TSN Toronto reporter Mark Masters checks in daily with news and notes on the Maple Leafs who practiced at the MasterCard Centre on Monday before flying to Nashville for Tuesday’s game against the Predators.
Due to a jam-packed schedule, Leafs coach Mike Babcock hasn't had many chances like the one he had on Monday. Since the all-star break, there's been only three practices following a day off and the other two happened during lengthy road trips. So, this was a valuable coaching moment coming at a crucial time.
"A good opportunity structurally," Babcock said of the fast-paced session. "We got to recommit to being better defensively. We've given up too much on the rush here the last little bit. So, we got to do a better job that way and we understand that as a group."
The Leafs are coming off a brutal week, which saw the team allow 23 goals in four games with almost all the damage at even strength. The Tampa Bay Lightning scored a shorthanded goal during a terrible line change by the Leafs while the Philadelphia Flyers struck with the goalie pulled. There was no special teams work during Toronto's main session Monday. This practice was all about getting to the heart of the matter.
"You want a solution," Babcock said. "I don’t know about you, but I’m way better when I know what the answer is. If I know what the answer is then I can fix it, so we did that here today ... Talked about it, gave the solution and now we have to solve the problem. I don’t think there’s a guy in our room that doesn't trust himself."
"We want hold each other accountable and obviously be better for one another," said centre Auston Matthews. "And the big message today was just commitment on defence and making sure all five guys are communicating and making sure we’re in good spots so we can let our speed and skill show and we’re breaking out easy and getting in and playing in the offensive zone."
Despite the latest setbacks, the atmosphere on Monday wasn't noticeably different.
"The mood's fine," Matthews insisted. "I don’t know, I think we have a bit of a sense of urgency. I think we had a good practice today, getting our legs moving and just moving forward. We're not sulking or getting down on one another."
"A little adversity will be good for some teams sometimes," said goalie Frederik Andersen, "and I’m sure once we work our way out of it we’ll be better off."
The Leafs have struggled to fill the void left by the injuries to puck-moving defencemen Travis Dermott (shoulder) and Jake Gardiner (back). Both have been out since late February.
"The thing about a team is you got 23 spots on it and you got a minor league team and you’re supposed to build the best program you can to have the most depth so you don't miss people," Babcock said. "Now, if you have enough you don’t miss a beat and you just keep on going. There’s other teams that have done a better job when their different players are out than we have in keeping on going and that just tells you what state you’re at and you just have to keep adding better players."
Considering the situation, Babcock was asked if there was any consideration given to calling up defensive prospect Rasmus Sandin. The 19-year-old has been impressive during his first season in the American Hockey League with his role increasing of late due to injuries to fellow blueliners Calle Rosen and Andreas Borgman.
"He’s been really good," Marlies coach Sheldon Keefe told Leafs Nation Network on Sunday. "He’s taken on a lot of responsibility here and you’re pushing him towards 30 minutes for three games in two-and-a-half days. It takes a toll on any player but as a young guy he’s handled it extremely well. Not just him but all of our defence, with missing so many key people everybody is kind of playing in different situations and we’ve responded well.
“We haven’t controlled play as much as we’d like to but we didn’t crack defensively a whole lot in terms of giving up real scoring opportunities and that’s a credit to our whole defence, but certainly Rasmus is leading the way."
Sandin seems to be rising in confidence with 11 points during a current seven-game streak so why not give the team's first-round pick from last June a look?
"We talked about that," Babcock acknowledged. "I talked to Sheldon about it, too. What have we done really well with (Kasperi) Kapanen and (Andreas) Johnsson?"
"Let them develop," a reporter answered.
"So, let’s not get in our own way because we're feeling a little tension," Babcock continued. "Forget that. We got good players here so dig in a play good."
There will be no quick fix to Toronto's situation and GM Kyle Dubas seemed to reference that in a tweet on Monday afternoon:
The Leafs should be getting a boost on Tuesday in Nashville as Kapanen appears likely to return following a concussion sustained on March 9 against the Oilers in Edmonton.
"Just a little play," he said vaguely. "Nothing too bad and just something happened and after just didn't feel like myself ... it's hard to describe the feeling you get. You're just off and don't feel like yourself."
Kapanen practised Monday for the first time since missing four games. He skated on a line with Nazem Kadri and Patrick Marleau.
"There's a back-to-play protocol and I think it's real important, especially with anything with the head," Babcock said. "Kap probably could've gone two games ago, but I think it's important that we handle the situations in the right way and that's why we have a medical team and that's why the coach doesn't decide when you're going."
After getting shelled for 14 goals on 62 shots last week, Andersen was asked what he's working on.
"Keep doing your process that we can control," he said, "and really just try to keep it simple and working on battling on every puck and helping the guys out."
When asked what he learned from reviewing the film, Andersen didn't want to dwell on the past.
"You move past it and now I focus on Nashville and try to be prepared for that."
Andersen is 8-1-0 with a .929 save percentage in his career against the Predators. He missed the first game against Nashville (a 4-0 Leafs loss on Jan. 7) due to a groin injury.
Frederik Gauthier will miss at least the next two games with a foot injury. Nic Petan skated as the fourth-line centre at practice.
Lines at Monday’s practice: