SUNRISE, Fla — If the lunchtime practice is a measure, then it will be Tomas Plekanec skating between Zach Hyman and William Nylander for the foreseeable future — the foreseeable in the NHL being the first shift of the next game, which for the Toronto Maple Leafs is in Washington Saturday night.
Otherwise the Leafs’ practice after back-to-back games in Tampa and Fort Lauderdale was stay-the-course stuff, the main elements in place.
The most unusual aspect of the practice was almost certainly that there was any practice at all. Leafs coach Mike Babcock is not a proponent of practice the day after two games in two nights. After practice Wednesday, he said that it wasn’t his call but rather the players’. Babcock said that they expressed a preference for having time off in Washington rather than here. Who’s he to nix it? And likewise, other than being the highest-paid coach in the league and the Leafs’ taskmaster, who’s he to shuffle stuff right now? Save for a couple of dropped points in a couple of games, things couldn’t be rosier with the team in the last 15 or 20 games. There’s a danger in overthinking it and maybe the sun has something to do with it but Babcock wasn’t looking to implement anything new or tamper much with what isn’t.
Of course, when nothing changes, someone is going to be somewhat put out because on every roster there’s someone who wants more.
Around practice there was still a buzz about William Nylander’s sensational set up of Zach Hyman for a goal that saved a point for the Leafs in the 3-2 overtime loss to the Panthers. It’s probably en route to a million views right now. Babcock was leaving hyperbole to others — on matters like that, it’s his default mode — and instead pointed out that it was simply a product of 100 per cent effort and commitment. When Nylander does that, "his skills come out," Babcock said. The flip side is when, in his tenure, Babcock eye-rolls and dispatches him to the fourth-line purgatory, which strikes me as dead goofy but who am I?
Nylander did note that, going forward, until Auston Matthews returns from a shoulder injury, he will have to look to shoot more. He said "more’ but really meant a lot more. You’re losing a lot of shots on net and meaningful scoring chances when Matthews’s stick is gathering dust in the rack and Plekanec, a predominantly pass-first guy at this point of his career, is skating in the franchise centre’s place.
If Nylander had made plays like that a few times while centring a line with Hyman and Kasperi Kapanen in Monday night’s shootout loss in Tampa, then he almost certainly would have skated at centre here Tuesday night and in upcoming games. Not how it played out. For now Plekanec is in, skating to Nylander’s left.
The decision to put Nylander at Plekanec’s wing is yet another bad news day for Kapanen, who was skating again with the fourth line against the Panthers and in practice at Sunrise. Kapanen has seemingly been the Other Guy ever since he came over from Pittsburgh in the Phil Kessel deal and his chance to skate beside Nylander against the Lightning had to have been a big deal to him even if it were a footnote to onlookers. That it didn’t turn out well for the line that night, well, it was just more of the same and you don’t have to listen hard to pick up the frustration in Kapanan’s voice. "It’s hard to see other guys in your draft class playing," he said Tuesday.
So long as it’s frustration and not resignation, it’s not an entirely negative emotion, I suppose. You have to wonder what was going through his head at the trade deadline — you’d never get a candid answer from a player, one that hasn’t been 100 per cent homogenized, but you’d think he’d probably have got over being moved out of Toronto at the trade deadline pretty quickly if it meant a chance to play more on a regular basis. Not how it played out, though. Once again, Kapanen plays and waits his turn. Even with a team that has been as hot as the Leafs have, more of the same is bad news for someone.