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William Nylander has failed​ to hit the scoresheet in four straight games, mustering just five shots in that stretch. 

"He's trying to find his game here offensively and try to find his way within the division and the way that the games are going and the way that teams key in on him make it hard," coach Sheldon Keefe said. 

The Leafs are playing a tighter brand of hockey this season, which is also an adjustment.  

"Because of how we are playing defensively, the games just naturally aren't as open as they were previously," Keefe noted. "You've got to adjust and find ways to play within that. I think that's where he and a lot of guys on our team are still trying to find themselves offensively."

Nylander and linemate John Tavares have combined for just four even-strength goals while seeing Jimmy Vesey, Wayne Simmonds and Ilya Mikheyev rotate in on their wing. 

With Joe Thornton ready to return after missing 10 games, Toronto's top-six will be tweaked on Monday night. Thornton will slot back in with Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner while Zach Hyman joins Tavares and Nylander. ​
Hyman, who leads the Leafs at plus-11, has produced seven points in the last six games. 

"He's really found his game, really found his legs," Keefe observed. "He was a standout for us yesterday in terms of dealing with the physicality and playing through that and still being effective ... The way he skates and protects the puck, transports it from our zone to the offensive zone and gets it back down there, we're hoping can really help JT and Will find their game and have things really come together for them."
Keefe pointed out that the Tavares line created a lot of offence last season, but also gave up a lot in the defensive end. Tavares finished minus-seven while Nylander was minus-two. 

Tavares is plus-five this season while Nylander is plus-three, but the pair have too often been one-and-done on the attack.

"We'd like to sustain a little bit more time in the offensive zone," Tavares acknowledged after Saturday's 2-1 loss to the Canadiens. "I'd like to see us get a few more pucks towards the net and just get towards the net a little bit more. You want to find open ice and find each other, but sometimes just getting pucks towards the net, winning some loose pucks, and just being hard on it around the net will lead to some good things and allow some of those plays to open up throughout the offensive zone."



Out since sustaining a fractured rib courtesy of a hit by Edmonton's Josh Archibald on Jan. 20, Thornton has now taken part in three full practices in the last week. 

"I got the proper pads in and I've been taking some light hits and some big hits and medium hits so right now I feel really good," Thornton said. "I got no restrictions so the hardest part's over. The rehab's pretty much over and now I can just go out and focus on playing ... I can't wait to play tomorrow." 

The trio of Thornton, Matthews and Marner seemed to be generating some good chemistry before the 41-year-old got hurt in the fifth game of the year. 

"A lot of the things that I was hoping would happen with the line were happening," Keefe recalled. "Joe with his skill set and the way that he moves the puck complemented those guys very well. Joe [was] a presence down below the hashmarks in the offensive zone. I don't think the sample was big enough to make any real determinations either way so wanted to give it a little more runway here." 

Thornton's fit alongside the pair of 23-year-olds was actually better than Keefe initially anticipated. 

"The area that I had maybe underestimated a little bit is Joe's ability to win the puck back," the coach said, "and the number of times when he was tracking guys from behind and the way he got a stick on pucks and created so many loose pucks and turnovers and opportunities for Mitch and Auston going the other way. Those kind of things really stood out to me. The line had enough success and did enough good things in that short window that I didn't want an unfortunate injury to Joe to disrupt what was our plan to go with to start the season."

The Leafs went 8-1-1 without Thornton. Marner led the team with 16 points in that stretch. Matthews, who missed a game with his own injury, had nine goals in nine games. 

"The way they see the ice is very rare and they play off each other very, very nicely," Thornton said. "They're both dangerous threats when they have the puck and they see each other very nicely and it will keep on improving as they keep playing together."

Thornton picked up his first goal as a Leaf against the Senators, who will be visiting Scotiabank Arena for three games in four nights starting Monday.



Thornton's return will help fill the void created by an injury to Simmonds who is one week into a six-week rehab for a broken wrist. Simmonds is a vocal guy in the room, who brings a lot of energy. Thornton, meanwhile, oozes positive energy. 

