Minten still in the mix as Leafs camp winds down
The Maple Leafs wrapped up a team-bonding trip with a practice at the Centennial Arena in Gravenhurst, Ont., on Wednesday ahead of Thursday’s pre-season game against the Detroit Red Wings.
For the first time at training camp, William Nylander moved back to the wing. He practised on the right side of the second line with John Tavares and Max Domi on Wednesday. That opened the door for Fraser Minten to skate between Matthew Knies and Calle Jarnkrok on the third line.
"Not a reflection on Willy at all, but we need to make a decision on Fraser, obviously," coach Sheldon Keefe explained. "We need to get him in a position to play with the group."
Minten's unlikely bid for a roster spot is suddenly the most intriguing storyline with only a week to go until opening night. The 19-year-old Kamloops Blazers centre, who was the team's second-round pick in 2022, has produced four points in four pre-season games. On Saturday, he scored the game-winning goal in Montreal despite playing on consecutive nights.
"He's already, to me, passed the first test," said Keefe. "He goes out in Montreal and plays head-to-head against [Nick] Suzuki or [Kirby] Dach every shift and did a great job there so that was one test."
After Saturday's game, Minten did the walk-off interview for the TSN broadcast.
"I've done really well and I'm really happy with how I've been doing," the 6-foot-2, 192-pound pivot said. "I expect a lot from myself and I'm happy with how it's gone."
After logging a lot of minutes last week alongside other Leafs prospects and players destined for the American Hockey League, Minten got Monday's game off and watched Toronto's top players face the Canadiens. That makes Thursday's outing against the Detroit Red Wings, the penultimate pre-season game, a test to see how Minten looks inside Toronto's regular lineup.
What's Keefe looking for?
"It's a combination of whether he's ready for us and whether we're ready for him," the coach said. "While we have games to play we're going to use them and give him an opportunity to grow and develop whether it results in him sticking around this year or helps him to be closer when he comes back."
The Leafs will conclude their exhibition schedule on Saturday in Detroit.
"Not a lot of time left, but we want to take advantage of all the reps that we do have," Keefe said.
Minten's hockey IQ is a big reason why he's still in the mix.
"It is not only just how he plays, but on the bench, he is the most talkative guy," Keefe observed on Saturday night. "There is not a lot of fluff in what he is saying. He is directing traffic. He is coaching in a lot of ways."
If he doesn't make the Leafs, Minten is in line to take over as the captain in Kamloops where he produced 67 points in 57 games last season.
Keefe labelled Minten's development over the last year "remarkable."
"He's amazing," Nylander said. "He's been great this camp. The speed he has in the middle and strong on the puck, winning battles, I think he's very mature for such a young guy."
"Just being myself," Minten told TSN on Saturday. "Playing my game, being responsible and working as hard as I can and doing the little things."
At the start of camp, I asked Minten about his goals for the season and he spoke about making Canada's World Junior team. Now, it's possible he'll be in the NHL.
Is he ready?
"I mean, look, he's had a great camp," said Nylander, who made his NHL debut at age 19, but after 75 games of seasoning in the AHL. " I mean, we got a great team so it's hard to say exactly when [he'll be ready] but he's been incredible this camp."
How are things going for Nylander when he plays centre?
"I felt great," he said of his two games in the middle. "Look, I'm ready to play wherever Sheldon wants me to play. So, I'm just getting ready to be the best [I can be] this season."
The Leafs were outshot 8-2 by the Canadiens in 5-on-5 play with the Nylander line on the ice on Monday night. Montreal scored their only 5-on-5 goal against that line, which included wingers Domi and Nick Robertson.
Nylander, who has one assist in two pre-season contests, highlighted defensive-zone play as the biggest adjustment.
"It's about your low play down below the dots," Keefe said. "You got to close quickly and it takes more energy. Obviously [you're] covering more ice to come back and get to that space and you're covering more ice to get up the ice and get back on offence so it's harder. There's more effort required."
Domi, who has played centre at times during his career, is helping alleviate the load.
"Domi's taken on a lot of time down low as well," Keefe said. "It's not an all-the-time thing, which is why you're a little more open to it for a guy who hasn't played a ton of it. We think it fits his skill-set really well. But, as we said from Day 1 of camp, he's going to play both. He's going to move around and in order to open that spot for Fraser for today that's what we did."
