Maple Leafs' Tavares hosted players-only getaway: 'We kept it real'

Sportsnet's Shawn McKenzie and Luke Fox discuss the Toronto Maple Leafs biggest acquisitions and who will have the biggest impact on the team come the start of the preseason.

TORONTO — The Toronto Maple Leafs needed to get away from the noise, so their quiet leader made it happen.

By the middle of the summer, some new faces had arrived in town, but some old ghosts had hung around.

Captain John Tavares came up with an idea: Invite every Leaf living or training in Toronto to flee north. Players only.

He’d host them in his Muskoka cottage. They’d train during the day, find some ice to stay sharp. But they’d mix in some time on the water and have a little fun before the business mode of training camp.

The captain provided a casual space where the veterans could mix with the rookies, the leadership crew with the cluster of UFA signings. They got to know each other better as men, as teammates.

Perhaps most importantly, they didn't ignore the elephant in the boathouse.

They discussed the collapse.

“Yeah. One hundred per cent,” Wayne Simmonds said. “I think that was one of the main things in going to Johnny’s house. We had a great dialogue with one another — and we kept it real.

“We got to address what happened last year head-on, and we're not hiding from it. It’s for us to learn from and get better and to mature as a team.”

Sheldon Keefe did not receive an invite, however. The coach knows that’s a good thing.

“The feedback was terrific,” Keefe said. “I don't know a whole lot that went on there; I don't really want to know. That’s their time.

“John's initiative to do it speaks to his leadership and his growth as he's established himself here over time as the captain, the leader of this team. And I think it was a very positive step that sets us up for success going into this camp and into the season.”

No ‘fluky goals’ for Bunting, Tavares’s new left wing

When an AHL call-up finds the back of the net 10 times in 21 games — as Michael Bunting did last season for the Arizona Coyotes — surely there must be some luck on his blade.

Well, Bunting’s new/old coach Sheldon Keefe reviewed the tape before dropping Bunting into a plum pre-season top-six role to the left of Tavares.

“There's not a whole lot of fluky goals there. He's in the right places, and he's challenging the crease and getting after the net,” said Keefe, first introduced to the late bloomer’s love for the lamp coaching him in the Soo.

Busting into Maple Leafs camp with the kind of confidence that comes with a 25.6 shooting percentage on big-league goalie, Bunting has poured in work all summer — and it shows.

“Loves to score goals,” Keefe said. “A good fit to play with our better players.”

Consider the second-line left wing Bunting’s spot to lose (or even, eventually, a springboard to the top unit).

“It kinda feels like home right away,” the 26-year-old Scarborough, Ont., native said. “They signed me for a reason: to be that player that plays hard, wins pucks and goes to the net and have that secondary scoring.”

Bunting’s hot streak with the Coyotes last winter, and his gold-medal turn for Team Canada at the world championship, stirred a nice little bidding war for his services on the summer’s UFA value-buy market.

“I just kind of looked at the [Leafs’] depth and I had a good conversation with them, and I felt like this was the right fit,” Bunting said.

Bunting describes his attitude as “nothing to lose” and grew up admiring Maple Leafs cut from a similar cloth.

He rhymes off the gritty Tie Domi, Darcy Tucker and Wendel Clark as boyhood heroes, wingers “not afraid to play on that edge but able to put the puck in as well.”

Anyone else smell a fan favourite in the making?

Matthews’ wrist recovering nicely

Auston Matthews (wrist) originally projected next week to start handling pucks, but he did so on his own Friday morning.

The club is “very confident” Matthews will be ready for Opening Night on Oct. 13.

“If we can get him in some exhibition games, even better,” Keefe said.

Kampf ‘may be the strongest guy here’

Keefe has high hopes for the contributions role $1.5-million depth centre David Kampf will bring to his group this season.

Long in need of a bottom-six matchup centre who can swipe faceoffs (52.8 per cent in 2021), gobble up D-zone starts (67.4 per cent), and kill penalties, the Leafs are hopeful Kampf can steady an inconsistent PK and head up a shutdown unit that could free the stars up for more O-zone starts.

“My goal is, like, shut down the best players in the NHL,” Kampf stated.

That’s music to a coach’s ears.

“It speaks to his mindset right away. He knows exactly who he is and what he does,” Keefe said. “He's done a very good job of it around the league, and I've had a number of NHL coaches reach out to me and talk about how much respect they have for Kampf’s game.”

The 26-year-old Czech native is a dedicated gym rat and close friend with new Leaf Ondrej Kase. They’ve been skating on the same line and commuting to practice in the same car.

“He's super strong guy. I think maybe the strongest guy here,” Kase endorses. “I can’t say something bad about him. We're very close friends. We know each other like 10, 15 years. I think the Leafs will love him.”

Kampf tries to model his game after Anze Kopitar (but concedes the perennial Selke contender brings “obviously more offence”) and feels after four seasons in Chicago, he needed some fresh motivation, a new environment to push his limits.

“So I chose Toronto because it's one of the best organizations in the NHL. I'm happy to be here,” Kampf said. “They have big ambition. They want to win.”

No more ‘annoying’ fake fan noise!

It was a relief to hear Simmonds say what many reporters were thinking.

The phoney crowd noise — pumped into Scotiabank Arena last season at deafening volume and often at inappropriate moments — is over. Good riddance.

“It wasn't the same last year without the fans. You got artificial crowd noise, you know, which I thought was kind of more annoying than not,” Simmonds said. “So I'm pretty excited to get a chance to finally play in front of some real Torontonians.”

Friday’s loosened attendance restrictions by the Ontario government will allow for a half-full, fully vaccinated barn Saturday night, when the Leafs host the Canadiens in pre-season action.

The approximate 9,500 capacity is a significant bump from the 1,000 seats that were planning to be filled earlier in the week.

“It gives you that extra juice with an 82-game season," Jason Spezza said. "It would be incredible to have people in the building, and I know my family and friends want to be back in the building cheering me on, and people around the city love hockey so much. We have some of the best fans in the world, and we want them there with us.

“Let's get people in, and let's get the rink rockin’ again.”

Kase’s happy wake-up call

After Kase signed with the Maple Leafs on July 30, he went to bed happy, preparing for a good night’s rest in the Czech Republic after twisting in free agency’s wind for an extra couple of days.

But Nick Ritchie, unaware of the significant time-zone differential, had other plans.

“It was (a) funny story,” Kase recalled. “At three in the morning, he called me: ‘Hey, buddy, how you doing?'

“I say: ‘I have 3 a.m. So, like, what's up?'”

Ritchie: “I signed with the Maple Leafs too.”

Kase replied, “Hey, it is good to hear.” Then he went back to sleep.

The two teammates have grown close, following each other from Anaheim to Boston to Toronto.

“He's fast,” Ritchie said. “He's tenacious on the puck. He works hard. Has a good shot. He can kind of play anywhere and he complements guys really well.”

The greatest question mark regarding Kase is whether his frightening concussion history will play a factor in his health or his play.

“I feel 100 per cent,” Kase assured. “For me, it doesn't matter what the injury is. It was just an injury. It's done. It’s a new season this year, and it's fine. I have nothing [worrisome] in my mind.”

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