GRAVENHURST, ON – Auston Matthews and John Tavares sprinted in unison to the red line inside Gravenhurst’s cozy Centennial Centre rink. Shoulder to shoulder, they cut a sharp U-turn at centre, charged to the net, and fought for position as a puck was tossed to the slot.
The Toronto Maple Leafs two top centres laughed and tapped shinpads when Thursday’s rather intense battle drill concluded. They’re on the same side, after all. But we can envision these friendly head-to-head clashes foreshadowing a saltier tone four months from now in Beijing.
“I think we’d be looking at each other a little differently than we did today and throughout the season,” said Tavares. Tavares is a Team Canada hopeful; Matthews, it was announced today, is officially a Team USA lock. “I think we all expected him to be one of the three guys. It’d be good to play against him.”
Matthews joined Blackhawks stars Patrick Kane and Seth Jones as the first three Olympic players selected by Team USA and Chicago GM Stan Bowman.
And just because the reigning goal-scoring champ is an easy pick doesn’t mean he’s any less grateful.
“The Olympics is the biggest stage that it gets. It’s extremely humbling. A huge honour,” Matthews said during the Leafs’ mid-camp getaway to cottage country.
The 24-year-old product of the U.S. National Development Team linked with the likes of Jones, Morgan Rielly and Connor McDavid on Team North America during the 2016 World Cup.
He’s thrilled to be sharing a sheet with sometime training partner Kane (“It’s a treat every time”) and to see NHLers bound for the Winter Games: “It’s so good for hockey.”
From Mitch Marner to Rielly, the Maple Leafs have several Olympic hopefuls on their roster. Coach Sheldon Keefe believes the audition process should add incentive to come out of the gates flying.
And Matthews can’t help but smile at the idea of trying to outwit the likes of Marner, Rielly and Tavares in a Canada-U.S. epic.
“I think it’d be fun. All of us are extremely close,” Matthews said. “I’d like to think I know their game pretty well, and they’d probably say the same about me.”
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) October 7, 2021
William Nylander, penalty killer?
Through his first 358 games as a Maple Leaf, William Nylander has found himself on the ice for a grand total of 6:51 while his club is killing a penalty.
Yet the coaching staff is now seriously considering the forward for the PK.
Keefe noticed a stronger commitment to defence by Nylander during the second half of 2020-21. A good stick for takeaways and busting up plays. Natural instincts for where the puck is zipping next. Strong hands. Fleet feet.
The staff began discussing adding Nylander to the kill in the spring, and when new assistant Dean Chenoweth was hired to take over the slumping PK from Dave Hakstol, interest spiked.
Chenoweth used similar offensive-minded players in that role in Carolina and has been encouraged by Nylander’s 4-on-5 work in the preseason.
“The philosophy Dean has brought here requires a lot of pressure, a lot of reads, a lot of quickness, speed and energy,” Keefe says. “So, we’re going to need a lot of people [killing penalties].”
Keefe says Auston Matthews has “great potential to kill penalties” too — despite 16:02 in career shorthanded time. And Keefe may use John Tavares for D-zone draws when down a man. Marner has been a PK regular for years.
But is there danger in having elite forwards getting hit by pucks in such a defensive situation?
“Yeah, that comes up a lot,” Keefe replies. “But I think that’s a little overblown in terms of the risk of the blocking the shot. To me, if you do a good job in other areas of the game, there should be no shots. That’s really what we’re going for.”
A massive proponent of possession hockey, Keefe believes some of the game’s great shot-blockers have become so by default.
“They haven’t done a good job up-ice or on entries or they didn’t get a clear on a faceoff,” the coach explains. “[Marner] doesn’t have an abundance of shot blocks in the time he kills penalties, but he does a really good job of clearing the puck and they struggle to get in [the zone] against him.”
Power play looks promising
Rielly says the Maple Leafs are taking their new-look power play “extremely seriously” this camp. And well they should following last spring’s 5-on-4 debacle.
Assistant Spencer Carbery is cribbing from the Tampa Bay model and placing an emphasis on movement and increased creativity — steering away from the predictable get-it-to-Matthews approach of last season.
“[Carbery] has a lot of passion and a lot of jump to him,” Matthews says. “I like that. He’s done a pretty good job of explaining [what he wants], and then we just let our skill take over with the structure he has put in place.”
