The thrill of your name being called. The nerves as you walk to the podium and pull on a team jersey. The big, toothy grin as you mug for the cameras with a bunch of guys in suits. Congratulations, you are now an NHL prospect. Now what?
Unless your last name sounds like McDavid or Eichel, you’re going to have to fight tooth and nail for a shot at making an NHL roster. This isn’t me being a pessimist or a cynic; this is the reality of the situation. Last month, I attended the Maple Leafs Rookie Development Camp in Collingwood. It was one week where 57 wide-eyed hockey hopefuls did their best to impress Shanahan and Co. in the hopes of earning a professional spot. Included in that mix were William Nylander, Travis Dermott, Kasperi Kapanen and fresh draft pick Mitch Marner—and those may be the only names you’ll recognize, or hear of again. The truth is that for every 20 players invited to a rookie camp, only one or two will make it the NHL or AHL.
Regardless, the 57 prospects were put through the paces in the week-long camp, which began by meeting with members of the media in Toronto. Next up, Collingwood for five days of various exercises which included dry-land drills, on-ice drills and weight room training. Days began at 9am and ended around 2:30pm once media availability ended. As crucial as these development camps are, both for the organization and the player, they can also be mundane and monotonous. Perhaps this is done on purpose, not only to see which players have the best skill set but also to weed out players who don’t want to put in the work. Twenty defensemen skated up and down the rink backwards for what seemed to be hours. Forwards and goalies were up in the weight room being taught how to squat and lunge properly. It was hot, humid and goalie prospects were out on a dry rink in pads, blockers and catchers repeating backhand passes for 15 straight minutes. I won’t mention specific names but the two goalies I saw looked pretty listless performing these drills. There could be a myriad of reasons for that; maybe they weren’t feeling well or maybe they just aren’t overly excitable kids or maybe they didn’t expect the Toronto Maple Leafs Development Camp to be this unglamorous.
As the week went on and the drills repeated, Mitch Marner, the Leafs fourth overall pick in June’s draft, made quite an impression on me. Along with Nylander, he’s the most recognizable name in the Leafs system and almost certainly will be sent back to London at the start of the season but the kid was giving 120% on each and every drill dictated to him. He also seemed to be relishing every second he was on the rink. Marner’s game is about puck possession and it was evident in the way he performed stick-handling drills for the dozens of fans that came out each day. I’m sure every player who attended development camp was grateful for the opportunity to show what they can do but I also don’t doubt a few of them were left thinking it would be a little more flash and dash than it was. Perhaps those are the players we won’t see with the Marlies or Leafs in the coming season(s).