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Mark Masters

SPORTSCENTRE Reporter

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TSN Toronto reporter Mark Masters checks in daily with news and notes on the Maple Leafs, who practised at Ford Performance Centre on Wednesday ahead of Thursday night’s home game against the Calgary Flames. 

Matthew Tkachuk may be among the top agitators in the NHL, but he's failed to make much of an impression in seven career games against the Maple Leafs, scoring just one goal and taking three minor penalties. 

"He knows his stuff probably won't work on me, because I've seen it first hand," said Auston Matthews, who played two seasons with Tkachuk with the U.S. National Development Program. 

Perhaps Matthews and Mitch Marner, who played one year with Tkachuk in the OHL, benefit from being friends with the Calgary Flames alternate captain? 

"Maybe a little bit," Marner said. "I mean, I got to see a lot of his tricks in London so I know a couple things he does after the whistle and stuff like that and it was great when you played with him. I mean, he drew a lot of penalties for you and a lot of power plays."

Matthews doesn't think Tkachuk takes it easy on his pals. 

"No, I don't," Matthews said. "Honestly, I think he doesn’t really take that stuff into account, he goes out there and competes every night, whether it’s against guys that he knows or guys that he’s friends with or not. That’s just the way he is. I think it’s the way it really should be."

Sheldon Keefe is warning his players not to get drawn into Tkachuk's game on Thursday night when the Flames pay their one visit of the season to Toronto. 

"It's just being aware of the fact he's competitive and he's going to come hard on every puck and all those types of things, but also not to let things go off the rails and become a sideshow," the Leafs coach advised. "He looks to kind of, you know, change the focus that you might have in a game and that's not what we want to be about. We want to just focus on what we have to do."

Tkachuk registered just two shots and a minus-1 rating when the Leafs visited Calgary on Dec. 12. With only one point posted against the Leafs overall, Toronto is actually the team Tkachuk has burned the least in his career. And when it comes to discipline, it was Tkachuk who earned a one-game suspension for spearing Matt Martin, then with the Leafs, back in December 2017. 

"You got to be careful around him," Marner said. "The thing for us is to make sure we stay out of all the stuff after the whistle, nothing’s going to happen, just make sure we're playing smart."

And while Tkachuk is taking heat for his hits on Edmonton's Zack Kassian and how he dealt with the fallout, the Leafs aren't expecting the 22-year-old to tone things down in the centre of the hockey universe. 

"He did the same stuff that he does now in the OHL," Marner said, "and the most annoying thing is the skill he has in him and how good he is. If you take penalties against him, he could be the one who puts it in the back of your net so that’s the thing that really annoys people."

"It's something he feeds off of," Matthews said. "I saw it first hand for two years. He just likes to compete out there and play on the edge. Obviously, he’s kind of pissed a couple people off on the way doing it, but I definitely think it’s one of those (things) where it's a guy you hate to play against, but a guy you’d love to have on your team, for sure."

Matthews on Tkachuk: 'He knows his stuff probably won't work on me'

As the Leafs get set to welcome the Flames and Matthew Tkachuk to town on Thursday night, team members discussed the unique challenges Tkachuk presents and how they plan to avoid getting wrapped up in antics.

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Keefe is starting to incorporate music into Leafs practices more and more. 

"It’s the tempo and the energy," he explained, "especially on days like this, you’re coming back from a game, it can be a little bit tough to put your gear back on and go out and get some work in so just raising the energy level not unlike what you would do in the gym."

On Wednesday, video coach Jordan Bean was stationed beside a large speaker in the stands overlooking the ice awaiting signals from Keefe for when to blast the tunes. 

"I'm a fan of it, it’s just relaxing," said Marner, who at one point gestured at Bean to restart the music even without Keefe's go-ahead. "I’m not sure what other guys think, but I had fun with it."

Some players aren't thrilled about the playlist, which on Wednesday featured Lady Gaga's "Poker Face" among other songs. 

"He's got Lady Gaga from 2013 going," Matthews said with a smile. "I mean, I got nothing against her, I think she’s great, but maybe update the playlist a bit."

Marner is looking for more of a flow. 

"I like all genres so I'm good with anything," the winger said. "It was just a lot of switching of songs in the middle of the songs, it wasn’t great by our DJ today."

The playlist, Keefe said, is courtesy Marlies forward Rich Clune, who took responsibility for the music at practices when Keefe ran the bench for Toronto's AHL team. 

"I'd love for the players to take a little bit of ownership," Keefe said. "They don’t take much ownership even in the locker room to put their own music on and stuff so if they want to take that over, that would be great. We have enough things to worry about."

In past seasons, Nazem Kadri and Jake Gardiner were the resident team DJs in Toronto so there's an opening there and Matthews seems keen on stepping up. 

"I didn't know we were going to do the music thing today," Matthews noted, "so I’m sure old Bean Boy will get an earful from the guys here in the locker room about the playlist he had going on."

