The Toronto Maple Leafs and Vegas Golden Knights held optional skates at Scotiabank Arena on Tuesday.
Auston Matthews and William Nylander have combined for just one five-on-five goal in three games since being reunited on a line alongside Michael Bunting.
"We've been getting better and better in practice," promised Nylander. "A few more games and we'll be buzzing."
Matthews and Nylander haven't played together consistently since late in 2019. Since then, Nylander has lined up almost exclusively beside John Tavares.
"Auston's the best goal scorer in the league and John's also one of the best players in the league too, so, sort of similar in a way, but a little different," Nylander said.
"Auston's, obviously, the best goal scorer in the league," Nylander said with a smile.
Matthews only has one goal in six games since returning from left wrist surgery. The last defending Rocket Richard Trophy winner to score one or fewer goals through his first six games of a season was Teemu Selanne (one) in 1999-2000, per the Elias Sports Bureau. Selanne finished the season with 33 goals in 79 games.
Matthews and Nylander were both minus players during Saturday's 5-4 win over the Detroit Red Wings. Per NaturalStatTrick.com, shots on net favoured the Wings (9-8) in the 12 minutes that the Matthews line played together at even strength.
"They've been a little bit disconnected defensively and, as a result, probably spent more time on our half of the ice than we'd like them to," said coach Sheldon Keefe. "The focus is just getting them dialled in on the details defensively and those transitions when we don't have the puck."
October was the 29th month in which Matthews appeared in at least five NHL games, but it was the first time he scored no more than one goal. He had scored at least five goals in each of his previous 12 months.
But Keefe made it clear that offence isn't a big concern considering the chances Matthews continues to generate. He has fired 25 shots on net and leads the team with 15 missed shots.
"He's been right there a lot of the time," noted Nylander. "So, just a matter of when the puck is going to trickle by."
"There's lots of good ingredients to that line," added Keefe, "but I don't think we've seen it play to their potential yet. I think part of it is the line coming together and part of it is the three players playing at their best. As we look at the Tavares line [which produced three goals on Saturday], I think part of why the line is starting to work is just the players are working and competing and that helps the line go."
Matthews and Nylander are also looking to find some chemistry as part of the top power-play unit. The Leafs snapped an 0-for-17 skid on Saturday night, but it was the second unit that got on the board.
"When you are on that second unit there is a little more urgency to everything that you are doing because you usually don't get as much time," Keefe said.
"Our second unit's been doing a really good job," said Nylander, "but first unit hasn't been buzzing as of late so that's something we need to improve on."
The top unit has failed to convert since Matthews returned to the lineup. Toronto made a change two games ago, shifting Mitch Marner back to his usual spot on the flank and moving Nylander to the bumper slot.
"Anywhere on the power play I'm fine with," Nylander said. "Just got to get dialled and score. I've played there. I've played on the goal line. Played on the half wall. Wherever. It's fine."
So, what's the issue?
"We just got to get set up in the O-zone and not throw pucks away in some situations where we might try and force something," Nylander said. "Then we just settle down and get pucks to the net, get those pucks back, and spend heavy time on the power play in their zone."
The second unit has produced two of Toronto's four power-play goals so far this season.
"We're playing as a five-man unit," said Bunting, who plays the bumper role with the second unit. "Any time there's a loose puck all five of us are hunting and retrieving it and that's huge. Once you start retrieving pucks it shifts their box and makes them have some mistakes."
Jason Spezza filled in for Matthews on the top unit to start the season. He scored one power-play goal and set up one by Nylander before shifting back to the second unit. Spezza picked up the primary assist on Bunting's man-advantage marker on Saturday.
"We kind of talked about it beforehand," Bunting revealed, "that the middle would be open for a shot tip and Spezza has great vision and he found me. It was pretty easy to just to put two hands on my stick and tip it in. It was a great play by him."
Keefe pointed out that Matthews and Nylander nearly linked up on a similar play a minute earlier.
T.J. Brodie will hit a milestone tonight, playing in his 700th NHL game.
