NEW YORK — On your third official day in the NHL there are worse places to take an optional morning skate than this: Under the bright TV lights and famous wooden roof at Madison Square Garden.
There Adam Brooks was Friday morning, pushing himself to exhaustion alongside fellow Toronto Maple Leafs scratches Trevor Moore and Martin Marincin, and backup goaltender Michael Hutchinson.
Had he taken a moment to fully catch his breath, he might have had to pinch himself.
“It was a lot of fun out there,” said Brooks. “It was kind of hard, but it was good.”
The 23-year-old centre has taken the scenic route to this first tour of NHL duty. That includes attending a summer rookie camp and the Traverse City tournament with the New York Rangers in 2015 — a year before he was drafted 92nd overall by Toronto in his second year of eligibility — and parts of three seasons in the American Hockey League with the Toronto Marlies.
His status with the Leafs should officially be listed as day-to-day — as in any day now he might find himself heading back to the AHL — but head coach Sheldon Keefe believes there’s value in every moment he gets to go to work alongside John Tavares, Auston Matthews and Co.
Brooks is a player Keefe came to trust during their time together with the Marlies, and the biggest hurdle he faces in taking the next step is gaining the confidence to keep doing what got him here.
“I think the ability of the players that are in the minors really isn’t as big a gap as many would think, especially for the top players down there,” said Keefe. “That’s one thing I’ve learned in being here the short time that I have. But it’s how quickly those guys can get comfortable and feeling like they can just play and be themselves and all those types of things.
“I think every day that you have in the NHL helps you move towards that.”
It’s not yet clear if Brooks will get a chance to make his Leafs debut during this recall.
The timing doesn’t appear to be in his favour with Moore ready to return from a shoulder injury and bottom-six forwards Frederik Gauther, Dmytro Timashov and Pierre Engvall all playing well for the Leafs.
Still, it was a big thrill for him just to take the warmup at Scotiabank Arena before Tuesday’s game against the Buffalo Sabres. Call it a step in the right direction.
“It was cool,” said Brooks. “I knew there was a pretty good chance that I wasn’t going to play and I was still nervous. I was still nervous going out there in front of all the Leafs fans.”
As for what he’s learned in stepping behind the curtain at this level?
“Just that there’s still a lot of work to be put in,” said Brooks. “You see the guys that are in the lineup for them every night, guys that played on our team [in the AHL], and just how their games have grown from being up here all year.
“It’s something to try to aim for, and to try to get into a [NHL] game firstly, and then hopefully down the road to try to compete for a spot fully.”
Despite all the depth in the Leafs organization, there is an opportunity for him here in the big picture.
An understated aspect of the decision to have Keefe replace Mike Babcock last month is that established roles within the team shift. You need only look at Jon Cooper in Tampa or Mike Sullivan in Pittsburgh to find examples of an AHL coach who brought up trusted lieutenants after being elevated to the NHL job.
Brooks appears to be a strong candidate to do something similar in Toronto. He’s methodically worked his way up the ladder — scoring a remarkable 250 points across his final two seasons for Regina in the Western Hockey League before climbing from the Marlies fourth line to its top line.
“Sticking with it is a good way to describe [him],” said Keefe.
Now he’s up with the big club, putting in work under the most famous roof in the NHL and waiting for his coach to give him the nod.
“We haven’t had that many talks,” Brooks said of Keefe. “He just said ‘it’s good to see ya, go to work.’
“So that’s all I’m trying to do.”