When the Toronto Maple Leafs opened development camp last week, all eyes were on Nicholas Robertson.
It’s not hard to understand why. Robertson turned 20 over the weekend and is coming off of his first full season of professional hockey. Of all the players participating in the rookie camp, Robertson was the most likely to make the jump to the NHL.
But quickly, it became hard to notice the great play of Alex Steeves. Even though they only played a few camp scrimmages, Steeves was a highlight in all of them, with his four goals on Monday being the focal point.
There’s only so much you can take out of a development camp. Most of the players will never get a shot at the NHL and they’re all focused on getting up to speed as quickly as possible. But when a new prospect in the system comes along and starts turning heads, it’s worth noting.
Steeves looked a bit slow out of the gate to open development camp as he got used to his new surroundings. Leafs’ skills consultant Darryl Belfry spent significant time chatting with Steeves, and by Saturday, he started to turn the pace up in a big way. By Monday’s scrimmage, he was one of the biggest talking points in camp.
“To me, he looks like a pro player on the ice,” Toronto’s director of player development Hayley Wickenheiser said.
In fact, many of those following camp had similar thoughts about Steeves. The spotlight wasn’t on the young forward, but he took it and ran with it. And at a time where players are vying for as much attention as possible, that’s a good thing for Steeves’ development ahead of his first proper game action at the Traverse City Prospect Tournament this coming weekend.
Undrafted, the 21-year-old had a number of suitors after making the NCAA’s B1G second all-star team following his third season with Notre Dame. There was no shortage of suitors looking to get in on Steeves, considered to be one of the top NCAA UFAs in the spring. But that doesn’t ensure anything at the NHL level, so the hard work has only just begun for the young forward. According to Steeves, the Leafs made the strongest push, and he inked his first NHL contract on March 28, 2021.
Part of what made Steeves want to sign with the Leafs was a meeting with GM Kyle Dubas and other members of the organization. In it, the team offered detailed one-on-one instruction they offered star players such as Auston Matthews. From there, Steeves said the decision was easy.
“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.”
Steeves still plans to finish up his accounting degree at the school’s prestigious Mendoza College of Business, but that could prove to be challenging as the school shifts back to in-person learning. So while that’s still up in the air right now, part of his focus is on proving to the Leafs that he’s a real long-term option.
“He just attacks like a barracuda,” a college scout said. “Some guys want the puck, but he REALLY wants the puck. I think the Leafs can utilize him in a big way in the bottom-six.”
Another scout mentions that Steeves has come a long way since getting passed over in the draft.
“I thought he was going to get taken in 2019, but his skating wasn’t great,” they said. “I think he has taken nice steps to improve, but it’s still his biggest inhibitor.”
Steeves is unlikely to make the team out of training camp and should head to the Marlies come October. But don’t be shocked if the big club finds a spot for Steeves for a game or two during the 82-game regular season stretch.
As it stands, Steeves might not even be a top-10 prospect in Toronto’s system. But his inaugural professional hockey training camp was a positive one and as he gets used to playing against men, there could be the potential for Steeves to force his way into the conversation sooner rather than later.