Tavares determined to keep rolling after Leafs tinker with top six
The Toronto Maple Leafs held an optional skate at Scotiabank Arena on Tuesday.
Can the John Tavares line keep producing in the wake of Toronto's top-six tinkering?
"We'll see," said coach Sheldon Keefe. "That's the question, right? That's why, generally speaking, if one group's really rolling you try not to disrupt that ... We'll watch and we'll see."
Tavares and William Nylander have been connecting well most of the season and Tyler Bertuzzi has played his best hockey since joining the Leafs second line. But top-line headliners Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner have not performed consistently, so Keefe is pulling the trigger on a change.
"No doubt things have been building well with Bert," said Tavares, who has seven goals and 13 assists in 19 games. "And, obviously, Mitchy's a helluva player. You're talking about one of the best wingers in the game, so looking forward to getting back out there with him."
Marner admitted on Monday that he hasn't played up to his own standards so far this season. The 26-year-old said he isn't trusting his abilities like usual.
"He's a very driven kid," Tavares noted. "There's been a lot of growth with his maturity over the years and how he feels about his game. I know he just wants to continue to go out there and help us win and that's what I love about him is that drive to be a key part of this team and be a great player in the league. He's just got to continue to be himself and keep working."
Tavares scored a career-high 47 goals while playing with Marner during his first season in Toronto and the pair have also linked up at times in recent years.
"I've had periods playing with Mitch, especially my first year here," said Tavares. "So, a good understanding of each other and what we do well and his ability to draw people to him, be very deceptive, and manipulate the opponent. I try to use my ability to find open space and find the areas where he can find me, and I can get good looks or create more opportunities from there. So, just playing off one another, reading his game, and him knowing mine, I think we've always had good instincts playing off one another."
Nylander and Matthews played on the same line for almost two months last season and looked good. But this feels like the best version of Nylander we've seen in Toronto.
"I just think he's skating, he's moving, he's working really hard," observed Matthews. "Especially staying on pucks has been a big thing. You can just see when he's moving his feet and stays on the puck – he obviously has all the skill in the world – but just his competitiveness and attack mentality has been really evident this year."
Nylander set a franchise record by starting the season on a 17-game point streak.
"He's been able to create space for the players around him," said Knies. "My job is just to get him the puck as much as possible and let him do his thing."
Knies sustained a concussion in Game 2 of the second-round series against Florida last season when Sam Bennett brought him to the ice after the pair collided along the boards. Bennett missed last month's meeting between the teams, so Tuesday will be their first game since then.
"That's just a tough situation," Knies said of the play. "I don't think he was trying to do anything serious there. I think it just happens in hockey. Injuries happen. It sucks that I couldn't participate in the rest of the playoffs. It's a tough situation, but it's hockey at the end of the day."
Knies was on the verge of returning when the Panthers eliminated the Leafs in five games. There's no bad blood associated with that injury, in particular, but there's no doubt this Atlantic Division rivalry is heating up.
"There's a lot of emotions that go into it," Knies said. "We have a bad taste in our mouths with these guys. We're just really excited to get an opportunity to play them here and play them in our barn and get a crack at giving it back to them."
"Competitiveness is heightened," said defenceman Jake McCabe. "Urgency is heightened. Whenever a team ends your season, obviously you get up for those games pretty easy."
The Panthers beat the Leafs 3-1 in Florida on Oct. 19. Toronto did hold Florida to 24 shots on goal that night, which matches the fewest shots the Leafs have allowed in a game this season.
The Panthers went all the way to the Stanley Cup final last season, and they've started this season strong with a 13-7-1 record.
"They're a team that knows their identity and that plays very well together," said Matthews. "They play the same way every night and they make it hard on the opposing teams so it will be a good challenge for us."
The Leafs (10-6-3) trail the Panthers, who sit second in the division, by four points. Toronto has played two fewer games.
Florida will be a tired group after winning a feisty affair in Ottawa on Monday night. The Panthers racked up 83 penalty minutes against the Senators and, no surprise, Matthew Tkachuk was in the middle of everything. The gritty winger made an impression on Knies in the playoffs last season.
"He wants to get under opponents' skin, and you can see that with how his play was yesterday," Knies said. "So, you just can't let that happen. That was a good learning curve for me. There's obviously a lot of guys out there who want to get under my skin being a younger player in the league. I just can't let it happen. I just got to focus on my game and making the right plays and performing."
Since being promoted to the top line on Nov. 5, Knies has been facing top lines and top defence pairs on a consistent basis.
"It's difficult," the 21-year-old University of Minnesota product said. "You're playing guys that want to shut you down on a daily basis. It's difficult to play against their top guys, but I think it brings the best out of myself, out of our line as well, to play against the better players. So, yeah, it's difficult. I'm still learning and adjusting to it, and I think it's only going uphill."
Keefe, who often matches the Matthews line against top units at home, trusts the 6-foot-3, 217-pound winger in defensive situations.
"He's a smart guy," the coach said. "His hockey sense is good on that side of it. Even last season, he came in and not a lot of practice time and it's the hardest time of the year and he picked up the system real quickly, which tells me he's been well coached, and he's got good sense defensively. He's got good range with both his speed and his size. He closes quickly. He recovers quickly so, really, defensively has never been a concern for him."
Veteran winger Ryan Reaves will be back in the lineup against the Panthers after sitting out Saturday's game as a healthy scratch. The message from Keefe?
"Just to build on the game he had in Chicago," the coach said. "I thought he did a really good job. There's a lot of things in that game that we need from him."
Keefe opted to dress seven defencemen on Saturday in Pittsburgh.
"I talked to him when he was coming out," Keefe said. "It was really just my decision and the 11 and seven and all of that, but it was not a reflection of his game. In fact, we want him to sort of bottle up that game that he had in Chicago and how that line operated together and bring that forth here tonight."
Reaves scored his first goal of the season on Friday in Chicago. He's been a scratch in four of the last five games.
Defenceman William Lagesson will come out of the lineup after playing on Saturday.
Brad Treliving was asked to assess the team's goaltending during his media session on Monday.
"Probably the same as the team," the general manager said. "I think they can be more consistent. We have seen some really good games. We have seen some games where they can be better. There have been some goals that have gone in that you would like to have back. I do think goaltending can clean up a lot of messes for you. You can also clean up a lot of messes and make your goaltending look a lot better. There is a yin and a yang there."
Toronto's team save percentage (.896) ranks 22nd overall this season.
The Tavares Foundation recently posted a video of the Leafs captain and his family picking out a Christmas tree.
"It's just something we started with our kids," said Tavares, a father of three. "Really enjoyable. They had a blast. They picked their own little tree as well ... Coming back from Sweden that was one of my first things on my to-do list is we gotta go get our Christmas tree. It's one of the great traditions."
What makes a good Christmas tree?
"Well, I don't got final say on the tree," Tavares admitted with a smile, "so maybe asking the wrong guy."
Projected lineup for Tuesday's game:
Knies - Matthews - Nylander
Bertuzzi - Tavares - Marner
Robertson - Domi - Jarnkrok
Gregor - Kampf - Reaves
Rielly - Brodie
Giordano - McCabe
Benoit - Timmins