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Maple Leafs open season with one of youngest teams in NHL

It was only noon, and the Toronto Maple Leafs were already younger.

They claimed Seth Griffith off waivers from division rival Boston Bruins, snapping up one of several interesting young talents available around the league as teams pared down. Toronto then demoted Brooks Laich to the minors.

Out went last year's feel-good story, a 33-year-old veteran some had pegged to be a key part of the Leafs leadership group. In came a 23-year-old winger who finished second in the minors in scoring last season with 77 points in 57 games.

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The Leafs hit Tuesday's deadline to get their roster down to 23 men at an average age of 25.7 years old, making them the second-youngest team in the league – trailing only Columbus – and filled with players yet to make a mark in the NHL.

Toronto enters Wednesday's season opener in Ottawa with nine players with 67 regular-season games played or less, including two who will make their NHL debut: 2016 first overall pick Auston Matthews and 2015 fourth overall pick Mitch Marner.

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Milan Michalek, meanwhile, is Toronto's oldest player at 31. Only three others are 30-plus, including two – Roman Polak and Matt Hunwick – who will play sparingly.

It's a different look for a franchise that has traditionally skewed old. It's also a much different look than last season, a transition year they entered with a roster full of vets they intended to trade for younger prospects.

Skewing young and fast fits with how head coach Mike Babcock wants his team to play.

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"That's what you need in order to gel as a group: guys coming in together," said top-line centre Nazem Kadri, who turned 26 last week, making him older than more than half the Leafs roster. "I think it really energizes our group – just having some young faces around. We know they're going to be pushing, ready to play every single night at a high pace, which is what we want our identity to be."

"Just because they're young doesn't mean they don't know how to play," added top defenceman Morgan Rielly, who'll enter the season paired with Martin Marincin.

Defenceman Connor Carrick added that one benefit to having so many young and inexperienced players is they don't feel intimidated, on the ice or off it. It's a big change from his last stop, in Washington, where he was one of only a few young players trying to break in with one of the top teams in the NHL.

"It's power in numbers," the 22-year-old Carrick said. "You don't feel as shy or not as willing to make plays when you see guys your own age – or younger – doing the same or better. It kind of takes the leash off. When you're the only young guy in the room, you're just a little bit more cautious: Where you're going, where you're sitting on the bus – everything. There's a higher level of comfort when there's more young guys."

Even with the full-on youth movement, outside expectations remain modest for the Leafs. They finished 30th last year with 69 points. With so many talented young players and a steadier presence in goal, Toronto should be able to improve by 10 to 15 points and climb past at least a few teams.

In the dressing room, however, players believe that they can exceed those modest expectations, with Kadri calling the Leafs "a sleeper" team in the Eastern Conference.

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Babcock isn't making any bold proclamations. What he does insist on is that, young or not, his team will outwork whoever they play.

"Your expectations for the group are going to be very high," Babcock said of how he'll coach such a green lineup. "Your expectations of professionalism and attitude and all those things are absolutely critical. I think you set a high standard, they get used to it, they internalize that and it just becomes what they do every day."

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About the Author
Hockey Reporter

James joined The Globe as an editor and reporter in the sports department in 2005 and now covers the NHL and the Toronto Maple Leafs. More

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