TSN Toronto Reporter Mark Masters reports on the Maple Leafs, who practised at Ford Performance Centre on Tuesday before travelling to Philadelphia for Wednesday’s game against the Flyers.
Nick Ritchie is still looking for his first goal of the season.
"It's not easy," the 25-year-old admitted of the wait. "Obviously, you want to score as many as you can, but it's not that easy right now and I got to get back to basics."
"He has handled it well in the sense that when I talk to him, he is not down or frustrated," said coach Sheldon Keefe. "At the same time, we want to make sure we stay on top of him with just the urgency of the situation. It is not so much the fact that he hasn't scored, but shift to shift, it's bringing urgency and consistency in his play."
The left winger from Orangeville, Ont., stayed out late following Tuesday's practice to work with the team's development staff.
"That was just some shooting stuff, shooting off both legs and trying to score some goals," he revealed.
Ritchie scored a career-high 15 goals in 56 games with Boston last season, but did not receive a qualifying offer from the Bruins in the summer. He signed a two-year, $5-million deal with the Leafs and started the season on the top line.
But Ritchie struggled to find his footing and was dropped down the lineup after six games joining Jason Spezza and Wayne Simmonds on the fourth line.
"Just getting used to playing with different guys," Ritchie said of the challenge. "There's been some chances. I made a few plays that could've went in. Just trying to get around the net more and hopefully I can do that in the next few games."
Ritchie has just one point, a secondary assist on the power play, in 13 games. He does lead the team with 29 hits.
"He has done a lot of good things that have gone unnoticed," Keefe stressed. "I thought, like a lot of our players, last night was not a good day for him. We expect a lot more and we need to get a lot more out of him. Part of that is on him and part of that is on us to help him get there."
Second-line centre John Tavares and third-line winger Ondrej Kase missed Tuesday's practice.
"Both got banged up yesterday," Keefe said. "Both are day-to-day. They are going to travel with us to Philadelphia, which is obviously a positive sign that they could play."
Both guys are considered game-time decisions, Keefe added.
With Tavares absent, Ritchie moved up to the second line at practice skating alongside Alex Kerfoot, who shifted to centre, and Mitch Marner.
With Kase absent, Joey Anderson took reps on the third line alongside David Kampf and Pierre Engvall. Kirill Semyonov skated on the fourth line with Spezza and Simmonds. Anderson and Semyonov have not played for the Leafs this season.
Toronto's last 14 goals, dating back to a game against Detroit on Oct. 30, have come off the sticks of Auston Matthews, Tavares, Marner and William Nylander. So, secondary scoring, or a lack thereof, was a hot topic after practice.
"There was a time we were getting contributions from those [bottom-six] lines and the top guys weren't scoring," Keefe pointed out. "So, we'd like it to match up where everyone is rolling at the same time, but it doesn't always work that way. Between the rest of the forwards and our defence, we'd like to get contributions throughout the lineup."
The Leafs have only got one goal from the defence core this season.
Michael Bunting, who took over Ritchie's spot on the top line, has yet to score at even strength in seven games with Matthews and Nylander. Does the 26-year-old feel any additional pressure to produce in that role?
"No, I don't feel like I have to produce offensively," he insisted. "I just feel like I got to force turnovers, get the puck to those other two and then just kind of get to the net ... I'm just happy to play my role as high-energy guy and force turnovers."
Bunting has three goals on the season with his most recent tally, on Oct. 30 against Detroit, coming on the power play. Bunting broke out with 10 goals in 21 games with the Arizona Coyotes last season.
"I want to score, don't get me wrong," he said with a laugh. "I go into every single game wanting to score. I'm a pretty hungry guy to score. Right now, I feel like I am getting my looks at the net. I've had quite a few Grade A chances and they're just not going in for me."
Matthews generated a lot of chemistry with Zach Hyman over the years. With Hyman now in Edmonton, it's only natural that it is taking time for someone else to gain traction in that spot.
