TSN Toronto Reporter Mark Masters reports on the Maple Leafs, who practised at the Ice Den in Scottsdale, Ariz., on Friday before flying to St. Louis for Saturday night’s game against the Blues.
Following a positive COVID-19 test last week, Mitch Marner passed the time in quarantine by playing virtual reality games. On Saturday night in St. Louis, the dynamic winger gets back to the real deal.
“I’m good to go,” he said after Friday’s practice. “It’s just unfortunate to miss all that time. My mindset is getting back to game shape and getting ready to play a lot of games in not a lot of days.”
Due to a shoulder injury, all the pandemic postponements and his case of COVID, Marner has played just two games since Dec. 2. He played on Jan. 1 and Jan. 5 in Toronto before entering the NHL’s COVID protocol on Jan. 7.
The 24-year-old rejoined the team for Friday’s practice and was back in his usual spot on the right side of the top line alongside centre Auston Matthews and left winger Michael Bunting.
“He looked good,” Matthews said. “He had a lot of pep, a lot of energy. I think he really missed the guys. It’s never easy to just pop back in and start going again after a little bit of time off, but if anybody can bounce back and be as much as himself as possible it’s definitely him.”
“He actually looks a little bit refreshed,” observed Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe.
The coach pointed out that Marner and Pierre Engvall, who also rejoined the team on Friday after being in the COVID protocol, were able to skate a couple times in Toronto before travelling south for the Leafs’ road trip.
“Both guys appear to be ready and talking to them they both feel good,” Keefe said.
Marner is averaging 20 minutes and 47 seconds of ice time per game. He has recorded 21 points in 26 games, but didn’t hit the scoresheet in the last two games he played.
“I liked my last two games, to be honest,” Marner said. “I know I didn’t put points up or whatever, but we won the games. I felt like I was doing the right things. I was in the right spots. I had chances.”
One area that Marner does want to improve on moving forward: goal scoring. He has six tallies on the season and hasn’t lit the lamp in six games (since Nov. 21 when he had two goals against the New York Islanders).
“It’s something I always talk about is just making sure I’m a threat to score,” he said. “I know I can score. I’ve done it a lot of times and I got to make sure I get that mindset that I can score. I can be that threat and that’s what I got to start bringing out in games more.”
The return of Marner and Engvall comes as the Leafs get thrown another COVID curve ball. Defenceman Justin Holl and forwards Ondrej Kase and Nick Ritchie entered the COVID protocol on Friday as Toronto prepared for a fourth straight road game.
“Despite the fact we’ve been in the sun a bit and enjoying these great cities and great climates, the road trip starts to pile on you a bit,” Keefe noted. “We’re changing time zones for the third or fourth time on this trip and Mitch comes in with lots of energy and is excited to get playing so I think that will help.”
The Leafs have had 17 different players in COVID protocol since Dec. 17.
“It’s unfortunate, but with how things are going right now it’s going to catch up to us eventually,” Marner said. “I was a little nervous just thinking I would catch it eventually and obviously it caught up to me. I had a sore throat before I tested positive and I was nervous about that. I was talking to [head athletic therapist] Paul [Ayotte] about it and I said I thought I was going to pop. He texted me the next morning and said, ‘You’re right, you popped.'”
Kase skated in Marner’s spot on the top line in the last two games. He usually plays with David Kampf and Ilya Mikheyev on the third line. Engvall took that spot at Friday’s practice.
With Holl out, Timothy Liljegren will move up to the second defence pair alongside Jake Muzzin.
“Just a natural fit with the right shot,” Keefe explained. “But also he’s played there and done a good job for us. You forget that before we got into this mess before Christmas with COVID, Timothy was playing comfortably in the top four wth Jake and doing a really good job.”
Liljegren returned to the Leafs lineup on Wednesday in Arizona skating alongside Travis Dermott on the third pair. It was his first game since Dec. 14.
“First period I tried to get my legs back and did a couple mistakes, but as the game went on I played solid,” Liljegren said. “Not my best game by any means, but it was OK.”
The biggest challenge after the long layoff?
“Just getting your timing back, your gap control, suff like that,” the 22-year-old Swede said. “In the first period my gap wasn’t great. I worked my way back in the second and third.”
Liljegren missed time after entering the COVID protocol on Dec. 29.
“It’s been a slow process to get him back up and running again and feeling good,” Keefe said. “The timing of this works for Liljegren in the sense that he’s had a game now and can build on that and get back to playing how he was.”
In his first full season as an NHL starter, Jack Campbell has earned his first invitation to the all-star game.
“I had a good feeling about it, of course, statistically speaking, but you never really know,” said Campbell, who is 18-5-3 with a .935 save percentage this season. “I was definitely thinking about it a little bit yesterday.”
General manager Kyle Dubas, assistant general manager Brandon Pridham and goalie coach Steve Briere delivered the good news on Thursday as the Leafs enjoyed a day off in the desert.
