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Confident Cowan sets big goal for Leafs camp

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Easton Cowan had not one, not two, but three breakaway chances during Sunday's scrimmage at Leafs development camp. 

"I put it right in the logo every time," the London Knights forward said. "So, I'll be working on that in my driveway at home."

Before heading home, Cowan actually got an additional breakaway opportunity. A shootout was held at the end of Team Blue's 7-3 win over Team White and Cowan called his shot before delivering a nice goal.

"I did that move on a penalty shot in Owen Sound," Cowan said. "I told [Attack winger and Leafs seventh-round pick] Sam McCue I was going to do it again and I just hit my spot. [Former Knight] Rob Schremp taught me that move. It's a snake pattern. I come in to the right, [move] to the left, and really slow down and it changes the goalie's angle. A couple fakes and right by the goalie's heel. It should work. Hopefully, I didn't just give out my secret there."

The secret to Cowan's success isn't any one move. It's his determination and an engine that never seems to stop. Three breakaway misses didn't faze the 2023 first-round pick. When Cowan sets his mind to something, he tends to do it. And the 19-year-old from Mount Brydges, Ont. is laser-focused on his next big challenge. 

"As the development camp got on here, I felt like I got better as a player," he said. "I'm really looking forward to training camp. I have a goal in mind and I'm going to stick with that all summer."

The goal? 

"I want to make the team," he said. "That's always been my goal. I want to play in the NHL one day and I'm feeling very confident."

Cowan should feel that way. He is coming off a season that saw him make Canada's World Junior squad at 18 years old, be named the most outstanding player in the Ontario Hockey League, and then the MVP of the playoffs. 

"Easton's going up a really steep trajectory and I think he'll keep doing that," said Saskatoon Blades centre Fraser Minten, who skated on a line with Cowan. "He does all the things right out there. He makes really good reads. He's fast and tenacious so makes it easy and really fun to play with him."  

But the 5-foot-11, 185-pound winger needs to show new coach Craig Berube that he's both determined and detailed. 

"Got to come into camp and be a very reliable player, someone the coach can trust," Cowan said. "I just got to learn game management a bit better, and I think I'll be good."

Leafs assistant general manager, player development, Dr. Hayley Wickenheiser identified defensive play as a key for Cowan if he wants to make the jump to the professional level. The message has been received. 

"More stops and starts," Cowan said. "Kind of opening up my body toward the check instead of turning my back. Just having my head on a swivel at all times. Getting it in at the blueline, getting it out at the blue line, it's little plays that really go a long way with coaches."

Summer development camp was a step in the right direction for Cowan, who scored during regulation line and was hustling back on defence throughout the scrimmage. 

"We won so I'm pretty happy right now," he said with a smile.

After a day off on Monday, Cowan plans to get right back to work on Tuesday. 

ContentId(1.2145819): 'Very confident' Cowan sets goal for Leafs camp: 'I want to make the team'

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Minten and Cowan skated together throughout the development camp.

"They both have the goal of making the team," explained Wickenheiser. "Just having them play together, a little familiarity, and then [they can] show leadership by driving play and dominating offensively when they could, and they did [on Sunday]."

The scrimmage featured two 30-minute halves with 4-on-4 and 3-on-3 sessions mixed in. Minten set up Cowan's goal early in the first half with a faceoff win. 

"He said, 'Just be ready, I'm going to win this,'" Cowan said. "I was and I picked my spot there. He's obviously good on the draws. I think he was like second in the league in the Western League."

Minten, a second-round pick in 2022, added his own goal later in the scrimmage and, like Cowan, scored in the shootout. 

"I played with him a bit last year too at camp," Cowan noted. "It's just fun playing with him. He has elite hockey IQ. He played in the NHL last year, so he's got experience, and he works hard, so I feel like we really complemented each other."

Minten made the Leafs out of training camp last year and got an audition in the NHL. The 6-foot-2 pivot failed to hit the scoresheet in four games with the Leafs. Minten, who celebrated his 20th birthday on Friday, doesn't expect to have a leg up at camp because of that experience. 

"It means nothing, honestly, with trying to crack the team again," Minten insisted. "As a young guy you don't have anything to fall back on if people show you up ... You have to knock the door down and give a reason. It's about just leaving everything out there at camp."

While Cowan is emphasizing defensive play, Minten will be looking to show some improvements on offence. 

"You can see that he's a responsible player," Wickenheiser said. "He plays both ends of the ice. He'll make plays. It's just getting him a little more dynamic off one foot or the other to bury some chances in tight. [That] is that sort of the next offensive upside for him."

Minten scored 22 goals in 43 games split between Saskatoon and Kamloops last season. He scored eight goals and added six assists in 16 playoff games as Saskatoon made the conference final. 

"His game rose, especially in playoffs," said Blades linemate Brandon Lisowsky, who was at Leafs development camp as a free agent. "I thought he was the best player in the Western League in the playoffs. He's got a great shot of playing for the Maple Leafs next year."

Lisowsky highlighted Minten's leadership ability and pointed out he was named an alternate captain immediately after being traded from Kamloops. Minten was also named the captain of Team Canada at the World Juniors. 

