NHL Season Preview: Can the Maple Leafs put pressure aside and perform?
TSN Toronto Reporter Mark Masters reports on the Maple Leafs, who practised at Ford Performance Centre on Monday.
Ilya Mikheyev will need surgery after suffering a broken thumb on Saturday. The Leafs winger, who slotted in beside John Tavares and William Nylander in the final two pre-season games, will miss at least eight weeks.
"It is a big loss for us and very unfortunate for Ilya, who was having an excellent camp and looked poised to have a big season," said coach Sheldon Keefe. "He is back in the gym today with the guys training, doing what he can to make sure he stays ready."
Auston Matthews still isn't ready to return after undergoing left wrist surgery in August and is expected to miss the first three games of the regular season.
"He is not at the point right now where he is feeling comfortable," Keefe said. "He is still not quite there. He is not going to be available for us this week. He looks terrific out on the ice. He shows the impact he's going to have when he does get in the lineup, but him being 100 per cent confident and comfortable is the most important thing for us right now. We will be patient as that process plays out."
In the wake of the injury news, Keefe remade his forward lines at Monday's practice. John Tavares moved up to the top line skating between Nick Ritchie and Mitch Marner.
"I hadn't put John there save for a few shifts and maybe a practice or something through camp," Keefe said. "We were counting on the fact that Auston was gearing towards being able to be available for us. Shifting gears here now, I like John in that spot."
Alex Kerfoot moved up to the second-line centre position alongside Nylander while Michael Bunting took Mikheyev's spot on left wing. Nylander and Kerfoot played well together in the playoff series against Montreal last season.
"We have used Kerfoot with Nylander and Mikheyev throughout a lot of the portion of the camp," Keefe noted. "We will put Bunting there. We are confident in that."
Pierre Engvall will get a greater opportunity now slotting in beside Czech natives David Kampf and Ondrej Kase on the third line. Engvall will crack the Leafs opening-night roster for the first time in his career.
"He is trying to establish himself there," Keefe said. "I have liked Kampf and Kase all the way through together."
Engvall missed the first few pre-season games due to a hip injury, but came on strong last week. He has long impressed his teammates with his fitness level.
"Even at the end of the game it just looks like he can skate up the wall and there's not many guys who can get to him," said Morgan Rielly following Saturday night's win. "When he plays to his strengths, he has great success. He's a big guy, strong guy, really fit. I think he's really grown a lot and really understands the game more and more now and the way we play, our structure."
The key for the 6-foot-5, 215-pound Swede is using his big frame more effectively. Keefe has shown him video of Wayne Simmonds to illustrate how he can grow the physical part of his game.
"It's just a mindset," Engvall said. "Of course, you think about it a little before the game, but once you get out there you try to let it go and play your game."
The Mikheyev injury opened the door for Michael Amadio, who played with the Los Angeles Kings (20 games) and Ottawa Senators (five games) last season, to stick with the Leafs. The Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., native skated alongside Simmonds and Jason Spezza on the fourth line at practice.
"I got a call from [general manager] Kyle [Dubas] yesterday," Amadio said. "With Mickey getting hurt, Kyle wanted to let me know I was starting with the big club. It's awesome. It's nice to know they believe in me."
"I like his skill-set," Keefe said. "He is a versatile guy. He can play centre or wing, power play and penalty kill. He has really good poise with the puck and is a confident guy. He spent a great deal of his off-season here in the facility training. I just feel like he was really comfortable coming into camp and that was an advantage for him."
Amadio dressed in four of the six pre-season games and led the Leafs in CorsiFor percentage (74.1).
"In each situation that we gave him throughout this pre-season, I think he did a really good job for us," Keefe said. "He is a confident guy that is looking for an opportunity here. If the Mikheyev injury didn't happen, it might look a little different, but these opportunities come about and I know he is excited for it."
"Great patience," Simmonds observed of Amadio. "Unbelievable with the puck. When he has the puck you just got to try and find an open spot and he's going to find you. So, for me, I just go to the net, try to go hard backdoor, set my screens, set my picks, do whatever I do and put my stick on the ice."
Amadio, who has played 173 career NHL games, edged out Adam Brooks, who has just 18 NHL games under his belt, for the last spot.
"It was a tough decision and one that I, frankly, was not overly involved in," Keefe revealed. "It is a management decision for them to sort through. As a coaching staff, we believed in both players. We have more history with Adam, obviously. He was a big part of our team last season down the stretch. He came in, played an important role for us and did extremely well. Amadio, at the same time, has got significantly more experience in the league and also has had a very good camp here."
