Apr 11, 2022
Marner setting the standard for Leafs with increased physical play
Over the last nine games, Mitch Marner leads the Maple Leafs in hits as the team gears up for the postseason. During his first five NHL seasons, the 6-foot, 172-pound forward recorded 1.31 hits per 60 minutes, Mark Masters writes. This season, he's up to 3.05.
By Mark Masters
TSN Toronto Reporter Mark Masters reports on the Maple Leafs. The Leafs and Buffalo Sabres practised at the Ford Performance Centre on Monday ahead of Tuesday’s game at Scotiabank Arena.
In preparation for the playoffs, the Leafs are looking to increase their physicality and a surprising player has stepped up to lead the way. Over the last nine games, since March 26, Mitch Marner leads the team in hits.
"In the last couple of games, in particular, someone like Mitch has really taken the lead in that for us, shown the way, and set the standard," said coach Sheldon Keefe. "If a guy like him who is playing as much as he is and does so much for our team can commit like that, every single one of our guys can follow suit."
During his first five National Hockey League seasons, Marner recorded 1.31 hits per 60 minutes. Last season, he was at 1.11. This season, he's up to 3.05.
"I'm trying to be more competitive on pucks," Marner said. "That's something our line's done good is just forechecking and being physical on the puck. We're using our body a little more in trying to get in there and get the puck out of sticky situations and into our hands and into the middle and working from there."
Standing 6-foot, 172 pounds, Marner feels like he can catch opponents off guard at times.
"Obviously, I'm not the biggest-looking guy," he said. "I'm not trying to blow anyone up or anything like that. Just trying to work my body into hands and trying to separate the puck from the guy — and it's been working."
The Leafs rank 25th overall in hits per 60 minutes this season, but since March 26 Toronto is seventh overall.
"Our team has a lot of skill on it, but some nights we get away from ... cutting people off and [preventing] easy exits," Marner said. "It's something we talk about a lot is trying to make it harder on teams to get out and try and work our body into the hands a little more. We've done a lot better job of it recently."
On Saturday, Auston Matthews was serenaded with chants of "M-V-P! M-V-P!" following a big hit on Montreal's Jeff Petry.
"You see the physical aspect to his game as well," observed captain John Tavares, "pushing back against the opponents when necessary. With things like that, you can tell the level he's at is pretty incredible."
Marner draws inspiration from linemate Michael Bunting, also 6-foot, who consistently makes a beeline for the toughest areas of the ice.
"I don't know if this is a swear word," Marner said with a small smile, "but he's taking an ass beating in front there, really. He's just getting destroyed in front and he loves doing it."
Is Marner impressed by the 26-year-old's tolerance for pain?
"I mean, he's from Scarborough," Marner said. "Anyone who knows Scarborough, they're not afraid to get dirty ... He knows he's going to get rewarded eventually. He just keeps doing it."
And that's why Bunting's 16-game goal drought isn't a big concern.
"He's doing a great job being around the net and making guys have to commit to him and focus on him," Marner said. "Throughout the neutral zone he's made a lot of great little plays there to me or Matts with speed coming into the zone and we're creating stuff off that."
Despite getting top-line minutes, Bunting hasn't scored since a game in Columbus on March 7.
"Auston is scoring all the goals and taking all the goals from the line," Keefe said with a chuckle. "Those guys are working so well together and that is just the way it is working right now. I still see Bunts making tons of great contributions."
The latest came on Saturday when he set up Matthews' second goal of the night with a nifty neutral-zone pass.
"Bunts stretches the neutral zone out, gets a puck back, bumps it back to Auston with a ton of speed and he is hard to handle when that is the case," said Keefe. "It is a very subtle play there."
Bunting has 12 assists during this 16-game dry spell.
"Another one that stands out to me is Morgan Rielly's goal in Dallas," Keefe continued. "Bunts made a play just inside the blue line. He might have actually been outside of the blue line at the time, but he made a lateral play across the ice into space for Mitch to skate onto ... he gets a second assist on that play but, to me, he makes the whole play because of his placement of the puck and his awareness to do that. Obviously, the things he does physically in terms of going to the net, competing, drawing penalties, and all of these things bring great value to our team even when he is not scoring."
