Toronto Star

Alts un­likely to be deleted

Fin­nish cen­tre has im­pressed in fight for fourth-line job

- Dave Feschuk

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.

 ?? STEVE RUS­SELL/TORONTO STAR ?? Miro Aal­to­nen, right, is bat­tling the likes of Do­minic Moore, Eric Fehr and Ben Smith for the fourth-line cen­tre job.
STEVE RUS­SELL/TORONTO STAR Miro Aal­to­nen, right, is bat­tling the likes of Do­minic Moore, Eric Fehr and Ben Smith for the fourth-line cen­tre job.
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