With the 2016 NHL Rookie Tournament in action the weekend of September 16-18, Last Word on Hockey is the place to go for everything you need to know. Team-specific recaps will be posted from each game, and follow along live on Twitter for updates from @charliejclarke and @gSchroedes16
The Toronto Maple Leafs rookies came out strong on Saturday evening at the 2016 NHL Rookie Tournament as they defeated the Montreal Canadiens 4-3 in London, Ontario.
Toronto Maple Leafs Rookie Camp Day 2 Recap
It was a very even contest for much of the first period, with both sides exchanging shots and scoring a goal apiece. The second period opened the game up much more, though, as the Leafs began to set a more physical tone. The aggressive play and speed from Toronto’s youngsters, particularly Martins Dzierkals and Nikita Korostelev, gave the team an edge, as two quick goals put them in front 3-1.
The Canadiens stormed back in the third period after a handful of bad penalties had the Leafs in trouble. Michael McCarron tied the game 12 minutes in, as the momentum shifted completely. Before the game could reach overtime, though, Toronto’s Andrew Nielsen beat goaltender Zach Fucale on a weak wrist shot that trickled through. The goal with 1:36 left to play secured the game for the Leafs.
Coach Sheldon Keefe was particularly happy with the progress he’s seen over the weekend in the way of structural development.
“It’s not going to be perfect at this time of the year,” he said after the game, “but we’re seeing more of what we want it to look like and the players rose to the level of a much faster, more competitive game than it was [on Friday].”
Several Leafs players stood out in particular against Montreal.
The undersized Latvian winger had a pair of assists on Saturday, and was arguably Toronto’s most dynamic player all night. He had no trouble showing off his exceptional top-end speed, and made some strong drives to the net. He plays with a level of physicality that wouldn’t have been expected of someone his size, certainly not afraid to throw a hit.
Dzierkals, picked 68th overall in 2015, spoke about the improvements he made last season with the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies of the QMJHL.
“My first North American season was good, and I was real happy that I played in the CHL,” he said. “That was a great experience because the CHL is a step before the NHL, and I want to one day make the NHL. We did well last season, played in the Memorial Cup final. Unfortunately lost against London […] so it’s kind of sad to see that logo [at Budweiser Gardens].”
Timashov was another Leaf who showed off his offensive talent. Like Dzierkals, he was all over the ice and frequently the driving force in the offensive zone. He’s another undersized winger picked by the Leafs in 2015, and increasingly looks like an absolute steal from the fifth round.
Sheldon Keefe pointed out how much speed and skill the team acquired in that one draft.
“You look at that draft class,” he said, “[Travis] Dermott, [Andrew] Nielsen, [Mitch] Marner obviously, but you look down the line at guys like Dzierkals, [Jeremy] Bracco, Timashov. I thought that class was really impressive in their first development camp, and again here.”
For the high-profile prospect he is, Marner has had a fairly quiet Rookie Tournament. He certainly shows off his talent both with and without the puck, and has been able to drive a lot of offence in both ends on a line with Tobias Lindberg and Colin Smith. He has also shown how much his defensive game has improved over the last year, on full display when a particularly tough backcheck enabled him to strip the puck from a Montreal player who would’ve otherwise had a breakaway.
Having set a frantic pace in the second period, Marner was keen on talking about the speed of Toronto’s entire forward group.
“We’re a quick group and I think we all know it,” he said. “We have guys who can put the puck in the net but also guys who can skate and be a threat at all times.
“We know the kind of scoring talent we have in that room, and especially on that ice, we brought the game to [Montreal]. We knew we could score late in that game.”
Keefe has been relying on Marner heavily, giving him the bulk of the minutes on both the power play and penalty kill.
“I thought at different times there was really elite plays that he made,” Keefe insisted. “You think there’s nothing there but he finds a way to make a play that really gets your attention. He has that ability, I’m not sure what he ended up with in points from these two games but I thought he made a lot of offensive plays. More importantly I thought he worked really hard. He was competitive, played fast, kept his shifts short. He was really positive on the bench, and we used him in all different situations.”
The main concern, though, is that at times Marner did seem a little shy of driving to the net. He tends to be more interested in going wide around defenders while rushing, instead of attempting to go through and crash towards the crease. He has shown himself to be capable of throwing counter-checks and being physical, but sometimes seems reluctant to use it.
Nielsen played well on Saturday on a pairing with Travis Dermott. He uses his big frame well and made a lot of key hits. What was most impressive, though, was his eagerness to chip in offensively. His speed has improved, and as such he doesn’t get caught out of position pinching as much as he used to – although it does still happen occasionally.
A very polarizing pick from the 2016 draft, Middleton performed better than expected. He has a lot of problems with mobility, from time to time looking foolish as Montreal’s wingers blew around him, but his top-end speed isn’t as bad as it’s made out to be.
At 6’6”, he has an impressive wingspan and isn’t bad with his stick. His lateral movement is certainly an area to be worked on but Middleton did manage to keep up with the play for the most part.
A player quickly approaching draft bust territory, this weekend Gauthier showed off an offensive interest that hasn’t been seen much. It’s easy to tell that he sees the game well, and is a very intelligent player. The problem for him is that he lacks the skill to match it; he knows how to be an effective playmaking centre, he just can’t.
Gauthier made some key passes in the offensive zone, but when the puck came back to him he was unable to finish. He did, however, get credit for the assist on Nielsen’s game-winning goal, making a good short pass to the defenceman.