Robertson running out of time in bid to earn job at Leafs' camp
The Maple Leafs skated at Ford Performance Centre in Toronto on Saturday morning before travelling to Montreal. The non-playing group held a practice. The Montreal Canadiens skated at CN Sports Complex in Brossard, QC.
Toronto's bubble boys are running out of time to make an impact at training camp.
"Next week the games get spread out," coach Sheldon Keefe noted. "Next week we'll have less opportunity for players."So, the coaching staff arranged for Saturday's game in Montreal to be a big test for the players looking to earn their spots.
"There's a lot of guys that are playing back-to-back," Keefe told reporters. "It will be a tough environment in there. A lot of changes and a different lineup that we'll face from Montreal so some different challenges for the guys."
The Leafs flew home after Friday's game at the Bell Centre and held a skate Saturday morning in Toronto before heading back to the airport for another flight to Montreal.
"We purposely built it this way that it's back-to-back and for a lot of them it's three games in four nights," Keefe said. "Pre-season isn't the NHL, necessarily, but the demands of the schedule are and that can become a challenge and sometimes the biggest hurdle for a lot of young players."
While forwards Matthew Knies, Noah Gregor and even 18-year-old Easton Cowan have all made a splash during the first week of camp, Nick Robertson remains snakebitten. The winger leads the NHL pre-season in shots with 16, but has failed to hit the scoresheet in three games.
"A couple times the pucks could've gone in and pucks bounced a little bit, but I guess that's reality," Robertson said prior to Friday's game. "That's how it goes. Hopefully they go in the back of the net soon."
Robertson fired a game-high six shots on net on Friday, but couldn't beat Cayden Primeau. The 22-year-old American is among the group of Leafs who will be playing once again on Saturday night against a stronger Montreal lineup, which features his former World Junior teammate Cole Caufield.
"He's unreal," Caufield said of Robertson. "I train with him in the summer. He works his butt off and does all the right things so it's only a matter of time for him."
Robertson, who is entering the final season of his entry-level deal, has struggled to stay healthy playing just 82 games (31 in the NHL) over the last three seasons. A shoulder injury sustained in December required surgery and the longest layoff of his star-crossed career. Keefe sensed some fatigue late in Wednesday's pre-season game against the Buffalo Sabres in St. Thomas, Ont.
"I haven't played in a long time," Robertson acknowledged. "Even off the summer guys are tired, but I've been off nine months too so I'm picking and choosing when I can go hard and when I pace myself a little bit."
Robertson spent time with Leafs skating consultant Paul Matheson this summer to ensure his stride doesn't break down when he gets tired.
"I worked a lot on utilizing my crossovers and turns more often," he said. "Adding more crossovers limits the posture [breaking down] thing."
Even with a strong camp, Robertson is facing an uphill battle to start in the NHL this season. He doesn't require waivers to be sent to the American Hockey League and the Leafs are tight to the salary cap. Robertson had a strong camp last year, but still started in the minors.
"I know that I haven't played in a while so I got to get my game going," Robertson said. "My expectation is to get better as the games go on."
While Robertson hasn't scored yet, it's evident in practice that his shot remains NHL ready.
"It's probably one of the quickest I've ever seen," Caufield said. "His ability to get it off as quick as that is nuts, in my opinion. He'll have no problem scoring a bunch of goals in this league."
Gregor, who is at Leafs camp on a pro tryout, picked up an assist on the game-winning goal by Mikko Kokkonen on Friday. The lack of a contract isn't weighing on him.
"I try to keep it as the same as I have at any other camp," the 25-year-old winger said of his mindset. "I'm trying to make the team. I'm trying to show the coaching staff and the management that I'm worthy of a spot."
"He is a confident guy," Keefe observed. "He should be. We have made it very clear to him that we like him and there is an opportunity here for him to just go out and be himself."
Gregor scored a career high 10 goals in 57 games with the San Jose Sharks last season, but did not receive a qualifying offer in the summer. He's suited up in 178 NHL games over the last four seasons.
"He has played a lot in the league," Keefe said. "He has lots of reasons to be confident."
Gregor started Friday's game on the top line with Pontus Holmberg and Tyler Bertuzzi. He's spent most of camp beside David Kampf and Ryan Reaves on what projects to be Toronto's fourth line. Robertson started with Kampf and Reaves on Friday but in the third period, with Toronto protecting a lead, Gregor was moved back to that spot.
"I thought that line did a really nice job for us, especially to close out the game there," Keefe said.
Gregor's speed has been noticeable. It's a skill he's refined over the years.
"It's something I've always had," he said, "but it's trying to use it in different ways. It's easy to just be a straight-line skater and skate with the puck fast, but you got to be able to check in this league and using your speed to check and create offence that way. So, get in on the forecheck and create chaos there, that's something I've tried to get better at and it's just using it consistently in different ways."
Gregor, who has two assists and 10 shots on net in three pre-season games, will be back in the Leafs lineup on Saturday.
Cowan was keeping an eye on his London Knights on Friday night as they opened the Ontario Hockey League season with a 2-1 win over the Niagara IceDogs.
"I was watching that game," the 18-year-old said. "Big win for the boys there. I texted all them, 'Good luck again today,' and I'm really missing them."
Cowan won't be able to watch London's rematch with Niagara tonight, because he has other plans. Toronto's first round pick in the 2023 draft (28th overall) will be playing in his third NHL pre-season game.
"Pretty excited to get there and see what the Bell Centre is about," Cowan said. "I've never been there, but [Fraser] Minten played last night and said that it was crazy. He said it's a great atmosphere."
"Everything he's going through here should be special," Keefe told reporters. "At the same time, I don't think he's afraid of any sort of moment at all. That's what makes him special, I think, from what I've observed here early on."