"Just how much he loves being at the rink," said defenceman Morgan Rielly when asked what stands out. "He really loves being around his teammates. He's happy when he's here. I mean, he's here late. He's in the gym doing his thing. He enjoys his work and that's inspiring ... It will be a big boost especially with just the vibe in the room and the team morale. When he's around everyone's a bit more upbeat, a bit more happy."

Thornton may also spark a power play that has gone 0/5 in three games following the injury to Simmonds. Toronto never really got set up on its one opportunity against Montreal on Saturday with Keefe suggesting that may have been a turning point in the game. 

"We haven't had as many opportunities to really find much rhythm with the power play," said Keefe of the dry spell. "Also, we've had some disruptions. First you have to adapt to Joe leaving and then Simmonds leaves the lineup and we tried some different things to see how it could work and it hasn't quite been there for us in terms of the chemistry and rhythm of it."

Toronto still ranks third in the NHL on the power play with a 34.1 per cent conversion rate. 

Thornton is expected to return to his bumper position on the Matthews-Marner unit although the team didn't do any special teams work during Sunday's practice. Nic Petan and Alex Kerfoot took turns in that spot with Thornton out. 

"Penalty kills get better over the course of the season," Keefe said. "That's just the way it goes. Other teams adjust to you. We play a lot of the same terms over and over."

The Leafs scored on three of nine chances against the Senators during two games in Ottawa last month. 



Frederik Andersen, who has started eight straight games for the Leafs, departed practice early on Sunday. 

"Just a rest situation," Keefe explained. "I told him to do what he needed. With three goalies, it gives us the opportunity to limit his workload in practice. He got a session in with [goalie coach] Steve Briere before practice and wanted to take a drill in the practice itself and then called it a day."  

Andersen got a nice shout out from Thornton, who was asked what he's liking about the team's 11-3-1 start. 

"Freddie Andersen's been unbelievable," the greybeard gushed. "I really didn't know too much about Freddie coming in here, but seeing him play 13 games, this guy's a stud."

After allowing nine goals in the first two games of the season, including five to the Senators during a loss in Ottawa, Andersen has gone 8-2-1 with a .922 save percentage. 



TJ Brodie was asked to assess his chemistry with defence partner Rielly. 

"It's coming," Brodie said. "There's always room for improvement, but he's easy to play with. He's always available for passes and he's talking to me when I'm going back for the puck. His feet are always going and he's always looking to jump so it's definitely fun to play with him."

What stands out to Rielly about Brodie? 

"Everything," the 26-year-old said. "How calm he is. How well he moves the puck. He's extremely good defensively with his gap. The way he breaks the puck out with a great first pass. He's just extremely reliable. I feel lucky to be playing with him. We'll keep building and trying to get better, but I think he's been outstanding."  

The Leafs have focused on cutting down on rush chances against this season, but when there have been breakdowns, Brodie has proven adept at disrupting two-on-one rushes.  

"It's a combination of different things that I've learned throughout the years," Brodie explained. "Timing is definitely big and trying to read what the guy's looking at and then just trying to be in the passing lane and slowly taking away from the middle of the ice to the short-side post so they have a little bit less of an angle and room to make a play." 


Toronto's bottom two lines also had a new look at practice with Kerfoot skating between Pierre Engvall and Mikheyev and Jason Spezza skating between Vesey and Scott Sabourin

"We haven't made any final determinations," cautioned Keefe. "I wouldn't assume anything based on today's practice."

Sabourin, who played 35 games with the Senators last season, signed a one-year, two-way deal in the aftermath of the Simmonds injury. 

"He's obviously a different type of player than we have here and brings a lot in terms of his presence," Keefe said. "He's got good size [6-foot-3, 208 pounds]. He's a very competitive, very physical player. He's got a real good energy about him."

Sunday marked Sabourin's first full practice with the team. 

"He hasn't had as much time with our group and that's why we wanted to have him on a line in practice today so he got a little more involved with our game players," Keefe explained. "It helps him with that transition."


Lines at Sunday's practice: 

Thornton - Matthews - Marner 
Nylander - Tavares - Hyman
Engvall - Kerfoot - Mikheyev
Vesey- Spezza - Sabourin 
Petan - Boyd - Barabanov 

Rielly - Brodie 
Muzzin - Holl
Dermott - Bogosian 
Lehtonen - Marincin