Marner's return 'doesn't look like it’s too far away'; Mitch says conditioning is good
TSN Toronto reporter Mark Masters checks in daily with news and notes on the Maple Leafs, who practised at the Ford Performance Centre on Monday before travelling to Philadelphia for Tuesday’s game.
Mitch Marner practised with the Leafs for the first time since sustaining a high ankle sprain on against the Flyers on Nov. 9. When will he be back in game action?
"Hopefully soon," Marner said. "We'll take it day-by-day ... I feel like the conditioning level is back where I need it to be."
The right winger is eligible to be activated from the long term injured reserve for Wednesday's game. Is it possible he plays against the Colorado Avalanche?
"I don't know," Marner said. "We'll see."
Initially, the team announced Marner would miss at least four weeks, but he now seems to be ahead of schedule.
"The medical team will talk with him and sort all that out," said head coach Sheldon Keefe, "but based on his performance today doesn’t look like it’s too far away."
“Mitch is a special player," said GM Kyle Dubas, "and we'll be excited to get him back here hopefully in the coming days, for sure."
"He's a buzzsaw (even) on his off days," observed defenceman Tyson Barrie with a smile, "so he’s excited, you can tell. He was flying around out there today."
Marner's energy is something often highlighted by teammates and he's expected to make an immediate impact whenever he suits up again.
"No question what he means to our group on and off the ice," said captain John Tavares, "exceptional talent and plays every situation for us, so such a key component and any time you get a boost like that to the lineup it makes a huge difference."
Marner has 18 points in 18 games so far this season and is eager to go to work in Keefe’s possession-focused system.
"Just seeing our patience," said Marner when asked what he notices since the coaching change. "I think everyone just has a little more relaxation with the puck, letting the play open up in front of them rather than trying to force something through."
Zach Hyman, Tavares and Marner formed Toronto's most consistent line last season, but that trio wasn't reunited at practice. Instead, it was rookie Ilya Mikheyev, who has played with Tavares and Hyman since Keefe came in, remaining in that left wing spot while Hyman moved to the left side of the third line with Alexander Kerfoot and Kasperi Kapanen. Marner was, of course, in his usual spot beside Tavares.
"Mikheyev, we've felt he's paired well with John," Keefe explained. "Probably bigger than that for me, I want to see what Zach's presence and his skill-set can do for Kerfoot and Kapanen. That's a line that we need to kind of get going and not on offence or anything like that, but to be hard on the other teams' better lines. If we can have that as a potential match-up opportunity for us to play against good people and then free up some of our other lines, I think that can work really well for us. Zach's skill-set ... fits very well there, theoretically, so we want to have a look at it and see how it goes."
Tavares has exploded for four goals and two assists in the last three games while Kerfoot has just one goal and no assists in his last 12 games.
"Ilya's played tremendous this year," noted Tavares, "and he’s just scratching the surface. I think there’s no question to what Hymie meant to me and Mitch last year and such a key component to our success. Sheldon’s doing what he feels is best for the group and trying to maximize everybody."
Another big change will come on the power play as Marner returns to his usual spot on the flank pushing Barrie to the point and bumping Morgan Rielly to the second unit.
"What remains important to us is having Tyson Barrie in a good spot and wanting to see what that looks like," Keefe said.
Barrie played more than four minutes per game on the power play last season with the Avalanche registering 25 of his 59 points on the man advantage. Under Mike Babcock, however, Barrie played exclusively on the second unit.
Upon taking over, Keefe immediately promoted Barrie to the left flank of the top unit. He had never played on the flank before, but responded well, scoring on the power play in his first chance. Now, he's back at the point, which is where he's most comfortable.
"It's obviously nice to get a shot there," Barrie said, "and I’ll try to make the most of it."
"His skill-set suits that spot well," noted Tavares, "and with the experience that he has, it goes a long way, especially the way he’s been playing and the confidence that he keeps building. I’m sure he’ll really embrace that opportunity."
"Him and Mo are a lot alike," said Marner, "they both have a lot of skill in them and can see the ice very well."
Rielly leads the Leafs in power play ice time since the 2017-18 season and tied for the team lead with 21 power-play points last year.
"We know what he can provide there," Keefe said. "He also does a lot of very important things for us in other areas of the game so freeing him up a little bit there we hope can help in those areas."
Rielly leads the Leafs in ice time, playing just under 25 minutes a night. He's also been dealing with an undisclosed issue and once again missed part of practice on Monday.
The Leafs are 3-for-8 on the power play over the last five games, but overall Toronto is clicking at just a middling 19.5 per cent rate this season (19th in the NHL).
