TSN Toronto Reporter Mark Masters reports on the Maple Leafs, who skated (optional) at Staples Center on Wednesday ahead of tonight’s game against the Los Angeles Kings.
Ondrej Kase spent some time in the Leafs dressing room during the third period of Sunday's game in New York after blocking a Zdeno Chara shot. He quickly returned and, even though Toronto was in complete control up 3-0, refused to take his foot off the gas. In the final minute of the game, the winger crashed into the Islanders net while driving hard on a two-on-one rush.
"He's like a Kamikaze fighter out there, man," said gritty winger Wayne Simmonds. "He does not care. He plays his heart out every single night, every single shift and he doesn't care if he's getting hit or doing the hitting."
It's all the more remarkable when you consider Kase has a history of suffering concussions and played just three games last season.
"Even though he has had injury problems he doesn't even think about it," Simmonds marvelled. "You know that's not even in the back of his mind. He's just going."
"It's my game," Kase explained. "I'm in the game maybe sometimes 110 per cent and try to do my best."
Does anyone tell him to be more careful?
"My mom," Kase said with a laugh. "Yeah, sometimes I get a bad hit or block the shot and my mom is squeamish every time."
Despite his aggressive style, Kase has played in all 20 games with the Leafs this season. He's played 19 on the same line as countryman and childhood friend David Kampf.
"We know each other 15 years," said Kase. "We played together so long, every season in Czech. We have good chemistry. We practice together every summer."
When the Leafs signed Kampf, Kase wanted to follow his buddy north of the border.
"I signed here because I knew he was here," Kase said. "I had tough season last year and I needed someone and I had a good friend here."
Simmonds recently read an article about the Czech mates and asked Kase, who he sits beside in the dressing room, about it.
"I said, 'This has got to be amazing for you guys to be playing on this stage together,' and he had the biggest smile on his face and he said, 'Yeah, we're having a blast.' You can tell by the way they're playing," Simmonds said. "They hang out together off the ice. They do everything together. They're like the Bobbsey Twins. They're awesome guys and both unbelievable players. They've added an element to our team that we need."
Kase and Kampf are the key parts to a reliable checking line, which coach Sheldon Keefe uses for defensive-zone draws and to help neutralize top lines. But lately they have also started producing offence. Kase has four goals in the last seven games. Kampf set him up with a nice pass for his latest tally on Sunday.
"They already have baked-in chemistry," Simmonds observed. "Those guys have a never-say-die attitude … they literally do whatever is necessary for our team to win so they bring a lot of grit and they've been adding some offence as well."
Keefe mused recently that Kampf and Kase may not feel like they need to score but Kase, who produced a 20-goal season with Anaheim, says it's part of his identity.
"I feel I need to," he said. "I play an offensive style of hockey. I feel so much more comfortable if I score."
But whether the goals come or not, Keefe likes that he can trust that line and knows what they'll bring on a night-to-night basis.
"It's so important," the coach said. "You’re looking for consistency in your team so the more guys you know … their effort's always going to be there, it's important."
Keefe describes Kase as a "very low-maintenance" player. He points out that Kase, who's played on the power play in the past, hasn't gotten that role with the Leafs. Instead, they've asked him to kill penalties for the first time in his NHL career.
"He hasn’t questioned it or let it effect anything," Keefe said. "Whatever we've asked him to do, he's embraced it."
William Nylander is goalless in the last six games. In the last three games, the smooth-skating Swede has produced just two shots on net. Is this a moment when Nylander needs a push?
"Yeah, a little bit," said Keefe. "Not so much a push, but you need to talk to him ... I actually chatted with him not long before coming here to talk to you guys and just reminding him of the things he needs to do and see what he needs from me to help him get back to that."
Nylander's shot totals have been trending down since he produced six on target against the Boston Bruins on Nov. 6. Since then his shot totals have been five, five, four, two, two, one, zero and one.
"He's a player that's had these swings in the past where he's really strong and then he dips," Keefe noted. "Frankly, most players go through that. It's just a matter of him getting back to moving his feet and staying engaged and things will happen."
