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Maple Leafs' top prospects hope to accelerate rebuild

by Mike Brophy

TORONTO -- Some of the Toronto Maple Leafs' top prospects are hoping the changes made this summer will increase their chances of making the team this season.

Mitchell Marner, Connor Brown and Kasperi Kapanen, who were in Toronto on Monday at the NHL Players' Association Rookie Showcase, believe the additions of general manager Lou Lamoriello and coach Mike Babcock will create opportunities for them to play in the NHL sooner rather than later.

Toronto went 30-44-8 last season and finished 27th in the League standings with 68 points.

"It has been a big offseason for the city and the team," Marner said. "A lot of guys came in who have winning records and that's what this city needs, someone to come in and put their foot down and show what it's like to be a playoff team and a contender."

Lamoriello guided the New Jersey Devils to three Stanley Cup championships (1995, 2000, 2003); Babcock won the Cup with the Detroit Red Wings in 2008 and led Canada to gold medals at the 2010 and 2014 Winter Olympics.

Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan has vowed to build a contending team by acquiring and developing young, skilled players. Marner, Brown, Kapanen and William Nylander, the eighth pick of the 2014 NHL Draft, hope to fit the bill. Yet at the same time, assistant GM Kyle Dubas said this summer the Maple Leafs' desire is to not have players on the roster until they are NHL-ready.

"We don't want to be sending young players up and down," Dubas said.

Brown, 21, spent his entire first season as a pro playing in the American Hockey League with the Toronto Marlies. The 5-foot-11, 160-pound center led AHL rookies in scoring with 61 points (21 goals, 40 assists) in 76 games.

Despite his success, Brown did not receive a promotion to the Maple Leafs last season, a decision he says did not leave him discouraged.

"I really trust that they have a plan and they are very motivated at this point," Brown said. "They did what they thought was best for me and I agreed with it. I had a pretty good year and it was actually kind of nice to stay down there the whole year and focus on the season with the Marlies. I think I'm heading in the right direction, so hopefully at [training] camp I can take the next step."

Marner, the fourth pick of the 2015 draft, knows he's a longshot to make the Maple Leafs as an 18-year-old, but he is working with that goal in mind. Marner played last season with the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League and was second in the league in scoring with 126 points in 63 games.

"I will try the best I can to make the team and whatever happens, happens," Marner said. "If I go back to junior that's OK too. I'll try to be a leader on the Knights and teach other guys in their draft year to be focused and be ready for the season and to not put too much pressure on themselves."

A native of Thornhill, Ontario, Marner said he's thrilled to be part of the latest wave of prospects the Maple Leafs have assembled in an effort to turn things around.

"I think when you grow up in Toronto it is hard not to be a Maple Leafs fan," Marner said. "It is a team I have grown up watching. And to finally be a part of it and part of a rebuild is really crazy. I'm just going to try to do the best I can and play hockey and think about nothing else."

The Maple Leafs are hopeful Marner's considerable skill level can overcome his size (5-foot-11, 160 pounds). Marner is not concerned.

"It's just people's opinions," he said. "It doesn't really matter to me what people say. A lot of people seem to think I'm too small, but that has never bothered me."

Kapanen, 19, was acquired from the Pittsburgh Penguins by the Maple Leafs on July 1 as part of the trade involving right wing Phil Kessel. Kapanen, Pittsburgh's first-round pick (No. 22) in 2014, split last season between KalPa in Finland and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton in the AHL. He had one goal and two points in four AHL regular-season games and three goals and five points in seven Calder Cup Playoff games.

Kapanen (5-11, 180), who can play either wing, became quite serious when discussing his expectations for this season.

"They are pretty high," he said. "I was one of the last ones to get sent down at training camp by Pittsburgh last year. They have a pretty good team, so not making it as an 18-year-old you have to give yourself some forgiveness. This year I have been working hard the whole summer and I am really excited to see what I can do."

Kapanen is the son of Sami Kapanen, who played 831 NHL games with the Hartford Whalers, Carolina Hurricanes and Philadelphia Flyers. The younger Kapanen believes his second NHL training camp will give him a better idea of what to expect.

"It's a long process and every day you have to bring it 100 percent," Kapanen said. "There really aren't any off days. You have to be a pro athlete every day. Whether it's sleep or workouts or nutrition, you have to be a pro and that is what I am concentrating on this year."

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