Getting up to game speed without games is a big challenge facing National Hockey League teams this summer, especially those playing a best-of-five elimination series right away. With that in mind, Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe has come up with a fun way to raise the intensity at training camp. The players have been split into two teams for a five-scrimmage series with good pals Auston Matthews and Frederik Andersen serving as captains.
"We had a nice intro video for it and got the guys fired up," revealed goalie Jack Campbell. "I think everybody is really embracing it. They're besties and lived together so the [staff] wanted to make it into a fun rivalry."
Andersen moved into Matthews' home in Arizona during the pandemic pause and thus the team is billing the series as 'A house divided.'
"We're playing on the Matthews-Andersen relationship and friendship," Keefe explained. "You see two guys taking care of each other and hanging out with each other during a tough time ... it was a really cool thing for our team and we're just kind of playing off of that and creating some competitiveness."
"They are two of our biggest leaders," noted Campbell. "Any time you have those kind of competitors you know it's going to be a good scrimmage."
So, that explains the captain picks, but where things get really interesting is how the players have been divided. The top six forwards and bottom four defencemen are together while the bottom six forwards and top four defenceman have been combined.
"I don't know who made those teams, but they got the top six," observed smiling centre Alex Kerfoot. "Not sure if that's an oversight."
"Obviously it's a little unconventional," Keefe acknowledged. "Usually you'd take those [top] lines and put one on each team, but this is not a conventional camp or conventional time and we've got to adapt to it. We're trying to get a lot out of these games and keeping those guys together gives us an opportunity to not only try different things involving special teams, but we can change those lines at any time and use [other] combinations we have in mind."
Zach Hyman scored twice to give Team Matthews a 4-2 lead on Wednesday, but the top-six guys were held in check down the stretch allowing Team Andersen to storm back for a 6-5 win.
"We've got the Kerfoot line and the [Frederik] Gauthier line, two lines that really have to work to make life hard on the opposition with their habits, their details and how they play," Keefe noted. "Our top guys have got to get used to playing against guys that make it hard on them so we just thought it was a way to create that environment."
Jason Spezza tipped home the winning goal off a Jake Muzzin blast with 17 seconds left. Nic Petan chipped in two tallies for Team Andersen. Calle Rosen connected on a penalty shot with Adam Brooks, Teemu Kivihalme, Gauthier, Kerfoot and Mitch Marner also scoring.
"It was really what you've come to expect from scrimmages in the early going," Keefe said. "It was quite sloppy, lots of back-and-forth, not a lot of saves, so it was not what we want to look like in the end but it's part of the process. But time is not on our side and we need to make sure each day we come out here and play these scrimmages and have our habits and details start to fall into place."
With only one exhibition game – July 28 against the Montreal Canadiens – on the schedule, the five scrimmages at training camp are taking on even greater significance. Wednesday's opening encounter consisted of two 20-minute periods with stop time and music blaring after whistles. The goalies each played one period with Andersen duelling with Campbell in the first. Assistant coaches Dave Hakstol and Paul McFarland were on the benches with Keefe watching from the stands alongside general manager Kyle Dubas and president Brendan Shanahan.
"We need to have game action as best we can to be able to really prepare ourselves to play because it's not just structural and system things for us," Keefe said. "There's game habits and things in the flow of the game, how you manage the puck and your shift length and your line changes, all of these things are really important for us and areas where we have to grow as a team. It's not necessarily just things you can [work on] in a practice environment. We need game reps and we don't have an exhibition season."
Game 2 is set for Saturday.
"Guys are taking it serious," said veteran left winger Kyle Clifford. "Maybe there's not a whole ton of physicality out there, but there's definitely the mindset that we want to be ready."
The media will get to vote on the Phase 3 Most Valuable Player after the final game on July 23.
Keefe expected to have an American Hockey League officiating crew on hand for all scrimmages at camp to create a more game-like feel, but that plan was shelved after other teams raised concerns with the NHL.
"Apparently people around the NHL are paying attention to our media reports here in Toronto," said Keefe. "I think there are some people around the League that perhaps liked the idea that we had referees, but didn't like the idea that maybe they didn't have the same available to them. We had to make an adjustment and perfectly fine doing that."
Marlies coach Greg Moore is now handling the officiating duties in scrimmages.
A couple of Toronto players, who are due to become unrestricted free agents after this season, have been asked for their thoughts on hitting the open market in uncertain times.
"It's a difficult time for everybody," said defenceman Tyson Barrie. "Whatever free agency looks like it's probably not going to be as good as it would have been, but it's all relative and you just keep it in perspective. We're lucky to have jobs and to play this game so you can't really stress about that."
Clifford is focused on flattening the Columbus Blue Jackets in the best-of-five qualifying round series and not fixating on the flat salary cap.
"We got a mountain to climb here if we want to achieve our ultimate goal and that starts with Columbus," Clifford said. “That other stuff will sort itself out as time goes on. I'm not too worried about."
One day after William Nylander declared his desire to be a dominant playoff performer, Keefe was asked what the key is for the 24-year-old winger.
"The big thing that stands out for William is just his consistency. The consistency he brings in his effort and competitiveness," said Keefe, who also worked with Nylander in the AHL. "I showed him a number of different clips where he was all over the puck and winning pucks back. One very underrated thing about William is the way he can win pucks back. In terms of takeaways in the offensive zone he's right near the top of the League and that's just him being strong on his stick, being smart, using his skill to win the puck back. There's a whole competitive side to that as well and when he's doing that it allows him to play with the puck that much more and he's that much more engaged. That's what we're looking for from him, that consistency, because the talent and the ability, not many players in the world can match that and he has that and we’ve just got to see it all the time."
During the regular season, Nylander appeared to be as locked in as we've ever seen him during his NHL career. His longest point drought was four games and that was back in October. And Keefe likes how the Swede has worked during Phase 2 and the early part of training camp. But the coach notes that Nylander has, in the past at least, been susceptible to letdowns.
"It's part of Will's nature at times to not be as engaged as you'd like him to be and he needs a push. Sometimes it comes from me but sometimes it comes from himself as well. He's a guy that is hard on himself ... you talk to him and show him the clips and a lot of times he doesn't even need to see the clips. He knows the situations you're talking about."
The Leafs will not be on the ice on Thursday, but Keefe will hold a Zoom session with the media.
Team Matthews lines in scrimmage:
Nylander - Matthews - Hyman
Mikheyev - Tavares - Marner
Agostino - Brooks - Malgin
Dermott - Barrie
Sandin - Marincin
Kivihalme - Hollowell
Campbell played the first period
Woll played the second period
Team Andersen lines in scrimmage:
Engvall - Kerfoot - Kapanen
Clifford - Gauthier - Spezza
Robertson - Petan - Korshkov
Muzzin - Holl
Rielly - Ceci
Rosen - Gaudet
Andersen played the first period
Kaskisuo played the second period