TORONTO — The Maple Leafs are on the mend.
Toronto had a nearly full complement of players for Monday’s skills-based practice, including Frederik Andersen (knee), Nick Foligno (upper-body), Zach Hyman (sprained MCL) and Riley Nash (knee). It was the first time Hyman and Nash had been on the ice without red no-contact sweaters, and the first time in a week that Foligno had participated in a team session.
The only absentee from Monday’s work was defenceman Justin Holl, who took a maintenance day.
The return of so many to the fold is a positive step towards a healthy lineup, but coach Sheldon Keefe cautioned there is still work to be done on that front.
“The first thing is we've really got to get these guys ready to even play games,” said Keefe. “We're not there yet with any of these guys. For Hyman and Nash, this is the first day they were even available for contact. Tomorrow [at practice] would be a good step for them there. So the number one thing is just to get these guys ready to play games, and be cleared for that and we're not there yet.”
That applies to Andersen as well, who is fresh off a conditioning loan to the American Hockey League’s Toronto Marlies.
Andersen hasn’t started for the Leafs since March 19, when a nagging knee injury that cost him four games earlier in the season flared up again. To assess his readiness for return, Andersen went to the Marlies for two games last week. He played the first half of one game, stopping 12 of 14 shots, and the entirety of another, making 34 of 38 saves through regulation and overtime.
Keefe said despite that playing time, Andersen still hasn’t received medical sign-off to appear in the NHL. But the netminder did get a lot out of his Marlies’ stint.
“He seemed very positive,” Keefe said. “Going down to play at the AHL level was about building up his workload in his conditioning and things like that and prepare him to play at the NHL level. He's still not cleared and available to play at the NHL level here yet, but that's the goal is to get him back going and feeling good.”
That was the refrain from Toronto's other recovering players as well.
Foligno has missed the Leafs last two games with an undisclosed upper-body injury. The veteran forward left during the second period of last Monday’s game against Montreal after pulling up sharply in Jake Allen’s crease and appearing to be in immediate pain.
"It's just something I've been dealing with a little bit and it fired up on me at the wrong time unfortunately during a game,” Foligno said, without going into specifics. “But it's been able to get feeling better here and obviously being back out with the guys, I'm really encouraged by that.”
Toronto has two regular-season games remaining this week and Foligno said “I hope so,” when asked if he’d be back for one or both of them. Foligno has four assists in the five games since Toronto acquired him via trade from Columbus on April 11.
Hyman is also eyeing a potential return this week. He’s missed eight games since suffering a sprained MCL in a knee-on-knee collision with Vancouver defenceman Alex Edler on April 18. Edler was given a five-minute major penalty and game misconduct for the play, and was subsequently suspended for two games.
Hyman was having a productive season prior to the injury, sitting second among Leafs in goals (15) and fourth in points (33) through 42 games. He’s also due to become an unrestricted free agent at the end of this season.
The 28-year-old winger politely sidestepped any dissection of Elder’s hit or his intent (“it doesn’t really matter”) and is keeping focused solely on recovering.
“It’s great to be back on the ice. I feel great,” Hyman said. “I feel really strong out there. We're just taking our time here, it's my first week back with some contact. All that matters is that I'm close to returning and happy to be right around the corner.”
Nash is right there with Hyman, looking to make his Leafs debut sooner than later. The veteran forward was acquired via trade from the Blue Jackets in April, just days after suffering a knee injury scheduled to sideline him four to six weeks.
Nash only recently started skating with his new teammates, but not everyone is unfamiliar.
Foligno learned a lot about Nash’s game in the three seasons they played together for the Blue Jackets, and while Nash isn’t flashy (he’s tallied 172 points in 578 games to date), Foligno believes he’ll be an asset for Toronto when he’s ready.
“I think if you're a real watchful person of the game, what you appreciate about him is he does the little things in games that allow you to win,” Foligno said. “He's got great skill. He sees the ice well, reads plays so well. I think people will really appreciate the little things he does.”
Since Toronto’s already locked up top seeding in the North Division, there’s no rush to get anyone back before they are ready. There will be salary cap considerations down the stretch as well, something Keefe acknowledged but admitted to not having full clarity on at this stage.
For now, it’s all about healing. And the promise of what the Leafs’ upcoming playoff push could look like with a totally healthy lineup.
“I think everybody's excited,” said Hyman. “It'll be great to get our full group together. We have so many guys [returning to the ice], so it's just exciting and I think that in order to do something special you need to have tons of guys contribute. So it's great to be back out there, it's great to see all the new faces out there together and hopefully we're building towards something special.”
Campbell nominated for Masterton Trophy
The Toronto chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers Association announced on Monday that goalie Jack Campbell had been voted as the Leafs’ nominee for the Bill Masterton Trophy. The Masterton is awarded each season to a player who best shows sportsmanship, perseverance and dedication to hockey.
This season Campbell went from a career backup to Toronto’s starter as Andersen battled injury. Campbell was also hurt in his first start of the year, and had to fight through an ongoing lower-body issue of his own.
The 29-year-old worked past some key mental hurdles, too. Known for his sunny disposition off the ice, Campbell was ruthless on himself publicly about perceived failures in the crease. The Leafs helped Campbell cultivate tools to cope with those feelings, and he said he's put less pressure on himself since.
Despite those challenges, Campbell opened his season on an NHL-record 11-0-0 run, and is 17-2-2 on the year with a .923 save percentage. His determination to be at his best has never gone unnoticed by those around him.
“The fact that he's persevered and not given up and now has almost reinvented himself as a goaltender with the success he's having [is amazing],” said Jason Spezza. “And that's on top of what he is as a person. He cares about his teammates and is just a great guy. There’s no bad days with Soup.”