"He's always talking and I like that," Matthews said of Bunting. "Just trying to feel each other out and where we want to see each other on the ice. I think each game we've continued to develop a little bit more chemistry and hopefully we keep that going and sustain more offensive-zone time and capitalize on some of these chances we're getting."
Bunting, remarkably, is still considered a National Hockey League rookie. Wednesday will only be his 40th game. But it is his seventh season as a professional, which means he's not as starstruck.
"It's fun to get their feedback after every single shift," Bunting said of Matthews and Nylander. "I told them that I'm not afraid of criticism. If you don't like where I am just let me know and I'm open to it. I like that. I enjoy talking just so we're all on the same page."
Keefe feels Bunting is fitting in just fine.
"He has done a really good job," the coach said. "Again, a lot of guys didn't have a very good night yesterday. Bunting was one. I thought Boston [on Saturday] was maybe his best game. He was all over the puck, forechecking, generating loose pucks, generating shots for himself and others. They were on offence a lot. He was extremely competitive. That is a really good sign of what he is capable of doing against a very tough opponent.
"Like our team and like a lot of our players, we are seeking consistency here. He has to bring that every single day."
What did Matthews think of his line's performance against Los Angeles?
"A little too up and down," the 24-year-old centre said. "I thought the first period, the whole team, I guess, we were really hemmed in there. I thought the second and third, we were able to generate a little bit more, but they're a good team. They play well within their structure. They keep everything to the outside so when you get those chances you got to make them count and obviously we didn't make them count last night."
Matthews registered four shots, but was held off the board, which snapped a streak of three straight two-point games.
The Arizona native is using Movember-themed skates and sticks this month to support the charity which focuses on mental health and suicide prevention, prostate cancer and testicular cancer.
"It's really important to me and a really big month," he said. "I try and have fun with it and raise awareness."
No. 34 has vowed to shave off his trademark moustache if he's able to raise $134,000. As of late Tuesday afternoon, he was closing in on $55,000.
Does Matthews remember what it's like to not have a moustache?
"I can't, honestly," he said with a smile. "I was thinking about that this morning. I hope we reach the goal, though, because I want to see what it looks like without it. We'll see what happens."
The Matthews moustache first appeared during the summer of 2019.
Hockey icon and facial hair connoisseur @AM34 is putting his muzzy on the line for #menshealth. If he reaches a fundraising goal of $134K in for #Movember: his moustache GOES. 🚨 — Movember Canada (@MovemberCA) October 28, 2021
The fate of his moustache lies in your hands. Donate today: https://t.co/7rZMCaOC1A pic.twitter.com/bXsvZ2hPKZ
After sitting as a healthy scratch in five straight games, Justin Holl will draw back in on Wednesday night.
"I'm excited for the opportunity," the 29-year-old defenceman said. "The boys look like they've been having a lot of fun out there and I'm excited to be a part of it."
Life in the press box wasn't foreign to Holl, who was a healthy scratch 71 times during the 2018-19 season. But the Minnesota native was a top-four mainstay last season and admits getting benched after that successful run made it harder to process.
"Just because you know what it feels like to be a big part of the team and you want to be a big part of the team," he said. "So, that part's difficult. But, you have to control what you can and maintain a positive attitude. That's all you can do."
Holl used the time out of the lineup to take stock of his game. What is he looking to improve on?
"Just small things here and there," he said. "Small things that make a big difference. Killing plays in the neutral zone and playing with better structure in the o-zone and coming down the walls hard and being aggressive."
"My hope is that this is a bit of a reset for him," said Keefe, "that he comes out refocused."
Holl, of course, didn't like being scratched, but he appreciated that Keefe was up front and honest throughout the process.
"Just to be the Justin Holl we have come to expect," said Keefe of the message. "That's it. He is a good player. He is a guy who has done very well for us. He is an important part of our team. I didn't expect him to sit out as long as he did, but it is a credit to the other guys that were going well."
