TORONTO — “Not your typical exhibition game,” comes the prediction from Sheldon Keefe, and he’s preaching to the choir.
The Toronto Maple Leafs head coach is looking forward to Tuesday night’s 8 p.m. ET puck drop against the Montreal Canadiens almost as much as you are.
Has a meaningless hockey match ever been packed with so much meaning, so much anticipation, so much mystery?
“The biggest question of all is, what is it going to feel like being on the ice or on the bench in the game environment within the arena?” Keefe says. “We’re excited for that and then, of course, just really starting to focus in on our opponent in Columbus. That’s an exciting process in itself.”
The Maple Leafs will be visitors in their own home Tuesday, as they make the five-minute walk south from their cave in Royal York Fairmont to Scotiabank Arena.
“We’re really hungry to start this thing up. We’re hungry to prove ourselves out here. We want to make sure we’re ready to go,” Mitch Marner says. “It starts (tonight) here against Montreal.”
Here are seven things for Maple Leafs fans to keep an eye on as hockey finally, joyfully, cautiously — but actually! — returns.
Nick Robertson Mania runs wild
Every shift will be a referendum on the 18-year-old’s readiness for the showtime lineup.
Robertson practised again Monday on the left flank of the third line, centred by Alexander Kerfoot, with camp standout Kasperi Kapanen chugging down his preferred right side.
So, what does Robertson need to accomplish in his first-ever taste of pro hockey to boot Pierre Engvall or Frederik Gauthier off the Game 1 roster?
“He needs to look comfortable. He needs to make an impact on the game, be it through his work ethic and enthusiasm and his ability to create offence and capitalize when he gets chances,” Keefe says. “Really looking to see can he look like himself and play what I suspect is going at the highest calibre of game that he’s played in.”
Keefe insists he won’t be catering his lineup to his opponent (yet) and wants to throw the best units available over the boards, but he also wants to do what’s best for Robertson’s development.
Conversely, Columbus coach John Tortorella will tell you he absolutely is looking to insert some of his faster talent, particularly up front, so the Jackets can keep pace with their speedy foes.
Toronto’s Engvall dropped to Line 4 and Gauthier was the odd man out in Monday’s line rushes, but don’t read too much into that.
The Leafs will be permitted to dress 13 forwards and seven defencemen (Martin Marincin gets the nod over Rasmus Sandin) Tuesday night to help with the coaches’ decisions. Make no mistake: Robertson’s fate is the biggie.
“Hopefully brings a little kick to our team and a boost with his energy,” Marner said Monday.
Injury watch on high alert
Mike Tyson vs. Shark will be the next time we witness an exhibition as fierce as the ones the NHL has on tap this week.
Shrewdly pitting archrivals against each other to amplify these one-off tune-up games — Pittsburgh vs. Philadelphia, Edmonton vs. Calgary, Tampa Bay vs. Florida, New York vs. New York, Dallas vs. Nashville, St. Louis vs. Chicago, et al. — we are finally given a Montreal-Toronto match that (kinda sorta) has some playoff implications.
“All these exhibition games are gonna be pretty intense and pretty up-tempo,” Zach Hyman says. “I don’t think anybody’s gonna be holding back.”
Compared to the usual late-September yawners, these intrasquad scrimmages will be rammed with A-list rosters and could serve as tone-setters for future matchups.
With the actual play-in series starting a mere four days hence, players will try to show their benches they’re already in go mode, while praying to avoid a dislocated shoulder or reaggravating an ailment they’ve been protecting in camp.
“That the game itself is going to happen on the eve of the playoffs in essence, the on-ice game itself might be difficult to get through. Of course, nobody on either team is going to want to be getting hurt. So, you have the balance of trying to get your game better and get your game right,” said Keefe, who sees value in his club getting a trial run as visitors in their own building Tuesday.
Different dressing room, different bench and penalty box, no last-change advantage, no Hall & Oates serenade after each goal scored by the Blue and White….
“All those types of things,” Keefe said. “There’s a lot of stuff happening there that it’s important for us to live that one time before we do it for real.”
How’s the goalie lookin’?
Much like Montreal and unlike Columbus, there is no intrigue surrounding the Leafs’ starter of choice.
That said, Frederik Andersen is a notoriously slow starter. Every goal against will get dissected like a Grade 10 biology class frog.
