I have to admit, I’m not the biggest practice guy in the world. Mostly because it takes me longer to get to Ricoh Coliseum or the MasterCard Centre than they actually last, let alone the way back. As such, I only go when I absolutely need to get a quote or two. This week, though? I’m living downtown! Temporarily of course, but all the same. My favourite part about the whole thing about this week is how close this place is to Ricoh; literally walking distance. As such, I’ve taken advantage and been at practices all week. Here’s a grab bag of sorts, full of updates.
MacWilliam took a hard impact on Sunday, essentially bouncing his head off of the ice, and struggled to get up and to the bench afterwards. Spott’s words after the game? “Andrew MacWilliam took a pretty good bump when his head hit the ice there, so anybody who sees the replay, I can’t say “upper body” on that one, the replay tells the story.”
Naturally, we all thought the worst. It looked like a guaranteed concussion. Two days later, though..
“He’s back, he’s fine. Which is good, I think we dodged a bullet on him. Thankfully, he should be back ready to play in Utica on Friday.” MacWiliam has yet to practice since Spott said this, and Brad Staubitz was practicing as a defenceman that day. Zachary Yuen was called up for Orlando and practiced with the team this morning.
Abbott was also injured on Sunday, a huge blow to this team. He’s more or less been their top forward scorer from the start and currently leads the team in assists and points. Spott seemed optimistic on Sunday. “Not bad, looks maybe like a rib, more muscular than anything right now. We’ll have some X-Rays just in case”.
Today, the tune changed a bit. “We don’t know. He’s going to see our medical people, hopefully we’ll have something more tomorrow. But he took a pretty good whallop in the corner there, so we’ll hopefully know more tomorrow.”
It seems obvious that something manifested worse than they thought, and that the originally assumed rib injury isn’t the case, as made apparent by the change to “upper body”. Watching the hit, it seems like his shoulder was the point of impact. Depending on whether he had a bruise or a separation, that can be anywhere between a couple of days to a season ending injury.
McLaren has been out with a hip flexor injury since his second game with the team. He practice in a red jersey for all three days. “We’ve got a few guys that have bumps and bruises. Frazer McLaren looks like he’ll be back for full practice tomorrow, which is good news.” Spott said on Tuesday. “He skated lightly with us today and felt good, so should expect him back in practice tomorrow. Spencer Abbott and Brandon Kozun are not on the ice practicing yet, so we’ll have to see how they progress. The good news is that Frazer should be back sooner than later.”
Kozun began practicing the next day.
Two moments for McLaren stood out for me this week. One, on the Tuesday, doing puck tricks with his teammates, being much better at keep ups and puck catching than the others. Not really in-game talents, but it was a display of how even the least offensively gifted players in professional hockey are still obnoxiously gifted athletes. The second, on Wednesday, where he got a little frustrated and tried to break his stick. A smash and a toss later, and it was still good, which made him opt for a new one anyway. Whoever made that twig should probably get a raise.
The New Guys
With Carter Verhaeghe and Fabrice Herzog joining the team, there’s a lot of excitement from people who want to see a couple of recent Leafs picks. There’s no rush to thrust them into the lineup however.
“Steve Staios will take the lead on some of the new players that are coming in. Not all of them will play regularly with us. It’s important that we keep the mindset of our hockey club, and stay true to that. We’ll put these guys in, they’ll play a few games in the regular season down the stretch, but they’re here to work with Mark Fitzgerald, our Strength & Conditioning Coach, and do a lot of skill work with Steve Staios.”
Will we at least get to see them soon, though?
“Not this weekend. They’re coming straight out of junior,
they’ll spend time with Mark Phalon, our video coach, to go over our systems
and our technical package. We won’t see Carter until Saturday, he’s got a
year-end banquet, and Fabrice will now deal with Mark and get up to speed.
Hopefully next week, if things go well, but as I said, our first goal is to
secure a playoff spot, and that’s not going to be easy. We want to make sure
that stays on the forefront.”
Tyler Biggs touched on his previous experience in this regard as well. “You come up here right after your season is over. But at
the same time, you’re hanging out and getting to know some of your teammates
for the following year. That’s how it was for me, anyways.”
Speaking of the playoff push, Spott took the time to hype up his team ahead of tonight’s game against the Utica Comets. “From day one, I think there’s been a lot of people who haven’t given this team a lot of credit. For us, we’ve dealt with that, and use it as motivation. Our fate is in our hands, hopefully we can seal it tomorrow night in Utica, but we’re going to be dealing with a desperate hockey club, who after Christmas, has been a very good hockey club.”
He also spoke about the forward rotational system the team has used the last couple of weeks. “For us right now, we want to make sure that we’re keeping them engaged. Not only physically, but mentally as well. We’ve done a good job this year, maintaining that everybody feels that they’re part of the hockey club.”
He’s extremely proud with how they’ve managed to keep their heads in it. “For me, I think the guys have bought into it. Everyone is proud, they’re all professional hockey players and want to play, but they understand it’s been a rotational basis because of the extra forwards, and they’ve made my job pretty easy because of the way they handled it.”
Centre Jerred Smithson spoke of the realities that the rotation brings as well. “You get the feel of everyone. You try to get used to different linemates. At times it can be tough, if you’re swapping out a little too often, but for the most part, most of the guys have been here all year, so we know how each other plays. Part of having a good team is having that depth, especially at forward. You’ve got guys sitting out that are itching to get in, and should be in the lineup. It forces guys to play their A game and be prepared every night.”
