If Mike Babcock and the Toronto Maple Leafs are serious about bringing talented Ontario born players to the club, the upcoming NHL Draft could be their biggest opportunity.
Friday in Sunrise, Fla., comes Toronto’s next chance to draft the first key piece to the rebuild and some believe they will concentrate on local talent, a notion that the new Leafs’ bench boss has hinted toward.
Drafting either Greater Toronto Hockey League standout alum, Mitch Marner, a former Vaughan King and Don Mills Flyer who plays with the Ontario Hockey League’s London Knights, or Dylan Strome, a seven-year Toronto Marlboro, who is with the OHL’s Erie Otters, would fit Babcock’s want for talented Ontario-born players.
Marner said he would be thrilled with the chance.
“It would be a dream come true for me, personally, to be drafted by my home team,” said Marner, over the phone on May 25. “It’s every kid’s dream, growing up in Toronto and playing for that Leafs team.
“I’ll just be speechless.”
Marner was originally selected last in the first round of the OHL draft, while Strome was taken 17 spots ahead at second. But last season the two forwards were barely separated.
Currently sized at 5-foot-11, four inches taller than when originally taken by London, Marner has impressed on all levels. This year the Knights’ forward was second in OHL scoring with 126 points, only three behind Strome.
The diminutive forward’s ability to score and his no-quit attitude stir up memories of a former Leaf hero.
“My brother was born in ’93 and also Doug Gilmour wore 93 for the Leafs,” said Marner. “Both those guys I look up to and both are inspiring guys to me.”
The skill level and work ethic of the Thornhill, Ont., resident, left a lasting impression on those still with the Flyers. Don Mills’ president Peter MacInnis and trainer Marsh Bacon, who has been involved in the GTHL for 20 years.
“He was about 5-foot-2 and about 120 pounds when he started playing for us at minor midget,” said MacInnis. “We kept telling them (OHL general managers) this kid is really exceptional and he’s one of those kids you’ll drive 50 miles to go watch.”
“By far the best work ethic and skill level of any player I’ve had,” he said. “He wants it bad and he works his butt off to get it.”
Drafting fourth overall in the first round has placed Toronto in an awkward position. The first two picks this year have almost been guaranteed to be Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel, but there has been movement in newer draft rankings, and there doesn’t seem to be a potential answer surrounding whom the Arizona Coyotes covet at No. 3.
Babcock made it clear that he believes players would love to don the blue and white and the draft could begin the Ontario-driven renaissance.
“You got it, I know right now … mark my words they’ll be coming,” said Babcock, on Prime Time Sports with Bob McCown, on May 21, speaking on bringing more Ontario born players to Toronto.
“How many people from Ontario play in the National Hockey League? Once, we make it safe they’re coming home.”
Toronto has been without a top-flight big centre since the departure of Leaf great Mats Sundin, and drafting Strome could fill that void. Strome, who’s been compared to Joe Thornton, would fit into the empty slot left at centre and he is excited about the opportunity.
“I’ll be happy wherever I end up,” said Strome, to Mike Zeisberger of Sun Media, in an article on April 7. “But, yeah, ending up in Toronto would be wild, wouldn’t it?”
The 6-foot-3 centre has been a standout since his time in the GTHL, even voted the 2013 top hockey player. This year in the OHL, Strome scored 129 points to win the scoring title and although he has played with McDavid at both levels, he has been a star of his own.
Strome’s former Marlboro coach, Wayne Gagne, who had him for seven years, had high praise for the Otters centre.
“He was an impact player from minor-atom all the way up, he always lead the team in scoring,” said Gagne. “He always made the players around him better.
“I was fortunate to have some really strong players along with Dylan. But Dylan often would want to try and lead the team, and put the team on his shoulders and he took that responsibility on himself.
“And obviously he hated to lose.”
The glowing opinions about both, Strome and Marner, from those around them in the GTHL are a credit to both players. But their minor-league coaches and teams have also aided in developing both these potential Maple Leafs.
Marner said while he was with the Flyers, he developed a great focus on the defensive side of the game.
Strome’s time with the Marlboros also readied him for a higher level of hockey. Coach Gagne, a former pro, explained that he and his coaching staff did their best to establish a pro-style system for the Marlboro’s.
But bettering the player is deeper than just on the ice.
“For minor midget, we provide the players with a professional dressing room,” said Michael Chraba, the general manager of the Marlboros. That included individual player stalls, a team carpet logo that should never be stepped on, their jerseys washed, equipment dried, and other small items that ultimately created a sanctuary for the players and the club.
The Flyers follow suit by supplying the players with all the amenities an OHL player would have, everything from tape and laces, to nutritional plans, and coach-specific workout regimens to develop the right professional attitude.
“We certainly try to ready them (the players) for the next level, the coaching staff does a great job of preparing them within systems,” said Bacon. “Also giving them the opportunity to understand the work ethic that will be needed in off-ice training and just how you carry yourself even when you’re not at the rink as growing young men.
“We treat them with as much respect as they deserve.”
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