The Maple Leafs practised at Ford Performance Centre on Sunday.
University of Toronto goalie Alex Bishop dressed as the back-up for the cap-strapped Maple Leafs against the Ottawa Senators on Saturday night. But, his first taste of the NHL actually came in the morning when he was asked to take the net for a skills session featuring Auston Matthews.
"I got the pep talk before, 'Try not to lose confidence, he's a pretty good player,'" the 24-year-old commerce major from Richmond Hill, Ont. said with a grin. "I did my best ... Yeah, he has a good shot."
Auston Matthews on the ice ahead of Leafs morning skate as he continues to work his way back from surgery on his left wrist— Mark Masters (@markhmasters) October 16, 2021
Toronto hosts NYR on Monday & SJS on Friday before travelling to PIT next Saturday pic.twitter.com/r2KYGnALwV
Matthews terrorized goalies last season scoring 41 times in 52 games en route to winning his first Rocket Richard Trophy. And he did it while playing through a nagging left wrist injury. Matthews had surgery to repair the issue in August and missed the first three games of the regular season. He plans to return to the lineup on Monday night when the Leafs host the New York Rangers.
"He looks great," said John Tavares, who has been filling in as the top-line centre. "He's come off injuries really well in the past so he has a good sense of how to prepare himself and what he's got to do. Matty's always pretty good so he's always going to find a way to make an impact and be dangerous out there."
Without Matthews, the Leafs have lacked a spark up front scoring just seven goals through three games. Mitch Marner and Tavares have mustered just one assist each while Nick Ritchie, the top line left winger, is still looking for his first point.
The return of the team's best player will send a jolt through the lineup.
"It's huge, obviously," said coach Sheldon Keefe. "[He's] one of the best players in the world. It's been tough not having him in the games, because you're seeing just how effective and dominant he is in the practice sessions ... I know he's excited. Players are excited. Fans should be excited."
Keefe believes the Hart Trophy runner-up is poised to take another stride forward this season.
"His skating, to me, looks even better than it was a year ago," the coach noted. "And I thought he skated better a year ago than two seasons ago. He's changed his body and his training and all those things, but now he's also committed a lot more time to working on his skating given that he couldn't handle pucks [after the surgery]. He looks a lot quicker out here. He looks very confident in his skating, very comfortable at high speeds."
With Matthews back, the new Leafs power-play formation will get its first look in a game.
"It makes us much more dangerous," said Keefe. "A lot more for the opposition to think about. Those guys have had a lot of practice reps together now, but not game reps so we'll find our way through that and see how it goes."
Last season, other teams focused on taking away the Matthews shot and the Leafs never really established a secondary option. This year, with new assistant coach Spencer Carbery overseeing things, Toronto has moved Marner, who's more of a playmaker, to the middle of the ice with William Nylander shifting to the flank.
"It's going to open space for somebody," Matthews said. "You have to take somebody away."
Matthews led the team with 10 power-play goals last season while Tavares, who plays the net-front role, was second with six and Nylander was third with four.
The Leafs are three-for-11 on the power play this season and failed to convert on a lengthy five-on-three chance on Saturday against the Senators.
With Matthews back, Jason Spezza returns to the second power-play group and Pierre Engvall, who scored on the man advantage on Wednesday, is bumped off that unit.
Matthews received a big ovation on Wednesday night when he was introduced at Toronto's home opener.
"It gave me butterflies," the 24-year-old said. "Made me really I wish I would've been out there with the excitement of having fans back in the arena and the energy and passion that obviously comes from it."
The Rocket pic.twitter.com/JxX43PBJki— Omar (@TicTacTOmar) October 13, 2021
As much as it hurt to watch, Matthews believes the patient approach and extra practice time will pay off.
"I'm pumped," the Arizona native said. "It's not a lot of fun watching. You know, it looks like the guys are having a lot of fun out there so I've been itching to get back in. But, it's been good to stay patient and make sure I'm feeling fully confident which, taking a little bit of extra time, I absolutely do."
The Leafs are adopting a relaxed dress code this season.
"Trying to keep it professional, but certainly we've tried to give a little more freedom," Tavares revealed. "It's gone well so far. Guys have been really receptive."
Will the captain be tweaking his wardrobe?
"Occasionally," Tavares said with a grin. "I don't think anyone will worry too much what I wear compared to some of the other guys. They're really into their style and their fashion. For me, just kind of keep it simple."
The collective bargaining agreement mandates that players must wear jackets, ties and dress pants to games unless otherwise specified by the coach or general manager. The new Leafs policy came about as a result of discussions between the players and general manager Kyle Dubas.
"I don't believe there's much correlation in how they dress coming into the building and how they perform, but there's some bigger picture stuff in there that they believe in," said Keefe. "I'm good with it. As a parent of young kids in minor hockey, who has had to put them in a shirt and tie to drive out to the arena, I'm all for some relaxed dress codes."
