Maple Leafs Notebook: Why Wayne Simmonds has jumped to the top line

NHL insider Chris Johnston joins Shawn McKenzie to discuss why it's time for the Maple Leafs to make a statement against the Senators, and to weigh in on the latest on Freddy Andersen's injury, and why they should run with Jack Campbell for a bit.

Canada’s doormat? Perhaps.

But D.J. Smith’s 11-20-3 Ottawa Senators never fail to bring their A-game against their provincial rivals, swiping three of six meetings from the division-leading Toronto Maple Leafs this season, often in dramatic style.

"They got a really young, exciting team. They tend to give us their best game every time we play,” Auston Matthews warns. “We definitely have to be ready. You can’t take them lightly."

If rest is a weapon, the Maple Leafs will enter Ottawa armed and dangerous Thursday, fresh off a rare four-day break. The Sens should be caught tired on the second night of a back-to-back after defeating Calgary again Wednesday, and their health struggles in net make the Leafs’ look like a non-issue.

And yet…

"They got our number somehow this year," Travis Dermott says. "They seem to figure out little holes in our game and really attack those lapses. We want to play against them as much as we can.

“We want to play the teams where we really haven't figured out our game against them or a certain system that they play. It's playing against guys that push us out of our comfort zone and make us better by the time the important games come."

Bet on Matthews to score

For the first time in a long time, Matthews no longer sits alone atop the Rocket Richard leaderboard.

While the Leafs star has endured a four-game goal drought and has scored just thrice in his past 11 outings as he recovers from an injured wrist, Connor McDavid has tied Matthews in the goals race (21).

Cameras caught Matthews busting his stick on the bench Saturday after failing to light the lamp on one of multiple good looks. Matthews now leads the entire league with seven hit posts.

“You go through stretches like that and just try not to get too frustrated," Matthews says. "Just continue to compete and do other things that help the team win. When the puck's not going in the net, it's important to find other ways to be effective. For me, I'm just going to keep shooting."

Matthews’ otherworldly start to the season, in which he scored 18 goals in 18 games, raised expectations (50 in 50?!) to, perhaps, unrealistic heights. But his recent dip in production is of no concern to his coach.

“I generally focus more on how he is playing throughout the game. He has had a number of scoring chances that just haven't gone in for him. He has hit a lot of posts and missed great opportunities,” Sheldon Keefe says. “Over time, things like that are going to go in for a guy like him.

Matthews says the Leafs’ four-day break this week has been beneficial and believes the health of his wrist is trending in the right direction.

“The better that he feels in terms of his health and his energy levels only increases the opportunity for him to get more of those chances to go in," Keefe says.

Matthews is a minus-2 in March, on pace for his worst such mark in any month since 2018-19.

The man is due.

Why Simmonds is getting a top-line peek

Keefe debated whom to start at left wing alongside Matthews and Mitch Marner Saturday night. He was tempted to go back to Zach Hyman — which would’ve been a safe, easy call — but instead he promoted veteran Wayne Simmonds, who was well rested.

Pumping Hyman down to the bottom six also allows Keefe to roll four lines, a benefit of growing importance in a compacted stretch run.

“I think it paid off in terms of giving us legs and all that. That was a big part of it,” Keefe explained. “A lot of what [Simmonds] brings, there’s some similarities there to how Hyman plays.

“I thought they had good energy. Obviously, it is going to take a little bit just to develop the reads and chemistry that you need to have with the line. That’s why I wanted to stay with it and give it more opportunities."

Matthews says adapting to Simmonds on his left has been simple, and the line will get a second trial in Ottawa Thursday.

“It’s similar to a guy like Hyman,” Matthews says. “You know he's going to work really hard every shift. He's got good hands, not just in and around the net but all over the ice. He plays a really physical game. He's easy to play with.”

