Baby Maple Leafs give fans glimpse of a much brighter future

Tyler Johnson scored twice and the Tampa Bay Lightning spoiled the debuts of William Nylander and Kasperi Kapanen by beating the Toronto Maple Leafs 2-1.

Kasperi Kapanen was relaxing on his couch watching The Transporter around 10:00 p.m. Sunday when he got a call from Kyle Dubas, the general manager of the Toronto Marlies.

It was the night before the NHL trade deadline and Kapanen knew a late-night call from Dubas meant something big was about to happen — he was either being called up to the Leafs for his first NHL game, or he was on his way to another team.

“Luckily it was the first one,” Kapanen said Monday after completing his first morning skate in the NHL. It had been a near-sleepless night for the 19-year-old winger, who was in the midst of his first season in the AHL and recently scored the game-winning goal for Finland in the gold-medal game at the world juniors in Helsinki.

“It’s been a good year so far,” he said. “Hopefully it will (stay) that way.”

As he spoke, he stood in front of a wooden locker in the Leafs’ dressing room with his name engraved on a blue plaque above it. A group of reporters had huddled around him. A bright light flashed in his eyes as microphones and tape recorders were shoved in his face. He was calm and confident, acting like he’d been there before. When the scrum subsided he looked around the room and smiled, letting the moment soak in.

Kapanen was one of four young players making their NHL debut against the Tampa Bay Lightning Monday night, along with William Nylander, Nikita Soshnikov and Zach Hyman, to add to three other new faces in the lineup. If there was a moment to declare that a new era was about to begin for the Toronto Maple Leafs, this was it.

The last-place Leafs cleared house in the weeks leading up to the trade deadline, shipping out bodies for a handful of draft picks, a couple of prospects and cap space.

Seven players on the Leafs’ roster against the Lightning were under the age of 22. The young faces prompted coach Mike Babcock to joke that he hadn’t coached a team this young since his days coaching junior.

In a lost season, the new-look Leafs were a welcome sight for downtrodden fans at the Air Canada Centre. They let out a huge cheer when Nylander was announced in the starting lineup before the game. The Leafs’ most anticipated prospect didn’t disappoint.

Toronto Maple Leafs William Nylander takes to the ice before NHL hockey action against Tampa Bay Lightning in Toronto on Monday February 29, 2016.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

Toronto Maple Leafs William Nylander takes to the ice before NHL hockey action against Tampa Bay Lightning in Toronto on Monday February 29, 2016.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

Despite admitting to being a little nervous before his debut, the carefully-coiffed playmaker was a water bug on the ice on all night, bringing fans to their feet on several near misses.

Trailing 2-0 early in the third period, Nylander cut through the Lightning zone with a swift deke, and set up Kapanen, who flashed in on a mini-breakaway but was denied by goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy.

Nazem Kadri scored late in the third period to bring the Leafs within one. But Babcock went to the kids in the final minute. An all-Marlies line of Kapanen, Nylander and Hyman led the attack, generating a few good chances — in sync as they had been through the third period when they were shifted to the same line.

“They’re fast, they’re hard on the puck, they’ve got skill,” Mike Babcock said after the 2-1 loss. “I was impressed with them… those kids were good.”

It was the best look Toronto fans have had at the future of a franchise in desperate need of good news. The Leafs outshot last year’s Stanley Cup finalists 32-28, and showed that they can keep pace with one of the league’s fastest teams.

Babcock praised each of the young additions, including 21-year-old Connor Carrick, who had just arrived from Washington after being traded with veteran Brooks Laich for Daniel Winnik on Sunday. Carrick is a swift, right-handed defenceman, who appeared in just three games with the Capitals this season, but had 10 goals and 26 points in 47 games for the Hershey Bears in the AHL.

As they had that morning, the press crowded around Nylander and Kapanen in the Leafs’ locker room after the game, the beginning of what will soon become routine for them. Both will eventually return to the Marlies for the playoffs as the AHL’s top team makes a run for the Calder Cup. But in game one of their NHL careers, both made a bold statement about the future.

“I surprised myself by the way I played,” Kapanen said, red-faced and exhausted after the game.

With a sleepless-night and an impressive debut behind him, he was finally ready to head back to that couch. It was a draining 24-hours, and he still wasn’t sure how The Transporter ends.

As reporters filed out of the locker room, he tossed his empty water bottle in the trash and let out a loud, tired sigh.

“Wooh,” he said. “Kappi’s going to sleep like a baby tonight…”