Did Nylander appreciate the chance to get some wing reps before the season?
"Wing is wing," the 27-year-old said with a smile. "I played there all my time in the NHL."
Hundreds of fans packed the Centennial Arena in Gravenhurst, Ont., for practice.
"A lot of kids out there having a good time," observed winger Ryan Reaves. "A lot of energy. A lot high-pitched screaming out there, but it was fun."
It was the third straight training camp trip to cottage country for the Leafs. They played a round of golf together on Tuesday. Reaves and Nylander were in the same group.
"Always talking," Nylander said. "Such a nice guy. You can talk to him about anything."
As for the golf?
"He crushes the ball," Nylander said of the 6-foot-2, 226-pound Reaves. "Ask him about his game. Don't ask me. I'm not going to say anything."
"I was so bad yesterday," Reaves admitted. "I probably played the worst round of my life. I let my team down so I'd like to formally apologize to them."
Reaves, who signed a three-year deal with the Leafs in the summer, did enjoy the chance to bond with his new teammates.
"We had a nice big cabin so we played a couple board games after," Reaves said.
Derby Days, a die-rolling race with an equestrian theme, was the game of choice.
"It's electric," said Reaves with a smile.
The group boarded a bus to head north following Monday's game. When the clock hit midnight, defenceman Mark Giordano turned 40.
"We sang, 'Happy Birthday' to him on the bus," Nylander revealed. "We had a birthday cake for him, too."
"Nice gesture by the boys," said Giordano, who will be the oldest player in the NHL this season.
Playing at this age has long been a goal for the undrafted Toronto native.
"When you're younger, you start thinking about it," Giordano said. "When you get into your early 30s, you're [thinking] it would be kind of nice. It seems like a long way away and then, bang, all the sudden it's here."
Can Nylander imagine playing at 40?
"No, that's pretty incredible," he said. "That's amazing. A lot of us can learn from him."
"It's cool to see somebody older than me still in the league," said Reaves, who will turn 37 in January. "It's great seeing a leader like him and a guy that's had a career like him still grinding it out at 40. It's cool to see and it gives me hope for sure."
On Tuesday, Giordano golfed with one of Toronto's youngest players in Knies.
"He's got a powerful golf swing," Giordano said. "Like, a full power swing. I don't know if I could pull that one off for 18 holes. That would be tough on the body to get in that squat every hole, but when he hits that ball it can go a long way."
Knies is only 20, but looks older thanks to his 6-foot-3, 217-pound frame. After an impressive 10-game run with the Leafs late last season, the University of Minnesota product is out to prove he can handle a full professional season.
"He just needs to continue to worry about having a good rest of a pre-season and go from there," cautioned Tavares, who has skated on a line with Knies for much of training camp. "Every young player is going to feel the grind of an 82-game season. I'm going into my 15th year, I'm going to feel the grind of an 82-game season. I've just been through it a lot."
That said, Tavares thinks the fit in Toronto will allow Knies to avoid hitting the rookie wall.
"The great thing in the foundation we have here, the veterans, the type of team we have, the staff, the team that's here to help in all those areas, he'll experience all that and learn from it," the 33-year-old captain said. "I think you see the physical maturity and obviously the skill-set, which is pretty unique, and will make a big impact for us."
Defenceman John Klingberg (upper body) has not skated since tweaking something in a pre-season game last Wednesday.
"He may be back on the ice tomorrow," said Keefe. "He's close."
Before getting hurt, Klingberg had been skating with Jake McCabe on the right side of Toronto's second pair. On Wednesday, Simon Benoit skated in that spot. The 25-year-old lefty is looking to get up to speed after missing the start of camp due to back spasms.
"I don't know if I'd say he's established himself, but he's made progress," said Keefe. "He's missed part of camp so for a guy coming in looking to make an impression it's a tough go for him to not be healthy from the start. I thought he was better in the second game than in the first so that's progress and there's more time remaining here for us to continue to look at him."
Lines in Wednesday's practice:
Bertuzzi - Matthews - Marner
Domi - Tavares - Nylander
Knies - Minten - Jarnkrok
McMann - Kampf - Reaves
Gregor - Holmberg - Lafferty
Rielly - Brodie
McCabe - Benoit
Giordano - Liljegren
Lagesson / Lajoie - Kokkonen