As the Maple Leafs continued their training camp exercises and preparations with an eye toward the first game of the regular season Oct. 4 in Winnipeg, the shape and content of the roster was slowly beginning to reveal itself. On Tuesday, at the team's practice facility, two groups of skaters took to the main ice pad at different times: the first group was, for the most part, comprised of youngsters and prospective NHLers seeking to lock up a job; the second was the group of veterans who were on the ice for Toronto last season.
This isn't to say each and every member of the first group had no chance to make the roster for this year's opening-night group of Leafs; to the contrary, it had players such as winger Connor Brown and defenceman Connor Carrick, both of whom are likely to play important roles for the Buds in 2017-18. Instead, the difference in groups demonstrated exactly how much depth the organization has accumulated in recent years, and it provided young players an up-close look at how hard they'll have to battle to elevate their game and separate themselves from the rest of the pack.
And, to a man, those young players said they were up for the fight and were focused on doing as much as they could to make head coach Mike Babcock's roster decisions as difficult as possible.
"There are a lot of guys who want to play, and not enough spots," said winger Kasperi Kapanen, who availed himself very well in short stints at the NHL level the past two seasons, yet who still is one of the Leafs who'll have to fight hard for every minute of NHL time he receives this season. "We make each other better by adjusting and competing out there, and it's been a fun camp."
"I think the skill level is just really high," added Carrick, who played his first full NHL last season at age 22. "Throughout the whole camp, the amount of players that you watch on the ice like, 'That guy's pretty good' - we've got a lot of those guys."
Toronto's pool of talent is impressively deep, but just as every player's skill set is unique, so too is their road to the NHL and their challenges at this year's camp. Take, for example, 23-year-old blueliner Calle Rosen: signed as an unrestricted free agent this past summer, the Swedish defenceman had never been to North America prior to camp and wasn't familiar with the smaller rinks and differences in style of game that's played at the professional level on this side of the Atlantic Ocean. But Rosen has quickly adapted and made a strong and positive impact on his teammates, coaches and fans - and when he was placed on the third defensive pairing for Monday night's pre-season tilt against the Montreal Canadiens, it was an indication he's a bona fide contender to contribute at the NHL level.
"He's super-mobile, good with the puck, he uses his stick well," Leafs veteran D-man Connor Carrick said of Rosen, with whom he was paired in Monday's 5-1 Leafs win over Montreal. "(He's) kind of your prototypical Swedish defenceman…he moves the puck quick, it's on the tape, he doesn't kind of overlook for better plays. He kind of just makes the (play) that presents itself, and that's a good trait to have for early success in the NHL. It'll be cool to see his upside."
The affable Rosen hasn't been in Toronto long enough to buy a car - although he recently purchased a home and will soon be moving out of a downtown hotel - but his smooth play and solid decision-making with the puck bodes well for his future as a Leaf.
"It's a lot of high-tempo, and I think that's the most different thing from Sweden," Rosen said of the differences in the North American game. "Everything's a little bit tighter. You don't have that much time, and it's close to the boards everywhere, so everything's just a little bit tighter, and that makes it feel a little bit quicker, too."
Kapanen's story is different than Rosen's, but just as compelling: the 21-year-old Finnish native has spent the past two seasons with the American League's Marlies, overcoming injuries in that span and even a healthy scratch situation or two to become one of coach Sheldon Keefe's best players. In each of the last two years he's also had a cup of coffee with the Leafs, playing nine regular-season NHL games in 2015-16 and another eight last season. But when Toronto's playoff series against the Washington Capitals took place, Kapanen's game got better, and he scored two goals in six post-season games to earn kudos from fans and put himself in a position to vie for full-time NHL employment this year.
Like his father, Sami - a forward who wasn't drafted until age 22, when he went in the fourth round to the Hartford Whalers and went on to play 831 regular-season NHL games and accumulate 189 goals and 458 points - Kasperi Kapanen's journey to where he is today hasn't been free of bumps and setbacks. But his ability to overcome those obstacles and continue improving is what has people believing in him and projecting that, sooner or later, he'll be a key cog in the Leafs' machine.
Kasperi believes that, too.
"I've had some ups and downs, but just looking at my dad's career and how he got to the NHL, mine's nothing compared to his," Kapanen said of his father. "He was told two or three times that he'd get drafted in the first or second round, and he didn't get drafted at all. And every time he came back, he just went straight to the gym and started working out. So it's stories like that and seeing your dad push that make you push that much harder. And he had a great NHL career, so I'm just trying to do the same."
Whether you're in Leafs camp and have the pedigree of Kapanen, or whether you're just a hardworking, first-generation potential NHLer like Rosen, the bottom line is the same: this is a results-oriented line of work, and because the results for Toronto's management and development staff have been so bountiful in procuring talent, it'll take everything in a young player's power to carve out a spot for himself in hockey's top league. That's a major compliment for the state of the organization, and a massive motivator for youngsters like Kapanen and Rosen.
In other words, who wouldn't want to be a part of the good thing that's unfolding in Toronto? And why wouldn't you give it your all to be welcomed aboard?
"The team's been taking some huge steps these past couple years and it's good to see," Kapanen said. "A lot of young guys are becoming stars out there, and it's one of those things that pushes me each and every day. I want to be a part of the team, I want to be a really good player for the team. The future looks good."