TORONTO – This version of the Toronto Maple Leafs might be forced to put a new twist on one of the NHL’s oldest traditions.
How about one for the veterans instead?
There are precious few men who fall under that category on a team that will start the season with 11 players aged 24 or under. Six of those officially qualify as rookies, with Frank Corrado, Connor Carrick and newly added waiver pickup Seth Griffith each having limited NHL experience beyond that.
Even in a league trending more towards youth with each passing season, it’s a fairly unusual dynamic. How well the young guys fare will almost certainly determine what kind of year it ends up being in Toronto.
“We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us – I’m going to say it that way,” veteran forward Leo Komarov said Tuesday. “But I think if everything is going to be as we want it to, I think we have a really good group. We have a lot of skillful young players … and they look like pros already.”
They will be thrown into the fire starting with Wednesday’s season-opener in Ottawa.
Mitch Marner has been given a couple veterans to lean on in linemates James van Riemsdyk and Tyler Bozak, but the team’s other teenager – No. 1 overall pick Auston Matthews – will start alongside some contemporaries.
Fourth-line winger Connor Brown and defenceman Nikita Zaitsev also cracked the opening night roster. As training camp wore on, there was a lot of internal discussion about how many youngsters the team could realistically carry.
“They’re going to have take significant steps,” said coach Mike Babcock.
“One of the challenges is patience,” GM Lou Lamoriello told reporters Monday. “There will be mistakes (but) they won’t be mistakes for not trying. It’ll just be the experience that it takes as far as how quick things happen and also feeling good and maybe not playing as much as they’re used to playing sometimes or maybe in different positions.
“So little changes.”
There will be a heavy burden placed on the experienced voices in the locker-room.
Suddenly, this is a team that belongs to Bozak and defenceman Matt Hunwick – both among the small handful of adults (read: players over 30) still wearing the Maple Leaf. Brooks Laich, who appeared destined to be the team’s oldest player at age 33, was expected to be sent to the American Hockey League so that Toronto could get down to the 23-man roster limit.
There isn’t a player on the roster with 800 games of NHL experience.
Komarov also plans to take on a larger mentorship role. He’s basically the de facto United Nations representative in the dressing room – with an ability to speak Finnish, Russian, Swedish and English – and intends to help build a healthier culture for the young players than what he experienced in his early days of pro hockey a decade ago in Finland.
“I’ll just talk to them and be a nice guy,” said Komarov. “It’s not old-school anymore. When I came up it was way different. It was more young guys was young guys. … Hockey’s not like it used to be 10 or 15 years ago – when you’re young kids you didn’t even have a seat on the bus; now it’s all good.
“I just want them to feel good about themselves, that’s the most important thing.”
How good this team can be remains anyone’s guess.
It should have better goaltending and be able to score more than the group that finished 30th overall last season. The defence looks mobile and promising, if a little unproven.
Maybe, just maybe, the Leafs find a way to hang around the playoff race into the second half of the season.
“We have expectations as a team that we’re going to keep in this room,” said Morgan Rielly. “But each night we think we have a chance to win games. We’re going into this year with a new energy and a new environment and we’re really looking forward to it.
“I think we’ve got a lot of young guys, but just because they’re young that doesn’t mean they don’t know how to play.”
There has been a tremendous amount of turnover inside this organization since president Brendan Shanahan arrived two years ago. They have remade the front office and torn down the roster. Now it’s time to build.
More than anything, that’s what has opened the door to so many young players now. It’s a unique moment in time for an organization looking to pull itself out of the gutter.
“Now the opportunity is there,” said Lamoriello. “It’s up to them to make the most of it.”