First Leaf cuts were easy, but next group harder

NIAGARA FALLS — At least the kids saw a great show before being sent home.

After the most entertaining of three scrimmage games ended the Niagara Falls’ portion of Maple Leafs training camp on Sunday, 25 players were returned to junior hockey or assigned to the AHL Marlies/development roster.
Mike Babcock gave the departed a good luck message, then prepared for a busy week of four exhibition games to expedite cuts of the 46 who remain.

“We’ll give as many guys an opportunity as we can and shorten up so we can see the people who are really playing,” the coach said. “You’re trying to get up to speed. (Camp) is about learning how to work again, it’s about details, getting your goaltenders going. You have to be ready Oct. 3.”

He already has a pretty good idea of the late-September survivors, based on forming camp lines that seem close to the finished product. Of course there are many blue-chip Leafs who just need a little tune-up. Auston Matthews capped an afternoon of stop-me-if-you-can rushes, with a fine defensive strip of Ron Hainsey, spotting Tyler Ennis open at Calvin Pickard’s crease and zipping it across for a goal.

Ennis is on Matthews’ right winger for as long as William Nylander stays home in a contract snit and he continues to bask in the young centre’s glow.

“It was enjoyable couple of days,” said Ennis, rescued from being an odd man out in Minnesota last year to partnering Matthews and Patrick Marleau. “Sometimes (Matthews) gets into a tight space and you think the puck will get turned over, but he always seems to come out with it and do some crazy stuff.

Sunday was a 3-2 crowd-pleasing result at the Gale Centre, ending with five creative shootout goals. Josh Leivo’s line with Nazem Kadri and Connor Brown did well and bubble boys such as Carl Grundstrom got on the board. The John Tavares-Mitch Marner-Zach Hyman line had already played its two games, but spent their day honing systems, which Hyman welcomed after getting the Tavares gig.

“I’ve only played with John for two scrimmages, so it’s tough to compare it to two years with Auston. They’re both elite players. I’m lucky to have that opportunity.

“I’ve been asked a lot, when I heard the news about (Tavares), what was I going to do? But you don’t change the way you play, just be the best version of yourself. Those (changes) are things as a player you don’t really think about. You go out there with whoever they put you with. That was fun (with Matthews), now I have a new opportunity and he does, too. There will be so many good players on this team that it doesn’t matter who you’re with.”

Babcock is also seeking clarity on the fourth line, with Par Lindholm getting the first chance at centre between Kasperi Kapanen and Andreas Johnsson, who scored twice on the weekend.

What has become evident is the head start that forwards of the Calder Cup winning Marlies have at camp.
“I think (Trevor) Moore has been fantastic,” Babcock said. “(Pierre) Engvall can become a good player that you can use, with real good pace. Grundstrom has to dig in here, but he’s another guy that can become an NHL player.”

Babcock was more measured in his early assessment of candidates on defence. With only nine goals scored in regulation during three 50-minute running-time scrimmages, it would indicate most of the blueline did its job.
“Evaluation time is coming for them,” Babcock forewarned the defencemen. “About five of them are in a battle for a job. The NHL and AHL are different birds. One’s got space, one has no space.”


NIAGARA FALLS — Mike Babcock dropped a nugget of gold for the many Maple Leafs fans on The Rock.
The coach was responding to the warm reception the team has received when staging the first few days of training camp outside Toronto, such as Halifax a couple of years ago, here in the Falls and Tuesday’s exhibition against Ottawa in Lucan, Ont., when he mentioned the Leafs are going to Newfoundland next September.

A team official was caught off-guard, but didn’t contradict the coach, only cautioning that nothing has been finalized for 2019. But St. John’s came on the radar after the Leafs set up an affiliation with the new ECHL Newfoundland Growlers as a second farm, ending their long relationship in Orlando, Fla.

The Leafs had an AHL team in St. John’s from the early 1990s to 2006 when they moved it home to Ricoh Coliseum. The ‘Baby Leafs’ were beloved in St. John’s and Toronto intended to make a big splash there for its 2001 camp that had to be curtailed by events of 9/11.

At the Gale Centre in the Falls this weekend, fans lined up for hours to watch practices and scrimmages.

“All these things are fantastic for the people and it’s great for our players,” Babcock said. “It’s nice to be appreciated and we obviously have a great fan base.”

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