TSN Hockey Reporter Kristen Shilton reports on the Toronto Maple Leafs, who held their first day of on-ice training camp activities for the 2020-21 season at Ford Performance Centre on Monday.
Leave it to the always-affable Joe Thornton to turn mandatory quarantine into a bonding experience.
That’s more or less what played out when Thornton, Auston Matthews, William Nylander, Rasmus Sandin and Mac Hollowell hunkered down together outside Toronto to serve their mandatory 14-day isolation before entering the Leafs’ facilities, a couple weeks that allowed Thornton a smooth transition from his 15-year stint with San Jose.
“To be honest with you, it's been pretty easy,” Thornton told reporters on a Zoom call Monday of joining the Leafs. “I was quarantining with some of the guys for 14 days so I got to know guys right off the hop. I felt comfortable, even though I was in San Jose for so long. The guys really made me feel comfortable here, they got a good staff, and a great group so really I feel at home again.”
And what an impression the 41-year-old Thornton has already made, especially on the Leafs’ younger contingency.
“He was unbelievable,” Nylander said of sharing a house with Thornton. “Spending two weeks with a Hall of Famer is pretty special and getting to know him is also very special. He's an unbelievable guy and he works hard every day.”
“He's definitely a larger-than-life figure,” added Zach Hyman. “You know when he's in a room, and he brings a great presence. He demands a lot from his teammates and I think that he's in great shape and he's a great player so I think that he's going to be a great addition for our team, not just on the ice but especially off the ice with his demeanour.”
Thornton’s positivity has been so infectious that head coach Sheldon Keefe lamented on his own Zoom call that reporters weren’t there to witness the first day of Leafs’ camp Monday, where Thornton’s sunny disposition was evident from start to finish.
“With Joe, it's a shame you can't be around and just see how tangible [his passion] is when he's here,” Keefe said. “It was a very difficult day for our guys to start training camp, we really demanded a lot of our group. And a), Joe worked extremely hard and pushed himself extremely hard on the ice [while] he still maintained his smile, and off the ice you see his smile and he's happy and excited for the next day. We really think that that brings a lot of value to our team and we saw a lot of benefits here today.”
Those early returns squash any notion that Thornton is feeling extra pressure to perform in Toronto, particularly now that he’s slotted at left wing on a line with Matthews and Mitch Marner. Thornton said he was a “rover” previously for the Sharks, toggling between centre and the wing, and is perfectly happy being where he is now beside Matthews.
“I got no stress man, honestly,” Thornton said. “I feel good, I feel comfortable. I tend to play with no stress, have a smile on my face and stay hungry. I think that's when I perform the best. And at my age, I'll just continue that.”
If anything, skating alongside the likes of Matthews and Marner should help keep the veteran young, although Keefe cautioned Thornton won’t see nearly as many minutes overall as his counterparts.
“Just the talent level these guys have, these guys grew up on skills coaches and things like that, so they can do things I could never imagine doing,” Thornton admitted. “But just being around this youthful energy, I think it just gets me excited. And they got a lot of it here so I'm just soaking it all in. I feel like I'm young again. It's a good feeling to be in.”
There were times last season that Keefe entrusted Travis Dermott with a top-pairing role on the Leafs’ defence. But for the first day of camp activities this year, Dermott had slid all the way down to a fourth pairing slot with Sandin, while newcomers Mikko Lehtonen and Zach Bogosian made up the third pairing.
Ahead of them, T.J. Brodie and Morgan Rielly sat atop the depth chart, with Jake Muzzin and Justin Holl once again partnered together.
“With Bogosian and Lehtonen, we have two guys coming in here that we really like,” Keefe explained. “And we want and expect our defence to be better [than last season]. So we'll give them that opportunity to pair together. And at the same time, we've got Dermott and Sandin, two guys that have been here and know what our expectations are and we expect those guys to push and not go quietly in terms of just accepting that those guys might be ahead of them here right now.”
Defensive depth hasn’t often been called a strength of Toronto’s in recent years, but Keefe feels the tide has turned there with the off-season acquisitions of Brodie, Lehtonen and Bogosian.
“I just look at our defence, and we feel like it has gotten better,” Keefe said. “I think it’s really deep. But when you're a depth player on a team [that] has gotten better around you, your goal is probably not going to be the same as what it was before and you're going to have to really work to get it back. But whether it's Dermott or Sandin or any of the other defencemen that [we have], these guys are going to be factors for us and we need to make sure that they continue to push to be ready when those opportunities come.”
Perhaps the most important factor in blueline success this season though will be the health of Rielly. He missed eight weeks last season with a broken foot, and said on Sunday that he’s feeling better and healthier than he has in some time. Instead of returning to his native Vancouver in the off-season, Rielly stayed in Toronto to train, and it’s already paying dividends for him on the ice.
