TSN Toronto Reporter Mark Masters reports on the Maple Leafs, who practiced at Ford Performance Centre on Monday ahead of their next game Wednesday night against the Rangers in New York.
Timothy Liljegren scored his first National Hockey League goal on Saturday, but the 22-year-old defenceman wasn't thrilled with his performance during a 6-5 win over the Blues in St. Louis.
"I was on the ice for three goals in our net," Liljegren pointed out. "So the play in front of our net wasn't good enough, especially from my side."
Partner Jake Muzzin didn't see it that way.
"I wasn't very good either," the 32-year-old said. "I got to be better for him, for sure, especially as an older guy trying to help out a younger guy. He was fine. Most of it was on me."
Muzzin has played five games since returning from the COVID protocol. Where's his game at?
"I would say it is pretty similar to where it was before the pause," said coach Sheldon Keefe, "not to the level that he has shown in the league. He has some inconsistencies in each game. He is still a very valuable player for us and takes on very difficult minutes. He is a huge part of our penalty kill and our most physical defenceman by far. He is doing lots of really good things, but there have been some inconsistencies there, particularly with the puck. That is when things have gone badly for him."
Muzzin is minus-2 on the season, which is ahead of only Kyle Clifford (minus-3) on the Leafs. Last season, Muzzin was plus-21, which was tied for second on the team. Per NaturalStatTrick, the Leafs have been outshot 329-311 in five-on-five play this season when Muzzin is on the ice (48.6 shots for percentage). Last season, the Leafs outshot the opposition 493-414 with Muzzin on the ice in five-on-five play (54.4 shots for percentage).
"He is as committed as anyone to improving and working on his game," Keefe noted. "He is aware ... that he has more to give us and better to give us. I am not worried about that aspect of it."
So, why is the 2014 Stanley Cup champion struggling to find his form?
"It is hard to pinpoint," Keefe said. "It's something we're looking at and talking about."
Muzzin and regular partner Justin Holl started slow this season, which led Keefe to shuffle the pairs. Holl ended up in the press box for a bit while Muzzin skated alongside T.J. Brodie.
"He is capable of carrying the load as a veteran defenceman for his partner and for his D pair," Keefe said, "but some inconsistencies with his pairing haven't helped. That has been something that we have talked a lot about, whether it is Holl or Liljegren or whatever we've worked through. We've changed the pairings up with Brodie. That all contributes to it."
There are certainly some mitigating factors of late. Muzzin is coming back from COVID and the Leafs have faced some tough opponents. Muzzin suggested the current schedule with infrequent games has made it tougher to get in a rhythm. Holl, meanwhile, is currently in the COVID protocol and missed Saturday's game.
"There's a little bit of everything: long road trip, tough teams, new guys playing, coming off COVID, it's not your normal," Muzzin said. "A lot of teams are going through this. There's no excuse. You just got to keep on battling."
Keefe stressed that Muzzin is still making an important contribution.
"There have been some tough moments that really stand out with the puck but, at the same time, he takes on as hard minutes as anybody on our team," the coach said. "You have to look at the fact that he does a lot of really good things. I thought he had a tough night in St. Louis, but I went through it and there's a lot of great moments in that game where he kills plays, eliminates guys, he's physical and knocking guys on their ass and he's getting us moving the other way. There are a ton of things that have gone well for him ... We are a team that has won a lot of hockey games this season. We are not doing that if Muzz isn't taking on those minutes."
The Leafs considered cancelling Monday's practice as a snowstorm battered Toronto. Players were told not to take unnecessary risks in their commute.
"It was a bit of an adventure," said forward Alex Kerfoot with a smile. "Got here a little bit late. I haven't seen the roads that bad since I got here. I got a little car that doesn't handle the snow too well. I tried to make it out and it didn't go too well and then had to Uber here."
"We started shovelling at probably 8:15," said Muzzin, "and didn't get out of the driveway until 9:30 or so. A little extra work, but it was quiet out there at least so it wasn't too bad."
Remarkably, every player was accounted for at the practice, which started at noon.
"It took over an hour just to plow through the driveway," said centre John Tavares. "Lucky enough I got a truck ... I think Brods had to get picked up, but we found a way. So, not your typical morning, but nice to see some snow on the ground."
