TSN Toronto Reporter Mark Masters reports on the Maple Leafs, who practised at Ford Performance Centre on Tuesday before travelling to Ottawa for Wednesday’s game against the Senators.
Riley Nash and Zach Hyman skated on regular lines on Tuesday, but remain unavailable due to knee injuries.
"I really just wanted to make sure [Nash] was able to get proper reps," coach Sheldon Keefe explained. "That is important as we try to get both him and Hyman back and ready to play games. Today was their first full practice [with contact]. It is our last full practice of the week. It was important to give them that opportunity."
Hyman skated with Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner while Nash, acquired from Columbus ahead of the trade deadline, skated between Alex Kerfoot and Ilya Mikheyev.
Nash's defensive acumen is already turning heads.
"Just in practice he's always in position," noted defenceman Jake Muzzin. "He's got a good stick. He's on the defensive side of the puck, which is nice. He's a smart player and we're going to need that."
At the start of the year, Keefe expressed a desire to ice a reliable third line featuring Hyman, Kerfoot and Mikheyev. Injury issues limited that trio's usage and Hyman ended up back in the top six quite often. The Nash line at Tuesday's practice certainly has potential to fill that role as well.
"Nash has a lot of really solid defensive utility for us and can play against really anybody," Keefe said. "You can trust he is going to make good decisions with the puck and be in good spots defensively. He obviously hasn't played for a long time and he hasn’t played for us yet. There is a lot of things to sort through there. In regards to today, I really just wanted to make sure he was able to get proper reps."
Nash hasn't played since suffering a knee sprain on April 4, but he's got 578 NHL games under his belt. He also got an up close look at the Leafs in the bubble last summer.
Nash will travel with the team on the two-game road trip, which will provide some additional bonding time.
"He is a veteran guy with a lot of experience both in regular season and in playoff hockey," said Keefe. "He is a confident guy who is very intelligent. He has a good demeanour about him and fits in well with his teammates. There are a lot of good things there that make us not overly concerned about the lack of time to adjust to new surroundings and new teammates."
Nash's relationship with Nick Foligno, who was also traded to Toronto from Columbus at the deadline, should also help ease the transition.
"He's a sneaky hockey player," Foligno said. "He somehow finds ways to get through and get to open ice. He does the subtle things in the game ... He does the little things in games that allow you to win. He's got great skill. He sees the ice so well and reads plays so well and I've really come to appreciate his game. I think people will really appreciate the little things he does and especially the guys in the room. I think the guys will see how he plays the game and it will really complement this group nicely."
After missing the last two games with an upper-body injury, Foligno skated with John Tavares and William Nylander at practice.
"Such a well-rounded player," Tavares said. "He protects the puck extremely well. He's got great hands around the net and is just so smart all over the ice. Defensively, offensively, he just always seems to be in good spots and makes the game easier for his linemates."
Foligno slotted in beside Matthews and Marner in his first five games with the Leafs producing four assists. But Keefe wants to get the 33-year-old a look with different lines down the stretch to build some chemistry and create more options should changes be necessary in the playoffs.
Foligno is listed as a game-time decision for Wednesday night.
Frederik Andersen gets the start in Ottawa. It will be his first NHL game since March 19.
"This is all about him getting comfortable and feeling good ... from a health perspective," Keefe said. "And then, from our perspective, just giving him those game reps and having him out there close to the playoffs is a positive thing."
Andersen, who has been dealing with a knee injury, made two appearances with the Toronto Marlies during a conditioning stint in the American Hockey League last week. He played a full game on Saturday afternoon.
"He's feeling good," said Keefe. "I thought he was tremendous in these last couple days on the ice. He's worked extremely hard to get himself back. His approach has been really good so it's good to have him back. The guys will be excited to play in front of him tomorrow."
"It's just a great boost of morale," Jason Spezza said following Monday's practice. "We know Freddie's been working hard to get back so to have him around our group has been fun. He's a big part of our team."
