Alts unlikely to be deleted
Finnish centre has impressed in fight for fourth-line job
On most mornings during this month’s Maple Leafs training camp, rookie Miro Aaltonen has hitched a ride to the team’s Etobicoke practice facility with veteran forward Leo Komarov.
Aaltonen said he appreciates the gesture of goodwill from a countryman. Komarov, 30, is a longtime fixture on Finland’s national team and has four NHL seasons on his resume. Aaltonen, 24, is also an accomplished pro who has represented Finland on the world stage. Last year he racked up 19 goals and 44 points in 59 games with the KHL’s Podolsk Vityaz.
But this is Aaltonen’s first experience at an NHL camp. So it’s nice to have a mentor with whom he can speak Finnish while passing some off-ice time.
“It’s good. We can listen to Finnish music. Finnish rap,” Aaltonen said.
Yes, Finnish hip hop apparently sounds a little something like North American hip hop.
“Different language. But the rhythm’s probably about the same,” Komarov said.
The same cannot be said of the styles of hockey played in the KHL and NHL. If the big-ice European game still allows for long pauses of inaction — Komarov pointed to the European habit of stopping behind the net with the puck before launching an attack — the rhythm of the North American game is beyond frantic.
“In NHL, you never pretty much stop behind the net,” Komarov said.
Which is to say, although Aaltonen appears to be the front-runner to be Toronto’s fourth-line centre when the Leafs open their season next Wednesday in Winnipeg, his jump to the world’s best league presents a considerable adjustment.
“I need to battle here more, make decisions faster, move the puck and skate,” Aaltonen said Tuesday. “Backchecking harder. That’s the biggest thing, too . . . I think I have a chance to make the team. But still we have some exhibition games. I need to show my speed and skill. So that’s the thing.”
On Tuesday, Toronto head coach Mike Babcock offered a nod to the club’s European scouting arm, headed by director of player evaluation Jim Paliafito, for counting Aaltonen among his recent list of impressive imports. Last year Paliafito helped identify and land Nikita Zaitsev. This year he’s largely responsible for the presence of Aaltonen and impressive Swedish defencemen Calle Rosen and Andreas Borgman.
“So it appears to me like (Paliafito is) doing a real nice job,” Babcock said. “So when he tells me it’s a player that we need, I believe him, and we get recruiting him.”
Aaltonen said choosing Toronto was “not that difficult.”
“Like, couple of times I speak with Babs and I was like pretty (impressed),” he said. “Right away I was like, ‘I want to be a part of Leafs.’
Which is not to say he might not, at some point, be a part of the Toronto Marlies.
Lauri Marjamaki, the coach of Finland’s national team, said in an interview that Aaltonen has always been considered a talented player who needs to improve his consistency.
“Sometimes he’s a little bit sleeping. Some days his game dips below average. Maybe he needs a little bit more character and a little bit more compete level, and that kind of thing. I think coming to Toronto, he’ll improve that,” Marjamaki said.
“I agree,” Aaltonen said of his national coach’s assessment. “I need to be focused on every shift and every game. I need to (be) learning how to do that. In NHL there’s so many games. So I can’t be playing, like, sleeping sometimes. Of course it’s difficult. But I’m working on that. It’s in the mindset. I need to focus on the games. Practice, too. I need to be waked up every practice.”
Komarov said Aaltonen isn’t the only player who suffers from the occasional “bad day.”
“Babs is good for (avoiding) that,” Komarov quipped.
“He’s pushing us to the limit that we want to be, every day. Some games there could be five guys asleep. Some games you maybe have one guy asleep. But usually we don’t have anyone. If you have 20 guys asleep, then you have a game you lose. So that’s the thing: Your teammates help you stay awake and just be focused.”
All that said, Babcock pointed out Tuesday that the lineup is not yet set.
“We’re looking for a fourth-line centre. Is that going to be (Eric) Fehr? Is that going to be (Dominic) Moore? Is that going to be (Ben) Smith? Is that going to be (Aaltonen)?” Babcock said. “I think (Aaltonen is) pretty greasy. He learns real fast. He’s got good skill set. He looks like a good player.
“In saying that, you guys are getting ahead of the game. Moore’s playing (in Wednesday’s pre-season game against Montreal). Someone else gets a chance the next day. We’ll see what happens.” Hemming and hawing about the fourth-line centre is an awfully Toronto thing to do.
It’s worth pointing out that one of the storylines of this September is the obvious growth at the top of the roster.
On Tuesday, a day after Auston Matthews reeled off a hat trick and an assist in a 5-1 pre-season win over the Canadiens, Babcock spoke to the ongoing evolution of the NHL’s reigning rookie of the year.
“He’s a real improved player. His skating through the neutral zone from a year ago to now is night and day. His confidence without the puck — so he has the puck all the time — is way better. And he’s just a much better player,” Babcock said. “You know, the growth in your young guys goes so fast. Because confidence is the hardest part to get. But as they get going and understand about the league, they get better quick.”
That, of course, is why Aaltonen probably has a definitive edge in the race for the opening-night lineup. At age 24, he’s possessed of more upside — more potential to “get better quick” — than Moore, who’s 37, or Fehr, 32, or Smith, 29. And it probably bodes well for Aaltonen that he’s been getting plenty of attention from Babcock on the game’s finer points.
“Every day he’s showing me a couple things . . . So this helps a lot,” Aaltonen said.
It probably also doesn’t hurt that Connor Brown, who played with Aaltonen and Matt Martin in Monday’s game, spent Tuesday referring to his newest Finnish teammate as “Alts.”
The new guy’s preferred hip-hop may still be Finnish, but the nickname is already North Americanized.