The rest of Canada won’t like hearing this, but for the duration of training camp the Toronto Maple Leafs will be the center of that country’s hockey universe.
Sure, Edmonton is ushering in the Connor McDavid era and Winnipeg is buzzing with young talent that’s ready to break through to the big club, and Montreal is, well, Montreal. But none of the other six Canadian clubs can match the intrigue that started to unfold on Friday at the Leafs’ camp in bucolic Nova Scotia.
Where to start with a city that’s bracing for a full-on, slow boil rebuild? The arrival of Mike Babcock is an undeniable hook and one that’s sure to draw international attention. Can the most highly regarded coach in the game groom an ill-fitting mix of kids and short-timers into a purpose-driven unit that competes on a nightly basis?
Also on the front burner: how a team that ranked 24th in goals-per-game last season will replace the offense it lost when top scorer Phil Kessel was dealt to Pittsburgh, and whether Nazem Kadri is ready to step up into the No. 1 center role. But the real intrigue is revealed in the battle for jobs and, by extension, the definition of the nature of this team.
The Leafs have three elite prospects who are looking to earn a spot out of camp. William Nylander, Kasperi Kapanen and Mitch Marner all possess the kind of high-end offensive talent that Toronto desperately needs. There’s a sense that the team is looking to simmer all three players a little longer before giving them a real shot at the NHL—Nylander and Kapanen with the AHL Marlies, Marner with the OHL’s London Knights—but there’s a real chance that one or more of them could show enough to make the Leafs reconsider that plan.
Then again, the Leafs may be determined to give proven vets a leg up on those jobs. Toronto has four players in camp on Professional Try Out (PTO) agreements, more than any other team, in an effort to find bridge talent at an affordable price. More important, the Leafs are looking to stockpile assets that might appreciate in value ahead of net February’s trade deadline when they could be flipped for picks and/or prospects. Brad Boyes seems like a lock to earn a spot out of camp. The 33-year-old former Panther is seven years removed from his last 30-goal season but with 35 over the past two years he still can provide scoring touch and a decent defensive presence in a depth role. Curtis Glencross brings speed, grit and penalty kill ability, making him a likely roster add. The Leafs also have Devin Setoguchi and Mark Fraser in camp. Neither seems like a good fit, but they could show enough to attract attention from another club.
And then there’s the set-up for last-minute shopping. Thursday’s trade that saw the Leafs send marginal five minor leaguers to the Islanders not only brought in some valuable veteran depth in Michael Grabner (another trade deadline asset), it cleared space in a cluttered system to take on additional contracts if someone becomes available on waivers at the end of camp or if another club needs to make a cap-related dump. If's there’s talent to be had, Toronto is poised to be a player.
However it all plays out, the Leafs are clearly the must-watch team as camps get underway.
• When the Hurricanes make the inevitable decision to move pending UFA Eric Staal, keep an eye on the Predators as a viable partner. Nashville’s current crop of centers—Mike Ribeiro, Mike Fisher, Cody Hodgson and Paul Gaustad—stands out as the weakest of any team with legitimate playoff aspirations. Ribeiro scored a respectable 62 points last season while Fisher chipped in 39 in just 59 games, but both players are now 35 years old, and it’s far more likely that their production will regress than match those levels. Hodgson, who was bought out by the Sabres after a comically ineffective season, is a total crap shoot and Gaustad is strictly a defensive weapon, leaving the Preds in dire need of a proven pivot with a legitimate physical presence to match up against the murderer’s row of centers that Nashville will have to face in the postseason.
• Another team that might be looking to deal, maybe before the end of camp, is the Bruins. The upper-body injury that’s holding veteran defenseman Dennis Seidenberg out for a few days may turn out to be minor, but it exposes the wafer-thin state of Boston’s blueline. Best-case scenario: the team's top-six stacks up as Zdeno Chara–Zach Trotman, Seidenberg–Kevan Miller and Torey Krug– Adam McQuaid. Not a particularly imposing group as-is, but without the steady, physical play of Seidenberg it looks like a straight shot to the slot for attacking forwards, especially when the bottom four are on the ice. Unless one of the kids surprises in camp—keep an eye on Colin Miller, acquired from Los Angeles in the Milan Lucic trade— GM Don Sweeney will be in the market for an upgrade.
• Speaking of the Bruins, this story linking local boy Jimmy Hayes to notorious gangster Whitey Bulger is completely bananas. Bulger, whose life story is told in the movie Black Mass that goes into wide release this weekend, allegedly kidnapped Hayes’s father in 1994 and told him he would be killed if he did not pay “a sizable ransom.” Bulger was later charged with extortion as a result of the incident but was found not guilty when he was tried in 2013. Hayes, who said he was aware of that harrowing story, still plans to see the movie.
• Just one scout talkin’: “If I had to pick someone [to make the jump to 50-goal scorer this season], it wouldn’t be [Phil] Kessel. Give me [Vladimir] Tarasenko. I think he’s just getting comfortable in this league ... comfortable with his place on the Blues. He’s going to be a leader for that team, and not just in scoring. Sky’s the limit for that kid.”
• Hockey pioneer Willie O’Ree will have his number retired by the AHL’s new San Diego Gulls just in time for his 80th birthday. Congrats to one of the true legends of the game.
• The great Darryl Sittler turns 65 today and, from the sounds of things, that suits him just fine.