Mike Babcock was among a number of observers at the USA Hockey Arena in Plymouth, MI to watch Mitch Marner and Team Canada lose 5-1 to Sweden in the 2017 World Junior Summer Showcase on Friday, possibly looking for signs of progress from the 2015 top pick on his readiness for the club’s training camp next month.
Babcock will be occupied with Team Canada for the upcoming World Cup of Hockey next month, while the Leafs open training camp in Halifax, Nova Scotia and play exhibition games away from Toronto while the World Cup is being played at Air Canada Center.
Marner is eligible for the 2017 World Junior in Toronto and Montreal this December since his 20th birthday does not fall until next May. It is expected that the OHL, CHL and Memorial MVP will get at least a nine-game preview in the NHL before Babcock and GM Lou Lamoriello decide whether Marner will stay with the Leafs or go back to the Ontario Hockey League. Even if the speedy forward makes the club, it is possible that he could be loaned to Team Canada for the WJC.
Toronto will have a significant influx of youngsters this fall, as William Nylander, Nikita Soshnikov, Zach Hyman and Auston Matthews are expected to be part of the opening night roster. The status of others like Connor Brown and Marner may depend on them being able to handle the physical pounding conducive with the NHL.
The Leafs head coach believes that the veterans and current leadership group currently on the Leafs roster will be able to provide guidance to the future core of the franchise.
Leafs head coach Mike Babcock, GM Lou Lamoriello and Director of Pro Scouting Dave Morrison in Plymouth, MI on Friday.
"We have good people in our leadership group, so I think we can handle some kids" Babcock said during the second intermission of the Canada-Sweden game on TSN. “Obviously we had a lot of (rookies) last year. We're having a few more this year, especially high end ones (and that) won't hurt us."
Lamoriello did not make the impact move that most expected this summer, as Steven Stamkos returned to Tampa Bay instead of leaving through free agency, but the Leafs did add experienced veterans Brooks Laich and Milan Michalek before the trade deadline to join James van Riemsdyk, Tyler Bozak and Morgan Rielly. Toronto also added some much needed toughness in free agency by re-signing defenseman Roman Polak and bringing in hard hitting winger Matt Martin on a four-year deal.
The question regarding the youth movement in Toronto is how many rookies will be put into the mix this fall. Nylander, Soshnikov and Hyman showed varying levels of success and will benefit from playing a quarter of the season with the Leafs after the trade deadline.
Matthews is a shoo-in after being the top pick in the 2016 Draft, playing an entire season in Switzerland against veterans and impressing at the WJC and World Championships.
Brown benefited from working on his upper body strength during a three-month recovery from a lower-body injury and was much stronger at the end of the AHL season and during the Calder Cup Playoffs. One of the most intriguing stories of training camp will be tracking Marner and seeing if he is ready for primetime or heading back to London.
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