TSN Toronto reporter Mark Masters checks in daily with news and notes on the Maple Leafs, who held a team meeting (game group) at Mile One Centre in St. John's on Wednesday before flying to Ottawa. The non-playing group held a practice before heading home to Toronto. Thursday will be a day off for the team.
Auston Matthews turned 22 on Tuesday while Alexander Ovechkin turned 34, but the NHL forwards share more than a birthday. They are also among the game's most gifted goal scorers. Since Matthews entered the league in the 2016-17 season, the Capitals winger is first in goals per game (0.54) and the Leafs centre is second (0.52).
Matthews opens his preseason campaign tonight in Ottawa and is eager to add one of Ovechkin's best weapons to his toolbox. The Leafs new power-play alignment will feature the left-handed Matthews on the right flank, which should create more opportunities for one- timers.
"I hope so," said Matthews when asked if one-timers will be more of a weapon this year. "You kind of get me and Mitch [Marner] on those one-timer sides, dual threats, and kind of have more options to look at so hopefully we can dial in on that."
"It will take a little bit to get used to," said Marner, a righty who will move to the left flank. "Both of us have to be ready to shoot the puck. I think that's our biggest thing is trying to get the puck to the net more."
Matthews has scored 111 goals in the NHL, but only three have come by way of the slap shot. Matthews is quick to point out he's not at the Ovechkin level.
"It's kind of tough to shoot the puck like that, like him, [Patrik] Laine, [Steven] Stamkos, those guys are just automatic from there, but I think it’s mostly just timing and as a power play working as a five-man unit, working the puck around and then kind of finding that opening where you can get that quick shot off."
At even strength, Matthews will skate with Andreas Johnsson and William Nylander, who missed training camp a year ago due to a contract dispute. Playing with consistent linemates from Day 1 should help Matthews, who lined up with Patrick Marleau and Tyler Ennis to start last year's preseason.
"I'm comfortable with both guys," Matthews said. "I played quite a bit with both guys. We want to get off to a good start. I think camp's been pretty good for us. It feels like we don't really have to feel each other out. We kind of know where each other’s at most of the time."
As he starts the second contract of his NHL career, Matthews is setting the bar high.
"I expect a lot out of myself," he said. "The preseason is good to get your legs and timing under you. You kind of use it more for conditioning and stuff like that."
Boston's David Pastrnak told NHL.com during the summer that Matthews is his pick to win the Hart Trophy and Matthews certainly believes he can be in the mix for MVP honours.
"It's a conversation a lot of guys want to be in so, yeah, of course," Matthews said.
But avoiding injuries is the No. 1 objective.
"Obviously, that's been a bit of an issue the last two years and I think that’s just my primary focus is staying healthy and make sure I'm doing all the right things and I think the rest of the stuff will take care of itself."
Matthews missed 34 games due to injury in the last two seasons.
Matthews is expected to play a bigger leadership role for the Leafs this season.
"He's really evolved," said head coach Mike Babcock. "I think the biggest thing with Matty is how comfortable he is now compared to what he used to be with all this (gestures to media) and with the guys. He was always comfortable on the ice, but it's bigger than that when you're leading. The biggest thing is sharing himself. That's what leaders do. They do their job and they do it good enough that they have time to help you as well."
Earlier in camp, Babcock listed basketball star Kawhi Leonard as an ideal leadership role model for the next Leafs captain.
"He was just a machine all season, all playoffs," Matthews observed of the former Raptor. "He's a quiet guy, obviously, just kind of goes about his business and it was fun to watch. The whole team was fun to watch and it was amazing what they did for the city so we're trying to replicate that."
"The main thing was he didn't do much talking," said Marner, who wore an ‘A’ in Tuesday's preseason debut, "he just went out there and played, led by example every time he got the ball or got back on the defensive end of it. That’s something everyone wants in leadership."
The Leafs will name a captain at some point this season and Babcock was asked if that announcement will come sooner or later. That led to this interaction with your humble correspondent.
"When's the season start?"
"Is that later or sooner?"
"Oh, (smiles) see ya guys."
Alexander Kerfoot will make his Leafs preseason debut tonight skating between KHL import Ilya Mikheyev and Nic Petan. The 25-year-old, acquired from Colorado in an off-season trade, is looking to tweak his game.
"I've tried to change it up a little bit," Kerfoot revealed. "I want to be a little more aggressive offensively."
What’s that mean?
"You always work on your shot in different areas of the ice and getting it off quickly and adding some velocity, but I think more than anything it’s a mindset thing," he explained. "I've always been a pass-first guy and I think sometimes I've been a little stubborn with the puck and I've tried to change that up, but it's hard to do. It’s always being conscious of it."
While it has been tricky communicating with Mikheyev, who speaks limited English and has been reluctant to do any interviews at camp, Kerfoot is familiar with Petan, which should ease the transition to Toronto. "I know him quite well, because we're both from Vancouver and grew up playing together," Kerfoot said.
Like Kerfoot, Cody Ceci will also be making his preseason debut with the Leafs tonight. The Ottawa native played six seasons with the Senators and four more with the 67s before that.
"I'm definitely feeling a little bit nervous," he admitted, "especially going back home and playing in front of friends and family on a new team. It'll be a little different."
Ceci will skate alongside Morgan Rielly, who was a former teammate of his in the Hockey Canada program at the under-18 level.
"He's just very talented," Ceci said. "I'm lucky to be playing with him. He’s a good skater and reads the play very well. He likes to get up in the play and take some chances. I'll have to do a better job of staying back and protecting him when he's up there and getting the puck out of the zone quickly and letting him do his thing offensively."
TSN's Kristen Shilton has more on Ceci's return to the nation's capital and role with the Leafs here.
Projected lineup for tonight’s game in Ottawa based on yesterday’s practice:
Projected power-play units for tonight’s game in Ottawa based on yesterday's practice: