Fraser Minten’s bid to make Maple Leafs pushes William Nylander to wing

Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe discusses forward Fraser Minten and what he wants to see out of Minten for him to make the team and what he's been impressed about from Minten's outing against the Canadiens.

GRAVENHURST, Ont. — Two weeks after Toronto Maple Leafs training camp officially opened, the first legitimate curveball has been thrown.

Fraser Minten — the club’s 19-year-old centre prospect and a classically trained concert pianist — has struck all the right notes.

So much so, head coach Sheldon Keefe hit pause on the much-discussed William Nylander–at–centre experiment Wednesday in Gravenhurst, Ont., and built the team’s practice around Minten’s bid for Toronto’s opening-night roster.

“It was really just about getting Fraser Minten in the mix,” Keefe explained, after returning Nylander to the wing. “We need to make a decision on Fraser, obviously, so we get him in a position to play with the group.”

Does Minten, a 2022 second-round pick, really have a chance to make the cut?

“He’s still here,” Keefe replied. “Everybody that’s here has a chance to make the team.”

While Keefe won’t yet commit to Thursday’s lineup for a preseason game against Detroit, Minten will play. The Vancouver native centred Matthew Knies and Calle Järnkrok in Gravenhurst Wednesday, while John Tavares centred Nylander and Domi.

The coach has been gushing about Minten all camp, describing him as mature beyond his years.

“Not only just how he plays, but on the bench. He’s the most talkative guy, and there’s not a lot of fluff in what he’s saying. He’s directing traffic. He’s coaching in a lot of ways,” Keefe said.

“He’s engaged in the game. His leadership qualities are what really stand out. And then he gets on the ice and competes. He’s in the right spots, and he can make a play.”

Minten’s biggest test was a Friday-Saturday back-to-back at Bell Centre, when the Leafs dressed a mostly AHL group and the Canadiens countered with some of their big guns.

Over the weekend, Minten ripped seven shots, scored a goal, added two assists, and the Leafs stacked two exhibition wins.

“He’s already, to me, passed the first test. He goes out to Montreal and plays head-to-head against [Nick] Suzuki or [Kirby] Dach every shift and did a great job there,” Keefe said. “We want to get him back in.”

There is another side to this feel-good story, however: The Maple Leafs have a centre-depth issue.

Which is why Nylander was bumped down to 3C in the first place. The challenge for Nylander (and for Keefe watching him) is the increased responsibilities required deep in the defensive zone.

“It’s hard. There’s more effort required,” said Keefe, reminding that Nylander-at-centre was never written in stone. “He’s always going to play both. He’s always going to move around.”

How did Nylander feel in the middle during his two-game preseason look (both losses)?

“I felt great,” Nylander said.

“Look, I’m ready to play wherever Sheldon wants me to play, so I’m just getting ready to be the best this season.

And moving back with Tavares?

“Wing is wing. I played there all my time in the NHL.”

Nylander, too, is Team Minten.

“He’s amazing. He’s been great this camp. And the speed he has in the middle and strong on the puck and winning battles, I think he’s a very mature to for such a young guy,” Nylander says.

“He’s had a great camp, and we got a great team, so it’s hard to say exactly when [Minten will be NHL-ready], but, I mean, he’s been incredible this camp.”

The level-headed Minten isn’t getting ahead of himself when it comes to turning pro. (In fact, his main goal for 2023-24 is wearing another Leaf; he wants to rep Canada at the world juniors.)

“Just give it everything I got in training camp, day by day,” Minten said. “Try to earn another day. That’s been what I’ve been trying to do, and then whatever happens, happens.”

So, what if Minten keeps passing Keefe’s tests?

Well, to remain cap-compliant, the Leafs could delay the signing of PTO Noah Gregor and extend Minten’s tryout into the regular season for nine games less.

Or an injury could open an opportunity for the kid.

Regardless, things just got a little more interesting in Leafland.

“It’s a combination whether he’s ready for us and then whether we’re ready for him, so we’ll sort through that,” Keefe said. “But while we have games to play, we’re going to use them and give him an opportunity to continue to grow and develop — whether it results in him sticking around this year or just helps him to be closer when he comes back and sets him up for success.

“Not a lot of time left, but we want to take advantage of all the reps that we do have.”

That should be music to Minten’s ears.

One-Timer: John Klingberg (upper body) travelled with the Maple Leafs to Gravenhurst but has not skated for a full week. There’s a chance he gets on the ice Thursday. “He’s close,” Keefe said.

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