TORONTO – If it’s possible for a hockey player to charm his way into an NHL job, Josh Ho-Sang probably could’ve signed a contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs before he strolled out of the practice rink Thursday.
Desperate and determined to cling to his dream of playing in the Show, Ho-Sang skated on the right line (on the right side of captain John Tavares and Michael Bunting) said all of the right things as the Leafs officially hit the ice for the first time.
Would Ho-Sang — a blue-chip first-round Islanders pick in 2014 — be willing to start 2021-22 with the Marlies?
“I'd be willing to start in the East Coast,” he replied.
“I'm not entitled by any means. I don’t think that I deserve anything here. For me, I am happy to be a part of this organization in any way they need me. If they need me sharpening skates, if they need me taping sticks, you know, this place is so special, and I don't truly believe that everyone gets to experience that. This place is absolutely wonderful.”
What does it mean to sign a professional tryout with his hometown squad?
“I think every kid who grows up in Toronto dreams about playing for this team,” said Ho-Sang, who grew up an admirer of Mats Sundin.
“You see how someone like that has such a great career, plays in Toronto for so long and never got in trouble, never did anything bad. I think he embodied what it meant to be a true professional, and I've reflected on that. You try to take parts from him and implement them into my life.”
Ho-Sang complimented Tavares and Sheldon Keefe, Lou and Chris Lamoriello. He said his Swedish head coach last season in Linkoping, Johan Akerman, “did wonders for me as a person.”
Without diving too deep into detail, a humbled Ho-Sang — painted as a preternatural talent with some less-than-professional habits — said he believes he has matured.
That this chance, he'll be different.
“Sometimes we're not ready to hear things, and I believe I'm at the point now where I am,” Ho-Sang said.
“It's not necessarily how long it takes you to learn; it's that you learn.”
As he bounced out of the bigs, then out of the minors, then over the Atlantic, the former OHL phenom conceded there were moments his love for hockey waned.
“Everyone deals with anxiety and depression in different manners. Some people have it more severe than others, but I think when that stuff creeps in, it can get difficult to love the game you play,” Ho-Sang said.
“When you bring it back to the base, this is the game that you've been playing since you were little. And how much joy it's brought you, how many good experience experiences you've had, how much you've learned — I think when you take that and appreciate it instead of looking at what you don’t have, I think that it becomes a lot more enjoyable.”
Ho-Sang is saying all the right things. There is a jump in his step, to be sure.
Now, in this make-or-break trial, he must back up all his dazzling words with action.
“I think it’s going to take everything I have. It’s pretty simple,” Ho-Sang said.
“Being good when you're young is a great thing. Being good when you're a junior is awesome. Being good in the NHL is a whole different monster.
“Now the show starts.”
Skate till it hurts
Keefe made no apologies for kicking off this camp the same way he did January's — with not a puck in sight.
Every Leaf began their first official on-ice session with a gruelling 20-minute conditioning skate that took the form of timed there-and-back races.
The scene was not so far removed from that infamous Herb Brooks punishment from Miracle: “Again!”
Morgan Rielly sat down at the end boards, legs splaying, gasping afterward. Several stars walked back to the room gingerly. A quick flood later, and the Leafs were back on for a 90-minute session of high-tempo battle drills.
“It's incredibly hard. There's no bones about it. You train all summer, but to go full speed like that, and to have as little rest as we have, this is one of the harder days you're going to get anywhere,” Jason Spezza said.
The monotonous exercise was one of those rare moments where a spectator wished not to be an NHLer.
“Yeah, I would like you guys to try that,” Rasmus Sandin chided reporters afterward. “I think it would take a little bit more time.”
Keefe sees the successive sprints as a tone-setter not only for the camp but for the 82-game grind that awaits.
“The season is hard. Winning is hard. Playing in the league is hard. So put the hard work first,” the coach explained.
