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Mark Masters

SPORTSCENTRE Reporter

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The Maple Leafs held an optional skate at Scotiabank Arena on Wednesday morning ahead of tonight’s game against the Montreal Canadiens.


The Maple Leafs feel like they finally have the right formula for success.

"We're more complete," said winger Zach Hyman. "We've brought in guys who have experience. We have a fantastic mix of players that complement each other, and I think we're much deeper offensively and defensively this year."

Among the newcomers are defencemen T.J. Brodie and Zach Bogosian and forwards Joe Thornton, Jimmy Vesey and Wayne Simmonds, who will all debut tonight against the Montreal Canadiens. After leaning heavily on speed and skill in previous seasons, the Leafs have added some more grit and sandpaper.

And head coach Sheldon Keefe put the team through a rigorous training camp with a focus on physicality, competitiveness and structure.

"We're more prepared this year than we have been in years past," said defenceman Morgan Rielly. "During camp we really had a chance to work on a couple things we think are important, so we're in a good spot. The overall feeling our team has now as a group is great."

With no exhibition games, it may take some time to get locked into the details, but Keefe is setting a high bar on opening night.

"The message to our guys this morning is we'll continue to build on our structure and system as we go," the coach said, "but the habits and the identity and the mindset should be apparent right from the start and I'm excited for that to take hold."

'The vibe is really good': Leafs full of confidence entering new season

With the addition of some veteran players to their young core, the Maple Leafs are entering the season full of confidence. The team admitted that they feel more prepared now than in years past and are embracing the expectations that are put upon them. Mark Masters has more.

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The Leafs held an optional skate, but in a rare move Keefe joined a handful of regulars on the ice. Perhaps that was a signal to the team's reserve players that he's still watching.

"What we determined is we're not going to be going with the 'Taxi Squad' designation anymore," Keefe said. "We're going with the 'Stay Ready Squad' and that speaks to the mindset that we need these guys to have. It's also a reminder for us as a coaching staff that we have to do our part to keep them ready. Shout-out to Steve Nash and the Brooklyn Nets for that, because they're going with that with their non-starters and it's just a great mindset to have particularly for a year like this."

The Leafs 'Stay Ready Squad' includes forwards Nick Robertson, Adam Brooks and Travis Boyd, defencemen Rasmus Sandin and Mikko Lehtonen, and goalie Aaron Dell.

Leafs Ice Chips: Keefe sets tone with a nod to Nash

Ahead of his first NHL season opener as a head coach, Sheldon Keefe is making expectations clear for Maple Leafs players. Keefe made a rare appearance at the team’s optional skate and described how he’ll be stealing a page from Steve Nash’s playbook as he aims to keep his guys sharp during a season like nothing they’ve seen before.

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We may be in the middle of a pandemic, but some things never change, especially in Toronto. If a key player is entering the final year of his contract, he's going to face questions about it.

Frederik Andersen has addressed his uncertain future a couple times already. On Wednesday morning, it was Hyman's turn.

"People make a huge deal out of a contract year and obviously it is a big year, but for me it's always about the team and what I can do to help the team win and that's where my head's at," the Toronto native said. "I haven't really thought about the contract too much. Toronto is a place I love and would love to be, but just focusing on this year and focusing on the team and usually that stuff gets sorted out pretty quickly afterwards."

Hyman not letting contract year distract from team goals

Zach Hyman will become a free-agent after this season, but the Leafs' winger isn't letting the contract talks distract from the task at hand, ''for me it is about the team, and how can I help the team win.'' The Toronto native did also say that he would love to remain with the club.

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Canadiens winger Brendan Gallagher pointed out that referees tend to be more whistle-happy early in the season, so his team will need to be wary of giving Toronto's talent-rich line-up too many cracks on the man advantage.

"Early on, you know, the refs will probably be looking for stuff to set the tone," said Gallagher. "We’re playing a team that can skate really well and move the puck, so there may be some temptation to take penalties, but you got to be prepared to work and stay out of those positions when you’re taking those needless penalties – especially in their zone. There's times when you have to take one, obviously, but​ this power play has hurt us before and we don't want that to happen again."

