The time for nitpicking or just being happy sports are happening?
In Toronto's 4-2 exhibition win on Tuesday, William Nylander had a quiet night with no shots on net, one giveaway and a minus-one rating against the Canadiens.
"I'm pushing him, because I think he's capable of more in our practices and our scrimmages and in our game the other day," said head coach Sheldon Keefe. "I'm expecting him to raise it to another level like he's shown he's capable of doing. Obviously, he's an important piece for us."
Nylander doesn't mind some tough love. He produced 31 goals in 68 games in the regular season and has high expectations for himself.
"I want to be a dominant player out there," the 24-year-old said. "That's my goal every day to go out there and bring it. Sometimes Sheldon has to kick me in the butt, but that's good."
Keefe also coached Nylander in the American Hockey League and while the Swede sometimes needs that extra push to get up to top speed, the work ethic and desire is not in question.
"He always wants to be the first guy on the ice and he's putting in his extra work," Keefe noted. "In the regular season, we'd schedule off days and he would find his way to the facility to get on the ice and work on different things so he's a very committed guy."
Nylander's doggedness was on display in the regular season as he was among the league leaders in takeaways in the offensive zone. If the Leafs lost possession, Nylander worked immediately to get it back.
"Willie's nasty," said defenceman Tyson Barrie who shared the podium with Nylander during Thursday's Zoom session. “He's got world-class hands and vision and he's so crafty and he moves well out there and he'll sneak up on ya and grab it and find a guy backdoor. Willie's a world-class playmaker so I love getting on the ice with him and he's always looking for me."
Nylander smiled throughout Barrie's answer.
"That’s very nice of you Tys," he said.
"No problem," Barrie responded.
Jake Muzzin landed the biggest hit of Tuesday's exhibition game levelling Montreal’s Alex Belzile in the second period. The 31-year-old defenceman, who helped Toronto kill off six Habs power plays, appears to be among the players most ready for puck drop in the qualifying round.
"Jake's camp has been really good, but I thought in the exhibition game in particular he really looked like he was making a statement in terms of how prepared he was and how committed he is to being a difference maker for us," Keefe gushed. "He was involved in all areas of the game. He was our most physical player as we expect him to be [but] to do it at the level that he did in the first exhibition game for a veteran player like himself, you know, he just wants to be as prepared as possible for the games that really count here starting on Sunday. He was involved physically, he was involved in the rush offensively, he was great on the penalty kill, defensively, all those things. He very much looks like he's ready to go."
Muzzin, one of two players on the Leafs roster with a Stanley Cup ring, likes the feeling he's getting from the team.
"We're a hungry group," Muzzin said. "There's obviously been a lot of talk of taking the next step and we're committed to doing that. We have a lot of guys in here who are hungry to win. We have some youth, we have some experience and we have an excited group. Lots to prove going into the playoffs and our team is ready."
The players are still getting used to life inside the National Hockey League bubble.
"Probably the toughest thing is not a lot of outdoor time," said Barrie, a Victoria native. "It's beautiful in Toronto right now. We were just driving by Lakeshore and everyone's out riding bikes and cruising down by the water so being in the hotel you feel a bit cooped up sometimes."
“It's a pretty good set-up for us," said Nylander. "We have restaurants to go to and we've been playing a lot of video games so I guess that's positive."
It seems to be a bigger adjustment for the older guys like Jason Spezza, a father of four, who isn't used to the sound of silence.
"My room is a lot quieter than my house is so that's a little bit of a change, but you just adapt," the 37-year-old said. "Lots of naps and sleeping in when you normally wouldn't."
John Tortorella is already in playoff mode with the media. Asked what his message will be to players about the difference between a best-of-seven and best-of-five series, the Blue Jackets bench boss wouldn't bite.
“It's none of your business what I'm saying to the players."
What does Pierre-Luc Dubois have to do better to hold his own against Toronto's top centres?
"How do you know where he's going to play and who he's going to play against? That's beyond me," Tortorella shot back. "All our guys need to continue to improve in all facets of their game. I'm not going to single out one guy and tell him what he needs to improve. We need to be the best we can be."
Earlier this week, Tortorella begrudgingly agreed to answer one question about Keefe, whom he coached in Tampa for parts of three seasons from 2000 to 2003.
"I'm not going to talk about this a long time," Tortorella warned. "I'm sure Keefer doesn't want to talk about me a long time. I'm talking about it one time. I have a tremendous amount of respect for that guy. As far as how he played, he was one of the most competitive players I coached. I didn't coach him a lot of games, but when he played he knew one way and that was to play hard. Did I think he was going to become a coach? I don't know. That's years ago. I know you want this sexy story, but there's nothing there. The only reason I'm talking about him now, talking about the other coach, who we'll be playing in a few days, is because he's an ex-player of mine and I will not disrespect him by not saying a couple of words about him. But, I'm done with it now. I wish nothing but the best for that guy other than this series here. We've had a couple of conversations when he took the job and a few texts here and there, but I'm sure he feels the same way. It's time to play against each other and all that stuff gets thrown out the window."
Barrie struggled to find his form early in his Leafs tenure eventually finishing with five goals and 34 assists in 70 games. His points-per game dropped from 0.76 in Colorado last season to 0.58 in Toronto this year.
"I'm really glad we're getting a chance to come back and play," said Barrie, who will be an unrestricted free agent this fall. "I feel like I got more to offer and it's a good chance for me to show it and I feel pretty comfortable right now with my game, all things considered. It will be bizarre to jump right into playoffs after so much time off, but it's a good opportunity to make up for a bit of an up and down season for sure."
TSN's Kristen Shilton has more on Barrie’s second act in Toronto here: https://www.tsn.ca/toronto-maple-leafs-defenceman-tyson-barrie-eager-to-show-his-best-this-postseason-1.1502005
“I've got more to offer...”— TSN Hockey (@TSNHockey) July 30, 2020
After an up and down first season with Toronto, Tyson Barrie explains how grateful he is for a second opportunity to prove himself in the postseason with the Maple Leafs: https://t.co/QhMCErO2J5#TSNHockey pic.twitter.com/Jf2LTN7Gao
Lines at Thursday's practice, per team media relations:
Nylander - Matthews - Hyman
Mikheyev - Tavares - Marner
Robertson - Kerfoot - Kapanen
Clifford - Gauthier - Spezza
Muzzin - Holl
Rielly - Ceci
Dermott - Barrie
Sandin – Marincin