Maple Leafs Notebook: Malgin earns shot at greatest lineup void, Marner beefs up

Maple Leafs forward John Tavares talks about the potential and on-ice chemistry he's starting to build with Denis Malgin, and also talks about the bright future of 2022 2nd round pick Fraser Minten, who's soaking in his first NHL training camp.

TORONTO — Maybe, just maybe, the jury is still out.

Eleven out of 12 armchair GMs have long ruled the Florida Panthers the runaway winners of the 2020 Mason Marchment–for–Denis Malgin trade.

Rightly so, with the undersized Malgin spending the past two campaigns whizzing around the Swiss league and the bruising Marchment breaking out with an 18-goal, 47-point contribution to the Presidents’ Trophy champs.

Yet Malgin — once written off as a skillsy European whose skill only translates at home — is back in Toronto, making another go of it after a couple of point-per-game tours through his home country and a 12-point splash at May’s world championship.

Sharpen the blade, but don’t saw off that trade tree limb quite yet.

“NHL is the best league in the world, so you always have that mind to come back,” the 25-year-old says. “That was my goal.”

The most dangerous scorer on last winter’s edition of the Zurich Lions (hey, Auston Matthews’ alma mater!), Malgin saw plenty of ice time in all situations and earned coach Rikard Gronborg’s trust.

Malgin arrives at Toronto’s tryouts with a silent determination to outwork and out-impress several cap-friendly wingers battling to make the final cut.

Several have noted his poise and confidence.

During Malgin’s first pre-season contest Saturday, he shone alongside William Nylander and found the net.

On Monday, the speedy five-foot-nine waterbug was given those coveted second-line left wing reps with Nylander and captain John Tavares, finishing off a couple of tic-tac-toe rushes.

“Well, he’s probably just a little bit more familiar with his surroundings. Even just off the ice, he’s a pretty quiet, shy kinda guy, but you can tell he’s opening up a lot more. And obviously (he) had a really good season overseas and just seems really confident in his game,” Tavares says.

“I thought we moved the puck amongst each other well, so I think Malgs has got a lot of potential and obviously a really strong skillset.”

Nylander concurs: “Tremendous little player.”

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While it would be foolish to pencil Malgin into the Leafs’ opening night top six, the left-side hole on Tavares’ unit is a biggie.

Malgin may be the first to get some run there, but he won’t be the last. Calle Järnkrok, Adam Gaudette, Nick Robertson, Pierre Engvall and Alexander Kerfoot should all be in the mix.

“In terms of John and Will, right away, I look at it as a job that is available. Guys can compete for that,” Keefe says.

“It gives us an opportunity throughout this pre-season to try different things for what inevitability may occur in terms of injury or players moving around throughout the season. We will get different looks at things as we get going.”

Right now, Malgin is getting his look.

So far, it’s a bright one.

“It’s hard for a guy like him to really pop in the practices,” Keefe says. “He’s a highly-skilled guy that makes plays and can make a difference offensively. He was good in the first two days. He was excellent (Saturday).

“Every time he touched the puck, it seemed like something good was happening with it.”

Marner bulks up, lightens up

Compare Mitchell Marner’s 2021 training camp to Mitchell Marner’s 2022 training camp and two things stand out.

He’s happier and heavier.

In the fall of 2021, the magical playmaker looked tight. His exchanges with reporters, at times, bordered on tense. Understandably, Toronto’s ugly playoff collapse to Montreal — and his goal-less performance over those seven games — had lingering effects.

Remember, before he erupted for his career-best 97-point tear, Marner couldn’t find the net in the first eight games of 2021-22.

Smiling, joking and buzzing, Marner looks every milligram like his true self these days. From the cheap seats, one could hear a couple of his giddy yelps during shifts of Saturday’s matinee exhibition win over Ottawa. His slippery ways drew two tripping penalties. And his meetings with the press have been easy and conversational.

Newly engaged off the ice, Marner is fully engaged on it.

“He continues to mature and learn more and more about himself,” Tavares says. “The dynamic of being in his role, his stature in the game and on the team, (he’s) more comfortable there. Year in and year out, you just learn more and have a better understanding.

“Every year you want to get off to the fastest start possible. As careers go on, there’s ups and downs at different points, and you learn to work through those. And how he started off last year, I don’t think it’s because he was playing poorly. But I think you saw tremendous progression in this game the second half.”

The guy is at his best feeling loose.

“Early indications are that he’s come into camp looking good,” coach Sheldon Keefe says. “Certainly doesn’t look like a guy who’s resting on what he accomplished last season. He’s looking to build on it.”

One thing the six-foot right winger has already built on is his frame, muscling up from 172 pounds at this time last year to 181.

He’s proud of the adjustments he made over the summer, primarily eating healthier with a focus on muscle-building nutrition.

“It’s not much of a jump, but it still is a couple pounds that make you feel a little stronger,” says Marner, who threw a career-high 75 hits last season. “Can kind of cut into the ice a little more, take guys on one-on-one a little more. But we’ll see when the real season starts. Now, it’s just maintaining that weight and keeping healthy with it and seeing how I feel with it.”

Teammate William Nylander has already noticed Marner throwing his heft around.

“He’s looking good in battles, for sure. I noticed that right away from the start when I got here,” Nylander says.

Praising Arizona

Auston Matthews’ plan to host Marner at his desert home was spoiled last summer once the centreman opted for wrist surgery.

But the linemates made good on a rain cheque last month, as Matthews flew out both his locally based wingers across the country for a fun week of work/play.

“I thought it would be nice for them to get out of Toronto for a bit,” Matthews grins. “We just hung out and competed a lot. Played a lot of tennis, golf, ping pong, a bunch stuff. It was just a nice week to kind of relax, but also get some work in and get prepared for the season.”

The paddle and racquet battles were just as competitive as the on-ice sessions.

“It was great to get down this year,” Marner says. “We want to win in everything we do against each other.”

Marner concedes that he is the third-best tennis player on the top line, but the Michael Bunting versus Matthews matches were intense.

“Whatever they say, I dominated in tennis,” Bunting said. “We had some success together last year and it’s fun playing with them. Hopefully we can keep rolling with that and keep building off that chemistry.”

Steph Curry took note that Marner was repping his jersey on Matthews’ sport court.

“Curry’s always been my guy,” says Marner, sketching a parallel. “A shorter guy and a lot of people didn’t think he would turn out. A lot of people doubted him. What he’s done in the game of basketball has been remarkable and something special to watch as a fan. The work he puts into his craft that shows every day on the court is impressive.”

One-Timers: Five days into camp and Jake Muzzin (back soreness) has yet to join teammates on the ice. He and Pierre Engvall (foot/ankle) skated on a separate pad…. Stay-at-home defenceman Jordie Benn got a look beside Morgan “Green Light” Rielly…. Adam Gaudette missed Monday’s practice due to a shoulder injury suffered against Ottawa on Saturday and is listed as day to day…. David Kämpf was absent due for personal reasons…. Tavares’s first impression of the Maple Leafs’ first draft pick of 2022, Fraser Minten, with whom he skated in the summer: “Very heady player. Smart. Just a joy to be around. I think he’s a tremendous kid. We have a good one in him.”… Starter Matt Murray will take the ice at Scotiabank Arena Wednesday for the first time wearing the crest of the team he grew up rooting for. “It’ll be cool, for sure,” Murray says. “But I’m trying to get the most out of it and prepare for Game 1 of the season. (Wednesday) is the first step toward that. So, I’m just hoping to enjoy it and make the most of it.”

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