Tampa Bay Lightning coach Jon Cooper doesn’t make a habit of paying too much attention to his opponents during a game, but he couldn’t help but feel a slight tinge of nostalgia when he looked over at the Toronto Maple Leafs bench Monday night.
It wasn’t long ago that Cooper was in the American League shepherding the careers of a bunch of young, promising players. He even won a Calder Cup championship, something the Toronto Marlies might do themselves this season. So he did see a lot of similarities between the journey some of the Tampa Bay Lightning players have taken and what the Maple Leafs are going through right now. He harkened back to his days of guiding kids like Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson and Nikita Kucherov on their path to the NHL.
They looked really good and they got better as the game went on," Cooper said of the four rookies in the Leafs lineup. "You could see they were a little tentative early, but as the game went on you could just see their confidence growing. You could tell they felt they could play at this level.”
If you’re a fan of the Maple Leafs, that’s exactly what you want to hear when you wake up Tuesday morning. It didn’t even matter that the Leafs lost for the 40th time this season. That was secondary to the backdrop against which the game was played. In what has to be close to a record for a mid-season game, the Maple Leafs had four players making their NHL debuts in William Nylander, Kasperi Kapanen, Zach Hyman and Nikita Soshnikov. Only one of them, Nylander, was acquired as a draft pick. And if the Maple Leafs are going to do this vaunted rebuild in the right way, they’re going to have to find players from all sorts of places.
“I thought they were good. They’re fast. They’re hard on the puck. They’ve got skill,” Leafs coach Mike Babcock said of the youngsters. I thought they made plays and they played fast, so I was impressed with them. Kapanen, obviously, has breakaway speed. Willie (Nylander) has skill. Hyman, a relentless worker who can still make plays, and Sosh (Soshnikov) I thought was good both ways so I thought those kids were good. I liked (newly acquired defenseman Connor) Carrick too. I thought he had some grease to him.”
All in all, the Leafs and their management probably could not have asked for much more than they received on the evening. With three other players – veteran Brooks Laich, Carrick and Ben Smith – making their Leaf debuts, there wasn’t a lot of time to get acquainted. But that will come over the next little while, since there’s every indication that the Leafs intend to give these young players a significant body of NHL work before the end of the season before returning them to the AHL for the playoffs. In fact, if it’s up to Babcock, the kids will likely be up for the rest of the regular season. When asked what kind of time frame the team has put on this experiment, Babcock responded by saying, “How many games do we have left, 21?”
The way they played even exceeded their own expectations. Through these eyes, Kapanen had the best game of the four rookies and as the game went on had more of an impact. With the Leafs trailing by a goal with their goalie out, the line of Nylander between Hyman and Kapanen was out and almost scored on a very good look for Kapanen.
“The NHL is the best league in the world and I have full respect, but I was kind of surprised with the way I played,” Kapanen said. “It was pretty awesome, I’m not going to lie. I enjoyed playing tonight. I think the team played pretty well against Tampa Bay and I played pretty well myself so I’m happy.”
“When you’re standing in front of (Steven) Stamkos on the draw,” Nylander said. “You’re like, ‘Yeah, this is the NHL.’ ”
It was, all in all, an encouraging night for a rebuilding team, capping a period in which they put many of those building blocks into place. The nights will not all be this good. There’s a certain amount of jolt a team gets when players are injected into the lineup the way these ones were and as the season wears on so will the players. Remember, they’re playing in a league that plays three games over the weekend and then has four or five days off. But the Leafs have played this situation as close to perfectly as is possible. There is no pressure to win at this point and the kids will be able to go out and make mistakes – and learn from them – without the pressure of chasing a playoff spot.
In the end, it will make all of them more NHL-ready when training camp begins in September. And that’s all that matters at this point.