'He's looking good in battles': Weight gain has Marner feeling stronger
Mitch Marner is up nine pounds from last season.
"It's not much of a jump, but it still is a couple pounds that make you feel a little stronger," said Marner, who weighed in at 181 to start training camp. "Can kind of cut into the ice a little more, take guys on one-on-one a little more, but we'll see when the real season starts. Now, it's just maintaining that weight and keeping healthy with it and seeing how I feel with it."
The 6-foot winger is already putting the additional strength to good use.
"He's looking good in battles, for sure," observed William Nylander. "I noticed that right away from the start."
"Early indications are that he's come into camp looking good," said coach Sheldon Keefe. "Certainly doesn't look like a guy who's resting on what he accomplished last season. He's looking to build on it."
Marner established career highs in goals (35) and points (97) last season despite missing 10 games. He surged down the stretch with 76 points in 46 games after returning from the COVID list on Jan. 15. But that didn't stop Marner from looking for improvements this summer.
"I'm proud of the adjustments I made," he said. "Trying to eat healthier and eat better and get the right food in me and hopefully it pans out to make it a successful season again."
Toronto's top line got a jumpstart on generating chemistry when Auston Matthews invited Marner and Michael Bunting to Arizona ahead of training camp.
"I thought it would be nice for them to get out of Toronto for a bit," Matthews said with a smile. "We just hung out and competed a lot. Played a lot of tennis, golf, ping pong, a bunch stuff. It was just a nice week to kind of relax, but also get some work in and get prepared for the season."
Marner had intended to visit Matthews in Arizona ahead of last season, but that plan got scrapped when the Rocket Richard Trophy winner underwent wrist surgery.
"It was great to get down this year," Marner said. "Some really good skates, good workouts and a fun time. Really competitive. We want to win in everything we do against each other."
"Whatever they say, I dominated in tennis," Bunting quipped. "We had some success together last year and it's fun playing with them. Hopefully we can keep rolling with that and keep building off that chemistry."
Marner admits that Bunting and Matthews outclassed him on the tennis court. All three wore basketball jerseys during the match. Matthews and Bunting repped the Toronto Raptors while Marner went with a Stephen Curry Davidson College jersey.
"I have a couple of his Golden State ones but his Davidson one I didn't have yet," Marner said. "One of my buddies got it for me for my birthday present.
“Curry's always been my guy ... A shorter guy and a lot of people didn't think he would turn out. A lot of people doubted him and what he's done in the game of basketball has been remarkable and something special to watch as a fan. The work he puts into his craft that shows every day on the court is impressive."
Matthews arrived in Toronto earlier than usual.
"He's extremely focused and came into town here early to get some work in, be around the team and help push the team in the skates leading up to camp itself," said Keefe. "That's another sign of his growth in leadership."
Matthews wasn't a full participant in camp last season because of the wrist surgery and sat out the first three games of the regular season.
"He missed a lot of what we're doing right now," Keefe said. "He was skating at this time last year at camp, but wasn't a full participant as you'll recall. So that, in itself, helps his cause to get off to a good start and really get going. It took him a little bit last season after missing camp and getting dropped in a few games into the season."
Traditionally a fast starter in his NHL career, Matthews produced just one goal and one assist in his first six games last year. It was his quietest stretch of the entire season.
"It's nice to get in these games and the repetition and everything," Matthews said. "I think pre-season is actually very valuable. These games don't mean anything, but just to get your feet wet and get back into a game situations and competing against another team is definitely really valuable. So, looking forward to a full camp this year."
Marner is heavier and Matthews will have a full camp to get up to speed, but what about Bunting? The Calder Trophy finalist is also planning to be a better player this season. The gritty Scarborough, Ont., native is looking to add a new element to his game.
"I worked on my shot and being more of a threat on the rush and being able to shoot from afar," Bunting said earlier this week. "I hope I can add that to my game, but I also have to stick to my game and play how I do, play in those dirty areas, get in front of the net and whack away. I'm looking forward to doing that all over again."
Bunting, who celebrated his 27th birthday on Sept. 17, had only played 26 NHL games before breaking out last year with his hometown team.
"I'm kind of a guy with a chip on my shoulder and never satisfied," he said. "I did have success last year, but I have to repeat that and have to keep that coming every single year I play. It took me a while to get to the NHL and I know how hard it is to get there, but it's just as easy to get out of the NHL. I want to prove last year wasn't a fluke."
Bunting produced 63 points (58 at even strength) in 79 games last season.
