Josh Ho-Sang says coaches would warn kids not to play like him. The Maple Leafs minor-leaguer wants to change that narrative

Josh Ho-Sang says coaches would warn kids not to play like him. The Maple Leafs minor-leaguer wants to change that narrative

Josh Ho-Sang appears to be in no rush to get back into the NHL. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t want to be in the NHL. That’s the goal, to earn a spot with the Maple Leafs , this season if all goes well.

But he also knows he has time with the Toronto Marlies and he sees it as a gift, not so much to develop his talent, but to redevelop his talent.

“I feel like my whole life, I’ve been that kid where everyone says: ‘He’s really good. Don’t ever play hockey like him,’ ” Ho-Sang said recently after Marlies practice. “All I’m really focused on is being a good hockey player through and through.

“I just want to be that player that coaches can say: ‘You should play like him.’ ”

That Ho-Sang has NHL-level offensive talent, by now, goes without saying. He’s among the AHL goal-scoring leaders with eight in 13 games this season.

But it’s his play without the puck that’s been the issue. For players who have always been the best player on their teams growing up, learning defence can be the hardest part of playing professionally, a lesson Ho-Sang is taking to heart.

“When you’re a skilled player, you want the puck and you get the puck a lot. And because of that, sometimes you don’t go after the puck,” said Ho-Sang.

Every player in the NHL was once the best on his team growing up. When they get to the NHL, their place in the hierarchy changes. Getting the puck is harder. Defence — the act of retrieving the puck to go on offence — is far more important. And that is what Ho-Sang is working on.

“It’s just about working hard, away from the puck. Building that relentlessness into your game, and also being responsible,” said Ho-Sang. “This is my best defensive season so far that I’ve had. I’m proud of that, I like that.”

Marlies coach Greg Moore likes how Ho-Sang is growing as a player.

“He’s doing a really good job at self-reflecting and re-evaluating after every game where he’s at, what he’s doing,” said Moore. “We’re seeing a lot of strong gains in his game of things that he knows he needs to work on, whether it’s his defensive spots, his compete on 50-50 pucks defensively, or even in the offensive zone, and highlighting that you can use his skill to make his team better and not just wait and pick and choose his spots offensively.

“He’s really starting to round out his game, and now it’s just finding the consistency within that as it develops and grows.”

Ho-Sang would help any NHL power play, and 4-on-4, or 3-on-3 situation. His overtime goal against the Lehigh Valley Phantoms is evidence enough of that: A dipsy-do deke then a hard wrist shot.

That goal had tongues wagging, wondering if he was ever going to get called up to the Leafs this year. Ho-Sang remains under an AHL contract. To use him in the Stanley Cup playoffs, the Leafs would need to sign him to an NHL contract by the trade deadline.

At that point, the Leafs would need to decide if he was an NHLer. If yes, no problem, he could stay with the team. But if there is a salary cap issue, or a roster spot issue, or if they thought he needed more development time with the Marlies, then he’d have to clear waivers after signing that deal. The Leafs haven’t had a great deal of success getting players through waivers, having lost Michael Amadio and Adam Brooks this year.

Ho-Sang has no deadline in mind.

“I haven’t really played hockey in the last two years,” said Ho-Sang, a first-round pick with the New York Islanders in 2014.

“Just taking it slow and doing my best to figure out what works and what doesn’t work. This is my first time playing in North America in a year and a half and my first time playing a season in two years.”

None of the chatter that he wasn’t a team guy, or that he was a bad apple has followed him to Toronto, where he’s been given a fresh start. Even in private conversations, Marlies insiders will say how Ho-Sang they see is not the Ho-Sang they expected. No one says a bad word about him.
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