'Buzzsaw' Kase proving to be the perfect addition for Leafs
TSN Toronto Reporter Mark Masters reports on the Maple Leafs, who practised at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas on Monday ahead of Tuesday’s game against the Golden Knights.
Ondrej Kase returned to practice on Monday skating on Toronto's top line alongside Auston Matthews and Michael Bunting.
"He looked good," observed head coach Sheldon Keefe. "It looked like he was moving well. The guys love having him around. He's got great energy about him. So, I thought he looked good in that sense. It was his first real workout like that on the ice since his injury so we'll have to see how he responds."
Kase tweaked something in the gym last week, which forced him to miss the last two games. The 26-year-old declined to elaborate when asked how exactly he got hurt.
The Leafs face a tough test on Tuesday against the Golden Knights, who lead the Pacific Division, and getting Kase back would be a big boost.
"When he's in the lineup we're a much deeper team in all regards," said Keefe. "Another guy we trust playing against anybody and can play on any line, plays on the power play and penalty kill, plays late in games … when we've played without him, we've felt his absence."
Kase has played in 28 of Toronto's 33 games this season while lining up mostly beside good friend David Kampf. However, he did get a look with Matthews in December when Mitch Marner was sidelined with a shoulder injury.
"It's sick to play with him," Kase said with a big smile. "Like, he's an unbelievable player so I enjoy every moment."
"He hounds pucks," Matthews said. "He's got a lot of speed. He's an easy guy to play with. He makes plays. He works hard and he's really good in open space. We've played with each other a little bit here and there so there's definitely chemistry and some familiarity. Hopefully we can continue where we left off."
With Marner still in COVID protocol, Keefe didn't hesitate to put Kase back alongside Matthews.
"I really liked the way he fit in with Auston," said Keefe of the December audition. "He just looked comfortable. He brought the same work habits that he's brought on other lines and that's important to help that line get the puck back and play in the offensive zone. He also has the skill-set to make a play. He holds onto the puck and makes plays with it and that's something Auston values greatly, as most great players would."
Kampf is a defensive-minded pivot while Matthews is the reigning Rocket Richard Trophy winner, but Kase doesn't feel like there's much of an adjustment.
"I try to play the same game," he said. "It's a little different, but I try to keep it simple like I do with David."
The promotion to the top line is the latest chapter in Kase's feel-good story this season. Concussions limited him to just three games last year with Boston. The Czech winger, a restricted free agent, didn't receive a qualifying offer from the Bruins before signing a modest, one-year pact with the Leafs worth $1.25-million.
Once a 20-goal scorer in Anaheim, Kase's career now appears to be back on track.
"I'm actually, to be honest, really excited with my game," Kase said. "Before the season, I didn't know what's going on with my body and now I'm still in the show. I enjoy every moment."
Kase certainly plays like a guy who's not taking any shift for granted.
"Extremely hard-working player," said veteran forward Jason Spezza. "A buzzsaw that's on the puck all the time. He drives the net hard. He plays almost a reckless game in terms of driving the net and trying to create chances. A high-energy guy, who I think has underrated skills."
Kase had a six-game point streak going before the injury. He has hit the scoresheet in eight of his last nine games.
"My legs are going pretty well," he said. "I forecheck guys. I go in and win the battles. And, I also see more of the game."
It took a while for Kase to get the feel for the game back.
"It's tough when you don't play all [last] season," he explained, "the head is a little slowed down and everything's kind of fast at first."
Alex Kerfoot took Marner's spot alongside Matthews on Saturday night in Colorado and responded with a three-point performance against his old team.
"He just seems really confident every time he's out there," Matthews noted. "His overall confidence has been a lot higher this year. You can just tell when he's on the ice and the way he's been carrying himself. He's been unbelievable in so many different ways. He's very versatile."
Kerfoot has always been a versatile player, but he's never produced offence like this. He's put up eight points in the last three games, which makes this his most productive three-game stretch in the NHL.
The Vancouver native is up to 24 points in 33 games this season. He's on pace for 60 points over 82 games, which would be a significant increase from his previous career high of 43. Last season, Kerfoot recorded 23 points in 56 games, which is a 34-point pace.
"He's playing in a more offensive role," said Spezza. "He's playing on the wing with some good players all the time and that allows his offensive game to come out a little more. There was a lot asked of him playing that third line checking role."
In his first two seasons in Toronto, Kerfoot bounced between the third-line centre spot and a top-six winger spot. His most common linemate, per NaturalStatTrick.com, was Ilya Mikheyev.
