With rebuild in full swing, Leafs’ future to be on display at rookie tournament

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TORONTO — Wearing a Toronto Maple Leafs jersey with no number on the back, first-round pick Mitch Marner acknowledged it would have been a crazy thought growing up just to have one on.

Marner will likely have to wait at least a year and possibly longer before wearing it in an NHL game that counts. But this weekend he and other top prospects will be on display at the annual rookie tournament in London, Ont.

The London Knights star will be one of four first-round picks on Toronto’s rookie team, along with William Nylander, Kasperi Kapanen and Frederik Gauthier.

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“There’s a lot of talented young prospects in the organization right now,” older prospect Connor Brown said. “It seems like we’re loading up, for sure.”

The Leafs have landed young talent in the past couple of years through the draft and trades. But coach Mike Babcock and general manager Lou Lamoriello are in their first season with the organization, so this weekend’s tournament is an important time for them.

“I think we’re all excited to see them together and just to see really what we have,” Lamoriello said Thursday in a phone interview. “We really haven’t seen them where we were watching with a fine eye on them … we certainly know what their abilities are and we just want to see it sort of with a focus.”

Lamoriello scouted all three players when he was GM of the New Jersey Devils and interviewed Marner leading up to the 2015 draft. But he and Babcock will be on site in London to see how the prospects look.

“It’s not something that they’re all new,” Lamoriello said. “Now you’re getting to see them collectively together that come under your umbrella of an organization in the future.”

The Leafs are preaching patience, hoping to let Nylander, Kapanen, Gauthier and other prospects like Brown develop at the junior level and with the Marlies of the American Hockey League. Roster spots are hard to come by, with veteran forwards like Pierre-Alexandre Parenteau and Shawn Matthias and defenceman Matt Hunwick on one-year deals as the Leafs ensure they don’t rush the young players.

Training camp itself will be even busier on that front, as the Leafs will have Brad Boyes, Devin Setoguchi and Curtis Glencross there on professional tryouts.

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“They’re coming in because they do not have a contract and they’re going to come in at their highest level,” Lamoriello said. “They’re not going to be relaxing. They will be pushing people. And they’re going to try to get exposed the best way they can, whether it’s in the Toronto Maple Leaf organization or it’s another organization.”

While that’s the present, this weekend’s rookie tournament could be a glimpse of the long-term future. In addition to the blue-chip forward prospects, defencemen Travis Dermott, Matt Finn and Rinat Valiev are set to play.

“There’s a lot of skill that came in from this most recent draft,” Marlies coach Sheldon Keefe said after the first rookie-camp session Thursday at the Leafs’ practice facility. “There’s a lot of reason to be excited about that. As a coach you want to work with skill.”

The Leafs will get to see their top prospects against prospects from the Montreal Canadiens, Ottawa Senators and Pittsburgh Penguins. The chance to see top young goaltenders like Montreal’s Zach Fucale, Ottawa’s Matt O’Connor and Pittsburgh’s Matt Murray is an attractive opportunity.

Marner, Kapanen and Brown got to spend some time on the ice together at the NHLPA’s rookie showcase earlier this month. The idea of playing together some day crossed their minds right then and there.

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“Me and Brownie were talking about our chemistry on the ice and joking around with each other,” said Marner, who will start rookie camp at centre. “All three of us know each other pretty well. In the next couple years, hopefully we’re going to be on the team here and hopefully be (part of) a good rebuild.”

Follow @SWhyno on Twitter

Stephen Whyno, The Canadian Press

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