After Klingberg goes down, Timmins steps up for Leafs in pre-season win
John Klingberg, Toronto's big off-season addition on defence, left Wednesday's pre-season game early in the first period and did not return.
"He just had something tighten up on him," said coach Sheldon Keefe. "We won't know the extent of it until we can get it evaluated tomorrow."
In Klingberg's absence another right-shot defenceman stepped up as Conor Timmins scored twice and added two assists in a 5-2 win over the Buffalo Sabres.
"Unbelievable," gushed winger Max Domi, who scored his first goal in a Leafs uniform courtesy of a Timmins set up. "Like, you gotta save some, no? He looks unreal. The pass he gave me for the breakaway, that's an all-world pass and the rest of the stuff was unreal too. Great game by him and that builds a lot of confidence for a guy like that."
Timmins sprang Domi after the winger stepped out of the box following a second-period penalty.
"He sauced it right over a guy's stick so didn't want to waste it for him," Domi said.
"I heard the goalie tapping his stick so I knew he was probably coming out of the box," Timmins said. "Just caught a glimpse. I thought it was either him or the ref out there so either way it's going to get down the ice."
Timmins also picked up a pair of assists in his pre-season debut on Saturday in Ottawa. In reviewing the video of that game, Keefe felt the St. Catharines, Ont., native could have had even more points.
"He finds a way to score or set up offence and create," Keefe said. "We saw that last season when he played for us as well. It is not a big surprise that way."
Timmins recorded 14 points in 25 games with the Leafs last season after coming over in a trade with the Arizona Coyotes.
"Obviously, it will give me some confidence going forward, but the points aren't really something I'm focused on," Timmins said. "There are other aspects of my game I'm leaning into in camp a little more and I want to focus on those things."
"Tight defensive gaps, winning my battles in the corners, making the right plays on breakouts and things like that."
Timmins spent the entire summer in Toronto working with the team's performance staff and nutritionists.
"It was a matter of gaining strength," the 6-foot-2, 206 pounder said. "I feel strong. I feel good."
Timmins didn't play much down the stretch last season and started camp on Toronto's fourth pair. Now, the injury to Klingberg may open the door to a greater role. It's clear what the 25-year-old has to prove.
"It is a matter of consistency," Keefe said. "In his case, it is not necessarily consistency on offence. He has found ways to score and produce, but there is more to playing the position than that. It is being consistently reliable breaking the puck out, reliable defending, reliable playing against good players at times, and not having to be sheltered. All of those kinds of things are important in order to take a step. He has worked really hard to give himself a chance to compete here in camp. It is good to see him get rewarded on a night like tonight."
Tyler Bertuzzi is garnering plenty of attention at Leafs camp and not just for his play.
"Everybody is just looking at his stick like, 'What's going on?'" Auston Matthews said with a smile. "He's got one strip of camo tape on the top for his butt end so really nothing," Matthews said. "And then he uses this, like, I don't even know what it is, you just strip it on the blade there, so there's nothing on the bottom, nothing on the top, it's just like this material on the blade and that's what he's rocking. It wouldn't be my choice, but it works for him and as long as he likes it that's all that matters. But it wouldn't be my first or second choice."
The left winger is getting some constructive criticism from his new teammates.
"They've given me some s--t, but I'm sticking with it," Bertuzzi said.
"What he's got going on there is something I've never seen before," said Matthews. "It's pretty interesting so far to see that he can actually play hockey with what he's working with."
It's not just the stick that makes Bertuzzi stand out. He also wears his skates with the tongues out. That's been his style for a while now.
"It just kind of felt right, I guess," he explained. "I tried to tuck it under, but didn't feel great so just stuck with flap."
"He's got hilarious style," Matthews said. "Tongues out. The flow [hair] all over the place. The tape on the blade or the non-tape on the blade. Yeah, he's got it going on, for sure."
Bertuzzi is confident in his style and his style of play.
"He knows who he is," Keefe said. "He plays with good players. He meshes with them well."
Keefe points out that with the Boston Bruins last season, Bertuzzi often ended up beside David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand.
"A lot of times, those kinds of things aren't necessarily coach-driven," Keefe said. "They are player-driven because the coach is getting some knocks on his door."
Bertuzzi picked up 10 points (five goals and five assists) in seven playoff games last season with the Bruins.
"He doesn't get enough credit for his ability to make plays," Keefe continued. "If you go through the points that he accumulated in Boston, I don't know how many times he is finding seams and setting guys up for one-timers and open nets."
And that's why, after signing a one-year deal in the summer, Bertuzzi is starting his Leafs career on the top line beside Matthews and Mitch Marner. That line made it's debut in Monday's pre-season game against the Ottawa Senators.
"I thought it went not bad," said Bertuzzi. "I felt not bad out there. The chemistry will come with more games played and stuff like that, but it felt good to get out there."
"The first period felt kind of sloppy as it usually is in the pre-season," noted Matthews, "but I thought the second and third we started to have some good shifts in the O-zone, find a bit of a rhythm. I think the more reps we get together and the more time we spend in game-like situations the better the chemistry will grow."
