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Toronto Maple Leafs Training Camp Musings: Starting lines, Defensive Depth, and Special Teams – Maple Leafs Hot Stove

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The first look at line combinations in training camp always fires up Leafs fans, and that’s particularly true when we have a future HHOFer in Joe Thornton arriving in town to chase a Stanley Cup, penciled into the lineup next to the team’s superstar center in Auston Matthews.

I have no doubt we are going to see some awesome moments come out of this, similar to Jason Spezza’s goal on the opening shift next to John Tavares in the memorable next-generation game versus Carolina last season.

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Taking a step back, though, there is a lot to consider here.

Firstly, before we dive into the minutiae of it, there is definitely an element of both respect for Jumbo and of promoting the organizational program at play. In other words, respected veterans — let alone HHOF-bound legends — who come to contend in Toronto on the cheap are going to receive opportunities next to top talent to start and at different times throughout the season. Sheldon Keefe freely admitted that shifts next to these two linemates were a part of the pitch. In his homecoming debut, no one can reasonably argue with Jumbo starting on the line for the opening faceoff next Wednesday vs. the Habs.

(A little different but a somewhat similar idea applies to Zach Bogosian starting on the bottom pairing; remember, he reportedly left a little bit of money on the table to come to Toronto. The Leafs also always give their Euro signings a good honest look to start the year, so Alex Barabanov’s inclusion in the top 12 isn’t surprising).

With Keefe, we know it will be a fluid situation game-to-game and even within periods within games. Looking at the lines, though, the current setup brings about some obvious questions, from deployment, to the management of Thornton’s minutes, to overall ice time distribution.

Zach Hyman is clearly the Leafs’ third-best winger who immediately lifts either of the top six lines by not only providing the dirty work that benefits them offensively but making them better defensively, increasing the best-on-best matchup credibility of either the Matthews or Tavares line.

If we assume the Kerfoot line is only playing a secondary checking line role — as in, occasionally taking a tough matchup/zone start assignment when needed as opposed to hard matching — and playing relatively limited 5v5 minutes, will Hyman’s utility be maximized there, when he could be supporting Matthews and helping the Leafs win those best-on-best matchups more consistently? Hyman was deservedly among the top two or three Leafs forwards in ice time on many nights last season, finishing with a career-high 19:06/game.

Hypothetically, if the Kerfoot line pans out as a checking line that can competently match up against the best opposition, are there enough 5v5 minutes to go around to get the most out of the handsomely-paid core four of Matthews/Marner and Tavares/Nylander, even knowing the matchup benefits it creates?

We saw this dilemma play out with Nazem Kadri, who was a more credible shutdown C option than Kerfoot. You may remember the much-talked-about statistic from 2018-19 that had Matthews outside of the top 50 in the NHL in total time on ice per game with Tavares and Kadri on the roster. It was partly due to middling power-play time, but he was outside the top 30 at even strength as well. All indications from Keefe last season are he is unlikely to turn back the page there, especially knowing Matthews has only evolved in his 200-foot play since.

All of that said, with the unique structure of the season — the regular season is going to be largely played in a bunch of mini-series against the same six opponents — it means the Leafs, even more than usual, don’t have to be married to any one approach. They can tackle a three-game series against Vancouver, who have a major matchup headache with Miller – Pettersson – Boeser, quite differently than one versus Ottawa or Montreal (not to disrespect the Danault, Gallagher, and Tatar line, which can hang with the elite in the league in terms of controlling 5v5 play). The fact that the Leafs start with Canadiens – Senators – Senators in their first three games presents a good opportunity to give a few ideas a trial run that might not have been in consideration had the first few matchups included Connor McDavid and Mark Scheifele.

I certainly don’t have it all figured out yet. Even Sheldon Keefe almost certainly doesn’t, either. It appears to be more about options, staying flexible, and making adjustments as they go. The Kerfoot line experiment seems to be a case of finding out if there is a hard-to-play-against checking line here that could handle some tough assignments. We know what the Leafs have in Matthews-Marner/Nylander and Tavares-Marner/Nylander. Finding a third combination the team could turn to in important situations is a big part of making the Leafs a harder team to handle and match up against, particularly come playoff time.

