McKenzie: The priority for the Leafs is a long-term objective rather than a short-term mean
TSN Toronto reporter Mark Masters checks in daily with news and notes on the Maple Leafs, who held an optional skate at Bridgestone Arena on Monday. The Nashville Predators held a full skate.
Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and Frederik Andersen were in St. Louis enjoying the all-star festivities while many teammates were enjoying warm-weather vacations last week.
Jake Muzzin, meanwhile, was in Cleveland on Friday night playing for the Toronto Marlies as part of a conditioning stint. The defenceman had been sidelined since breaking his foot on Dec. 27.
"I guess it's not a common move, but I was open to it and I was OK with it and it gave me an opportunity to play in a game," Muzzin said. "Get that feel of a game back."
It was Muzzin's first AHL game since January 2013.
"Not many players would do that," said coach Sheldon Keefe, "and it's because he's not really concerned about his ego or any other stuff other than doing what’s best to get himself ready."
"There was no ego involved," Muzzin said. "I just went down and played a game, that was it."
Averaging 21:21 of ice time per game this season with the Leafs, Keefe says Muzzin actually logged around 27 minutes for the Marlies. How'd he feel?
"I was going to feel like sh-- no matter what," Muzzin said with a smile. "So that was a good way to get it out. You don't play in three weeks, you lose some lungs and some legs so that was good to just go down and get that out."
Keefe won't hesitate to lean on Muzzin tonight as he slots him back in beside Justin Holl on the shutdown pair against the Predators in Nashville. At six-foot-three, 217 pounds, Muzzin adds a different dimension to Toronto's blueline.
"He's a guy that I think physically intimidates people," Marner noted. "He's a guy who can line up hits and get in people’s heads about whether they want to make a pass or not."
As one of the more vocal guys on the team, Muzzin also helps calm the bench at key moments.
"Just always seems to elevate his game at crucial times for us," observed captain John Tavares. "He's counted on in so many areas and obviously his voice in the locker room, the accountability he brings to the group, just sets a great example for everyone."
A Stanley Cup champion with the Los Angeles Kings in 2014, Muzzin was described by Keefe on Sunday as the “conscience of our team.” His return should help stabilize the leaky Leafs, who allowed 28 goals while dropping five of six before the break.
"We focused a lot lately on discipline defensively," Muzzin said. "We got a highly skilled group that can put the puck in the net and we need the effort and the desire to keep the puck out of the net just as strong as we want to put it in the net."
TSN insider Bob McKenzie reported earlier this month that "very preliminary" contact had taken place between Muzzin's camp and the Maple Leafs about an extension. Acquired from the Kings last January, Muzzin is in the final year of his contract and would be an unrestricted free agent this summer.
While Muzzin has admitted the intense media coverage is hard to get used to in Toronto, the Woodstock, Ont., native has very much enjoyed his time in blue and white.
"The organization, the way they look after us, the guys here, the city, the buzz in the city about hockey is huge, being close to home is always a nice touch, especially with a little one around now," Muzzin said. "So there’s lots of good things here and I’d love to stay."
Muzzin, who will turn 31 in February, became a father for the first time last year.
Pekka Rinne posted a pair of shutouts against the Leafs last season, stopping all 40 shots faced, including four off the stick of Matthews. Does he have a read on the Leafs centre’s shot?
"No, I don't," the Predators goalie said with a chuckle. "I can't say that. His wrist shot is tough to read and he has such a quick release. Sometimes against players like that you got to be lucky to make a few more saves. It’s about anticipation and you try and read and react. He shoots the puck so hard that if you just wait there you'll be too late. I'll try to be cheating."
After watching teammate Filip Forsberg pull off the lacrosse move shortly before the break, Rinne will be on the lookout if Matthews looks to pull that out of his bag of tricks tonight. Matthews has threatened to go for that move a few times this season.
"It's a tough play to defend," Rinne said, "you know, typically goalies go down on your knees and cover the lower side of the net and now, all of the sudden, a guy comes from behind the net and puts it in the top corner. You got to anticipate it and get it with your glove or something."
