How the Toronto Maple Leafs evaluate preseason hockey

Photo credit:Marc DesRosiers-USA TODAY Sports
Steven Ellis
9 months ago
When the Toronto Maple Leafs kicked off media day last week ahead of training camp, coach Sheldon Keefe didn’t seem too thrilled about starting the season off with eight preseason games.
He’s been quick to mention the number eight on many occasions already. And fair play: they all just want to get things started. The preseason is a great chance for fans to score cheap tickets, but when it drags on for over three weeks, it can get a bit old quite quickly.
But the exhibition slate offers up a chance for teams to get creative, like trying William Nylander at center, or Tyler Bertuzzi on the top line with Auston Matthews.
“You get a feel for guy’s personalities and habits, their awareness on the ice, their intelligence,” Keefe told reporters Monday morning. “Those are the kind of things you can learn.
Toronto kicked off the preseason with a 3-2 loss to Ottawa on Sunday but will look to bounce back with a completely different lineup on Monday. So anything learned over the weekend won’t carry over when the two squads hit the ice at Scotiabank Arena for the first time tonight, but it’s all valuable information the coaching staff can use heading into the games that matter.
“Every player is here for a different reason and purpose,” Keefe said. “(Auston) Matthews and (Mitch) Marner and these guys are out here working to get their legs, finding their rhythm, get their heart rate up. And some other guys are here to get a job or learn the system.”
While it’s difficult to read too much into any line combos, it at least seems like Keefe is trying out groupings that make sense. Tyler Bertuzzi is set to play with Matthews and Marner on the top line, with the trio showing some solid chemistry early on in line drills on Monday. On Sunday, newly acquired winger Max Domi – who has experience at all forward positions – looked good alongside William Nylander, which could be a potential third-line combination if Nylander does indeed stay at center, with Matthews and John Tavares making up the top two middleman spots.
“Max, in particular, showed his playmaking ability and I was really intrigued to see that with Willie, who is one of our most dangerous players on the rush,” Keefe said. “I think it’s a real strength of Max’s game, is to go out and create and pressure people. I thought he put that on display.”
In Bertuzzi’s case, Keefe said he’s looking for No. 59 to just get comfortable with his potential teammates. While the top left-wing spot seemed open heading into camp, Bertuzzi – a physical, goal-scoring forward – could be a natural fit heading into the regular season. Beyond that, the Leafs are trying a little bit of everything, including giving some minor league players a chance early before ultimately sending them down to either the Marlies or over to Newfoundland.
Only a handful of players will see more than a few games during the regular season. So while it might seem like a long stretch, the coaching staff has to make some quick declarations on players, both new and old.
“Usually, you can get a sense (of a player) pretty quick,” Keefe said. “Especially this time of year, because some guys are not in the rhythm yet…  We’ll find if you put them in for a second game, some guys who you thought looked really good and you start to get excited about, they take a step back. Some guys, you think, ‘oh man, that was a struggle,” and then they come out and play really well. So I think it’s really important we give this time to breathe.”
And everyone – fans and coaching staff – need to take everything with a grain of salt this time of year. It’s so easy to overvalue a bad slew of games, especially when the lineup doesn’t account for what the opening night squad will look like.
“It’s a dangerous time of year to make any true evaluations just because it’s not the real NHL,” Keefe said. “But you talk about being present and being the best at the day in front of you. So we do have to take it for what it is.”
The Leafs will head to St. Thomas for a meeting with the Buffalo Sabres on Wednesday before heading to Montreal for a pair of games this weekend. They’ll then host the Canadiens next Monday before capping off the exhibition series with a home-and-home with Detroit. With five games in seven days, there are plenty of chances for the Leafs to continue experimenting before their Oct. 11 meeting against Montreal.
But remember: these games don’t count. Stop freaking out if things go south.

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