TORONTO -- It’s not always easy being the new guy.
Nick Foligno lamented that he disrupted the flow of warmup before his Toronto Maple Leafs debut last week in Winnipeg and on Monday, he was sent tumbling to the ice in a collision with Auston Matthews, his new centreman.
Auston Matthews and Nick Foligno collided pretty hard at practice this morning, but were able to laugh it off. pic.twitter.com/7mFatpjSGN
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) April 26, 2021
Told that it left some folks holding their breath, Foligno quipped: “For me or Auston? Probably for Auston more than me.”
There’s bound to be a feeling-out period even for a player with more than 1,000 NHL games on his resume. Foligno has two assists to show for his two games alongside Matthews and Mitch Marner since arriving in a trade from Columbus and may soon find himself getting spot duty elsewhere in the lineup.
That kind of change would be more reflective of how close we are to the playoffs than any chemistry concerns -- Sheldon Keefe says he’s liked how Foligno has meshed defensively with Matthews and Marner, and believes there’ll be an offensive fit when those two are really humming -- because the Leafs coach loves to move his pieces all over the board.
“You don’t want to rush to things, you don’t want to bounce him around too much,” Keefe said of incorporating Foligno. “At the same time, I do think it’s important to give him a bit of a feel with other lines and other people on our team just because it’s such a short amount of time. You don't want to be locked into one thing and you end up changing things -- whether it’s an injury situation or whether it’s just a strategic thing where you want to change your lines.”
Foligno jumped directly into top-line duty in part because there was a natural opening with Zach Hyman sidelined by a sprained MCL. But Keefe hinted that Hyman would likely return there eventually.
As for Foligno, his biggest focus is on getting comfortable with the Leafs systems play. He spoke fondly of the welcome he’s received inside the dressing room and the experience of playing with the team’s top offensive weapons.
“I love the way they see the game,” said Foligno. “I think having conversations with them, how offensive-minded they are, how smart they are as players. It’s evident every time you step on the ice against them, but to really hear the terminology or the way they look at the game has been fun to have the kind of behind-the-scenes look of.
“So I’m enjoying that and I’m just trying to bring my game along with them and getting that chemistry going.”
There’s been a noticeable decline recently with Alex Galchenyuk’s play. He’s been a minus player in five straight games and has just one goal and two assists to show for his last 10 games overall.
Keefe had a chat with Galchenyuk on the ice following Tuesday’s practice and told reporters that he still likes the fit for him on the second line beside John Tavares and William Nylander.
“I think he’s done well on that line,” said Keefe. “But at the same time, I’ve been talking to Alex here just about making sure he has the continued level of consistency in his game. All of the things that have made us really believe in him they have to stay strong and he’s got to stay with that here as the schedule piles on, as he’s played more minutes and as he’s continually playing against harder competition. ...
“I like what Alex has brought to that group there and whether it’s there or whether we play him with Auston and in our top-six, he’s done a good job for us. I think it can continue, which certainly presents a great option for us. It helps us with our depth on the other lines.”
After barely playing for a year, life is suddenly coming at Rasmus Sandin pretty fast.
The 21-year-old defenceman is earning rave reviews with confident puck skills and his ability to better handle the physical nature of the job since re-entering the lineup for three games last week.
“Yeah he’s good. He’s smooth,” said Matthews. “He just makes such good plays out there. He’s easy to notice. He skates well, his edges and the way he sees the ice and is able to kind of draw guys in and make plays to the forwards, the ‘D’, he’s fun to watch out there.
“For a guy that hasn’t played hockey over the last year, it definitely doesn’t look like it out there.”
Keefe said Tuesday that Sandin will play “most if not all” of the eight games remaining in the regular season. Consider it a test from the coaching staff to gauge his playoff readiness.
They’ve yet to see any recurring areas of concern from the 24 games he logged with the Leafs last season, but want to reserve judgements until seeing a larger sample of performance.
“He needs to really show that he can play at 5-on-5 and play at even strength here and play against tougher matchups and some of the other teams’ better players when he needs to,” said Keefe. “We don’t have to protect him or hide him or anything like that at 5-on-5. The playoffs are just too difficult, too challenging, the teams we’re going to play are too deep for us to have to protect him on that side of it and we want to make sure that he’s got that foundation.”
Sandin notably laid out Winnipeg Jets captain Blake Wheeler with a reverse it during Saturday’s game and assisted on a goal by Tavares.
Speaking of the Leafs captain, he’s carrying a hot stick with an eight-game points streak and seven goals and nine assists to show for his last 11 outings overall.
On Tuesday, Nylander revealed the secret to Tavares’s recent success: “He changed his curve and got his sticks going and he’s been dialled with it.”
“Well I mean he was playing with a different stick that wasn’t really his stick so he had to wait some time to get the new sticks and I mean he’s been doing great with it,” Nylander explained. “So it’s fun to see.”
We went deep on Frederik Andersen’s situation Monday. He’s back practising, looking strong and hoping to see some game action before the playoffs.
Keefe indicated that he’s got his starters pretty well mapped out for the remainder of the regular season, but it’s part of a plan he reviews daily and is willing to alter.
“We’ve got a pretty good sense in terms of Jack and Dave Rittich,” said Keefe. “Fred’s situation is the wild card in it and how that plays out here and how available he is.”
Don’t be surprised if Andersen accepts a conditioning loan to the American Hockey League before he’s activated off long-term injured reserve and returns to the Leafs crease.