"He's a real complete player," Wickenheiser said. "Sometimes when you're such a responsible player it can detract because you're not thinking offence, offence, all the time. So, those are just little things. But he's a well-rounded guy throughout his whole game and I know he wants to work on all of those areas. We continue to help him along the way."

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Top prospects Cowan and Minten stood out, as expected, at the development camp, but the biggest  surprise seemed to be 6-foot-1, right-shot centre Miroslav Holinka, who was selected by the Leafs in the fifth round, 151st overall, at last month's draft. 

"We talked about Holinka being a player who showed more offensive upside than maybe we had seen or known about," Wickenheiser said. "I thought he had a really good camp."

Holinka posted 29 points in 41 games with HC Ocelari Trinec's under-20 team in his native Czechia last season. He also scored one goal in 16 games during a look in the top Czech league.

"Coming in, I hadn't seen him live before, but nice hands," Wickenheiser noted. "You can really tell that he's played professional men's hockey with just his habits, details of the game, some of the plays that he makes. He didn't really struggle with the pace at all. He was a bright spot in camp for sure."

Holinka scored twice in Sunday's scrimmage and reminded Cowan of his Knights teammate Kasper Halttunen, who was a second-round pick by the San Jose Sharks last season and produced 32 goals in 57 games this year in the OHL. 

"He's elite," Cowan said of Holinka, who was also on Team Blue in Sunday's scrimmage. "Kind of reminds me of Halttunen a bit. He's got a good shot, really can pull the puck outside, inside. Two goals and almost scored in the shootout with a nasty move. I was really impressed with him." 

Holinka's English isn't good enough yet to do interviews, but he certainly wasn't shy on the ice. 

"He was really skilled," Minten said. "He had a lot of confidence with the puck and some good hands, and ripping the puck out there. He looked good."

ContentId(1.2145830): Leafs fifth rounder Holinka turns heads with strong development camp

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Oshawa Generals defenceman Ben Danford, Toronto's first-round pick last month, came as advertised at his first development camp. 

"Really liked Ben's game," Wickenheiser said. "He made some really nice plays in the game and jumped in the rush."

"I was just a 200-foot guy, and I kept it pretty simple," Danford said after Sunday's scrimmage. "Just tried to limit the mistakes out there and play my game." 

After producing one goal and 32 assists in 64 games last season, Danford plans on showing off his offensive game a bit more moving forward. He made a nice play diving below the goal line before setting up Holinka in the slot for the opening goal on Sunday.

"I feel like I've always had that high hockey IQ," the 18-year-old from Madoc, Ont. said. "I think it showed in that play. It's just getting more confidence with the puck on my stick."

"His offensive upside might be better than what he's shown statistically," said Wickenheiser. "You can see that, and he moves really well. Watching him off the ice, a good athlete as well, so he made a good impression on everyone as well this week. I thought he had a very good camp." 

Danford's face lit up when asked about what he will take from the experience at development camp. 

"There's so much," he said. "We're lucky. There's such a great development staff here. Every guy here learns a lot from on-ice skills, and even the off-ice. A lot of seminars about little things like cooking. We learned how to cook. We're getting to the age where you might be living on your own."

How comfortable is Danford in the kitchen now? 

"I wouldn't say I'm a master chef by any means," he said with a smile. "But I think I'm going in the right direction, for sure." 

ContentId(1.2145828): Leafs top pick Danford plans to start cooking on offence and in the kitchen

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Braeden Kressler scored for Team White on a nice deflection in the second half of the scrimmage. The 21-year-old forward, who just wrapped up his OHL career with the Ottawa 67’s, made a positive impression. 

"Really happy for him this camp," said Wickenheiser. "He was very fit. He showed up very fit. I thought he played really well day in and day out here with a lot of pace, a lot of jump, and showed leadership. He'll have to continue that on into his pro career now. He's continually gotten better."

Kressler, who stands 5-foot-9, is determined to make the Marlies and keep building momentum. Injuries and a lost COVID season have deprived the Kitchener, Ont. native of chances in the past. In fact, the 2023-24 campaign was his first full season in the OHL. 

"It happens in the game, but you feel like you owe yourself something, and owe the fans, and your coaches, and this year I think I proved that" he told TSN in May. "I can stick with it and show a full season and provide a lot. It was an exciting year and a very proud one."

Kressler produced 74 points in 65 games. 

After being passed over in the 2021 draft, Kressler earned an entry-level contract from the Leafs as a free agent. He's looking to reward that faith. 

"A lot to prove to myself and the organization," he said. "I'm going to do what it takes to make a roster and hopefully have a successful season."

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Lines in Sunday's scrimmage: 

Team Blue 

F

Cowan - Minten - Moldenhauer 
Muranov - Holinka - Hutson 
Oswald - Stevens - Levens 
Rheaume - Finnie - Bettens 
Ricketts 

D

Chadwick - Danford 
Lahey - Sharpe 
Fitzgerald - Hagens 
McCleary 

G

Peksa 
Rowe

Team White

F

Barbolini - Quillan - Tassy 
Lisowsky - Miller - Kressler 
Pilling - Malinoski - McCue 
Whitcomb - Lavins - Sikic 
Petr 

D

Webber - Fusco 
Johansson - Parsons 
Mayes - Dirracolo 
Brauti

G

Akhtyamov 
Cowan 

Did not dress: Grebenkin