Andersen, who is in the final year of his contract, has had a tough season. His .897 save percentage is a career low. He lost five of his last six games while playing through the knee injury in March. But the 31-year-old Dane has built up plenty of goodwill in the organization based on his play since arriving in Toronto in 2016.
"He's got a lot of experience so you're not going to read too much into any one particular game just like you're not going to read too much into his AHL conditioning stint," Keefe stressed.
As he contemplated changing the curve of his stick for the first time in his NHL career, Tavares sought out a teammate for advice.
"He asked me a few times about that and I was reluctant to really help him or suggest anything, because that stick's worked well for him over the years," said Spezza with a chuckle. "But he seemed pretty set on making a little change."
After using the Drury curve with a straight heel wedge since his minor hockey days, Tavares switched to a model with more of a toe curve. The centre, who will play his 200th game with the Leafs on Wednesday, shared more details about the change on Tuesday.
"Honestly, I've thought about it probably for a couple years," Tavares said. "The second time we were in Edmonton [in late February] I decided to try something different and see how it felt and it felt really good."
Specifically, Tavares liked how he was able to control the puck with the new curve. He also believes it improved his release.
Prior to the trip to Edmonton, Tavares had been struggling to produce in five-on-five play with only 10 even-strength points in 21 games. Since then, he's amassed 27 even-strength points in 33 games.
"He got some results right away from it and sometimes that's all it takes to get rolling," Spezza said. "He's a pretty talented player and I think he could use any stick, but it’s good to see him have success with that."
It's not easy to get new sticks made and delivered during the pandemic so Tavares actually ended up using the twigs belonging to a teammate – Pierre Engvall – for a stretch.
"I wasn't sure I was going to want something made if I didn't like the pattern or curve he was using," Tavares said of this experimental phase. "I made one little tweak to it when I got my own made, but that's the one I was using there for about a month."
Once Tavares got his own personalized sticks, his offence took off even more. He has 18 even-strength points in 17 games since April 4.
The Leafs clinched first place in the North Division on Saturday night, but they aren't done studying the standings.
"We'd like to make a push and continue to climb higher and higher in league as well and definitely push for that so, all in all, a pretty exciting week for us," said Matthews.
Toronto still has an outside shot at finishing first overall and winning the Presidents' Trophy. There are three teams in contention for that prize. The Leafs are two points behind the Colorado Avalanche who have two games remaining. They are four points behind the Vegas Golden Knights, who have one game left. Toronto has two games left and owns the tiebreaker (regulation wins) with Vegas, but not Colorado.
In the third round of the playoffs, the remaining teams will be re-seeded so the overall standings are important.
"We still have positioning to play for although the division is taken care of," Tavares said. "That's thinking down the road, but [that’s] what we're trying to get to and ... there’s still some jostling there."
The Leafs currently sit sixth overall one point behind the Pittsburgh Penguins who are done their 56-game schedule. Toronto is three points behind Florida and four behind Carolina, with both teams done with their regular-season schedules.
The Leafs spent plenty of time on special teams work at practice, but there was a wrinkle. The power play reps were timed and sprinkled in throughout the workout between the five-on-five drills instead of being done all at once. That created more of a game-like feel.
Toronto failed to convert on nine chances over three games against Montreal last week. The Leafs have scored just five power-play goals on 71 opportunities over the last 30 games.
"I feel that the guys, they're working hard and we're trying to get some stuff going and today was a good day," said Muzzin, who quarterbacks the second unit. "It’s important going into the playoffs to have your special teams clicking so we wanted to touch on that."
Lines at Tuesday's practice:
Hyman - Matthews - Marner
Foligno - Tavares - Nylander
Kerfoot - Nash - Mikheyev
Thornton - Spezza - Simmonds
Rielly - Brodie
Muzzin - Holl
Hutton - Dermott
Sandin - Hollowell
Power-play units at Tuesday's practice:
Marner - Tavares - Matthews
Kerfoot - Thornton - Spezza