Less than a week into the third stage of the NHL’s four-phase return-to-play plan, the Maple Leafs have shown few surprises during their workouts. The full squad that is expected to start the season in early August has fallen into place seamlessly.
There are, however, details big and small that give this Leafs roster a different look than the one that entered the NHL’s pandemic pause in March — from changes to the playbook to Ilya Mikheyev’s return to the top-six forward group to the promise of rookie Nick Robertson.
Nothing is written in stone yet, but here are five things to consider during the Leafs’ summer camp:
- Sheldon Keefe’s full impact: The head coach never had the chance to execute his full plan when he took over from Mike Babcock in November. He didn’t have the benefit of a training camp and had to implement his playbook on the fly. Now, after a four-month break, Keefe can address the team’s weaknesses, including their sporadic defensive play.
Keefe and his staff were in contact with every player on an almost daily basis during the pause. The pivotal point: having the players think and execute better as a five-man unit on the ice. “That was part of the challenge, to get to know the players better, and to convince them on how to work as a group of five, and how it tied into our offence,” Keefe said Friday.
Keefe could have a bigger role in the team’s performance. He’s had the time catch up on development, and to establish the blueprint he and GM Kyle Dubas brainstormed a few seasons ago when they were with the Marlies.
- Left, right, left, right, left, right: Morgan Rielly had been grouped with Travis Dermott during the small-group Phase 2, and they could be back together once the games begin. But Keefe is going with three left-right combos for now, pairing the left-handed-shooting Rielly with Cody Ceci, a right-handed shot, Dermott (left) with Tyson Barrie (right), and Jake Muzzin (left) with Justin Holl (right). Muzzin and Holl are likely to get the bulk of work against other teams’ top forward lines.
- Depth up front: Friday’s forward lines: William Nylander-Auston Matthews-Zach Hyman; Mikheyev-John Tavares-Mitch Marner; Pierre Engvall-Alex Kerfoot-Kasperi Kapanen; Kyle Clifford-Frederik Gauthier-Jason Spezza.
The interesting thing is the return of Mikheyev to the top six, allowing Keefe to use Hyman’s checking skills with Matthews and Nylander. The top two lines now have most, if not all, the essential weaponry: speed, skill, checking, experience, and chemistry. Kapanen gives the third line a potential offensive boost. There has been a buzz about the speed the Leafs have shown in camp.
- The teen scene: Robertson was not part of the main group in practice Friday, working with the reserve squad instead. But the 18-year-old has made a solid impression in camp. He was always going to be in tough to take a job from one of the top 12 forwards, despite scoring 55 goals in 46 games in his junior season. If it doesn’t happen, he will still benefit from having been in an NHL camp and from being among the Leafs’ reserves.
- C and believe: Tavares worked hard as captain during the pause, keeping in touch with his teammates and making sure they were prepared for the return of play. “He played a great role, as did the rest of our leadership group,” Keefe said. “As Phase 2 arrived, there was a real push by our leadership group to take advantage of that time. Now it looks like it’s paying off. We have a number of changes (to the playbook) and we’re fortunate the players put the work in so that we can go right to that.”
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