Marner sits out on Sunday as locked-in Leafs prioritize the big picture
The Maple Leafs held a meeting at Scotiabank Arena on Sunday. The Detroit Red Wings held a morning skate.
After seeing his 11-game point streak snapped in Ottawa on Saturday night, Mitch Marner will miss his first game of the season on Sunday.
"Mitch wants to play every game," said head coach Sheldon Keefe. "I think Mitch sees the big picture and recognizes it and knows how he feels, knows that he's played a lot."
The Leafs have a team day off on Monday, which means Marner will get two full days off the ice before Tuesday's home game against the Columbus Blue Jackets.
"So anything he might be nursing in terms of wear and tear or whatever you want to call it, he has a chance to push through that," Keefe said. "I think that will be helpful and he's recognized that."
Marner has played more than any other Leaf this season. He's averaging 21 minutes and 22 seconds of ice per game, which is fifth among all National Hockey League forwards. Marner leads the Leafs with 95 points and is looking to become the first winger in franchise history to reach the century mark.
"It's fun playing against Mitchy so I wish he was playing," said Red Wings defenceman Jake Walman. "They still have a top-notch forward group without him."
Defencemen Jake McCabe and Mark Giordano, who skated briefly in the morning, will also sit out Sunday's game for rest.
"We've got tremendous depth and we are in a good spot," said Keefe. "We've earned the opportunity to make decisions appropriately and look at big picture and manage players accordingly."
The Leafs have clinched a playoff spot and lead the Tampa Bay Lightning by four points in the race for second place in the Atlantic Division. Toronto has played two fewer games than Tampa Bay.
Keefe points out that the remaining seven regular season games do have importance beyond the standings.
"We still want to build our game and make sure our mindset is right," the coach stressed. "We don't want to let up in any way. Like I talked to the guys this morning, there's going to be 20 guys wearing a Leafs uniform here tonight in our building and the standard and expectations, none of that changes. That is the challenge when you are electing to give some guys rest is to stay in the right frame of mind and that's what's going to be on me as a coach and our group as players is to stay engaged in that."
Nick Abruzzese is up from the American Hockey League on an emergency recall and will make his Leafs season debut. He scored one goal in nine NHL games last season. Wayne Simmonds returns to the lineup after missing Saturday's game due to illness. The Leafs are returning to the traditional 12-forward look.
Conor Timmins will draw in on defence and play for the first time since Feb. 24.
After acquiring McCabe, Luke Schenn and Erik Gustafsson ahead of the trade deadline, the Leafs have been carrying nine defencemen. The team has been rotating guys in and out to ensure everyone stays engaged, but Sunday will be the first time McCabe sits.
"We've been wanting to give him some time off," Keefe said. "He has done a tremendous job for us. He's taken on a lot of minutes and done very well. He's a guy that we're going to lean on a lot and if we have a chance to give him a breath I think it's important to do so."
McCabe and T.J. Brodie have emerged as a reliable shutdown pair for the Leafs. Toronto has outscored (5-3) and outshot (71-46) the opposition in the 139 minutes they have played together at 5-on-5, per NaturalStatTrick.com.
"They see the game pretty similarly," observed forward Sam Lafferty, who came over from the Chicago Blackhawks with McCabe in a trade on Feb. 27. "They have similar strengths. They defend so well. They're so good with the puck, breaking pucks out and it seems like they've had instant chemistry. Yeah, it's really nice when they're on the ice together."
"He's more offensive than I thought he was," Brodie said recently. "He's always jumping up and looking to [jump up] and he's physical at the same time. Down low he's boxing out and he hits guys. He brings a different element to the game."
With an assist on Saturday, McCabe recorded his 23rd point, which is a new career-high.
"Personally, I've seen his game grow a lot this year compared to last year," said Lafferty. "He was always really good and steady defensively, but it seems like he's taken that step with making those extra plays with the puck and maybe hanging onto it that extra half second and letting the play open up. He looks really comfortable doing it."
John Tavares only has one 5-on-5 goal in 14 games since the start of March.
"We've looked at different things," said Keefe. "He's a guy who generates a lot of his shots and his scoring chances [from] the middle of the ice. [They] come in the slot, come in around the net and any time you're a player like that you're relying on your wingers and you're relying on the other players to make a lot of that happen."
