Tortorella calls out ‘key people’ as Maple Leafs showdown looms

Sportsnet's Chris Johnston and Shawn MacKenzie discuss Ilya Mikheyev's impressive camp and what the Toronto Maple Leafs can expect heading into the bubble.

Starved for hockey after four-and-a-half months without it, there is a temptation to get all riled up over the blow-by-blow developments at the 24 accelerated training camps taking place around the NHL.

Whatever is ailing Sidney Crosby; whatever is keeping David Pastrnak from completing Boston’s star-studded line rushes or Corey Crawford away from Chicago’s crease; whatever is causing Frederik Andersen to allow 11 goals over the course of two lopsided intrasquad games — the leap to doom and gloom can be as swift as it is misplaced.

Yet there has been a distinct tone of dissatisfaction in Columbus this week as the Blue Jackets ramp up preparations for charter to Toronto, home city of their play-in opponents.

Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella has cautioned about drawing deep conclusions from watching his split-squad battles, but he hardly sounds content with the readiness of his roster.

“You’re playing against the guy that you’re having lunch with an hour after the practice,” Tortorella said after watching his guys scrimmage Monday. “I hope [Tuesday’s] game is better than it was today because I thought today’s game sucked. Although one team beat another team 6-0, and that team may say something different, I just didn’t like our energy level at all today.

“I wouldn’t change what we’ve done. I’m happy where we’re at. I thought today sucked, though.”

And then there was this bit of tell-me-what-you-really-think evaluation, on Tortorella’s tentative top line of Alexandre TexierPierre-Luc DuboisOliver Bjorkstrand.

“They were just brutal today,” Tortorella said. “I believe Luc and Bjorky have some chemistry. If Tex can play there, it can kind of give me an opportunity to balance some lines out, but I’m still up in the air as far as our lines are concerned.”

Tuesday, the Blue Jackets mimicked a full game day: a morning meeting and stretch, a nap, followed by an evening puck drop.

Again, Columbus’s top trio and more veteran goalie, Joonas Korpisalo, got their show run, 7-3. We can only guess Tortorella didn’t like what he saw from that scrimmage either. The coach elected not to speak to reporters at all post-game.

Trying to conjure some imperfect balance of replicating playoff-like intensity and giving the players enough rest to keep them fresh for when the shifts actually matter, Columbus cancelled one scheduled workout this week and took Wednesday off.

Similar debates are being held in the other 23 camps, as coaches wrestle with this unknown beast: preparing their clubs for the seriousness of do-or-die hockey without sapping their energy before what is, hopefully, a two-month gauntlet.

Here is Winnipeg Jets coach Paul Maurice on the value of the in-house scrimmage: “The minute it’s not close to game intensity, it hurts you.”

As veteran Toronto checker Kyle Clifford explains, it’s like tiptoeing a line at top speed.

“You don’t really want to be flirtin’ with it because you don’t want to injure your guys, but at the same time you want to make sure your teammates are ready for what Columbus is gonna bring. We know that the hard, heavy game they’re going to bring. There’s only one way to do that, and that’s play hard in these mini games,” Clifford said after the Maple Leafs wrapped their own five-game scrimmage series.

“At the same time, if you get an opportunity to take somebody’s head off, you gotta let up a little bit because you know we don’t want any injuries coming out of this camp.”

The tone in Leafs camp this week has been mostly a rosy one.

Zach Hyman is back in action after absorbing a bit of friendly fire off the boot, injured top-six winger Andreas Johnsson (knee) has returned from Sweden with an eye on Round 2, Andersen appears sharper, and Ilya Mikheyev — looking reborn after seven months’ rehab — was crowned the Leafs’ Phase 3 MVP Thursday evening.

Coach Sheldon Keefe feels “pretty close” to finalizing his Game 1 lineup for Aug. 2 and has consistently sung the praises of his group’s conditioning. There is no debate over who will stand in the crease.

Contrast that with the happenings in Columbus.

Tortorella ripped into his troops Thursday loud enough for the local media to take notice:

Afterward, from the podium, the Jack Adams finalist worried if the Jackets were falling into a trap of wading into their play-in round.

“I’m not sure we’re getting total concentration out of key people,” Tortorella said. “Two or three guys, pretty important people.

“Some of the people that are going to need to make a difference for us to win in a series, I don’t think they’re ready right now.”

Tortorella is a notorious motivator who prefers the whip to the carrot, and he’s being upfront about the lingering questions.

Only two of the Jackets’ three defence pairing are in stone, “two or three” lineup spots are still up for grabs, captain Nick Foligno spent some time away from the main group early this week due to soreness, and the combinations of the top six remain an experiment.

“I’m not settled,” Tortorella said.

And that goes for his Game 1 goalie as well. Korpisalo watched 13 pucks whiz by him in the first two scrimmages. Elvis Merzlikins turned around and gave up 11 in Friday’s intrasquad game.

“We’re not thrilled about 13 goals [allowed],” Tortorella said. “We still have to figure out who’s gonna start.”

How the Leafs-Jackets best-of-five plays out will shade this narrative.

Is Tortorella wisely conjuring the necessary urgency to grind out three wins against a more talented roster? Or is Columbus entering the fray with too many question marks?

“I’m not too concerned,” Foligno said Thursday. But he also added this: “We’re not a team that can just flip a switch.”


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