Quick Shifts: Maple Leafs’ Rasanen as nasty as he wants to be

NHL insider Luke Fox tells Sportsnet's Starting Lineup what's impressed him about Maple Leafs developmental camp, starting with how serious the organization is taking this process.

A quick mix of the things we gleaned from the week of hockey, serious and less so, and rolling four lines deep.

1. Eemeli Rasanen flashes a devilish grin when I ask him if it’s true that he was born with a mean streak.

“Yeah,” the Toronto Maple Leafs second-round pick says.

“I’m not mean all the time. Usually on the ice.”

At 6-foot-7, the 18-year-old prospect is a praying mantis of a defenceman. He looks down and speaks to reporters in short, clipped answers, but there is a wickedly, wonderfully dry sense of humour underneath.

The Finn took up the game relatively late — not till age 10 or 11, he says, around the time of his growth spurt — and never watched much NHL action, what with the seven-hour time difference and all, until he moved to Kingston last fall and scored 39 points in 66 games as an OHL rookie. Now he’s watching a ton of hockey.

“I’ve always played defence in life. I’m too big to be a forward,” Rasanen deadpans.

Are you still growing?

“I hope not.”

Although both right shots with an eye toward offence, Rasanen’s style differs from that of first-rounder Timothy Liljegren, who has been encouraged to add more physicality to his game. The Swede and the Finn hit it off at the Leafs development camp this week and began hanging out with each other off-ice.

“He hits hard,” Frontenacs GM Doug Gilmour told the Toronto Sun of Rasanen. “And when he does, guys just bounce off him.”

Despite being groomed on the wider sheets overseas, Rasanen’s nastiness and penchant for body contact means he prefers the North American game. He figures he still needs “a year or two” more in junior before he’s ready to make the leap to the NHL.

Rasanen is aware of the Chris Pronger comparisons, but he’s attempting to mold his game after countryman Rasmus Ristolainen, another big man who can run a power-play and his man into the dashers.

“It’s his all-around game. He’s good at everything. He’s tough and tough to play against,” explains Rasanen, whose father was a professional rinkball player. Dad helped develop Rasanen’s rugged D game. “I picked that up from an early age, and I’ve always loved to be physical from when I was a kid.”

With his draft stock rising after Christmastime, 16 teams interviewed Rasanen at the NHL Combine in June, but his conversation with the Leafs stood out. Enough that he wasn’t surprised when Toronto called his name at the 59 spot.

“I felt they were more interested than other teams,” says Rasanen, thinking back to draft day.

“I really don’t even know how to say it, but I felt great. It’s been a dream.”

2. A few more from Leafs development camp.

The setup was a little different this summer, as the Leafs pitted a group of undrafted camp invites against the drafted prospects already in their system.

In the first scrimmage, the free agents overwhelmed the chosen ones 6-3. Surprise. Taking in the action from the bleachers were Brendan Shanahan, Kyle Dubas, and Wendel Clark.

“We just came out flying,” said Jake Tortora.

Adam Brooks — who was overlooked for two years at the draft before Toronto picked up the WHL star in the fourth round of 2016 — understood why.

“Being passed over, you’re that much more motivated to get out there and work against guys who were picked,” Brooks said. “They beat us all over the ice.”

3. This Tortora kid is something at 17 years old.

He’s only 5-foot-7, yet he was buzzing past a group of 6-and-a-half-feet-tall defencemen and scoring.

“He’s always been a fantastic player. Great shot,” admired Fedor Gordeev. “For a little guy, he’s quick and strong. Amazing player.”

A native of Rochester, N.Y., Tortora chose to attend Boston College this fall, in part because of its reputation for turning little players into big deals.

“They have a lot of small forwards,” Tortora said. “They’ve been generating Johnny Gaudreau, Nathan Gerbe and the Giontas [Brian and Stephen].”

4. I learned the new slang kids these days use for the IIHF World Junior Championship: World Js.

You can expect to see this fun shorthand appear in future copy.

5. Lou Lamoriello says Toronto’s first-rounder, Timothy Liljegren, will either play in the Swedish pro league or with the Marlies this season.

You have to believe the Marlies is the best choice here, although Liljegren is very close with his mom back home.