So when William Nylander went cold last month, it had an impact on the Leafs captain.
"I correlate it a lot to the fact that Will, his game hasn't been to the same level," Keefe said.
Nylander is showing signs of coming out of his slump. He scored his third 5-on-5 goal since the start of March on Saturday in Ottawa.
Tavares, meanwhile, continues to produce on the power play. He leads the team with 15 man-advantage markers. The 32-year-old is also providing stable leadership.
"The thing that I like about John's game ... is despite the fact that he wants to score and be more effective at 5-on-5 in terms of offensive production, he's committed to winning and helping our team win games and continuing to be really good and responsible defensively," Keefe said.
The Leafs have earned at least one point in 20 of their last 22 meetings against the Wings (18-2-2), but the visitors will be the rested team on Sunday and should have a bit of extra energy. For one thing, Walman always loves playing in his hometown.
"It's a big deal," said the 27-year-old, who scored at Scotiabank Arena during Detroit's last trip here in January. "Got a lot of family and friends that are all excited. People have booked that on their calendar for a while now so hopefully we can give them a good outing. I'm excited to see everyone here."
Meanwhile, Simon Edvinsson will be playing his fifth career NHL game, but the first one on the road.
"It's crazy to play here," the 20-year-old Swede said. "It's going to be fun."
Looking up at the rafters during the morning skate, Edvinsson saw a banner commemorating countryman Borje Salming, who passed away in November.
"The greatest Swede maybe of all-time," the 6-foot-6 defenceman said. "Of course you feel it. That's kind of what you feel when you come in here as a Swede ... Yeah, it's a moment I will feel tonight. It's going to be awesome."
Edvinsson is especially looking forward to facing Nylander.
"I've been watching him since I was a little kid," Edvinsson said. "He played World Juniors the first time I watched World Juniors. I've never got the chance to play against him. I've never met him or even talked to him so it's going to be fun."
Wings forward Marco Kasper, the eighth overall pick in the 2022 NHL draft, will make his NHL debut on Sunday.
"A dream come true to play for the Red Wings against the Maple Leafs," the 18-year-old Austrian said. "It can't get any better. It's just surreal for me to think about that."
Kasper lit up when asked about seeing Auston Matthews on the other side.
"That's for sure special," he said. "I mean, I watched him growing up and now will be facing him, it's special."
Kasper's father, Peter, will be driving up from Detroit to be in the building for his son's first NHL game.
The Leafs are 8-3-1 in the second game of a back-to-back set this season.
"The thing that I point to the most is our strength in goal and our depth in goal," said Keefe. "There's no real letdown from one game to the next. We got a shutout last night from Ilya Samsonov and you come back with an accomplished veteran like Matt Murray tonight. That, in itself, gives you a chance."
Keefe also highlighted that both Erik Kallgren and Joseph Woll have won in the second half of a back-to-back this season. The Leafs have one more back-to-back set on the schedule this season.
Samsonov stopped all 31 shots he faced in Ottawa.
"For me it’s important win," he told reporters. "Special after my son born. Last time I played [we] lost in overtime, I need to get back on track, back on win track, so I had some extra focus."
Is Ilya Samsonov benefiting from dad strength?— Mark Masters (@markhmasters) March 31, 2023
"Yes, yes, more positive, yeah. Smiling every day & after the game, it doesn’t matter. You come to the home & see this baby, you feel great. You don’t have time for mad. It’s so good."
📸 via samsonov_30 on Instagram pic.twitter.com/r41rk9aEOp
Leafs roster for Sunday's game:
Forwards: Nick Abruzzese, Zach Aston-Reese, Michael Bunting, Calle Jarnkrok, David Kampf, Alex Kerfoot, Sam Lafferty, Auston Matthews, William Nylander, Wayne Simmonds, John Tavares and Radim Zohorna.
Defence: T.J. Brodie, Justin Holl, Timothy Liljegren, Morgan Rielly, Luke Schenn and Conor Timmins.
Goalies: Murray starts; Samsonov.
Injured: Noel Acciari (neck), Bobby McMann (knee), Victor Mete (lower body), Jake Muzzin (spine), Ryan O'Reilly (broken finger) and Nick Robertson (shoulder).
Personal leave: Erik Gustafsson