Especially if either of the Leafs’ elite centers is out of the lineup for an extended period of time, it’s critical that Keefe finds real solutions down the lineup, including whether Kerfoot is a full-time solution at C (I’m not 100% convinced, but Keefe seems keen on it and I can see why he wants to more time to find out by trying out a line around him that could form an actual identity. We can be reasonably assured that Thornton can give the team decent enough sheltered third-line C minutes, but the Kerfoot question is one we’ll want answered before the trade deadline).

With a fully healthy lineup, the ability to move Tavares up with Matthews and Marner for segments of games — ideally for the odd mismatch in the offensive zone — without leaving the team totally exposed in behind the power line would be another benefit gained from establishing the Mikheyev – Kerfoot – Hyman option, should it work out.

More than anything, the data collected on each configuration makes for no surprises come playoff time, when first-time looks at lines are far from ideal. There isn’t a ton of time to mess around here given the nature of no exhibitions and a short regular season, but I can see some logic to the process the coaching staff is necessarily undertaking here.

The defensive depth


Toronto Maple Leafs vs. Detroit Red Wings
Photo: USA Today Sports

It feels like TJ Brodie’s name hasn’t been mentioned enough so far through the start of training camp.

That’s probably because there aren’t a lot of storylines to debate around the subject before the games start. Brodie is definitely starting next to Morgan Rielly, whose best ever partner in Toronto to date was Ron Hainsey. There was similar talk back when Barrie was added, but that was always an awkward stylistic fit, one that didn’t consist of the complementary skill sets required to form a balanced pairing.

Brodie has capably played far more minutes against elite competition than Barrie, he is superior with his stick and details defensively, and he can skate and move the puck; he’s played a lot of power-play minutes over his career, but it is less of an essential part of his identity as a player at this stage of his career, and he’s likely to be largely preserved for 5v5 and PK in Toronto. We can have a reasonable degree of confidence in Rielly’s pairing working out — hopefully, finally, the Leafs have more than one pair here that doesn’t terrify you defensively in a tough matchup — and the overall depth is improved on the blue line.

For a team that had a single injury (Muzzin) force it to roll out the following group of six in an elimination playoff game last October, the improvement is notable and cause for genuine optimism.

Game 4 vs. CBJ
Morgan Rielly – Cody Ceci
Martin Marincin – Justin Holl
Travis Dermott – Tyson Barrie

Injured: Muzzin
Extras: Calle Rosen, Rasmus Sandin

Current Defense
Morgan Rielly – TJ Brodie
Jake Muzzin – Justin Holl
Mikko Lethonen – Zach Bogosian

Extras: Travis Dermott, Rasmus Sandin

The biggest question marks: 1) Jake Muzzin’s ability to stay healthy, although the improved depth, particularly on the left side, mitigates some of the worries there; 2) Can the Leafs can find a solution internally on the right side if Justin Holl doesn’t carry his play over from last regular season and appears out of his depth (could Dermott or Lehtonen play the right, and to what extent could Bogosian provide veteran cover?).

The power play


Auston Matthews and John Tavares of the Toronto Maple Leafs

On the power play, I’m curious to see how committed how the Leafs’ coaching staff — led by Manny Malhotra on this file — really are to establishing two units in terms of the ice-time share. The one-minute PP shifts for Matthews were a big point of controversy in the late aughts of the Mike Babcock era, so we’ll see how they strike the balance.

Adding Thornton and Simmonds up front in place of Kapanen and Johnsson — 5v5 abilities aside — theoretically lends itself better to two working units as both have historically been successful power-play specialists in their respective roles.

I doubt it goes as far as splitting up Matthews and Marner, but does Nylander return to PP2, joining newcomers Thornton and Mikko Lehtonen on that unit? It seems likely if we assume Simmonds starts at the front of the net with the Matthews unit, with the aim of getting Simmonds rolling right away, particularly knowing he’ll have limited 5v5 opportunity early based on the starting lines.

We’ll have a better idea of the team’s thinking here when the club starts practicing special teams on the ice tomorrow. This is where the team left off in the playoffs:

Nylander
Marner – Tavares – Matthews
Barrie

Kapanen
Robertson – Kerfoot – Spezza
Rielly

Possible new units:

Simmonds
Marner – Tavares – Matthews
Rielly

Hyman
Spezza – Nylander – Thornton
Lehtonen

If they’re sticking with the top unit sans Tyson Barrie from last season — which was white-hot when Keefe first took over, but fairly middling in the final few months of the season — we’re likely looking at:

Nylander
Marner – Tavares – Matthews
Rielly

Simmonds
Spezza – Mikheyev/Hyman – Thornton
Lehtonen

Auston Matthews on the PK?


