Fraser Minten had an inkling about Connor Bedard.
Several years ago, the minor hockey teammates were on the ice during an off-season session with Mathew Barzal and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, a pair that had been making inroads in the National Hockey League.
As much as Bedard perfected his shot in the years leading up to becoming the consensus No. 1 pick by the Chicago Blackhawks in the NHL draft this past June, Minten witnessed that Bedard’s release was on another level entirely back then.
“He was shooting the puck just as good, if not better, than those guys, and that was probably when I realized it was pretty world-class, that release,” Minten said on Monday, hours before the Maple Leafs and Blackhawks met at Scotiabank Arena.
“The whole pulling it in and snapping it, Auston (Matthews) started doing that in the NHL at least and (Bedard) definitely mimicked that and would work on that for hours. No accident that it looks similar.”
When Minten and Bedard played together at the West Van Hockey Academy, the idea of perhaps playing in the NHL would come up every so often. Pick any dressing room across the country, and it’s bound to be a topic of conversation among hockey hopefuls.
Minten figured Bedard was well on his way. Not that Bedard didn’t have to work to get where he is now, but for Minten, the road to the NHL was not as concrete.
“You look at a story like Bedard, he is such a unique and special talent, that’s somewhat expected from an early age,” Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe said. “A guy like Fraser, he has had his own path and is committed to his game and to learning with the game and having passion for the game.
“It’s a different path, and it’s somewhat of an unexpected one at this at this stage of the game, but credit to him for the work that he has done.”
While Keefe was encouraged with Minten’s play through the Leafs’ first two games, some time remains before a decision has to be made on the 19-year-old’s future. After Monday, Minten has six games to prove he can belong. If he skates in a 10th game for Toronto this season, his entry-level contract kicks in.
The question could come down to this for the Leafs, provided the club’s forwards remain healthy in the next few weeks: Are they better off, or have a better chance of winning games, with Minten or Pontus Holmberg in the lineup?
That’s not top of mind for Minten, or anyone in the organization, right now.
“I put in a lot of hard work over the years, so it’s rewarding to get here,” Minten said. “With the Leafs being a top team, I was a little surprised that I was able to get the opportunity at 19, but also excited about it.”
In his first few weeks with the Leafs, including the pre-season, winger Noah Gregor has come to have an appreciation for centre David Kampf.
“Understands the game, knows where to be,” Gregor said. “He’s not making any plays that aren’t there. He’s making smart plays and he’s making the right plays.”
Keefe is hopeful that he doesn’t have to do much experimenting with the Leafs’ fourth line, though injuries among the forwards potentially could have an impact.
In the early going last season, Kampf was making name tags for his wingers. Zach Aston-Reese, Nicolas Aube-Kubel, Kyle Clifford, Wayne Simmonds and Denis Malgin all skated on the fourth line at various times in the first few weeks.
A factor for the Leafs now is the lack of space under the salary cap. That dictates there won’t be auditions for the fourth line, though Keefe was liking what he was seeing from Gregor, Kampf and Ryan Reaves.
“We’ve got guys who aren’t playing, are down with the Marlies and they’re playing lots,” Keefe said. “Now, more than ever, it’s important to have some stability with what we’re doing, certainly with Reeves and Gregor, having them on the flanks with Kampf.”
Said Leafs captain John Tavares: “The teams that win and go far, you watch Vegas last year, and the impact they had from all four lines. You always think the fourth line maybe doesn’t play a lot of minutes and has smaller roles and different expectations, but they bring a lot with their traits and how they impact the game. All three of those guys bring different elements and can blend really well. It’s important to have that if get to where we want to get to.”
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Minten has happily taken up residence at Tavares’ house with Matthew Knies. “John takes care of us really nice at his place,” Minten said. “It helps a lot with being comfortable. Giving us a home, getting out of the hotel is nice. Fun to hang out with him and his family.” Who controls the TV remote? “There’s a few TVs so if you don’t like what’s on you can just go to another one,” Minten said with a chuckle. “Everyone likes watching football and hockey, so no fights over it yet.” … A bit of a no-brainer for the NHL on Monday as it named Auston Matthews the first star of the week. Scoring a hat trick in each of your team’s first two games can do that for a guy … The Leafs have a scheduled day off on Tuesday.