Matthews has previously advocated for more fashion flexibility.
"I don't mind wearing a suit, but it gets old pretty quick," Matthews told ESPN's Emily Kaplan in a recent interview. "I think it'd be fun to wear different things and be able to express yourself, similar to what the NBA does or even the NFL a little bit."
"I'm with him," said Marner. "I think a lot of guys are with him ... It's good to express yourself."
So, what will be allowed this year?
"There's a happy medium between, like, casual and whatever a suit and tie would be," Matthews said. "It's nice to mix it up a little bit and have fun with it."
The Arizona Coyotes have also decided to relax their dress code this season.
Sheldon Keefe says dress code change came via talks between players & Kyle Dubas— Mark Masters (@markhmasters) October 17, 2021
“I don’t believe there’s much correlation in how they dress with how they perform, but there’s bigger picture stuff they believe in” pic.twitter.com/aHFCuRMfM2
Fans at Scotiabank Arena have been showing their support for Jack "Soupy" Campbell by shouting "Sooooooooup!" after big saves this season.
"I did hear and really appreciate it so thanks guys," Campbell said with a big smile on Saturday night. "That's pretty cool."
The 29-year-old has never experienced that type of cheer before.
Campbell stopped 20-of-21 Senators shots on Saturday night, but didn't feel entirely comfortable.
"I was OK," he said. "I have standards and it just wasn't my 'A' game. But, got a win and feel good about getting a win. I'll watch the tape and be better next game."
Was he specifically disappointed with the goal he allowed?
"No, just the overall game," he said. "But, the goal, obviously, I didn't love. I'm usually more patient than that. So, just a little bit uncharacteristic, but I'll clean it up."
With Petr Mrazek sidelined 14 days with a groin injury sustained on Thursday, Campbell will get a run of games here, and he can draw confidence from posting a win despite not feeling his best.
"I'm not, like, beating myself up over [it]. We're all human," he said. "We all have a little bit of an off night, but I just expect some areas to be better and I'll sharpen those up and be ready to go on Monday."
With fans allowed back in the building this season, Wayne Simmonds is now able to share a moment with his family along the glass during warm-ups.
"It's special," he said. "I think being able to play in my hometown and having my wife and daughter at the game for warm-ups, they've been there the last two home game, it's been really nice for me to see them. And just have the fans, in general, it's been unbelievable. They're getting pretty rowdy out there and it's nice to see. It energizes me and helps me play better."
Simmonds got the crowd fired up by scoring Toronto's first goal on Saturday night. Michael Bunting, also a local product, picked up his first goal as a Leaf in the third period.
"I'm pretty much speechless about it," the 26-year-old said. "It was a pretty cool experience to look up and see all those Maple Leaf jerseys in the crowd and cheering and they were cheering for me. For a kid coming up, growing up in Scarborough not too far from here, it's a dream come true to score that first one."
Simmonds and Bunting are both from the same part of Toronto and it's an important part of their identity as hockey players.
"If you come from Scarborough and you hear other people come from Scarborough you're always pretty close with them," Bunting said. "The lifestyle growing up there, you know, you grind to get what you get."
"We got such a tight community in Scarborough," Simmonds said. "I know all the guys who came up in my age group, and even all the younger guys and older guys, we always look out for each other. We have a nice, tight network and it's nice to have another guy on your team from Scarborough, that's for sure."
Simmonds and Bunting are both heart-and-soul guys, who bring a blue-collar approach to the blue and white.
Bunting has already drawn three penalties, one in each game played.
"He's the energizer bunny out there," Simmonds observed. "He's always yapping. He plays hard. He's got really good hands and a great motor."
"Whether he is scoring or not, he is competing at a very high level," said Keefe. "He is engaged in the game and he is engaged in every shift. He wants to score. Of course, everybody wants to score, but it is very obvious — it is apparent — that he is putting himself out there. He is not afraid to go to the areas where a goal is more likely to happen. He is in the fight every day. That is what I like about him."
Simmonds admits he would hate playing against a guy like Bunting.
"He'd probably be in my back-pocket all game and getting me pretty annoyed," Simmonds said with a chuckle. "It's great to have guys like that on your team. I can't stress enough how much that brings to the morale of the team and gets everyone else going. It's a huge factor and Bunts is doing an unbelievable [job]."
Lines at Sunday's practice:
Ritchie - Matthews - Marner
Bunting - Tavares - Nylander
Kerfoot - Kampf - Fase
Spezza / Engvall - Simmonds
Rielly - Brodie
Amadio - Liljegren
Sandin - Dermott
Absent: Holl (illness), Mrazek (groin), Muzzin (maintenance)
Power play units at Sunday's practice:
Flanks: Nylander, Matthews
Net front: Tavares
Flanks: Kase, Spezza
Net front: Ritchie