TSN Toronto reporter Mark Masters checks in daily with news and notes on the Maple Leafs, who practised at Joy Burns Arena at the University of Denver on Friday ahead of Saturday’s game against the Colorado Avalanche.
When Tyson Barrie scored his first goal of the season, which was also his first as a Maple Leaf and the first goal in the Sheldon Keefe era, Toronto's bench erupted in joy.
"That, for me, was my favourite part of the day," Keefe said. "The stuff on the ice, we tweak things and sort that out over time, but the spirit and energy of the team is of the utmost importance."
"They actually showed us (the video) this morning and it's cool to see guys are rooting for me," Barrie said. "We got a great group of guys and it’s an exciting time to be a Leaf."
Despite being new to the team, Barrie is already a popular figure in the dressing room.
"I sit next to him on the plane and spend a lot of time with him and I was just happy for him," said Auston Matthews, who had perhaps the most emphatic celebration. "You saw last night the way he can jump up in the play, the way he can jump up in the offensive zone and just read plays. He skates really well, sees the ice and obviously can shoot it, too."
Barrie racked up 59 points last season in Colorado with 25 coming on the power play. He averaged more than four minutes of ice time on the man advantage last season, which was second among all NHL defencemen. But since arriving in Toronto via an off-season trade, Barrie seemed to lose his mojo. He wasn't on the top power play unit and admitted it was tough getting used to the system Mike Babcock wanted the team to play.
"He's an important part of the group and he's a great player," said Keefe, "and when it hasn’t worked out for him to this point that holds the team back. The team's capable of more when he's playing at his best. We want to make sure we can get him going and yesterday was a positive step in that direction."
"The big thing with him is probably confidence," said Alexander Kerfoot, who played with Barrie in Colorado and was also part of the blockbuster trade, which sent Nazem Kadri to the Avalanche. "I think you'll see him activating off the rush a little bit more, having the puck in his hands. When he has confidence he's a heck of a player."
Keefe started Barrie with Morgan Rielly Thursday night with the promise of more shifts with his summer training partner in store. Keefe has also promoted Barrie to Toronto's top power play unit. The team didn't get an opportunity to try out the new look against the Coyotes, but Barrie describes that move as "a big confidence booster."
Barrie calls this the wildest few days in his NHL career. On Saturday night, a tough start to the season got even worse as Barrie was on the ice for four goals against during an embarrassing loss in Pittsburgh. Then he made a terrible turnover on Tuesday in Vegas leading to Toronto's sixth straight loss.
There seemed to be no end to his misery.
How quickly things can change.
"It’s been a crazy week, but a fun one, nonetheless," he insisted. "I think all the boys are in good spirits and looking forward to a fresh start."
Asked about dealing with the Toronto media and the fishbowl feel, Barrie cracked a joke.
"It’s been good," the 28-year-old said. "I mean, considering my struggles and some of the games I've played they've taken it pretty easy on me so far."
Barrie gushed about Keefe's system after the win on Thursday night.
"That style that we played tonight, you'll see a lot more of it," Barrie vowed. "Sure, we'll make mistakes and look silly sometimes, but we'll be rewarded for it a lot more than we won't be. That was a lot of fun out there."
What did he think of Keefe's first practice on Friday?
"It's business, but he wants us having fun and to be loose and guys are cracking jokes and having a laugh," he said. "We're all in this together and trying to figure it out. There'll be some stumbles, but he seems great."
Imagine how tough it would've been for Barrie to return to Denver this week without any glimmer of hope. To face his old teammates and explain how a guy who scored 14 goals in each of the last two seasons was shooting blanks in a contract year.
"I certainly don't want to come back without a tuck so it was nice to get one," Barrie said. "Obviously, still haven’t produced to my usual level and what I'm used to, but hopefully that changes here and it’s all good things moving forward."
It was way back in the 1998-99 season that Keefe edged Jason Spezza for the OHL's rookie of the year award. Has the new coach brought that up?
"He hasn't," Spezza said with a laugh. "It will be unspoken of."
All these years later, Keefe is now in position to give Spezza a fitting final chapter in a tremendous carer. It wasn't long ago that the 36-year-old veteran was getting consistently scratched by Babcock (10 times in the first 20 games) and appeared to be a prime candidate to be placed on waivers once the cap-crunched Leafs returned to full health.