Toronto Maple Leafs vs. Detroit Red Wings
Photo: Canadian Press

This quote from Sheldon Keefe generated buzz today:

One of the things we are going to be doing starting today in the meetings and then heading onto the ice tomorrow: We are going to get some reps for Auston Matthews and Jason Spezza. We want to get those guys comfortable and at least knowing the look of the penalty kill — in Auston’s case, in particular, as it’s something he hasn’t done.

I don’t expect it to be any time of full-time role or responsibility, but on a part-time basis, as needed, we want to start getting him comfortable with those situations. Faceoffs, in particular, is an area where he can bring a lot to us on the left side. We’ve seen so much in his growth as a defensive player and we think he can bring a lot to the penalty kill.

Obviously, the offensive threat that he is on the ice, in addition to our other penalty killers, brings a lot, too. We are going to start to get him some minutes in that regard this season.

Somewhat quietly, Matthews grew into a 55% faceoff man last season. The Leafs had Zach Hyman leading the team in shorthanded draws taken while winning less than 50% of them. Frederik Gauthier would take some left-sided draws, but he was let go in the offseason. That means the Leafs’ PK regulars three wingers and one center — Alex Kerfoot — who wasn’t particularly strong on the dot last year. Of note: among right-handed options, Jason Spezza won 70% of the limited number of draws he took shorthanded.

Matthews’ big reach, strength, pick-pocket ability, and other-worldly knack for corralling pucks out of midair, on top of the obvious abilities offensively, are all assets here if he buys into the responsibility, but it should obviously be a fringe role — an option to mix in situationally outside the main four forwards: Marner, Hyman, Mikheyev, and Kerfoot — given the value of preserving him for 5v5 and PP.

Last season, there were only two forwards in the NHL to play over 17 minutes at even strength and over 20 seconds a game on the penalty kill: Leon Draisaitl (52 seconds/game) and Dylan Larkin (45 seconds/game). McDavid played over a minute/game shorthanded in 2017-18 and over 30 seconds there in 2018-19 before the Oilers scaled back his time there last season. Anze Kopitar was around a two minute/game PKer between 2017-19, but he dropped in both even-strength TOI and shorthanded TOI last season. Mark Scheifele played over a minute per game on the PK in 2018-19, but he didn’t play much of a role there last season. Sidney Crosby played a shade over 30 seconds a game on the PK in 2018-19 but not last season. That’s basically it among 17+ minute even-strength forwards in the past three seasons.

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Canadiens’ penalty killers simply perfect in Edmonton

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“We had some good sticks tonight,” said Weber. “(The Oilers) were trying to hit seams and we were able to get sticks in lanes. (Goaltender Jake Allen) was able to make the first save and we were able to clear the puck after that.”

Julien rotated seven forwards on the PK to ensure there were fresh legs on the ice.

“Having more bodies allows us to be more aggressive,” said Weber. “Obviously, our forwards are trying to use their speed against the other team and that allows us to be more aggressive.”

Artturi Lehkonen completed the Montreal scoring with a short-handed goal. Not only did the Oilers go 0-for-10 on the power play in the two games in Edmonton, but they also gave up short-handed goals to Lehkonen and Jake Evans.

As good as the PK was, the fact that it had to work so hard indicates that the Canadiens have to do a better job of staying out of the box. It should also be noted that Weber and Romanov received cross-checking penalties. It might be a coincidence, but the penalties came in the wake of complaints that the Canadiens manhandled Auston Matthews last week in Toronto.

The Canadiens are bigger this year and they are playing bigger. They also outhit the Oilers 31-17 Monday.

“We were playing hard, we have many hits,” said Romanov. “We’re playing like a team, we’re playing like a family.”

It should be noted Allen deserved a shutout. He didn’t get one because Jonathan Drouin misplayed the puck at his own blue line and that led to a breakaway goal by Shore.

The nasty look Weber directed at Drouin told you everything you need to know about the play.

phickey@postmedia.com

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Source: – Montreal Gazette

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Ehlers scores OT winner as Jets rally for win over Senators – TSN

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OTTAWA — Nikolaj Ehlers and the Winnipeg Jets have yet to lead a contest in regulation and yet they’ve won two of their three games to start the NHL season.

Ehlers scored in overtime as Winnipeg twice rallied from a two-goal deficit en route to a 4-3 win over the Ottawa Senators on Tuesday night.

The Jets (2-1-0) opened their season Thursday night with a 4-3 overtime victory over the Calgary Flames and were coming off a 3-1 loss Monday night to the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Ehlers scored his first goal of the season at 2:20 of overtime, moments after Winnipeg goalie Laurent Brossoit made a nice stop on Ottawa’s Drake Batherson. Blake Wheeler forced overtime for the Jets, scoring with 1:17 remaining in regulation with Brossoit on the bench for the extra attacker — a goal originally credited to Josh Morrissey before an official scoring change switched it to the Winnipeg captain.

“It (winning despite not leading in regulation) shows we don’t give up,” said Ehlers. “We battled our (butts) off to stay in the game . . . it feels good to have the two points.”

Ehlers heaped lavish praise upon Brossoit, who got the start after Connor Hellebuyck played Monday night.

“He kept us in the game,” Ehlers said. “They had a lot of good open chances, especially the last one there before our goal.

“We know we’ve got two goalies back there that keep us in games and do a great job. We’re trying to do our best to limit the shots they get, but if they play the way they’re playing right now, we’re happy.”

Added Winnipeg coach Paul Maurice: “He (Ehlers) can be so dangerous, such a dynamic player late in a game, just the speed to get into that hole and then make the play that finishes it,. We need him to feel confident and healthy and strong and when he is he’s just so very dynamic.”

Adam Lowry and Kyle Connor also scored for Winnipeg, which was outshot 41-28 in the contest.

“I guess you should wrap all of us up in our goaltending,” Maurice said. “That’s the key in our game, our goaltending has been outstanding.”

Josh Norris, Chris Tierney and Alex Galchenyuk scored for Ottawa (1-1-1).

The game was the first of three in five days between the two clubs. They’ll square off again in the nation’s capital Thursday night before returning to Winnipeg on Saturday.

Winnipeg was minus forward Patrik Laine (upper-body injury) for a second straight game. He’s listed as day to day.

Rookie forward Tim Stutzel, who’s dealing with a nagging minor injury, didn’t play for Ottawa. The third overall selection in the 2020 NHL draft, who has a goal through two games with the Senators, is also considered day to day.

Maurice said Tuesday’s game was an indication of just how important it is for a team to continue playing hard and believing in the process, regardless of the score. Ottawa controlled much of the play and held leads of 2-0 and 3-1 but couldn’t break Winnipeg’s will.

“That’s the most important piece for any team, that the score on the clock doesn’t dictate your effort level and your compete level,” Maurice said. “The late comeback wins have a really nice impact on your team.

“You carry those for a number of games. You always feel that you have a chance.”

Ottawa dominated the first, outshooting Winnipeg 18-9, and was rewarded with the opening two goals of the contest.

Norris opened the scoring on the power play at 4:41. He registered his first NHL goal when he slid the puck in off Brossoit’s skate.

Conner came close to putting Winnipeg on the scoresheet when he fired a shot off the goalpost on the power play. But Tierney put Ottawa ahead 2-0 with a deflection at 10:31 for his second of the season.

Lowry pulled Winnipeg to within 2-1 at 18:09. He deflected Neal Pionk‘s shot from the point past Matt Murray — making his third straight start in goal for Ottawa — for his first of the year.

It was more of the same in the second as Ottawa outshot Winnipeg 14-8 in the period and went back ahead by two goals at 11:47 of the second on Galchenyuk’s power-play blast. It was his first of the season but Winnipeg countered with Connor’s goal with the man advantage at 16:12.

It was Connor’s third of the season. He’s scored in all three Jets games in 2021.

“He’s scratching the surface here,” Maurice said of Connor. “He hasn’t been lucky in his start and he’s putting up great numbers.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan 19. 2021.

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Report: Blue Jays still trying to sign outfielder Michael Brantley – Sportsnet.ca

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With George Springer secured, the Toronto Blue Jays are still trying to sign free-agent outfielder Michael Brantley, according to Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic.

Brantley is represented by the same agency as Springer and the pair were teammates for two seasons with the Houston Astros.

Blue Jays president Mark Shapiro and general manager Ross Atkins have history with Brantley when they were in Cleveland. Shapiro acquired the now 33-year-old in the CC Sabathia trade with the Milwaukee Brewers in 2008.

Brantley, 33, batted .300/.364/.476 with five home runs and 22 RBI in 46 games with the Astros last season.

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