The importance of imports
Swedish blueliners Borgman, Rosen will get a long look at Maple Leafs’ training camp
NIAGARA FALLS, ONT.— Training camp was barely a day old and Mike Babcock was already tossing out a not-so-subtle challenge to a Maple Leaf with whom he is clearly losing patience.
The target was Martin Marincin, the six-foot-four defenceman who clung to a spot in the lineup for 25 regular-season games and all six playoff games last season.
“Marty’s, I think, an elite defender. Can really skate. Can pass the puck. Does a lot of things,” Babcock said. The compliments stopped there. “But he’s never really grabbed hold of it yet. So what happens in the league, if you don’t eventually grab hold of it, you’re not in the league anymore.”
One of Marincin’s chief roadblocks to establishing himself as an NHL regular is a lack of confidence. And given Babcock’s world-leading surplus of the stuff, it’s probably little wonder why the coach doesn’t seem to relate to Marincin’s battles with self doubt. It certainly makes sense why Friday’s activities at the Gale Centre — where the Leafs will put a 73-man training-camp roster through its paces until Sunday afternoon — concluded with Babcock offering contrastingly encouraging words to a couple of new-in-town blueliners brought aboard to possibly take Marincin’s place.
Calle Rosen and Andreas Borgman, both of whom were signed by the Leafs from the Swedish Hockey League, are already being spoken of as important pieces.
Maybe it’s nothing that the 22-year-old Borgman, the SHL’s rookie of the year for league champions HV-71, is rooming here with NHL rookie of the year Auston Matthews. And maybe it’s nothing that Rosen, 23, is rooming with William Nylander, a fellow member of the Swedish national team at last year’s world championship and one of Toronto’s top young talents. But it’s hard to fathom the Leafs made those room assignments by accident.
Given the success Toronto had a year ago by signing Nikita Zaitsev from the KHL and watching him turn into one of Toronto’s most reliable defencemen, clearly the Leafs are at least hoping Rosen and Borgman can make a similarly seamless transition.
“They’re good players. We like ’em. We think they have an opportunity to help our team,” Babcock said. “Marty’s in a situation, now with Rosen here, now with Borgman here, with (Connor) Carrick here, he’s battling for a job.”
There are defencemen here who aren’t engaged in such a battle. Morgan Rielly and incoming veteran Ron Hainsey have the makings of a regular pairing. Ditto incumbents Jake Gardiner and Zaitsev, the latter of whom didn’t skate on Friday while suffering from what Babcock termed a “middle-body issue.” Beyond those four, nobody else is guaranteed much. But the Swedes, whose NHL limits aren’t yet established, are clearly more intriguing than known quantities whose competitive ceilings have already been duly assessed.
The scouting report on Rosen always includes raves about his speed.
“He’s a fantastic skater. Like, he’s a rocket out there,” Sam Hallam, Rosen’s coach with the Swedish league’s Vaxjo Lakers, said recently.
When Rosen was asked Friday what he needs to work on to become a successful NHLer, he said he needs to “be more mean.” He suggested he might “start cross-checking guys.”
Informed that cross-checking is sometimes a penalty in the NHL, Rosen smiled. “Yeah, but you can do it when the ref’s not looking,” Rosen said. “Swedes aren’t chicken anymore. I think we’re proving that every year now, in the NHL.”
Borgman, for his part, certainly has the look of the fearless. Tattooed and muscular — he’s listed at six feet, 205 pounds compared with Rosen’s six feet, 174 — Borgman made a name in Sweden for unrelenting aggression.
“He doesn’t want to back off. He always wants to go forward, even if it’s in defence. He wants to take charge of the moment all the time,” said Johan Hult, the sports director at HV-71. “That’s one thing we said to him, ‘Do your first thought all the time.’ He has nice instincts.”
Babcock, who came to know his share of SHL imports during his time coaching in Detroit, said every Swede adjusts to the NHL differently.
“But in saying that, most of them know how to play. These guys here can really skate and got real good hockey sense. The nuances of how we play, they’ll pick up here in a short period of time,” Babcock said. “The biggest thing for guys that arrive and are trying to make the team for the first time is you don’t want to get injured. You don’t want to fall behind . . . So staying healthy is key.”
If there’s a defencemen with whom the Leafs will no doubt exhibit patience, it’s Roman Polak. In camp on a tryout after a long recovery from a broken leg suffered in Game 2 of the post-season, the 230-pound Polak was greeted like a conquering hero when he arrived for Friday’s morning drills after flying in from his native Czech Republic on Thursday night. Five months to the day that an awkward hit by Brooks Orpik left Polak sprawled on the Verizon Center ice, Polak remembered back to the excruciating pain and the thoughts of a career in limbo.
“It’s always in your mind, if you’ll be able to recover,” Polak said. “But I kept the everyday approach, trying to be professional, trying to be positive. There’s nothing positive to be on crutches for three months, but I still tried it. And I’m here right now. So it worked out.”
Polak sat out Friday’s scrimmage. And though Babcock is notoriously unsympathetic to the plight of most injured players, the coach suggested Polak is free to set his own pace on matters of September exertion.
“Pollie’s going to decide on that,” Babcock said after he was asked when Polak might appear in a scrimmage or a pre-season game.
The coach’s reasoning for offering a player the kind of latitude the unproven likes of Marincin could scarcely fathom?
“You do good things for us and you work hard for us, we’ll bend over backwards for you,” Babcock said.