There are a few things to know about hockey development camps and rookie tournaments. Unless the invited players are a Connor McDavid or an Auston Matthews, few if any of them have the skills required to have much of an immediated impact in the NHL. These fall gatherings are mostly kind of a casting call, a place where prospects can raise eyebrows and improve their stock within an organization. The luckiest farmhands usually end up on the roster of a club in the AHL or East Coast Hockey League, or are returned to their team at the major-junior level.
Among Toronto’s fledglings, the exception is forward Nicholas Robertson. The 20-year-old left wing has earned favourable reviews in brief stints with the Maple Leafs during the regular season and playoffs and has a real chance to be in the lineup at Scotiabank Arena this year and for seasons to come.
Toronto invited 39 players to its development exercises and on the heels of that 26 were summoned to the Traverse City, Mich., Prospect Tournament, which begins Thursday. The Maple Leafs hopefuls play four games in five days against aspirants from Columbus, Dallas and St. Louis. Detroit is the tournament host but in a quirk of scheduling will not meet the baby buds. Toronto sent 15 forwards, eight defencemen and three goaltenders to Michigan. Among them are forward Ty Voit, an 18-year-old chosen in the sixth round in 2021; 19-year-old defenceman William Villeneuve, taken in the fourth round in 2020; 21-year-old forward Semyon Der-Arguchintsev, a 2018 third-round choice who spent part of last season in the KHL; and 22-year-old goalie Ian Scott, a third-rounder in 2017 who has played only two games in the AHL and five in the ECHL.
The group includes four players already signed to NHL contracts, eight signed to AHL contracts and eight free agents. Alex Steeves, a 21-year-old centre who played the past three years at Notre Dame, was the biggest surprise of the development camp. He led all players with five goals in two scrimmage games. Robertson was next with four.
Joseph Duszak, a 24-year-old defenceman, was invited to the development camp for the second time. In parts of three seasons, he has played 50 games for the Toronto Marlies of the AHL.
“Having had this experience previously is a huge help for me,” Duszak says. He is signed to a one-year NHL contract that pays him $750,000, but if he does not make the team, he will make $150,000 in the AHL. “Having been here before I can teach the younger guys and try to reiterate what the coaches say.
“Obviously most of the people here won’t make the Leafs, but you never know. It is a huge honour to be here and a privilege to do what we do every day.”
Toronto will open training camp at its practice facility in the city’s suburbs on Sept. 22. The Maple Leafs finished first in the seven-team Canadian Division last season but were eliminated from the first round of the playoffs by the Montreal Canadiens. Toronto has not won a postseason series since 2004.
The Maple Leafs will be without their sharpshooting centre, Matthews, who had surgery on his left wrist on Aug. 13. Matthews, who led the NHL with 41 goals in 52 games in 2021, hopes to be back by opening day. The preseason begins with a rematch against the Canadiens in Toronto on Sept. 25.
The next five days could make or break the hopes of a few prospects for this year, but most use it to get in shape and prepare for the coming season in the minors.
“It has been a crazy last year and a bit with lots of ups and downs,” says Scott, who played five games in 2020 for the Wichita Thunder and one with the Marlies. “I am just happy to get on the ice again.”
This was his third development camp with Toronto.
“You don’t want to get caught up in your head, thinking I should have done this or I should have done that,” Scott says. “You have to stay on an even keel. It is important to take it day by day and not get ahead of yourself.”
Toronto Marlies head coach Greg Moore is overseeing the team along with coaches from across the organization.
“For most players this is an ability to make an impression,” Moore says. “Then you have to figure out how to build off of that.”