How Maple Leafs’ Minten is handling NHL road life and healthy scratches

How Maple Leafs’ Minten is handling NHL road life and healthy scratches

DALLAS — On one hand, Fraser Minten is living in a fantasy camp.

Private jets, team dinners with established hockey superstars, five-star everything.

A humble teenager’s first road trip with the Toronto Maple Leafs will open eyes.

“It’s really fun. It feels like I get treated too well at times. It’s unbelievable. They give us every reason to play really good on the ice, take care of everything off the ice as best as they can, with the best resources ever. It’s sweet,” Minten gushed in a post-practice conversation with Sportsnet.

“The hotels are sick. Never seen hotels that nice before. The food — too much. I don’t know what to choose. But everything is just as good as you can imagine.”

You’re not riding the buses and scarfing down Subway in Kamloops anymore, kid.

“You never know what [NHL life] is actually like until you experience it,” Minten says. “Off-ice, development-wise, the gym stuff is great. Like, doing the same lifts as the strongest, best-conditioned hockey players in the world. So overall, it’s really good.”

On the other hand, Fraser Minten is living in limbo.

He is the lone extra skater on the Leafs’ longest road trip of the season.

And since the 19-year-old has been replaced in the lineup by the more experienced Pontus Holmberg, 24, Toronto has won consecutive games and head coach Sheldon Keefe has sounded more bullish on his fourth line.

Minten has been welcomed to team dinners. He dressed up as part of a group speed-skating costume with Auston Matthews, Morgan Rielly and Matthew Knies at the club’s Halloween party. He’s playing two touch with the boys pregame, going for a twirl in warmup and is growing more and more comfortable with his established pro teammates.

But when the puck drops, Minten finds himself in unfamiliar press boxes, presumably wondering what’s next.

“It’s new,” Minten says of life as a healthy scratch. “Trying to handle it as best I can, but I haven’t had to deal with it before. So, just kind of ask guys what they do when they’re not playing, when they’re just in warmup, stuff like that.

“Just continue doing everything I can. Not worrying about anything outside of what I can do with myself that day. Just keep pushing, being present, try to take in as much as I can. Be ready if need be.”

That has been Keefe’s message to the eager prospect: Take a step back after running the hectic gauntlet of Traverse City’s rookie tournament to a busy pre-season to your first four NHL games. Soak in the experience of the show. Oh, and stay ready, just in case.

(Tight to the cap ceiling, Toronto is travelling with an extra forward, and no spare defencemen, in part because Tyler Bertuzzi is skating at something less than 100 per cent health.)

The Maple Leafs development staff has tailored drills specifically for Minten, and he has all the ice time he needs to work on his craft. He’s regularly the last one to leave the pad these days.

The staff is working with the centreman to learn systems and structure, with the objectives of quick zone exits and smooth entries a priority. Playing through NHL pace is an awakening.

“It moves really fast out there — that’s the biggest thing. The time and space is just so minimal. You have to be thinking well ahead and moving your feet at all times and thinking at all times,” Minten explains. “And if you get stuck in a corner, it’s very hard to get out and make a play. And it’s very hard to get back into the zone once you can’t get out of it. So, everything’s just harder, faster, stronger than what you’d expect coming from junior.”

For a centreman, faceoffs — and what happens after you lose one — are a focal point.

What’s the difference between gliding to the dot against kids in the WHL versus the Aleksander Barkovs of the NHL world?

“I’d say five inches and 50 pounds, right?” Minten replies. “Man strength, everyone’s got it. And then, some guys feed their kids with their face-offs, right? So, some guys are very, very dialed in on their techniques and getting as much out of every draw as you can. Sometimes junior guys don’t even think about the importance of the face-off as much. Like, 17-, 16-year-olds are just out there whacking around. So, that’s a big difference.”

When Minten was 17, he admits he turned a deaf ear when amateur coaches would preach the importance of draws. Not until 2021-22, his draft year, did Minten sharpen his approach.

Several big-league scouts pointed out his unimpressive faceoff stats — “I was like 45 per cent or something at 17,” Minten says — and told him he’d need to start winning most of his draws if he had a shot at making it as a centre in the pros.

“In junior, if you lose a draw, you can get the puck back relatively quick,” he reasons. Minten found out the hard way what it’s like when you lose a D-zone draw in the show. “It’s like 20 seconds of defending, and then your shift’s pretty much over because you’re exhausted, right? It’s a little different.”

Minten’s whole situation is different.

He wasn’t supposed to be here, remember.

He earned a roster spot due to his dogged work ethic and excellent showing at training camp, where he outplayed Holmberg and other forwards in the organization with more pro experience.

Now, Minten is missing valuable all-situations game action with the Blazers and doesn’t know when or how he’ll get his way back into the Leafs lineup next.

Keefe says everything beyond training camp is “gravy” for Minten, and the affable prospect tends to agree.

“I think, for me, success is just knowing that I’ve done everything I can and having the peace of mind from that. So, obviously trying to maintain a perspective,” Minten says.

“It’s a plus to be here, and I’m trying to stay happy throughout that, no matter how it goes on the ice.”

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