Keefe says Thornton will start on a line with Matthews, Marner
The Maple Leafs went through team medical examinations during the first day of training camp at Ford Performance Centre.
Before Maple Leafs’ head coach Sheldon Keefe wrapped up his first media availability of training camp on Sunday, he couldn’t resist dropping a little bombshell about line combinations. For Toronto’s first on-ice sessions Monday, Keefe revealed that veteran Joe Thornton would be at left wing on a line with Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner.
“I actually didn't see the [lineup] sheet at first,” recalled Marner on a subsequent Zoom call with reporters Sunday. “It was two or three days ago, and I remember I was sitting beside [Zach] Hyman on the ice, and we have the same jerseys on and I remember we were doing a line drill, so I just literally got up, grabbed Hyman and was like, ‘I'm assuming it's us right?' and he goes 'no, you're playing with Jumbo.’ And I was like, 'okay.' So at first, I didn't know if it was just for practice or what was going on there, and I talked to Sheldon later that day and he said that was the line.”
If initially thrown off by the decision, Marner warmed quickly to the thought of skating alongside Toronto’s oldest (at 41 years old) player, who started his NHL career the same year Marner and Matthews were born (1997).
“I'm excited about it. I mean, I've watched him for a long time,” Marner said. “What he does with the puck, how he controls the puck in the o-zone, it's very impressive to watch. It's going to be fun to play with a very talented playmaker and for me, I think it's just [about] trying to find holes in the middle of the ice, that I can get into open spots, and be more of a shooter and more of a threat.”
Both Marner and Matthews have felt some early chemistry brewing with Thornton over their first few days of practice, in part because of how their varied skill sets can complement each other. Thornton had stayed busy making 12 appearances with Davos HC in the Swiss League prior to joining the Leafs last month, and Matthews said he seemed as sharp as ever.
“He's a big frame, so I think it's nice to know whenever we're in trouble that we’ve got an outlet, because he hangs around the net,” Matthews explained. “He’s in front of it, behind it, and just having that outlet when he's so big and strong and can protect the puck so well, it [offers] those little give-and-gos and [you] just trying to get open for him. You know he's got great vision, even with guys draped all over him. It’s just finding that chemistry throughout camp and building on it every day."
“The chemistry is getting better every day,” Marner added.
Other line combinations Keefe will be running off the top include free agent signee Jimmy Vesey with John Tavares and William Nylander, Ilya Mikheyev with Alex Kerfoot and Hyman and Jason Spezza between Alex Barabanov and Wayne Simmonds on the fourth line.
The Leafs have had little recent success in the postseason, between three consecutive first-round exits from 2017-19 and then failing to advance past the qualifying round in last summer’s tournament. But that doesn’t mean the team’s focus is on preparing for a playoff push this year; in reality, their biggest concern is the 56 games that will come before.
Because it’s that span which will show general manager Kyle Dubas just how much his team has - or has not - learned from past disappointments.
“How we go through the regular season, that'll be the first sign of growth,” Dubas said. “We talked about growth at the end of last season, talked about it during the offseason, during the free agent and draft period. I think a lot of teams go through these trials and tribulations or crucibles or whatever you want to call them on their way to getting to where they all want to go. And we shared some of those habits internally here and talked about that. For us, with regards to what would show growth, that would be how we're able to go through the regular season and do we go through it with the mindset of being at our best every day, can we quickly put a stop to any bouts of poor form and gather ourselves and roll ahead?”
Dubas acknowledged that people want a “definitive answer” from him on what would qualify as a successful season for the Leafs this year, but it’s not as simple as just stating a goal outright. In Dubas’ mind, Toronto will be defined by its daily habits, not a final outcome.
“A lot of people will point to our playoff failures as a source of discontent and worry going into the year,” Dubas said. “But the major thing that we feel has affected us as we've gone through the season has been that we've not set ourselves up as best as possible for the playoffs. We've had stretches which have hindered our ability to position ourselves as strongly as possible going in. So in order for us to give ourselves the best chance at success there, we have to focus on the day-to-day and building the mindset and habits that are going to serve us when we get there. I'm certain in the work that Sheldon and the staff have done to build out the [training] camp and the early portion of the season, that if we come in and execute that, it will serve as our foundation as we go through the year.”
Morgan Rielly has heard Dubas’ message loud and clear, and can see where the Leafs' past stumbles have affected playoff performance.