It may take time for Toronto's new, more balanced power-play units to build some chemistry. The top unit now features Rielly up top, Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner on the flanks, Thornton in the middle and Simmonds in front of the net.

"The more reps we get the more comfortable we're going to be," said Rielly, "For me, I just want to get them the puck and get clear shots when I can. Joe and Wayne will talk about what they need to do when they're changing spots and Auston and Mitch will do whatever they need to do to get the puck moving. So, we feel confident with where we're at right now."

Last year, John Tavares and William Nylander were with the top group, but they will start this season as the key cogs on the second unit, which also features Brodie, Hyman and Jason Spezza. 

After Keefe took over from Mike Babcock last season, the Leafs posted the second best power play in the NHL with a 26.5 per cent conversion rate.

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Brendan Shanahan did an interview with Danielle Emanuele of the Leafs Nation Network during a special video for season-seat members on Tuesday night. Here are some highlights from what the team president had to say:

On the power of positivity:

"I do think if you want to have success you have to really believe in that, you have to continue to envision it so that when you have these setbacks and you get your heart broken it's never going to really get you off the road, it’s never going to really get you off track. I'm sorry to sound like Tony Robbins here, but, like, I'm relentless. I won't quit. I will not quit. I’m passionate about this job. I'm passionate about this team ... it’s about the action and going out and getting it done, but it is also about believing you can do it and I really believe we're going to do it here in Toronto. If we have the patience to do it and we stick with it we'll be thankful, one day, that we did."

On Rielly:

"He's probably one of the mo​st unselfish teammates that I’​ve ever come about. He’s quiet. He’s got a quiet humour about him. The guys all love him. This is a guy that is constantly through his words, but more importantly through his actions, always putting his team first."

On Tavares:

"Similar to my teammate Steve Yzerman, there's a burning inferno in the pit of his belly that more often than not in interviews and in talking to him he’s able to hide, but ... he's passionate and he’s very passionate about the game of hockey and very committed, as well, to getting the job done here in Toronto ... John is very serious about coming back here to Toronto. He's very serious about what he wants to accomplish here and the pressure that he's taken on not just by signing here in Toronto, but by being the captain. He's a quiet leader. He leads by example,​ reminds me a lot in that regard of the demeanour of a Steve Yzerman, who led by just sort of going out and doing the job."

On Marner:

"Mitch is a guy that brings a brightness and a light to the dressing room every day ... he’s got an energy that the players all love. He laughs at himself. You can make fun of him. He's self-deprecating, but he’s also very serious about his job and the pressure that he puts on himself. I don’t think people realize, also, just what an accomplished full game of hockey he plays. People focus on his assists and his scoring, but he's already become probably one of our most threatening and effective penalty killers. He just cares. He cares a lot. This is a guy that I hope plays his entire career in Toronto and if he does I have no doubt he will bring us success and I have no doubt that he's going to have a statue outside of the arena one day."

'Relentless' Shanahan compares Tavares to Yzerman, says Marner has statue potential

During an interview conducted for season-seat members, Leafs president Brendan Shanahan had high praise for captain John Tavares and alternates Morgan Rielly and Mitch Marner. Shanahan predicted that if Marner plays his entire career in Toronto "he's going to have a statute outside the arena one day."

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Projected Leafs lineup for Wednesday’s game:

Thornton - Matthews - Marner

Vesey - Tavares - Nylander

Mikheyev - Kerfoot - Hyman

Barabanov - Spezza - Simmonds

 

Rielly - Brodie (L)

Muzzin - Holl

Dermott - Bogosian

 

Andersen starts

Campbell

 

Scratches/‘Stay-Ready Squad’: Brooks, Boyd, Robertson, Lehtonen, Sandin and Aaron Dell.

Bolded = On the ice at the optional skate