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Mark Masters

SPORTSCENTRE Reporter

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Mitch Marner entered the Fairmont Royal York on Sunday night with a pillow under his arm. 

"Usually all the beds are pretty comfortable," the winger explained, "you never know what you're going to get with a pillow. We're just down the street so it really wasn't that hard to bring. I like having my own pillow."

Perhaps that pillow is one reason why Marner always seems to have an endless source of energy. He was certainly flying in training camp as he seeks to write a storybook ending to a season that started a bit slow. 

Marner's contract negotiation with the Leafs spilled into training camp in September and the rich new deal he ultimately signed – six years with a cap hit of  $10.893​-million – raised expectations on the heels of his incredible 94-point campaign. 

General manager Kyle Dubas points out that Marner's regular season was "derailed by the ankle sprain" sustained on Nov. 9. The Leafs struggled in his absence and a couple weeks later Mike Babcock was fired and replaced with Sheldon Keefe. 

It wasn't quite as explosive as last season, but Marner still finished with 67 points in 59 games.

"I thought despite [everything] Mitch had an excellent year," Dubas said. 

And now Marner appears poised for a big playoffs. He helped lead the way in the Phase 2 voluntary skates and looked dynamic in Phase 3 training camp. 

"What I've seen from Mitch has been, especially in the last number of months since the lockdown started, just a great ability for him to continue to take more and more ownership of his career," Dubas observed. "He's always got that gregarious and infectious way about him and brings great energy to the rink and now you're starting to see that go from a boyish sort of energy and enthusiasm to really mature." 

On the opening night of the regular season, Marner was named an alternate captain and spoke about wanting to be more of a leader in his fourth NHL season. On Monday, he was named the Leafs nominee for the King Clancy Memorial Trophy, which honours leadership qualities on and off the ice. 

"He's still the same in terms of the spirit and energy he brings to the rink every day," Dubas said, "but now you're seeing ... a greater sense of urgency and realizing this is a very good team and if we're going to go from being very good to great he's going to have to be one of the drivers of it. He's been excellent, especially in this last stretch."

Marner's energy seems more focused these days. And, pillow aside, he's ready to embrace all the newness that comes with bubble life. 

"It's obviously a little weird, but we're just trying to get quickly used to being uncomfortable," Marner said. "I think that's kind of the key here for us is just kind of being comfortable with the uncomfortable ... We're really hungry to start this thing up. We're hungry to prove ourselves out here. We want to make sure we're ready to go and it starts tomorrow against Montreal."

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"I don't think that anyone questions the talent of the group," Dubas said. 

But there are questions about whether this highly-skilled group can play strong defensive hockey for a sustained period. They've allowed 69 goals against in 20 games over the last three playoff series (3.45 goals per game) which, unsurprisingly, has led to three straight early exits. 

"We have a lot to prove," Dubas said. "The players know the doubts that are on them whether it's from media or other teams and so they know what they have to prove and I think them acknowledging it and talking about it is a good sign ... they know we have to prove it and that's what we'll get to here in the coming weeks and years."

The Leafs allowed 3.17 goals per game this season, which was 26th in the NHL. Under Keefe, that number improved to 3.04, which was 17th in the NHL in that stretch and still not good enough. It led Dubas to label the team as "Jekyll and Hyde" at the trade deadline. 

Keefe has introduced some system and structural tweaks over the last couple of weeks. He's demanding that forwards do a better job helping out the defence. Defenceman, meanwhile, are vowing to do a better job of stopping the cycle. And the team, as a whole, is determined to break the puck out more efficiently as a five-man unit. 

They know what has to be done, but can they do it? 

"The root cause of [the inconsistent defence] is just our mindset ... and not a skill thing and not a personnel thing. We've shown in various different games and different stretches that we can be a very good defensive team. We need to be there consistently and ... in the top 10 of the league to really maximize our whole group."

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With a packed schedule of games starting this week, Dubas is eager to get an up-close look at some potential future Leafs. 

"You got 12 NHL teams playing for very high stakes and it's happening essentially 200 steps from where you're living for the next number of months so if we don't have a practice or a set team function, I think most of us will be there watching," Dubas said. "The long-term is [how] I’m spending a lot of my downtime, thinking about where our team will be going and looking at various free agents that might be available that are here and playing ... This is just an awesome opportunity. You're in the same hotel or same area or same facilities as these other teams and you can learn a lot about the teams and their players just watching and observing them off the ice and on."

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Nick Robertson once again skated on the third line at Monday's practice as the left winger prepares for his NHL exhibition debut on Tuesday night against the Canadiens. 

"He's playing the game tomorrow and possibly the game on Sunday," Marner said. "The whole camp he's been great. He's done a lot of great things to show management that he can play in this league and play in this kind of tournament. For us, as teammates, we want people on that ice who are competitive and want to win games and throughout this training camp he's really shown that he's got both things in him and hopefully he brings a kick to our team and a boost with his energy."

Keefe will be watching closely to see if the 18-year-old can hold his own against NHL players. But it won't just be a new experience for Robertson, all the players will be dealing with the lack of fans and a different environment. 

"I'm certainly expecting it to be not your typical exhibition game considering what's at stake and what's around the corner and the only dress rehearsal you're going to get to prepare for the real thing," Keefe said. "Certainly with our team, we're expecting them to have a much higher level of intensity and competitiveness and all those things. Of course, the ultimate goal is to come out of it healthy and have everybody ready to play Game 1 against Columbus."

Keefe confirmed the Leafs will be on the visiting bench for the game Tuesday night, which will be a new vantage point for the group and prepare them for what they'll see in Game 3 and, if necessary, Game 4 against the Blue Jackets. 

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Leafs lines at practice via team media relations: 

F

Nylander - Matthews - Hyman
Mikheyev - Tavares - Marner
Robertson - Kerfoot - Kapanen
Clifford - Engvall - Spezza
Petan - Gauthier - Malgin

D

Muzzin - Holl
Rielly - Ceci
Dermott - Barrie
Sandin - Marincin
Rosen - Liljegren

G

Andersen 
Campbell
​Kaskisuo 
Woll 

Blue Jackets lines at practice via team media relations:

F

Foligno-Dubois-Bjorkstrand 
Nyquist - Jenner - Atkinson
Texier - Wennberg - Bemstrom
Robinson - Nash - Foudy

D

Werenski - Jones
Gavrikov - Savard
Murray - Kukan
Harrington - Nutivaara

G

Korpisalo / Merzlikins