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Joe Thornton already feeling ‘at home’ with Toronto Maple Leafs

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TSN Hockey Reporter Kristen Shilton reports on the Toronto Maple Leafs, who held their first day of on-ice training camp activities for the 2020-21 season at Ford Performance Centre on Monday.

Leave it to the always-affable Joe Thornton to turn mandatory quarantine into a bonding experience.

That’s more or less what played out when Thornton, Auston Matthews, William Nylander, Rasmus Sandin and Mac Hollowell hunkered down together outside Toronto to serve their mandatory 14-day isolation before entering the Leafs’ facilities, a couple weeks that allowed Thornton a smooth transition from his 15-year stint with San Jose.

“To be honest with you, it’s been pretty easy,” Thornton told reporters on a Zoom call Monday of joining the Leafs. “I was quarantining with some of the guys for 14 days so I got to know guys right off the hop. I felt comfortable, even though I was in San Jose for so long. The guys really made me feel comfortable here, they got a good staff, and a great group so really I feel at home again.”

And what an impression the 41-year-old Thornton has already made, especially on the Leafs’ younger contingency.

“He was unbelievable,” Nylander said of sharing a house with Thornton. “Spending two weeks with a Hall of Famer is pretty special and getting to know him is also very special. He’s an unbelievable guy and he works hard every day.”

“He’s definitely a larger-than-life figure,” added Zach Hyman. “You know when he’s in a room, and he brings a great presence. He demands a lot from his teammates and I think that he’s in great shape and he’s a great player so I think that he’s going to be a great addition for our team, not just on the ice but especially off the ice with his demeanour.”

Thornton’s positivity has been so infectious that head coach Sheldon Keefe lamented on his own Zoom call that reporters weren’t there to witness the first day of Leafs’ camp Monday, where Thornton’s sunny disposition was evident from start to finish.

“With Joe, it’s a shame you can’t be around and just see how tangible [his passion] is when he’s here,” Keefe said. “It was a very difficult day for our guys to start training camp, we really demanded a lot of our group. And a), Joe worked extremely hard and pushed himself extremely hard on the ice [while] he still maintained his smile, and off the ice you see his smile and he’s happy and excited for the next day. We really think that that brings a lot of value to our team and we saw a lot of benefits here today.”

Those early returns squash any notion that Thornton is feeling extra pressure to perform in Toronto, particularly now that he’s slotted at left wing on a line with Matthews and Mitch Marner. Thornton said he was a “rover” previously for the Sharks, toggling between centre and the wing, and is perfectly happy being where he is now beside Matthews.

“I got no stress man, honestly,” Thornton said. “I feel good, I feel comfortable. I tend to play with no stress, have a smile on my face and stay hungry. I think that’s when I perform the best. And at my age, I’ll just continue that.”

If anything, skating alongside the likes of Matthews and Marner should help keep the veteran young, although Keefe cautioned Thornton won’t see nearly as many minutes overall as his counterparts.

“Just the talent level these guys have, these guys grew up on skills coaches and things like that, so they can do things I could never imagine doing,” Thornton admitted. “But just being around this youthful energy, I think it just gets me excited. And they got a lot of it here so I’m just soaking it all in. I feel like I’m young again. It’s a good feeling to be in.”

There were times last season that Keefe entrusted Travis Dermott with a top-pairing role on the Leafs’ defence. But for the first day of camp activities this year, Dermott had slid all the way down to a fourth pairing slot with Sandin, while newcomers Mikko Lehtonen and Zach Bogosian made up the third pairing.

Ahead of them, T.J. Brodie and Morgan Rielly sat atop the depth chart, with Jake Muzzin and Justin Holl once again partnered together.

“With Bogosian and Lehtonen, we have two guys coming in here that we really like,” Keefe explained. “And we want and expect our defence to be better [than last season]. So we’ll give them that opportunity to pair together. And at the same time, we’ve got Dermott and Sandin, two guys that have been here and know what our expectations are and we expect those guys to push and not go quietly in terms of just accepting that those guys might be ahead of them here right now.”

Defensive depth hasn’t often been called a strength of Toronto’s in recent years, but Keefe feels the tide has turned there with the off-season acquisitions of Brodie, Lehtonen and Bogosian.

“I just look at our defence, and we feel like it has gotten better,” Keefe said. “I think it’s really deep. But when you’re a depth player on a team [that] has gotten better around you, your goal is probably not going to be the same as what it was before and you’re going to have to really work to get it back. But whether it’s Dermott or Sandin or any of the other defencemen that [we have], these guys are going to be factors for us and we need to make sure that they continue to push to be ready when those opportunities come.”

Perhaps the most important factor in blueline success this season though will be the health of Rielly. He missed eight weeks last season with a broken foot, and said on Sunday that he’s feeling better and healthier than he has in some time. Instead of returning to his native Vancouver in the off-season, Rielly stayed in Toronto to train, and it’s already paying dividends for him on the ice.

“There’s no coincidence that [Rielly’s] feeling the best he has, because he’s put in great work,” Keefe said. “He was in here every single day pushing himself with our strength coaches and on the ice with skill development coaches. You can just see that he was feeling good today, he had lots of pop, lots of jump. And then to have someone like Brodie I think gives him lots of confidence. But I know that in Morgan’s case, he’s very committed to finding a great partnership with TJ but at the same time knowing that he wants to get better himself. He doesn’t want to just use that crutch of having a great partner, which we think is really going to benefit him and our team, but he himself is motivated to to be great this season.”

Speaking of getting healthy, count Wayne Simmonds as another player who claims to feel better than ever. The Toronto product signed a one-year contract with his hometown team in the off-season and has been hard at work preparing to be a big part of its success.

“I’m fully back to health and I’m ready to go,” Simmonds said. “I’m not just looking to be another passenger, I’m looking to be an impact player and play the role that I’m given here and push the boys along. I’ve been a leader on every team that I’ve been on so I’m going to look to instil that into the guys and then hopefully keep pushing and let my work ethic speak for itself.”

This summer was different than any Simmonds had experienced recently, not just because of the COVID-19 pandemic but because he was fit enough to actually make progress in his game. After years of being hampered by injuries and plowing through subsequent recoveries, Simmonds felt himself actually taking steps forward.

“I think the last couple years for me were kind of crappy, just for the fact that I wasn’t able to train in the summer and the majority of everything I did was just maintenance and in rehab,” he said. “I was able to do a full summer program [this time], plus pretty much an extra summer program within those 10 months there so I feel awesome, the best that I felt probably in the last three or four years, and I can’t wait to actually get out there against some other opponents besides our own guys.”

Keefe has Simmonds slotted onto the fourth line for now with Jason Spezza and Alexander Barabanov, but has high expectations for what all the veteran will be able to provide.

“He’s going to start down with Spezza and Barabanov there, but we know he’s not going to take a shift off or a practice rep off and he’s going to be pushing to move up the lineup,” Keefe said. “We expect that he will move around and get opportunities. He’s going to be prominent on our power play.”

Before the Leafs get around to playing some games, Simmonds will keep getting to know his new teammates, and honing what he does best on the ice.

“I think the skill level of this whole group is just ridiculous so I hope to bring my physicality and the traits that I bring as a net-front presence,” he said. “[And with my] leadership, just trying to integrate myself within this group and I’m going to help the boys out. I don’t change my game too much; it’s get in, muck it up, loosen up pucks and let those guys work.”

Keefe was forthright in his opening press conference on Sunday about dividing the Leafs into two distinct training camp groups immediately, with the goal of quickly establishing his NHL team and focusing on their habits.

Once those decisions were made, Keefe wasted no time putting his projected roster through a punishing first day of on-ice training that began with a bruising conditioning skate.

“Through this off-season, we’ve prepped the players that our goal was to make them uncomfortable here today and push them hard and have them prep for it,” Keefe explained. “I think that they responded to that, first of all in their preparation for a day like this today and then they pushed through it. Any time you start training camp, and for the first 20 minutes they don’t see a puck, it’s tough mentally for them. But I thought they dealt with it extremely well. And then we were able to regroup and focus and go out and have a really good, hard, competitive and fast NHL-calibre practice right from Day 1. So that was really great to see. The energy was great.”

Those players not in the first group had to go through their own session as well, all the while trying to show why they belong with those NHL-bound skaters. Notably part of the second team were Pierre Engvall and Nick Robertson, two guys that will have to make serious strides in order to earn some ice time this season.

“I’ve met with all these guys individually and been really upfront with them about their situations,” Keefe said. “Each of them was a little bit different and unique from the next. The decisions aren’t final, and we can change our mind and move things around at any point here, even throughout the camp. But we had to make some decisions. In Nick’s case, it’s really pushing and proving that he’s ready to play full time in the NHL and in Pierre’s case, he’s played well when he’s played for us and played very well at times but I still think he has a whole other level to get to, in terms of the way he engages physically and the way that he uses his size and strength in all areas of the ice.”

