TSN Toronto Reporter Mark Masters reports on the Maple Leafs, who held an optional skate on Wednesday morning at Scotiabank Arena. The Oilers held a full skate.
After spending part of the off-season training alongside one another, Auston Matthews and Connor McDavid will do battle tonight in Toronto.
"He's very dialed in," observed McDavid of the sessions in Arizona. "His whole life is wrapped around it, obviously, as it should be. It was impressive to see how hard he works and how much detail goes into it."
"He's just always looking to get better," Matthews noted, "just working on little details of his game, especially stuff he feels is a weakness. He wanted to work on a lot of faceoff stuff with [Jonathan] Toews when we were down there."
It was actually former Oilers and Leafs assistant coach Keith Acton who helped McDavid the most on draws. The Oilers captain won just 43.1 per cent of his faceoffs during the summer series against Chicago.
"Just wasn't good enough," said McDavid, who again spent time working on faceoffs this morning. "It's something that had to be looked at and worked on. I haven't taken a ton of draws for someone who's played in the league for over five years. I played with a lot of centremen that kind of stepped in there once in a while and we kind of split them. I didn't take as many draws as I should have so trying to catch up on those reps and that's the only way you'll get better."
McDavid has won 55.8 per cent of his faceoffs through four games after finishing at 47.8 per cent last season. Matthews is at 52.6 per cent this season. The pair of centres project to lock horns more tonight than in any of their previous seven National Hockey League showdowns.
When McDavid exploded for four points in Toronto last January it was John Tavares getting the matchup. Tavares had helped keep McDavid in check during a Leafs win in Edmonton earlier in the season.
"If you give him any space, he can shoot it," McDavid said of Matthews, "and when he shoots it, it can almost go in from anywhere so have to stay tight on him."
"He's too good a player to not get a couple looks and get his chances," Matthews said, "you just want to limit those as much as you can."
Matthews has emerged as a trusted defensive player for Sheldon Keefe, who has urged his team to clamp down on rush chances against since Day 1 of training camp.
"He's just prioritizing it," the Leafs coach said. "He knows, A, it's required for us to win and, B, he's learned that he's really good at it and it helps him and our team get the puck back quicker. It allows him to influence the game in more ways than one and I think that's really what being truly great is."
The NHL announced Tuesday that they will be using game pucks without the imbedded tracking technology moving forward. The decision was made after concerns were raised about the puck's performance during the first few days of the season.
"We noticed it a bit," Matthews said. "Actually, [Jason] Spezza was first one to bring it up to me. I told him that's why I couldn’t capitalize on some of these chances I've had in the first four games (smile), it was because these pucks are all messed up."
Matthews has scored just once on his league-leading 21 shots, which puts his shooting percentage (4.8) well below his career average (15.5).
"We held one of the regular pucks and one of the new ones and there was a little bit of a difference in the weight and stuff. It seemed like sometimes it wasn't sliding as well as it usually would," Matthews said. "I don't know if that was because of the ice or the pucks. Me and Spezz are pretty pumped they're going back to regular ones because no more excuses now. Gotta bury it."
A review by the NHL determined that the first supply of pucks did not receive the same precise finishing treatments during the off-season manufacturing process as those used during the 2020 playoffs. It is expected that a new supply of the "tracking pucks" will be available soon.
"I didn't even know they did anything," McDavid said with a chuckle, "so I guess that's a good sign."
Tyson Barrie led the stretch at the Oilers morning skate. After spending one star-crossed season with the Leafs, he'll face his old teammates for the first time tonight.
"I was texting with a bunch of the fellows," the defenceman said. "It would've been nice to go for a nice [Ristorante ] Sotto Sotto dinner and get together with everyone, but obviously not in the cards this year ... Me and Auston were good buddies and sat next to each other on the plane and we'd carpool at times. He's a super humble and down-to-earth guy. I don't know if a lot of people know how humble he is. There's not a whole lot of ego there."
Barrie was asked to compare what it's like being around McDavid and Matthews. He pointed out the pair of superstars have different personalities.
"Connor's a little more reserved and a bit, I don’t know if I want to say shy, but just quiet and composed," Barrie said. "Auston, he can be a goofball, I guess. He's a pretty funny guy."
Barrie, a righty, is the new quarterback on the Oilers’ top power-play unit taking the spot of injured lefty Oscar Klefbom.
"It's a bit different, but they're such talented guys and they can put the puck wherever they want to so it's a good look for us. It gives us some more one-timer opportunities," Barrie said. "I don't think they'll have too many issues putting it into my wheelhouse, those guys."
The Oilers power play, which led the NHL last season with a 29.5 per cent conversion rate, has scored on just two of 18 chances this season while allowing a pair of shorthanded goals.
"Our power play's been together for a long time," McDavid stressed. "It’s had lots of success. It's also had lulls … but I've liked the way we've generated chances. If the puck bounces one way or another we could be sitting here with four, five more goals on the power play."
There were no personnel changes to either unit at the morning skate.
Is Dave Tippett looking for more aggressive play from top-line winger Zack Kassian?
"Very much so," the Oilers coach confirmed. "I had that conversation with him this morning ... He knows he can play better. He's had lots going on in his life with his new daughter here the last couple of days and he needs to get back to playing the way he can."
Buckle up, baby. 👶— Edmonton Oilers (@EdmontonOilers) January 16, 2021
Kassian will not skate in tonight's game as his wife gave birth to their second little one today.
Olivia Kassian: 7 lbs, 7 oz!
Congrats to Zack & Cassandra! 🧡💙#LetsGoOilers pic.twitter.com/0bTmb8lwKE
Ethan Bear returns to the Oilers lineup tonight after sitting out Monday as a healthy scratch. He was paired with Darnell Nurse at the morning skate. Tippett said the 23-year-old had some productive conversations with associate coach Jim Playfair over the last couple of days.
"He understands what we're looking for and I think he'll jump in and have a good game tonight," Tippett said.
There will be no changes up front for the Oilers as Tippett looks for some chemistry and consistency. The coach quipped he’d give the groups, “one more shot."
Projected Leafs lineup for Wednesday's game:
Thornton - Matthews - Marner
Nylander - Tavares - Vesey
Mikheyev - Kerfoot - Hyman
Spezza - Simmonds
Rielly - Brodie
Muzzin - Holl
Dermott - Bogosian
Projected Oilers lineup for Wednesday's game:
Nugent-Hopkins - McDavid - Kassian
Kahun - Draisaitl - Yamamoto
Nygard - Turris - Puljujarvi
Archibald - Shore - Chiasson
Nurse - Bear
Russell - Barrie
Koekkoek - Larsson