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Mark Masters

SPORTSCENTRE Reporter

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TSN Toronto Reporter Mark Masters reports on the Maple Leafs, who practised at the Ford Performance Centre on Monday. 

The line of Joe Thornton, Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner generated a couple goals on Saturday night and, even though it was just an intra-squad scrimmage, they all wore wide smiles during the group hugs. Following the game, Matthews and Marner, both 23-years-old,​ each posted a picture of the first celebratory moment as an Instagram story. 

As for the 41-year-old Thornton? 

"I don't even think he has social media or barely knows anything about social media so it's great in that aspect," said Marner. "He's just going to go out every day and be the same guy and joke around and me and [Matthews] are going to try and do the same. We're not going to focus on outside noise." 

There was a lot of outside noise around Marner at the start of last season as negotiations on a new contract spilled into the start of training camp. The six-year deal worth more than $65 million got done, but the increased expectations and scrutiny seemed to weigh heavy on the 6-foot, 175-pound winger. 

The Leafs are hoping Thornton's influence will help the fun-loving Marner play loose and free.

"He keeps the focus on where it needs to be which is in the gym, in our meetings, on the practice ice and in games so that's what Joe's all about," observed head coach Sheldon Keefe. "Joe's got a great ability, even in the early going, just to know when it's time to dig in and get the work done and, most importantly, stay focused and block out the noise and not get distracted by anything that's outside your control." 

Thornton also appears poised to have a significant impact on how Marner plays. The Markham, Ont., native has consistently talked about the need to shoot more throughout his professional career. He's averaged between 2.3 and 2.8 shots per game in four seasons with the Leafs. 

"Just trying to get more of a mindset of being a shooter," Marner said again on Monday. "I know I have it in me. I've shown it a lot of times so I know it's inside. It's just being that guy that can believe in it."

Marner has tremendous vision and takes great pride in his ability to set up teammates. His charity is even called The Marner Assist Fund. But now he'll have one of the greatest playmakers in National Hockey League history on his line. Thornton is seventh on the all-time assists list having recently passed Adam Oates.

"Playing with Joe is going to put more pucks on his stick in positions to shoot so I think that will help," noted Keefe. "Also, he'll be thinking about the fact Joe is a passer and then you need to have another shooter on the line." 

Marner potted a goal in Saturday's intra-squad scrimmage with a beauty short-side snipe. 

"We got Jumbo on our line, a guy who can really move the puck well and find open guys so my [outlook] is now to be an open guy and be ready to get it off my stick quickly," Marner noted.

Keefe has also called on Marner to attack the net more this season. 

"He needs to be of the mindset that he doesn't always have to look for Auston," said Keefe. "He's a good player that can score himself and put a defence and goalies in bad spots and take advantage of it. We want him to have that mentality [of] producing more shots or getting to the net more and producing more goals or just simply drawing more penalties with the way he skates and the way he attacks and makes D nervous."

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Alex Kerfoot returned to practice for the first time since hurting his leg last Tuesday. 

"I just fell into the boards," he recalled. "It was a three-on-two rush and [Zach Hyman] put it to the net and I kind of lost balance a little bit and went into the boards awkwardly." 

Kerfoot slotted back in as the third-line centre skating between Ilya Mikheyev and Hyman. That new-look trio is expected to bring some defensive grit to Toronto's stacked lineup. 

"Really excited about it," said Kerfoot. "You've seen Hyms and Micky a lot and they're both good players and hard to play against. They've got a lot of speed, hound pucks and that's really just our job is to be able to take maybe a few more defensive zone faceoffs, be able to be relied upon in those scenarios and prevent goals, but also be able to produce offensively."

After bouncing between centre and wing in his first season in Toronto, Kerfoot should benefit from a more defined role. And he won't be using the injury as an excuse for a slow start. 

"In the grand scheme of things it wasn't that long and I was able to skate the last couple days as well, so I feel good on the ice now," the Harvard product said. 

Pierre Engvall, who had filled in for Kerfoot the last week, was among the training camp cuts announced on Monday. 

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Keefe emphasized conditioning during a short, but intense training camp. 

"This was as hard a camp as I've had in my five years, especially the first two or three days, there was a lot of skating," said left winger Jimmy Vesey. "It's a little bit of a shock to the system to get back out there at such a high speed." 

Considering he hadn't played since the Buffalo Sabres were eliminated in March, the 27-year-old was thrilled with how he handled his first week as a Leaf. 

"I was really happy with how my body felt and with my conditioning, especially after I hadn't played competitive hockey since March. I was really happy with how camp went. I felt good every day on the ice. In terms of our line, we've gotten better every day."

That line includes John Tavares and William Nylander. It's a plum assignment for a free-agent signee who produced just 20 points in 64 games last season. Vesey blames a timid start for derailing his season with the Sabres and he's vowed to begin this year "with my hair on fire." That may explain his harsh self-evaluation for Saturday's scrimmage.

"I don't think it was my best game," he said despite seeing Tavares and Nylander score during the dress rehearsal at Scotiabank Arena. "I have more to give in a game setting like that ... When we get going here on Wednesday we have to focus on the details in our neutral zone and D-zone structure and that will lead to more offence for us." 

The coaching staff has provided specific marching orders for Vesey, who is entering his fifth NHL season with his third team. 

