TORONTO (AP) With a hockey stick and Sharpie in hand, Maple Leafs forward Mitch Marner had a simple request when approaching the stall in the far corner of Exhibition Stadium’s oversized locker room.
”Excuse me, Mr. Sittler, could you sign this?” the 19-year-old asked.
Dressed in a blue No. 27 Maple Leafs jersey with the familiar ”C” on his chest, Darryl Sittler happily obliged, writing his name in silver on the blade of Marner’s stick.
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Toronto’s young roster had an opportunity to mingle with stars of the franchise’s past during the NHL’s Centennial Classic celebrations in Toronto last weekend.
The franchise is celebrating its 100th year while also trying to move past half a century without a championship. And what better way to do so than to bring back the old guard, including members of the 1967 team – the last Maple Leafs squad to win a Stanley Cup.
George Armstrong, Dave Keon, Johnny Bower – meet Marner, Auston Matthews, William Nylander and company.
”Like how cool is that?” former star Lanny McDonald said. ”You sit in between the different players, the different generations, and if anything rubs off, hey, perfect.”
That was certainly coach Mike Babcock’s intention following practice Saturday morning, just before the Classic’s alumni game between the Maple Leafs and Detroit Red Wings.
”It’s an unbelievable opportunity,” said Babcock, who said Swedish-born defenseman Borje Salming was his favorite player growing up as a Maple Leafs fan.
”We’re hoping to restore our franchise to its rightful place,” he added. ”When you get to rub elbows with those guys and you see the pride they have in the uniform, being a Leaf and how important it was to them, I think it’s a great message for our young guys.”
These aren’t your father’s Maple Leafs. Actually, they’re not even the forgettable 2014-15 version of a team that collapsed by closing the season 11-35-5, prompting a top-to-bottom overhaul.
Babcock arrived that spring after his contract expired in Detroit. He was soon joined by Lou Lamoriello, the former Devils general manager, who was hired to oversee the rebuilding of a franchise that made the playoffs just once since the NHL lockout that wiped out the 2004-05 season.
Some 18 months later, the Leafs are showing signs of being ahead of schedule in their bid to return to relevance.
They have 10 players age 23 or younger and are led by Matthews, their No. 1 draft pick. The Arizona-born forward is tied for the NHL rookie lead with 34 points and tied for third among all players with 20 goals.
He leads an impressive young core – before a 6-5 overtime loss at Washington on Tuesday – Toronto had six players among the top 17 in NHL rookie scoring.
Babcock joked his team is so young, some of his players thought they were supposed to skate in the Classic’s promotional youth hockey game on Sunday.
He could laugh, because after Matthews’ overtime goal secured a 5-4 win over Detroit , the Leafs extended their winning streak to five – Toronto’s best run since winning six in a row in December 2014.
”You can see we’ve got a good young team, and we’re going in the right direction,” Babcock said. ”It’s going to take us some time.”
Rookie forward Connor Brown doesn’t see why the Leafs can’t get there this year.
”We feel like we’re good. We feel like we’re making strides,” Brown said. ”We’re obviously winning hockey games right now. But we feel comfortable and we feel confident.”
TWO FOR TORONTO?
Former Red Wings forward Igor Larionov turned the tables on a question regarding the NHL’s expansion to southern U.S. markets paying off by inspiring players such as Matthews to turn to hockey.
Larionov called it a benefit before wondering why the league has yet to return to Quebec City or add a second franchise in Toronto.
”I wish Toronto would have a second team because of the high demand for tickets,” Larionov said. ”In Toronto, it would be easy to have a second team and have a very strong fan base and have a rivalry between the Maple Leafs and the other team.”
The NHL has resisted getting involved in discussions about adding a second franchise in Toronto. Quebec City was in the running with Las Vegas for an expansion team last year, but was turned down in part because of the weakness of the Canadian dollar.
The Columbus Blue Jackets have won 16 straight – one short of matching the NHL record – following a 3-1 victory over Edmonton on Tuesday night. They’re 17-0-1 since last losing in regulation, a 2-0 defeat against Calgary on Nov. 23. The Penguins hold the record by winning 17 in a row from March 9-April 10, 1993.
The Arizona Coyotes have lost seven in a row – including five straight at home – since a 3-2 shootout win at Toronto on Dec. 15.
Points, Evgeni Malkin (Pittsburgh), Connor McDavid (Edmonton), 43; Goals, Sidney Crosby (Pittsburgh), 26; Game-winning goals, Jeff Carter (Los Angeles), 7; Wins, Sergei Bobrovsky (Columbus), 25; Shutouts, Devan Dubnyk (Minnesota), 5.
GAME OF THE WEEK
The Metropolitan Division-leading Blue Jackets seek their 17th straight win at Washington on Thursday night. They would have a shot at setting the record Saturday, when Columbus hosts the New York Rangers.
AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno in Washington contributed to this story.