Cowan feels he has exceeded expectations "a bit" in his first NHL camp, but quickly adds "I got pretty high expectations for myself. I knew if I took it day by day and stayed positive good things would come."
Despite standing just 5-foot-11, Cowan has found a way to make plays and hit the scoresheet in both NHL exhibition games so far.
"I've always had pretty good hockey sense," he said. "I feel like that always helped me when I was younger, trying to make quick plays because you are a bit smaller and as I've grown I've kept that with me."
On the Montreal side, Riley Kidney will be playing his first NHL pre-season game. The Nova Scotia native grew up watching Montreal and Toronto games and tracking the rivalry.
"Now I'm part of it so it's kind of a little dream come true," the 20-year-old centre said. "This game is huge for me to show everyone what I can do in the pro level. I know it's a lot faster, a lot quicker, I don't have as much time with the puck. I'm excited to show everyone what I can do."
Kidney is looking to make some adjustments after a so-so showing at rookie camp.
"Winning more battles," he said of the priority. "Rookie camp, the first few games I wasn't the best at that and during main camp I've focused a lot on that and also on my defensive game. I want to improve on that and show tonight what I can do."
Kidney lined up between Emil Heineman and Lias Andersson at the morning skate. Heineman is also looking to get back on track after failing to hit the scoresheet in his first pre-season game.
"I feel like I haven't really got where I wanted to, performed as I hoped," he admitted. "I feel like I've been working hard every day, for sure, but it's the little details. I want to create more, for sure. That’s mostly it."
How can he do that?
"Create more from the inside," the 21-year-old Swede, who was acquired from the Calgary Flames in the Tyler Toffoli trade, said. "Get more to the tough areas and not stay on the outside."
Right-shot defenceman Conor Timmins, who has been having a strong camp, sustained a lower-body injury on Friday.
"Conor unfortunately took a hit last night really late in the third period and he's going to miss some time," Keefe said. "We'll get a MRI today and that will determine the extent of it, but he's going to be out for a bit."
John Klingberg, another right-shot defenceman, is currently sidelined with an upper-body injury, but the team doesn't believe the issue is serious. Klingberg didn't take part in practice on Saturday and is listed as day-to-day.
Toronto's top players will get another night off on Saturday.
"Keefer's been great in communicating before camp on how you felt about things whether it's how many games you'd like to play and things like that," said captain John Tavares.
Tavares, Mitch Marner, Auston Matthews and William Nylander have all played just one pre-season game so far.
It's been a laidback week for the core players. Four of them, Marner, Matthews, Nylander and Morgan Rielly, spent some time playing a little baseball down at the dome before a Blue Jays game. Matthews went viral on social media for hitting a home run in batting practice.
"He went yard last time so if he didn't go yard again it was actually going to be pathetic," Marner said with a grin. "I was going to chip him. I expected him to go yard so wasn't too shocking."
It was Marner who ended up getting chirped.
"I didn't play baseball for a single second of my life," the winger explained. "I was hockey, lacrosse and soccer. My swing is very bad. It's quite bad, to be honest ... I've gone there a couple times now and I've had some tips so getting a little better. I'm just an RBI guy and just getting singles for the fellows and getting on base."
Marner, a Selke Trophy nominee last season, was quick to highlight his defence.
"My infield work was unbelievable," he said. "It was the best out of those guys for sure. I'm going to brag about that because I was getting chirped the whole time about my hitting. My infield work was amazing."
While he knows George Springer and has met Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette before, Marner kept his distance during this recent visit.
"Don't want to be getting in these guys heads right now," he said. "We tried to stay out of the way and let them get ready for a game and focus on themselves."
The Jays can clinch a playoff spot with a win on Saturday or a loss by the Seattle Mariners.
Alex Newhook will get an audition on Montreal's top line beside Caufield and Nick Suzuki on Saturday night.
"Two guys that have a lot of skill, a lot of pace," Newhook said. "I think I can complement both those guys pretty well with my speed and my pace and try to fit in on a line that's had some success already in the NHL."
Leafs goalie Joseph Woll is experiencing flu-like symptoms and will be unable to play on Saturday. He's logged just 30 minutes of action so far in the pre-season.
Martin Jones, who has played over 90 minutes in two separate games, will be in Montreal along with Dennis Hildeby.
Caufied's older brother, Brock Caufield, signed an AHL deal with the Leafs this summer.
"He picked a tough location, but I'm pumped for him," Cole said with a smile. "I was happy for him as a brother. Obviously, he could've picked any other team but, yeah, we'll leave it at that."
Brock Caufield, 24, appeared in 172 games with the University of Wisconsin over five seasons, registering 33 goals and 41 assists.
"It was always just competitiveness in the house," Cole said of their sibling rivalry growing up. "There's probably, for sure, an all-time record somewhere in anything that we ever did. It's all in good fun. I'm really proud of him."
Brock has been skating in Toronto's developmental group at training camp and has not appeared in a pre-season game.
Leafs roster for Saturday's game:
Nick Abruzzese, Kyle Clifford, Easton Cowan, Noah Gregor, Roni Hirvonen, Pontus Holmberg, Matthew Knies, Fraser Minten, Nick Robertson, Josiah Slavin, Alex Steeves and Ryan Tverberg.
Simon Benoit, T.J. Brodie, Jake McCabe, Topi Niemela, Morgan Rielly, Marshall Rifai and Matteo Pietroniro.
Martin Jones and Dennis Hildeby.
Lines at Canadiens skate:
Caufield - Suzuki - Newhook
Harvey-Pinard - Dach - Slafkovský
Heineman - Kidney - Andersson
Pezzetta - Maillet - Farrell
Guhle - Reinbacher
Trudeau - Kovacevic
Norlinder - Barron