July 14th, 2024

Maple Leafs hit the road for season-long trip looking for right mix

By Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press on October 18, 2023.

Toronto Maple Leafs forward Mitch Marner arrives on the ice at practice during the opening week of their NHL training camp in Toronto, Thursday, Sept. 21, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

TORONTO – Mitch Marner was asked if there’s any added incentive playing the opponent that crushed the Maple Leafs’ hopes five months ago.

The Toronto winger started his answer heading one direction – “Any time you get to play a team again, you wanna “¦” – before appearing to catch himself.

“Doesn’t matter,” Marner continued after a brief pause. “You wanna play your best against any team. Maybe there’s some extra motivation there, especially with what happened last year.

“But we wanna play our best hockey on this road trip and really get the ball rolling.”

Both statements can be true.

The Leafs open a season-long five-game swing out of town, and their first of 2023-24, on Thursday against the Florida Panthers, the group that trounced them in five games in the second round of last spring’s playoffs.

Rosters have undergone significant change – Toronto also has a new general manager – but there’s no doubt some pain lingers.

The Leafs went into the series as heavy favourites after beating the Tampa Bay Lightning in six to end nearly two decades of post-season misery, only to be sent meekly packing two weeks later.

Reaves, who signed with Toronto this summer to add some sandpaper and personality to the lineup, said there’s usually a little extra emotion in playoff rematches.

“Always looked forward to those games the next year, especially when it’s earlier in the season,” he said. “They took your dream away “¦ you can come out swinging.”

Leafs captain John Tavares said a “sour taste” does remain.

“Disappointing from our standpoint,” he said. “But we’re moving forward and learning from it.

“A new season, a new challenge.”

For the Leafs, who continue to hold Stanley Cup aspirations after the Tampa breakthrough, the challenge is sorting out where new pieces fit this fall following an up-and-down start on home ice that saw Toronto pick up two high-scoring and, at-times, sloppy victories followed by an ugly loss.

Toronto basically has four new left-wingers in Tyler Bertuzzi, Matthew Knies – he joined the club late last season – Max Domi and Reaves. One defence, John Klingberg signed in free agency, while Jake McCabe was acquired before last March’s trade deadline.

Head coach Sheldon Keefe switched up his second and third lines along with two blue-line pairs at practice Wednesday before flying south.

“They’re trying to get comfortable,” Keefe said. “(And) I’m trying to get comfortable with them.”

Knies was promoted to the second line with Tavares and William Nylander, while Domi was with rookie Fraser Minten and Calle Jarnkrok.

“Sometimes you gotta really find your team game before you can start to focus on some of the other things,” Keefe said. “It’s on me to manage that.”

He’s also looking to get the likes of Knies and Domi more ice time after both played less than 12 minutes in Monday’s 4-1 loss to the rebuilding Chicago Blackhawks.

“You’re trying to find the right mix for everybody,” Keefe said. “But everybody is responsible for the minutes that they do get, to maximize them all the way through our lineup.”

The same goes on defence, which on Wednesday included Klingberg paired with Timothy Liljegren, and McCabe skating alongside Mark Giordano.

“You want to give it time to breathe,” Keefe said. “But you also need to perform well and you need to get good results.”

After visiting the Panthers, the Leafs head to Tampa before taking on the Washington Capitals, Dallas Stars and Nashville Predators.

The 12-day jaunt – Toronto doesn’t play at home again until Oct. 31 – comes on the heels of a 6-5 shootout win against the Montreal Canadiens, a 7-4 victory over the Minnesota Wild, and that loss to the Blackhawks.

“At times, the game looks really good,” Reaves said. “And then there’s just been stints in every game where the structure has fallen apart, taking too many chances at our blue line, not getting pucks out.”

Keefe doesn’t want last spring to be a focal point when the team takes on Florida and Tampa – he’d much prefer it be on the details – but players are human.

“Any time you’ve been through playoff series, it does add a little bit more,” he said. “We’ve really got to focus on our own game and being as prepared as possible, and continue to take positive steps toward a more complete game, which we haven’t had yet.

“We’ve got to keep the focus on us.”

BERTUZZI’S BREAK

Toronto’s top-line left-winger alongside Marner and Auston Matthews sat out practice following Tuesday’s scheduled day off, but Keefe said he expects him to play in Florida.

REAVES-PERRY BEEF

The Leafs tough guy and Chicago forward Corey Perry jawed back and forth Monday after Toronto winger Noah Gregor hit Blackhawks defenceman Nikita Zaitsev, and then fought blueliner Connor Murphy.

“Never really liked him, to be honest,” Reaves said of Perry. “Always seem to run into each other when we play each other. Not a lot of love for that guy.”

“Just the way he runs his mouth,” Reaves continued. “He kinda acts tough “¦ he’s not tough.”

PARTY TIME

With the long trip around the corner, the Leafs players held their Halloween party Tuesday.

Among the costumes, Reaves and his wife, Alanna, went as Snoop Dogg and Martha Stewart.

“We were in the Uber,” Reaves said. “And the guy actually asked me if I was a rapper because he didn’t know that Halloween was this early. I guess I pulled it off well.”

He added that Matthews, Knies, Minten and defenceman Morgan Rielly dressed up as a quartet of rollerblading speedskaters, and could have been spotted in downtown Toronto on their way to the festivities.

“I’ll snitch, I don’t care,” Reaves said with a smile as Domi laughed one locker-room stall over.

“The tights, everything – they looked pretty good.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 18, 2023.

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