Tavares sees opportunity to raise his game on new-look line
The Maple Leafs skated in two groups at the Ford Performance Centre on Tuesday ahead of Wednesday’s pre-season game against the Buffalo Sabres in St. Thomas, Ont.
John Tavares has lined up beside Mitch Marner or William Nylander for most of his five seasons in Toronto. This year, though, he's started training camp skating between 20-year-old rookie Matthew Knies and Sam Lafferty.
"It's a great opportunity to raise my game and make them better and utilize their skill-sets and what they bring to the table," the Leafs captain said.
Nylander is getting a look at centre at camp while Marner is skating on the top line beside Auston Matthews. The alignment is designed to make the team deeper down the middle.
"I like the ability to have three good options there," said coach Sheldon Keefe. "David Kampf is on line four and he is as trustworthy of a guy as we have. It's a good mix with the way it all comes together ... John is all about the team. He wants to see the team do well. When we presented him with a scenario we were building, he is all for it and all about it."
Tavares was a point-a-game player last season and Keefe believes the 33-year-old can continue to produce alongside Knies and Lafferty.
"I like Lafferty's straight-line speed and ability to get through the neutral zone clean and into the offensive zone," Keefe said. "That is where John does his best."
Lafferty, 28, scored a career-high 12 goals last season in 70 games split between the Chicago Blackhawks and Leafs.
"When you see the skating ability, it's such an asset," Tavares noted. "For him, it's just continuing to realize that and how he can impose that."
Knies, who made the jump from college in April, impressed during a 10-game stretch with the Leafs last season, including seven in the playoffs. Despite his age, Knies has earned a level of trust with Keefe already.
"It's also having two guys with John that will skate just as hard coming back to our zone, be good defensively, play against good players, and not have to have any concern or drop-off," said Keefe.
Tavares describes Knies and Lafferty, who was acquired ahead of the trade deadline last season, as two players "just scratching the surface" of what they can bring at this level.
"John is all in on whatever we believe is going to help the team," said Keefe. "He is going to do whatever he can to make it work, whether that is centre or wing and no matter who his linemates are. At this point in his career more than any other, John is all about winning. The more guys you can have like that, the better. We have lots of them here."
And that should make it easier to experiment. The Leafs seem determined to give this new formation with Nylander at centre some real runway.
"We will continue to evaluate John's situation, John's line, and the other lines," said Keefe. "That is a daily discussion that we will have. We are not going to be emotional about anything. We are going to give this some time to breathe throughout the pre-season and perhaps beyond that. We will continue to look at it."
After a discussion with the team's performance and sports science staff, Tavares decided to sit out the first two pre-season games.
"It's continuing to balance the volume," he explained. "It's a long year. I missed most of camp last year and I felt really good to start the year."
Tavares sustained an oblique strain in the first pre-season game last year and did not return until the regular-season opener. He then proceeded to produce 14 points in the first 11 games.
"You think you want to be all systems go first day of camp in terms of your rhythm and your timing and all those sorts of things, but it's more so about continuing to build and understanding the big picture with the mindset of trying to get better every day," Tavares said. "It's a balancing act."
Tavares will make his pre-season debut on Wednesday against the Buffalo Sabres.
Among the positive developments for the Leafs so far is the chemistry being developed between Nylander and new linemate Max Domi.
"Both of us like to make plays so that makes a big difference," Domi said. "He's such a good skater and when he gets the puck in the middle of the ice he's pretty lethal. He's a guy that, personally, I always thought he was a shooter, but when you really play with him you see the plays he can make. He can do both."
Nylander scored a career-high 40 goals last season and added 47 assists, which was also a career high.
"A lot of respect for what he can do," Domi continued. "We're trying to build every single day and keep adding to the chemistry. We're getting there. It's fun to play with him. Fun hockey."
"We found each other really well," Nylander agreed. "I mean, creating some good chances and hopefully we can build off that. I think we're getting better every day together."
The Nylander line generated 10 of the team's 15 scoring chances at 5-on-5 during Saturday's game in Ottawa.
"Max showed his playmaking ability and I was really intrigued to see that with Willy, in particular, who is one of our most dangerous people on the rush," Keefe said. "It's a real strength of Max's game is to be able to create and make plays under pressure, find people, see the ice and I thought he put that on display."
Domi will play on Wednesday, but Nylander will get a night off.
Domi, whose father Tie Domi holds the franchise record for penalty minutes, was whistled for roughing Artem Zub on his first shift in a Leafs sweater.
"I totally forgot about that, actually," Domi said with a smile. "That was a weird play. I was talking Jake [Brenk], the ref, a little bit and obviously [he's] a great guy and we were laughing about. I'm like, 'Really? Ten seconds in?' Just having some fun. He's like, 'It's pre-season for me too.' Was that a penalty? I don't know, but it's pre-season hockey for everyone."
Domi took 26 penalties last season while drawing 18 during 80 games split between the Chicago Blackhawks and Dallas Stars.
