When I first got the word there was a chance it might be back, I wasn’t sure what to think. Was it really? I’ve been fooled on so many occasions before, it becomes harder to believe. I can remember the last time it resided within our fan base. Man, it almost feels like two eternities ago now. You could argue there’ve been glimpses, sightings I suppose, never to stay very long and usually fake. Fabricated by way of devotion. In the past decade, there’s been little to none. After a while, you file it away in the halls of your mind reserved for unicorns, dragons, or pots filled with gold. Wondering if you’d even recognize it if you saw it again, questioning its very existence. Why now, in the face of what I’ll mildly title as “A challenging season,” do we hear the rumors of its return to Toronto? I thought LeafsHub.com had a duty to find out for ourselves if the whispers were true. We had to see it with our own eyes, so the boys and I went chasing a Blue & White rainbow.
Officially, NHL hockey began this week. Toronto, from a managerial and coaching standpoint, is an organization revived. However, the on-ice revival date has yet to be determined. If you’re scouring the 2015/16 roster for this sense of said revival, forgive me for stopping you right there. I would imagine over time you’ll see areas of improvement under the influence of Coach Babcock, and we’ve witnessed instances of that already. As a good buddy said last week, “I missed the memo Babcock was a shaman.” I expect a larger increase in the team’s “lunch-pail-ness” as we continue on, but the fact remains aside from a handful of players don’t even think about evaluating the Maple Leafs ten-year outlook based on the NHL roster. Unless when you look at them you envision draft picks like when Newman pictured Kramer as a talking turkey. Yes, the games that count towards the standings have kicked off and it’s went as advertised. Not too many “twine ticklers” throughout the group and some may struggle under Babcock’s demands. The journey I want to talk about now will take us much deeper and won’t pass through the opening night roster. You won’t find much of what we went looking for there. No, our search began last month, at the 2015 NHL Rookie Tournament in London.
LeafsHub.com were there to cut the ribbon, so to speak, on a fresh start. We soaked in every practice, every game, every media scrum, absorbing the atmosphere around the team going forward, talking to players, coaches, reporters, commentators, stick boys you name it. All in an effort to see something unique to Toronto, first-hand with our own eyes. So we could tell all of Leafs Nation “Yes, we saw it and yes, it is 100% real.” The website would like to thank the Maple Leafs, the Marlies, and the members of the Toronto media who welcomed us into their world, for the opportunity to go on this exploration of sorts.
I’m not exactly sure the symbolic meaning, or if there even is one, but it felt appropriate that when I arrived at Budweiser Gardens on the Friday morning of the first Maple Leafs Rookie squad practice the very first hand I shook was that of Kyle Dubas. It made sense I would run into Dubas before anyone else as we began our “search” because it’s he who will play the lead role in development and growth of players coming into and through Toronto’s system. This is old news but it came as no shock to anyone familiar with Dubas during his tenure in the OHL he’s climbed the hockey ranks as fast as he has. After his success in Sault Sainte Marie, stabilizing and spinning the junior franchise a full 180 degrees, the youthful heir apparent to the GM position with the Leafs was brought in by Brendan Shanahan to put his knowledge and innovative thinking to use. You don’t have to look hard to start seeing Dubas’ fingerprints throughout the team. Some, if not all, of the UFA additions carry respectable advanced statistics, an area of his expertise. The most apparent stamp is seen at the AHL level, where he acts as the Toronto Marlie’s General Manager. If proof of his impact on the operation is needed, I had to look no further than to the man running the practice in front of me, Sheldon Keefe.
