Matthews calls for more consistency as Leafs muddle through March
TSN SportsCentre Reporter Mark Masters reports on the Maple Leafs, who practised at UBS Arena in Elmont, N.Y., on Wednesday before flying to Florida ahead of Thursday’s game against the Panthers.
General manager Kyle Dubas added six new players and subtracted two regular contributors in the lead up to the trade deadline. Defenceman Jake McCabe and forward Sam Lafferty debuted with the Leafs on March 1. Defenceman Erik Gustafsson and defenceman Luke Schenn entered the lineup one night later. Head coach Sheldon Keefe has been trying out different combinations on a near-nightly basis ever since.
Are all the changes leading to uneven results?
"It could factor a little bit, but I don't necessarily think it's a great excuse for the way we've been playing," said centre Auston Matthews. "I think it's just been a little bit too much highs and lows. We need to find a little bit more consistency in our game and throughout the game as well."
The Leafs fell 7-2 to the New York Islanders on Tuesday night. It was the team's most lopsided loss of the season.
"It's a little bit easy maybe to point to that," Keefe said of the lineup shuffling. "Individually, players need to stay with their game. I don't think any of the changes that we've made are anything too foreign or uncommon. It's been really common linemates and certainly common pairs all the way through."
The Leafs are 5-4-1 in March. That .550 points percentage puts Toronto 18th overall this month.
"We've added some great pieces and they've fit in really well," said captain John Tavares. "So, I don't think that necessarily has anything to do with our play. It's on us to adapt and go out and execute. You know you're playing with good players. Yeah, it's on us to be better and it's a great opportunity to have those different looks, different combinations and whatnot and building our game out and developing chemistry with everybody."
The Leafs are 26th in expected goals this month, per NaturalStatTrick.com. They are 28th in expected goals against.
"We've beaten New Jersey," Keefe countered. "We've beaten Carolina. We've beaten Edmonton. We've taken Colorado to a shootout. So, I mean, all the best teams in the league we've fared pretty well against in the last two weeks so to overthink anything too much I don't think would be appropriate."
Keefe notes that the absence of centre Ryan O'Reilly, who broke his finger just eight games into his Leafs career, has led to different looks up front. It's also led the team to employ an 11-forward, seven-defenceman alignment more often in an attempt to keep all the new blueliners involved.
"It's hit or miss some nights," reliable rearguard T.J. Brodie said of his recent play. "Obviously with seven in the mix, it's an adjustment for everyone. You're never with the same guy so it's more of a mental thing and being more alert and more aware out there."
The Leafs have gone back to the traditional 12-and-six approach in the last two games.
"It's the reality we're dealing with," Keefe concluded. "We've rallied at different times to compete against the best teams in the league and find ways to win games so to point to anything [related to roster changes] when it doesn't go well would be letting us off the hook too easily."
Toronto has 12 games left before the playoffs.
"Eventually we'll find our way," Matthews assured. "We have to."
The Leafs allowed a season-high seven goals on Tuesday night. Keefe, though, saw some silver linings.
"Our first period, with the exception of the last three minutes, was excellent," the coach said. "As good as we looked in a long while and probably deserved to be up more than one and we weren't. We let them hang around and then you make mistakes and it compounds. We just got to keep building on the good things we've done because we have done a lot."
Keefe highlighted the fact the Islanders play a more passive, pack-the-middle style than Toronto's other recent opponents and they failed to make the appropriate adjustment.
The sense of urgency was also different between the two teams on Tuesday. The Leafs have felt locked into the 2-3 match-up in the Atlantic Division for some time. The Islanders, meanwhile, have only a tenuous hold on a wild-card spot.
"It was very evident the game was very important to them," Keefe observed.
Morgan Rielly said that's no excuse.
"We're playing for a lot too," the defenceman insisted. "We're trying to get dialed in. By no means are we losing focus. We're trying to play playoff hockey. I think we have been, when you look back at the previous games so, no, I don't think that was a factor."
It better not be, because the Leafs will face another desperate opponent on Thursday in Florida. The Panthers trail the Pittsburgh Penguins by one point in the race for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
"It's good for our group," said forward Noel Acciari, who was acquired alongside O'Reilly on Feb. 18. "It's like playoff games all these games. These teams we're playing are all fighting for a spot and that's just helping us get ready for that first round."
The Leafs will face Carolina on Saturday. The Hurricanes are just two points up on New Jersey for first place in the Metropolitan Division. Toronto wraps up the road trip on Sunday in Nashville where the Predators are clinging to hope in the Western Conference race.
"We have to, most importantly, make sure we're worried about the way we have to prepare and the level we have to be at to go out there and execute and play," said Tavares. "There's a lot of teams in a lot of different situations so, most importantly, you take care of yourself and holding our standard to a certain level."
