Maple Leafs roster clouded by injury spate
Bright spot Brandon Kozun suddenly a factor
The backwards Toronto Marlies hat on Brandon Kozun's head told a story of where he came from and where he seemed likely to go at some point during training camp.
But this was the morning of the final pre-season game and Kozun was sitting at his locker at Air Canada Centre, not Ricoh Coliseum down the street. He was squished in next to the goaltenders, but most importantly he was still in camp with the Maple Leafs.
"I must be doing something right to still be here," the unassuming five-foot-eight winger said Saturday.
Even after capping his standout pre-season with a three-point effort a night earlier, Kozun said he didn't wasn't going to celebrate yet. After all, the opening-night roster doesn't have to be finalized until Tuesday afternoon, but all indications are the 24-year-old hasn't just made the Leafs but could have a prominent role to start the season.
Kozun practised on the second line Saturday alongside Joffrey Lupul and Nazem Kadri, and even if he's not there when the NHL regular season begins Wednesday night against the Montreal Canadiens, he can be expected to kill penalties and play some decent minutes.
"He's a young player just trying to earn an opportunity to play in the NHL every day, start in the NHL," coach Randy Carlyle said. "He's never done this before."
Three weeks ago, Kozun looked like an afterthought, a potential top-six forward in the minors and maybe a call-up down the line. It didn't appear that he had a legitimate chance to make the 23-man roster, but the mind of a pro athlete can't function like that.
"If you come into a camp with the thought that you have no chance, you're not going to make it," Kozun said. "There's something to be said about positive thinking. It wasn't really about making the roster as it was to try and just improve every day."
Positive thinking puts him in good place
Kozun did have a leg up because Carlyle remembered watching him last season with the Marlies.
"He was the player that stood out the most," Carlyle said. "It was easy to see his skill-set and his speed because he was a guy that was on the puck and he's transferred that to pre-season and our training camp here."
At times in exhibition games it has looked like the puck is magnetically attracted to Kozun. Part of that is the instinct to be in the right place at the right time and another is his speed — a quick first step and a burst beyond.
"He flies up and down the ice," said James van Riemsdyk, who played with Kozun on Friday against the Detroit Red Wings. "He makes a lot happen with his speed out there. You see him a couple times, especially on the penalty kill and he's disrupting their breakout and drawing things and making things happen."
Kozun acknowledges he has had "a longer road than some other guys" to get to the NHL. Born in Los Angeles, Kozun began playing hockey when he was three and moved to Calgary with his family when he was 10.
Born to a Canadian mother and American father, Kozun chose to play internationally for Canada and won a silver medal at the 2010 world junior championship.
"I felt like the bulk of my developing came in Canada," Kozun said. "I moved to Canada when I was 10 years old, it's a pretty young age. When you grow up from 10 on, that's a bulk of your years. I think my mom kind of raised us a bit more Canadian than American."
Kozun played for the WHL's Calgary Hitmen and was a sixth-round pick of the Kings in 2009. He played three full seasons in the AHL with the Manchester Monarchs before a trade to the Leafs in January.
"It's not the easiest thing when you're in the minors for four years and maybe you start to doubt it a little bit when you see other guys that are younger than you getting called up and all that," Kozun said. "I think when I first came out of junior I was pretty offensive-heavy. Maybe at that point I thought I was ready, but you're naive. As you get older I think you mature as a person and as a player.
"That was the big thing for me: Just learning to be a complete player and learning to be a pro."
Kozun thinks the time in the minors and the adversity made him a better player.
"If it weren't for that, I wouldn't be who I am today," he said.
Injuries making rest of roster an uncertainty
What Kozun is today is an NHL player. But the rest of the roster remains in flux because of an uncertain injury picture.
Centre Tyler Bozak (lower-body injury), winger Josh Leivo (bruised foot) and defenceman Cody Franson (bruised knee) missed Saturday's practice, and star winger Phil Kessel (lower-body injury) left after roughly 15 minutes. Franson skated for a bit at the end and voiced optimism about being ready for Wednesday, but Carlyle didn't finalize anything regarding the status of any of the injured players.
"I still think we have a couple days before we make that final assessment on everybody," Carlyle said.
A handful of jobs could be determined by those injuries, as bubble players like forwards Matt Frattin, Carter Ashton, Colton Orr and Frazer McLaren and defencemen Stuart Percy and Korbinian Holzer await news. Percy looks like a good bet to make it no matter what.
Leivo's health could factor into where Kozun plays, but just being in the picture has made it a successful camp for him.
"He's been noticeable," Carlyle said of Kozun. "We've got lots of decisions to make and there's bodies to fill in and Kozy's made it a lot easier to make some decisions."