The Maple Leafs development camp is very interesting this year. First of all, it’s big, with a long, long list of invitees over and above the draft picks. Second of all, they’ve split the players into two groups with the invitees playing and practicing together in one, and the draft picks in the other.
Scott Pellerin, the Leafs Director of Player Development is running the show. He has Sheldon Keefe (Toronto Marlies Coach), Drake Berehowski (Orlando Solar Bears Coach) and Luca Caputi (Assistant Coach of the Guelph Storm) helping him out.
He discusses their program in depth in his interview. But I realized while I was watching him that I was seeing the explanation for a thing I had noticed a few months ago. The Leafs stopped issuing ATOs to the Marlies. They had three of their draft picks on the team this spring, most notably Carl Grundström, and a goalie now and again, but the flood of potential free agent signings they’d had the year before were gone.
Well, now we’ve found them. By moving the tryout period for these sorts of players to development camp, the Leafs are creating a whole new system of finding and choosing players.
Scott Pellerin describes how it all works (I found the ads on these videos intensely loud relative to the video itself, so watch out.):
I’m a stone cold cynic at heart, but when the Leafs staff talk about how they go about treating the very youngest players in their system, I like what I hear. They might not always do the best for every player, but they sure sound like they respect them as people first.
The most interesting thing from Pellerin was his explanation that they tailor their program to the individual players. They also have a lot of off-ice components planned, fun things and serious both.
Now, with all that serious development talk out of the way, let’s get to the young guys and what they have to say.
He’s the star here, no question. So let’s meet him first. If you missed the big news, he’s got a new haircut, which he talks about with humour. He seems to have a lot of humour, and he has one thing in common with William Nylander (not being Swedish): he lights up when he talks about his family.
Nylander has set the bar on the Leafs really, really high for being a boring interview. No one, not even Auston Matthews, who has trained hard to be bland, is as dull as Nylander in front of a camera. Liljegren manages vaguely freaked out at times, has a little bit of the “yeah, that’s all I’m saying there” attitude that Nikita Zaitsev has, but he is not in Nylander’s league for overall boredom factor at all. He’s actually a lot of fun.
Some of the questions are predictable, as are the answers. He likes Nick Lidstrom and Erik Karlsson. He cut his hair just this week, and he respects his mother. When asked, he says she moved to Ängleholm with him, the town his SHL team Rögle is in. He’s been with the club since he was 14, so the move was obviously a big change and sacrifice for his family.
Liljegren is also asked if he likes baseball. He, along with some of the other guys, are taking in Blue Jays game tonight.
One interesting thing in the mix: He says he began skating at four or so, and became a defenceman at around 10 or 11. Given how offensively focused he is, and what a good skater he is, I’m almost surprised he isn’t a converted forward.
Next up is the number two on the ranking list for this camp, at least in terms of new guys. Eemeli Räsänen is so unlike Liljegren that the shot of them together on the ice in Pellerin’s interview is actually funny.
And yet, he is like Liljegren in a lot of ways. He is just a kid in a body that the interviewers can’t stop talking about. The part where he’s asked if he’s stopped growing is funny for his somewhat horrified reaction. He is a very charming and funny guy.
He started playing hockey late, and became a defender because he’s just too tall to be a forward, which fair enough. He also really likes Rasmus Ristolainen, so we’ll all just have to get used to that.
Both of these guys said very interesting things about hockey in their own countries as compared to this camp. Liljegren said the Leafs camp was the most professional organization he’d ever seen. Räsänen, when asked about how Finland keeps producing good players, said he thinks it’s the coaches in Finland and that they are on the ice a lot.
I think by professional, it’s possible that Liljegren simply meant all the money the Leafs have to spend which is nothing like his Swedish team has. At the end of the day, however, it’s how productive your time on the ice is that really matters, and both of these guys will have practiced a lot of hours in their young lives.
You can also catch Jeremy Bracco fast talking about his veteran status at development camp. He is a consummate pro at answering every question and saying nothing much beyond, obviously, how great his teammates are.
The other returnees interviewed are Joseph Woll and Adam Brooks.
Woll is a lot of fun to listen to, and his spontaneous PSA on how great St. Louis hockey is now was really lovely. America is growing the game and guys like Woll are the result.
Brooks is a bit more subdued. He’s a quieter personality, more interested in just getting on with the job of climbing up the roster on the Leafs.
Last up is the only invitee profiled today, Matt Robson. He’s a goalie and is about to go play in the NCAA, but he’s from Toronto and grew up playing with Connor McDavid and all those other famous Toronto names. If you aren’t a fan of his after watching this video, I’ll be surprised.
I feel like I want to vote for him for something. Most likely to succeed at ten things at once, perhaps. He only plans to have his master’s degree after three years at the University of Minnesota, so he’s got modest goals.
Will he ever play pro hockey? Maybe a better question is will he own a team someday. He seems so full of energy and drive he almost made me want a dull Nylander interview to recover. I just feel like his is a name to remember, however, so we’ll try to pay attention to how he does in college this year.
The camp continues through to early next week, with a lot more time on the ice tomorrow. Hopefully we’ll have more interesting interviews to share too.