“It was pretty cool,” said Campbell. “I was coming back with a few of the guys from working out and Steve Briere came up to me. He was actually in a golf cart from the hotel and it was kind of funny. He came up with Kyle and Brandon. They both pulled me aside and talked to me about it. That was really cool and something I’ll never forget.”
Campbell’s rise has been one of the feel-good stories in hockey over the last year. The 11th overall pick in the 2010 draft, Campbell struggled early in his career. Now, at age 30, he’s living up to the potential he showed during a stellar junior career.
“It’s something that people can look at and learn from,” said Matthews, who will captain the Atlantic Division All-Star Team in Las Vegas. “He’s been through a lot of adversity. No one route is the same. Obviously, his took a bit longer and was a bit of a winding road, but he’s here now and that’s life sometimes. It speaks to the mental fortitude that he has and the commitment and passion to be the best version of himself.”
“I’ve always had the belief I can do what [I’m] doing right now,” Campbell said. “It’s nice to get a little bit of the results and, you know, get to the all-star game, but it’s really just the beginning. I know I can be a lot better and that’s what I’m working towards.”
Campbell, per his nature, was quick to credit others for helping him get to this spot.
“My family has stuck with me my whole career and been so supportive so it’s a big moment for my family,” the Michigan native said. “A credit to the team and how well they’ve played in front of me all year.”
Campbell’s positive personality and friendly demeanour make him a popular teammate.
“Jack’s been our rock,” said Marner. “He really has. He’s made a lot of unbelievable saves. He’s won us a lot of games. He’s so deserving of this. He’s one of the best people in hockey and probably the world, to be honest. It’s great to see he got the recognition he deserves.”
Campbell has carried the load for the Leafs all season. He’s played in 27 of the team’s 35 games.
The expectation was Toronto would employ a tandem system this year, but Petr Mrazek has missed significant time with a groin injury. On Wednesday in Arizona, the Czech native played his first game since Dec. 11.
“I felt pretty good out there,” Mrazek said. “Early on I didn’t have many shots, but I think I managed well.”
Mrazek allowed two goals on 18 shots as the Leafs fell 2-1 to the rebuilding Coyotes.
“We needed one more big save,” Keefe said bluntly after the game. “We need to get a save on one of them. Pick whichever one you’d like. Probably the second one. We need to get a save on that one, I think.”
Mrazek, who was playing just his fourth game of the season, was quick to admit he made a mistake on the play that led to the game-winning goal by Ryan Dzingel.
“I tried to poke check and that was the main reason that I didn’t get to him,” he said. “I could easily just wait and move over, but I just missed that poke check.”
Keefe highlighted the fact Mrazek made a big save on Phil Kessel when the Coyotes had a two-on-one chance.
“Goalies can’t get wins when you only score one goal,” Keefe added. “The game is not on him by any means.”
The Leafs have faded in all three third periods on this road trip.
“Our group looked tired again,” Keefe said after the loss in Arizona. “In that third period, it seemed like we hit a wall there and stopped playing for a good chunk of time. No life. No energy on our bench at a time when we needed it. That, to me, is a sign of fatigue. It makes me start to wonder about our conditioning and where we are at there.”
The coach feels the light schedule in December and January has caught up to the team. Toronto played only two games between Dec. 15 and the start of this trip and both those games came in an empty Scotiabank Arena.
“It’s shown we haven’t played in these environments,” Keefe said. “I don’t think it’s anyone’s fault.”
The issue will improve on its own as the Leafs play more and more games, but Keefe also tried to address it in practice by wrapping up Friday’s session with a conditioning skate.
“We didn’t want to go long today, but we wanted to go hard and rather than extend practice with a few more drills, we just decided to do a hard skate instead.”
Toronto’s second line, which features captain John Tavares and William Nylander, has struggled during this trip.
“A little bit better, but still not where we need it to be,” was Keefe’s assessment after Wednesday’s game.
“Much better tonight,” Tavares said after the loss in Arizona. “I think we generated more, [played] much more connected, so better things to build off of.”
After Tuesday’s win in Vegas, Nylander said his line was way too sloppy with the puck, which led to lots of time in their own end.
“It’s a long season so I try not to get hung up too much on a night where it doesn’t go so well,” Tavares said. “We still got a really good result at the end of the day so it was a good team effort with everyone contributing. But, certainly, we want to be at a high level and be counted on and be consistent. So, we were better [in Arizona] and still want to be a lot better and find ways to be more productive.”
Tavares has gone three games without a point for the first time all season.
Lines at Friday’s practice courtesy of David Alter of The Hockey News:
Bunting – Matthews – Marner
Kerfoot – Tavares – Nylander
Mikheyev – Kampf – Engvall
Clifford – Spezza – Simmonds
Rielly – Brodie
Muzzin – Liljegren
Sandin – Dermott