Kristen Shilton, reporter for TSN Toronto, records daily news and notes on Maple Leafs. The team held a 13:15 / ct training Wednesday at the MTS Center in Winnipeg before Thursday’s game against the Jets.
If his first weeks of work are indicative, Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe does not believe in standing offensively. Instead Keefe just follows his instincts, like what he said that putting Auston Matthews with Mitch Marner and William Nylander with John Tavares would help create a dynamic top-six for Toronto.
“He’s more than just a suspect,” Keefe said after Wednesday’s Leafs tests on what led him to the new combinations. “And every time you make a move, it has a cascading effect. We are lucky to have a lot of good players who can experiment with different things and they all seem to work. “
Part of that unit with Tavares and Nylander was Alexander Kerfoot, moved from his usual place in the center to play on the wing. Keefe made the decision in response to Ilya Mikheyev’s loss in the next three months with ligament damage, but like everything Keefe does, there are more levels than that.
“It’s an experiment, another out of necessity, and we liked how it looks so far,” he said. “We intended to have Pierre [Engvall] play in the center on the third line, and then I did not like how it looked early and put yourself [Jason] Break there and have some traction. But the season brings many different things: different opponents, different challenges, injuries, players who play well, players who do not play well. So, more than one champion we have with different combinations, I think it can serve us well there. “
Kerfoot has already skated on the wing previously, so when Keefe approached him to move last week, he was ready to make the necessary changes.
“As a centreman, you’re busy throughout the game and when you’re in the d-zone, you’re always on a guy who fights for loose records,” he explained. “Sometimes when you’re a winger, you can stay stagnant for a little longer. It’s just in the right place and you focus on whatever your responsibility is, so you obviously have a little more leeway to play offensive games and you can spend a little more time on ice. “
While it’s only a couple of games since the trio started acclimating, Tavares has already made great strides.
“I think we’re just trying to be responsible in all three areas and obviously we want to be productive and make a difference in the game,” he said. “We all think quite well about the game. We play each other’s strengths and feel good for each other, so when we get opportunities it’s not trying to do too much, put the puck on the net, find ways to find rebounds or second chances and keep breaking the yours the opponent lowers and continues to spawn and has a good possession of the puck, so we will continue to build it.
Ever since Keefe played his suspect and moved Nylander to Tavares’ side, the wing has become one of the team’s most dominant players, producing 11 points (six goals, five assists) in his last six games – including five points in the power play – and look forward to the superstar.
“Now he was really good here,” said Keefe. “Whether it’s just finding your own game and feeling comfortable, or changing the lines and chemistry there, or John’s presence on his line, [he’s been good]. And his presence in the power game, where I think he has become much more comfortable with his role playing there [at the net front], which was a new role for him. All these things seem to be going well and it has been excellent. “
It was not until mid-December that Keefe complained of inconsistencies with Nylander’s game and even limited his turns in games where Nylander was not defensively engaged. But those bumps seem far from Nylander now.
“I think I’m just skating a lot,” he said. “Obviously the power play was also clicked in order to give you some confidence. We played a lot in the o-zone, so the game is simple. I think it was just rebounds and things went my way too, so it went pretty well. “
Tavares had previously shared the ice with Nylander on power play, but the extra time at 5 out of 5 opened even more eyes on what makes Nylander special. While it is never certain that players will click, Nylander has described his feeling with Tavares as “instant” and the Leafs captain felt the same way.
“See how quickly those decisions need to be made [with the puck] and sometimes not even having a look, just having an idea of where everyone is, is really impressive, “said Tavares of Nylander. “And I think it’s very underestimated by how strong it is on the record. He can hold him for very long periods with strong pressure on him. I think we feed each other well, so we will try to keep improving and find areas where we can attack the opponent. It is definitely nice when you get together and get good results in advance. “
This also included individual returns for Tavares, who has scored nine points (three goals, six assists) in his last six games. As their unity continues to buzz ahead of Thursday’s penchant with the Jets, Nylander is determined to protect himself from complacency, especially for himself.
“It’s nice when that [success] it happens, but you always want to go on, “he said. “You never want to be satisfied with it, so we just want to keep working hard and fighting.”
When a team is practicing and playing with the turbulent enthusiasm of recent times, it is not that difficult to find out the reason.
“It’s the obvious answer, but I think it’s the answer: to win,” said Keefe. “When you’re losing, it’s more difficult to feel that way.”
Toronto ended 2019 with a 4-1 win over Minnesota, marking the team’s seventh win in eight games and eighth consecutive game in which it earned at least one point. When it comes to building confidence, there is no substitute for success or further team bonding, as the Leafs have done on their numerous road trips.
“We definitely like to be next to each other and come to the track every day, go to work and try to improve,” said Tavares. “But I don’t think we understand the attention to detail and how difficult things are even when they are going well. We will continue to challenge ourselves to be better and to make things go in the right direction and get good results and create momentum, and try to find the right approach, the right attitude every day. “
Tavares noted that the season did not start well for Toronto and that it was a point of emphasis for the players to correct mistakes on the ice that led to this. From Keefe’s perspective, he also had another job to do in taking on the responsibilities of the coach who would allow the Leafs to savor hockey again.
“I tried to ease the pressure a little bit by simply allowing them to be themselves and have fun and try to keep things in perspective,” he explained. “The team is playing well, it is a new year, January 1st, which is probably not the most ideal day to come on the track and practice but we are here, it is important for us to do some work but do it in an environment where players can have fun and still leave the arena as if they have accomplished something. “
“We go around and have fun and it’s obviously very important,” Nylander speculated. “I think it is the key to success. Here everyone has fun together. “
Keefe had said before the current swing on two Leafs games that he felt comfortable traveling without extra progress and seven defenders. But that feeling changed when Engvall left Tuesday’s game and Keefe was not for a short time sure he could return due to an injury.
Engvall ended up ending the game, but the team still decided to remember Mason Marchment forward Wednesday to join the group in Winnipeg in case there are unexpected setbacks.
“We wanted to have an extra body here,” said Keefe. “We had some guys a little banged up [on Tuesday] so I just want to make sure everyone is fine. We have not made any decisions with our training here [against the Jets]; we will see how they are all [on Thursday] and go from there. “
Keefe acknowledged that it was a “long journey” for Marchment to get to this point in his career, from suffering injuries to fighting for game time. So far this season, he has only appeared in 11 AHL games due to previous shoulder surgery, and has produced four points (two goals, two assists).
“He worked hard on his game, on his body and fought injuries,” said Keefe. “And this season it’s the same again with a second shoulder surgery [after a previous operation last winter]. I was really impressed with how it worked. During my time with the Marlies earlier this season, his attitude and the work he put in to recover from a second surgery in the same calendar year have been difficult and he has handled him very well and has placed himself in the position for receive this call. “
Although Marchment does not make his NHL debut during the recall, Keefe hopes to gain an appreciation for what life is like at the highest levels of sport. It’s something Keefe did earlier this season with Adam Brooks, and he found it helpful for him later to switch to a role with the team.
“It’s part of what I’ve been trying to do here is trying to expose as many people to our program as possible,” said Keefe. “Part of getting an opportunity is being prepared when that happens, even if they don’t go into training, we just think having them around gives them the opportunity to feel comfortable with the staff, with their teammates, with that that we are doing with the NHL and all that the NHL brings, so that when they get on the ice they feel more comfortable. “
Lines of maple leaves in practice:
Hyman – Matthews – Marner
Kerfoot – Tavares – Nylander
Engvall – Spezza – Kapanen
Timashov – Brooks – Gauthier
Rielly – Barrie
Marincin – Holl
Dermott – Chickpeas