Holl's benching opened the door for Timothy Liljegren to get in and the 22-year-old Swede will stay in despite Holl's return. He's looked good while playing alongside 21-year-old countryman Rasmus Sandin on the third pair.
Holl was reunited with Jake Muzzin at practice while T.J. Brodie, who had been skating with Muzzin, moved back to the right side of Morgan Rielly. Travis Dermott will be scratched in Philadelphia. He played 15 minutes and 34 seconds against the Kings, lowest among the team's defence, and finished minus-three.
"Dermott will come out just for the sake of some continuity with Sandin and Liljegren," Keefe explained. "It just allows us to have some greater balance with guys who are familiar with each other. That is really it."
Dermott and Holl have heard their names come up in trade rumours of late, because of the situation on Toronto's blue line, but Keefe sees this competition as an encouraging development.
"What we have learned, as we have gone through this exercise over the last five games, is that we have seven defencemen that can play and can help us," the coach said. "That is a very positive thing for us. We also have guys who can play with different people. We didn't really have that last season. We had a lot of continuity throughout the lineup throughout the season."
Holl has actually been using Spezza's sticks this season.
"I like it," he said with a smile. "It's a very subtle change from what I used last year. Just a little bit of a different curve and I liked it. We had been talking about it and he's a big experimenter in the stick room so it kind of came about naturally. I go sans paint so they look kind of different."
It's not a big adjustment even though Holl is a shutdown defenceman and Spezza is a skilled scorer.
"His stick is really stiff, but I had been using a stiff shaft previously as well so it really wasn't too different," Holl said.
After allowing four goals on 28 shots on Monday night, Jack Campbell took the blame for Toronto's loss.
"I'm pretty sure everybody in the building knows I wasn't my best," the 29-year-old goalie said. "Cost us two points … Just a couple routine saves, give them up, and we're down 2-0. Can't happen."
Of course, Campbell didn't get much help.
"He is part of spotting the 2-0 lead early on, but it was guys in alone coming in on him," Keefe pointed out. "That is a tough ask for a goaltender. He has bailed us out a lot so we have come to expect him to have the ability to save those. I am sure he has the expectation of himself to stop them. But he has five guys playing in front of him that have to help him out."
It was only the second time all season that Campbell has allowed more than three goals in a game. It was only the third time he's allowed more than two.
"He's played great for us this year so far and disappointing to let him down," Tavares said after the game.
It was particularly disappointing because the game was extra meaningful for Campbell, who was playing his old team for the first time.
"It's tough," he said of the emotions. "I mean, I loved it there, love the boys, love what they did for me in L.A. Credit them for getting me where I am today. I love a lot of those guys over there. You know, just disappointed that I didn't bring more to our team."
It was the first time that Campbell faced off with his friend and mentor Jonathan Quick. What does he admire most about the two time Stanley Cup champion?
"His competitiveness," Campbell said. "He's a warrior in there. I remember [Steven] Stamkos got him right in the neck with a one-timer in Tampa a couple years ago and didn't even faze him. Taught me a lot and I really look up to him."
Campbell, despite his happy-guy persona, is also incredibly competitive. He's played in 11 of Toronto's 13 games this season and the team is trying to manage his workload in practice. But, despite the presence of a third goalie at Tuesday's workout, Campbell opted to join the proceedings following his early session with goalie coach Steve Briere.
"He got a little extra work," Keefe said. "Missed the first part of practice, but then there were some game-like situation stuff in the last bit of practice that he wanted to get some reps in so we just had him jump in there. We're always taking it a day at a time and even a drill at a time."
Lines at Tuesday's practice:
Bunting - Matthews - Nylander
Ritchie - Kerfoot - Marner
Engvall - Kampf - Anderson
Semyonov - Spezza - Simmonds
Rielly - Brodie
Muzzin - Holl
Sandin - Liljegren
Injured: Mrazek (groin), Mikheyev (broken thumb)
Absent: Tavares, Kase