“I think a little bit of how we've ended the past couple years, we needed to be a bit more consistent,” he said. “If you look back at the previous years, and how we've played down the stretch and how we've prepared for playoffs, there's been a theme there and I think that this is an opportunity for us to change that. It's important that we're able to change old habits, and be in a spot at the end of the year that we're proud of and we're playing well and we are able to carry that momentum forward. I think that this year is just an opportunity to change the narrative and play with confidence down the stretch.”
By the time Toronto takes the ice for its first camp sessions on Monday, players should be well-versed in areas where Keefe expects them to excel over the 10-day intensive.
“The specific focuses for us are going to be on competitiveness, physicality and structure,” he said. “Our focus is going to be on building habits and setting the standards that are going to be necessary for us to have success. I could really simply define that as our ability to make it more difficult to get to our net, get in people's way and make it a tough pathway to get access to our zone and our net, and then to fight for space and get good ice to get clear access to the opponent's end. That's where the competitiveness comes in. And in terms of our consistency, there's a whole other area for us [to work on] and that standard is going to be set with our habits from day one in training camp.”
Keefe hasn’t shied away from challenging his team - particularly its core - to take more responsibility and ownership for their respective defensive games. According to the club’s data, there’s a lot to feel positively about when players execute the right way.
“The way we've approached [improvement] here has been to just call it out. We've been very direct with it,” Keefe said. “We showed [players] the fact that we're capable of it, and there's numerous examples, in fact there's more examples of us being good in that regard than there are where we're not good in that regard. We just need to be able to do it consistently and that's our focus as a team. [We have to] build that level of accountability from the coaching staff to the players and then ultimately from player to player. That's when we know we'll really have something, is when the players themselves are pushing and policing that. We've got great skill, we're capable of great things with the puck, but we need to round out and complete our game in all regards to give us a best chance at success.”
In a normal season, Keefe would have several exhibition games in which to evaluate the many players Toronto had invited to training camp as well. But this year, the Leafs have just 40 bodies in total (23 forwards, 13 defencemen and four goalies) and zero pre-season contests, making each day the team spends in camp all the more crucial to Keefe’s decision-making process.
“It certainly makes it more difficult,” he admitted of not having an exhibition slate. “You don't have [that] to work through and we're prioritizing practice and conditioning in our camps and we're not even going to scrimmage as much as we might in other camps. So, instead we're settling into two very distinct groups right from the start to try to maximize the amount of time we have and get the bulk of our team [together]. And because of that, it's going to be more difficult to see players competing in that regard. So we're trusting what we know about them.”
The Leafs will get to fill out a four to six player taxi squad though, keeping close a group of skaters who can step in if necessary. In a way, Keefe hopes that will cultivate a constant aura of competitiveness.
“The evaluation won't end once camp breaks, it's going to be ongoing,” he said. “You expect everybody, whether they are in the opening lineup or no, to continue to work and push, be ready to take advantage of the opportunity. We see that [taxi squad] as a benefit to our team and it will help the fact that we don't have as long to make the necessary decisions [and allow] for things to play out and having another group of players to call on and have them right there and to see them every day will help us make sure we make the right decisions.”
The Leafs' entire 56-game regular season will be played against six other Canada-based NHL teams this year, and Keefe already sees one major advantage to that level of familiarity.
“Probably most importantly what it does is it frees up so much more time to just focus on your own team,” he said. “And I think that's really where we're at as a group is to just make sure that our game is right. When you're focusing more on your games head-to-head with your opponents rather than looking at them playing into others and all those sorts of things, [it’s positive]. I’m excited about that, because that allows you to just zero in on a very small number of opponents and get to know them very well.”
The key, said Rielly, will be to adjust as quickly to the division’s other teams as they will be adjusting to the Leafs.
“I think that teams are going to adapt over the course of a season, and they're going to learn about each other, they're going to change their game plan, they're going to do what they can to be successful,” he said. “So, if you're doing one thing and you're winning most games against any certain team, they’re going to change it up and they're going to try to change their game plan and do something different to have success. I don't think you can get complacent. Just because you win on Tuesday that doesn't mean Wednesday is going to be the same outcome. So I think it's a matter of being adaptable.”
And with a shortened schedule on the horizon, there’s little room for error on a given night either.
“I think the rivalries and the competition will be great but I think the thing that will make this division great is how close the teams are,” Dubas said. “It will really force you to get dialled in on each and every game because they're all vitally important with regards to the final standings and because it's only 56 games. We have to be ready to go right from the start.”