Keefe has had to juggle netminders in past best-of-five series with the AHL Marlies. He is taking a one-game-at-a-time approach this week and doesn’t want to publicly discuss the length of Andersen’s leash.
“Anytime you go into a series with any sort of strategy on what to do if things don’t work out for your goalie, you’re not setting yourself up for success,” Keefe says. “Our goalie is going to be ready to go.”
Andersen, a Bauer guy throughout 2019-20, experimented with an unlabelled brand’s pads in camp and commissioned a fancy new mask design for his return to play (note the Lego-themed nod to his homeland of Denmark). He says feeling comfortable in one’s gear means “everything” to a goaltender.
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Blue Neo is here…! For the new start of the NHL hockey my friend Frederik Andersen wanted to update his Leafs mask game, and he had an amazing idea for it… We brainstormed together and I made some sketches and research how to create his vision, and o man such an exciting paint project! I loaded my airbrushes with blue paint, lots of blue paint…and started to paint… As the paint nerd I am I just love to create stories with my paintings on a mask… Once again the cool brick figures from Denmark shows up on Freddy’s mask, and this mask take us behind the codes… Let us present Freddy’s alter ego… Blue Neo! @frederikandersen31 @mapleleafs #DaveArt @nhl #DaveArtFamily #DaveArtTheCradleOfCreativity #DaveArtTheStoryteller @bauergoalie
How clean are the breakouts?
Trusting their creativity in the offensive zone, Keefe & Co. devoted camp’s focus to implementing defensive tweaks to their systems. The hope is they’ll be more responsible without the puck and exit their own zone quick and with control before the deadly Columbus forecheck takes grasp of the series.
“In terms of picking up the concepts and things like that we’ve seen pretty steady progress through the scrimmages and practice sessions,” Keefe says. “We think we are inching closer to what we would like that to look like. We’re anxious to see it in an exhibition environment against another opponent — that will help us as well.”
Boston’s Brad Marchand has predicted some sloppy hockey. Toronto, one of the most turnover-prone clubs standing, will only get torched by the counterattack if they fall prey to that sort of messiness.
The quest for the ultimate fourth line
In terms of evaluation, Keefe has consistently reminded “there’s more happening here”; despite the headlines, not all lineup spots revolve around Robertson.
While the top-six personnel have been etched in stone (for now), the fourth line is very much up in the air and has been a work-in-progress all season long. Pay attention to ice times and combinations in the bottom six.
“One decision might affect another, so we’re just trying to keep all our options open,” says Keefe, whose latest trial is Engvall between veterans Jason Spezza and Kyle Clifford.
“Engvall and Spezza, we wanted to get them some reps at centre ice and playing low in the defensive zone and those types of responsibilities that come with it. We want to remain as flexible as possible and remain as prepared as possible for any decision that we might make or anything that might happen outside our control that might force us to make a lineup change.”
Matthews and the conditioning question
The quotes out of all 24 camps promote hunger, positivity and fine fitness.
But that can’t really be the truth?
Surely a few of the 700 or so players about to engage in high-stakes hockey indulged in a few too many Miss Vickie’s over the fourth-month hiatus. We’ll get a sense of who’s flying and who’s wheezing in these test drives.
“I don’t expect perfection. Every team will be rusty when you don’t play for four months,” Montreal coach Claude Julien warns. “(The NHL) has tried to create some real interest by putting us against (our eldest rival). That does better let us prepare. Toronto is a little like Pittsburgh — a lot of depth and skill up front. They’ll attack us hard.”
Missing a chunk of Phase 2 due to his positive COVID-19 test and mandated quarantine, attacker Auston Matthews needed to play a little catch-up in Phase 3 but impressed with daily improvement.
“I’ve seen the progression with his conditioning and being able to sustain his play for longer,” Keefe said. “He’s made a ton of plays, he’s won the puck back with his skillset and his body; a lot of the things that I was hoping to see from him in this camp, I’ve seen. He’s the least of my worries at this stage.”
The challenge for the bench will be giving the Leafs stars heavy minutes to prepare them for a playoff-like workload (see: bump-up shifts for the “All-Star Game line”) but not overdoing it to the point of unnecessary exhaustion.
“And then just what it’s going to feel like in that environment in terms of not having fans,” Keefe said. “Those are important questions to get answered and we’re fortunate to be able to have at least that one game to get that sorted out.”