Beginning almost from Dubas’ hiring, there was talk of Keefe having a future on the coaching staff of the Maple Leafs in some capacity. Before there was much substance to the idea, or the smoke wasn’t really billowing to any great degree, I took in a Greyhounds game with Keefe behind the bench. I didn’t attend with the intention of doing a one game assessment of the coach, I was actually there to watch a particular player on the opposing team. The honest truth was his team and their structured play made an impression on me. So much so I called a trusted friend in hockey right after the game to discuss some of the finer points I noticed. He was quick to point out to me that I shouldn’t forget the Soo had a very good lineup, one that would make most coaches look pretty clever. A fair point, one that I had considered, however the Greyhounds were missing 5 regulars that night. The big boys too. I clearly recall during the game thinking “This team must have fantastic practices.” What stood out to me specifically was how they travelled up the ice as a unit, entered the zone and established control. Call it puck possession or whatever term you’d like, this team did not relinquish control of the puck easily or often. It’s difficult to explain in any great detail in this forum and I won’t go into my amateur evaluations any further, but in the simplest of terms or verbatim “well coached” covers it just fine. It’s rare at the junior or pro level to be able to say that after one game without being full of it, though I had no problem making my determination that day and sticking with it.
So it came as no surprise the 1st practice in London what do I see on the ice before me? Sheldon Keefe running a drill that focused on coming up the ice, entering the zone and setting up in the same fashion I’d seen from his junior months prior. Along with his dialogue in groups or one-on-one, his encouragement, teaching, and the structure of the practices themselves all weekend, the Maple Leafs of tomorrow will go through Keefe at some point and I consider the franchise extremely fortunate. The players will come to the big club knowing not only how to play properly but to practice properly. I can’t stress enough the importance of having the foundation Keefe will provide our youth going forward. Dubas and Keefe have experience and trust between them and the continuity of message will also bode well for the Maple Leafs of tomorrow. Keeping with the theme and comforts of familiarity, the Toronto Marlies named Andrew Campbell their Captain for the upcoming season. Who’d like to guess where he played his junior?
Speaking of continuity, I’d like to take just a quick moment and bring up a name worth mentioning in Gord Dineen. There’s a whole lot of talk about how the Leafs aren’t going to be about the name back but the crest on the front. The same will need to be said off the ice in Toronto. Slogans and words are lovely but they will never take the place of action. He did a fine job as coach of the Marlies and the players who thrived under Dineen will have the comfort of knowing he’ll still be there to help push and mould them into better professionals. Dineen’s decision to return to the Maple Leafs organization this season is an action rich with principle. His coming back to see this thing through as a member of the Toronto Marlies staff is not only commendable, to me it’s an unselfish act born from personal character. Something the Maple Leafs expect from everyone, and Dineen is setting a wonderful example by returning. His contribution and willingness to put the crest on the front above all else will not go unnoticed, I can assure you. Nor will what he brings to the table as a coach.
As for the games in London themselves, the Maple Leafs went 1-1-1 while in town, hardly reason to plan a blockade of Yonge Street sometime in late June – 2019, right? Even if I still wouldn’t book that June off work yet, don’t base your optimism levels on GF/GA or wins and losses. They’ll only tell you a portion of the story. The Ottawa Senators have finished atop this tournament eight consecutive years, dressing a big bodied squad with the likes of Matt Puempel in the lineup with NHL time served (he has grey hair), it’s clear the Sens were in it to win it. There’s nothing wrong with that, though the devil is in the details of the 5-4 overtime loss to the Sens in Game 1, and the same goes for night two. Another 6-4 defeat with an empty netter. This time to the Habs with the key note in this contest being Toronto dressed none of their big talent up front, no Marner/Kapanen/Nylander, and still managing 50 plus shots. The results of these games over a month ago are inconsequential and I hate to toss anyone under the bus, but it was hard to win those games not getting a few stops. Everybody likes a winner and unfortunately for the two young men who played their first pro games in net with the franchise, the Leafs just didn’t get the necessary saves. The brass had to make a last minute decision to ensure the youth left on a positive note.
So after the 1st game of the weekend Toronto management got on the phone for goaltending reinforcements in the form of Garrett Sparks. The Elmhurst, Illinois native was called upon to solidify the crease so the boys could leave London feeling good about themselves and the weekend overall. In the finale the Baby Buds dressed their “A team” and it showed in a 6-2 win over the Pens, who in all fairness may not have the deepest prospect pool in the league. That said, Toronto’s skill level among the youth was something to behold as it was allowed to show itself off properly with the calming influence backstopping them in Sparks in a 6-2 victory.