This season, Kerfoot has played mostly on a line with John Tavares and William Nylander. Kerfoot only had one multi-point game all of last season. He already has eight this season.
"He's had more consistency in his role playing mainly on left wing," Keefe said. "He's had a consistent role and he just knows what's going to be asked of him each night and he goes out and does that."
"Lots of energy, lots of emotion in his game," added Spezza. "He's a very competitive guy. That's one of the things about Kerf that goes underrated is his competitiveness."
Keefe pointed out that Kerfoot was excellent in the playoffs last season notching six points in the seven games against Montreal.
"He's just picked up from there," the coach said. "Coming back in his third season here, he's a big part of our team. He's a big part of our leadership group. I think that just gives a player confidence."
This season, Kerfoot has taken over from Zach Hyman as the team's NHLPA rep.
"Just a real popular teammate on our team," said Spezza.
Matthews has scored four goals in three career games in Las Vegas.
"It's a blast, honestly," the Arizona native said. "It's one of my favourite buildings to play in, just the atmosphere and what they do to make the energy in the building ... That obviously presents its challenges being on the road so we're trying to get a really good start especially the first 10 minutes. The crowd will get into it and hopefully we can feed off the energy on our side as well."
What is it about the atmosphere in Vegas that makes it stand out?
"It's a pretty good question," Matthews said. "There's a lot that goes into it. It's always loud. They play the music pretty loud. It's always bumping. The fans are always into it. In our experience here, there's been some pretty good games, some pretty tight games, some back and forth. It's always a fun atmosphere."
"It's loud," agreed Spezza. "It's a party atmosphere for the fans and for us it adds great juice and excitement."
Matthews scored two goals in his Vegas debut on New Year's Eve during the 2017-18 season. He doubled down again with a pair of tallies in a Valentine's Day game in the 2018-19 season. Matthews was then held off the scoresheet during Toronto's last trip to the strip on Nov. 19, 2019, which was also the final game for Mike Babcock behind the Leafs bench.
For whatever reason, these Sin City showdowns always feel like an occasion.
"It's known as one of the loudest buildings," said Spezza. "The production around the game, it does feel like a more important game [even though this is a] team that we don't really ever see. It does feel like a more important game when you come in here because of how rowdy the crowd can be. Guys enjoy coming here, obviously because it’s Las Vegas, but also because of the crowd."
The Leafs have lost two of three games at T-Mobile Arena.
Even though his team blew a three-goal lead on Saturday, Keefe struck an upbeat tone in the wake of the overtime loss in Colorado.
"I take nothing but positives out of this game," he told reporters.
But the Leafs are also taking a lesson from the loss.
"We felt like we sat back maybe a little bit too much," said Spezza. "There's some teams you need to do that against when you have a lead, but a team like Colorado it just allows their big guys to get galloping through the neutral zone and feeling good about their game."
The Avalanche stormed back to erase deficits of 3-0 and 4-1 on Saturday. The Leafs were outshot 19-5 in the third period.
"We probably played a little too conservative," Spezza said. "We leaned on the easy play to get a line change and then it felt like they kept coming at us and coming at us. We need to have a little more poise with the puck in those situations and in breaking out and trying to establish a little bit of zone time ourselves. Sheldon talked to us about having a little more poise with the puck at times and having to grab momentum back at times. Finishing games is something we want to be better at and we talked about it right from the start of the year. To lose that one, it's a good reset for us and hopefully we don't do it again."
Establishing a killer instinct was a big talking point following the playoff collapse against Montreal in May and so far this season the Leafs have been successful at locking down leads. Before the high-altitude hiccup on Saturday, Toronto had won 17 straight games when leading after the second period.
The opponent, of course, played a role in Saturday's setback. The Avalanche have won 11 straight games at home.
"It's a good team," Spezza said. "That line [with Nathan MacKinnon between Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen] is arguably the best line in the league and they got rumbling. They got a few power plays and the next thing you know we're on our heels. Sometimes you can survive those games and you move on and you don't think about it, but we couldn't so it's a good game to learn from."
Lines at Monday's practice in Las Vegas courtesy of David Alter of The Hockey News:
Bunting - Matthews - Kase
Kerfoot - Tavares - Nylander
Mikheyev - Kampf - Simmonds
Clifford - Spezza - Ritchie
Rielly - Brodie
Muzzin - Holl
Sandin - Dermott
Liljegren - Biega
COVID protocol: Marner, Engvall
Leafs PP units at practice Jan. 10/22— David Alter (@dalter) January 10, 2022