Rinne has struggled to find his top form this season with a save percentage of .899, but the Finn feels like he's turned a corner of late with a .914 save percentage through six games in January.
"Ideally, you want to be as consistent as possible for this team, but I feel like lately, myself as well, and the team is playing better defensively and playing a little more consistent defensive game."
It's been an emotional few days for Trevor Moore, a native of Thousand Oaks, Calif., who grew up idolizing Kobe Bryant.
"Kobe was a big part of our household and if you're from California everyone grew up watching Kobe," Moore recalled this morning. "I went to dinner with my family yesterday and I don’t think 10 minutes went by where we didn't mention, 'Oh my God, Kobe.' "
Moore never saw Bryant play live, but he did see the Laker practice. Sort of.
"I remember going to the Toyota Center where we would play games and stuff and you could peek through the little cracks and see Kobe in there shooting around. It was pretty cool," Moore said.
What stood out the most?
"Just his Mamba mentality," the 24-year-old said. "He's just going to get through anything. I saw a clip that I remembered from back when he tore his Achilles and he stayed out there, shot his two free throws with a torn Achilles and then walked himself off the court. It's stuff like that that makes him one of a kind. He's special."
Moore, who spent some time with the Marlies last week on a conditioning stint of his own, returns to the Leafs lineup tonight after recovering from the first concussion of his career. His last NHL game was Dec. 21.
"I'm a big mixture of excitement and nerves right now," said Moore. "I'm excited to get out there, but at the same time it’s been a while and I just want to play well."
The concussion occurred via an "inadvertent play" in practice shortly after Moore had returned from a shoulder injury. Add it all up and Moore has played just one NHL game since Nov. 15.
"You battle through that rehabilitation on the shoulder and you work so hard every day to get yourself feeling right to come back and then something weird happens like that and you want to forget about it and have it go away, but it's your head and you got to take care of it and you got to start over the rehabilitation process again and you can’t do as much when you have a headache and stuff.
"Everyone's concussion is different. I didn’t have a whole lot of symptoms other than a headache all the time. Just every day you wake up and you hope the headache's gone and every day it’s not so it’s just tough."
Moore will start as the left winger on the fourth line.
During the last year, Matt Duchene has played for Guy Boucher in Ottawa, John Tortorella in Columbus, Peter Laviolette in Nashville and now John Hynes, who took over the Predators bench on Jan. 6.
"It's tough," admitted Duchene. "Obviously, everybody’s got a different philosophy, different things that make them tick and different things that you have to make sure you're doing on your end so adapting to it can be tough sometimes."
Duchene has 10 goals this season, matching his lowest total through the first 44 games of a season, per the Elias Sports Bureau. He had 22 goals through 44 games last year with the Senators.
"It's been up and down a little bit," Duchene said. "There's been periods of time when I felt really comfortable and then periods of time when I’m faced with a variable that comes with a new team, but at this point none of that matters. It’s about playing your best hockey and doing whatever it takes to get wins."
Nashville enters tonight's game six points out of a playoff spot in the Western Conference. The Predators have scored three or fewer goals in each of their last seven home games (and 14 of their last 15 home games).
"Offensively, we have more in the tank," Duchene said. "We have a lot of really talented guys in here and we can score more goals. That’s something I’d love to see from this group."
But Duchene isn't looking for general manager David Poile to make a move before the deadline.
"We don't even think about that," the 29-year-old insists. "We love our group in here. I think everyone's happy with the talent that we have and it's time to start playing the way that we're capable of and racking up the wins. I don't think we're really missing anything in this room so we're not even looking at that right now. We're looking at the task at hand and this is our group."
Projected Leafs lineup for Monday's game:
Hyman - Matthews - Marner
Kerfoot - Tavares - Nylander
Johnsson - Engvall - Kapanen
Moore - Gauthier - Spezza
Muzzin - Holl
Dermott - Barrie
Sandin - Ceci
Lines at Predators morning skate Monday:
Jarnkrok - Johansen - Watson
Forsberg - Duchene - Granlund
Grimaldi - Bonino - Arvidsson
Blackwell - Turris - Smith
Josi - Weber
Ekholm - Fabbro
Hamhuis - Irwin