Smithson also stressed that they aren’t relying on magic numbers, but their own performance. “We expect to win every game, and expect to go deep into the playoffs. We’re not looking at that one point. Hopefully we get it, but for us, it’s just to win every single game. That’s why you play, you prepare, you watch video, you practice. You’re there to win every game. It’s not going to be there every night, but you have to be there mentally, and at least give it a shot.”
The defensive group has had less of this rotation occurring, with typically no more than six being available to use at once, and usually the same ones (Percy, Granberg, MacWilliam, Holzer, Brennan, and Marshall).
That said, they still have goals that they’re striving for. “All of these guys want to play in the National Hockey League. That’s their goal. The nice thing about playing in Toronto is that there are 29 other teams that are represented on a Saturday afternoon, or a Sunday afternoon, watching our team and evaluating our players because of where we’re located. We’ve been very fortunate with the Leafs that we haven’t had any injuries. It’s been great, but the guys that are down here. The Brennans, the Holzers, those who have NHL experience, their attitudes have been fantastic.”
With all of the talk of the rookie plans, the various non-coaching staff got deservedly hyped up quite a bit by everybody over the past few days.
Smithson brought a veteran’s angle to it. “It’s NHL. I’ve been on NHL teams that don’t even have that
stuff. It’s really huge, especially for these young guys, to get the extra work
in, and listening to them. Barb (Underhill) is such a good power skating coach,
Steve (Staios) has played the game forever, and even for our coaches. Listening
to Kinger (Derek King) and Gordo (Gord Dineen) guys who have played in the
league and know what it takes. Most of the time, it’s just doing the little
On the other hand, you have players like Brad Ross, who are still very much developing. “It’s amazing. You can improve every way, not only with your
skill, but your skating. Personally I love it. I like to be on the ice, doing
stuff and being active. It’s good… at the start of the year, they say we have
all these resources, and it’s up to you. You’re not in junior anymore. It’s up
to you to take advantage of them. I think everybody on the team does. We even
have our captain, Trevor Smith, doing drills after with Kinger, getting himself
better. We’ve got a great work ethic of the team, and everyone takes advantage…
we’ve got of rookies on the team but they’re not taking shortcuts. Guys like
Josh Leivo and David Broll, they work really hard in practice.”
From what I’ve seen personally, Ross isn’t just blowing steam either. I’ve seen him on the ice before or after practices with Barb Underhill on many of occasions, as early as training camp and as recently as a couple of weeks ago. Speaking of Underhill, I thought this photo of her and Eric Knodel (courtesy of Marlies play-by-play man Todd Crocker), was pretty hilarious:
Ross also spoke of his time in the ECHL. “It was good. There’s a good group of guys down there that
made me feel welcome. Sparky (Garret Sparks) was down there for a little bit, and
Mike Duco… it was a good time. I got my confidence back, and got a few games
under my belt, and my conditioning back up there.”
No quotes here, but it’s really interesting to see how things have played out over the past few hours. Spott mentioned this past weekend that Dave Poulin had requested that the Marlies hold on to three goalies in case of an injury up with the Leafs, leaving them to find a way to rotate Drew MacIntyre, Garret Sparks, and Christopher Gibson over the weekend.
I mentioned a few days ago that Sparks was probably the only goalie who benefited from Jonathan Bernier’s injury in the organization, and it proved to be the case again this morning, after the Marlies finally decided to send down Gibson, probably earlier than a swap would have occurred had Sparks never come up to fill MacIntyre’s spot to begin with. But oddly enough, Bernier re-injured himself today, meaning we could see Gibson back on a plane almost immediately as MacIntyre inevitably gets another call up.
This late in the year, Spott doesn’t expect his team to be at full attention, but he’s trying to find a balance between giving them space and giving them hell. “The sun is starting to shine, mental fatigue starts to become a part of this. We’ve shortened up the practice length and try to keep the players’ best interest in mind. We’ve got some young guys here still, and we need to make sure that we keep it an enjoyable environment, but have to understand that these are our jobs and that we have to get the appropriate work done. Tomorrow morning, we’ll have another meeting to make sure we dial them back in.”
The 2 on 2 games are a mainstay, but today, things escalated further into a 10v10 ball hockey game on skates, first to three. Drew MacIntyre had a shutout as his team of then men dominated the several minutes of hectic pre-practice fun. “We have a lot of routines that we do. Sometimes change is good. We decided to let them loosen up a little bit, bang a ball around, but that’s all part of trying to keep your team sharp, show them a different drill and have some fun.”
From Thursday’s practice (forwards only)
Josh Leivo – Peter Holland – Sam Carrick
Brad Ross – Trevor Smith – Tyler Biggs
David Broll – Greg McKegg – Kenny Ryan
Jamie Devane – Jerred Smithson – Brad Staubitz
Injured but practicing: Brandon Kozun, Frazer McLaren
The Big Club
To wrap things up, here’s Spott on recent NHL call ups Carter Ashton and Jerry D’Amigo, that spills over into a general thought about the end game. “I think our job is to look at the big picture, and the big picture is the Toronto Maple Leafs, and trying to get into the playoffs and win the Stanley Cup. That’s the plan and that’s our job, to try to get Randy what we can give him to assist his hockey club. Hopefully those guys get an opportunity, but we know how important these games are for Toronto.”
The Marlies face Utica tonight, in the first of three games this weekend. A point could clinch Toronto their third straight North Division title. As always, we’ll have the recaps.