Young Buds ‘still grow­ing’

Bol­stered by vet­er­ans, Leafs look to build on prom­ise Week­end, Septem­ber 15-17, 2017

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The Toronto Maple Leafs opened camp Thurs­day look­ing to build on last sea­son’s promis­ing plat­form and a sparkling ar­ray of young tal­ent.

The Leafs listed 73 play­ers on their camp ros­ter with at­ten­tion fo­cused on three vet­eran new­com­ers: for­wards Pa­trick Mar­leau and Do­minic Moore and de­fence­man Ron Hain­sey, who have 3,247 NHL reg­u­larsea­son games be­tween them.

“I think we’re an im­proved team tal­ent-wise, ex­pe­ri­ence­wise from last year,’’ said coach Mike Bab­cock, with a nod to his ad­di­tions.

“We’ve done more and now we’d like to take a step (for­ward). And we think th­ese guys, be­cause of the men they are as much as be­cause the play­ers they are, are go­ing to help us with that.’’

Toronto (40-27-15) fin­ished eighth in the East­ern Con­fer­ence last sea­son be­fore tak­ing the first-place Wash­ing­ton Cap­i­tals to six games in a se­ries that fea­tured five over­time con­tests. Led by rookie of the year Aus­ton Matthews, the young Leafs fin­ished with 95 points dur­ing the reg­u­lar sea­son — up from 69 the pre­vi­ous sea­son.

While ex­pec­ta­tions are high among fans af­ter that, de­fence­man Mor­gan Rielly played down what the team did last year.

“We’re happy with some strides for­ward that we took last year but when you look back at it, I think we made the play­offs on the last day of the year and lost in the first round,’’ he said. “So we’ve got a long way to go to get to where we want to and we’re all aware of that.’’

Added GM Lou Lamor­iello: “We’re still grow­ing.’’

Bab­cock finds him­self with a wealth of op­tions up front with the ad­di­tion of Mar­leau and Moore. The Leafs had three suc­cess­ful lines last sea­son in Matthews, Wil­liam Ny­lan­der and Zach Hy­man; Tyler Bozak, James van Riems­dyk and Mitch Marner; and Nazem Kadri, Leo Ko­morov and Con­nor Brown.

Add in Matt Martin, Nikita Sosh­nikov, Josh Leivo and other fourth-line con­tenders and the num­bers game is very tight.

Told he had more Nhl-ready for­wards than open­ings, Bab­cock grinned. “Isn’t that great, eh,’’ he said. “The right peo­ple al­ways end on the team. Some­times they don’t end up on the team right away,’’ he added.

As for who Mar­leau will play with, Bab­cock said he told the for­mer San Jose Shark he wasn’t A Moun­tain’s games Hafthor “Thor” Bjorns­son (aka “The Moun­tain” from Game of Thrones) will be com­pet­ing in the an­nual New Hamp­shire High­land Games and Fes­ti­val for the third time on Satur­day in Con­cord, N.H. sure, “but they’re all good.’’

Bab­cock, in mid-sea­son in­spi­ra­tional form, sees more progress ahead. But he warned of ups and downs on the jour­ney.

“You just take a step a day. I need guys to be all in ev­ery day. That’s what I ex­pect. Be fo­cused, be all in ev­ery sin­gle day and we’ll get bet­ter to­gether grad­u­ally.’’

Re­duc­ing the goals against will be a pri­or­ity this sea­son. Toronto gave up 234 last sea­son, ninth-worst in the league.

Lamor­iello and Bab­cock said the Leafs will once again go with­out a cap­tain this sea­son. Matthews, who turns 20 on Sun­day, is widely ex­pected to wear the C when the team de­cides he is ready.

“Right now, where we are as a team and the num­ber of lead­ers that we have in that (dress­ing) room, we don’t think it’s nec­es­sary,’’ Lamor­iello said of nam­ing a cap­tain. “It’s as sim­ple as that.’’

Bab­cock said his play­ers had done the work needed dur­ing the off-sea­son. Matthews, for one, added pi­lates to his work­out reg­i­men.

“In or­der to take steps, you’ve got to put in the work,’’ Bab­cock said.. “And what I like about our group (is) a lot of guys have put in the work.’’

Bab­cock sin­gled out Kadri, say­ing the 26-year-old had had “the best sum­mer since I’ve know him, for sure.’’

To me what train­ing camp’s all about is you get to show off how much work you did in the sum­mer. Mike Bab­cock

Christo­pher Kat­sarov/the Cana­dian press

Leafs cen­tre Aus­ton Matthews dur­ing the first day of train­ing camp in Toronto, on Thurs­day.

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