In her first Development Camp as the Toronto Maple Leafs’ Senior Director of Player Development, Hayley Wickenheiser laid out the objective to returning players.
“You’re here to step up and lead and show why you belong at the next level and work on your leadership skills.”
Forwards Nick Robertson and Semyon Der-Arguchintsev are among the returnees that have a chance to battle for open spots when the Maple Leafs open training camp later this month.
Wickenheiser, who worked with the Leafs in player development for the last three years, was promoted to her current role as Senior Director and is running point for the team’s rookie camp that begins on Friday.
With Development Camp happening in September instead of July, COVID protocols still in place affecting time spent with players, and the short duration of the camp, Wickenheiser has adjusted the strategy for 2021 to put players in a competitive environment rather than a teaching environment.
“What we’ve done is we introduced concepts into gamified drills where we want to see how players can think the game, how they’re compete level is, which type of character they can demonstrate under difficult circumstances and then their skill, ultimately they’re top-end skill,” Wickenheiser said.
Those four pillars will be used to judge the progress of the 39 players (20 forwards, 13 defencemen, six goaltenders) slated to take part.
For Robertson, the opportunity has never been better. The 19-year-old has played 10 games at the NHL level, including four games during the 2020 playoffs.
With the Leafs losing veteran forwards Zach Hyman, Joe Thornton and Nick Foligno in free agency and taking a chance on forwards like Nick Ritchie, Michael Bunting and Ondrej Kase, Robertson’s development could potentially change the makeup of the opening night lineup.
The main challenge for Robertson will be to stay healthy.
Robertson made his regular season debut during the team’s third game of the 2021 campaign on Jan. 16. He sustained a knee injury that kept him out of the lineup for a month. Additional injuries with the Marlies led to more time away before he returned to join the Leafs in April.
Robertson finished with one assist in six regular season games. For a player who demands a lot from himself, the focus from management to Robertson is to let the game come to him.
“I think actually for Nick, one of the secrets for him might be to dial it back at times and relax more into who he is as a person and as a player,” Wickenheiser said of Robertson. “I think he himself saw that the hockey (at the pro level) was a lot better than he anticipated and some of the things you can do in Junior you can’t get away with at the next level.”
Der-Arguchintsev scored two goals and four assists in 17 games with Nizhny Novgorod in the KHL last season before recording four assists in six games with the Marlies.
In his availability with the media in July, Leafs GM Kyle Dubas said he’d like to see the team’s third-round pick from 2018 work on his strength.
“Quite frankly he’s got to get stronger, more powerful, more physical,” Wickenheiser said of SDA. “He does tell me he’s put on some weight over the summer although I haven’t seen that yet but I’m looking for him to be a bit more of a physical presence and be a more impactful player outside of just playmaking.”
There will be three on-ice development sessions and two scrimmages before the Leafs depart to Traverse City, Michigan to take part in a rookie tournament with the Detroit Red Wings, Columbus Blue Jackets, Dallas Stars and St. Louis Blues.