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 last weekend and is starting his first full season of professional hockey. Of all the players who took part in the rookie camp, Robertson was the most likely to make the jump to the NHL.
But it soon became difficult to notice Alex Steeves’ great playing. Although they only played a few camp scrambles, Steeves was a standout in all of them, with his four goals on Monday taking center stage.
There’s only so much you can get out of a development camp. Most players will never get a chance in the NHL and they are all focused on getting up to speed as quickly as possible. But when a new prospect in the system shows up and starts to grab attention, it’s worth noting.
Steeves looked a little slow out of the gate to open the development camp as he got used to his new environment. Leafs’ skills consultant Darryl Belfry spent a lot of time chatting with Steeves, and by Saturday he started to ramp up the pace. During Monday’s scrimmage, he was one of the main interlocutors in the camp.
“To me, he looks like a pro on the ice,” said Hayley Wickenheiser, Toronto’s director of player development.
In fact, many of those who followed the camp had similar thoughts about Steeves. The spotlight wasn’t on the young attacker, but he grabbed it and ran with it. And at a time when players are competing for as much attention as possible, that bodes well for Steeves’ development ahead of his first real game action at the Traverse City Prospect Tournament next weekend.
Undrafted, the 21-year-old had a number of suitors after making the NCAA’s B1G second all-star team after his third season at Notre Dame. There was no shortage of suitors looking to get in on Steeves, who was considered one of the top NCAA UFAs in the spring. But that doesn’t guarantee anything at the NHL level, so the hard work is just beginning for the young forward. According to Steeves, the Leafs made the strongest push, signing his first NHL contract on March 28, 2021.
One of the reasons Steeves wanted to sign with the Leafs was to meet with GM Kyle Dubas and other members of the organization. In it, the team provided detailed one-on-one instructions that they offered star players like Auston Matthews. From there, Steeves said the decision was an easy one.
“I was really impressed with the attention to detail that the entire organization has put into development,” said Steeves. “It’s a holistic approach, whether it’s with the Leafs or the Marlies. They’re just so invested in their players.
“So for me, someone who likes to learn and likes to grow, it was just a dream fit. I’m a big believer in using resources.”
Steeves still plans to complete his accounting degree at the school’s prestigious Mendoza College of Business, but that can be challenging as the school moves back to personal 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 true long-term option.
“He just attacks like a barracuda,” said a university scout. “Some guys want the puck, but he REALLY wants the puck. I think the Leafs can use it extensively in the bottom six.”
Another scout mentions that Steeves has come a long way since he passed in the draft.
“I thought he was going to be taken in 2019, but his skating wasn’t great,” they said. “I think he’s made nice steps to improve, but it’s still his biggest inhibitor.”
Steeves is unlikely to take the team out of training camp and head to the Marlies in 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.
As it stands, Steeves may not even be a top 10 prospect in Toronto’s system. But his inaugural professional hockey training camp has been positive and as he gets used to playing against men, Steeves could have the potential to get into the conversation sooner or later.
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