TSN Toronto Reporter Mark Masters reports on the Maple Leafs, who practised at Ford Performance Centre on Friday ahead of Saturday’s game against the Minnesota Wild.
Mitch Marner left Friday’s practice early following a collision with Jake Muzzin.
“Scary,” said goalie Joseph Woll, who watched the accidental impact happen in front of his net. “I just hope everyone’s OK. Two very important players on our team and Mitchy looks like he took the worse of it so I hope he’s good. He’s a battler.”
Marner was slow to his feet and spoke with assistant athletic therapist Jon Geller at the bench. A few minutes later, he left the ice.
“Precautionary,” said head coach Sheldon Keefe. “We’ll see how he is in the morning. It’s not looking like anything serious at this point. He’s going to travel and prepare to play.”
Before departing practice, Marner and Muzzin had a conversation along the boards. It appeared to be heated.
“I was told there was a little bit of an exchange,” said Keefe, “but, especially those two guys, I don’t worry about that kind of stuff at all. Things happen out there whether it’s practice, games, whatever. Our team’s really close and that kind of stuff will be shaken off pretty quickly.”
Marner is known for his fun-loving personality but, like many elite athletes, he also has a fiery side.
“Practice or a game, he can give you a couple lines there on what you should’ve done on the play or stuff like that,” said defenceman Rasmus Sandin. “But that’s just the competitiveness in him, which we love to have. You need competitive guys and when you have a top player like that showing competitiveness – it’s contagious to the other guys.”
The injury scare comes at a time when Marner is building momentum alongside Auston Matthews. The dynamic duo combined on a couple highlight-reel plays against the Colorado Avalanche on Wednesday night.
“They make it look it very easy out there sometimes and you just shake your head and just laugh at it because it’s ridiculous,” said Sandin.
Marner and Matthews dominated the league last season, but their chemistry took a while to flow again this year. They played just three games together before being separated as the Leafs struggled out of the gate. Matthews then played with William Nylander for 10 games while Marner linked up with John Tavares.
Matthews and Marner were reunited ahead of a game against Nashville on Nov. 16. Wednesday was the first time this season that Marner picked up the primary assist on a Matthews’ even-strength goal.
“Two players like that, especially at their age, there’s room to grow still,” Keefe said. “There’s room to grow in their chemistry, there’s room to grow in their games individually. I don’t think we’d say they’ve maxed out their potential in any regards, especially with that drive that they have paired with the talent and competitiveness. I wouldn’t limit those guys at all. But, certainly, nice to see those guys connecting and can’t leave out the fact [Michael] Bunting has really contributed well to that line.”
“Both of them want the puck all the time,” Bunting said, “and good things happen when it’s on either of their sticks. I just try to get it to them as much as I can.”
On the first Matthews goal, Marner drew the Avalanche defenders to him before finding his good pal all alone in front of the net.
“He’s thinking about the next play,” Bunting said of Marner. “You can see it when I passed it over to him from behind the net and he was already looking to see where Matty was. He put it right on his tape and Matty made an unbelievable play, nice deke to put it upstairs.”
On the second Matthews goal, Marner fed his pal with a brilliant no-look, backhand pass.
“Mitch made some unbelievable plays,” Matthews said.
Bunting took a big hit to create that second Matthews goal.
“I was on my back,” he said with a chuckle. “I didn’t even get to see it until I saw the replay and then, when I saw the replay, I was like, ‘Wow, Mitchy, that was a nice play!’ All the soreness goes away. It was a good hit and I felt it, but once we scored the adrenaline hits. I’ll take that any day.”
This is Bunting’s second look on the first line this season. He mustered just two assists during a nine-game run with Matthews and Nylander.
“I’m trying to play simple, play my game and play with confidence,” the 26-year-old rookie said. “I feel like, at the start of the year, I wasn’t playing with as much confidence with the puck and I wasn’t holding onto it as much as I am now.”
Bunting has two goals and seven assists in the five games since joining the Matthews-Marner line.
Morgan Rielly missed practice on Friday.
“Morgan blocked a shot when we were out on the California trip and it acted up here in the last couple days so they sent him off to get pictures of it rather than practising today,” Keefe revealed. “Everything came back negative so he’ll be on the trip with us and continue to manage it, but I expect him to play.”
Toronto’s top defenceman took a Timo Meier shot off the inside of his right foot in San Jose. It forced him to the dressing room, but he quickly returned to the ice.
The team enjoyed a day off on Thursday so Rielly’s absence at practice raised some eyebrows.
“It was a bit surprising because he’s been playing through it,” Keefe acknowledged, “but it acted up to the point where they wanted to get further imaging on it.”
Rielly averages 24 minutes and three seconds of ice time per game, which leads the team.
In Rielly’s absence, Sandin moved up to the top pair alongside T.J. Brodie. The 21-year-old also took Rielly’s spot as quarterback on the top power-play unit. Sandin has played in all but one game this season and appears to have established himself as an every-day player.
“I just feel comfortable coming in every night,” the Swede said. “You grow as a player when you get that belief from staff and from your teammates. It helps playing every game so you’re not getting out of the game rhythm and game speed. It helps, for sure.”
Sandin is dynamic on the attack, but he points to a defensive adjustment as being key to his success this season.
“Taking that extra half second on the defensive side of the puck instead of rushing to the o-zone right away,” he said. “Taking that extra second and really playing the defence side first.”
Keefe was quick to point out that Sandin, who is plus-6 with seven assists, can’t let his foot off the gas.
“He’s still in a competition for his spot and his ice time and he’s got to continue to stay on top of that,” the coach cautioned. “We believe in him and he’s played very well for us. You talk about him being an every-day player and he’s only sat the one game to this point but he, like [Timothy] Liljegren and like [Travis] Dermott and Justin Holl, all those guys that have sat games healthy, they got to be at their best every day and that’s the biggest challenge in the NHL.”