The defenceman admitted this week that it was difficult getting accustomed to the small North American ice. His career would be better served by playing in Toronto, where he can be overseen by the club that drafted him, skate on NHL-sized rinks, be forced to learn a more physical brand of hockey, and spend more time with skating coach Barb Underhill.

“Some stuff is totally new for me, so it’s hard to translate them into the game right away,” Liljegren said. “I’m really trying to get away from my crossovers — to go backwards in a straight line instead of doing crossovers.”

6. Evgeny Dadonov is 17 years younger than Jaromir Jagr, whom he’ll replace on the right side of the Florida Panthers‘ No. 1 line alongside Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau this fall. Under new coach Bob Boughner, Dale Tallon’s Cats want to deploy a more uptempo offence.

This week, Huberdeau raved about Jagr, whose future remains up in the air.

“His work ethic is unbelievable. He’s 45 years old, and he’s still pretty good in the league. Every day was special for me. He’s a good guy, too. He cared about us,” Huberdeau said.

“Maybe [management] wants to change some things. As players, we don’t know. Of course, you want to see a guy come back on your team, but Dale has some plans.”

One perception out there is that Jagr acts as a lone wolf and doesn’t always connect with his teammates. Huberdeau saying “He cared about us” stands out.

7. I’ll never forget Jagr’s “It’s not about the Cup” monologue he delivered to a group of us at the All-Star Game he was forced to attend.

But my favourite Panthers-era Jagr moment came this past season in Toronto. About two minutes before game time, I was walking through the bowels of the Air Canada Centre when I spotted The Mulleted One all by himself in a hallway outside of the visitors’ dressing room. He had found one of those giant see-through garbage bags full of popcorn they use to fill the concessions and he was just quietly munching away. Happy.

8. The 2017-18 Atlantic Division race should be compelling. None of that group’s 2016 playoff teams earned a post-season berth in 2017, and I’d expect more turnover in 2018 based on off-season moves to this point.

You could argue the top three teams — Montreal, Ottawa and Boston — have weaker rosters now than they did in April, while I’d expect Toronto, Buffalo, Tampa, and Florida to all improve on their standing.

Huberdeau said he does his best to avoid thinking about all the player and personnel turnover in Sunrise over the past 12 months.

“As a player, you try not to care about these things. We’re trying to forget about last year, which didn’t go well,” he said. “This year, I think it’s going to be way better.”

9. Nice one, Penguins.

10. Connor Brown, the Maple Leafs’ only RFA, doesn’t appear at all concerned that he doesn’t have a contract secure for the upcoming season.

“I trust that it’s going to work out,” Brown said at the NHLPA’s charity golf tournament Wednesday. “You try to keep emotions out of it.

(Brown, an 8 handicap, golfs three times a week at Markland Wood in Etobicoke, Ont. He was trying to win the players’ tourney at Glen Abbey, but that honour went to Pittsburgh’s Greg McKegg, who shot a three-under 69.)

One thing all three of Toronto’s UFA signings — Dominic Moore, Ron Hainsey and Patrick Marleau — have in common is that they’ve played in a Stanley Cup final. No one else on the roster has.

Landing Marleau, especially, has struck a cord with the Leafs’ young players.

“It speaks volumes. He’s an older guy who wants to win, and he believes we’re a team that can win — and so do we,” Brown said.

“That’s awesome. A guy who’s spent that many years in the league can really help us take a step forward and help us win hockey games. He understands what it takes to win down the stretch. A lot of good signings, with Moorsey and Hainsey.

“It’s an exciting time come October.”

11. Yet again, the NHL’s free agent market will be robbed of some big prizes in 2018. The best two impending UFA goalies (Carey Price and Martin Jones) and arguably the best two defencemen (Cam Fowler and Marc-Edouard Vlasic) got locked down before we could drum up any rumours.

This only makes the lack of a John Tavares extension that much more intriguing. Was he waiting for Connor McDavid’s deal to raise the bar? How happy is he with the Isles front office? Is he waiting for arena security? Does he want to see what chemistry he can muster with Jordan Eberle first?

So many questions. This situation could only get curiouser and curiouser.

12. Finally. A photograph of Tom Brady with a trophy.

*The title of this blog is a nod to Fresh Kid Ice, who died this week. RIP.