TORONTO — The Maple Leafs held their final training camp practice in Phase 3 of the NHL’s return-to-play plan on Saturday, wrapping up an often-intense two-week program ahead of Phase 4's playoff tournament.
By Sunday evening, the Leafs will have completed one final COVID-19 test and moved into the NHL’s Eastern Conference hub city bubble, which happens to be right downtown. Toronto will be quarantining at the Royal York Hotel for the duration of its qualifying-round series against Columbus that begins on Aug. 2, shuttling only between their lodgings and other league-sanctioned off-site venues.
If the Leafs advance past Columbus and move into the official 16-team postseason field, it might be weeks before anyone sees family and friends again. And while that won’t be easy, there’s a high degree of anticipation around finally finishing the NHL season that was halted in March amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
"There is a sense of adventure to it for sure," said Tyson Barrie on a Zoom call with reporters Saturday. "We’re going into this, and we don't totally know what the set-up is like or what it's all going to be like. [There's] excitement, but nerves too. We've been here a while [preparing] and we're ready to get it going. It's nice to have camp behind us now and have things start for real."
Before the Leafs get to that, here are eight takeaways from their work in Phase 3, and where it all might lead them in this next chapter of the season.
Sheldon Keefe set a high bar for first NHL training camp
Since he was promoted behind the Leafs’ bench in mid-November to replace the fired Mike Babcock, Sheldon Keefe hadn’t had a chance to truly catch his breath, and properly install the systems he most wanted Toronto to execute.
Those four months between the Leafs’ last regular season game and the start of training camp gave Keefe plenty of time to "binge watch" his team, and he put it through an intense two weeks of near-daily practices, specific special teams-focused sessions, and a variety of scrimmages, from two-period stop-time games to a full three-period outing with TV timeouts worked in.
The purpose was to prepare the Leafs for every situation they might see come playoffs. And while Keefe had some mixed reviews on the results in the end, it wasn’t solely because of how Toronto performed.
"In terms of the effort, and the work that our guys put in, they definitely met their expectations [for camp] there," Keefe told reporters on Saturday. "As coaches normally do, in your head you set really high, and probably unrealistic, expectations in terms of the execution and the detail of how everything would be and would look. I think that's something that takes time naturally. And it's difficult to do when you're playing head-to-head against your own teammates, especially with playoffs on the horizon and you're not wanting to be the one that injures any of your own guys. All those things I think took away from some of the detail that's required."
Keefe said the Leafs one and only exhibition game against Montreal on Tuesday is where he hopes to see a true translation of what the Leafs learned in camp.
"We expect it will solve some of those problems for us and get us up to speed to be as prepared as possible for what's to come."
Leafs’ playoff lineup still a work in progress
Toronto is permitted to bring 52 people into the NHL’s bubble on Sunday, a number that must include players (31 at most), coaches and support staff. Leafs’ general manager Kyle Dubas said on a conference call earlier this month the plan was to have 16-17 forwards, nine or 10 defencemen and four goalies along for the ride, but as of Saturday afternoon, it wasn’t clear yet where exactly Keefe was going to be slotting some of those bodies.
"I'm still working through that," Keefe said of choosing a lineup. "I think we have decisions to make here, in terms of really our bottom-six and how that shakes out, and how one decision might affect another so we're just trying to keep all our options open today."
Keefe moved Pierre Engvall into Frederik Gauthier’s usual spot at fourth-line centre for Saturday’s practice, and had Jason Spezza taking reps down the middle as well. While Keefe knows he has a number of players who can fit in throughout, determining the right combination remains a challenge.
"Between Engvall and Spezza, we wanted to get them some reps at centre ice and in playing low in defensive zone and those responsibilities that come with it," Keefe explained. "We want to remain as flexible as possible and remain as prepared as possible for any decision that we might make or anything that might happen that's outside of our control that'll force us to make a lineup change. That's really what this is about."
The Leafs are also expected to bring injured forward Andreas Johnsson with them into the bubble, which would alter the lineup down the road if he were to become available. Johnsson began skating again last month following a February knee surgery, and Dubas said that he thought Johnsson could be available by the second round of the postseason.
