Maple Leafs Notebook: Why Toronto’s best players should see minutes drop

Shawn McKenzie and Luke Fox discuss Auston Matthews hitting the ice at training camp and Mitch Marner practicing the bumper position on the powerplay.

TORONTO — If Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner looked gassed when the buzzer sounded on their playoff lives, maybe it’s because they were.

Marner averaged more time on ice than any NHL forward in the regular season (22:26). Matthews, despite nursing his wrist injury, ranked fifth (21:33). Both saw their career-high usage climb to 24:43 and 23:53, respectively, in the post-season.

It’s no secret Sheldon Keefe loves to ride his superstars. But it is fair to ask if the coach has been asking too much.

Enter David Kämpf, the low-key free-agent centre brought in to take some D-zone starts and tough defensive matchups away from the Matthews and John Tavares lines.

It was no small thing for Keefe to note Wednesday that he believes the Leafs’ centre depth has never been as strong, in his tenure, as it is now. An unsolved issue that has lingered since the Nazem Kadri trade.

“I feel comfortable playing David Kämpf against anybody at any time. That’s a very important thing,” Keefe said. “It’s going to help manage the minutes of Matthews and Tavares a little bit better, too.”

Throwing Matthews over the boards for nearly 22 minutes per night in a shortened season is one thing; doing so over an 82-game haul could harm his freshness for what Toronto expects to be a long postseason.

That doesn’t mean Matthews and Tavares won’t get plenty of run if Toronto needs a goal. It should mean they won’t be relied on exclusively to protect a tight lead.

Barring an injury to the wing, Keefe now has the option to start the season with both Alexander Kerfoot and Kämp centring bottom-six lines. Having pivots he trusts defensively will encourage him to roll four lines more frequently.

And Kämpf, the key to a more balanced deployment, is getting rave reviews early.

“He looks really good and someone that I’ve noticed is a super-smart player,” Justin Holl said. “He always seems to be in the right spot and be an outlet for us defencemen, and he’s been really good on the PK with faceoffs and positioning as well. So, I can’t really say anything bad about him. He looks great.”

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Mikheyev determined to convert on breakaways

Asked which teammate has most caught his eye this camp, Wayne Simmonds throws out an interesting name: Ilya Mikheyev.

“He looked real strong, real fast, as he usually does, so he’s been great,” Simmonds says. “I think for Mickey it’s just kind of working on his finishing.

“He’s already is a great player, but that would just add to his tools and obviously help the team out.”

A third-liner with top-six aspirations, Mikheyev converted on just 6.5 per cent of his shots last season.

“Of course I need just more work on breakaways because I have lots of chances last season but…” Mikheyev says. “Just mentality. I need just score one and it’s coming.”

The speedy Russian has been hanging around after practice every day this week to fire extra pucks.

And when we asked goalie Jack Campbell to single out the player whose shot has most improved, he mentioned Mikheyev.

“Mickey flies up and down the ice, and his shot’s always been solid, but he’s been working on it a lot, so I’m looking for him to have a huge year for us,” Campbell said.

“Even though maybe it didn’t work out as often as he would’ve liked last season, he puts in the work, and everybody in the dressing room is full of confidence he can score whenever he wants.”

On Wednesday, Jake Muzzin hung around to feed Mikheyev a bunch of extra one-timers. And on Saturday, he did snipe in an exhibition shootout versus Montreal.

“I don’t think about it. I just shoot,” Mikheyev explained. “When you think a lot, sometimes it’s no good.”

Can cross-check crackdown help the Leafs?

A high-skill team that has struggled to draw penalties, the Maple Leafs could benefit from the NHL’s intention to blow the whistle on net-front cross-checking this season.

“Yeah, it’ll be nice,” Simmonds said. “I’ve been here for almost 14 years now and made a living taking lumber to get back.”

But Simmonds and others are skeptical, for good reason, that the standard in pre-season will be maintained come April.

Consistency — end to end and game to game — is what players want to see.

And they won’t believe it until they see it.

