‘Unbelievable’: Maple Leafs’ bubble man Conor Timmins lights up pre-season

Connor Timmins led the way with a pair of goals and Max Domi scored his first goal in the blue and white as the Toronto Maple Leafs defeated the Buffalo Sabres 5-2 in pre-season action from St. Thomas Ontario.

ST. THOMAS, Ont. — When Sheldon Keefe watched back video of the Toronto Maple Leafs‘ first pre-season game, he saw Conor Timmins help set up both his split squad’s goals plus a few more quality scoring opportunities Sunday in Ottawa.

Timmins could’ve had four points if some guys finished their chances, the coach thought.

Well, on Wednesday night at Joe Thornton Community Centre, some guys did finish their chances. And Timmins did have four points, all primary, in a 5-2 victory over the Buffalo Sabres. Two goals, two beautiful assists.

That makes six points in two games for Toronto’s seventh defenceman.

And if we were to tell you that Conor would be the NHL’s preseason scoring leader, you would tell us we were short an n.

“Unbelievable. A lot of fun to watch. You could see he was feeling it out there,” beamed the speedy Sam Lafferty, who scored shorthanded. “The goal was really nice, but that assist he had was pretty spectacular. It’s fun to see one of the guys feeling it like that.”

Which assist? The one where he burst down the right wing, beat one defender wide, then threaded a seam pass through another to Kyle Clifford?

Or the one where he sifted a long-range touchdown pass to Max Domi, who had just hopped out of the penalty box?

[brightcove videoID=6337952411112 playerID=JCdte3tMv height=360 width=640]

“That’s an all-world pass,” Domi said. “Anytime you get a penalty, you’re hoping you get a breakaway when you get out, right? Unbelievable pass. Sauced right over the guy’s stick. Didn’t want to waste it for him.”

That Timmins is finding his way onto the scoresheet is no surprise to Keefe.

Remember, the mid-season pickup from Arizona piled up 14 points in 25 games for Toronto last season, despite seeing third-pair minutes.

The Maple Leafs’ mission with Timmins, 25, is to round out his game so he can be just as effective in his own zone, without the puck.

“It’s a matter of consistency,” Keefe said. “There’s more to playing that position, right? It’s consistently being reliable to break the puck out, reliable to defend, reliable to play against good players at times, not have to be sheltered. All those kinds of things are important to take a step. 

“He’s worked really hard to give himself a chance to compete here in camp, and it’s good to see him get rewarded on a night like tonight.” 

Timmins was a pending RFA when former GM Kyle Dubas acquired him. He swiftly inked a two-year extension that carries a $1.1-million cap hit. Yet, in light of Toronto’s veteran depth, Timmins was a professional practice player throughout the Leafs’ post-season.

The St. Catherines, Ont., spent the entire summer in Toronto, training at the club’s facility and packing on muscle, bumping his weight to 206 pounds. He feels stronger and, thanks to the early production, more assertive.

[brightcove videoID=6337958495112 playerID=JCdte3tMv height=360 width=640]

“Obviously, it’ll give me some confidence going forward. But, I mean, the points aren’t really something I’m focused on,” Timmins said. 

Throughout the summer and into camp, Timmins has been striving to tighten his defensive gaps, win his corner battles and make smart plays on breakouts.

“He’s not fun to play against,” Domi said. “Good skater. Big body. Strong. Boxes out pretty good. And he can make plays. Both him and Timmy Liljegren, they’re underrated, right?”

The difference between the two right shots is that Timmins currently sits outside Toronto’s top six, and his path to becoming a fixture is complicated.

Timmins is no longer waivers-exempt, so the cap-crunched Leafs will either hang onto him as a seventh D or risk losing the player if they send him down the AHL before opening night.

Of course, rosters are forever in flux, and the threat of injury always looms.

John Klingberg — another offensively blessed righty — left Wednesday’s exhibition early due to an undisclosed injury. (Keefe said the measure was precautionary and that Klingberg needed further evaluation before determining the severity of the ailment.)

[brightcove videoID=6337958617112 playerID=JCdte3tMv height=360 width=640]

Klingberg’s absence opened even more ice time for Timmins, and he took full advantage, treating the Kraft Hockeyville town of St. Thomas to a four-point show.

“It reminded me of my junior days,” Timmins smiled. “I played a year in Junior B when I was 16 years old, and it is kind of similar to this. A lot of kids tonight. They were really loud. It was great.”

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.