Corey Connolly of LeafsHub.com was at the MasterCard Centre last year when notice was given that Sparks would be sent to the ECHL. Connolly was my search partner in London and we spoke at length about the goaltender and last season. When writing or discussing cuts and demotions, it is easy to forget the human side. It can be a difficult time and very emotional being so close to your dreams and having it seemingly pulled from your reach. A year removed, Sparks arrived in London for practice Saturday morning with the demeanour of a professional. The netminder made his way through practice with a proficiency reserved for big leaguers. In the post practice interview his game was probably even sharper. I stood by as Sparks spoke to Paul Hendrick about his plan for the upcoming season and some of the lessons he’s learned along the way. Listening to the former member of the Guelph Storm speak, you quickly realize Sparks is a cerebral young man. He took full responsibility for his circumstances last year, including an injury that shelved him for a couple months. He felt he wasn’t in the condition he could have been in and has spent this offseason making sure there’s never a re-occurrence. He talked about only having 3 years on an entry level contract to prove your worth and he wasted some of those months on injury. An injury he could have avoided if he was as prepared as he is now. Not the typical generic player answers you may hear, and Sparks finished the interview with a “Zinger” for our friend of Leafs Nation, Mr. Hendrick. As he “dropped the mic” and concluded his press time, I was intrigued by how Sparks carried himself on and off the ice and wanted to find out a little more.
After practice I was lucky enough to spend a few minutes with Marlies Goaltending Coach, Pierre Greco, on the difference between Sparks when he was demoted last season and now. How did he respond to the setback? “Garrett took the news like a man and what he did was he made the most of it.” I knew the goalie fared well in Orlando, but just how well? Greco had this to say, “Garrett didn’t just play good with the Solar Bears, he played out of his mind. In many ways it’s actually easier to play goal in the AHL than the ECHL. The higher level being more structured and you’ll have more quality chances against down below. He faced 50 plus shots regularly and was up to the task night after night. Garrett went down with the right frame of mind and that was to get better every day, work hard on and off the ice.” Greco spoke with conviction and pride when talking about his pupil. I caught up with Greco once more after Sparks guided the Leafs squads to a victory closing out the tournament. “You see him out there tonight and in practice, he’s come a long way after being sent down last year. He could’ve have hung his head or felt sorry for himself, but he didn’t. He got to work. He’s a bright young man and now Garrett is stronger physically and he’s stronger mentally. Going to the East Coast league not only made him into a better player, but a better person.” Sparks has kept momentum going his way, backstopping the Marlies to a 3-2 win over the weekend where he was brilliant between the pipes.
When news Christopher Gibson had been traded in a five-for-one deal LeafsHub.com was not surprised. There was no chance the Maple Leafs were going to look Sparks in the eyes and send him back to the ECHL after the character and growth he’d shown this past season and leading into camp. His performance allowed the trade to take place, and he’s not alone in that regard. Along with Gibson there were a couple other names, specifically on the back end, many were surprised to see go. Matt Finn, a former Captain in Guelph and once considered to likely be a part of the plans here was also jettisoned. Add to that Tom Nilsson, a hard hitting defender and you begin to see what’s transpired. There are only so many spots on an NHL roster. We all like to see the hope and potential in every prospect, but the truth is only a small percentage will play considerable games at the NHL level. Franchises can only retain 50 NHL contracts and decisions have to be made as to who you choose to develop. It’s a dogfight to work your way up the depth chart and young players need to take advantage of their opportunities to leave an impression, to win a position in the team’s forecasted roster plans. Just like Gibson, Finn and Nilsson were deemed expendable. I have a feeling I know a big, big reason why. LeafsHub.com were given the opportunity of speaking exclusively with one of the youngsters trying to leave his mark and after watching the team, Corey Connolly (search partner #1) and I both agreed on who it should be. We’d heard good things about his play late last season from a few trusted voices covering the Marlies and soon found out first hand why he garnered their praise, rocketing up the Leafs depth chart on defense.
