LONDON, ONT – Paul Ranger hadn't played in an NHL setting of any kind in nearly four years until the Leafs opened their exhibition schedule in London on Sunday night.
"It was my first game back really at this level and it went pretty well," said Ranger, who scored the fourth and final goal as his team topped the Flyers 4-3 at Budweiser Gardens.
It was a night of firsts in many respects for the Leafs, first in the sense of impressions and opportunity at a training camp that promises its fair share of battles. There was Morgan Rielly in his first audition for a job on the crowded Toronto defence. There was Mason Raymond vying for an NHL gig with waves of speed, bursting past a Philly defender for a shorthanded goal. And there was of course, Ranger playing in his first NHL game (albeit exhibition) since October 2009, the 29-year-old inked to a one-year deal with the club this past summer.
"As the game went on I felt more and more comfortable," said Ranger, who admitted the presence of a few nerves before the game. "Mentally you settle down and get more in tune with everything."
With a sturdy defensive game, surprising mobility and a high-caliber first pass, Ranger looked the part of an NHL defender, one the Leafs are hopeful will contribute in a significant way this season. The opener marked a good first step. Ten years his junior sits Rielly, the fifth overall selection in 2012 getting his first opportunity to build a case for entry on the NHL roster this fall, a decision that will likely linger until final cuts are made.
"I think after I had a chance to get used to the pace and what not I was pretty happy with how it went," said Rielly, paired with Korbinian Holzer initially before shifting alongside Ranger in the third.
"Rielly who?" Leafs coach Randy Carlyle quipped, already tired of the daily questions regarding the organization's top prospect. "Obviously he skates, (but) can he continue to do what he's done in Junior at the NHL and I don't know how plainer I can say that."
Rielly was joined in his first bit of NHL action by fellow first round pick Frederik Gauthier (2013) as well as the 188th overall selection in 2008 and a dark horse to contribute to the Leafs at some point this season, 23-year-old Andrew MacWilliam.
Pegged to start the year with the Marlies, MacWilliam performed with the edge he'd become known for at the University of North Dakota, where he served as captain last season. "It's the next level," said MacWilliam of his first professional game, "guys are bigger, guys are faster, but after the first period I felt I got my legs underneath me a little bit and thought I got my skating going and thought I was okay."
"It's good to see the young kids get their first taste and that's the most important thing is they understand that this wasn't an NHL game, but it was an exhibition game and there's another level that the league plays to," Carlyle observed.
1. Reimer's first look
Also getting a first look on Sunday was James Reimer, who received opening duties against the Flyers, the 26-year-old stopping 14 of 17 shots in 28 minutes of action.
"It's getting used to the game situation," said Reimer of expectations for the early portion of the exhibition schedule. "It's getting used to plays in traffic, trying to see the puck, fighting bodies, stuff like that that you can't really replicate anywhere else."
Reimer yielded three pucks, the first a point shot that was deflected through traffic, the second a rebound plucked home off another point shot, the third a final point drive that caromed off the end boards and was quickly tapped in.
"You don't want to let three goals in a game," said Reimer. "But I felt that I wasn't beat clean and they were all some tough bounces. I was happy with the way I played and felt that I built a lot and accomplished a lot of things I wanted to."
Earlier in the day, the Leafs incumbent starter – now challenged for the job – noted the need to readjust to the speed of game action following an offseason of training.
"Summer hockey is so slow and guys don't shoot the puck, they hold onto it, pass, pass, pass," explained Reimer. "So even (Saturday) in the scrimmage there was a couple plays where it's just quicker than what you're used to. In exhibition it's just getting that timing back and being in the right place at the right time."
2. Case for Raymond
The first impression for Mason Raymond was generally positive, the Calgary speedster surging for a shorthanded breakaway goal.
"Obviously with the type of speed that he has it's going to be hard for somebody to catch him and they didn't catch him and he found a way," said Carlyle.
Formerly a 25-goal man with the Canucks, Raymond was inked to a professional tryout on the eve of training camp. The 27-year-old could prove an intriguing add if he and the club find a fit.
The Leafs lost speed, skill and depth with the offseason departures of Mikhail Grabovski, Clarke MacArthur and Matt Frattin and would be dinged further with any significant injury to their top-six complement (Joffrey Lupul notably has yet to take the ice in training camp, suffering from back spasms).
Raymond could help to address that potential weakness. A water-bug who seems to dart from space to space on the ice, Raymond would offer added ability, experience and hints of offence on the wing.
3. Sophomore shot
The first extended stint of NHL action had its share of turmoil for Korbinian Holzer, the now 25-year-old defender playing 22 games in 2013, mostly under siege alongside Dion Phaneuf on the Leafs top pair.
"It was a good way to learn what it takes to be an everyday player in the NHL," said Holzer of the experience. "I had the opportunity to play (against) the best players in the league for a lot of games and played a lot of minutes. It was a good experience and a good learning curve. I think overall I learned what it takes to be an everyday player."
Thrust into duty that was probably beyond his means as a rookie – playing nightly opposite top lines – Holzer learned his fair share and believes the experience will ultimately prove beneficial.
"You've got to be aware every second you're out there," said Holzer of the most prominent lesson from the shortened season. "You can't take one second off. As soon as you step on the ice you've got to be ready and expect the unexpected."
Holzer will face an uphill battle to make the roster, competing with the likes of Ranger, Rielly, John-Michael Liles, Mark Fraser, and Petter Granberg.
"He should take the experience and look at the positives that he was able to come in and play for our hockey club and he got his feet wet in the NHL," said Carlyle of Holzer. "Now it's take the next step."
4. More MacWilliam
Carlyle had the inside track on MacWilliam heading into camp because of an old connection from his playing days. Brad Berry, now an assistant coach who runs the defence at North Dakota, played with Carlyle in Winnipeg.
"He acquitted very well in his first pro game," said Carlyle.
MacWilliam was whistled for a pair of penalties in Sunday's action, but proved mobile and a nasty physical presence.
5. Veterans in exhibition
While he offers some leniency, Carlyle does have certain expectations of the veterans in his dressing room during the exhibition season.
"It's important that they get themselves ready," said Carlyle. "(But) I think the veteran guys get a little bit more room and a little bit of slack from the coaching staff in that perspective."
Quote of the Night
"As we all know the salary cap world changes things, it's a different way of evaluating sometimes when you're forced to make decisions based upon contract amount. It's a new animal in the league and that's the reality of it."
-Randy Carlyle on the training camp evaluation process.
The Leafs host the Flyers at the Air Canada Centre on Monday night.