“There's no coincidence that [Rielly's] feeling the best he has, because he's put in great work,” Keefe said. “He was in here every single day pushing himself with our strength coaches and on the ice with skill development coaches. You can just see that he was feeling good today, he had lots of pop, lots of jump. And then to have someone like Brodie I think gives him lots of confidence. But I know that in Morgan's case, he's very committed to finding a great partnership with TJ but at the same time knowing that he wants to get better himself. He doesn't want to just use that crutch of having a great partner, which we think is really going to benefit him and our team, but he himself is motivated to to be great this season.”
Speaking of getting healthy, count Wayne Simmonds as another player who claims to feel better than ever. The Toronto product signed a one-year contract with his hometown team in the off-season and has been hard at work preparing to be a big part of its success.
“I'm fully back to health and I'm ready to go,” Simmonds said. “I'm not just looking to be another passenger, I'm looking to be an impact player and play the role that I'm given here and push the boys along. I've been a leader on every team that I've been on so I'm going to look to instil that into the guys and then hopefully keep pushing and let my work ethic speak for itself.”
This summer was different than any Simmonds had experienced recently, not just because of the COVID-19 pandemic but because he was fit enough to actually make progress in his game. After years of being hampered by injuries and plowing through subsequent recoveries, Simmonds felt himself actually taking steps forward.
“I think the last couple years for me were kind of crappy, just for the fact that I wasn't able to train in the summer and the majority of everything I did was just maintenance and in rehab,” he said. “I was able to do a full summer program [this time], plus pretty much an extra summer program within those 10 months there so I feel awesome, the best that I felt probably in the last three or four years, and I can't wait to actually get out there against some other opponents besides our own guys.”
Keefe has Simmonds slotted onto the fourth line for now with Jason Spezza and Alexander Barabanov, but has high expectations for what all the veteran will be able to provide.
“He's going to start down with Spezza and Barabanov there, but we know he's not going to take a shift off or a practice rep off and he's going to be pushing to move up the lineup,” Keefe said. “We expect that he will move around and get opportunities. He's going to be prominent on our power play.”
Before the Leafs get around to playing some games, Simmonds will keep getting to know his new teammates, and honing what he does best on the ice.
“I think the skill level of this whole group is just ridiculous so I hope to bring my physicality and the traits that I bring as a net-front presence,” he said. “[And with my] leadership, just trying to integrate myself within this group and I'm going to help the boys out. I don't change my game too much; it’s get in, muck it up, loosen up pucks and let those guys work.”
Keefe was forthright in his opening press conference on Sunday about dividing the Leafs into two distinct training camp groups immediately, with the goal of quickly establishing his NHL team and focusing on their habits.
Once those decisions were made, Keefe wasted no time putting his projected roster through a punishing first day of on-ice training that began with a bruising conditioning skate.
“Through this off-season, we've prepped the players that our goal was to make them uncomfortable here today and push them hard and have them prep for it,” Keefe explained. “I think that they responded to that, first of all in their preparation for a day like this today and then they pushed through it. Any time you start training camp, and for the first 20 minutes they don't see a puck, it's tough mentally for them. But I thought they dealt with it extremely well. And then we were able to regroup and focus and go out and have a really good, hard, competitive and fast NHL-calibre practice right from Day 1. So that was really great to see. The energy was great.”
Those players not in the first group had to go through their own session as well, all the while trying to show why they belong with those NHL-bound skaters. Notably part of the second team were Pierre Engvall and Nick Robertson, two guys that will have to make serious strides in order to earn some ice time this season.
“I've met with all these guys individually and been really upfront with them about their situations,” Keefe said. “Each of them was a little bit different and unique from the next. The decisions aren't final, and we can change our mind and move things around at any point here, even throughout the camp. But we had to make some decisions. In Nick's case, it's really pushing and proving that he's ready to play full time in the NHL and in Pierre's case, he's played well when he's played for us and played very well at times but I still think he has a whole other level to get to, in terms of the way he engages physically and the way that he uses his size and strength in all areas of the ice.”
Having his likely roster separated out has allowed Keefe to experiment with line combinations he had wanted to use last season but wasn’t able to, mostly because of injuries. He’s especially liked having Alex Kerfoot with Hyman and Ilya Mikheyev, a third unit that in Keefe’s mind could help put Toronto over the top.
“It's just three guys that are relentless on the puck, that skate really well, have good defensive habits, and that are real strong penalty killers for us and relied on in those defensive situations,” Keefe said. “Once we really clearly identified a role for Kerfoot on the penalty kill, he really displayed his defensive abilities. He's got a great stick, he's smart, he skates and works extremely hard. So we really looked at our team and thought we could put together a line like that, and that it could really make us harder to play against in a lot of ways with matchups and things like that you need to be hard on good players, and then opens things up with some other options for us.”
Leafs lines at training camp Monday: