TSN Toronto Reporter Mark Masters reports on the Maple Leafs, who practised at the Ford Performance Centre on Tuesday ahead of Wednesday’s game against the Edmonton Oilers.
Travis Dermott played with Connor McDavid during his Ontario Hockey League days with the Erie Otters. Now, he shares a dressing room with Auston Matthews.
"Those guys have a lot in common," the Leafs defenceman said. "They don't come in just to do their job. They come in to get better and make everyone else around them better."
The first overall pick in the 2015 National Hockey League draft, McDavid, and the first overall pick in 2016, Matthews, will face off twice this week on Wednesday and Friday. McDavid owns the bragging rights at the moment having posted four points in an Edmonton Oilers win in Toronto last January.
"It is going to be a great challenge for us," said Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe. "We know that. It was a test for us yesterday with the calibre of forwards — even with no [Patrik] Laine — Winnipeg has and the speed they generate through the neutral zone. If you turn the puck over or you don't have structure, they are going to come through and be very creative and make it very hard on you."
The Oilers are scuffling to start the season with one win in four games. Edmonton scored just two goals in dropping their last two games against the Montreal Canadiens.
"They're going to be a very hungry team," said Leafs winger Zach Hyman. "We've got to be ready for them, ready for their speed."
The Leafs have won three of four games to start the season. Toronto has looked really solid in the last two outings allowing only three goals in wins over the Ottawa Senators and Winnipeg Jets.
"Our forwards are helping us out a lot," Dermott noted. "They're staying low and not leaving the zone too early so that's made it really easy on us breaking out. And then when [the other team is] attacking us out of their zone our forwards are tracking and getting above their guys really well."
McDavid is a guy you absolutely must stay above.
"If he's skating from their end with speed against our D it's going to be pretty tough so we rely on our forwards to try and get in his way at least a little bit," Dermott said, "make him take a bit of a longer route to get to us. That's been our game plan so far dealing with speed."
The Leafs believe they are better equipped to handle the likes of McDavid and reigning Hart Trophy winner Leon Draisaitl this year. For one thing, former Calgary Flame TJ Brodie was added in free agency and now plays on the top defence pairing with Morgan Rielly.
"There's no question that TJ brings a lot to our team," said Keefe. "He's calm. He's steady. He's reliable in all areas of the game. Even when he had an off night like I think he did in Ottawa, he brushes it off and is himself and comes out and responds well. So, he's a very versatile guy who moves the puck well, defends well, has a great stick so we're definitely happy to have him."
Keefe was asked how Brodie is making life easier for Rielly, who was victimized on an electric McDavid goal the last time the two teams met.
"I don't know why we need to focus so much on the effect it has on Morgan," the coach said. "I think Morgan's making his own life easier just the way he's played this season. He's got a tighter gap, really worked on that. He's moving the puck well. He's skating really well. So, Morgan has made his own life easier the way that he's played."
The Leafs also have a new, defensively responsible third line this season featuring Alex Kerfoot between Ilya Mikheyev and Hyman. That trio is certainly capable of eating some tough minutes.
Hyman posted a career-high 10 shots in Monday's win over the Jets.
"We were taking the puck to the net and trying to generate offence," Hyman said. "I didn't realize I had 10 shots until after."
The 28-year-old seems to have an extra bounce in his step this season after becoming a first-time father.
"It's the best feeling in the world," Hyman said with a smile. "I feel re-energized. Obviously, you know, playing for not just myself and my family, but I got a little one now. It's awesome and it's always the best going home and seeing him after a game. It's been pretty special."
Hyman welcomed son Theo into the world last month. What's the best parenting advice he's received from teammates?
"Just try and bank your sleep," he said. "Babies like to be up, but my wife [Alannah] has been awesome and she's holding the fort down at home."
John Tavares is also off to a strong start this season. Toronto's captain has racked up three goals and three assists in four games.
