On the road with Fraser Minten: Lessons, trades and the path back to the Maple Leafs

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EDMONTON — In the middle of the Rogers Place ice, Fraser Minten cranes his neck toward banners filled with hallowed NHL names in copper and blue. He blinks, and returns focus to teenaged teammates buzzing around him in warmups. The 19-year-old is human, and the temptation to look ahead is constant.

But in NHL arenas, the lure of moving beyond smallish barns reaches a fever pitch.

“Imagine 97 and 29, start of the second period on a fresh sheet, just ripping it around out there,” Minten shouts to a teammate in the Saskatoon Blades dressing room.

When he refers to Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl by their numbers, he can still picture playing in buildings like this as an NHL player. And he’s hungry to get back.

Minten’s last five months have been full of “new, stressful situations that were awesome, but challenging” with four teams: the Toronto Maple Leafs, WHL’s Kamloops Blazers, Canada’s world junior team and back to the WHL to go for a Memorial Cup with the Blades.

Though the NHL trade deadline is approaching and Minten — as a Leafs top prospect — could be on the move, his entire season is built upon another goal, too.

“Every day I play hockey it’s to get to that next level: To play in the NHL and play for the Leafs,” Minten said.

For three days, The Athletic followed Minten during games in NHL arenas as he plotted his return.


“Crazy,” is the only word the well-read Minten can find to describe the last four months of his life. “I’ve had something new happening almost on a daily basis.”

In September, multiple lists of training camp attendees in the Leafs management offices included the Leafs’ ghost roster, likely Toronto Marlies and those bound for parts unknown.

“He was in ‘other,’” Leafs GM Brad Treliving said of Minten.

But with an inner drive, maturity and attention to defensive detail, Minten cracked the Leafs’ opening night roster ahead of schedule. Teammates such as John Tavares, who put Minten up in one of his spare bedrooms, instilled confidence in him. Minten was comfortable in a way not every rookie is.

GO DEEPER

How Fraser Minten went from ‘unknown’ to the Maple Leafs’ opening-night lineup

For the Leafs rookie dinner in Nashville, he arranged a skit with Matthew Knies, Joseph Woll and Pontus Holmberg. Holmberg acted as a media member with a microphone in hand while the other three rookies split up the roster and performed impersonations — “roasts,” Minten says — of every single Leaf. Minten remembers Knies’ “perfect” impersonation of Tavares’ monotone mannerisms in postgame interviews leaving the room in stitches.

“I knew every (Leaf) would have your back if you said something they thought was too far,” Minten said.

And so Minten took his best shots at 40-year-old Mark Giordano’s age. But Minten remained secretly in awe of how Giordano and fellow veteran TJ Brodie can block out the noise that comes with playing in Toronto.

His NHL ride was jam-packed with lessons. One morning of a preseason game, assistant coach Manny Malhotra walked by him and veteran David Kampf on exercise bikes.

“Mints, you taking the morning skate today?” Malhotra asked.

“It’s optional,” Minten replied, showing his hand. “Optional means optional, right?”

Minten will never forget Malhotra’s stone-cold look.

“Kampfer, you taking the optional?” Malhotra asked.

“Yes,” Kampf replied.

“Mints, you taking the optional?” Malhotra asked again, allowing little margin for error.

Minten learned for at least the first three years of his NHL career, there is no option for an optional morning skate.

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Fraser Minten got a taste of four NHL games before being returned to junior. (Claus Andersen / Getty Images)

After four NHL regular-season games of treading water, the Leafs returned an unsettled Minten to Kamloops. Less than a month after returning from Toronto, he was shipped to another new city, Saskatoon, and thrust into higher expectations on a WHL contender. But nothing could compare to what came weeks later: Minten was selected for Canada’s world junior team.

During a Christmas Eve dinner at the team hotel in Sweden, the Canadian team FaceTimed Tavares. He and his two sons congratulated Minten on being named captain.

“My heart started to race like crazy,” Minten said.

