TSN Toronto reporter Mark Masters checks in daily with news and notes on the Maple Leafs. The team held a team meeting at Scotiabank Arena on Thursday morning, while the Calgary Flames held a full skate.
Before Matthew Tkachuk addressed the media on Thursday morning, reporters were warned that the Flames winger had no intention of talking about Zack Kassian or the fallout from Saturday's game against Edmonton.
Is the 22-year-old trying to throw cold water on the controversy involving the Oilers?
"I don't really know what that means," Tkachuk said. "We're not talking about them now. We play them some time after this little break thing, so you guys can ask us then. I just don't want to talk about that right now. We'll talk about that another time. Just talking about the Leafs tonight."
So, the situation isn't a distraction?
"I don't let anything distract me," Tkachuk said.
Tkachuk was more than happy to wax poetic about a couple former teammates in Auston Matthews (U.S. National Development Program) and Mitch Marner (London Knights).
"Two of the best, not just young offensive players in the league, but probably two of the best offensive players," Tkachuk said. "It's really, really fun to watch them and to say I got to play with both of them is pretty cool."
Matthews has 17 goals in 17 games and has been especially lethal at Scotiabank Arena where he's scored in eight straight.
"He's unbelievable right now," Tkachuk gushed. "Like, we've seen him put the puck in the net throughout his career, but not like this right now. It seems like every game you watch he scores. Every shift you're out there and they need a goal, he's scoring it. He's in the top tier of the NHL not just in goal scoring, but as a total offensive player."
On Wednesday, Matthews suggested Tkachuk doesn't try to agitate him during games, because the Leafs centre knows all his tricks. Tkachuk said it's more about mutual respect.
"He's one of my good buddies and he's a great offensive player, so I don't really try to do too much with him, I don't think," Tkachuk said.
Instead of being a pest, Tkachuk says the Flames must present multiple layers in front of Matthews whenever he has the puck.
The challenge is all the greater these days, though, because Matthews is playing with Marner.
"He's another guy who's starting to establish himself as one of the best in the league and when he has the puck he is dangerous," Tkachuk raved. "He makes plays all over the ice and he's one of those guys you love to play with because all you have to do is get open. You don’t even have to have your body open, just have your stick open and he's going to find you. What a fun time it was to play with him in London."
Tkachuk has been quiet against the Leafs in his career (one goal, three minor penalties in seven games) with few flashpoint moments. But the Leafs don't fear that sort of thing. In fact, they believe it may play into their hands.
"It definitely helps us, being a skilled team, an offensive team, when the passion comes into our game I think we play our best hockey," said Jason Spezza. "We don't get distracted by guys. The make-up of our locker room doesn't seem to be one that's going to get too fazed by one particular guy. We haven't had any problems with guys coming in and trying to agitate us."
John Tavares, the team's stoic captain, points out he has matured in that regard.
"I got wound up a lot when I was a lot younger," Tavares admitted. "You learn that it's best to save your energy for what really matters and that’s trying to make plays and be effective. I wouldn't say that I don't get emotional or pissed off or frustrated or involved in the game that way at times, but I think I'm, personally, a lot better at handling it than I once was."
Tavares is a big fan of new linemate Pierre Engvall. What stands out the most about the 6-foot-5, 214-pound rookie?
"His skating ability and his strength," Tavares said. "He's such a natural athlete, you can really tell he's a force out there with the way he's able to use his skating, his size and his physical strength. With the confidence part, he continues to get better and better with the puck and playmaking and having a good knack around the net and finishing plays off."
Sheldon Keefe elevated Engvall to the Tavares line with William Nylander for Tuesday's game against the Devils. Engvall replaced Alexander Kerfoot who shifted back to centre on the third line.
"That line was having some real trouble in leaving the offensive zone and getting caught and a lot of the chances we were giving up were coming from [that line]," Keefe explained on Tuesday night. "We wanted Pierre to really help with that cause just with how he skates and then how he works; the fact that he can track and skate and get back the way that he does."
Engvall responded to the promotion with a nice assist on Nylander's second-period tally. The pair of Swedes played together growing up with the national team so they're familiar with each other's game.
"He was the same way," Nylander recalled. "Probably one of the fastest guys on the ice and, I mean, he can get down and get pucks back and has a heavy shot too. He's got speed and he flies down on the forecheck and gets pucks back and I played with him a little bit when we were younger so there's a little chemistry there."
TSN's Kristen Shilton has more on Engvall's growth here.
With the trade deadline looming, Tavares was asked if he expects general manager Kyle Dubas to make a move to boost the team's depth.
"It's up to us," he said. "As a group we have to go out and show it and make him believe that there's something special here and we have a great opportunity that we want to maximize."
David Rittich gets the start for Calgary tonight. The goalie learned on Wednesday that he would get to play in the All-Star Game as an injury replacement for Arizona's Darcy Kuemper. It will be his first appearance at the mid-season showcase and the news is still sinking in.
"Honestly, four years ago, five years ago, I was in the second [division of the] first Czech League and I was never thinking about NHL and now, here we go, five years later, I get an opportunity to be at the All-Star Game with the best players in the world," the 27-year-old said with a wide grin.
Rittich has fond memories of watching the all-star game as a kid growing up in Jihlava, Czech Republic.
"When I was younger I was watching those games and it's super nice," he said. "You see the players walking on the red carpet and now I can be part of it. It's awesome."
The only fly in the ointment is the fact Rittich will need to change some vacation plans.
"We had a lot of plans with my wife, but we don't worry about it," he said.
Projected Leafs lineup:
Hyman - Matthews - Marner
Engvall - Tavares - Nylander
Johnsson - Kerfoot - Kapanen
Timashov - Spezza - Gauthier
Dermott - Holl
Marincin - Barrie
Sandin - Ceci