Defenceman Rasmus Sandin isn't at Leafs camp, but the restricted free agent is getting updates from Nylander.
"I talked to him this morning just to see how it's going," Nylander said. "He wants to be here. I was in the same spot and all you want to do is be here. Hopefully that gets sorted out shortly."
Nylander pointed out Sandin has missed two of the more gruelling days of camp.
"He got to skip the skating test," Nylander noted with a smile. "Maybe he'll have to do it when he gets back. We'll see."
With Sandin in Sweden, Timothy Liljegren sidelined six weeks following hernia surgery and Jake Muzzin dealing with back discomfort, there are suddenly opportunities available on defence. That's good news for Victor Mete. The Woodbridge, Ont., native is excited to put on the Maple Leaf sweater for the first time on Saturday when Toronto opens its pre-season schedule against the Ottawa Senators.
"It's special," the 24-year-old said. "I already have a bunch of family members who want to come to the game and are so excited for me."
Mete signed with the Leafs on July 14.
"It was crazy. It was two days before my wedding when I signed, which was my rehearsal dinner. The day of [the wedding] a couple guests brought some Leafs things."
"We were celebrating a lot of things that night," Marner said. "A lot of happy Leaf fans in that room, I'll tell you that."
Marner has been friends with Mete since childhood and played with him in London. He received a couple calls from Leafs management about Mete before the signing.
"He's such a smooth skater up and down the ice and that works really good with our lineup," said Marner. "Our playing style is to have a lot of people join the rush and make plays on it."
"My game fits the style of the Leafs very well," Mete agreed. "I like to move pucks quickly and if you can get them up to the forwards they have here they can make something happen."
Despite working with the third-string power-play unit during Friday's practice, Mete made a good impression.
"The way we did special teams today, we gave everyone a chance," Keefe said. "Mete was a real stand out. Somewhat eyeopening, actually, for us because we weren't thinking of him in that light, but he made some plays out there, which had us having some discussions about it in the room. That was really positive."
At even strength, Mete has skated on the right side, where he's played most of his career, alongside Jordie Benn. That duo also played together at times with the Montreal Canadiens.
Alex Kerfoot met the media for the first time since the disappointing playoff loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning. Kerfoot experienced a nightmare Game 6 in that series. His turnover led to Tampa's first goal in the first period. In the third period, he took a high-sticking penalty in the offensive end, which put the Leafs down two men and led to the tying goal.
"My emotions were not great," he recalled of that night. "It's different in a team sport than it is an individual sport. In an individual sport, you can live with those mistakes a little bit easier because it's all on you. In a team sport, you make a mistake like that, it impacts the group. It impacts the organization. It impacts the fan base who cares so much about this team. So, yeah, it sucks."
Kerfoot insists he's over it.
"You never want to be involved in plays like that, but it happens," he said. "You got to wash it, move on to the next. Obviously, the series didn't go the way we wanted it to, but once the season is done, it's done and you just got to focus on getting better."
Later in the playoffs, Kerfoot watched his old team, the Colorado Avalanche, beat the Lightning to win the Stanley Cup.
"I talked to a few of them," he said of his ex-teammates. "Obviously, it's a great experience for them and hopefully we can get there one day here."
Early in training camp, Kerfoot has been skating with Nicolas Aube-Kubel, who was part of Colorado's Cup run.
"He's got a lot of energy, skates really well and wins a lot of battles," Kerfoot observed. "He's hard on the puck and brings an element of physicality that is maybe something that we've lacked at times in certain parts of the lineup. He competes a lot and does a lot of things well that we want to add to your group."
Lines at Friday's practices:
Bunting - Matthews - Jarnkrok
Robertson - Kerfoot - Aube-Kubel
Aston-Reese - Kampf - Anderson
Clifford - Minten - Simmonds
Rielly - Brodie
Benn - Mete
Kokkonen - Villeneuve
Hoefenmayer - Miller
Flanks: Jarnkrok, Matthews
Net front: Bunting
Flanks: Kerfoot, Robertson
Net front: Simmonds
Flanks: Aston-Reese, Mete
Net front: Minten
Gaudette - Tavares - Marner
Malgin - Holmberg - Nylander
McMann - Der-Arguchintsev - Abruzzese
Steeves - Douglas - Ellis
Giordano - Holl
Dahlstrom - Kral
Rifai - Hollowell
Pietroniro - Hellickson
Flanks: Marner, Nylander
Net front: Tavares
Flanks: Der-Arguchintsev, Malgin
Net front: Abruzzese