Rinat Valiev was an interesting case coming out of the WHL, where he’d chosen to play his junior hockey. As a Russian born player, Valiev had a curious beginning to his career. Passed over in his first year of draft eligibility, Valiev was taken 25th in the CHL Import draft by Kelowna. After VISA issues and an injury, Valiev eventually went on to play 55 games, posting a +27. A barbaric statistic for many, I’ll choose to use it because for me it says when he was on the ice good things typically happened. On top of that, Valiev was lauded for his physical play and willingness to stand up for teammates. Rare to see from Russian born players, the defender has no problem dropping the mitts. Go check out YouTube. We saw it at Rookie Camp as well after a questionable hit on his part, Valiev answered the bell for his actions without a second thought. He plays with spunk and more importantly, high end ability. LeafsHub.com went one on one with Rinat Valiev.
LeafsHub: Rinat, your passes were on the tape and accurate all weekend, is that how it felt from the ice?
Rinat Valiev: “Yeah, maybe some were very lucky. I was like ‘Wow, I can do that?’ I didn’t know that.” Valiev laughs. There is an energy about the young Russian defenseman, a smile that seems to never leave his face. “But yes, I felt good out there once I made a few plays and it was great to be out there playing the game again.”
LH: I noticed you communicating on the ice a fair amount. Is that something you’ve always done or is it coaching?
RV: “Oh it’s really helpful and I just started learning that, you know. It just makes the game easier to play. Coach and a lot of guys tell me to talk and speak up, even if I’m Russian (laughter). ‘Hey. How are you, I’m open.’ (More laughter)”
LH: Do you find it difficult to work and play with all these new faces. Is it a tough transition? I imagine certainly no tougher than when you first came to North America?
RV: “It’s been 4 year since I came over and it was hard, for sure. First year in the U.S., then two in B.C., and now here. With the Maple Leafs, all the coaches and scouts have been helping us. Everyone has been so good to me and I am very happy here, enjoying every day.”
LH: Now this camp you have some of your countrymen alongside you. Who in the organization do you spend some of your free time with?
RV: “Everyone really, but this year the Russian guys, we are having so much fun. All good guys, we are always laughing, maybe even too much. Sometimes I have to say ‘Boys, calm down. We are professional hockey players here (Valiev laughs in jest). Not before a game or anything, we are just having a lot of fun hanging out and just being ourselves.”
LH: This is a question you may get a lot, but what are your honest expectations for this season and Rinat Valiev going forward?
RV: “My big goal is to make the team, the Maple Leafs, and if not then I want to continue to grow my game with the Marlies. I just want to have a good showing and keep learning, wherever that is. I’m honestly just loving playing hockey right now.”
We talked further with Rinat and will likely do another piece on him before too long. The interview was hard to transcribe through all the laughter. All I can really say about Valiev is he’s as likable off the ice as he is on. And on the ice, LeafsHub.com like this guy a ton. He’s a bona-fide NHL prospect and if he continues on the path he’s travelling, you’ll see him with the Maple Leafs before long.
We’ve had some time to reflect and go over our findings after coming back from London. After careful deliberation I’m able to share whether we in fact found what we set out looking for. If as a group we felt as though there was mere traces of it, I wouldn’t come back to you all today with inconclusive evidence claiming proof of life. The truth is the truth and here it comes. No, we didn’t find it in small instances. LeafsHub.com found it everywhere we turned. We found it in Sheldon Keefe and the comfort level he has in his new position. It was alive in Keefe’s words with media and simply his persona and general presence on the ice. We surely found it in the story of Garrett Sparks, his determination, intelligence, and focus on being a solid pro. There it was again in spades with Rinat Vailev. In his fun-loving attitude, his fiery competitiveness, and most of all in the young man’s play. Now think about a few names of the youth I haven’t even brought up yet.