Bunting drew yet another penalty on Saturday. His chirped Chris Wideman after the second Matthews goal, which led the Canadiens defencemen to take an extra minor and a 10-minute misconduct.
"It's just funny," Marner said. "I mean, I had a pretty good visual of that one. I could see it coming from a mile away and got in there pretty quick. He's very good at what he does."
"We'll leave that between me and him," Bunting said. "That's hockey and that's fun. It's all good."
Bunting is third in the NHL in penalties drawn behind just Edmonton's Connor McDavid and Winnipeg's Pierre-Luc Dubois.
"He is certainly able to stick his nose into everything," said Keefe. "At times, you wonder if he is going to be able to get up, but he bounces back and doesn't miss a shift."
Despite the praise from teammates and his coach, Bunting admits the goal drought is weighing on him. His longest previous stretch between goals this season was nine games from Dec. 7 and Jan. 12.
"Anyone that says they're not thinking about it is lying," Bunting said. "Yeah, obviously, I want to contribute offensively in that way too. I want to score goals. I am getting assists and stuff like that, but goals are fun too. But it is what it is. I'm happy that we're winning and that's all that matters now. Points don't really matter right now. We're going to the playoffs. We got 10 games to go so hopefully I can get one here and roll that into playoffs and never look back."
"I do believe the goals will come for him," Keefe said. "He filled the net in practice today. That is a good sign."
On Matthews' second goal on Saturday, Marner needed to pull the emergency brake to stay on side at the offensive blue line.
"It's tough," he said of the move. "I got to thank my [personal] coach Dan Noble for that one. That's a lot of groin stuff [we do] in the summertime. I try and take care of myself the best I can and keep my body loose. [I'm] kind of loosey goosey out there I guess. I always joke around with [Alex Kerfoot], the best groins in the league. (Smiles) But knock on wood."
Jack Campbell did a session with goalie coach Steve Briere ahead of Monday's main workout, but only stayed out for the first drill of practice.
Erik Kallgren, who stopped 24 of 26 shots in Saturday's win, will start again on Tuesday.
"He's coming off a really good start and then also, in combination with that, Jack is a little bit below 100 per cent at this point," Keefe said. "Nothing to do with his previous injury but at this time of year, with everything that's going on and with the fact Kallgren played the way he did, just a little bit below 100 per cent is enough for us to give him an additional couple of days here. We'll get him ready for Thursday."
Campbell returned from a rib injury last week playing four games in a six-day stretch. His save percentage was .891 in those appearances.
Kallgren, meanwhile, responded well after allowing a long Radko Gudas shot to get by him and then exiting Tuesday's game in Florida after taking a shot off his jaw.
"I felt better," the 25-year-old rookie said on Saturday. "I haven't really been satisfied with my game the last couple games so it was nice to get this win and the feeling I had."
Keefe described Saturday as Kallgren's best game in the NHL so far.
"I've played nine games now so I'm starting to get more and more comfortable," Kallgren said, "but, still, it's a tough league to play in. It's a lot of skilled players so you got to be on your toes every second of the game. I'm still trying to enjoy every day and get better."
Jake Muzzin participated in practice, but will not play on Tuesday.
"He is dealing with something right now," Keefe revealed. "It is not related to the injury he just returned from [concussion]. He is less than 100 per cent here and needs a couple of days of treatment for that to settle down a little bit. He is not going to play tomorrow. We are hopeful or expecting that he will be available after that."
With Muzzin out, Justin Holl will reunite with T.J. Brodie and Timothy Liljegren will get another shot alongside Rielly. Those two haven't played together since the Heritage Classic against Buffalo on March 13 when Liljegren was demoted after a sloppy start.
Mark Giordano will link up with Ilya Lyubushkin for the first time.
