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Maple Leafs may have a gem in Wickenheiser ‘guinea pig’ Alex Steeves

TORONTO — We’re not sure who’s doing a better job winning over the other: the Toronto Maple Leafs or Alex Steeves.

Because after one summer of all-encompassing development and a message-sending rookie camp, the team appears just as impressed with Steeves as the undrafted NCAA stud is with the organization that won the bid for his services.

It wasn’t enough for Steeves to score four times in the development camp’s final Blue-versus-White scrimmage Monday, the inspired prospect was still gabbing with the refs, hoping to talk them into a chance for five.

“They didn’t want to give me any penalty shots today, so obviously it didn’t work,” Steeves smiled.

Carrying himself on the ice and in front of the Zoom lens with a maturity that belies his 21 years of age, the Notre Dame product was passed over on the draft floor but is giving off some early diamond-in-the-rough vibes.

“To me, he looks like a pro player on the ice,” senior director of player development Hayley Wickenheiser said. “He’s a man, the way he’s built.

“And he continues to put in the work. So, there’s no concerns for his work ethic or his ability to show up every day and be a professional on the ice. He’s very diligent and a very serious guy. I like his approach, and I also thought he had a solid camp.”

Steeves, a coveted free agent, inked a three-year, entry-level contract with the Leafs in March after fielding multiple pitches.

Careful not to give away too many state secrets, Steeves says he was blown away by the Leafs’ resources and capabilities with video in particular. He was shown a video breakdown of Auston Matthews’ shot, for example, and was wowed by how the staff was working to improve an already lethal asset.

“I was just really impressed with the attention to detail that the entire organization has taken towards development,” Steeves said. “It’s a holistic approach, whether it be with the Leafs or the Marlies. They’re just so invested in their players.

“So, for me, someone who loves to learn and loves to grow, it was just really a dream fit. I’m a big believer in utilizing resources.”

That he has.

Steeves, a dual citizen born in New Hampshire, moved north shortly after signing his deal and happily became Wickenheiser’s project. Toronto’s staff opened his eyes to a new strength and conditioning regimen, and Barb Underhill tackled his skating stride.

But the forward’s close work with Wickenheiser has been instrumental.

“I think I was one of the first players she’s really worked with since she got promoted to her new role,” Steeves says.

“We learned a lot from each other. I think in some ways I was probably a bit of a guinea pig for her. I think her and I are pretty similar in terms of our mental approach. Obviously, she’s had a much better career than I could probably dream of. I consider her someone I look forward to working with every day, and it’s definitely lucky for the organization to have someone like her.”

Steeves vows to one day earn his outstanding credits and graduate from Notre Dame’s prestigious Mendoza College of Business, but in the meantime, his sights are fixed on pro hockey.

“For training camp, what my goal has been and what it will continue to be is: be the best version of myself, compete really hard, and make it really hard on the Leafs to turn me down,” Steeves says.

“I feel strong. I feel explosive. … It’s fun.”

The Leafs are a long shot for the fall, but if Steeves can thrive with the Marlies, who knows how far his drive can take him?

“He’s got a good shot. He’s very strong. He’s powerful,” Wickenheiser said. “Can he make plays under pressure at the next level?”

Robertson is on another level

The gap between Nick Robertson, who celebrated his 20th birthday mid-camp, and the rest of the prospect pack is significant.

Robertson is treating his third development camp less as a chance to learn and more as an opportunity to ramp up his own confidence and conditioning heading into Toronto’s NHL camp.

“One thing that gets overshadowed when it comes to evaluation is my leadership,” Robertson said.

The left winger led off practically every drill, lit the lamp regularly in scrimmages, and could be seen engaging and encouraging the younger skaters. He has gone out of his way to joke around with the newcomers and make sure they show up on time.

On the (rare) occasion that Robertson fumbled a puck, he might curse himself loud enough for the bleachers to hear.

“Off the ice, I really appreciate his killer instinct, his mentality. You can tell just looking at him that he’s a super-driven person. I just appreciate that because I’m the same way, and I’ve been told at times that I’m too intense all the time,” says Steeves, fast finding chemistry on Robertson’s line Monday.

“On the ice, pick your poison. He’s a very talented skater. He’s low to the ice. He’s got really good goal-scoring ability, and he’s flying out there.”

