As the start of an unprecedented NHL season draws ever closer, the Toronto Maple Leafs continued training camp on Saturday night, as Team White and Team Blue hit the ice in front of an eerily quiet Scotiabank Arena. Aside from a few media personnel, coaches and arena staff, the rink was empty, as the roar of the Toronto crowd faded along with the year that was 2020.
Heading into camp, the Maple Leafs seemed rejuvenated and overall happier. Backed by a heavy injection of toughness and the addition of much needed reinforcements on the blue-line, Kyle Dubas executed his offseason plan flawlessly, providing head coach Sheldon Keefe with a new set of assets looking to make an immediate impact.
There were no shortage of players to watch heading into Saturday’s intrasquad scrimmage, as the excitement throughout Leafs Nation seemed to be at an all-time high. Joe Thornton and Wayne Simmonds were finally seen donning the blue and white alongside their new linemates, highly touted import Mikko Lehtonen had his first shift on North American ice, and Jimmy Vesey, as well as Nick Robertson, were among the many looking to make statements early.
Final score aside (as Team White eventually bested Team Blue, 7-3), there were plenty of promising signs from Toronto’s only intrasquad tuneup. In my latest for The Puck Authority, I break down the three that caught my eye, as the Leafs continue to prepare for opening night.
Vesey-Tavares-Nylander Showing Signs Of Promise
Many were skeptical when Sheldon Keefe announced that Jimmy Vesey would be starting the season on the second line. Vesey, who had taken the spot previously owned by Ilya Mikheyev for majority of last season, certainly isn’t the first name you think of when it comes to offensive production. The former Harvard standout hasn’t exactly translated his offensive game to the NHL, so there was a certain level of shock when he was seen taking passes from John Tavares and William Nylander.
With that being said, I have been and will continue to be cautiously optimistic. As recent months have taught us, Keefe isn’t afraid to make substantial changes, so starting Thornton on the top line and Vesey on the second is far from permanent.
However, the intrasquad scrimmage brought with it many promising signs for the top-six, as Tavares, Nylander and Vesey all made some sort of impact. The opening goal of the contest came off the stick of John Tavares, originating from a nifty one-touch pass from Jimmy Vesey in the neutral zone. Combine that with a pair of goals from Nylander and Toronto’s second line was clicking from the opening puck drop.
And that’s what’s truly astounding about the style of play that Sheldon Keefe employs. Living behind the old mantra of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, there will be plenty of opportunity for experimentation, despite the shortened season. Should Vesey continue to find chemistry with Tavares and Nylander, there should be no debate as to why he should be removed from that line. And while it’s easy to fixate on the household names, it’s important to remember that sometimes, even role players can make an impact in high-leverage situations.
Lehtonen Looks Right at Home, Mikheyev Bounces Back
Two players who I was paying close attention to, albeit for different reasons, were Mikko Lehtonen and Ilya Mikheyev. For Lehtonen, the biggest question entering Saturday was how he would adjust to the smaller, more compact size of North American ice. For Mikheyev, who still seemed to be recovering from the gruesome wrist injury he sustained last season, Saturday’s tilt not only provided a glimpse into his recovery, but also shined a light on his development following a rather impressive rookie season.
It’s safe to say that both players impressed in their newly found roles.
Lehtonen, who was coming off a remarkable season with Jokerit, was, at times, on the outside looking in during the earlier stages of training camp. Penciled in on the third pairing, alongside Zach Bogosian, the native of Turku, Finland seemed to be right at home during Saturday’s scrimmage.
For starters, Lehtonen’s skating ability was apparent from the moment he hit the ice. Using his powerful strides to corral the puck in his own zone, cover a wide range of space in the offensive zone and lead breakouts were just some of the many impressive takeaways from his debut in a Maple Leafs uniform.
What’s more impressive was the impact he made in Toronto’s special teams strategy. Seeing some time on Team White’s power play, Lehtonen drew a pair of primary assists on the night, helping set up both of William Nylander’s goals. Netting the lone shootout goal following the first period was the cherry on top to an impressive opening performance.
Fresh off of a recent sponsorship deal with Campbell Soup Company, Ilya Mikheyev looked quite comfortable following a brief stint in the NHL bubble. Mikheyev, who was considered by many as a legitimate candidate for the Calder Trophy before his injury, put up 23 points in 39 games last season, impressive totals for a rookie.
Now skating on a line with Pierre Engvall and Zach Hyman, the former Avangard Omsk standout appeared right at home. Generating plenty of chances for Team White, en route to drawing the primary assist on the Adam Brooks goal, it’s clear that Mikheyev, despite missing significant time last season, is poised for another productive campaign.
Boyd, Chartier, Anderson Provide Food For Thought
In an unexpected twist, three Leafs, who perhaps are on the outside looking in to start the season, also posted impressive performances in Saturday’s scrimmage. Those three players? Travis Boyd, Rourke Chartier and Joey Anderson.
You may now gasp and/or laugh.
However, it’s important to note that there are plenty of new faces competing for remaining roster spots, and beyond that, positions on the Maple Leafs taxi squad. While many have remained laser focused on the progress of Nick Robertson, those same people often forget the players that are leftover beyond the roster itself; hence, food for thought.
For Boyd, who signed a one-year league minimum deal with Toronto, this was a revelation. Him and Chartier were playing on the same line for Team Blue, and surprisingly enough, they had a wide range of chances from the high-danger areas of the ice. Despite being turned aside by Jack Campbell on a number of occasions, Boyd made his presence felt, nearly scoring on a nifty toe drag off an odd-man rush.
Rourke Chartier is a relatively unknown player. Drafted in the fifth round, 149th overall by San Jose in 2014, he sat out the entirety of last season due to lingering concussion symptoms. Returning to the professional circuit and signing a one-year deal with the Toronto Marlies, Chartier also had more than a few good looks in Saturday’s contest, including a pair of breakaways.
Joey Anderson, another name looking to get some NHL ice time this season, was another player to watch on Saturday night. After being acquired from the New Jersey Devils in exchange for Andreas Johnsson, the 22-year-old was seen on a line with Adam Brooks as well as Nick Robertson. Engaging in puck battles, establishing the cycle game and setting up the Adam Brooks tally were all promising signs for a player who is looking to break into an NHL lineup.
Just for clarification purposes, because I feel like Leaf fans especially can get quite out of hand, by no means am I saying that Boyd, Chartier, or even Anderson will make a significant impact in this year’s lineup. What I am saying however, is that all three made positive impacts on Saturday, which will ultimately bolster the Leafs depth at the very minimum.
Opening Night Is Right Around The Corner
With the regular season kicking off in just a few days time, Sheldon Keefe, as well as his coaching staff, will have little time to finalize the opening night roster. Saturday’s scrimmage provided a lot of positives that should be acknowledged, as well as a few areas for concern, which will undoubtedly be properly addressed.
For Leaf fans everywhere, this is truly an exciting time. Sheldon Keefe has a revamped squad at his disposal for his first full season behind Toronto’s bench, the players seem excited to suit up alongside one another, and there seems to be a general sense of motivation around the team, as if this is the year they take a big step forward.
The Maple Leafs are set to open their season on Wednesday January 13th against the Montreal Canadiens at Scotiabank Arena.