Salming inspires Keefe to drill value of legacy into current Maple Leafs

Jordie Benn netted the game-winning goal in his first game of the season to cap off a three-goal second period as the Toronto Maple Leafs defeated the Vancouver Canucks 3-2.

TORONTO – Sheldon Keefe has both one eye on the minutiae and another on the big picture.

And so, while the diehards debating every lineup tweak may discuss how the coach broke up Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner for the first time this season, or how he reassembled his defensive pairs with a surprise T.J. Brodie injury, the most meaningful lineup decision Keefe had nothing to do with tactics or matchups.

No, it was a decision based on something more meaningful: Legacy. Honour. Respect.

So struck was Keefe by the heartfelt outpouring of emotion in Friday night’s Hall of Fame Game for ailing Toronto Maple Leafs icon Börje Salming that he felt compelled to make Salming’s impact ring even louder 24 hours later — and resonate with his players, all much too young to have seen one of Salming’s poetic rushes, buttery dishes, or nasty battles for space.

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Prior to puck drop against the Vancouver Canucks, Keefe crumpled up the default plan and announced a special all-Swede starting lineup: William Nylander, Calle Järnkrok and Pierre Engvall up front; Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren on the blue; and Erik Källgren, starting both ends of a back-to-back for just the second time as a pro, in net.

When the coach named his starter, Liljegren says, the room burst into cheers.

“I just thought it made sense to do a tribute to him in that way,” Keefe explains.

“When you see the reaction of the fans, you see the reaction of our players, you really feel part of a family, part of a legacy. You feel how important it is and how impactful players can be on our city.

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“Börje is obviously a legend here. It’s one thing to see the name or to see Legends Row, but to see the person here and see the reaction he gets at this stage of life still — from a different era of Leafs fans — it’s not just to honour Börje Salming but for our players to feel what they’re doing here.

“It’s all part of their own legacy, and you want to be someone that’s remembered like that.”

Legacy is a sensitive topic for the current group of Maple Leafs.

The most powerful individuals in their room undoubtedly have been blessed with the skills to build something historic, but, as a collective, there is still plenty of hard work to do.

So, after falling down 0-2 in the first period to a scattered and faulty Canucks group, and letting some air seep out of Scotiabank Arena in the process, it was encouraging to see the Maple Leafs engaged and dominant the rest of the way.

The Leafs rallied and checked. They battled and pressed, willing their way to a rather dominant 3-2 comeback victory over one of those weaker sides they should beat but, alas, don’t always do.

Auston Matthews beat a dialled-in Spencer Martin clean from distance like it was 2021-22 all over again. A struggling Engvall scored one for his country and his team.

And Jordie Benn of all people — a visorless, throwback defenceman making and surely the brand of player Salming can appreciate — whacked in the winner off the boards by sliding down net-front.

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“I wasn’t expecting a D-man to be in the paint there,” Matthews smiled.

“Unfortunately, he got hurt pretty early there and camp, but I think he just has a really calm demeanour back there and a lot of poise with the puck.

“He makes really good plays all over the ice. He’s got really good IQ, and I think you saw it tonight.”

The dependable Brodie (day-to-day) is dealing with an undisclosed injury, and although he took warmup, he told Benn to stay ready for his Maple Leafs debut.

“Just so happened, I ended up in front of the net. Pop ’er in,” Benn smiled after his revenge goal. “I was definitely a Canucks fan (growing up), so it’s definitely nice to stick it to ’em a little bit.”

It’s also nice to win with Salming in the barn and send Leafs Nation from tears to cheers.

“Those ceremonies are much needed,” Benn says. “He’s a special person and a special player and obviously special to Toronto. Those ones are hard to get through.

“It’s definitely a tear-jerker just because of what he’s done for hockey. Just to be on the bench and get to get to see him in-person and shake his hand when he’s walking off, it was something I’ll definitely remember.”

Turns out, you didn’t need to be Swedish, and you didn’t have to be watching hockey in the ’70s, to appreciate the magic of this Saturday night in Toronto.

“That kind of stuff really kind of hits you hard,” Matthews says.

“I think that puts a lot of things into perspective for us as players playing here, to have guys like him and others that have kind of paved the way for us. It means a lot. And I think you could just see it and feel it in the atmosphere in the crowd tonight.”

Fox’s Fast 5

• This is what it looks like to coach a team that has already blown six multi-goal leads when the season is only 15 games old:

• Boudreau on ex-Leaf Ilya Mikheyev, now speeding around Vancouver’s top six: “He’s added a speed dimension that we don’t have and he’s chipping in goals.

“He’s well on his way to a 25-goal season and more points than he’s had in the past. He does a lot of good things for us. Because he missed a lot of training camp, he’s just starting to get better.”

• The Maple Leafs are now aiming for Tuesday to get Matt Murray back in action. That would be in Pittsburgh.

• Why did Benn choose Toronto in free agency?

“I’ve watched the Maple Leafs, and I’ve hated playing against them. And I kinda wanted to be on this side of things for once.”

• Arrrrrrr…. Gooooooos!!!

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