When the Toronto Maple Leafs picked Easton Cowan in the first round at June’s NHL draft, Mitch Marner was among the first to call and congratulate the London Knights forward. Marner led the Knights to a Memorial Cup title in 2016 and always keeps tabs on what’s happening in London.
And the Knights, led by head coach Dale Hunter and general manager Mark Hunter, talk a lot about Marner as well.
“The Hunters always tell me about him and what he was like here,” Cowan said. “He came back for his third year [after being drafted fourth overall by the Leafs] and he lit it up and they won. He was a good team player and they built it around him. He was positive and helping everyone on the ice and off the ice and he was a good team guy. He wasn’t selfish.”
Cowan appreciated the chance to see Marner up close during his first NHL training camp.
“He’s a great leader,” Cowan observed. “And just his hands and how he can turn on a dime and stuff like that [stands out]. But also his D-zone, you know, and how he’s got a good stick. So, I’m trying to play like him a little and do what he did with his 200-foot game.”
When Cowan got sent back to the Ontario Hockey League, Marner had another message for the 18-year-old.
“He sent me a text,” Cowan revealed. “He said, ‘Good luck this year, kill it’ and he’ll be watching. Yeah, so that’s pretty cool to know he’s watching and seeing what’s up.”
What’s up is Cowan’s stock. After being picked 28th overall, the Mount Brydges, Ont. native turned heads in his first Leafs camp and stuck all the way to the end. Since returning to London, the 5-foot-10, 171-pound centre has continued to build momentum. Cowan has racked up eight goals and 19 assists in just 15 games.
During a conversation with TSN, Cowan reflected on his experience with the Leafs and outlined his goals for the rest of the season. The following is an edited transcript of the interview.
TSN: What was your favourite moment at Leafs camp?
Cowan: Probably being out on that 6-on-4 in my first game with Marner, [Auston] Matthews, [John] Klingberg, all those guys. It meant a lot. So, that was pretty cool and a moment I’ll never forget.
TSN: Were you surprised when coach Sheldon Keefe called on you to go out in that situation?
Cowan: It’s a bit of a surprise. You’re a young guy so you don’t know what to expect. I thought I had a good game and he gave me an opportunity to go out there and we ended up tying the game. Unfortunately we lost in overtime, but it was a cool moment being out there.
TSN: We already spoke about Marner, but I want to get your takeaways from the other core Leafs. What stood out about John Tavares?
Cowan: He’s a pro and he played in London too so that’s pretty cool. Before the game, he’s got his headphones in, really dialled in, and doing his own warm-up routine so I thought that was kind of cool. You learn from that. So, just how he gets mentally and physically prepared for a game, that was pretty cool.
TSN: How about Matthews? What did you pick up from him?
Cowan: He’s one of the superstars in the league and then just his shot. After my first practice, I was passing him some one-timers so that was pretty cool. That thing just floats right off his stick. Shooting around with him at the end of practice was pretty special.
TSN: How does that happen? Did he ask you to join him?
Cowan: No, kind of just standing in the right spot and then you just pass it and you put one somewhere near his gun and he gets it off.
TSN: William Nylander?
Cowan: His skating. I feel like his edges are unreal. At the end of practice he’s always working on his cutbacks and I use a lot of cutbacks in my game. Obviously, they are not nearly as good as his. As soon as he gets out of his cutbacks there’s so many crossovers and it’s just like he’s floating on the ice.
TSN: Did you see him at camp and think he would have a monster year?
Cowan: I think a lot of people knew he would have a monster year. He’s lighting it up right now. His work ethic on and off the ice, it shows.
TSN: Morgan Rielly?
Cowan: I really liked him. He talked to me a lot. Great guy and great player. His skating, you know, he’s really solid out there. I feel like he’s a really powerful skater. His first passes are really good. And obviously his D-zone is unreal. You go up against him 1-on-1, you’re not going to get by him.
TSN: What was the message from the Leafs organization when you went back to the OHL?
Cowan: Keep getting better each and every day. Take what you learned here and try to come back next year and make it even further. Stuff like that. So, just kind of taking it day by day here and stacking good days on good days and coming prepared and taking that pro mindset down to the junior level.
TSN: What’s the focus when it comes to your game this season?
Cowan: Definitely my 200-foot game. It’s fun putting up points and stuff, but being able to block shots or be out there late or be out there with a minute left, whether you’re up a goal or down a goal, is huge. So, really nailing down my D-zone and good defence will lead to good offence.
TSN: How have you felt about your game since returning to London?
Cowan: I’ve felt pretty good. I want to keep producing here and helping my team win each and every night. I play a lot so with the ice time I get, you know, you got to try and produce with it. I play a lot so going out there it’s pretty easy to get confidence and be able to put up points. So, just try and keep building on that each and every shift.
TSN: You and Denver Barkey have combined on five shorthanded goals. Why are you guys so good in that situation?
Cowan: I think our PK coach and forward coach Rick Steadman does a really good job there. We learn a lot from him. My 16-year-old year, even when I wasn’t playing, you know, we’d do PK clips and my 17 year, last year, I was killing a lot. So, learning more and more each year from him has helped a lot. And then, like I said, good defence leads to good offence. I know when I’m out there on the power play I don’t really want to play in the D-zone. Some power plays tend to be a bit lazy back checking and stuff so if you get a 2-on-1 rush I feel like that trailer is pretty wide open.
TSN: You already have a fight under your belt this season, which came against Sarnia’s Tyson Doucette. What happened?
Cowan: Late in a game, they’re beating us, and you kind of don’t have your best game and just got to show you still want to be there. So, just showing your team that you still want to win and still want to be there. And having a little jam in your game and showing them you’re not scared opens up a bit of room on the ice for you.
TSN: What’s the best advice you’ve gotten about fighting?
Cowan: [London, Ont. native and former Knight] Brandon Prust always comes out to the Knights practices so he’s helped me a bit and I have those tough Boult brothers [Ryder and Sawyer Boulton] on my team so those boys teach me a thing or two. They’re pretty tough.
TSN: What’s your goal for the rest of the season?
Cowan: Obviously, you want to get invited to World Juniors camp and make that team so that’s one of them and then obviously win championships and take it day by day, practice by practice, game by game, take it slow and really enjoy it.
TSN: Have you noticed there’s more of a spotlight on you since being drafted by Leafs?
Cowan: Yeah, I don’t mind it. It’s pretty cool. Getting off the bus, you know, signatures to sign, I kind of like that stuff. There’s a lot of pressure being a Leafs draft pick so you got to learn to deal with that, but it’s been good. There’s a lot of haters and a lot of lovers out there. You got to listen to the people who love you and use hate as motivation.
TSN: Some guys like to completely tune out critics, but you use it as fuel.
Cowan: Yeah, I use it as fuel. There’s some people out there that don’t like you and I think it’s kind of funny that they tweet it or whatever so it is what it is. You kind of got to build off of it and use it as fuel.