"I played against Boosh a lot when he was in Phoenix," Giordano, a former Calgary Flame and Seattle Kraken, said. "Not everyone knows that he's a really good playmaker. He makes little plays in his own zone to break out the puck. He's a really big, physical presence on our back end, but he also has the ability to move pucks really well."
The Leafs have been experimenting with different pairs since the arrival of Giordano to try and determine the ideal alignment for the playoffs.
"We don't have a lot of time," Keefe stressed. "We do need to try some different things and get some different looks in to be confident that when the regular season runs out that we will be ready to go. I don't know that we will ever necessarily settle in the final games, but I will be confident that what we start with in Game 1 of the playoffs will be something that we are comfortable with and that we have given ample time to play itself out."
Rasmus Sandin has started skating again as he works his way back from a knee injury sustained on March 19 in Nashville.
"There is no real timeline on him yet," Keefe said. "He has been skating regularly and seems to be progressing well. From what I am told, he still seems to be a ways away. I don't know if he is going to be available before the regular season ends or not. If anything, I suspect it wouldn't be until that final week. He is continuing to put the work in to do everything he can to be available."
Ondrej Kase, who got hurt in the same game as Sandin, has officially been diagnosed with a concussion.
"They are taking their time with him," Keefe said. "He is not close to returning."
Concussions limited the 26-year-old winger to just three games last season.
After taking part in his first full practice with the Sabres, 6-foot-6 defenceman Owen Power was pushed into the middle of the faceoff circle. Teammates hooted and hollered and slammed their sticks on the ice for a good 30 seconds while the 2021 first overall pick led the stretch.
"Nobody's the saviour," said Buffalo bench boss Don Granato. "This group is going to do it together and they're building together. You can see the camaraderie and the passion that they have for each other and to put that jersey on. It's fun to be a part of as a coach. You saw the stick banging when Owen went in there and you can see a group of 20-some guys immersed in themselves and nothing else in the moment. That's fun to watch as a coach. And when you add talent, and we feel we have a lot of talent although it's young at this point, there's always that energy and excitement for us as coaches knowing that each day they're getting better."
Power, a native of nearby Mississauga, Ont., felt very much at home.
"I grew up in this building," he said. "It's pretty cool being here in Toronto for my first stretch."
The 19-year-old wasn't sure exactly how many friends and family would be in the house on Tuesday night only that it would be a lot.
"It's extremely special," Power said. "Anyone's NHL debut is a really special moment, but to be able to have it in my hometown with all my family here I think just makes it that much better ... It's a huge market. Hockey's everything in Toronto."
Power will partner with former Chicago Blackhawk Henri Jokiharju. He feels familiar with the Finn's game because he watched a lot of Blackhawks hockey when he was in the USHL playing for the Chicago Steel from 2018 to 2020.
Granato has been careful not to overload Power with too much information. The coach points out that 85 per cent of systematic stuff is the same regardless of the team.
Power, who played at the University of Michigan the last two seasons, has suited up in the NCAA's Frozen Four, senior men's World Championship, World Junior Championship and Olympics before getting to the NHL.
"If you think about how many teams he's been on and the pressure he's had on him and the hype he's had on him the last two years, it just rolls off him," Granato said. "He handles it pretty well, especially when he puts his hockey gear on. Off the ice, standing here, could be different, but when these guys get in the locker room and put their gear on it, they're in their element."
Power is welcoming the opportunity to test himself immediately against guys like Matthews and Marner.
"It's going to be pretty cool," he said. "I'm excited to see how they are and try and go out there and play my game."
Matthews missed Monday's practice. Keefe termed it a maintenance day.
Wayne Simmonds missed practice due to an illness.
Leafs lines at Monday's practice:
Bunting - Clifford - Marner
Mikheyev - Tavares - Kerfoot
Nylander - Kampf - Engvall
Abruzzese - Blackwell - Spezza
Rielly - Liljegren
Brodie - Holl
Giordano - Lyubushkin
Campbell (one drill)
Leafs power-play units at Monday's practice:
Flanks: Marner, Mikheyev
Low in the zone: Nylander
Flanks: Brodie/Liljegren, Spezza
Net front: Abruzzese