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Resurgent Ekman-Larsson promises to give Leafs whatever they need


Players skated in two groups at Maple Leafs summer development camp on Thursday. Defenceman Oliver Ekman-Larsson held a Zoom call with the media to discuss his new contract. 

Oliver Ekman-Larsson will turn 33 later this month. He's 18 games away from 1,000 in his NHL career. And he just signed a four-year deal with the Maple Leafs. 

"I want to play until I'm super old and they carry me off the ice so it means a lot," the Swedish defenceman said. "I want to push myself. I don't really look at the age. I feel a lot better than what I did when I was 25, to be honest with you, body-wise."

With the game getting faster, Ekman-Larsson tweaked his off-season training in recent years to be lighter on his feet and quicker on the ice. 

"I feel like I'm still skating well," he said. "I know I'm moving the puck well. Breaking the puck out, that's something I want to do, and still feel like I can improve on. So, that's something I'm looking to bring to the team."

Asked about the length of Ekman-Larsson's contract, which carries an annual average value of $3.5-million, Brad Treliving said that's what it took to sign the Stanley Cup champion. The Leafs general manager also noted that Ekman-Larsson is a "smooth" and "fluid" player, who should age gracefully. 

"He moves well," Treliving said. "Good legs." 

After signing a one-year deal with the Florida Panthers last summer, Ekman-Larsson produced 32 points in 80 games. He chipped in six points while dressing in all 24 playoff games as the Panthers took home the Stanley Cup. The resurgent season came after he had been bought out by the Vancouver Canucks just halfway through an eight-year deal initially signed with the Arizona Coyotes

"Pretty much getting fired," he said. "But obviously I've always believed in myself."

Ekman-Larsson pointed to injury issues as one reason for his on-ice decline during his time in Vancouver. 

This season, he was more than up to the task in south Florida. With Aaron Ekblad and Brandon Montour recovering from off-season surgeries, Ekman-Larsson played big minutes early in the year.

Now, Ekman-Larsson is returning to Canada and is ready to put his comeback under the scrutiny of the Toronto spotlight. 

"Playing for other teams, I loved coming into Toronto," he said. "Just a passionate fan base, who cares a lot about the team so I'm super excited about that … That's what you want. That's why you play. I love the game. I know everybody in that dressing room loves the game and loves playing for the Maple Leafs so I'm super excited about that part too." 

Treliving points out the lefty Ekman-Larsson is capable playing both sides and both special teams units. In particular, Ekman-Larsson offers the Leafs another quarterback option on the power play. But he plans to contribute in many facets of the game.  

"Really, anything that they need me to do," Ekman-Larsson said of his role. "That's how I look at it ... I just want to be the best version of myself and I feel like I can do that in Toronto."


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Toronto also added Chris Tanev and Jani Hakanpaa to their defence group via Canada Day signings. The new recruits were needed because the pipeline to the blue line is running dry. 

It's probably no coincidence that the Leafs used four of their eight picks in the 2024 draft on defencemen, including their first two choices. Most notably, Toronto selected Oshawa Generals rearguard Ben Danford with the 31st pick in the first round. The lifelong Leafs fan received a congratulatory message from captain John Tavares

"It was really cool," the native of Madoc, Ont. said. "He's such a high-character guy and such a high-calibre player so to get a text from him means a lot. I took it to heart."

Danford is among the 46 players in Toronto this week for the summer development camp.

"He is very smooth on the ice and a very smart player," said Leafs assistant general manager, player development, Dr. Hayley Wickenheiser. "Defensively, he makes stops. His offensive numbers weren't that great this year, but I think [he was] better than the stats show."

The 6-foot-1, 181-pound righty was voted the Eastern Conference's top defensive defenceman in the annual OHL coaches poll. He came in second in the best shot-blocker category and third in the hardest-worker category. 

But Danford only put up one goal and 32 assists in 64 regular season games. He did pop in four goals and six assists in 21 playoff games as Oshawa reached the OHL final. 

"Someone who's defence first and the offence is there as well," Danford said when asked to describe his style of play. 

The 18-year-old agrees with Wickenheiser that there is untapped potential in his offensive game.  

"I feel like with my skating ability and hockey IQ that's something I can definitely improve on," Danford said. "There's a great development staff and people that work here. They definitely know what they're doing, some of the best in the world, so with them behind me I should be going in the right direction."

No one questions Danford's work ethic and attitude.  

"He is a character kid," said Wickenheiser. "He comes from a really nice family with a good background. He is a good athlete. If you watch him off the ice, you can see the reason why he can translate it on the ice."

"He's a competitor," said London Knights forward Easton Cowan, who faced Danford in the OHL championship series. "I mean, he got in front of Kasper Halttunen's shot a lot. I don't think I'd do that. It shows the competitiveness he has."

Halttunen possesses a howitzer of a shot, which he used to score 17 goals in 18 playoff games. The Knights swept the Generals in the playoffs, but Danford finished the series even in the plus-minus column. 

Have Cowan and Danford reflected on their playoff battles? 