Keefe called over Matthews and Mitch Marner for a chat at the end of Wednesday's practice. What did they talk about?
"That's none of your business, honestly," a grinning Matthews told your humble correspondent. "I'll keep it between us."
Coach called Matthews & Marner aside for chat after practice— Mark Masters (@markhmasters) March 22, 2023
Usual check-in or looking for something from those guys moving forward?
Keefe: “I’m looking for lots from those guys moving forward, but what we talk about will stay between us, but it’s important I do check in” pic.twitter.com/kyzv2ovSjO
Is Keefe looking for anything specific from those guys moving forward?
"I'm looking for lots from those guys moving forward," the coach responded. "Obviously, what we talk about will stay between us, but it's important I do check in with them and talk to them about how they're feeling and what I'm seeing and what we need from them. They're two vital pieces of our team and we need them thriving and feeling good so I check in with those guys lots."
Keefe will often chat with players after practice, but it's often just a one-on-one conversation. Wednesday's catch-up session with Matthews and Marner lasted a couple minutes and appeared to be all business.
Keefe will take the temperature of his top players before making line changes.
"You're always keeping them informed of what you're thinking," the coach told TSN before Tuesday's game. "I try not to surprise the guys too much. You know, it's important to get their feel for things."
That's one reason why Calle Jarnkrok has remained on the top line with Matthews during the last four games.
"We put Jarny with Auston and he really felt strongly it was some good chemistry there," Keefe said. "Jarny was making a lot of good plays to keep them going. Something Auston and I have been talking about is just getting him to skate through the neutral zone and [Jarnkrok] seemed to be helping his game that way so it was natural that both he and I wanted to stay with it."
"It's been going pretty good with Calle," Matthews said. "We've developed some good chemistry. I've been enjoying playing with him so I wanted to see where that went. He's one guy that I haven't spent too much time on a line with other than a couple pre-season games and a couple shifts here and there."
Jarnkrok scored two goals on Saturday with Matthews assisting on both. The soft-spoken Swede is up to 17 goals, which is a new career high. How did Jarnkrok unlock a new offensive level at age 31 and in his 10th NHL season?
"It's hard to say," Keefe acknowledges. "It's our first year working with him day to day. He's a guy we believed in."
After splitting last season between Seattle and Calgary, Jarnkrok inked a four-year deal with the Leafs in the summer.
"He's been extremely consistent in his career to be able to give you that 15 goals," Keefe noted. "We got some really good players and we have the puck a lot as a team and perhaps there's been some benefits there. But credit to him. He had a bit of a slow start with an injury and adjustment to a new team. He's bounced around a little bit the last few years after really being solid in Nashville for a long time. He's been a really important and probably underrated part of our team."
William Nylander has gone four straight games without a point for the first time this season.
"I haven't been happy about my game," the winger said. "I've been pissed off about it. It happens. You just have to dig yourself out of it."
Nylander reviewed video of some of his better games this season and felt he made progress on Tuesday night.
"Better offensive pace," he noted. "Previous games just haven't been skating and playing like myself. Everybody has some slow games during the season."
Nylander has had fewer lulls this year and that's a big reason why he's already established a new career high with 35 goals.
Keefe promoted Nylander back to the second line with Tavares in the third period on Tuesday. Tavares has also gone quiet of late with no goals in his last five games.
"Will's the driver of things," said Keefe. "He's the transporter of the puck. He's skating yesterday and that's Will. I thought he had a good game. He, like a lot of our other guys, wasn't able to make that next play or next piece happen to get anything substantial offensively happening, but he was definitely skating through the neutral zone. He had the puck a lot and got us to good spots and that's what John requires of him. From that end, it was positive."
After being held without a shot in consecutive games, Tavares fired four pucks on net against his old team.
"I thought John had a good game, too," Keefe added. "Spent a lot of time in the offensive zone but, again, nothing really to show for it. But defensively didn't give up much. Between Will and John both having positive games, I thought it was a good time to get them back together."
Tavares and Nylander remained together at practice.
Marner scored in the third period on Tuesday to bring the Leafs within 3-2, but the winger immediately gave it back with an ill-advised pass leading to New York's fourth goal.
"It's a play I got to own up to and be better with," Marner admitted.
The Leafs were all grouped at the offensive blueline with Marner rushing up the ice. He flung a pass across the ice, but it was a little behind Rielly, who tried to kick it forward.
"I got to be sure with it," Marner said. "There's nothing wrong with going in and getting after that puck. Me and Mo had speed and it's just trying to make a play and it doesn't go your way all the time and it comes back to cost you. It sucks."
"It is the type of play Mitch is going to make more often than not," Keefe said.
Cal Clutterbuck picked up the loose puck and sped in on a partial breakaway. The gritty Islanders forward beat Ilya Samsonov to restore the two-goal cushion.
