TSN Toronto reporter Mark Masters checks in daily with news and notes on the Maple Leafs, who practised at BB&T Center in Sunrise, Fla., on Wednesday ahead of Thursday’s game against the Panthers.
With defenceman Jake Muzzin sidelined approximately four weeks with a broken right hand, Travis Dermott is getting more responsibility skating alongside Justin Holl as part of the matchup pair.
"Muzzy's a massive part of our team," Dermott said, "definitely our defensive anchor so everyone's got to do a little more defensively to make up for that. My game's going along slowly, you try to figure it out game by game, get better game by game."
But with only 18 games left and Morgan Rielly (broken foot) and Cody Ceci (high ankle sprain) still “weeks” away from returning, according to coach Sheldon Keefe, the Leafs need Dermott to raise his game. The 23-year-old passed the first test on Tuesday night helping Toronto survive a third-period push by the high-octane Tampa Bay Lightning.
"It felt nice for me and Hollsy to be out there at the end," Dermott said of the frantic final minutes, "don't get that opportunity too often, but it felt nice to be able to shut them down."
Dermott missed the start of the season after undergoing summer shoulder surgery and hasn't seemed to hit his full stride yet.
"I worry more about the team," said Dermott when asked about his season. "You worry about yourself, but I think how the team's doing is a big indicator ... some ups and downs, obviously, getting back from my injury, getting familiar with everything again, but all good going forward and hopefully we get on a nice little win streak here."
Dermott has posted nine points in 50 games while averaging 16 minutes and 40 seconds of ice time. But Keefe liked how Dermott responded while logging almost 23 minutes last night, including more than 11 in the third.
"Looking at how he played against some of their better people, how competitive he was, I thought he just really worked hard and defended our net well," the coach observed. "When Muzzin went down he had to take on more yesterday so it's just a good sign that he's up for that challenge. I think he's been waiting for the chance to take steps."
Not that he needs any extra motivation, but Dermott's family is on this trip and they even attended today's practice.
"Nice to have them here, good to have that support," Dermott said with a smile. "My dog was even here, passed out on my mom's lap, I was like, 'This is crazy,' but I love it."
With all the injuries on defence, rookie Rasmus Sandin is also in line for more minutes. Sandin, who partnered with Tyson Barrie at practice, insists he doesn't feel any additional pressure.
"Every game I'm playing up here I’m just enjoying it and think it's the funnest thing in the world so I’ll just keep thinking that," he said.
Sandin was on the ice for all three Tampa goals last night. The Swede played sparingly in the first two periods before logging 9:34 in the third.
"It was up and down," Sandin said of his game. "I feel like just a couple slow plays, but at the end, when Muzz got out, I got a lot of ice time so I think that got me into the game and that third period was pretty good."
Sandin is just 24 games into his career and still picking up the nuances of the NHL. For example, he struggled to gain inside position in a battle with Patrick Maroon, who stands six-foot-2, 236 pounds, on the Lightning's second goal. Sandin, who's five-foot-11, 183 pounds, believes he needs to be quicker in those type of battles.
"You just got to do it a little bit in a different way," he said of the adjustment. "You maybe have to do it a little earlier, start the box-outs earlier. I mean, all the guys are stronger and smarter as well so they just find different ways to get to the net. You have to outsmart them and already be there before they're trying to be there. You have to do it earlier."
In the moments after Tuesday's game, Barrie declared that the Leafs must take on a next-man-up mentality with Muzzin out.
"We're in a spot where we can't let that effect the way we're playing," he said. "It will be a big test for us."
It will be a big test for Barrie as well. The 28-year-old, who will be an unrestricted free agent this summer, is now by far the most experienced player on Toronto's back end.
"Every player, regardless of experience, is going to have to show leadership in their own manner," Keefe noted. "That said, I mean, Tyson Barrie, right away is the guy that jumps off the page in terms of the experience he provides on defence. I might be wrong, but he may have more games played than every other single guy combined. We'll have to rely on him in that sense."
The coach is right. Barrie has played 548 NHL games while Martin Marincin (222), Dermott (151), Holl (75), Sandin (24), Calle Rosen (16) and Timothy Liljegren (eight) have combined to play 496.
"It's not ideal, but, I mean, it’s part of the gig, right," Keefe said. "It's a reason why you acquire depth and a reason why you develop players and a reason why you have a good and healthy minor league system. It’s to be able to have these situations happen and then continue to press on."
Keefe also said it's up to the rest of the lineup to raise their game to insulate the defence.
"It puts a little more onus on our collective group, the forwards in particular, to do a good job of protecting them."
John Tavares was asked about Muzzin's looming absence last night.
"We can't hang our heads and think ‘Why us?’ ” Toronto's captain said. “As a group, collectively, we have to step up and fill that void and continue to play better and when guys get more opportunity, that's their chance to take advantage of it, relish it and thrive with it."
Kyle Dubas re-Tweeted a reporter who posted that quote today. The Leafs general manager included a link to a video where British philosopher Alan Watts tells the story of a man who refuses to think about anything as good or bad, because no one ever knows what will happen next. All you can control is your reaction to what life throws at you.
"The whole process of nature is an integrated process of immense complexity, and it’s really impossible to tell whether anything that happens in it is good or bad," Watts said.
William Nylander received Toronto's game ball – the player-of-the-game award – after Tuesday's win. The 23-year-old provided the highlight of the night scoring a between-the-legs beauty on the power play, which ended up as the game-winning goal.
"I can't really see anything so I'm just going by feel," Nylander explained, "but obviously you have to get it up there if you want to score. I mean, (Andrei) Vasilevskiy is good along the ice so you got to get it up."
"That was pretty special," said goalie Frederik Andersen. "It just creates extra reach for him and you don't really expect it so not everyone can pull that off. Good for Willie. It's pretty."
Nylander insists he never practises that move, but Marner has noticed the Swede try and execute it in previous games.
"He's tried that a couple times so it doesn't surprise me that he finally pulled that off," Marner said. "He has the hands for it."
"I didn't really have time to think," said Nylander. "It just kind of happened so it was nice to put one in, that's for sure."
It wasn't just a pretty play, it may have been the best option in that moment after Marner created space by faking out Erik Cernak to deliver the puck down low.
"That's pretty sweet," Barrie said. "He didn't really have much else to do with it, it was his only option, I think, so he put it right upstairs."
Keefe liked the finish as well, but chose to highlight another aspect of Nylander's play.
"He really worked in this game and won a lot of loose pucks for us," the coach said. "It was well deserved for him to get the game ball."
Toronto's last two wins – home to the Pittsburgh Penguins and last night in Tampa – were preceded by a practice day. So, that may be a good sign for tomorrow's big game against the Panthers, because the Leafs held a 30-minute workout today.
"I thought today, the vibe and energy around our team has been as good as it's been in a very long time," Keefe noted, "and we earned that through the effort yesterday and the result that we got and we got to continue to feel that way."
The Panthers had the day off after returning from Arizona where they played Tuesday night. Both teams are opting not to skate on Thursday morning.
While Rosen appeared to be the seventh defenceman at practice, Keefe said he hadn't made a final decision on who will play on the third pair against the Panthers.
Lines at Wednesday's practice:
Hyman - Matthews - Marner
Nylander - Tavares - Malgin
Engvall - Kerfoot - Kapanen
Clifford - Spezza - Gauthier
Dermott - Holl
Sandin - Barrie
Marincin - Liljegren
Power-play units at Wednesday's practice:
Marner - Tavares - Matthews
Malgin - Kerfoot - Spezza