Having his likely roster separated out has allowed Keefe to experiment with line combinations he had wanted to use last season but wasn’t able to, mostly because of injuries. He’s especially liked having Alex Kerfoot with Hyman and Ilya Mikheyev, a third unit that in Keefe’s mind could help put Toronto over the top.

“It’s just three guys that are relentless on the puck, that skate really well, have good defensive habits, and that are real strong penalty killers for us and relied on in those defensive situations,” Keefe said. “Once we really clearly identified a role for Kerfoot on the penalty kill, he really displayed his defensive abilities. He’s got a great stick, he’s smart, he skates and works extremely hard. So we really looked at our team and thought we could put together a line like that, and that it could really make us harder to play against in a lot of ways with matchups and things like that you need to be hard on good players, and then opens things up with some other options for us.”

 

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Ehlers has four points to lead Jets to come-from-behind win over Oilers – Sportsnet.ca

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WINNIPEG — The Winnipeg Jets were left shaking their heads when Sunday’s comeback was spoiled by a stunning, late collapse.

A similar script played out two nights later — only with a different final chapter.

Nikolaj Ehlers scored once and added three assists as Winnipeg rebounded from an early 3-1 deficit Tuesday with four straight goals, including three early in the third period, to defeat the Edmonton Oilers 6-4.

The Jets trailed 2-1 heading into the final 20 minutes some 48 hours earlier against the same opponent before surging ahead, but ultimately walked away with nothing after the Oilers tied things with four minutes left in regulation to set up Leon Draisaitl’s demoralizing winner with 0.7 seconds remaining on the clock.

Winnipeg found itself in an a near-identical situation down 3-2 through 40 minutes Tuesday. This time, however, the Jets scored three times in a span of three minutes 27 seconds to secure a lead they wouldn’t squander.

“It’s the highs and lows of professional sport,” said Winnipeg forward Adam Lowry, who scored the winner to go along with two assists. “Sometimes it seems like you have an emotional letdown the next game.

“The first period wasn’t our best, but we regrouped. We’ve got a lot of belief in our room and the firepower we have.”

Andrew Copp added two goals, including one into an empty net, and two assists, while Paul Stastny, with a goal and an assist, and Mathieu Perreault provided the rest of the offence for Winnipeg (5-2-0). Connor Hellebuyck made 22 saves.

“Our mentality of just staying in the battle,” Ehlers said when asked how his team shook off a tough loss and a rough opening 20 minutes. “And knowing that we’re better than that.”

Connor McDavid and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, with a goal and an assist each, Draisaitl and Adam Larsson replied for Edmonton (3-5-0), which has yet to win consecutive games in the all-Canadian North Division. Mikko Koskinen made 27 saves, while Darnell Nurse added three assists.

“Same type of story as the other night,” McDavid said. “We did a good job most of the 40 minutes, and then in the third period we kind of just let it get away.

“Able to battle back the other night. Not tonight. It’s frustrating.”

The Jets tied it 3-3 at 3:19 of the third when Stastny weaved into the offensive zone and slid a pass for Ehlers to bury his fifth of the season — and a career-high fifth in as many games.

“I feel really good, which to me is the most important thing,” said Ehlers, who finds himself among the NHL leaders with 11 points. “My legs have been great. I want to be able to continue feeling great.”

Stastny then gave Winnipeg its first lead at 5:26 when he fished a loose puck out of a crowd in front and flicked his second beyond Koskinen.

The Jets continued the onslaught just 1:20 later when Lowry redirected his fourth off a pass from Derek Forbort to make it 5-3.

McDavid got one back for the visitors thanks to his fifth with 1:50 left on the clock and Koskinen on the bench for an extra attacker, but Copp iced it into an empty net with under a minute to go.

The line of Ehlers, Stastny and Copp combined for 10 points Tuesday in Winnipeg’s sixth game in nine nights.

“We’re reading off each other so well,” said Copp, “We’ve gone to the net hard, we’ve put the puck in the net on our opportunities, and have been able to change some games for us.”

Edmonton and Winnipeg will go head-to-head seven more times this season, with the next meetings scheduled for Feb 15 and 17 in Alberta’s capital.

Playing the finale of a four-game road trip through Toronto and Winnipeg, the Oilers opened the scoring on a power play at 1:48 of the first when Draisaitl snapped his fourth of the campaign — and fourth in as many games — off the rush.

Winnipeg responded on a man advantage of its own at 5:14 when Copp banged home his third after Koskinen made a couple of good stops.