"From then on, it was tough sledding for us in terms of the engagement in the game," Keefe said. "I thought we were pretty dejected after that one. That was disappointing and unfortunate."
"Just the way it ended was kind of disappointing," agreed Matthews. "Felt like we kind of left Sammy out to dry there the last 5-10 minutes of the game. It was something addressed today and we all feel we need to be a lot better especially in tight games like that when the other team's playing with really good structure and [we're] just trying to find our way through that and not trying to force too many things."
Samsonov was in no mood to discuss the game on Tuesday night.
"Islanders play good game," the goalie said. "Score six goals [on me] because those guys working hard. That's it. That's my comment for game. I want to forget about this game. This history right now. I have more important things at home right now than to think about this game."
Samsonov's wife is due to give birth any day now. After doing a session with goalie coach Curtis Sanford on Wednesday, Samsonov left the ice and headed home to be there for the birth of his first child.
"He has a lot going on right now, obviously," Keefe said. "All he has to focus on is getting home and being with his wife. This is a very important and special time for him and his family. He needs to get back. We are obviously heading south. It is important to get him home and allow him to take care of things there. We will press on."
Matt Murray is in line to start Thursday against the Panthers.
Joseph Woll, who stopped 28 of 29 shots in a game with the Toronto Marlies on Wednesday, is expected to join the Leafs for the rest of the road trip.
Timothy Liljegren heeled an outlet pass in the second period on Tuesday night. The turnover led directly to the Hudson Fasching goal, which put the Islanders up 2-1.
"Just a mistake that happens sometimes," the 23-year-old defenceman said. "I had a lot of time with the puck and obviously didn't make a play on it. Stuff like that is going to happen so just move on from it."
"Liljegren just whiffed on one," Keefe said. "I don't know if you are going to practice that. It is a play that you need to make and he will make."
The mistake was all the more glaring because the Leafs had highlighted the need for good break-out passes to combat the Islanders forecheck.
"We knew coming in that breakouts would be a big piece for us," Liljegren said. "Yeah, not good."
Liljegren was dropped to the fourth defence pair at Wednesday's practice.
Hudson Fasching scores off the Liljegren turnover pic.twitter.com/URkofICKho— Omar (@TicTacTOmar) March 22, 2023
Islanders centre Brock Nelson left Tuesday's game after taking a hit from Acciari.
"I'm usually hard on the forecheck," Acciari said when asked about the play. "I'm not looking to hurt anyone ever. I went to push him into the boards and he just happened to cutback. I hope he's OK."
Acciari's hit on Brock Nelson sends him to the locker room pic.twitter.com/pQSe6iKpEd— Omar (@TicTacTOmar) March 22, 2023
There was no penalty called. Nelson didn't return and in the third period Matt Martin challenged Acciari to a fight.
"He was asking me if I wanted to answer," Acciari said. "In the back of my head [I'm thinking that] I literally just came back from a little head thing so I wanted to be careful, but at the same time I wanted to answer. It's part of the game. But, again, going forward I want to make sure I'm careful with that."
Perhaps that hesitancy led to a quick takedown by Martin, who didn't throw any punches once Acciari was in a vulnerable position.
"He's the best at what he does and I respect his game," Acciari said. "Class act for what he did."
Acciari missed Saturday's game in Ottawa after getting hit in the head by Jesse Puljujarvi on Friday.
The NCAA season is winding down, which means Minnesota Golden Gophers left winger Matthew Knies, 20, could be joining the Leafs soon.
"There's always that intrigue this time of year and signing guys and hoping they can come in and help out," said Matthews.
Knies recorded 21 goals and 20 assists in 36 games and was named the top player in the Big 10 conference.
"Hopefully the year he's had gives him some confidence," said Matthews, who has offered advice to Knies, a fellow Arizona native, in the past. "It's quite a jump [to the NHL], but he's a mature young guy and we'll do everything we can to help him out and give him the best opportunity to succeed."
The top-seeded Gophers open the single elimination Frozen Four tournament with a game against Canisius on Thursday. A national champion will be crowned on April 8.
Brodie practised in full on Wednesday and Keefe confirmed the plan is for the defenceman to play in Florida. Brodie missed Tuesday's game after absorbing a painful shot block on Saturday night.
Bobby McMann, who picked up his first career NHL point on Tuesday, aggravated a knee injury during the game in New York and is expected to miss some time. He has returned to Toronto.
Lines at Wednesday's practice:
Jarnkrok - Matthews - Marner
Bunting - Tavares - Nylander
Kerfoot - Acciari - Lafferty
Aston-Reese - Kampf - Simmonds
McCabe - Brodie
Rielly - Schenn
Giordano - Holl
Gustafsson - Liljegren