Brooks was placed on waivers and claimed by the Montreal Canadiens on Monday.
"I really am happy with how Adam has progressed over his time with the Marlies to the role that he played for us last season," Keefe said moments before the Brooks news broke. "It is difficult to see him in this situation, but we value him as a player. One way or another, I am going to be happy for him today ... He would like to remain here, but the waiver system is in place for a reason. It is to give guys a chance to remain in the NHL."
Matthews has taken part in five straight full practices, but isn't quite where he wants to be.
"I'm dying to get in and play, honestly, but it's just one of those things that I got to be patient with and be disciplined and make sure I'm feeling 100 per cent comfortable," the 24-year-old explained. "I just feel I need a little bit more time."
Matthews stressed that there's been no setback.
"The progress has been great," he said. "Physically, I feel great out there."
And his best weapon, a blistering shot, is getting revved up.
"I feel pretty good. I feel like I'm getting a little more speed and velocity on it," Matthews noted. "I use a pretty whippy stick so I like to use a bit of down force when I'm shooting. I just feel like I'm more comfortable in that area and I'm not shying away from shooting the puck like I want to."
Auston Matthews wants to be at his best. And the #Leafs star won't be debuting until he is, even if that requires missing a few games -— Kristen Shilton (@kristen_shilton) October 11, 2021
"I'm dying to get in and play; I just need a little more time:"https://t.co/mpmw1fefpV
Simmonds is looking forward to his first true home opener with fans in Toronto. He got a taste of the atmosphere in Saturday's pre-season game.
"It's been a while, as you guys know, and it was extremely fun and I had a great time," Simmonds said. "Just being able to hear the fans, see the fans and get that extra little boost was huge."
Simmonds, a heart-and-soul player, had the crowd roaring in the third period when he dropped the gloves with Scott Sabourin. The Senators tough guy had instigated a fight with Justin Holl in the first period after the Leafs defenceman delivered a legal hit to Tim Stützle.
"It fires us up," said Jack Campbell. "We love him. He's never happy when someone takes advantage of one of his teammates, especially a guy like Hollsy, and he just does his job."
"We love Simmer," said captain John Tavares. "Obviously, can't teach that. That's no easy thing to do ... We love what he brings to our team and the way he wants to make his presence felt in all areas and certainly an area like that one. He just has a good feel for those things and when to do it and how to do it."
Keefe liked how Simmonds handled things, but pointed out that he didn't need to fight in that situation in a pre-season game. So, why did Simmonds drop the gloves?
"I need a little bit of a tune-up," he explained with a grin. "I haven't had any fights in the pre-season and he got Hollsy. He's going to go out there and do his thing and I got to do my thing as well. I got to prove I deserve to be here and I'm here for a reason. That's all it was."
The praise from teammates means a lot to the 33-year-old.
"It's huge, especially for the role I'm playing for this team. You want to feel appreciated. I know every night I'm going to go out there and do everything I can to have my guys backs and be the best player I possibly can and a little appreciation goes a long way."
Campbell will start Wednesday's game against the Canadiens. He stopped 18 of 19 shots in Saturday's pre-season finale against the Senators. Afterwards, the 29-year-old said he accomplished what he wanted to during training camp.
"Personally, I just wanted to elevate my game," he said. "Some of the changes [goalie coach] Steve [Briere] and I made over the summer, just working on those in the pre-season games, I thought we did a good job."
Campbell has refused to say what specific changes although he apologized to reporters for being coy.
Campbell, however, was quite open about what it was like playing in front of a big crowd at Scotiabank Arena on Saturday night.
"It was awesome," he said with a wide smile. "It was super exciting and gave me some goosebumps and nerves in a good way and just great to get that energy back and to see everybody."
Campbell played his two previous pre-season games on the road. Scotiabank Arena will be at full capacity on Wednesday for the first time since the pandemic began. It will be the first time Campbell plays in the season-opening game for his NHL team.
Petr Mrazek will make his Leafs debut on Thursday night in Ottawa.
Lines at Monday's practice:
Ritchie - Tavares - Marner
Bunting - Kerfoot - Nylander
Engvall - Kampf - Kase
Amadio - Spezza - Simmonds
Rielly - Brodie
Muzzin - Holl
Sandin - Dermott / Liljegren