Going into 100th season, Maple Leafs turning to youth
NIAGARA FALLS, Ontario (AP) — Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner were born about five months apart in 1997.
And it's entirely possible both teenage prospects will be suiting up for the Toronto Maple Leafs in the NHL next season.
The Maple Leafs may be turning 100 years old next year, but the centennial edition of the team is likely to be brimming with youth and inexperience.
Toronto could have as many as seven rookies on the roster in the fall, the first real signs the seeds planted in the Brendan Shanahan era are starting to blossom.
''I think we'll be really exciting,'' Leafs coach Mike Babcock said last month.
For now, Matthews and Marner have to be content with top billing at the Leafs' weeklong development camp in Niagara Falls.
Toronto is getting its first up-close look at Matthews, the Arizona-born center who played last season for the top Swiss League team in Zurich.
Like each of the 41 prospects invited to the camp, Matthews bounced from rink to rink at Gale Centre Arena on Tuesday morning to work on various skills.
On one pad, Matthews and his group worked with Leafs skating coach Barb Underhill. The group looked at times like synchronized swimmers performing carefully choreographed movements, only on skates.
Underhill quickly noticed a flaw in Matthews' stride: his left shoulder wasn't coming across enough.
''She definitely paid close attention to it so I'll try and work on it throughout the week,'' Matthews said.
Slight skating hitch aside, expectations will be high for Matthews. He's a real threat to become the first Leaf to win the Calder Trophy as top rookie in 50 years.
He's likely to be joined in Toronto's rookie spotlight by William Nylander, who shined intermittently with 13 points in his first 22 NHL games, and perhaps Marner, who dominated in the Ontario Hockey League again last season, leading all players in postseason scoring en route to the Memorial Cup.
The ongoing question for Marner is whether he's physically ready for the NHL.
Currently around 163 pounds, Marner is trying to get to 170 for the fall.
''I just want to make sure that I feel comfortable enough to go out against men and play hard and play my game and make sure I can go out there and do things I like to do,'' said Marner, the London Knights star and fourth overall pick of the 2015 draft.
It's worth wondering how any added weight will affect the speed and shiftiness which helped the Thornhill, Ontario, native become one of the OHL's most productive talents. Marner recalled entering the league at 165 pounds and feeling a touch too slow.
He dropped five pounds and felt like himself again.
If the Leafs decide Marner isn't ready for the NHL, they can return him to the Knights for another season.
Toronto will be young and inexperienced regardless of whether Marner makes the lineup or not. Just how young likely depends on how many rising talents are ready to make the leap.
Nikita Soshnikov, 22, and 24-year-old Zach Hyman impressed during a brief NHL stint at the end of last season.
So too did Connor Brown, a 22-year-old Toronto native who had six points in his first seven games, including a three-point game that preceded his return to the AHL's Toronto Marlies.
Also joining the Leafs is 24-year-old former KHL defenseman Nikita Zaitsev.
That could mean seven rookies on the roster initially (and perhaps more as the season wears on) as well as a number of others with limited NHL experience, including new No. 1 goaltender Frederik Andersen.
How Babcock employs that young talent is worth watching. Will he lean toward veteran Matt Hunwick on the team's defensive top pair or opt to play 22-year-old Morgan Rielly with 24-year-old Martin Marincin, who offered glimpses of potential late last season?
Shanahan was hired in April 2014, but the true fruits of his labor are only now beginning to show, just as the team sports a new logo and uniform both driven from his office.
The Shanahan-led front office shuffled out stale personnel from old management groups in the previous two seasons while accumulating scores of picks and prospects.
Now, however, the process begins turning toward players drafted and developed by the current regime, beginning with Nylander, the first pick of Shanahan's tenure.
Sensing that incoming infusion of youth, the Leafs sought veterans on the free-agent market. They signed 27-year-old Matt Martin and 30-year-old Roman Polak, who returns to the Leafs after being traded to San Jose last season.
Other veteran roles for the Leafs next season will be Leo Komarov, an alternate captain last season, returning center Tyler Bozak and Brooks Laich, easily the oldest Leaf at the ripe age of 33.