"Ultimately guys ended up getting here at various times," said Keefe. "Some missed our meeting. Some showed up just in time. Some arrived just as we got on the ice."
The Leafs worked on defending the front of their net during the practice, which concluded with conditioning skate. Both areas – defensive-zone coverage and conditioning – were flagged as issues by Keefe during the recent road trip.
"We were able to get done most of what we intended to do," Keefe said.
The NHL's 'Last Men In' vote to determine the final all-stars will wrap up on Monday night. Tavares is the candidate from the Leafs.
"I'd love the opportunity again," said Tavares, who has attended the mid-season showcase on six previous occasions. "Any time you're an all-star it's nice recognition to have and a great sign of your team and your teammates. If it works out for myself, I'd be honoured to be a part of it once again. I never take these for granted. We'll see what happens. Hopefully it goes my way."
Teammates have been lobbying for their captain on social media.
"He is an all-star, year in and year out," said linemate Kerfoot. "He's proven to be one of the best offensive producers and goal scorers in the game pretty much since he's entered the league. We're extremely lucky to have him and Auston [Matthews] down the middle as a 1-2 punch. It's hard to get better than that in the league. He deserves to be voted in as an all-star."
Tavares made a strong closing statement to voters on Saturday night. He scored a nice goal, which snapped a season-long, three-game point drought. He finished with six shots in St. Louis, which matched a season high.
The Leafs are 22-5-2 since Oct. 26, which leads the entire NHL. And yet they remain third in the Atlantic Division behind the Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning.
"Florida and Tampa don't lose very often," Keefe observed. "We have been fortunate to stay up with them. Despite the fact that there is a lot of season left, you can't take days off or nights off. That is why it was frustrating that we gave up those points on the road like we did, whether it was giving up a lead [in Colorado] or giving up two points in Arizona."
As things stand now, Toronto would start the playoffs on the road. If they played in any other division they would be starting at home. Keefe isn't frustrated, though.
"I think that is a very healthy thing for our team," he said. "We can't take nights off. Every game matters. There is a lot of runway left here. For a team like ours that is trying to maintain high standards in our play and get back to playing at the level we were before the break, the fact that the teams around us aren't giving us that room to breathe is a good thing."
The Leafs aren't even halfway through their schedule yet (36 games played) and have played less than both Tampa (40 games played) and Florida (38 games played).
"Our goal is to win the division," Keefe said. "We feel like we should. We are well aware of the elite teams around us and how challenging it is through 82 games to maintain that level of play to be able to be at the top. We want to win every single game. We feel like we have an opportunity to win every game with the team that we have. Absolutely, the goal is to win the division."
Ilya Mikheyev is doing his part. The speedy Russian winger has five goals in seven games since returning from an injury sustained in training camp. Last season, Mikheyev scored seven goals in 54 games.
"I don't think there is a whole lot different going on this season," said Keefe. "He has just gotten some better luck."
This season, Mikheyev is scoring on 22.7 per cent of his shots. Last season, he was at 6.5 per cent.
"Ah, it's life," said Mikheyev of his improving puck luck.
But it feels better, right?
"I think so, yes," he said with a big smile. "I just feel, of course, more confident now."
The latest fortunate bounce for Mikheyev came against the Blues when a bad-angle shot beat Jordan Binnington.
"He puts a puck at the net and it finds a way in," said Keefe. "Those are the types of goals that go in when you have a season full of basically no luck. It is starting to fall for him consistently. That is huge for him. Obviously, it is great for his confidence. The more scoring depth that we can have, the better for us."
Liljegren's goal on Saturday provided the Leafs with an emotional boost.
"That's a bullet," said Mitch Marner. "He's very well-deserving of that. He's a guy that comes in every day with – it probably doesn't really look like it, because he's always kind of stone faced – but he comes in with great energy. He's a fun guy to be around. It's a hell of a goal. It's a rocket. It's great for him. If there's a camera on our bench seeing how our whole bench reacted to that goal, everyone really went nuts. He does mean a lot to this team. It's great for him to get his first one out of the way."
Fellow defenceman Rasmus Sandin had a message for his good friend at the bench after the goal.
"It was kind of funny," Liljegren said with a chuckle. "Obviously, he got one [in the NHL] already, but this year it's only me and him that didn't score so he said he's the only one left now.
"He was super happy for me and I'm happy I could share that moment with him."