The Toronto Maple Leafs Olympic hopefuls have been in try-out mode since the start of the season. But the guys attempting to play for Team Canada are getting the best chance to audition this week. The Tampa Bay Lightning’s head coach, Jon Cooper, is the head coach from Team Canada’s Olympic team. Due to the pandemic, he hasn’t watched Toronto play in person since March of 2020.
It’s not just Cooper who Toronto players have a chance to impress this week. Peter DeBoer is an assistant coach for Team Canada and the head coach for the Vegas Golden Knights. The Maple Leafs had their best performance of the season against DeBoer’s Knights on Tuesday, winning 4-0. Then Toronto will play the Boston Bruins, coached by another Team Canada assistant, Bruce Cassidy.
The competition for the Team Canada roster will be fierce, as there are only 22 spots for skaters and three for goaltenders. Canada could easily send a second team that would be just as competitive. However, just 25 Canadian-born players will have a chance to represent their country. Several hopefuls are currently wearing the blue maple leaf logo on their chest.
Mitch Marner could not have picked a better time to return to his old self. The 24-year-old was struggling to start the season, enduring the worst slump of his young career. However, after starting the season with one assist in seven games, he has found the old swagger and tallied five points in his last three games. He has also scored two goals, and DeBoer had a first-hand look at one of Marner’s best goals of his career.
Not only are the numbers starting to show up, but his confidence has returned. His upbeat attitude is infectious; according to Sheldon Keefe, “the schedule is tough in the NHL. A guy like him plays with spirit and energy, but he also has it around the room. He has a bounce in his step all the time. When one of your leaders has that, I think it is important. Then, of course, you need to back it up on the ice, and he has certainly done that here now. It makes a big difference in our group, no doubt.”
The Maple Leafs captain, John Tavares, was one of the models to unveil the new athlete kits from Lululemon, Team Canada’s official outfitter. However, while he may already have the clothes, there are no guarantees that he has a spot on the roster.
Tavares was on the 2014 gold medal-winning team but only appeared in four games and did not record any points. His leadership may be an attribute that would allow for further consideration. However, there will be no shortage of leaders or centremen vying for a position
Fresh off of signing his 8-year $60 million extension. Morgan Rielly is very much in the running to grab one of the six coveted spots on Canada’s blue line. The international game suits Rielly’s style. He is a smooth-skating defender who can cover a lot of ground with his speed, but he can also pitch in on the offensive side.
Cooper is in his ninth season behind the bench of the Tampa Bay Lightning. That makes him the longest-tenured coach in the NHL. Being in the Atlantic Division, he has seen these guys play for a long time. But that was when he was evaluating them as competition. Now he will be watching them to assess their fit on his Team Canada, a team that will be a favourite to win the gold.
Kevin Armstrong is an award-winning journalist with more than two decades of experience. He’s been rink side for World Juniors, Memorial Cups, Calder Cups and Stanley Cups. Like many Canadian kids, his earliest memories include hockey. Kevin has spent countless hours in arenas throughout the country watching all levels of the game.