About 15 kilometres west of Scotiabank Arena in the suburb of Etobicoke sits the Ford Performance Centre. A short 20 minute drive down the Gardiner Expressway, the Leafs practice facility has quickly become a second home for countless players and staff as the Leafs continue their training camp in anticipation of hockey’s return.
As Toronto enters the second half of camp, analysts and fans alike have continued to get a better idea of how the Leafs will stack up against Columbus. Thanks largely in part to an active social media foundation, Leaf fans have been privy to line combinations, highlights and interviews straight from the dressing room.
With that being said, there are still some question marks regarding roster decisions and overall structure. Head coach Sheldon Keefe has not been afraid to experiment with different combinations which has left some uncertainty in the air regarding who we can expect to see on the ice August 2nd.
With puck drop just under two weeks away, here are some headlines to keep in mind as the return of hockey inches closer.
The Kid Is Alright
Highly touted prospect Nick Robertson has continued to make waves at Leafs camp as he tries to zero in on a roster spot. Starting camp as a bit of a long shot to make the team, the former second-round pick has skyrocketed up the depth chart and has asserted himself as the “one to watch” as Toronto continues their inter-squad scrimmages.
“[It’s] obvious he’s ready” said Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe when asked about Robertson’s progress. This is certainly promising news as the 18-year-old was seen skating on a line with Alex Kerfoot and Kasperi Kapanen during Monday’s team scrimmage which would only indicate that Keefe is preparing to utilize Robertson on the third line.
Following a dominant junior season which saw the California-native average over a point-per-game with both the OHL’s Peterborough Petes and the U.S. National Junior Team, Robertson caught the eyes of many, quickly cementing himself as a legitimate, NHL-ready player and the next young prospect coming out of the Toronto system.
In my eyes, whether Robertson debuts in the playoffs and follows in the footsteps of Cale Makar or if he’s sent back to junior in order to avoid rushing his development, this is a good problem to have. Toronto evidently has an abundance of offensive talent and having a resource like Robertson waiting in the wings will only provide more depth and flexibility moving forward.
Speaking of line combinations, Sheldon Keefe truly went off the board when experimenting during Monday’s scrimmage. Having Auston Matthews centre Mitch Marner and John Tavares to start the Leafs scrimmage was a shock to many as it seemed like the first power play unit was getting some time at even strength.
Tyson Barrie was quick to comment on the thought of the trio practicing together, dubbing it an “all-star game line.” Sportsnet insider Chris Johnston confirmed the “nuclear” option on Twitter shortly after the scrimmage. In an unprecedented series of events, it seems as though Keefe is preparing for a scenario where Toronto would need a quick goal, in which he would deploy a line as overpowering as a Tavares-Matthews-Marner combination.
If anything, this is a testament to the depth of Toronto’s offence, allowing Keefe to mix up the top-six at will. With Matthews and Tavares staying on separate lines for almost the entirety of their time together in Toronto, it seems as though Keefe could have something up his sleeve if certain combinations aren’t clicking. While the regular lines were back together during Tuesday’s practice, it remains to be seen whether the trio will actually see any game action together. However, I would not discount the idea completely.
New Sheriffs in Town
It’s not a surprise that defensive structure has consistently been the biggest question mark for Toronto. While that most likely won’t change for at least the next two years, the Leafs seem as equipped as ever on the backend heading into the playoffs.
The return of Morgan Reilly, Travis Dermott and Cody Ceci were much needed to get the blue-line back to full health and the introduction of a new shutdown pair could provide a different look when the Leafs line up against the Blue Jackets at the beginning of August.
When Morgan Reilly fractured his foot back in March, Jake Muzzin and Justin Holl were handed the task of being the number one pairing. Despite the return of Reilly, all signs point to the Holl-Muzzin pairing being the go-to option come game time. While that may change as the qualifying rounds progress, Muzzin and Holl have been a consistent shutdown pair for Toronto, filling the many voids on the Leaf blueline.
The Break Was Beneficial
With the Leafs scratching and clawing for a playoff spot, only four-points up on a hungry Florida Panthers squad during the time of suspension, many would argue that the Leafs were one of the teams that benefited the most from the pause. With the return of top defenseman Morgan Reilly, rookie standout Ilya Mikheyev (whom many forgot about after his gruesome injury in New Jersey), not to mention much needed rest for Frederik Andersen, the Leafs seem poised and ready to make a run at Lord Stanley once again.
In the immortal words of Souperman himself, “I feel good… everything is good now.”
Full game previews, recaps and in depth analysis coming soon to The Puck Authority.