The social media flames began unfurling in Minten’s direction as a Leafs prospect was chosen captain. They continued when Minten was played out of position in a top-six scoring role and produced just one goal in five games. Canada crashed out to Czechia in the quarterfinals. The online hate reached an apex after the loss when Minten said, “It feels like the world is ending.”

“I wouldn’t have said it if I knew everyone was going to post it everywhere,” Minten said. “I should have known better. But it’s how I felt in the moment. Your entire goal is to win. Especially in a country like Canada; nobody has higher expectations than us, the players.”

Teammates shared nasty tweets.

“You see it, and laugh, but you’re still like, ‘Damn, there’s somebody saying that about me,’” Minten said.

The Blades told him to return to his Vancouver home to spend time with his family. Perspective welcomed him.

“They don’t care if you lost,” Minten said. “They just think it’s so cool that you’re there.”


Just over a week after returning to the WHL, Minten receives an unexpected visit from Shane Doan, Leafs special advisor to the general manager, after a Blades game in Red Deer. The conversation barely touched on Minten’s game as much as where Minten is at in his life after the world juniors. Doan offered constructive criticism and told Minten he was in his corner.

“He talked like a guy who cares, which I think he actually, genuinely, does,” Minten said.

Doan learned Minten and the Blades would be at the Flames game the following evening before their own game against the Calgary Hitmen. Doan encouraged Minten to stop by the Leafs dressing room postgame.

“Only if they win,” Minten replied.

When Auston Matthews wins the game with a hat trick, Minten beams and texts Leafs director of team operations Brad Lynn for access to the dressing room. Nearly the entire team greets Minten with a smile and a handshake.

“Even Auston and Willie (Nylander),” Minten boasts.

He hugs Knies before his friend doles out some advice: “The league is twice as hard as it was at the start of the year.”

Multiple Leafs offer encouragement about Minten’s world juniors experience. The longest conversations are reserved for Morgan Rielly and Noah Gregor. The two former Moose Jaw Warriors want to hear about how close their alma matter is to catching Minten’s Blades in the standings.

“When you’re away from it for three months, it becomes, ‘Woah, it’s the NHL,’” Minten said. “But then you start talking to these guys and you’re like, ‘I guess I’m not that far off.’ It makes it seem way more realistic and possible.”


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Fraser Minten sprints before games to warm up. (Joshua Kloke / The Athletic)

The temperature dips below freezing, but Minten doesn’t wear a jacket for the five-minute walk from his hotel to Rogers Place. Minten laughs, but he is also a rarity in that he can’t wait for his lengthy pregame routine to begin. He all but jogs to the dressing room.

Two hours before puck drop, most of his teammates gather in a hallway for a lighthearted game of sewer ball.

“Only if I have time,” Minten says, alone in a dressing room. He cuts his sticks to achieve a particular feel, not length. He pushes down over a dozen times to make sure his tool feels ready to be defensively pesky before fastidiously taping those sticks.

As laughter emanates from the hallway, Minten remains alone, massaging his legs with a blue foam roller. He then joins those teammates for both power play and penalty kill meetings. While his teammates sit with their chins buried in their palms, Minten constantly stretches one leg, then the other, while banging an empty water bottle in anticipation and peppering coaches with questions.

He is the only player to strap a heat pack to his back.

“All the NHL players do it.”

What Minten learned from Tavares lingers in his head. Maybe I can stretch my career by a few years, Minten thinks, by preparing the right way.

On game days, Minten bounces from room to room, unable to contain his exuberance. Some teammates gather to eye up the Edmonton Oil Kings’ lineup and trade insults about the opposition. But Minten leaps from the trainer’s table to a desk filled with snacks, and from conversation to conversation.

He’s looking to shoot short side today and warns teammates to get out of the way.

In his first practice after returning to the Blazers, he took his friend Emmitt Finnie’s half-wall spot on the power play, forcing Finnie to net front. With a heavy shot, Minten ruptured Finnie’s testicle.

“Just think about that,” he says with a grin to teammates.

As teammates slowly throw on their gear, Minten remains alone in the hallway. He has perfected a yoga-inspired routine before sprinting to get activated. Before he was sent back to the WHL, Sheldon Keefe and Treliving told Minten that preparing his body for the NHL and adding strength is more important than dominating offensively.

