Keefe hopes Marner will spark more zone time for Tavares
The Maple Leafs held an optional skate at UBS Arena in Elmont, N.Y. on Tuesday.
For the first time in more than a year, John Tavares has gone consecutive games without registering a shot on net.
"You try to hold yourself to a high standard," the 32-year-old centre said. "I don't think things have been terrible, but certainly can continue to improve my game."
In four games last week Tavares produced just two secondary assists in 5-on-5 play.
"Just looking for him to spend more time in the offensive zone would be a big thing," coach Sheldon Keefe said. "Obviously putting Mitch [Marner] on that line is something that will help."
Keefe put Marner with Tavares and Michael Bunting for some shifts in the third period of Friday's game against the Carolina Hurricanes and liked the early returns. He didn't feel that trio was as effective against the Ottawa Senators on Saturday night.
"John has played lots with Mitch and Mitch has played lots with Bunts and I expect that line to really get going," Keefe said.
Tavares can lean on past experience with Marner, but doesn't have a long track record with Bunting.
"Something we've talked about is we both like being around the net," Tavares revealed. "So, just making sure we have good spacing and we're reading off each other that way so we can break down the opponent in the offensive zone."
Tavares has gone four games without a goal, but he does have four assists in the past two games. Teammates were a bit surprised to be asked about a perceived dry spell.
"I don't know what 'dried up' means," said veteran defenceman Mark Giordano. "He's always around it in our mind, so it's just a matter of time before pucks go in for him."
"To be honest, I haven't really noticed that he's been in a dry spell," said defenceman Justin Holl. "He does a lot of things aside from scoring that are really valuable to us."
Tavares is usually the model of consistency regardless of what the statistics say.
"He just goes through his routine," said Keefe. "That's really, ultimate, what works in terms of it coming back is just trust your habits, trust your abilities. We don't need to make a bigger deal of it than it is."
"I look to just try not to do too much," Tavares said. "I think it's just making sure I'm strong in all three zones and you're above the puck. When you have it ... it's really simplifying and just taking the first play and trying not to do too much. For me, it's making sure my feet are moving and trying to play through the middle of the ice and things like that that."
It's possible fatigue was a factor over the weekend. Saturday's game wrapped up a stretch of five games in eight days.
"We're a more rested team here today," noted Keefe. "It's a different opportunity coming in today, so just looking for things to take a step there."
Tavares missed a game at the end of a long road trip earlier this month after he felt "drained" and not like himself.
"You know, it's a long season," Tavares said. "It's a grind, so there are times when things are really good and really in rhythm and other times where you're just trying to build your habits shift after shift and going out and executing and making sure you're helping the team out and setting up the next group for success."
T.J. Brodie was back on the ice on Tuesday morning, but the defenceman will not play against the Islanders.
"He's doing better, obviously, but with the health and depth we have there's no point in our guys playing through things unnecessarily," said Keefe. "So, we'll seek to get him better for later in the trip. Lots of hockey this week."
Brodie missed Monday's practice after dealing with a painful shot block on Saturday.
"Mostly just a maintenance day," the 32-year-old said. "Let it calm down. Felt good today."
The Leafs also have games on Thursday, Saturday and Sunday.
"Looking big picture, where we are in the season and with that [depth], it makes sense to feel 100 per cent and not maybe have something linger longer than it needs to," Brodie said.
The Leafs have been carrying nine defencemen since adding Erik Gustafsson and Luke Schenn via trades on Feb. 28. Keefe has said that Conor Timmins is on a "developmental path" the rest of the season, but the other eight blueliners are all getting game action.
"We've talked to our entire D core about looking for opportunities for them to stay involved and not have to sit for too long and get everybody in the mix," Keefe said.
T.J. Brodie on the ice at Leafs optional skate— Mark Masters (@markhmasters) March 21, 2023
Missed practice yesterday @TSN_Edge pic.twitter.com/Qxw6RejhQ8
On Saturday night in Ottawa, Giordano sat out his first game of the season.