"If he has a good night or a bad night, he shows up the next day and he's the same person," Keefe observed. "That level of consistency that you get from a guy emotionally is a really important thing when you're looking for longevity in the league."
But the normally steady Brodie has had a few more bad nights than good nights this season.
"He set a high standard for himself last season and I don't think he's played to that level yet," Keefe said. "I do think the last couple of games, he's been better. He expects a lot from himself."
Brodie picked up his first point of the season, an assist, on Saturday night. He produced 14 points in 56 games last season.
"He looked at his role on the team last season and felt he could provide more offensively, and he's been trying to get involved more, get in the rush, and be involved in the offensive zone," Keefe said. "There's a balance that goes with that because he really did play more as that safety guy last season and we're looking for him to find that balance. The last couple games have been more reflective of what we [usually] get from Brods."
Brodie highlighted another reason why it's been a slow start to the season not just for him, but most of the defence core.
"We changed a little bit of system stuff this year and that adjustment period maybe took longer than we wanted," the 31-year-old from Chatham, Ont. said. "One thing we've been trying to concentrate on is our gaps. It's a timing issue and sometimes tough to adjust to. When you want to be up tighter sometimes you end up getting beat. And then just the pace of play [is another change]. We want to play quick and, instead of building, trying to get it to the forwards hands as quick as we can."
Keefe juggled the pairs for Saturday's game and Brodie, who has played mostly with Morgan Rielly since signing in Toronto last season, ended up with Jake Muzzin.
"Mo is usually up in the rush and it's one of those things where you got to look around if you want to jump to make sure he's not going because he's so quick and he gets up there fast," Brodie noted. "Muzz is a little more stay at home."
William Karlsson is the latest Golden Knight to join the injured list. The team's top-line centre will miss four to six weeks with a broken foot. He joins fellow forwards Max Pacioretty, Mark Stone, Alex Tuch, Nolan Patrick and Mattias Janmark on the sidelines.
"It's a weird season," said Reilly Smith. "Hopefully we just make it through a game without another new injury. It feels like every game there's something new."
Brett Howden will take Karlsson's place between Smith and Jonathan Marchessault.
"We've played with Karl for five years now so it will be a little bit of an adjustment," said Smith. "Brett's a smart, reliable player. He does a lot of the little things right, which is a key cornerstone of being a centre in this league ... it all comes down to opportunity. Players get drafted in the first round for a reason."
Howden, Tampa's first round pick (27th overall) in 2016, has failed to produce a point in six games this season while firing just three shots on net.
"He's gotten a little better every game," said Knights coach Peter DeBoer. "We haven't given him an opportunity yet to play centre in a top-six role so he's going to get that opportunity tonight and hopefully run with it. It allows us to spread out our depth here on the road when we don't control the matchups."
The injury issues also opened the door for Michael Amadio, who was picked up off waivers from the Leafs over the weekend. DeBoer reached out to good friend Stan Butler, who coached Amadio in the Ontario Hockey League, to get a scouting report.
"I like the idea of some of the things he's capable of doing and one thing he'll get here is an opportunity to do that because of the situation we're in," DeBoer said.
After losing four of five to start the season, the Knights have won three straight. But now the injury bug threatens to push them back on their heels.
"You can't feel sorry for yourself," DeBoer stressed. "You got to know the league's not slowing down and giving you any free passes. You just got to put your head down and go to work. We've got to really be detailed, really defensively responsible, not beat ourselves especially on the road against good teams.
"From a player perspective, it's a great opportunity not only for guys to come in and play, but for guys to play higher in the lineup than they have, more special teams than maybe they ever have. So, if you're a player in the room I think you're excited. They're not feeling sorry for themselves. I think they're excited for the opportunity to show that they can do more."
Projected Leafs lines for Tuesday's game:
Bunting - Matthews - Nylander
Kerfoot - Tavares - Marner
Engvall - Kampf - Kase
Ritchie - Spezza - Simmonds
Rielly - Dermott
Muzzin - Brodie
Sandin - Liljegren