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Maple Leafs dedicated to patience with young talent

by Mike Brophy / Toronto Maple Leafs

TORONTO -- The kids are pumped and all have visions of cracking the Toronto Maple Leafs lineup next season.

As they should.

But Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan repeatedly has said he plans to take things slowly as he attempts to build a team that will be good for a long time. Also, new coach Mike Babcock sees value in young players getting a taste of professional hockey in the minors.

"Patience is the key," assistant general manager Kyle Dubas said Tuesday at Maple Leafs development camp at MasterCard Centre. "We're not going to rush them. We have reiterated that over and over. We're not going to bring them up unless they are absolutely ready to stay up all the time. We want them to be 100 percent ready to play for the Maple Leafs. We don't want them to start with the (Toronto) Marlies (of the American Hockey League), go to the Leafs and then back to the Marlies."

That philosophy will either rub Maple Leafs prospects the wrong way or, in a perfect world, provide them with the motivation they need to take the next step in their hockey career.

Shanahan has indicated he would like to build the Maple Leafs through the draft. Toronto has been diligent about acquiring additional draft choices from other teams the past two years, including several high picks.

That said, the Maple Leafs will have their past three first-round picks, Frederik Gauthier (No. 21, 2013), William Nylander (No. 8, 2014) and Mitchell Marner (No. 4, 2015), at training camp in September. They will be joined by Kasperi Kapanen, the Pittsburgh Penguins' 2014 first-round selection who was acquired last week in the Phil Kessel trade.

The young players know they are long shots to make the 2015-16 Maple Leafs. Although that doesn't stop them from dreaming, they recognize development camp, which opened Tuesday and continues through Sunday, is part of the process in place to help them improve.

"For me, I just want to keep getting better and keep learning the game," Nylander, 19, said. "I want to focus on becoming a better player. So for me, it was a great experience. I think I learned a lot."

Nylander was a bit of a nomad last season, playing for Modo in the Swedish Hockey League, for Sweden at the World Junior Championship and for the Marlies. He said he took something from each experience, but he especially enjoyed his time in the AHL, where he had 14 goals and 32 points in 37 games.

Nylander said his focus this summer will be to get bigger, stronger and faster. He said his future will take care of itself.

"For me, I don't really try look to much to the future," Nylander said. "I just try to do what I can do now, and that is to try to get better every day, whether I am at the rink or at the gym. I cannot control what happens in the future."

Does he feel he needs a full season in the AHL?

"I have no clue," Nylander said. "I am going to be here and do whatever it takes to play as good as I can. If it's in the NHL or with the Marlies, that's up to management."

Marner, 18, is a baby-faced center who scored 44 goals and had 126 points in his second season with the Ontario Hockey League's London Knights last season. He said his goal is to make it to the NHL as soon as possible, but he trusts the Maple Leafs management to look after his future.

"They know what to do and how to make a player better," Marner said. "Mike has coached a lot of excellent talent in Detroit, guys like Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, and whatever he does with me, I'll be happy to do it. I just want to get better and make sure when I come to this league that I'm ready to play my best."

Kapanen, 18, said he was surprised to be traded, but added he does not feel added pressure because he came to Toronto in the Kessel trade.

"Phil Kessel is Phil Kessel, and Kasperi Kapanen is Kasperi Kapanen," he said. "I will be as good as I can be and let's see what happens after that. I think we're two different players and you really can't compare us."

Kapanen spent most of last season playing in his native Finland before joining the AHL's Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins; he had a goal and two points in four regular-season games and two goals and five points in five playoff games with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.

"I was there for a month and I learned so much from the guys," Kapanen said. "Being there for five weeks taught me how to be a pro athlete and how to play a North American-style game."

Dubas insisted the Maple Leafs will not sway from their philosophy of allowing young players to develop before they're called up to Toronto.

"We want our players to carry on a steady route and to come to the Maple Leafs when they are absolutely ready," Dubas said. "We're going to stick with it and not waver from it."

Author: Mike Brophy | Correspondent

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