carl Grundstrom (57th overall in 2016) and defencemen Andrew Nielsen (65th overall in 2015), Travis Dermott (34th overall in 2015) and Jesper Lindgren (95th overall in 2015) as components that give Toronto much more depth and promise for the future than they’ve had in recent memory.
And for Marner, the fact that there were fewer players at camp – 41 in total this year, down from 57 in 2015 – helped build a sense of cohesion and unity among the group.
“There’s less guys (this year), and that kind of helps you get to know people better and build chemistry with them on the ice and off the ice,” said Marner, who scored two goals Saturday to help lead Team Blue to a 5-2 win over Matthews and Team White. “This camp, it seemed a lot closer of a group. Everyone knew each other and was talking with each other at all times…it just felt we were a tight group in both rooms, and we all came together. It was a great camp for everyone, everyone learned a lot, and it was a lot of fun.”
Matthews shared Marner’s feeling that the camp was beneficial on a number of fronts.
“I thought it was a pretty good week from a development standpoint,” said Matthews, who now heads home to his native Arizona for a brief respite before preparing for both Leafs training camp and the 2016 World Cup of Hockey. “I think everybody had fun, it was nice to meet new guys and get accustomed to the Toronto Maple Leafs, and their staff, and what they have to offer and teach to us.”
As Babcock noted, the week centred around learning, and the 18-year-old Matthews embraced learning more about the history, prestige and responsibilities that come with playing for a storied Original Six franchise.
“The standard we hold ourselves (to) here as a Toronto Maple Leaf,” Matthews said when asked what he took away from the development camp. “(Being) respectful to the staff, your teammates, always giving 100 percent on the ice, being a good teammate and being a good guy overall, and trying to push everybody to get better.”
Matthews also pointed to the Leafs’ mental health seminar for prospects as something that was much-appreciated by young men who put all sorts of pressure on themselves to win games and improve every day.
“Just not being afraid to share,” Matthews said of the main message behind the mental health seminar, which Babcock used to address the team and a topic dear to his heart. “Everybody’s going through things. That was basically the main message. It was nice to have a more serious conversation (on) probably more of a sensitive subject to some people. So it was nice to open up and talk about that kind of stuff.”
Toronto’s prospects now will scatter back across the globe to spend a precious few weeks with friends and family before turning their sole focus back to hockey and preparing for training camps in the fall. But this week presented both players and team brass with a brief window through which to see how far they’ve grown.
And everyone is encouraged by what they’ve seen – and excited about what’s ahead.
“You get to see what (Leafs director of player personnel Mark Hunter) and his guys have done, and you get to see the growth of some kids and that’s real positive,” Babcock said. “The way they eat and the way they train the rest of the summer is going to impact on where they play.”