The Toronto Maple Leafs haven’t always been an organization known for its development of young players.
Okay, they’ve almost never been that. At least not in the modern era.
But that’s exactly what team president Brendan Shanahan intended to change when he was hired and why the organization hand-picked Mark Hunter to oversee the team’s player personnel.
Hunter, who helped turn the OHL’s London Knights into a junior hockey powerhouse in his years as the team’s owner, vice-president and general manager, joined a handful of Toronto media members on a conference call Monday morning to discuss the organization’s five players — forwards William Nylander, Mitch Marner, Kasperi Kapanen, Dmytro Timashov and defenceman Travis Dermott — taking part in the upcoming world junior hockey championship in Helsinki, Finland.
Hunter provided solid analysis on the top Maple Leafs’ prospects at the tournament. Here’s the Q&A from the Maple Leafs’ director of player personnel:
On the team’s prospects who will play at the world juniors
Hunter: “You got (William) Nylander who we all know what he’s done so far this year. He’s been really good. It should be a big tournament for him. He’ll be their top player…You got Mitch Marner. He’s been very good in London. I don’t know exactly where he’s going to be in the pecking order but it should look good for him.
“(Travis) Dermott, he’s been solid. He’s been winning. He’s a good defenceman. He plays lots of minutes for Erie. He’s been outstanding for their team. We’re looking for a big tournament from him. (Dmytro) Timashov, he’s been real good for Quebec. I’m really interested in how he does because I think he can be the sleeper of the bunch in this tournament. He could surprise a lot of people.”
On expectations for Nylander, Kapanen
“Yeah, the tournament is important to us. It’s a stage where you see players continue to blossom. The example is Max Domi last year. I thought he blossomed and showed the world how good he is. I’m expecting that from both of these boys. I think they can have a great tournament and show the hockey world how good they can be.”
On Maple Leafs’ plans to call up Nylander
“That will be a decision Lou, Mike and the coaching staff will make. I’m just looking forward to the tournament. I believe he will be an impact player at the tournament.
On Dermott making Team Canada
“He’s a young man that’s leading their team in Erie. He plays every other shift. The growth of how to play every game when you know you’re going to get 30 minutes is important. We’re hoping that some day he will be a top-four defenceman for the Leafs. And all top-four defenceman play 25 minutes…We see that growth in him at the junior-A level and the team is winning. I’ve been pleasantly surprised how he’s handled the ice time.”
On if Marner still projects at centre
“I think he’s got to get physically stronger. I think we all know that. He knows that. He’s starting at wing but I think he’s very capable of playing centre. He works hard at both ends of the ice. He’s got a very good work ethic. I think he needs more strength.”
On how Nylander is doing at centre
“I think he’s still learning the position and making sure every face-off is a big face-off. And making sure the whole game he’s doing what he has to do to get up and down the ice. It’s more work. And I think he’s learning that process. He’s thriving there points wise because he has the puck more.”
On his view of Auston Matthews
“He’s been really good. The reports come back that he’s consistently good, too, which is important to any young man’s career. The consistency is there. Kudos to him. He’s not just had one game. He’s played every game at a high level.”
On what it means to the Maple Leafs to have so many promising young players
“I think it’s great for the organization. The five guys should hopefully be impact players on their team but only time should tell. I think it’s really important. Over the years, the guys that have had big world juniors have done really well at the National Hockey League for years to come. It’s going to be fun to watch. There’s no doubt about it…You got the young kids we drafted. It’s going to be a lot of fun.”