Leafs’ Harpur ready to get back to winning after Battle of Ontario swap

Ben Harpur clashes with Tom Wilson during his time with the Senators. (Nick Wass/AP)

TORONTO — Although he knows a role in the Toronto Maple Leafs’ opening night lineup isn’t guaranteed, former Ottawa Senators defenceman Ben Harpur is thrilled to be crossing Ontario’s battle lines.

For any prideful player, superstar or role player, the constant losing can eat away at you. And in Harpur’s first two seasons in the bigs, no team was more intimate with defeat than the one that traded him away on Canada Day.

Harpur himself, who starts more than 56 per cent of his shifts in the defensive zone, was a minus-34 during that span.

“The past two years were definitely trying in that sense. As an athlete, as a competitor, you never want to lose. Coming second-last and last the past two seasons was definitely tough,” says Harper, sounding upbeat in his interview with Sportsnet.

“It becomes tough to come to the rink. You try to make the most of it. You try to enjoy the time with your teammates and build as a team, but when I heard the news I was coming to Toronto, having played against them the past two years and knowing the firepower they have, the D corps they’ve built and obviously the goaltender they have, it’s very exciting to be part of that organization.”

George Harpur is a surgeon who grew up in Markham, Ont., rooting for the Blue and White. A family friend had season tickets to the Leafs, so once in a while he’d drive his young son, Ben, along the QEW from their home in Niagara-on-the-Lake to the Air Canada Centre. Just a taste.

“I was a Leafs fan by association. That’s what I grew up watching with my dad. Before I even understood what I was watching, I was watching Mats Sundin,” Harpur recalls.

“My dad tells me now that every few months or so I would ask what the ‘C’ meant on his jersey. I’d forget. As a kid you don’t understand what’s going on, but that stuck out to me.”

Harpur had heard rumblings he was on the block prior to his July 1 trade. He knew the Sens’ left side was getting crowded. If he wasn’t dealt, he’d be in for a battle to cling to the lineup.

“I never thought about Toronto,” he says, “but I woke up and heard news and was very excited.”

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Goaltender Frederik Andersen — presumably appreciative of management’s efforts to find him some stay-at-home, net-clearing, big-bodied help — was one of the first Leafs to reach out to Harpur via text and welcome the six-foot-six, 222-pounder into the fold.

“He seems like a great guy,” Harpur beams.

John Tavares was quick to fire Harpur a note, too: I’m really excited about the group we have here, and I’m looking forward to having you onboard.

Harpur, 24, already knew Nic Petan from a world junior camp, and he’s gradually getting familiar with the rest of his new teammates through informal summer workout sessions at the club’s Etobicoke practice facility.

With the shedding of PK minute-munchers Ron Hainsey and Nikita Zaitsev (who both ended up in Ottawa), and the re-signing of UFA Jake Gardiner a long shot, the Leafs’ top four is essentially set for October.

Feel free to write Morgan Rielly, Cody Ceci, Jake Muzzin and Tyson Barrie in pen.

But as Travis Dermott recovers from shoulder surgery and a gaping hole opens up on the back end of the penalty kill, the largest man on the roster will be considered the third-pair, left-side favourite.

“I had a big penalty-killing role in Ottawa. I was on the top unit with Ceci, who also came over in the trade. I don’t know if that’ll line up again, but it’s something I’ve always taken pride in, be it in junior or in the minors. I’m not going to be the guy joining the rush every time,” Harpur says.

“If I can provide them with size, some reach and toughness, that might be a good fit for them. Honestly, at this point, my mindset is, whatever I can do to help the Maple Leafs win, that’s what I’m committed to doing.”

Over 103 big-league games, Harpur has all of one goal to his name.

Ironically, the Niagara-on-the-Lake native grew up a forward, dreaming of offence, until his minor midget coach, Rick Ferroni, nudged him back to the blue line and encouraged Harpur to lead an end-to-end rush every time he touched the puck.

“My dad reminds me that he used to get mad at me for being a defensive-minded forward, so it made sense to switch,” Harpur recalls. “[Ferroni] put a lot of confidence in me, and everything just fell into place. I switched to defence, and I started getting attention from scouts.”

Despite playing just a half season at his new position, a 16-year-old Harpur was drafted into the OHL by the Guelph Storm and given four winters to learn how to bail out the penalty committers and use his massive frame to box enemies out of the slot.

“When they drafted me in Guelph, it was kind of a risky pick. They didn’t know what they had — they were drafting me more on potential. I basically learned to play defence there,” he says, grateful the Storm took a slow-and-steady approach in his development as opposed to throwing him into the fire.

“It was an interesting part of my career I wouldn’t change for anything. It was hard at times being a 16-year-old in Guelph not having experience.”

When Harpur, Ottawa’s 2013 fourth-rounder, reached the American League, he saw time on both Binghamton’s special teams and chipped in some secondary scoring. By 2017, he says he was skating 30-plus minutes a night and ready for the next phase.

“I was kinda doing everything,” he says.

If Hainsey and Zaitsev are any indication, Leafs coach Mike Babcock isn’t shy about putting his stay-at-home guys to work.

“Deep down,” Harpur says, “I always knew if I was ever going to be an impact player in the NHL and be able to stay, the defensive role was going to be my niche.”

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