Let’s start with Mitchell Marner. Not ready for the Maple Leafs? Possibly, but the way I see it the Leafs aren’t ready for him. His first game in London wasn’t his best as the puck just didn’t follow him. The morning before his next game I went on the Blue & White Tonight Podcast and said Marner was the least of my concerns and he’ll probably be the best player on the ice in the last game of the weekend. Which he was. It’s funny, during exhibition if you looked around the league many of the 2015 draft class stuck around for a longer look than Marner received. Inciting some to question the pick, and that’s understandable. McDavid, Eichel, Hanifin all made their teams. Strome was given every chance and sent back the last day, the same story for a few others. But let’s take some things into consideration here. Marner played a pair of games. The first pro game looked like his first pro game and just like in the Rookie Tournament, by the second game he was one of the Leafs most dangerous forwards. Then the plug was pulled, nothing more to see. While other teams gave their high picks every chance to be on the opening roster, Toronto gave theirs none. If he had 3 more games and time with the Kadri’s or JVR’s, by game 5 how do you figure he would start to look? I know the answer to that question and so did the Leafs. They had no interest in Marner showing the hockey world what Leafs brass already know. He will be a star one day. Is that day today and do I disagree with him going back to Junior? Of course not. I only thought I would remind everyone what we have in Marner, even if the team wants to pace him and maybe temper expectations to keep the hype train from taking off down the track. Time is the Maple Leafs friend at the moment and his day will come. For the record, there is more of what we set out to find in Marner than anywhere else.
How about guys like Timasov, Dzierkals, and Dermott? You better believe we saw it in their performances. Gauthier? Big time, Keefe and Hunter both echoed our positive findings on the Goat during scrums we attended. The list goes on and I can’t not bring up the duo of Nylander and Kapanen. Nylander will produce and produce huge on the NHL stage. He is wildly gifted and Kapanen has the size and skills to possibly do the same. I know I’m repeating myself but guess what? Found it within these guys on first look.
So what was this “it” we went to London searching for, anyways? Enough of the suspense, but it wouldn’t take Columbo to figure it out. What did we uncover in London and are now telling anyone who will listen that it lives and breathes again in Toronto? Very simple, we found hope. LeafsHub.com discovered genuine, true hope. Not hope we can squeeze into the playoffs in a couple of years. Not hope that we can maybe sneak by a team who underestimates us in a lockout shortened season. Hope that in time the Toronto Maple Leafs will take their rightful place atop the National Hockey League to stay. Eventual Stanley Cup Champion style Hope.
I won’t lie to you and I know you’ve figured this out already, there is a very tough road in front of us this season as Maple Leafs fans. It’s evident thus far. Nobody likes to lose. The thing is, you can tolerate it if you believe in the effort and the plan. I encourage all of you when standing there assessing this team and its future, try not look up to the sky at the big club. Don’t focus on the wreckage above, the building slowly being torn down before a new one takes its place with only a few solid pieces worth salvaging. I implore you as fans to turn your attention to the ground floor. Keep your head down and go over the blueprints. There is great gratification in seeing something through from the beginning. I’m not suggesting to not follow the Leafs this year. What I am suggesting is to keep your eyes on our youth.
If you are poisoned by losses piling up with the big club, there lies an antidote in our junior stars, in Andreas Johnson over in the SEL, or in Boston College watching Jeremy Bracco buzz about. If you’re in pain, and we’ve been forewarned it’s on the way, the Maple Leafs have provided the ultimate painkillers. The prescription to heal what ails can be found just down the road in the form of their American Hockey League affiliate playing out of the Ricoh Coliseum, the Toronto Marlies. They are the team in town of relevance when it comes to the future. They are the team I’ll be watching with great interest and LeafsHub.com will be covering live all season. There will be joy mixed with pain as the organization grows.
I have to share one last example of hope from London. Where we stood for the games, just to our right and down a level was the Toronto Maple Leafs team box. I saw Lou Lamiorello, Mike Babcock, Kyle Dubas and Brendan Shanahan. If that doesn’t bring about hope then nothing will. It was hard to tell from where I was, but I think I found something else in the faces of our leaders. LeafsHub.com have already planned another search party for next year. Keep this between us….it looks like pride is coming back.