“Ever since I came into league, I think it’s been such a staple. I’m so used to that it doesn’t even really phase me too much, to be honest with you,” Simmonds went on. “If you’re going to do it, I think you just gotta be consistent throughout the full 82-game schedule — and playoffs, especially.”

Jason Spezza says there’s good reason cross-checking has become a conversation point lately. Like any rule change or crackdown, he expects an adjustment period.

“The goal is to make the game better and speed the game up and promote a little bit of offence and less in-front-of-the-net stuff, but we’ll see where it progresses,” Spezza said. “If they call it consistent, we adjust pretty quick. If it becomes a little bit inconsistent, then it becomes a little bit longer of a process.”

Keefe & Co. planning for aggressive penalty kill, forecheck

Systems-wise, the most significant overhaul in how the Maple Leafs play this season should be found on the power play and penalty kill.

“Our five-on-five numbers have been pretty good, but special teams are extremely important,” Kerfoot said. “The really good teams in the league are really good at both.”

In 2020-21, the Maple Leafs were not.

Toronto’s PP ranked 16th overall (20 per cent) and its PK slunk to 24th overall (78.5 per cent).

Brand-new assistants were brought in to head up those units. Spencer Carbery’s major change to the power play is pushing Marner into a fresh role and deploying a second shooting threat (William Nylander) on the flank.

Assistant Dean Chynoweth is assuming the penalty-kill reins from Seattle Kraken coach Dave Hakstol, and he’s been firm in instructing his four-man units to attack the puck and not let the opposition’s power-play get set up.

“If we’re gonna get beat, we’re going to get beat through aggressiveness and not through passiveness,” Kerfoot said.

That aggression, No. 1 PK centre Kämpf notes, applies to five-on-five play as well.

After four years in a Chicago system that stressed defence and more caution on dump-ins, Kämpf is encouraged by Keefe’s go-for-it style.

Heck, he already has two preseason goals from driving to the paint — eclipsing his regular-season total in 56 games for the Blackhawks in ’21.

Keefe believes the mild-mannered Czech has some offensive upside yet to be unlocked.

“I think it’s pretty good for me because we want to play harder… I like this style,” Kämpf says. “Toronto wants to play like more forechecking, and this is a big difference. In Chicago, we play like more defensive.”

Kerfoot kicks his candy cane habit

Kerfoot has ditched the “candy cane” tape job that used to swirl around the shaft of his hockey stick. The noticeable look was made popular by stars like former Leaf Phil Kessel and David Pastrnak.

“It’s gone for now,” said Kerfoot, who has switched to a less flashy (and more eco-friendly) tape job.

“I just wanted to get rid of it. I liked the new look, and it just feels better. I tried it out throughout the summer, and I had tried getting away from [the candy cane] in the past, but it just didn’t feel right. I tried to stick with [a tape-free shaft] a little bit longer this summer, so it feels good.”

No minutia is too small for the notebook!

Sandin wins Quote of the Week

When he wasn’t working on his golf game, prospect Rasmus Sandin spent his summer training alongside the Nylander brothers, William and Alex.

Did he pick much from William’s brain on what it takes to thrive as a full-time NHLer?

Sandin smiled before responding: “I’m not trying to take as much from his brain, to be honest. I want to develop my own and be the Rasmus way.”

One-Timers

As was the case Tuesday, Matthews participated in 25 minutes of non-contact drills with his teammates, then left the hour-long practice early… Nylander missed Wednesday’s skate due to a “personal day,” the club stated…. When healthy, we’re expecting to see a loaded top unit on the Leafs power-play: Morgan Rielly up top, Nylander and Matthews on the flanks, Marner in the bumper, and Tavares net-front…. Toronto sent mostly Marlies and players fighting for roster spots to Ottawa for Wednesday at Ottawa. Petr Mrazek got the full 60 minutes and a 4-0 shutout…. Puck drop for the annual Blue and White intrasquad game goes 6 p.m. Friday. You’ll be able to watch on Sportsnet ONE and SN Now.

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