5 takeaways from first half of Maple Leafs training camp

Maple Leafs prospect Rasmus Sandin is learning tons from Morgan Rielly so far this training camp, and Rielly is a perfect role model for the youngster, being a defenceman that cracked the lineup as a teenager.

Without taking another dive into the Jason Spezza saga, which has sorted itself out for the time being, here are five major takeaways (plus a few bonus observations) from the Toronto Maple Leafs’ training camp, which has now passed the halfway mark.

Contract status only thing standing between Sandin and opening night

Rasmus Sandin — 19 years old and easily the most skilled among the candidates for opening night’s third pair — has now been grouped with the Auston Matthews and Morgan Riellys of the world, as opposed to his Marlies brethren. This is just the latest sign that the young Swede is poised to make his NHL debut Oct. 2.

"He’s been outstanding. He’s a perfect example of a guy who worked hard during the off-season to prepare, came into camp with confidence and played really well," says Rielly, the last Leaf to successfully made the leap as teenage D-man, in 2013. "We love having him. He’s a great player, and he’s got a really bright future."

Sandin is expected to be paired with 27-year-old Martin Marincin, who has more NHL experience than the other hopefuls and re-upped in the summer for a cap-soothing $700,000. Coach Mike Babcock trusts Marincin to kill penalties, and the veteran is comfortable patrolling his off-side in a lefty-lefty combo.

"Marty, for me, it’s never been about ability, it’s never been about skating, it’s never been about reading the game. It’s been about confidence," Babcock says. "He’s gotten thicker and thicker and more and more confident. He sure looks like he wants to play for the Leafs."

The Leafs memorably withheld a job from a rookie Travis Dermott out of camp in 2017 strictly because his entry-level status allowed him to be freely sent to the farm club without passing waivers.

If cuts are made for reasons other than performance, the waivers-exempt Sandin risks a similar fate.

Roster contenders Ben Harpur, Jordan Schmaltz, Kevin Gravel and Justin Holl would all need to slip through waivers to join the Marlies.

Hey, Mickey, you’re so fine

Yes, Auston Matthews went ahead and invoked the name Pavel Datsyuk when describing the play of KHL import Ilya Mikheyev, a virtual lock to play the wing next to third-line centre Alexander Kerfoot.

"He plays a lot like Datsyuk," Matthews said following Toronto’s pre-season win over Buffalo. "He has that reach, has a similar paddle on him. Really shifty, strong on the puck, good on his edges. I was really impressed."

Kerfoot hollers "Mickey!" when he wants the puck from the six-foot-two Russian and describes his linemate as "a complete package" who sees the game a little differently having arrived from the big ice.

"His English is pretty good. I would say he understands better than he talks right now, which is good for us because you can talk to him and he knows what you’re talking about. He’s picking it up real fast. He’s smart on the ice," Kerfoot says.

"He’s really polished all around, has good details to his game, plays hard, physical, wins a lot of battles. He can play in any role."

Kapanen impressing as Hyman’s understudy

Despite playing scarce little left wing in his career, righty Kasperi Kapanen is adjusting well as Zach Hyman’s fill-in on the Tavares-Marner line, sniping a beauty in his first pre-season game and adding a pair of assists in his second.

With Connor Brown out of town and Hyman injured, Kapanen has also been asked to assume a larger role on the penalty kill. He’ll certainly earn that juicy raise, to $3.2 million, he earned over the summer.

"I’m a fast skater. I gotta be on the forecheck. They want me to be in the right spots defensively and block shots and be on the PK, which is something our team was on and off with last year," says Kapanen.

The fleet-footed Finn is expected to slot back to the right of Kerfoot and Mikheyev once Hyman’s knee is ready to go in November. He says playing the off wing has been more of a challenge in the D-zone.

"You’ve got to be careful when you’re getting the puck on your backhand form the D-man in the defensive zone," he says. "It’s just something I’ve got to get used to."

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Nylander’s promise to dominate might just come true

William Nylander got his groove back. (Apologies, Stella.)

No. 88 in your program ranks No. 1 in shot attempts (19) among all NHLers this pre-season. Auston Matthews cracked that he’s just gotta hit the net.

"Willie might’ve had the puck as much tonight as he had last year," Babcock said after Nylander’s buzzy exhibition performance Friday.

"It’s great for us to see it, but it’s not as important for us to see it as it is for him to feel it and know it and feel good about himself.

"For whatever reason he couldn’t get going last year. He’s knows he’s a good hockey player, and we need him to be a good hockey player."

Good? Or one of the best in his country?

"I think he’s going to go down as one of the better Swedish players to ever play," pal Kapanen raved.

The largest beneficiary of a confident Nylander will be Matthews, who never had a consistent wingman to feed off last season. 

"He’s flying out there," Matthews says. "When we work hard and kinda let our creativity and skill take over after that and kinda put our work ethic first, that’s when when we have really good games and end up playing our best."

Matthews showing more bite — and we like it

Matthews downplayed his troll job of Senators prospect Scott Sabourin last week, saying it was good "clickbait" for us media types. But his teammates appreciate that Matthews is looking so engaged even in these meaningless scrimmages.

"I was laughing. I sent it to him. I said, ‘This is unbelievable.’ He was laughing pretty hard at it," Mitch Marner said. "When he gets mad, he gets mad. He’s a pretty big guy. He can handle himself out there."

Remember, AHLer Scott Sabourin was running around that night, putting a couple of core Leafs at risk.

"That guy slewfoot Mo [Rielly] before, then hit me in the head," says Andreas Johnsson, who has been showing well on that top line. "Obviously you’re going to play hard, but I feel like in the game you have to have respect for other players too. I feel like that guy didn’t have respect at all. I don’t think we should give him attention at all."


• There is one wing position still available for opening night. Does it go to 22-year-old Dmytro Timashov? Or can a more experienced forward like Nic Petan, Pontus Aberg or Kenny Agostino swipe the job by excelling in their final pre-season games?

• Ben Harpur has the unique advantages of size and sandpaper, but he needs to show more.

• Babcock liked Michal Neuvirth’s performance Saturday night in Buffalo, but the veteran goalie was too hurt to participate in Monday’s Montreal game. Health is making it awfully tough to select him over Michael Hutchinson for the backup role, but Kyle Dubas will keep one eye on the waiver wire.

• Assistant coach Paul McFarland’s revamped top power-play unit will try John Tavares in the bumper (Nazem Kadri’s old spot), Andreas Johnsson net-front (Tavares’s old spot), and Matthews and Marner switching flanks, while Rielly runs the point.

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