TSN Toronto reporter Kristen Shilton checks in daily with news and notes on the Maple Leafs. The team held an 11 a.m. practice at MasterCard Centre
Another day, another solo practice for Frederik Andersen.
The Maple Leafs’ starting goaltender has been dealing with a groin injury since before Christmas and hasn’t played for Toronto since Dec. 22.
The Leafs revealed Andersen was dealing with the ailment before he missed a scheduled start on Dec. 29, and he’s sat out the last two practices in favour of one-on-one drill sessions with goaltending coach Steve Briere.
Andersen will miss Toronto’s next game on Thursday against Minnesota as well, and where he goes from there is a mystery.
“No update on Freddie,” Mike Babcock announced after the Leafs’ practice on Wednesday. “We have a practice day in between [our next two games], [but] I don’t know if he can practise one day and come back. Now, he’s practising every day. He’s on the ice, he’s doing his thing. Feeling pretty good. I don’t know, I don’t ask him. When they tell me, I’ll know.”
Towards the end of Wednesday’s individual work with Briere, Andersen was joined by injured winger Zach Hyman, who has resumed skating after suffering an ankle injury on Dec. 18.
The Leafs have had to endure the absence of several key pieces this season, including Auston Matthews and William Nylander, and are confident they can continue riding out this latest loss of Andersen.
“You can’t replace him; he’s huge for us,” said Patrick Marleau. “It’s going to take a lot of effort from everyone else to pick up the slack. You don’t like seeing guys out, but knowing [others] can step up their game and certainly help compensate, it gives you a little bit of confidence.”
“From what I know, I don’t think it’s going to be an extended period of time,” Nazem Kadri added. “So hopefully we’ll have him back soon. Obviously he’s a big part of our team and he’s a guy that we rely on and we trust.”
In fact, Kadri believes the losses Toronto has dealt with this season will ultimately pay dividends in the second half of the season.
“It’s important for teams not to get discouraged when high-calibre players go down,” Kadri said. “We have that depth to be able to have guys step in and fill voids while other players are down, so that’s an important [element] to have.”
Thrust into the spotlight with Andersen getting hurt has been Garret Sparks. He will make his fourth straight start on Thursday, boasting a 6-2-1 record in his first full season as an NHL backup.
“The biggest thing is just composure,” Babcock said of the changes in Sparks this season. “I thought he made a lot of saves [in Saturday’s 4-0 loss to the New York Islanders]. I thought when the fourth goal went in he got rattled for a bit. There’s no sense getting rattled, no sense getting wound up.”
It’s those types of lessons that the 25-year-old Sparks can only truly gather from being in the starting spot he is now, for however long it lasts.
"The backup goalie position is a hard position mentally,” said Babcock. “You see a lot of veteran guys doing it. You don’t see as many kids doing it, and there’s a reason – it’s mentally hard. He’s getting an opportunity right now though to show what he has and I think that’s what you’re always hoping for and preparing for in life."
Babcock refused to reveal who will backup Sparks against Minnesota, but Kasimir Kaskisuo and Michael Hutchinson are both available to be recalled on an emergency basis from the AHL Toronto Marlies.
The Leafs knew sitting on a shutout loss to the Islanders for four days wouldn’t be enjoyable, even if they were looking forward to a short break from their packed December schedule.
With ample time to process what went so wrong last Saturday, the Leafs are convinced they learned something from one of their most listless defeats of the season.
“It just shows how good you have to be on a nightly basis to have success,” said John Tavares. “With as much talent as we have, and the depth we have, we have to go out there and execute our game plan with the identity of the group. The attention to detail and work ethic has to be there for us to have success in this league.”
Toronto is currently sitting second overall in the NHL standings, 10 points behind Tampa with one game in hand, but is desperate to recapture the strengths they showed during an 8-2-2 run before Saturday’s stinker. Not all of those outings were examples of the Leafs' best work, but they showed resiliency and creativity in earning positive outcomes.
“It’s hard to be [at that level we want] on a daily basis,” conceded Tavares. “It’s about finding a way to dig in and do what you have to do to give yourself a chance to win. That’s playing how we need to play, which will lead to good habits and good opportunities. I’d like to believe more often than not, when we do those things, our group will get the result we want.”
Babcock has frequently referenced the Lightning as a club doing most things better than anyone else in the NHL right now, and the way they’re deploying a balanced attack is what he’d like to see the Leafs do a better job of going forward.
“Looking at a team like Tampa, they really have the ability to play their lines. That’s what we’d like to do for sure,” Babcock said. “We think it’s the best [plan] long-term. Sometimes, the games we lose, we overplay our guys because we’re chasing the game and the games we win, we always get good minutes out of everybody because you’re not chasing the game.”
That ties into Babcock’s general coaching philosophy of providing meaningful work for all his players.
“Play everybody, and make everybody important,” he said. “Everyone we have on our team, we try and have a job [for them], whether on the power play or the penalty kill. Try to make everybody important and in the end I think that’s how you have team success.”
Toronto is lucky if once a year the NHL affords them an afternoon start in the schedule, like the 2 p.m. puck drop for Thursday’s game against the Wild. Truth be told, Babcock wouldn’t mind seeing a few more early nights for his team.
“I like the 2 o’clock game, especially when we’re on the road,” he said. “We can’t seem to get that done very much around here. I’d like to have some 2 o’clockers on Saturday, I’m just [saying]. Two o’clock on Sunday, too.”
Thursday’s tilt will be the only afternoon appointment for Toronto this season in what they’re calling the ‘Next Generation Game.’ The tradition started last year when the Leafs hosted a Next Century game in honour of the franchise's 100th season. Now it’s become a platform to help grow hockey as much as possible.
“I think we do a real good job here in Toronto with our fan base and with the kids and doing everything we can to sell the game,” Babcock said. “I just know by being involved in our [Canadian] national team and watching World Juniors and all that stuff, is just how big a deal it is for Canada. That’s the only way you’re going to get good players is if you have grassroots hockey. Sharing in the community is so important.”
The change in start time does put a crimp in the Leafs’ usual game-day routine, but Tavares has seen some benefits from having his usual pattern disrupted in the past.
“Over the course of my career, my routine is a lot less consistent. I like to kind of change things up,” Tavares said. “It keeps you fresh, keeps you sharp and feeling ready to play. So being able to get up and put your gear on and get into it, especially after the number of days off we’ve had, I think it’s great.”
Maple Leafs lines at practice:
Alex Fotino (York University goalie)