Maple Leafs prospect Nathan Mayes, last pick in NHL draft, hopes to rise at camp

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Nathan Mayes had the right response when asked about being this year’s NHL draft’s version of ‘Mr. Irrelevant’, the last of 225 players chosen in Vegas.

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“It’s irrelevant where I’m picked,” declared the 6-foot-3 defenceman from Salmon Arm, B.C., on Wednesday’s opening of Maple Leafs development camp. “I’m going to make the best of it, I’m going to run with it.”

The stay-at-home Mayes had a goal and 16 points in 58 games for Spokane in the Western Hockey League and was hoping he’d be picked a little higher, no later than the seventh and final round. Toronto had three seventh rounders, including Mayes, acquired in a trade with Stanley Cup champion Florida. He’s heard about the Mr. Irrelevant cracks and saw all the Brock Purdy references on line.

“We were in our basement in Salmon Arm, watching the draft on a projector,” Mayes said. “I didn’t know what to expect. I thought the draft was over, then boom, the Leafs took me. I just blacked out, couldn’t believe I was the last pick. I’m super happy to go to this great organization.”

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Leafs Western scout Garth Malarchuk, who had spoken to Mayes before the draft, followed up with a congratulatory phone call, and later general manager Brad Treliving welcomed him to the team.

Swedish forward Patric Hornqvist was the most successful NHLer taken last overall (230th in 2005), playing more than 1,000 games. In only one other draft have the Leafs chosen the final player, the inaugural event in 1963 for the six-team league when Gerry Meehan went 21st from Neil McNeil High School, eventually playing 25 games for the Leafs and 670 in all.

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Mayes is one of 47 players at the Ford Centre this week for workouts and bonding exercises such as cooking classes, golf outings and informal chats with veteran Leafs. The most watched youngsters will be the past three top picks from the Canadian Hockey League, forwards Easton Cowan, Fraser Minten and this year’s first rounder, Oshawa Generals’ defenceman Ben Danford.

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Minten played four games last year at centre, right winger Cowan came close and a monster year with the London Knights as OHL MVP and getting to the Memorial Cup final.

“I’ve learned a lot on the mental side of the game, like not letting (a bad) last shift get to you,” Cowan said. “I saw some steps this year with just moving on and playing with confidence.”

Minten’s short stay last October was invaluable for his own belief he can be a Leaf in the years ahead.

“Every time you get some touches in here you get a little more comfortable,” said the Saskatoon Blade. “You see on TV how big and strong and consistent everybody is. You really feel it when you’re out there.”

Assistant general manager, player development, Hayley Wickenheiser is directing the five-day camp that ends with a Sunday scrimmage game.

“You’re always trying to balance the intensity at this time of year when guys have been off the ice awhile with putting content on the ice that is going to be worthwhile for them and elevate them at this point in their careers,” she said.

One of the camp goals is to create better work habits by the time rookie camp and the main camp get underway in September. She is monitoring Cowan and Minten closely.

“I think (Cowan) is going to make a push. It’s always hard to make that jump from to the NHL, but he’s proven everybody wrong at every level (taken 28th overall by the Leafs last year). The defensive aspect of the game will be key for him.

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“Fraser is a very mature kid, really like a sponge. He’s always curious about his own game and studies the game of others. He’s very close.”

Last year, Wickenheiser had to learn about new GM Treliving on the fly after he replaced the fired Kyle Dubas, this year it’s a new coach in Craig Berube after Sheldon Keefe.

“I really like Craig, we’ve had some good chats, just getting to talk to him about his approach to the game, who he is as a person, how he deals with not only players but his staff. I don’t want to say old school, but he’s a bit of a throwback in the sense he just wants to sit and talk hockey.”

Among the prospects here are University of New Hampshire defenceman Brendan Fitzgerald, son of former Leaf and now New Jersey general manager Tom Fitzgerald. Nick Rheume is the nephew of Manon Rheaume, the first female goaltender to appear in an NHL game.

“Manon and I were very close when we played together,” the 45-year-old Wickenheiser said. “(Development assistant) Danielle Goyette and I were laughing in the stands that we must be getting pretty old.”

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