Liljegren has sat as a healthy scratch in 10 games. Dermott has sat out seven games while Holl had a five-game stretch in the press box.
Sandin missed one game, which was in Buffalo on the second half of a back-to-back set. What’s allowed him to stay in the lineup?
“The power play and his ability to contribute on that is a big part of it,” Keefe explained. “He has a unique skill-set in that regard when you look at the group that we have. Those same skills that allow him to play on the power play, that’s also unique to our D group in terms of breaking the puck out, helping us move through the neutral zone and helping us at the offensive blue line. Those things really help him stay in and are important intangibles. So, that’s part of it. The other part is the maturity he’s shown as a young player even when he came in with the Marlies.”
Sandin’s potential on the power play is so great that he got a look with the top unit down the stretch last season, including in the playoffs. Sandin has been on the second unit this season as Rielly reclaimed the top-unit position.
“We’ll call it his veteran status,” Keefe explained last week. “We wanted to really give him that opportunity here with [new assistant coach] Spencer [Carbery] coming in and running it. Spencer felt really strongly, as he looked at it, that he wanted to go that way … We wanted to start that way and really haven’t seen a reason to change it yet.”
After missing three games with an upper-body injury, right winger Ondrej Kase returned to practice on Friday.
“Kase got through practice today,” Keefe said. “Very positive. It looks like he’s trending towards a return. He’s going to travel with the group. We’ll see how he is in the morning and take it from there.”
Kase skated in his usual spot on the third line with David Kampf and Pierre Engvall.
After not dressing on Wednesday night due to stiffness, Woll was also back on the ice at practice.
“The past couple days I got some really good treatment and did a lot of stuff to help and felt really good today,” the 23-year-old said. “So, just take it day by day … I’m going in the right direction.”
Woll and Michael Hutchinson will travel to Minnesota. If he’s healthy enough, Woll appears to be in line to start on Sunday night in Winnipeg, which would likely mean a showdown with fellow American Connor Hellebuyck.
“He’s a guy you can take a lot from,” Woll, a St. Louis native, said. “He’s very calm and composed in the net. That would be a really cool challenge if I get the chance.”
Woll has made the most of his chances so far. He’s 3-0-0 with a .939 save percentage. Woll’s latest appearance was last week in San Jose where he allowed an early goal and then committed his first NHL penalty. Teammates were impressed with how he reacted after shooting the puck over the glass for a delay-of-game call.
“I was kind of laughing, to be honest,” Woll said. “It was just unlucky. It might’ve rolled up and I just like slingshot it or lacrosse shot it or something right out of the ice. I thought it was the right play, just not executed the right way.”
Woll worked hard on the mental side of the game during the pandemic, which left him feeling ready for this NHL audition despite sporting a sub .900 save percentage in the American Hockey League.
“Something I’ve worked on a lot is trying to stay in the moment as much as I can and accept I’m going to make mistakes and not be perfect,” he said. “That was a big hump for me to get over. I really try to enjoy what happens. Whether I let in 10 goals or zero goals, my goal is to have the same mindset. I think I did that well the past couple games and I hope to continue it.”
It’s been an emotional run for Woll, who had friends and family in attendance for his NHL debut in Buffalo on Nov. 13. He followed up that win with his first ever shutout in his next start on Nov. 21 on Long Island. He was mobbed by teammates on the ice and then got doused by water in the dressing room.
Through it all, Woll has been steady.
“Consistency,” he said of what it takes to make it at the highest level. “There’s a big difference between playing in the NHL and being an NHL player and ultimately that’s consistency and being able to come in on a daily basis, whether it’s practice or a game day, and treat it the same.”
Sunday’s game may be Woll’s last NHL look for a while. Petr Mrazek is close to returning from a groin injury. He’s been sent to the AHL on a conditioning stint.
“The Marlies were supposed to play tomorrow night and that’s been postponed so he’s going to play on Sunday and we’ll take it from there,” said Keefe.
Mrazek has been sidelined since Oct. 30. He’s only played five periods this season.
Ilya Mikheyev has played even less. The Russian winger broke his thumb in Toronto’s last pre-season game on Oct. 9. On Friday, he practised with the team for the first time since then.
“It’s really nice to see him taking those steps,” said Keefe. “Part of it is the conditioning piece and getting back out on the ice and being around more than an open sheet of ice and having lots of guys out there. That’s part of making your way. And then the other piece is being with your teammates again. He’s been isolated a lot, as injured players tend to be, and we’ve been trying to get him integrated in our meetings the last little while and coming on the road is a big part of it too.”
Mikheyev skated in a grey extras sweater on Friday. He will travel with the team to Minnesota.
“It feels good,” he said. “Much better every day. Little step every day.”
This is a big season for Mikheyev. He’s in the final year of his contract and was skating on the Tavares line before the injury. How is he handling the frustration?
“It’s tough question,” the 27-year-old said. “Just work. Keep working. It’s no secret. It’s life. It happens. I can change nothing so let’s try again.”
Teammates urged him to lead the stretch at the end of the workout.
“The guys give me a chance,” Mikheyev said with a big smile.
Lines at Friday’s practice:
Bunting – Matthews – Marner
Kerfoot – Tavares – Nylander
Engvall – Kampf – Kase
Ritchie – Spezza – Simmonds
Sandin – Brodie
Muzzin – Holl
Dermott – Liljegren
Clifford – Anderson
Power-play units at Friday’s practice:
Flanks: Matthews, Marner
Net front: Tavares
Flanks: Spezza, Engvall
Net front: Ritchie
Adblock test (Why?)