"My role on that line is when we don't have the puck to disrupt the other team and get in on the forecheck and turn pucks over and then hold onto it until I get my linemates there for support. Sheldon emphasized that it's not going to be about goals and points, it's about doing some legwork on that line. For me, a successful season would be bouncing back after last year and proving I can play and complement top guys." 

Vesey, who stands 6-foot-3, 202 pounds, believes his style will fit well with the way Keefe wants the Leafs to play. 

"It's a really aggressive system," he said. "I feel like I can pressure a lot of pucks and cause those turnovers that he wants me to. I'm still adjusting to it and when to go, when I can be very aggressive and when I should hold back a little bit. In the scrimmage settings so far, I have gotten in on the forecheck and caused a lot turnovers and it was nice [for our line] to get rewarded with two goals Saturday." 

 

 

Keefe sees a player who can provide something comparable to Andreas Johnsson, who was traded to the New Jersey Devils in the off-season. 

"What I see from him is a guy who's a really good complementary player," the coach said. "[He] can move up and down the lineup and play on the power play, kill some penalties and play with good players. He can score in the league at even strength. He's a big guy who gets around the ice well. He has a really good stick. It's unbelievable how many times he gets a stick on a puck and creates a turnover. That's a strength of his and just want to get him confident and feeling good. We also think he can contribute on the penalty kill by utilizing that good stick and instincts and speed."

Vesey took reps with the third penalty kill forward group at practice on Monday. The top two units feature Marner with Hyman and then Kerfoot with Mikheyev. Matthews and Jason Spezza will also see time shorthanded with a focus on winning faceoffs.  

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After skating on the third defence pair with Zach Bogosian throughout training camp, Mikko Lehtonen was dropped to the fourth pair at Monday's practice and the KHL import will start the season as a healthy scratch. 

"We don't want to rush him into a situation that he may not be adjusted to quite yet," said Keefe. "We're going to take our time with that."

Lehtonen posted a pair of assists on Saturday night and showed positive flashes in the offensive zone, but admitted afterwards that it didn't go as smoothly as hoped.

"I just have to sometimes give the puck away [to a teammate] and don't force the game," Lehtonen told reporters on Saturday night. "That's the biggest thing. You don't have that much time. I like to keep the puck, but sometimes you have to make a simple play."

Unlike a traditional training camp, this one featured no exhibition games against other teams, which worked against the 26-year-old rookie. 

"We'll take a little step back with Mikko and give him more time to watch and get a feel for the league and then also more time to work on things in practice," said Keefe. "We expect that he obviously will get in at some point and we hope he's more prepared when that's the case.”

Travis Dermott took Lehtonen's spot beside Bogosian. The 24-year-old settled for a one-year extension in the off-season and is under pressure to prove he can be a reliable NHL regular. Keefe has been very clear about what he's looking for from the Newmarket, Ont., native. 

"I would really like to see Travis latch onto his strengths which, to me, are three really key areas," Keefe said. "One, going back for the puck to start break outs. Then defensive zone puck pressure to create separations, get us out of our end that way. And then just his gap control in order to [stop opponents from getting] into our zone. Those are three areas I'd like to see him really excel at and if he focuses on those three then a lot of really positive things come into his game. Over time he can stack some other things on top of it, but focusing on that and being reliable in those areas are key." 

TSN's Kristen Shilton has more on Toronto's defence here 

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The Leafs trimmed their roster to 26 on Monday. The following players were loaned to the Toronto Marlies or placed on waivers for the purposes of being sent down: Kenny Agostino, Joey Anderson, Justin Brazeau, Rourke Chartier, Engvall, Tyler Gaudet, Mac Hollowell, Michael Hutchinson, Teemu Kivihalme, Timothy Liljegren, Martin Marincin, Nic Petan, Calle Rosen and Scott Sabourin.

Notably not on that list is Aaron Dell, the team's third-string goalie, who also wasn't on the ice at practice. 

"We don't want three goalies at practice, but we got him some extra work with some of our extra guys to keep him sharp," Keefe explained. "We've had some discussions about whether we utilize him at different times to back up in the early going. We'll continue to discuss that. He's a good goalie in the league and we like having the depth at the position and feel it's important this season so that's how we're doing things to start."

t was only a couple years ago that Toronto's goalie depth was decimated when both Curtis McElhinney and Calvin Pickard were plucked off the waiver wire at the end of training camp. 

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Lines at Leafs practice on Monday: 

Forwards

Thornton - Matthews - Marner

Vesey - Tavares - Nylander 

Mikheyev - Kerfoot - Hyman

Barabanov - Spezza - Simmonds 

Robertson, Brooks, Boyd 

 

Defencemen

Rielly - Brodie

Muzzin - Holl

Dermott - Bogosian

Lehtonen - Sandin (L)

 

Goaltenders

 

Andersen

Campbell

 

Special teams units at practice on Monday: 

 

PP1

Rielly 

Marner - Thornton - Matthews 

Simmonds

 

PP2

Brodie

Nylander - Tavares - Spezza

Hyman

 

PK1

Hyman - Marner

Muzzin - Holl

 

PK2

Kerfoot - Mikheyev 

Dermott - Bogosian

 

PK3

 

Vesey - Barabanov 

 

Note: Matthews and Spezza also took reps with the PK