Rielly is moving more up top, and Marner is a waterbug, darting in and out of the slot as opposed to planting his skates between hash marks.
“Mitch has created his own position, which is nice,” Rielly said, tongue-in-cheek.
Marner’s ability to think outside the bun, as Taco Bell would say, is partially why he’s no longer on the flank. More options.
“Because he has those instincts, he jumps into spaces that are unexpected at the right times and creates looks and schemes that the opponent will struggle to plan for,” Keefe says. “That’s what we’re counting on.”
Call it planned improvisation.
Mitchy to Ritchie
Matthews and Marner enjoyed another full practice with new linemate Nick Ritchie — hot off a two-goal performance in Tuesday’s 6-2 blowout of Montreal.
Morgan Rielly says of the top line’s chemistry “seems to have been coming quicker than expected” and that Ritchie has been “extremely valuable so far.”
The Orangeville, Ont., native is encouraged by exhibition but focused on Wednesday’s opener, when things get real.
“Things are rolling right now,” Ritchie said. “It’s going to be ready to rock for that first game.”
Matthews describes Ritchie as an easy guy to play with, capable of working give-and-goes down low.
“And you know he is going to be at the net, and he’s going to try to get open,” Matthews says. “He’s a really big boy, but he can make plays — forehand, backhand with guys on him. He’s such a big body that it’s hard to take the puck away from him, and he has good vision.
Ritchie expects more than a few Orangeville folks will be in search of tickets for Wednesday’s debut.
“I’m staying out of that,” Ritchie smiled. “I’ll get a couple, and everyone else is on their own.”
Thoughts for Carey
The Maple Leafs were discussing rival Carey Price’s leave of absence Thursday morning. Some things transcend the colour of your laundry. Price is enrolling in the player assistance program and will miss at least a month.
“We all feel for him and his family and wish him nothing but the best,” captain John Tavares said. “As much as we compete, we can all relate to the struggles and difficulties in life and in the game and the ups and downs you face as a human being. I’ve had the great opportunity to play with him a couple times. Such a great person. World-class netminder.”
Tavares says attention to players’ mental wellbeing has certainly increased since he joined the league 12 years ago. Rightly so.
“As players, it’s about caring for one another and recognizing those things. The more educated you are, the better you get at seeing the signs amongst your peers and helping them out when you can,” Tavares went on.
“It’s not a sign of weakness; it’s really a sign of strength to acknowledge what’s going on and get the help that’s needed.”
Waiver relief… so far
Michael Hutchinson cleared waivers Wednesday, which secures some important goaltending depth and gives the Marlies a bona fide pro in the crease.
Though oft-maligned in Toronto, the 31-year-old Hutchinson performed well in limited use for the Leafs in 2020-21 (4-2-1, .919) and is a decent third-stringer.
Joey Anderson, Carl Dahlstrom, Brennan Menell and Brett Seney cleared Thursday and will join the Marlies camp.
Some other Leafs on the bubble who must clear waivers if they are to join the AHL: Pierre Engvall, Adam Brooks, Kurtis Gabriel, Alex Biega, and Michael Amadio.
One of Engvall or Brooks could be cut in the coming days and may be the type of bottom-six forward that entices a weak club like Buffalo or Arizona to take a flier on.
“The league is hard to get into, and good teams especially are hard to get into. The waiver system is built in for that,” Keefe says.
“Guys that belong in the NHL, there’s 31 other teams here now that have an opportunity at guys. So, we’ll have that process play out for some of our players.”
Nylander did not travel with the Leafs to Gravenhurst because he’s not two weeks removed from his second vaccination. He’ll be ready for opening night…. This is Matthews’ first time in Muskoka. He’s appreciating the warm weather and golf. And yet the cameras and questions don’t exactly fade into the background. “You guys follow us around everywhere, so I wouldn’t completely call it a getaway,” he quipped.… The team of Matthews, Jake Muzzin, Ondrej Kase and Ilya Mikheyev won the Leafs scramble golf tournament.… Matthews says his wrist has had good days and bad days. He ditched the non-contact sweater for Thursday’s long, intense practice but won’t commit to Saturday’s preseason finale: “That might be cutting it a little close.”