All eyes on Nick Robertson
Never mind that 18-year-old Nick Robertson was the only player in Leafs camp without some kind of NHL experience. Toronto’s second-round pick (53rd overall) in the 2019 NHL Entry Draft parlayed his incredible 55-goal, 86-point season with the OHL’s Peterborough Petes into a true shot at making the Leafs’ postseason roster.
After starting off slowly in camp and being relegated to skating with the reserves, Robertson was thrust onto the Leafs’ third line with Alex Kerfoot and Kasperi Kapanen for scrimmages this week and has remained with Toronto’s main group ever since.
It hasn’t been an entirely seamless transition, though. Robertson’s best weapon is his shot, but the stifling play of NHL competition has made it nearly impossible for him to get it off. While Robertson has the speed to keep up with his teammates, his defensive details and play away from the puck are a beat behind.
Still, Robertson has earned high praise from the Leafs throughout camp for his work ethic and his clear desire to be a part of the team. Whether Robertson winds up appearing in that series against Columbus could be determined by how he performs in Tuesday’s exhibition game.
"I think he needs to look comfortable," said Keefe. "He needs to make an impact on the game, be it through his work ethic and his enthusiasm and his ability to create some offence and capitalize when he gets chances. Just really looking to see, can he look like himself, and be able to play what I suspect is going to be at the highest level, with the highest calibre of game, that he's played in. This is going to be not just an NHL exhibition game but it's going to be one that's full of NHL players, which you don't always get in an exhibition game, especially the first one. So we're really looking to see if he can be comfortable and be himself."
Pressure is on for Frederik Andersen
Aside from Robertson, Frederik Andersen may have had the most scrutinized camp of any Leafs’ player.
Andersen kicked off Phase 3 with some great practice days, looking sharp and efficient in the crease. When Toronto began scrimmaging late last week, Andersen was facing a split-squad that included all six of Toronto’s top forwards, and his game lost some of its shine. Going up against a number of odd-man rushes, Andersen was often on the losing end, but was confident all those missteps would ultimately better him when it counted.
"We're still working [on my game], ramping everything up," Andersen said on Thursday. "I think you could tell more and more the intensity was rising throughout the [scrimmages] and it's certainly been something we're building on and getting that game-like intensity going. It's important to get the timing going and I think it's going in the right direction, I think I've been feeling better and better."
At the other end of the ice, Jack Campbell was terrific in nearly every scrimmage. But Keefe was quick to quell any notion that the Leafs have a goaltending controversy on their hands before stepping into a do-or-die five-game series against the Blue Jackets.
"For the guys who have done it before, [they know] Frederik Anderson was a big reason why that [playoff] series against Boston [last season] went to seven games," Keefe said. "And the work that he did to be the backbone of the team there at different times [was critical]. We feel good about his ability to do that, so when you have somebody who has done it for you and has that ability, you're going to give them a little bit more opportunity, and trust that they're going to find their way if it doesn't go well. Obviously, we're really happy with Campbell as well in the extra depth that he provides us but Fred's our guy, we got to do all that we can to have him prepared."
Ilya Mikheyev’s ready for prime time
It was only 39 games into his NHL career that Ilya Mikheyev suffered one of the most gruesome injuries he could imagine. Facing the New Jersey Devils on Dec. 27, Mikheyev had ligaments and an artery in his right hand severed by Jesper Bratt’s errant skate blade, forcing the rookie to skate off in a trail of his own blood.
After surgery that same night, Mikheyev worked his way back to the brink of a return in March, only to see COVID-19 shut the league down instead. But Mikheyev stayed the course from there, working tirelessly with the Leafs’ staff to re-build his game throughout the four-month long pause.
The fruits of those efforts were on display immediately in camp, from how quick Mikheyev was to the puck, to his increased physicality, to his vastly improved shot.
Skating back on a line with John Tavares and Mitch Marner, it was like Mikheyev had never missed a minute of action, and after a three-goal performance in Toronto’s final scrimmage this week, Mikheyev was voted Phase 3’s Most Valuable Player by the observing media.
"He was excellent," Keefe agreed. "He probably more so than anybody is really excited and happy to be back here playing in a team environment. It's been a long road for him to get back to playing game action so he had a little extra jump all throughout this [camp] and that was really great to see it. [Their line] played with chemistry all throughout, so that was a really good piece and it obviously means a lot to our team."