"Referees are probably the most important part of our game, really," he said. "They're all great dudes, but they have a tough job. They have the toughest job, because they have to be the bad guy in every situation. No one wants to get on them, but it's the nature of the game and it happens. But as you get older, you start to realize that if you cut them some slack then they treat you with a little more respect too. They are senior to all of us so you gotta respect them. You show that respect and it comes full circle. I've learned a lot about how to interact with them over the years."
13 seconds in and Domi is called for roughing pic.twitter.com/lKWOGp5mqS— Omar (@TicTacTOmar) September 24, 2023
Easton Cowan, Toronto's first-round pick in June's draft (28th overall), was the team's stand-out performer on Monday night. The London Knights forward scored a power-play goal, drew a penalty shot and then drew the penalty that led to the game-tying goal late in the third period.
"He's going to be a good NHL player for a long time," Domi raved. "Plays hard. He's fearless out there ... When you look at him off the ice, you wouldn't think he's the strongest guy in the world. Mind you, he does work very hard. I watch him in the gym and he's pretty impressive. When he does get on the ice, he's one of those guys who's strong on the puck, wiry, and he's got that little burst and energy too."
Tavares was impressed with how the 5-foot-11, 185-pounder turned an outlet pass into a breakaway during the sequence that led to the penalty shot.
"He's just very tenacious and just has great hockey sense," Tavares observed. "He just knows where to be at the right time and he stays with it. Great instincts. Good touch and just little details in his game, protecting the puck, and the way he created that breakaway, [how] he was able to turn and did all that in one motion and used his body, things like that that aren't always easy to teach."
Easton Cowan gets the penalty shot pic.twitter.com/ai8lZtA1nV— Omar (@TicTacTOmar) September 25, 2023
While other 2023 draftees have already been sent back to juniors around the league, Cowan has earned a longer look. The Leafs skated in two groups on Tuesday and the 18-year-old found himself in the group with all the NHL regulars.
"It seems like every day he is out there, you come away thinking he is one of the best players on the ice," Keefe said. "Just keep stacking together good days and see what happens. Enjoy the time here. He is going to play again tomorrow night. I am really excited about him. He has been great to have. He comes every day with a smile and good energy and yet when the puck drops or he is in a drill, he is serious and competitive. Those are all of the things you like to see in any player regardless of their age."
Veteran forward Calle Jarnkrok did not dress in either pre-season game and was absent from Tuesday's practice.
"Something came up in practice a few days ago," Keefe said. "It hasn't quite settled yet. It is nothing we are too concerned about. When I spoke to him today, he thought he might get back on skates tomorrow and start working his way back toward playing."
The 32-year-old, who has been skating alongside Domi and Nylander, is listed as day-to-day.
Bobby McMann was a full participant in practice for the first time at training camp. It's been a long road back for the 27-year-old winger, who has not played since March 21.
"It feels great, honestly," McMann said with a big smile. "It's been a lot of individual skates, a lot of time working on skills and trying to get it back to normal. It finally feels a lot easier and less thinking about it when you're out there with the guys."
McMann initially got hurt last October while playing for the Marlies.
"Just took a hit on the boards, jammed up my groins, and one of my adductors slightly tore," he said. "A long process because there's not necessarily a lot of blood flow there. For me, it took a lot of healing and I had it bother me all season. I was never 100 per cent last year so that was a battle."
Despite the battle, McMann made his NHL debut in January and played 10 NHL games before getting hurt again.
"Took another hit in Long Island there and same thing happened," he said. "It was the exact same spot on the ice actually, same impact on the boards, and jammed up the groins again."
McMann excelled in the AHL last season scoring 21 goals in 30 games. If he can stay healthy, the 6-foot-2, 210-pound late bloomer from Wainwright, Alta., believes he can make his mark with the Leafs.
"Just sticking to my strengths," he said of what he brings. "My speed, my shot and just getting in on the forecheck. That's going to be my bread and butter and how I'll make an impact."
Bobby McMann also taking part in his first practice of Leafs camp— Mark Masters (@markhmasters) September 26, 2023
Been a long road back from a knee injury pic.twitter.com/wUnZTZ2FLI
Defenceman Simon Benoit, who has been dealing with back spasms, skated in a red no-contact sweater. It was his first practice with his new team after signing a deal in the summer.
"There are six pre-season games left," Keefe said. "They are going to come quickly, but there is runway and opportunity for those guys to get going. Both guys [McMann and Benoit] looked really good today."
Lines in Tuesday's practices:
Bertuzzi - Matthews - Marner
Domi - Nylander - Robertson
Knies - Tavares - Lafferty
Gregor - Kampf - Reaves
Rielly - Brodie
McCabe - Klingberg
Giordano - Liljegren
Lagesson - Timmins
Abruzzese - Minten - Tverberg
Steeves - Gambrell - McMann
Hirvonen - Holmberg - Shaw / Slavin
Clifford - Suthers / Blandisi - Ellis
Kokkonen - Villeneuve
Lajoie - Niemela
Rifai - Miller
Petroniro / Benoit - Dillingham
Note: Players bolded are on the roster for Wednesday's game in St. Thomas, Ont.