Simmonds seems quicker this season. There's a good reason for that.
"I actually skated a lot more with our development team," the 33-year-old said. "I came in two, three times a week during the summer to work with [former skating consultant] Barb Underhill and it helped me a lot. Not only Barb. Barb handled the skating aspect, but I was working with [skill development consultants] Denver Manderson and Nik Antropov on little things like protecting the puck. I kind of got away from that with all the injuries I had, because I spent a lot of time doing rehabbing and stuff like that. This summer I was able to get right back to the ice immediately and it worked for me."
Despite playing the fewest minutes on the team (9:24 per game), Simmonds is getting chances. He's fired three shots on net in each of the last two games.
"When you look at the type of scoring chances he's generated and how he's done it, he's protecting the puck really well," said Keefe. "Just his hands in general and being able to get out of tight spaces and get to the middle of the ice, I see some real transfer from what he was working on in the summer."
"The game's changing," Simmonds said, "and the way that these guys play now, it's extremely fast and you don't have that much time so you got to figure out a way to buy yourself an extra second. Through working with our development team I've figured that out."
Simmonds is often on the ice with the skill development staff before practices.
"A lot of that stuff is new to him and it took him a while to get comfortable with it," said Keefe. "While his role is reduced, we've added more reps to practices, before and after for him, and I've seen a lot of transfer for him. It's nice to see that: his role has reduced, but his chance generation has increased greatly."
According to NaturalStatTrick.com, Simmonds is second on the Leafs in shots per 60 minutes at 11.4. He's behind Kase, but slightly ahead of Auston Matthews. Last year, Simmonds registered 8.38 shots per 60 minutes.
But the underlying numbers haven't resulted in goals yet. In fact, Simmonds has gone 16 games without scoring. Has he ever had such a run of bad luck?
"Probably not," he said. "In saying that, I still am getting chances so there is hope for me. It's up to me to bear down."
Simmonds doesn't plan on changing anything. He's not a superstitious guy.
"I don't change a thing," he said. "I've been using the same stuff for 14 years, going through the same routine. I kind of feel like that's desperation when you start changing things up and that can mess with your mind a bit because if it doesn’t work then you're left in no-man's land."
Jake Muzzin will play his first game in Los Angeles since the Kings traded him to the Leafs in January 2019. The defenceman was injured when Toronto last made a trip to California in March 2020.
"It's going to be something different for sure," the 32-year-old said. "Kind of a weird situation how it all worked out, being hurt and then COVID, but three years later here we are. There will definitely be some feelings going back into that barn. We have some good memories there."
Muzzin won a Stanley Cup with the Kings in 2014. He was honoured with a video tribute despite not playing during his last trip to Staples Center.
"Getting the love from the fans was something special," he said.
The memories have been flooding back since the Leafs landed on Monday.
"Just driving around even," Muzzin said. "You spend a lot of time here. A lot of good memories. I grew up as a pro here. There's a lot of memories everywhere."
In return for Muzzin, the Kings received winger Carl Grundstrom, the rights to defenceman Sean Durzi and a first-round pick in the 2019 NHL Draft, which would become defenceman Tobias Bjornfot.
Durzi, who has 13 points in 16 games in the American Hockey League this season, will make his NHL debut on Wednesday night.
"He's been a real good student of the game since he's been in our organization," said Kings coach Todd McLellan. "He's put his time in and done real good things as far as development goes at the American League level."
Projected Leafs lines for Wednesday's game:
Bunting - Matthews - Marner
Kerfoot - Tavares - Nylander
Ritchie - Kampf - Kase
Engvall - Spezza - Simmonds
Rielly - Brodie
Muzzin - Holl
Sandin - Liljegren
The last Leafs game in Los Angeles went to a shootout— Mark Masters (@markhmasters) November 24, 2021
Jason Spezza ready if needed tonight (just ask Joseph Woll) pic.twitter.com/UNmNcDSvnI