The 2016-2017 Leafs have become a model for how to climb out of the NHL’s basement.
For a change, there’s something aspirational about the Toronto Maple Leafs. This year’s top 2017 NHL Draft prospects want to follow in the footsteps of Auston Matthews, William Nylander and Mitch Marner to help their future NHL team quickly push past a tough season.
If there’s one thing the Leafs demonstrated in their 2016-2017 season, it’s that a 30th-place team doesn’t have to stay one. The climb back to the NHL playoffs can be quick, with the right infusion of young talent.
On Friday afternoon, outside Buffalo’s KeyBank Center, five of 2017’s most talented players gathered in the NHL’s travelling fan village to speak collectively for the first time ahead of their draft. This June, each of Nolan Patrick, Nico Hischier, Gabriel Vilardi, Casey Mittelstadt and Michael Rasmussen will represent the 2017 class at various media engagements in Buffalo, Chicago, and likely at the Stanley Cup Finalon national television for Don Cherry’s annual NHL draft segment. It will prepare them, if only a little, for the limelight they’ll receive at NHL training camps in September.
They all hope to make an immediate impact with their future teams.
Vilardi, who Toronto interviewed earlier this week and who received advice from Leafs prospect Jeremy Bracco, admits to plainly telling teams he thinks he’s NHL ready.
“Yeah, for sure (I’m NHL ready). I know this is a big summer for me but that’s what I tell teams,” Vilardi, fresh off winning the Memorial Cup as one of the tournament’s all-star nominees, said. “It’s been a long week, I’ll tell you that for sure. But it has been great being here and meeting all the teams.”
Rasmussen, too, is confident in his game’s NHL readiness. The 6-foot-6 forward intends to work on his skating with his skills and development coaches this summer to put himself in a good position in September.
“I focus on working hard this summer and doing the little things to get there but I think my game’s going in the right direction, for sure,” he said. “Being a bigger guy, I think you can always work on skating. I protect the puck well and go to the net well.”
He interviewed with 20 teams, including the Leafs — an interview he thought went “really good” with a team he has watched closely, hopeful he can make an impact like their young core has.
“They had lots of guys in there firing questions at you and obviously you see the success that they’re having lately and it’s pretty cool to be in there,” Rasmussen added. “I had fun with it. The Leafs are in the right direction and it’s pretty cool to see. I think I can (help a young team) for sure.”
Mittelstadt is taking a decidedly different path. He always has. This year, he returned to play for Eden Prairie High to push for Minnesota’s state championship and play with the same friends he’s been playing with since he was four years old, rather than stay in the USHL (a higher quality league). Next season, rather than play in the NHL, Mittelstadt will play for the University of Minnesota Gophers, the team he grew up watching — every single game.
But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t think he could have played in the NHL next season, he just won’t.
“I am really confident in my game but I’ll be going to Minnesota next year for at least a year and then we’ll reassess after that,” he said, assuredly. “Unless you grow up in Minnesota it’s hard to understand but I’ve been a Gopher fan my whole life.”
The top two picks want to do what Matthews did with the Leafs by making an immediate impact.
“I can say now I got a better hockey player and improved my game in front of the net and in the corners,” Hischier said of his near perfect season. “I’d be lying if I said I’m not surprised (by how well I developed). It went so well for me this year, it couldn’t go better. I am really happy where I am right now. I am really happy about my season.”
He’s looking forward to being the highest drafted Swiss player in NHL history too. Hischier credits a growing development system in Switzerland for his early success.
“It’s a really good league (Swiss’ top pro league), it’s a lot of speed and skill and Swiss Ice Hockey does a good job to develop young players and it just keeps getting better and better,” he said.
With players like Hischier and Patrick, the interview process is different too. They’re being groomed to step in like Matthews did. Hischier says Ron Hextall and the Flyers talked with him at length about how they want to play and provided him systems info.
Patrick has grown annoyed by the lack of credit he’s received for his ability to step in and make a difference in the NHL right away.
“I think the media has done a good job this year with pumping us down and saying we’re not going to have an immediate impact so I guess that’s good for (Nico and I), not as much pressure,” Patrick said with a smile. “I just try not to compare myself (to Auston Matthews), I don’t expect to come into the NHL and put 40 goals up or score four goals in my first game. I don’t think that happens very often. I’m just going to try to be my own player and contribute.”
He plans to get stronger and faster this summer, while getting fully healthy again.
“Nico’s a great player and he’s ranked where he is for a reason. I wouldn’t be surprised if anything happens on draft day,” Patrick said.
“I think we are both not the same kind of player,” Hischier echoed. “He’s got size, he’s way bigger than me.”
Still, it’s hard not to think about going No. 1.
“You only get to do this once in your life. For sure I would be really, really happy (if I go first overall),” Hischier said.