Bertuzzi is learning about some of the subtle things Matthews does to dominate play.
"He holds onto the puck," the 28-year-old from Sudbury, Ont., observed. "He just lugs it. He's good with the possession game and spinning off checks and getting to open spots for good scoring opportunities. So, just give those guys some room and let them do their thing."
Not everyone can click with Matthews and Marner. A couple years ago, Nick Ritchie was given a big chance on the top line, but it didn't work. Michael Bunting ended up seizing the opportunity and having a nice run in that spot before departing in free agency over the summer.
So, what's the key to succeeding beside Toronto's dynamic duo?
"I don't know if there's really a key," said Matthews. "We like to play fast and utilize each other on the ice and it's just kind of a feel thing and knowing where each other [is] at on the ice at all times so we can play quick and utilize the open space."
Bertuzzi plans to make only minor adjustments to his game.
"It's going to change a little bit, but I'll still be in front of the net and trying to create space for them and let them do their thing on the outside," he said. "With time hopefully that chemistry will click a little bit more."
What's Matthews focused on when it comes to his game this season?
"I feel like this opportunity to play penalty kill is something that, for myself, I'm excited about," he said. "Just another challenge, another step to being that complete player that I want to be so I'm looking forward to that."
Matthews is also prioritizing a strong start. Last year, he scored just once in the first seven games as the Leafs stumbled to a 2-4-1 record.
"We want to start well, start on time here," the Arizona native said. "Once the regular season gets going, [it's] making sure everyone is on same page and for myself, personally, just to kind of be leading the way in that regard whether it's in practice or games."
When Matthews sets his mind to something he tends to make it happen.
"It is just a drive to be the best," Keefe said. "Part of that is the ability to have something to focus on, work on through the summer and apply it in-season. From what I have seen over the years, he has been able to do that as well or better than anybody I have ever worked with. If you give him something or he himself feels something that he wants to improve on, he focuses on it and works on it through the summer."
Despite that work ethic, Matthews saw his goal production fall from 60 to 40 last season as he dealt with a nagging hand injury.
"He has had a good off-season in terms of his health," Keefe highlighted. "[It] hasn't been disrupted as some others have the last couple of years. Certainly, his ability to continue to improve — and most importantly, the desire to improve and not just settle — is a great asset for him."
Meanwhile, Matthews insists that the 64-goal season posted by Edmonton Oilers centre Connor McDavid isn't a motivating factor as he aims to recapture the form that propelled him to the Hart Trophy in 2022.
"I want to be the best player I can be," Matthews said. "I don't try to focus too much externally. For me, it's all about this team. It's all about winning and being the best teammate, leader, person, player I can be day in and day out."
With Ryan O'Reilly, Noel Acciari and Alex Kerfoot departing in free agency, there are now jobs available on Toronto's penalty kill unit. Matthews will get an extended look in the pre-season. And Sam Lafferty, who scored a shorthanded goal on Wednesday, is a top candidate to take on some of those minutes.
"Huge potential," said Keefe. "He has done it before. He has found a way to produce offence on the PK. Last season, he did a great job of that. He showed that again tonight with his ability to use his legs to get in behind you. We play a pressure penalty kill. There is great benefit to having guys who can skate as he does. We need guys to take a step."
"I did it in Chicago a little bit, but it's a lot different here so hope to contribute that way," Lafferty said. "Different system and just deeper personnel and things like that."
Lafferty scored four shorthanded goals in 51 games with the Chicago Blackhawks last season. He led all Chicago forwards in average ice time shorthanded, but never got a real look with the Leafs in that role.
"We were already pretty good on the PK and we acquired two veterans like O'Reilly and Acciari," Keefe explained. "There wasn't a whole lot of opportunity for him last season, but there certainly is now. I thought he had a good game tonight."
Noah Gregor, who is at camp on a pro tryout, is another emerging option for shorthanded minutes.
"I really liked the speed of Gregor and Lafferty together," Keefe said. "Whether it is 5-on-5 or PK, that is a great asset."
Calle Jarnkrok (undisclosed) skated on his own before practice. He has not dressed in a pre-season game yet.
Centre Dylan Gambrell was hit hard into the boards by defenceman Tommy Miller late in Tuesday's practice and appeared to be dazed.
"He has been diagnosed with a concussion," Keefe confirmed. "He is going to be out. You never know with those types of things. We will just take it a day at time and see how he is. We don't expect him to be available in the near future."
Lines to start Wednesday's pre-season game:
Knies - Tavares - Robertson
Gregor - Holmberg - Lafferty
Domi - Minten - Hirvonen
Clifford - Cowan - Steeves
McCabe - Klingberg
Lagesson - Liljegren
Lajoie - Timmins
Lines at Wednesday's practice:
Bertuzzi - Matthews - Marner
Abruzzese - Nylander - Tverberg
McMann - Kampf - Reaves
Slavin - Blandisi - Shaw
Rielly - Brodie
Giordano - Niemela
Benoit - Kokkonen
Rifai - Villeneuve