Whether it’s spending his evenings stretching and foam-rolling or firing 100 pucks a day on a Michigan shooting pad prior to arriving in town, the kid has set a high standard for himself.

Don’t take my word for it. Take Wickenheiser’s: “I thought Nick had a really dominant camp.”

Der-Arguchintsev still needs to get his weight up

Robertson’s former Peterborough Petes linemate, the affable Semyon Der-Arguchintsev, got a taste of the pro life last winter. The 2018 second-rounder jetted back to his native Russia and put up six points in 17 games for the Nizhny Novgorod Torpedo.

Der-Arguchintsev — an intelligent playmaker and easygoing personality — says he found it easier to play in the KHL than the OHL because he enjoys surrounding himself with talent.

SDA is listed as five-foot-10 and 163 pounds and is trying to eat more to bulk up, but Wickenheiser smiles when the question of the prospect’s size comes up.

“He does tell me he’s put on some weight over the summer — although I haven’t seen that yet,” Wickenheiser says. “I’m looking for him to be a bit more of a physical presence and be a more impactful player outside of just playmaking.”

Questions about SDA’s skating and his effectiveness outside of a top-six, offensive role (issues that once roadblocked hyped prospect Jeremy Bracco) linger.

“Being overseas, playing with the good Russian talent, it’s similar. There are very high-skilled, good players. But the ability to come into the NHL game, where there’s a lot closer checking, a tighter game, is still a whole other level for him that he’s going to have to understand to elevate his game,” Wickenheiser says.

“We’ve tried to encourage him to think a shot-first mentality a bit more. And off the ice, quite frankly, he’s got to get stronger, more powerful, more physical.”

Dr. Wickenheiser moonlighting in the ER

Only if you wish to feel lazy should you call up Dr. Hayley Wickenheiser’s resume.

With development staffers Scott Pellerin and Stefane Robidas moving on, Wickenheiser has stepped up — alongside respected skills guru Darryl Belfry and Danielle Goyette, “my right and winger, so to speak” — to oversee the next wave of Maple Leafs.

When she’s not poring over game film or working with players at Ford Performance Centre, the four-time Olympic gold medallist is continuing her residence in medicine. Slacker.

“I’ve been able to balance both. I currently am doing an emerge rotation at a downtown Toronto hospital. So, I worked last night and the night before,” Wickenheiser said at the outset of camp.

“The Leafs have been phenomenal in understanding that I have these two things simultaneously going on. But they both complement each other right now. And our staff functions quite well without me around. There’s a lot of work I can do from afar as well.”

Competition > Teaching

Due to the truncated time to prepare for the Traverse City rookie tournament, the Leafs opted to place an emphasis on high-tempo battle drills, game scenarios, and scrimmages to get the prospects into shape for the season.

“We’ve opted to create a competitive environment versus a teaching environment, if you will,” Wickenheiser explained. “We want to see how players can think the game, how their compete level is, what type of character they can demonstrate under difficult circumstances, and then ultimately their top-end skill.”

We love to see (a) the staff approached the camp with a clear vision and (b) that a culture of competitive urgency is being instilled in these athletes early.

The one hiccup this camp — typically held in late June — suffered (because there’s always a hiccup in our pandemic world) is that many of the Leafs’ NCAA players were unable to attend. They are already in the U.S. training with their college teams.

As a result, fewer Leafs prospects attended and more free agents showed up, which changed the tone of camp.

Kral sidelined

Filip Kral is a fifth-round (2018) defence hopeful who looked great in his native Czech league and scored twice in 10 outings with the Marlies last season. Unfortunately, he’s been left off the Traverse City roster due to a rib injury he suffered in Monday’s scrimmage.

The next steps, Wickenheiser believes, are for Kral to embrace the physical nature of defending and to improve his skating, particularly with the puck on his blade. He needs to want to become “an impactful, purposeful player with the puck, to drive the play, to possess the puck on the powerplay, to be able to make effective reads and create things.”

“We’ve talked a lot with Filip,” she said. “He went back to the Czech Republic this summer. The off-ice conditioning would be a big piece for him to come in and be able to dominate physically and make an impact every time he’s on the ice to solidify himself in the top [Marlies] four.”


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