“It’s about the extra workouts the Leafs performance staff gives you,” Minten said.

During the solitude, the noise about his Leafs future disappears. There is only the game in front of him.

Before puck drop, his coaches preach the importance of responsibility in a game that could involve after-whistle shenanigans. 

The Blades quickly pull away from the Oil Kings. Minten wants his teammates to avoid getting sucked into emotional goading.

After operating in his own orbit to start the game, Minten becomes the most encouraging Blade: He emphatically bangs his stick on the boards after a teammate’s extra effort on the penalty kill. He avoids cliches and offers concise instructions on how to maintain offensive zone time. Minten brings teammates into the NHL world he’s envisioning, telling one they’re “channeling their inner Zach Hyman” with their continued energy.

But come the second intermission, his teammates’ eyes grow distant. The days on the road trip are adding up.

“I’ve never had a problem with that,” Minten says proudly. “I love the game. It gets me. My first period is usually not my best period. The more I play, the better I get.”

Minten scores but his celebration is hardly as jubilant as when the final horn sounds for a Blades win. Blades owner Mike Priestner visits the dressing room, promising the team they can visit any restaurant in Saskatoon and he’ll provide them the “black card” for dinner. Some players holler. Minten only pats a few backs before moving to an exercise bike for a quick ride and then the team bus for the six-hour drive back to Saskatoon. The Leafs game is about to start in Seattle. Minten pulls out his phone to watch his former team. He’s immediately disappointed Bobby McMann isn’t in the lineup.

“He’s a guy that hasn’t had the easy route. You’re happier for him when there’s a human connection,” Minten said.

He still gasps out loud for the team’s younger core; nearly every Knies forecheck sees Minten pumping his fist.

Minten sees himself as part of that core. He studies how players are applying Keefe’s systems and asks himself what he would do in similar situations.

But there are times, like during the game’s opening goal from Matthews, when he’s just an enthusiast.

“How does Matthews always get open in the offensive zone?” he asks. “Sometimes you’re just a fan. And that’s sick.”

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Fraser Minten tinkers meticulously with his sticks. (Joshua Kloke / The Athletic)

When Minten wakes up in Saskatoon, the NHL’s trade deadline is approaching. According to voices on a social media platform he doesn’t subscribe to, the tide has turned against his possible Leafs career.

“There’s absolutely nothing I can do about it, so there’s no point in stressing about an uncontrollable like that,” he says of the deadline. “Before you’re an NHL player, the team can do whatever they want with you. I wouldn’t feel screwed over if I can provide value to the organization. Getting an opportunity elsewhere with a team that wants you is a good thing. Obviously you want to play for the team that drafted you, but if you get traded before you get to the NHL, I don’t think it’s the end of the world at all.”

So has he developed enough in his final junior season to become a Leafs bottom-six centre next season?

He’s racked up 40 points and six game-winning goals in 33 games, but couldn’t care less. He’s improved at killing opposition plays low in the defensive zone. He’s working on transitioning pucks from defence to offence cleanly. While he’d like to create more off the rush, he’s learned that’s less important than avoiding turnovers in transition.

“NHL coaches never talk about points. They’ll talk about how to win games. And 70 percent of that will be about the defensive side of the game and structure,” Minten says, sounding like an NHL veteran. “Because then the coach keeps his job. And then if he wins, the general manager keeps his job. And the best way to win is to not be on the ice for goals against. That’s how you get yourself to that next level.”

For now, Minten is not an NHL veteran, but a top prospect with a goal of becoming one.

Three days after Minten’s Blades played in front of their largest crowd of the season in Edmonton, the bus will take him 90 minutes north to Prince Albert for an attendance a quarter of that size.

He won’t complain. But his mind might wander toward returning to the NHL, but in a different shade of blue.

“I think about playing in the NHL all the time,” Minten says. “I’d love to play for the Leafs.”

(Top photos: Joshua Kloke / The Athletic)





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Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams is a writer and editor. Angeles. She writes about politics, art, and culture for LinkDaddy News.

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