Expectations high for exhibition play
The Leafs will get just one tune-up before Columbus when they play Montreal in a preseason game on Tuesday, and John Tavares doesn’t expect it will be a typical exhibition match.
"I think you're going to see pretty much the true rosters for every team," he said. "That is a little less typical than in a traditional preseason, other than maybe the last preseason game. But even then there's still guys being held out or some adjustments being made or guys competing for certain spots so this is going to be basically your only trial run to really start feeling good about yourself. It’s the only real, true preparation in terms of game-like [conditions] you're going to get before they count, so it should be something different and be highly competitive and I think everyone's really looking to get a lot out of it."
Since the spot of all Toronto’s games from exhibition through at least the third round (if the Leafs advance that far) will be Scotiabank Arena, the tilt against Montreal will be the first opportunity to play in that building as visitors instead of the home team, and to experience an arena entirely empty of fans.
"When a crowd is loud, it can make you uncomfortable," said Zach Hyman of adjusting to games with an audience. "I think that when you're in the game and when you're really playing and you're doing well, you don't really notice the crowd as much. But I think that for momentum swings, when you're a home team and you score and the fans are going crazy, it puts a little extra pressure on the away team and [having] to handle that."
If there’s parity now in that respect, the Leafs will have to find an edge in other ways.
"The home ice advantage will be a coaching matchup or face-offs or things like that," said Hyman. "But it's not really [the same as] home ice advantage, so it'll be interesting to see how that plays out and how it affects everything and I think everybody's curious about that."
Leafs bracing for life in isolation
No one knew for sure whether the NHL would ever reach Phase 4 of its return to play plan, and actually pick up the 2019-20 season in a postseason tournament spread across two hub cities. Now that it’s become a reality, the league has tried to offer as much information as possible about what teams can expect in the bubbles, but that hasn’t totally taken the edge off concerns about what life will be like.
"It's felt like it's a long time coming, and we didn't know if it was going to happen or not," said Hyman. "But luckily to date, everybody's been healthy and everything's been on the right path so we're just excited to get into our setup, get into the hotel, see what's available, see the lounges. I think the really unique thing about this is we're going to be with each other 24/7 pretty much, and that's pretty special and doesn't happen very often. So it's a very unique situation and it's going to be something that we're all going to take advantage of and hopefully have a long run here."
Many of the Leafs have said their travel essentials include a gaming console of some kind, which is music to Hyman’s ears. He runs his own company 11Gaming, centered around online sports and is looking forward to passing the time that way.
"I think it's going to be pretty fun," he said. "We’ll have a bunch of gamers in there so there will be some heated competition on the side and we'll have a lot of team get-togethers in the player lounge so it'll be fun."
Although the Leafs were about 24 hours away from heading to the Royal York when camp concluded on Saturday, almost no one had actually packed for the excursion. But there was still time for all that.
"Today’s the day," laughed Hyman. "I don't like packing. But I think I'm going to overpack because it's better to have more than less, so I'll be bringing a big suitcase."
No dress code, no problem
In a normal season, players would arrive to every game in a full suit, perhaps one punctuated by flashy accessories.
But these are unprecedented times, and the NHL has relaxed its policy when it comes to player fashions. While some clubs have opted to keep a dress code amongst itself with more comfortable attire (like matching golf shirts), the Leafs will have no such parameters put on them.
"We don't have any dress code, guys have the freedom to do what they want going to games," Tavares said. "And then we do have an apparel package that the team was great on getting out to us and going above and beyond with having some stuff for us [to wear] around the hotel and going to practices and meetings. But I think as a group we want to give guys the freedom to be themselves and do whatever they choose going to games."
While it may not be a permanent change by the NHL, it’s certainly a welcome one for now amongst many of the Leafs.
"I'm really looking forward to it, honestly," said Auston Matthews last week. "It’ll be a pretty cool opportunity for guys to express themselves like other leagues are able to. We have a lot of young guys on our team and I think that's kind of a trend now nowadays, and I think, at times, hockey can kind of fall behind as far as that stuff goes. I’m definitely looking forward to it."