Edmonton nudged back in front 2-1 at 9:13 when Patrick Russell found Larsson at the point, and he beat Hellebuyck on a shot the Jets goalie will want back.

The Oilers, who came in with the NHL’s 25th-ranked power play after finishing first in 2019-20, connected on their second straight man advantage to go up by two just 2:03 later when Nugent-Hopkins took a pass from McDavid and wired his fourth upstairs.

But the Jets countered once again three seconds after an Edmonton penalty expired when Perreault snapped his first past Koskinen, who has played every minute of his team’s season with fellow netminder Mike Smith out injured, off a Lowry feed at 14:37 as the Oilers took a 3-2 advantage to the locker room.

Mark Scheifele hit the post for Winnipeg early in the second on a 2-on-1 chance as the teams played with a lot more tempo following that penalty-filled first.

Edmonton’s Zack Kassian had three great opportunities to put his team back up by two, including a breakaway moments before the intermission, while James Neal had another, but the Oilers were unable to find the range.

Without pointing fingers, McDavid said misses like that can give a tired opponent energy.

“I’ve been on the other side of that,” he said. “When there’s chances missed, it’s almost like there’s a goal scored for you.

“It’s momentum they can build off.”

The Jets certainly did that in the third.

Notes: Winnipeg head coach Paul Maurice was behind the bench for the 1,607th regular-season game of his NHL career, tying him with Al Arbour for fourth on the all-time list. … Edmonton hosts the Maple Leafs for two games beginning Thursday after the teams split a pair of contests last week in Toronto. … Winnipeg now has three days off before resuming its seven-game homestand Saturday against the Vancouver Canucks.

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Mitchell: Toronto Blue Jays betting on Marcus Semien's upside while infielder gambles on himself – TSN

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TORONTO — In luring George Springer last week, the Toronto Blue Jays remade their long-term outfield picture with one $150-million cheque.

On Tuesday, they continued upgrading, this time shifting their short-term infield picture with the addition of former Oakland Athletics shortstop Marcus Semien on a one-year, $18-million deal, a source confirmed.

The agreement is pending a physical.

From the Blue Jays’ perspective, the move can be explained in one word: Upside.

In 2019, at the age of 28, the right-handed hitting Semien swatted 33 home runs, stole 10 bases, played in all 162 games, and slashed .285/.369/.522 on his way to a third-place finish in American League MVP voting.

In the pandemic shortened 2020 season … Semien cratered.

He batted just .223 with a .679 OPS and his strikeout numbers jumped as he fell from 7.6 fWAR in 2019 to 1.2 fWAR in 53 games last season.

The Jays are betting Semien can at least split the difference between his two most recent seasons, with the outside chance he can get back to his MVP ways for at least one year.

If things go well for the 30-year-old hitting near the bottom of what could be a top-five offence in baseball, the club will also have the ability to give Semien a qualifying offer next winter, which would either sign him up for another go-round at a similar price should he accept — the QO was $18.9 million this winter — or tie him to draft pick compensation if he declines and hits free agency.

On the flip side, Semien is simply betting on himself.

Put up big numbers in 2021 and he can try free agency again next winter, this time with some added defensive versatility to his name because the plan is for Semien to be the primary second baseman in Toronto.

He’s not a complete stranger to the position, having made 26 starts at the keystone over his first two seasons in the big leagues with the Chicago White Sox, the club that selected him in the sixth round of the 2011 draft out of the University of California.

Semien has also made 44 starts at third base, a position he could see time at this season when the need arises, in addition to being the primary backup behind shortstop Bo Bichette.

Analytics and positioning should turn the athletic Semien into a plus second baseman with the glove and give the Jays at the very least a pretty fun double play duo up the middle this summer.

As of today, that would leave Cavan Biggio at third base and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. at first, but Biggio’s extreme versatility gives the front office options, meaning they might not be done adding to the infield puzzle.

With at least one rotation arm needed and some bullpen depth, as well, the club’s off-season is far from over, but you can easily start to question how much money there is left to spend.

The current estimated payroll, per Roster Resource, sits at around $132 million.

While Blue Jays’ brass has given no indication where the upper threshold lies, there is reason to believe there’s flexibility built into budget scenarios based on the opportunities available to them.

Considering there are a number of quality free agents still available and not enough major-league owners willing to spend money, GM Ross Atkins and the front office might have the wiggle room to convince ownership to push even more chips into the centre of the table.