Galchenyuk’s attitude even more impressive than his forechecking

Alex Galchenyuk has made his presence known in just over 20 minutes as a Maple Leaf. Placed alongside John Tavares and William Nylander in a prime position to succeed, his relentlessness on the forecheck has received positive reviews from the coaching staff.

He’s thrown some hits, taken a penalty, and registered his first NHL assist in over a calendar year. In short, he’s been noticeable — something not every Leafs fringe winger has been.

Most impressive are the things viewers don’t see: Galchenyuk’s attitude and energy.

“When you look at a player with a high degree of skill who has had success in the league and you think about what they are going to need to climb their way back and to restart their career, if you will, energy and passion and competitiveness are the things that come to mind,” Keefe says.

“If you don't have those things, and you’re just going to rely upon your skill, it’s going to be a tough road back.”

Galchenyuk says he appreciates the investment the Leafs organization has made since trading for him: “It's been great so far. I love it."

Galchenyuk also recalled his chance introduction to future linemate Nylander while out for a pandemic stroll.

“I was getting some fresh air and I see a guy wearing a pink hat — and I knew right away it was Willy," Galchenyuk grinned. "I came up to him and was like, 'What’s going on?' We just talked about hockey. We talked about the city. We talked about what's been going on in the past and now. We spoke for an hour or so. It was great meeting him. Great to know him. He actually texted me when I got traded, too, so a great guy. He made me more comfortable.”

Kerfoot and the Icons

The year is 2006. Joe Thornton and Jason Spezza are tearing up the NHL on opposite sides of the continent. A ghost of the future appears to a 12-year-old Alexander Kerfoot and informs the kid his legs will be driving a line that features both Thornton and Spezza.

"If I was a kid thinking that I'd ever play on a line with Joe Thornton and Jason Spezza, I don't think I'd have believed myself," Kerfoot says.

"There's no second-guessing anything with them. Every time you get back to the bench, if you're in the locker room, they're always talking. They know what they want out of you. They let you know right away."

The trickle-down effect of Simmonds and Galchenyuk in the top six is a new checking line that packs some 39 NHL seasons of cumulative NHL wisdom, plus Kerfoot’s four.

“Two future Hall of Famers,” marvels Tavares. “You can just see the way they approach the game, their attitude, how much they enjoy it on a daily basis. So, seeing them playing together is pretty cool and something we're all getting a kick out of.”

The wink heard ’round the world

When a fired puck dislodged Jack Campbell’s mask during Saturday’s shutout victory, the goalie’s uncovered face was caught winking to defenceman Justin Holl as they exchanged “my bads” after a botched handoff.

Holl loved the gif, going so far as to crown the moment “legendary.” Campbell said Wednesday he didn’t even realize he’d winked until he saw a clip online post-game and got a chuckle.

“I had no idea I even had the ability to wink,” Campbell said.

Maple Leafs projected Lines

Simmonds - Matthews - Marner
Galchenyuk - Tavares - Nylander
Mikheyev - Engvall - Hyman
Thornton - Kerfoot - Spezza

Rielly - Brodie
Muzzin - Holl
Dermott - Bogosian

Campbell starts // Hutchinson backs up


• Ottawa’s hard-checking forward Austin Watson (arm) will not only miss Thursday’s game, he’ll be sidelined four-to-six weeks.

• Defencemen Mac Hollowell Kristians Rubins (“Mac and Ruby,” to their teammates) and forward Scott Sabourin joined the Leafs taxi squad this week so Martin Marincin, Timothy Liljegren and Nic Petan could see some game action with the Marlies.

• Goaltending prospect Ian Scott saw some practice reps with the Leafs this week. The injury-riddled Scott, 22, has not played a game since 2018-19 with the WHL’s Prince Albert Raiders.

• Last time the Leafs had a one-off road game in Ottawa, the club made the unusual decision to travel on game-day morning. They lost. This time they travelled after Wednesday’s practice and slept in Ottawa for Thursday’s game.

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