"He’s leading our team in points and scoring goals and making some very nice plays out there," said linemate William Nylander. "I mean, you saw when he came up the middle and pulled a little toe-drag backhand, which was a really nice sequence there. He's been phenomenal."
Ahead of the 2019-20 season, Tavares was slowed by an oblique injury. He then missed time with a broken finger early in the year and never seemed to get up to top speed. He finished with a very respectable 60 points in 63 games, but that was down from the 88 points he produced in 82 games in his first season with Toronto.
"He looks quicker to me than he did at any point last season," Keefe observed after Monday's win. "He is skating really well ... whether that is on the rush or coming out of the corners in the offensive zone to attack the net or whether that is coming back into our zone, he looks to me like he has an extra step."
General manager Kyle Dubas added veterans Wayne Simmonds, Joe Thornton, Brodie and Zach Bogosian during a busy off-season. The Leafs believe they will now be a tougher team to deal with both physically and mentally.
"I've just always been a hard worker and pretty determined skater," said Simmonds. "I like to get first on pucks. I like to initiate. I always say, 'Initiate, never retaliate.' I like to be first to the body, first to the puck, first to the net and I just play that style. I grew up with four brothers and a sister and fought for everything I could get so I've always been scrappy and that's come out on the ice."
Simmonds dropped the gloves to try and spark a momentum change in Toronto's opening game against the Canadiens and he likes how his teammates are following his lead.
Justin Holl came to the defence of Frederik Andersen after Winnipeg's Kyle Connor crashed into the Leafs goalie in the first period on Monday.
"It's great to see guys step up," Andersen said after the game. "Obviously, I don't know if you could see, but I wasn't really happy about it either. But, yeah, it was great to see. He let him know it's not acceptable and it's a good signal to send. They're going to have to pay for it if they come that close."
Neal Pionk took a healthy run at Mitch Marner as the Leafs winger prepared to fire a puck into Winnipeg's empty net late in the third period. Marner didn't appreciate it and let Pionk know. Mark Scheifele then got involved voicing his displeasure with Marner leading to a scrum.
"Who cares," Marner said moments later when questioned about the altercation. "We won the game. That's all that matters. That's all I care about."
Winnipeg and Toronto will meet nine more times. That should be one of several compelling rivalries in the North Division.
"As the season goes along, the more teams start to clash, the more bitterness you're going to get," said Simmonds, "especially when you're playing two, three games in a row against the same team, you're bound for sparks. Last night we handled ourselves well."
Keefe will stick with the same 11-forward-and-seven-defenceman alignment on Wednesday. That means defenceman Mikko Lehtonen, who played just six minutes and 41 seconds against the Jets, will get into his second career NHL game.
"We liked what we were able to get out of Mikko and to be able to give him that experience," Keefe explained. "Having only one power play made it even harder to get him on the ice and get him some minutes, but we want to keep giving him that opportunity and that exposure. I liked how the 11 forwards flowed. There are some things about it that aren't great, but I think the positives are enough, especially when we couple it with the fact that it allows us to get Mikko involved."
"Keefer did a great job with mixing and matching," said Simmonds. "I felt like I was in the game the whole game and being on different lines with Spezz [Jason Spezza]. I got a couple shifts up there with Johnny and Willy so Keefer did a good job."
The key is getting Lehtonen more comfortable as the KHL import adjusts to the North American game.
"Of course, everyone wants to play every night," Lehtonen said. "I wasn't in the lineup the first three games so I worked hard and stayed positive. I came here to play so it's fun to play. It felt good. I was confident and it felt good to get the first one done."
Leafs lines at Tuesday's practice:
Thornton - Matthews - Marner
Nylander - Tavares - Vesey
Mikheyev - Kerfoot - Hyman
Brooks - Spezza - Simmonds
Rielly - Brodie (L)
Muzzin - Holl
Dermott - Bogosian
Lehtonen - Sandin (L)
Andersen will start on Wednesday