Upon taking over, Keefe has installed Spezza as his third-line centre moving Kerfoot, who had filled that role, to the wing.
"He has a skill-set that fits the way that we want to play so that, I think, sets him up for success," Keefe said. "So that will help his cause greatly as does his energy, his perspective."
"I feel like the system fits how I play," Spezza said, "and now I have to go and be a good, solid contributor. Definitely, I’m excited for the opportunity ahead and I want to be a big contributor to the team. I’ve always just been looking for a role here."
Spezza may not have the same wheels as in the old days, but the hands are still there and he has three goals and two assists in the last six games. In Keefe's debut behind the bench, Spezza logged 13:37 of ice time, his third-highest total of the season.
"There’s a little more emphasis on controlling the puck and puck possession and that’s something that’s the strength of my game," Spezza said. "I've played similar to this way in the past and had success."
Once described by former Dallas Stars teammate Tyler Seguin as a "hockey nerd," Spezza broke down in great detail how he sees the Keefe system working.
"People might think there's a lot of motion out there and a lot of movement, but for every movement there's an explanation to where you're moving and I think that's where our game will evolve as a team. Like, it's not uncontrolled, it's controlled movement and it's constantly feeling for each other and getting under the puck and it's a lot more technical than maybe it looks like and as we evolve you’ll see that more and more.
"A big emphasis is going to be on us working away from the puck. It's a lot more onus on the guys that don't have the puck to work to get to the good ice and then to allow the guy who has the puck to make the little plays. It’s a big job for the other four guys that don’t have the puck and it’s poise and patience for the guy who does have the puck to know that somebody’s going to work to get open so that’s going to be something we’ll grow into here as we get better at it.
"The success when you don't have it is tracking through the middle of the ice and just protecting the middle and then flexing out after that and not giving up anything through the middle of the ice. At times we'll probably play in our end a little bit, but you try and keep them to the outside. And we've (heard) talk of the Islanders and how they're playing and sometimes you have to kind of be comfortable with playing in your D-zone and letting teams be on the outside, just not letting them come on the inside. So, there’s a lot of emphasis on puck support and playing with the puck, but I think then once you turn the puck over the emphasis is to get through the middle as quick as possible and retreat and then flex out from there."
That hockey IQ is a key reason for Spezza's longevity. In fact, the savvy veteran was helping his rookie head coach out on the bench on Thursday night.
"A couple times I was slow on my line changes and he was on the ball and covered for me," Keefe revealed, "little things like that, I can tell he brings value to the group. A guy changed before I called the next line and he just knew he was the next guy and he just took care of me that way. That was my thing that I wanted to get better at yesterday. I was a little slow at times. The AHL guys grind out their shifts a little longer and here guys were pretty good and diligent with their shift lengths and that caught me off guard so I’ll be better tomorrow."
John Tavares also has a good sense of Keefe's philosophy. He and Mitch Marner shared a flight to Phoenix with their newly-hired coach on Wednesday and had a good conversation.
In a behind-the-scenes video posted by the Maple Leafs on social media channels Friday, the captain is seen giving the game puck to Keefe after his debut win.
"We build from here," Tavares told the team. "We keep going. This is the start of something special. Let's keep pushing each other. We get better tomorrow. Coach, congrats."
Rehabbing from a high ankle sprain, Marner is making his presence felt despite being unable to skate.
"He is being a complete pest," said Barrie with a grin. "He is hiding guys' gear in the locker room. He has been at home too long."
"He's bored," said a deadpan Matthews. "Guys are getting on the ice late, because they couldn't find their gear because it was in the other room. I think he's just antsy to get back so he's taking it out on us."
Keefe will make one lineup change on Saturday as Denver native Nick Shore, who played at the University of Denver, draws in replacing Nic Petan.
"He's obviously got connections here and I felt it was important to get him in the lineup," Keefe explained. "More important to that, he had played well."
Shore played in 18 straight games prior to being a scratch in Keefe's first game behind the bench.
Lines at Friday's Leafs practice:
Johnsson - Matthews - Nylander
Mikheyev - Tavares - Hyman
Kerfoot - Spezza - Kapanen
Engvall - Gauthier - Shore
Rielly - Ceci
Muzzin - Holl
Dermott - Barrie
Power play units at Friday's Leafs practice:
Barrie - Nylander - Matthews
Kapanen - Kerfoot - Spezza