The Maple Leafs and Minnesota Wild (optional) skated at Scotiabank Arena on Thursday.
After missing a glorious chance from the slot in the second period of Tuesday’s game in Columbus, John Tavares slammed his stick on the ice before heading to the bench. It was a rare show of negative emotion from the Leafs captain.
“Sometimes it can be good to let it out but, obviously, other times you don’t want to let it get in your way,” Tavares said. “Important to manage that correctly and I still think I can do a better job putting [my] focus on that next shift and next opportunity knowing there’s a lot of game to be played and lots of time to make a difference – and not just offensively.”
“Frustration is a useless emotion,” said coach Sheldon Keefe. “It’s pretty prevalent in all our lives at different times, but it is a pretty useless emotion when we sit down and think about it. I talked with John, and he’s experienced enough to know that that’s not helping.”
—Maple Leafs Hotstove (@LeafsNews) February 23, 2022
Tavares has gone 10 games without a goal. It is his longest drought since going goalless over the final 11 games of the 2011-12 season. Tavares has gone 14 games without a five-on-five goal.
But Tuesday appeared to be a step forward for the 31-year-old center. Tavares registered five shots on net. He only had two shots in the previous four games.
“A good job of being much better consistently, I think, just in all three zones and making better reads and trusting my instincts,” Tavares said, “but also understanding the structure and executing that.”
Keefe rewarded Tavares with more shifts. Tavares played just over 19 minutes against the Blue Jackets. He had played 15:04 against Montreal on Monday and 15:08 against St. Louis on Saturday, which were his two lowest totals of the season.
“Defensively it was as good a game as he’s played in a really long time,” said Keefe of Tavares’ effort on Tuesday. “There’s no coincidence that that’s the game where he had some of his best scoring chances.”
Keefe is hoping a change in chemistry will help the slumping Tavares line get some of those chances to fall. Ondrej Kase will slot in on right wing with that group on Thursday while righty William Nylander shifts to the left side.
“It brings another right shot to the mix,” Keefe said. “Nylander will spend a lot more time on his off wing and we’ll see what looks like offensively. He likes playing on that side of the rink … I am intrigued to see what Kase can bring there. He’s done a good job when he’s been up with [Auston] Matthews.”
Alex Kerfoot moves down to the third line.
Before the morning skate started, the players and coaches gathered by the bench to shoot a video in support of Rodion Amirov.
On Wednesday, the organization announced that the Salavat Ufa forward, Toronto’s first-round pick in 2020, has been diagnosed with a brain tumour.
The Leafs players first learned the news on Tuesday night.
“We heard right after the game and, obviously, with a result that didn’t go our way, immediately everything kind of shifted,” Tavares said. “Focused on hearing that news and on him and hoping the best for him and thinking the world of him. He’s deeply with us, in our thoughts, and we wish him the best. We know he’s fighting hard.”
Amirov will not play the rest of this season.
“It’s crazy,” said defenseman Rasmus Sandin. “It’s tough to take in. It’s such a young guy who has his whole future in front of him. It’s tough news, but we’re all with him in this.”
Tavares puts Amirov briefly last Spring.
“Just a great smile and positivity,” Tavares said. “You can just tell his enthusiasm for being here, being a Maple Leaf, and what the opportunity presents.”
“Our entire organization is behind him in every way possible,” added Keefe.
Amirov, who is getting treatment in Germany, responded to the video from the Leafs via his Instagram account.
“Hey guys, thank you very much for support,” the 20-year-old said while lifting his clenched fist. “I can’t wait to see you soon.”
— Dan Milstein-Hockey (@HockeyAgent1) February 23, 2022
The Leafs placed Jake Muzzin on the long-term injured reserve after he sustained a concussion on Monday. The defenseman will be sidelined until at least mid March.
“It takes away any sort of pressure from him,” Keefe explained. “There’s no day-to-day asking of how he’s doing or how he’s feeling. It’s going to be a long process and it will give him ample opportunity to feel as good as possible.”
Muzzin also sustained a concussion on Jan. 15.
“It’s his second situation like this in a short period of time,” Keefe noted. “The last one, it took a few weeks before he felt comfortable in games, so I think it’s something they know they want to be patient with given what he’s been through.”
With the second-pair mainstay out, Keefe stressed the team will fill the void by committee.
“It provides a ton of opportunity for others,” the coach said. “It’s a ton of responsibility for others as well. There will end up being a lot of focus on the defence, in particular, but any time you lose a key member of your team, the whole team needs to step up.”
With Muzzin out, Sandin moves up to that left-side spot on the second pair. The 21-year-old Swede was a healthy scratch on Monday.
“You want to be in the lineup every night,” he said. “If I play bad, I might not be in the lineup the day after. It’s motivation coming into every practice and game to be at your best.”
The Leafs, as a group, are focused on giving up less off the rush and that’s something Sandin is studying.
“It’s an area I can grow in,” he said. “It’s different details: where to keep your stick, how to position your body, how to cover different passes and make them do a different play. It’s something I’ve taken strides in.”
Sandin slotted in beside newcomer Ilya Lyubushkin in Columbus and that duo will remain together on Thursday.
Lyubushkin earned the nickname “The Russian Bear” because of his physical play in Arizona.
“First period last game, he showed his physical qualities and bear qualities,” Sandin said with a grin, “but outside [the ice] he’s a nice bear. He’s not afraid to chat about anything. He’s a very soft bear.”
Since Jan. 8, the Leafs are averaging 3.5 goals against per game, which is 25th in the NHL. Jack Campbell has an .882 save percentage in 12 games during this leaky stretch. Petr Mrazek isn’t much better at .894 in seven games.
“My focus is on how we play as a team,” said Keefe. “We need to do a good job of protecting our goaltenders. We haven’t defended well enough as a team of late … We’ve exposed our goaltenders too much to great chances against and that’s affected them … I’ve got confidence in our goalies once we get that sorted out.”
While there’s still work to be done, Keefe says his group took a “massive” step defensively in Columbus.
Mrazek, who lost on Monday, gets the start against the Wild. Campbell took the loss on Tuesday.
“You got to get both guys playing well so there’s a balance there,” Keefe said. “You need to have guys that make multiple starts in a row at different times. I don’t think truly alternating is good for anybody, but we definitely need to share the workload and way more so than we have through the first 50 games. ”
Kaapo Kähkönen will start for the Wild.
Justin Holl will sit as a healthy scratch for a second straight game.
“He’s an important guy for us,” Keefe stressed. “When he gets back in, he’s going to prove to be the guy he has been for us. When we’ve played a lot of our best hockey this season, Hollsy does a good job for us.”
Travis Dermott is doing his best to push his way up the depth chart.
“This three-game stretch here that Dermott’s put together has been as good as he’s played all the way through,” Keefe said.
Lines at Leafs morning skate:
Nylander – Tavares – Kase
Rielly – Brodie
Dermott – Liljegren
Zuccarello gametime decision. If he can’t play, Mason Shaw will play.
Evason indication Jordan Greenway “is more serious than we thought,” but he’ll stay on the trip and go to Calgary with the #mnwild
—Michael Russo (@RussoHockey) February 24, 2022