“Just effort. You’re looking to see effort. It's more of a mental drill than anything physical, but the mental side is the most challenging piece. As you're going through that, you're questioning yourself and just how much you have left.”
Ritchie gets head start on the best job available
No one may replace Zach Hyman as the undisputed top left wing on the club this season, but someone will secure those precious first-minutes alongside superstars Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner.
Ritchie, the 25-year-old Boston castaway, appears to be getting the first crack at the opportunity, taking reps Thursday alongside Marner and centre Adam Brooks (Matthews’ placeholder until his wrist is ready for contact).
Marner said he’s simply looking for a hard worker to fill that giant hole on the left flank. Ritchie has been training at Ford Performance Centre for more than a month now. He wants to earn that spot but knows it’s not a guarantee.
“I'm just excited to go wherever the coach wants me,” Ritchie demurred. “Hopefully I can put myself in a position to play with those guys or anyone else. I mean, there's lots of great players.”
Keefe loves the heaviest Leaf’s size (six-foot-two, 230 pounds), his grit, and his set of soft mitts that tucked 15 goals (mostly in tight) in 56 games last season.
“We like a lot of those different elements, so we're gonna look to give that some time to grow,” Keefe said. “But as I said, we've got a lot of hungry people that would love an opportunity to play there.
“Ritchie's coming off of a good season where he scored a lot offensively. Bunting came out of the American League and scored at a very high rate, and his confidence is high. So, you're expecting those guys to just come in and grab a hold of the opportunities that they get.”
Spezza is essentially a player-coach at this point
By design, Spezza was partnered with top prospect Nick Robertson in camp, and the veteran regularly gave the 20-year-old advice and encouragement during drills.
Spezza’s major observation is that the intense young sniper needs to learn to trust his teammates more, to use them and not feel like he has to make the play happen all by himself.
Keefe, for one, is thrilled that Vintage re-upped for another minimum-wage tour for his hometown.
“[Spezza] has really established himself here in the last couple seasons as a really key member of our leadership team. And it's not just who he is and what he says,” Keefe said, “but it's what he does every day, the work he puts in the offseason, not just with the NHL players but with our young prospects, the character that he has, experience that he has. He's just a real great asset for the coaching staff and for the team in general.”
Don’t get it twisted, though.
Spezza scored as often as anyone in Group 1, beating Jack Campbell with a slapper and high-stepping after a wrister bent the twine.
Spreading veterans along blue line
In effort to challenge and inform Toronto’s younger defencemen, Keefe has broken away from his usual defence pairings, matching inexperience with wisdom in each camp duo:
Morgan Rielly–Travis Dermott
Rasmus Sandin–T.J. Brodie
Jake Muzzin–Timothy Liljegren
Karl Dahlström–Justin Holl
This doesn’t mean we won’t see the Leafs revert to a Rielly-Brodie, Muzzin-Holl top four on Opening Night. It does mean the coach is ready to push Sandin and Liljegren, in particular, to become full-time NHLers by feeding them tougher assignments.
“We wanted to utilize the that veteran presence,” Keefe said. “As they go through camp, a lot of times Muzzin is matched up with some of our better players on the other side in the drills, so you’re competing head-to-head with better players, the more established NHLers.”
Mikheyev elects to quiet the trade-request distraction
Speaking publicly for the first time since Elliotte Friedman reported his eagerness to leave Toronto, Ilya Mikheyev opted to not fuel the fire.
A wise choice for a third-line winger whose minimal NHL experience (93 career games) and minimal goal output (15 career goals) don’t yet qualify him as a player who can dictate his own terms.
Asked if he had indeed requested a trade through agent Dan Milstein, Mikheyev replied: "No, I just enjoyed time with my family. I just got married."
The affable Russian is no doubt antsy for more offensive minutes in his contract year, but he’s projecting happiness to put the team first.
"I'm looking forward to the upcoming season and working hard for the team, and I hope we have a great season,” Mikheyev said.