Matthews calls for new practice playlist: 'He’s got Lady Gaga from 2013 going'

The Maple Leafs had a DJ at practice on Wednesday, but as Mark Masters would soon find out, there were mixed reviews from Auston Matthews and the players about some of the song choices on the playlist.

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Before practice started and the music got going, Keefe met with the team's leadership group. The topic: defence. 

"That has been the greatest challenge," he admitted. "We've made a lot of strides offensively and we think that puts our team in a better spot, there’s benefits defensively just from that because of how much more we’ve had the puck and we’ve spent a lot more time in the offensive zone. That’s really helped, but as we’ve seen with some of our play recently, breaking some of the habits defensively (is tough)." 

In 23 games under Mike Babcock this season, the Leafs allowed 3.43 goals per outing, which ranked 24th in the league. In 24 games under Keefe, the Leafs are allowing 3.13 goals per outing, which ranks 19th. 

"It's not just a product of how we're playing here now," Keefe pointed out, "we think some of these things have been an issue for quite some time with some of our players and we got to find a way to break that and that’s our biggest challenge and we actually had a meeting about that type of stuff this morning with our leadership group (about) just kind of taking that next step as a team."

One player leading by example is Matthews. The Arizona native is known for his incredible offensive abilities, but Keefe says what has surprised him the most about the 22-year-old is how good he's been on the defensive side of the puck. 

"The biggest thing I’ve learned (about) him is he’s a very good player defensively, away from the puck," Keefe gushed, "and when he’s engaged, the way he can track, you saw the one goal in the Winnipeg game that he got, but we’ve got dozens of clips of him doing similar things and some of the best defensive-zone coverage clips that we showed here this morning to the players, he was out there doing a job." 

'Our greatest challenge': Keefe meets with leaders on breaking bad defensive habits

Scoring has never been an issue for the Leafs in recent years, but defensive breakdowns have been a constant struggle for the young squad. Head coach Sheldon Keefe explained the steps he and his staff have been taking to try and solve what he calls the team's 'greatest challenge.'

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When Rasmus Sandin arrived at Leafs training camp ​in September, a No. 38 sweater was hanging in his stall. 

"They gave me it in camp. I don't really think about it too much, but I've been getting a little bit of chirps so we’ll see if I can change maybe next year," the 19-year-old said. 

Sandin is the first Leaf to wear the number since Colin Greening in 2016. Per Hockey Reference, the other Leafs to wear No. 38 have been: Frazer McLaren (2013-14​), Jay Rosehill (2010-12), Brad Leeb (2004), Yannick Tremblay (1997-1999), David Harlock (1996) and Chris Snell (1994). 

What sort of chirps is Sandin hearing? 

"Just that the number doesn't look the best," he said with a smile. 

Sandin wore No. 8 with the Marlies and with Team Sweden at the World Juniors. It's the same number his older brother Linus Sandin wore. But pending UFA Jake Muzzin owns that digit these days in Toronto. 

"It would be tough to move Jake from there," Sandin said of the veteran. 

Sandin's next preferred option would be 14, but thanks to Dave Keon that number is retired in Toronto. 

"I’m not bothered by it too much, to be honest," Sandin said of the situation. "We'll see what's open for next year."

Sandin facing chirps for wearing 38: 'The number doesn't look the best'

Rasmus Sandin has been rocking a 38 on his jersey since being called back up to the Maple Leafs on Monday. Sandin normally wears 14 or 8, but has been unable to secure those jersey numbers on this current Leafs roster. He spoke to Mark Masters about some of the chirps he's been dealing with as a result.

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Muzzin skated on Wednesday for the first time since breaking his foot on Dec. 27. The hope is the defenceman will return in Toronto's first game after the all-star break on Jan. 27 in Nashville. 

"That's what they’ve talked about for being a potential target," Keefe revealed. "Obviously, how things go between now and then will dictate that. My understanding is he’s going to stick around and get working over the break."

Out since Dec. 21 with a concussion, Trevor Moore was cleared for contact and practised on the fourth line on Wednesday. His status for tomorrow's game is unclear, but Keefe said the left winger is "very close" to returning. 

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Lines at Wednesday's practice: 

Hyman - Matthews - Marner
Engvall - Tavares - Nylander
Johnsson - Kerfoot - Kapanen
Moore - Gauthier - Spezza
Brooks, Marchment

Dermott-Holl
Marincin-Barrie
Sandin-Ceci
Timashov - Liljegren

Andersen
Hutchinson

Leafs Ice Chips: Back on the ice, Muzzin targets post all-star return

There were some familiar faces on the ice at Leafs practice on Wednesday as Trevor Moore skated with the fourth line and took contact for the first time since sustaining a concussion in December. Jake Muzzin also skated for the first time since breaking his foot in a game on December 27th. Mark Masters has more.