"Brought it up a bit," Cowan, the Leafs first-round pick in 2023, said with a grin. "I try to not bring them up a lot, because I remember last year when we lost to Peterborough, it's not fun. I'm trying to take it easy on him for now. (Smile) Maybe if he gets under my skin I'll let him hear it, but we'll see."

"We joke around about it a little bit, I guess," Danford said. "But it's in the past and we're just focusing on dev camp right now. Back to the OHL next year, we'll definitely get our game faces back on." 


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With their second pick of the draft, which came in the fourth round, the Leafs selected defenceman Victor Johansson, who plays for Leksand in the Swedish junior league. 

"It's amazing," Johansson said. "I can't explain with words. Like, it was just fantastic ... I was at home with my parents. My dad just started screaming. My mom just started to cry. I didn't know how to react. It was just amazing."

Johansson didn't expect to be picked this early. 

"Not at all or seventh round," he said of his expectations. "I felt like there were so many other players that were so much better than me."

Another reason why he expected teams to be reluctant is his size. Johansson is 6-foot-1, but only 147 pounds. 

"I need to grow a little bit in my body, give it two years or something like that," he said. "But it's nice they're believing in me ... I'm a two-way defender with a lot of physical play and a lot of competitiveness." 

His slight stature hasn't held him back so far. 

"In Sweden the physical play is not a thing," he explained. "So it's kind of easier over there. Here it's a little bit harder, but I think I can get the game." 

Johansson's older brothers both play hockey and both are bigger. Iowa Wild defenceman Simon Johansson, a fifth-round pick by Minnesota in 2018, is 6-foot-2 and 194 pounds. Leksands defenceman Anton Johansson is 6-foot-4, 196 pounds. Anton was drafted in the fourth round, 105th overall, by the Detroit Red Wings in 2022. 

"We have our own competition," Victor said of the sibling rivalry. "Anton sent a message to me, 'Oh, I got [taken] 16 picks before you. Haha.'"

The competition is ongoing and the youngest Johansson brother is aiming to make up ground in the size department. 

"I'm going to work on my off-ice training a lot," he promised. "I'm going to try and get a little bit bigger."


"Everything I can get in my stomach is good," he said with a smile. 


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The Leafs looked to bolster their blue line depth even before the draft. Treliving acquired the rights to Boston University's Cade Webber from the Carolina Hurricanes at the trade deadline. Webber signed an entry-level deal in April after his NCAA season wrapped up. 

Treliving has made it clear he prefers longer, physical defencemen and Webber, Hockey East's best defensive defenceman last season, certainly fits the bill at 6-foot-7. 

"It's obviously good to know they value those guys," the 23-year-old from Massachusetts said. "I take pride in being that defensive defenceman, blocking shots, kind of doing the unsexy things. That's a big thing here. I know they’re going to put all they can into developing me. I know this is only the beginning. I have a ton more work to do so I'm looking forward to that."

Growing up in the Boston area, Webber modelled his game on Bruins captain Zdeno Chara. 

"But not anymore," he said with a smile while peering around the Leafs practice facility. 

These days Webber watches a lot of Brandon CarloNikita ZadorovJaccob Slavin and Hakanpaa. He wasn't always on this tenacious trajectory. 

"It took a while," Webber admits. "A couple years ago at school, I didn't really know what kind of defenceman I wanted to be. I was kind of in the middle and over the last couple of years I kind of decided that, in order to make it to the next level, I'm going to have to be that defensive defenceman, just be hard on guys, make simple plays, use my reach, making it hard on opposing forwards and just being that tough guy, that steady guy. I think I've taken a huge step in that role."

The Leafs certainly see the potential. Webber joined the team down the stretch and practised with the group throughout the playoff push.  

"It just taught me how big the jump is and how much work I'll have to put in in the summer to hopefully get to that point one day," he said. 

Webber is currently listed at 210 pounds, but is still working to maximize his size. 

"A big kid like me, I gotta eat more," he said. "It's tough to add some weight."

Part of the development camp will focus on nutrition.

"When to eat before a game," Webber said of what he's learning. "Just cut out the carbs and those little things to try and keep lean, but also keep that weight on to find that healthy balance that allows me to play at my best." 


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Toronto's defensive prospects are benefitting from the presence of former Leafs defenceman Jake Muzzin, who is helping out at the camp. 

"I watched him and definitely looked up to him so to get to know him and to learn from him, it's really special," Danford said. "He's said to a lot of guys, 'Just compete here.' He knows what he's talking about."

Muzzin won a Stanley Cup with the Los Angeles Kings and his gritty style of play allowed him to suit up in 683 regular season games despite being undrafted. 

"He's won a Cup," said Webber. "He knows what it takes. He's a guy I want to model myself after a little bit. He was a hard defenceman."

Muzzin, who now serves as a pro scout with the Leafs, reached out to Webber after the Leafs traded for him. 

"He called me and introduced himself," Webber revealed. "We've been going back and forth with little teaching points about my game. He's telling me who to watch in the playoffs and stuff like that. I'm trying to pick up everything I can from him. He had a great career, long career, and he's won, so that's a good guy to look up to."


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The development camp continues with on-ice sessions on Friday and Saturday before wrapping up with a scrimmage on Sunday.