The Maple Leafs practiced Wednesday at City National Arena in Summerlin, Nevada.
Averaging just 2.71 goals per game (26th overall) for the Leafs, Sheldon Keefe is shaking up his forward ranks.
“Obviously we didn’t score and didn’t control the game as we would like, especially from our bottom six,” explained the coach. “So, looking for a slightly different look, a different balance.”
During Wednesday’s practice, Alex Kerfoot moved up from the middle seat on the third row to the left wing seat on the top row alongside Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner. Michael Bunting moved down to skate alongside Calle Jarnkrok, who switched to center, and Denis Malgin, who has been a healthy scratch in the last three games. The second line with John Tavares between Nick Robertson and William Nylander stayed together.
“Bunting’s presence on that line gives us some extra options, especially in attack [when] They put Malgin in there too,” Keefe said, “so try to get a little bit more of that group that way. And wanted to give Kerfoot a look at the wing at the same time.”
Bunting was third with the Leafs last season with 58 points in 5-on-5s. He’s tied for the team lead with three 5-on-5s this season.
Kerfoot was in the top six last season, mostly on the wing. His 43 points in the five-a-side game ranked fourth on the team. He has only one 5-on-5 point this season.
“Me, Calle and Pierre [Engvall]”I thought we started the year pretty well,” Kerfoot said of the first look at the third row. “The last two games haven’t been really good, so I don’t really see it as a promotion… The whole group needs to play a little better. So it’s just a matter of shaking it up and going from there.”
David Kampf continues to center the fourth row but is now flanked by Engvall and Zach Aston-Reese, who was a healthy scratch on Monday.
“Wanted to bring Engvall back with fight,” Keefe continued. “Kampf and Engvall played good and tough minutes for us at key times last season.”
Engvall, who had 15 goals and 20 assists last season, is without a point this year and was a healthy scratch in Winnipeg on Saturday.
“We need to get more out of Pierre,” Keefe said. “The fact that he came back in the line-up the other day didn’t go the way I expected. He needs to find another level here, but at the same time I need to help him find that groove.”
Kampf, known as a defensive stopper, is the only Toronto player to have scored two goals in 5-a-side this season. Jarnkrok, Nylander, Malgin, Robertson, Bunting, Marner, Defenseman Justin Holl and Matthews each have one.
“The Matthews line [and] The Tavares lines did a pretty good job generating enough scoring opportunities,” Keefe said. “We think they can be even more dominant, but they’ve done a pretty good job. We need to see more consistency in the line-up.”
If the other lines can get more going, it will help the top two lines produce more, Keefe believes.
“If we can get a little bit more traction line by line, there are benefits across the lineup that your top guys can take advantage of.”
The Leafs averaged 3.8 goals per game last season, finishing second overall.
Matthews leads the team with 27 shots in 5-on-5 and 33 shots overall. His shot rate (3) is well below his career average (16.1).
“I’ve been through this before, so I’m not sure it’s a super unusual situation,” Matthews said of the dry spell. “I just approach it in a similar way. Just work, have fun and shoot the puck. Hopefully when you go in you kind of pick up momentum, get that confidence back and just keep going.”
For Matthews, this is the slowest start to the season in the NHL. Last year he similarly started with one goal in six games before going on a blistering run, finishing at 60 and another Rocket Richard Trophy.
“It’s really impressive how he’s doing on a day-to-day basis,” commented Tavares, who leads the team with eight points. “It’s like he just turned 51 [goals] in the 50th [games] like him last year. He just carries himself so, so well and he just has a drive and a level head that is so very rare. To do what he’s already done in his career, especially at an extremely young age where he’s in the spotlight in Toronto, you have to have that.
After Monday’s loss, Matthews admitted he was dealing with some frustration. On Wednesday, he highlighted an area that can be improved.
“Have a bit more speed offensively [and] getting more stuff through the middle of the ice and into the slot,” he said.
Matthews values puck possession.
“We can work our way through the neutral zone a little bit better and try to create cleaner entrances instead of throwing the puck and having to chase it all the time,” he pointed out.
Coach’s advice to the top line?
“It’s more consistent to have that attack mentality layer after layer,” Keefe said. “Not getting familiar with the puck, but really taking on the defense and challenging it… Other than that, stick with it. stay positive Stay hungry and I have no qualms about that.”
Kerfoot also played with Matthews and Marner late last season when Bunting was sidelined through injury.
“I’m not changing my game too much but obviously it’s a good opportunity,” said Kerfoot. “They’re two of the best players in the league so it’s just about getting them the puck as much as possible, working hard to use my speed and letting them do their thing.”
Matthews calls Kerfoot a man who is easy to play with.
“I don’t want to say he’s procrastinating, but he brings you the puck and obviously we want the puck as badly as possible,” Matthews said. “He’s just doing a really good job of opening up and [is] very smart, very cerebral.”
Tavares left the game in the third half on Monday after intercepting a 97-mph shot off the leg of Rasmus Sandin.
“Sandy got it all there and caught me on the outside of the knee,” Tavares recalled. “The doctor said it was also a nerve, which is why the pain was the way it was. I couldn’t put weight on him for a good 10 minutes. Really glad it’s just a bruise. It was quite painful.”
Tavares needed help getting off the ice but eventually returned to the game.
“I was also hit earlier in the same quad so the leg wasn’t firing quite as well when I came back but everything was stable,” he revealed. “The last few days [there] was not swollen too much and the pain got much better from yesterday to today.”
All in all, Tavares was happy with how he felt about training.
“It was a little bit stiff, a little bit sore, but it’s worked out pretty well,” said the 32-year-old center.
What does the bruise look like?
“Actually, it’s not that bad,” he said. “For example, there’s really no muscle where it is. It’s just on the outside of the bone on my left side… Yeah the swelling isn’t bad, the pain isn’t that bad today so very happy.”
Sandin apologized for missing the target.
“I said he has no regrets,” remarked the captain. “I mean, he’s trying to put the puck in the net. So it’s just part of the game and it put me in a difficult position.”
The Leafs flew to Las Vegas after Saturday’s game in Winnipeg, staying in Nevada for a day off Tuesday and a practice session Wednesday. It was a much-needed breather amid a long five-game journey.
“When you’re jumping from city to city on long car trips, it takes a lot out of you with all the travel and all the jet lag,” Tavares said. “So you have a bit of time to acclimate, especially after the stretch we just had. But most of all it’s really good to be able to spend some time together off the rink and keep building that chemistry.”
What did the leaves do on their day off?
“Different guys did different things,” Kerfoot said. “We didn’t do too much. No golfing or anything but we had a small team dinner and tried to get things back on track.”
Gritty winger Kyle Clifford sustained a shoulder injury during Monday’s game and was placed on injured reserve.
“He’s going to miss some time,” Keefe said. “It doesn’t seem like anything too serious at this point, but he will be out for a while.”
The team is waiting for MRI results.
Defenseman Filip Kral was recalled from the American Hockey League.
Defenseman Jake Muzzin, who sustained a neck injury on Oct. 17, has been placed on long-term reserve.
“No clarity. No schedule. Nothing has changed,” Keefe said when asked for an update. “It’s more of a roster management thing. I know he didn’t have the follow up [appointment] he should have.”
Keefe confirmed that Erik Kallgren will be starting in San Jose on Thursday.
Lines in training on Wednesday:
Pregnant – Jarnkrok – Malgin
Aston Reese – Fight – Engvall
Giordano – Destinations
Power play units in training on Wednesday:
Crosses: Matthews, Marner
Mesh front: Tavares
Crosses: Malgin, Kerfoot/Engvall
Mesh Front: Bunting
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