Maple Leafs toughen up their roster for physical Jets showdown

Toronto Maple Leafs' winger Michael Bunting discusses Leafs' superstar centre Auston Matthews and commends him for the physicality he's added to his game as well as how that helps the team on the ice.

WINNIPEG – The Wayne Train has left the station, and he’s pulling the Cliffy Car right behind him.

Tempers tend to flare and the action gets nasty whenever the Toronto Maple Leafs cross paths with their old North Division enemy, the Winnipeg Jets. So, it should come as no surprise that coach Sheldon Keefe is calling up a double dose of muscle for the occasion.

Veteran fourth-line wingers Wayne Simmonds and Kyle Clifford both failed to make the NHL roster out of training camp. Both will debut Saturday night against a Jets core that loves nothing more than beating the Maple Leafs.

Auston Matthews, for one, welcomes the adjustment.

The superstar received some nasty punishment Thursday against a heavy Dallas Stars group and needed to skip Friday practice for maintenance.

“It’s a subtle and sneaky cross-check from Benn on Auston there. Hard one to find or to call, but those are the ones the league doesn’t want to see,” Keefe notes.

Remember, the Leafs and Jets have a history of violence. Recent clashes have been spiked with fighting majors, significant injuries and suspensions on both sides.

Matthews describes Simmonds and Clifford as the “ultimate teammates,” “ultimate warriors,” and “ultimate professionals.”

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And with their debuts deferred to Game 6, they should hop over the boards with intent.

“Obviously, two guys that play physical. They’re always gonna have your back out there. And they bring a lot of energy and intensity to our team,” Matthews said.

“So, I definitely don’t think it’s a negative thing to have guys like that in your lineup.”

Keefe adds: “Both guys bring us lots of energy, both on the bench and on the ice. And I think coming into this road trip, we could use that.”

With Simmonds and Clifford drawing in, bottom-six wingers Nicolas Aubé-Kubel and Pierre Engvall will be dealt their first healthy scratches of the season. Depth D-man Filip Kral was returned to the Marlies.

Not only does Toronto’s lineup adjustment reflect a need to toughen up, it’s also a gut-check for a new-look bottom six that has underwhelmed through five games.

“They’ve been starting in the defensive zone more than anybody in the league and playing against some of the tougher competition than anybody in the league. So, it’s been a challenge for them that way,” Keefe explains.

“There’s nobody (on the fourth line), I don’t think, that I said: ‘Absolutely they need to be in the lineup because they’re playing so well.’

“Just trying to find the right mix.”

Engvall was given a $1 million raise over the off-season and arrived in camp with 20-goal aspirations. He injured his ankle during off-season training and hasn’t looked nearly effective as he was in 2021-22.

“He’s looked tentative and hesitant to skate. That’s his No. 1 asset,” says Keefe, hopeful a night in the pressbox will provide a mental rest for an important role player.

That seat should be a good one for overlooking what promises to be some prime-time fireworks at Canada Life Centre.

“Just a good feeling. Obviously, a big job tonight,” Clifford says.

“It’s a hard building to play in — and we’re ready for it.”

Expect some bad blood to boil?

“I dunno,” Simmonds replies. “We’ll see what happens when the puck drops, right?”

Maple Leafs projected lines Saturday in Winnipeg:

Bunting – Matthews – Marner 
Robertson – Tavares – Nylander 
Aston-Reese – Kerfoot – Järnkrok 
Clifford – Kämpf – Simmonds 

Rielly – Brodie 
Sandin – Holl 
Giordano – Mete

Samsonov (starter)

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