Today in London, the long interminable offseason finally ends and we get our first glimpse of hockey again.
Now granted, it's the annual rookie tournament, which doesn't particularly mean much. But it is hockey and marks the beginning of the preseason activities, and is a great reminder that hockey's just about back.
Our own JP Nikota will be there, providing reports on the tournament and getting some interviews with various Leaf prospects. Before that, let's take a quick look at what you need to know about the tournament.
The tournament takes place at the Budweiser Gardens in London, Ontario, the home arena of the OHL's London Knights. London's hosted the tournament for several years, and the tournament is now one of several that have popped up across the NHL as teams get a chance to bring in their prospects and invitees from across North America to try and assess their off-season development and plan for their upcoming season.
Friday, September 11 - Maple Leafs vs. Ottawa Senators - 7:30 pm
Saturday, September 12 - Maple Leafs vs. Montreal Canadiens - 7:30 pm
Sunday, September 13 - Maple Leafs vs. Pittsburgh Penguins - 7:30 pm
The games will be broadcast on your local Rogers TV channels, assuming you live in that particular region.
All teams rosters represent a mix of minor league players, recent draftees and undrafted invitees looking to earn a professional contract. The Maple Leafs are bringing a roster of 28 players - 2 goalies, 10 defencemen and 16 forwards - to London, and some players will play more than others.
in general, the tournament is meant more for players who are just starting out their professional careers, so you'll see a lot of players aged 21 or younger and who are either still junior-eligible, rookie pros or have just completed their first season as a professional. Let's dive in a little bit more detail to the different groups of players that make up the rookie roster, and to get a sense of the different things at stake for the 28 players on the roster.
The New Faces
For players drafted in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft, this is the first opportunity to really see the players participating in the NHL system (the rookie development camp in the summer notwithstanding). Seven 2015 draft picks are on the rookie tournament roster, led by 1st round pick and London Knight Mitch Marner. Cody Donaghey, an undrafted free agent signing defenceman from 2014, will also attend the camp and is expected to return to the Halifax Mooseheads.
For these draft picks, which also include defence Travis Dermott (Erie), Stephane Desrochers (Oshawa), and Andrew Nielsen (Lethbridge) and forwards Martins Dzierkals (Rouyn-Noranda), Nikita Korostolev (Sarnia), Marner and Dmytro Timashov (Quebec), the camp is about exposure to the Maple Leafs system and a chance to progress to participate in the Maple Leafs main camp, which after medical testing on Sept. 17 will start with three days in Halifax next Friday.
These players have a no-risk opportunity to impress and then return to their junior clubs for the upcoming season.
Toronto or Orlando?
Manning the benches for the tournament are the coaching staff of the Toronto Marlies - Sheldon Keefe, Gord Dineen and AJ MacLean - as well as the new head coach of the Orlando Solar Bears, Anthony Noreen. Assistant General Manager Kyle Dubas (who also holds the title of General Manager of the Toronto Marlies) has expressed a desire to transform how the Maple Leafs utilize their development system, incorporating the ECHL into that system.
For a group of players signed to their entry level contracts, or signed to AHL contracts, the camp is a chance for Keefe and Noreen to get a first look at some of the players that will make up the heart of their roster, headlined by prospects William Nylander and Kasperi Kapanen.
On defence, Matt Finn and Rinat Valiyev are signed to NHL contracts and will try to push for jobs in the AHL, along with AHL signee Brenden Miller (North Bay).
Up front, Kapanen and Nylander represent sure bets to play for the Marlies, as likely is Nikita Soshnikov, signed from the KHL. Maple Leaf prospects Frederik Gauthier and Carter Verhaege, like Finn and Valiyev, will be trying to showcase their abilities to play in the AHL as opposed to the ECHL.
They'll be competing with a group of players signed to Marlies contracts, including TJ Foster (University of Alberta), Jack Rodewald (Moose Jaw & an ATO with the Marlies), Nikolai Skladnichenko (Metallurg in the KHL), and Brady Vail (Orlando Solar Bears).
Something to Prove
The final group of prospects are those that are still mostly junior aged players invited by the Maple Leafs to participate in the camp (NCAA players or players under contract in Europe aren't permitted to participate in training camp activities, which is why players like Andreas Johnson, Jesper Lindgren and Jeremy Bracco aren't here).
These players have no NHL affiliation at the moment, and are either heading back to their respective CHL clubs or potentially looking to impress enough to sign a professional contract of some kind, likely a deal with the Marlies or Solar Bears (or some other organizations' equivalent) but an NHL deal and a return to junior wouldn't be entirely out of the question.
Both goalies in camp are here as invitees, including Justin Nichols (Guelph) and Lucas Peressini (Kingston). Three defenceman are here trying to impress management, including Nikolas Brouillard (Quebec), Aidan Jamieson (London) and Cameron Lizotte (Peterborough). Finally, the forward group is rounded out by invitees Scott Easnor (Seattle), Michael Joly (Rimouski) and Bradley Latour (Windsor).
Except for Jamieson (1996) and Lizotte (1997), all of the invitees have a 1995 birthday, which gives them the option of potentially returning to the CHL for their overage season, or potentially turning professional should they sign a contract.
With the exception of maybe four or five names on the list, virtually none of these players are going to participate in NHL preseason games, much less an actual regular season game this year. Many of these players probably fall into the "two years away from being two years away" phase of their development. Still, it's an opportunity to get a first look at some intriguing prospects, and a chance to celebrate that NHL hockey is on the horizon.
For a full list of the prospect tournament roster, please click here