"There's going to be a lot more movement on it," Marner said of one adjustment, "trying to find more holes, more open space and if we start doing that with the skill we have, we really should confuse some PKs."
Frederik Andersen is responsible for all 13 wins by the Leafs this season and 29 of the 30 points gained. Since the start of November, the Dane has a .938 save percentage, third in the NHL in that month among those who played at least eight games behind only Connor Hellebuyck and Ben Bishop.
Meanwhile, after allowing five goals in a loss to the Sabres on Friday, backup goalie Michael Hutchinson has fallen to 0-5-1 in the NHL this season with an ugly .876 save percentage.
So, is Keefe considering starting Andersen on consecutive nights this week when the Leafs face the Flyers in Philadelphia on Tuesday before hosting Mikko Rantanen and the high-scoring Avalanche on Wednesday?
"No, that's not something we think is in Fred's best interests," Keefe said, "and it would be selfish of us to do this at this point. There's a big picture in mind here. Right now our focus is to try to get our game set up as good as possible so it doesn’t really matter who’s in the net, that they can go in and be confident and we can give them every chance to get the win."
So, Andersen gets the start on Tuesday with Hutchinson back in on Wednesday.
Andersen hasn't played on consecutive nights since Jan. 6-7, 2017. Back then he won on the first night at New Jersey (30/32) before getting shredded in a loss on the second night at home to the Canadiens (26/31). Andersen has started 12 games with no rest in his career going 6-6-0 with an .898 save percentage
The Leafs currently sit 19th in points percentage (.536) and have two more back-to-back sets later in December. But Dubas insists he feels no added urgency to make a move to acquire another goalie.
"What I would really like more than anything is for us to put together a good game in front of Michael here in the coming stretch," said Dubas. "We need to give him an opportunity. I thought he was outstanding in the first period against Buffalo and I think we got a little bit sloppy thereafter. I know it's the pressing question, there always has to be a pressing concern in this market, that's what we all sign up for, but what we're really looking forward to and what we'll stress here today to the players is we’d like for them to put a complete effort in, in front of Fred and Michael both."
The Leafs would also like to rest Andersen a bit down the stretch, but that will be hard to do without a reliable No. 2.
Hutchinson hasn't recorded a win in the NHL since January. Overall, he's posted a .905 save percentage in 118 NHL games dating back to the 2013-14 season when he broke into the league with Winnipeg. His best season was 2014-15 when he went 21-10-5 with a .914 save percentage with the Jets.
"He's been a good goalie in the past and he’s played well in stretches here and I've got full belief that he can get back," Dubas said. "You don't just lose it overnight and there's always a regression to the mean to be had and he's got a good track record of doing that, so I don't think we want to be hasty. We want to be patient, we need to show our belief. I know that’s not the answer that people would like. I think if we were going to satisfy the masses, it would be to just make a move to make a move. I understand that, but we've got belief in him and will continue to support him here and get ready for the week ahead."
It was one year ago today that William Nylander finally joined the Leafs after signing a six-year, $45 million contract. The stalemate ended just minutes before the deadline to play that season.
But Nylander never found his form in the truncated campaign finishing with seven goals and 20 assists in 54 games. That led to questions about whether the smooth-skating Swede was worthy of the contract. But, so far this season, Nylander is delivering on the potential that earned him the $6.96 million cap hit.
"This is what we paid for," Dubas said with a laugh. "I'm excited for him, because I think last year was a difficult year and, as I said at the end of the season, it's on me, I wish we would have found a conclusion earlier. I wish there would have been a way to do that, because it didn’t set him up for success at all. And he’s obviously been excellent this season and he’s got the numbers to back it up, underlying and general statistics are all excellent."
Nylander has 11 goals and 11 assists in 28 games, which puts him on pace for 32 goals and 64 points. Nylander (58.85) and linemate Auston Matthews (57.18) also lead all Leafs regulars in CorsiFor percentage, according to the NaturalStatTrick website.
"I still think that he has other levels to his game that he can get to," said Dubas, "and it's up to us to help him to get there, frankly, and we’re excited about that. He just goes about his business every day, zero maintenance and we're very happy for him that he’s producing to the level that he expects."
Lines at Monday's practice:
Johnsson - Matthews - Nylander
Mikheyev - Tavares - Marner
Hyman - Kerfoot - Kapanen
Engvall - Gauthier - Timashov
Petan - Spezza - Shore
Rielly - Ceci
Muzzin - Holl
Dermott - Barrie
Power-play units at Monday's practice:
Marner - Nylander - Matthews
Spezza - Petan - Kerfoot