"We have had to utilize him more [than expected] throughout the season, just with the number of injuries that we've dealt with. Now we're in a spot where we're healthy and have more depth than ever so we can be smart with it," Keefe explained.
"I get it," the 39-year-old said. "The way we're built, we have a lot of depth in every position, but especially on the back end now with so many guys. I just had a good conversation with the coaches and understand what's going on. But, obviously, as a player you always want to play. It sucks watching. But it's pretty obvious we have nine guys that can play, so you got to get guys in and out."
Giordano made it clear earlier this season that he's not interested in missing games for load management, and he downplayed the idea he needs rest again on Tuesday.
"It's more for the team," the Toronto native said. "I think with all the bodies we have and all the guys we have to get in the lineup, there's going to be a rotation and guys in and out on any given night."
Timothy Liljegren has also been the odd man out at times.
Gustafsson came out of the lineup in Ottawa despite playing what Keefe called his best game as a Leaf the night before.
Holl sat out Friday's game against the Hurricanes.
"It is kind of a funny feeling because any time you're out you do feel, even subconsciously, like, 'This isn't right,'" Holl admitted. "You want to be playing. But that has been the message that there will be a rotation to keep guys fresh. That's important to remember. It isn't really performance based for a lot these guys."
On Tuesday, Schenn will join Brodie on the sideline, which allows Gustafsson and Giordano to come back in.
Rielly did not take part in Tuesday's morning skate.
"He had a couple snipes after pre-game skates but, no, he needs the rest," said Giordano with a big smile. "We were joking with him."
The Leafs held a full mandatory skate last Wednesday before facing the Colorado Avalanche. Rielly snapped a 12 game goal drought that night. It was only his third tally of the season.
On Friday, the Leafs held an optional skate and Rielly, who almost never takes part, was back on the ice. He refused to talk about his schedule change afterwards.
What happened that night against the Hurricanes? Rielly scored another beautiful goal.
"That was a great shot," winger Zach Aston-Reese marvelled after the game. "I mean, it's kind of funny looking off one of the better shooters in the game."
That's right, Rielly was on a two-on-one rush with Auston Matthews when he snapped home his fourth goal of the season.
"With Auston you're obviously looking to pass," Rielly insisted on Friday night. "The d-man did a good job of taking that away, so just tried to pick a corner. I was thinking pass the whole time."
Rielly was then asked if he's a morning skate guy now.
"You're on to me," he said with a grin.
Playing on consecutive nights, the Leafs did not hold a skate on Saturday morning. Rielly's goal streak came to an end in Ottawa, but he picked up an assist in the win over the Senators.
Ilya Samsonov is still on track to play on Tuesday. His wife is due to give birth to the couple's first child sometime this week in Toronto.
"He's waiting on a phone call and that will be that," said Holl with a smile. "But he's managing it well."
Tavares spoke to Samsonov about what to expect, but acknowledges he can't relate to this exact situation.
"I can't imagine," Tavares said. "I know what that was like my first time and that was a day or two into training camp."
Whenever Samsonov gets the call about the baby coming, the 25-year-old plans to leave immediately. Even during the game?
"I believe anything is possible in this situation," Keefe confirmed. "That's really it. Our staff does a tremendous job of making sure they're connecting with his wife and what's happening back there. Trying to do all we can to allow Sammy to focus on his job and his game, but we’re, of course, understanding that there's a lot going on for him.
“It's a very unique situation with a goalie more so than a player. But, at the same, he's feeling very strongly about staying in the net and staying involved and we're still somewhat close in proximity here to be able to get back if needed. In talking with him, he's at ease at least to the point where he's able to focus on his game here."
Projected lineup for Tuesday's game:
Kerfoot - Matthews - Jarnkrok
Bunting - Tavares - Marner
McMann - Lafferty - Nylander
Aston-Reese - Kampf - Acciari
Rielly - Gustafsson
Giordano - Holl
McCabe - Liljegren