Fraser Minten had an inkling about Connor Bedard.
A few years ago, the minor hockey teammates were on the ice during an offseason session with Mathew Barzal and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, a pair who had achieved great success in the National Hockey League.
As much as Bedard honed his shot in the years before he became the Chicago Blackhawks’ consensus No. 1 pick in last June’s NHL draft, Minten witnessed that Bedard’s release was on a whole different level back then.
“He was shooting the puck as well, if not better than those guys, and that’s probably when I realized that release was pretty world class,” Minten said Monday, hours before the Maple Leafs and Blackhawks met at Scotiabank Arena.
“The whole thing was pulling it in and snapping it, Auston (Matthews) started doing it at least in the NHL and (Bedard) definitely emulated that and worked on it for hours. “It’s not a coincidence that it looks similar.”
When Minten and Bedard played together at the West Van Hockey Academy, the idea of maybe playing in the NHL kept coming up. Pick any locker room across the country and it’s sure to be a talking point among hockey prospects.
Minten assumed that Bedard was on the right track. Not that Bedard didn’t have to work to get where he is now, but for Minten, the path to the NHL wasn’t that concrete.
“When you look at a story like Bedard, he’s such a unique and special talent, that’s expected at a young age,” Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe said. “A guy like Fraser has forged his own path and is committed to his game, learning with the game and having passion for the game.
“It’s a different path and a little unexpected at this stage of the game, but I give him credit for the work he’s done.”
While Keefe was impressed with Minten’s play in the Leafs’ first two games, there is still some time before a decision needs to be made about the 19-year-old’s future. After Monday, Minten will have to prove in six games that he can belong. When he plays his tenth game for Toronto this season, his entry-level contract will begin.
For the Leafs, the question could come down to this, assuming the club’s forwards stay healthy over the next few weeks: Do they fare better or have a better chance of winning games with Minten or Pontus Holmberg in the lineup?
That’s not the most important thing to Minten or anyone in the organization right now.
“I’ve done a lot of hard work over the years, so coming here is rewarding,” Minten said. “Since the Leafs are a top team, I was a little surprised that I was able to get the opportunity at 19 years old, but I was also excited.”
In his first few weeks with the Leafs, including preseason, winger Noah Gregor has developed an appreciation for center David Kampf.
“Understands the game, knows where he needs to be,” Gregor said. “He doesn’t make plays that don’t exist. He makes smart plays and he makes the right plays.”
Keefe is confident he won’t have to experiment much with the Leafs’ fourth line, although injuries to the forwards could potentially have an impact.
At the start of last season, Kampf gave his wingers name tags. Zach Aston-Reese, Nicolas Aube-Kubel, Kyle Clifford, Wayne Simmonds and Denis Malgin all ran on the fourth line at different times in the first few weeks.
One factor now for the Leafs is the lack of space under the salary cap. That means there will be no auditions for the fourth line, although Keefe liked what he saw from Gregor, Kampf and Ryan Reaves.
“We have guys that aren’t playing that are down with the Marlies and playing a lot,” Keefe said. “Now more than ever it is important to have some stability in what we do, especially with Reeves and Gregor they have fighting on the flanks.”
Leafs captain John Tavares said: “The teams that win and go far, look at Las Vegas last year and the impact they had from all four lines. You always think the fourth line may not play a lot of minutes and have smaller roles and different expectations, but they bring a lot to the table with their attributes and the way they impact the game. All three bring different elements and can work really well together. That’s important if we get where we want to go.”
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Minten has happily settled in with Matthew Knies at Tavares’ house. “John really takes good care of us with him,” Minten said. “It helps a lot with feeling good. It’s nice to give ourselves a home and get out of the hotel. He and his family are fun to hang out with.” Who controls the TV remote? “There are a few TVs. If you don’t like what’s playing, you can just go to another one,” Minten said with a laugh. “Everyone likes watching football and hockey, so there’s no argument about that yet.”… A no-brainer for the NHL on Monday as Auston Matthews was named the first star of the week. Scoring a hat trick in each of your team’s first two games can go a long way for a guy… The Leafs have a scheduled off day on Tuesday.