Even without doing that, there’s reason to believe the budget could go as high as $140 million, which leaves room for another free-agent addition, maybe a creative trade for a controllable player, or even some cost-cutting moves — you can pay half of Tanner Roark’s salary to pitch elsewhere — if that’s what’s needed.

After a slow start to the off-season, the Jays are suddenly one of the winter’s busiest teams.

Rotation aside, they’re one of the most improved, too.​

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Semien addition helps Blue Jays’ defence, raises team’s offensive ceiling – Sportsnet.ca

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TORONTO — A week and a half ago, the Toronto Blue Jays had almost nothing to show for their off-season. Now that they’ve added Tyler Chatwood, Kirby Yates, George Springer and Marcus Semien this roster suddenly looks much different — and much better — than before

Bringing Semien in on a one-year, $18-million deal strengthens the Blue Jays’ infield and their batting order. While more work remains on the pitching staff, the team’s offensive depth looks better than it has in years following the addition of Semien, who finished third in AL MVP voting in 2019. The Blue Jays’ lineup now projects to be among baseball’s most prolific, but this most recent deal brings with it other repercussions worth discussing.

With Semien now the leading candidate for second base at-bats, Cavan Biggio likely becomes the team’s primary third baseman. On paper that works, but there’s no need to be overly rigid about those roles in January, and the Blue Jays do value versatility highly. It’d be a surprise if the Blue Jays limit Semien and Biggio to those spots all year.

On defence Semien remains an above-average defensive shortstop, according to FanGraphs (UZR/150 of 6.4 in 2018, 5.0 in 2019, 4.8 in 2020). When he’s playing second base, the skills that allow him to handle shortstop — a strong arm, good footwork and field awareness, for instance — will be highly transferable. In those moments, the Blue Jays will essentially have two shortstops up the middle. But should Bo Bichette need any time off, Semien can slot in easily at the only position he played from 2015-20.

One way or another, this addition should help the Blue Jays’ run prevention, one of the main goals for the front office this winter. At the same time, it does appear to complicate Vladimir Guerrero Jr.’s path to regular starts at third. After an off-season of dedicated workouts Guerrero Jr.’s Instagram bio reads ‘Blue Jays 3B,’ and it stands to reason that the team will ensure he gets reps there in spring training, but with Biggio, Bichette and Semien in place, Guerrero Jr. more likely projects as the team’s first baseman.

With that in mind, the team’s batting order could look like this on any given day:

CF: George Springer (R)
SS: Bo Bichette (R)
1B: Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (R)
RF: Teoscar Hernandez (R)
LF: Lourdes Gurriel Jr. (R)
3B: Cavan Biggio (L)
2B: Marcus Semien (R)
DH: Randal Grichuk (R) / Rowdy Tellez (L)
C: Danny Jansen (R)

Of course that’s just one possible structure among many, and teams rarely stick with one lineup for long in today’s game, but it illustrates the offensive depth this team now possesses. Some days, Rowdy Tellez (.886 OPS in 2020) might be on the bench. Other days it might be Randal Grichuk (12 HR, .793 OPS). At some point, Alejandro Kirk will get a chance to contribute, too.

Speaking of the Blue Jays’ bench, adding Semien might also allow for some creativity. Since Semien can handle shortstop, there’s less of a pressing need to roster Santiago Espinal which creates an opportunity to carry another bench bat or reliever.

With the addition of Semien, the Blue Jays now have the fourth-best projected offence in baseball behind only the Dodgers, Yankees and Astros. And if Semien is the guy he’s been for most of his career — a roughly league-average hitter with 15-homer power — that would certainly help. But there’s further upside here, too, as he showed by hitting 33 home runs with an .892 OPS in 2019.

Even this past season, there were flashes of that offensive potential. After a slow start in 2020, Semien had a .772 OPS from Aug. 8 through the end of the regular season then posted a 1.151 OPS with two home runs in the playoffs. If the Blue Jays get that version of Semien, their lineup gets much deeper.

From an organizational standpoint, he doesn’t become a core piece in the way Springer did. But while the Blue Jays’ outfield is devoid of top prospects, Jordan Groshans and Austin Martin lessen the need for long-term help on the infield. If a need exists in a year’s time, the Blue Jays could bring Semien back or even obtain a draft pick for extending him a qualifying offer — something the A’s did not do.

All of that’s a discussion for much later, though. Right now, the Blue Jays are a much better team with a deep lineup and an improved defence. They could certainly use more pitching, and there’s reason to believe their work isn’t done on that front, but the addition of Semien represents significant progress for a team that’s suddenly making a habit of big moves.

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