Toronto Maple Leafs forward Wayne Simmonds wasn’t happy when head coach Sheldon Keefe elected to sit the veteran forward on Nov. 13 against the Buffalo Sabres on the second night of back-to-back games.
“First time in 14 years in the league I’ve been a healthy scratch so it was definitely a tough pill to swallow,” Simmonds told reporters four days later.
The veteran was consistently in the team’s lineup after that scratch until this month, when he has dressed for just three games in a span of 17 days.
“Naturally you get upset and you look for answers on what you can do to be better,” Simmonds said. “For myself, I know I’ve got to play better, so that’s up to me and that’s just the way it goes sometimes.”
On Thursday, Simmonds will re-enter the lineup when the team hosts the Winnipeg Jets and it comes at the expense of forward Colin Blackwell, who scored his first goal as a Leaf in a 6-4 win against the Boston Bruins.
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“Blackwell probably played his best game the other night,” Keefe said. “I wanted to get these three veteran guys a chance to come right back in and play a hard and competitive game against a team where those three guys played and it didn’t go so well for us.”
To say things got out of hand the last time the Leafs took on the Jets is an understatement. Jets defenceman Neal Pionk was suspended two games for kneeing Maple Leafs defenceman Rasmus Sandin. Jason Spezza was initially suspended for six games for his retaliatory knee to the head of Pionk, only to see it reduced to four games on appeal.
So with the return match set, it’s not a surprise that Keefe has elected to go this route.
Simmonds is the only player Maple Leaf has played at least 30 games this season to register a Corsi below 50 percent this season (49.45). Given the Maple Leafs are among the best possession teams in the NHL, Simmonds’ decline is a bit concerning. Spezza has also seen a decline in his game as of late with a 50.19 per cent Corsi this season.
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Blackwell will return to the lineup on Saturday when the Leafs embark on a four-game road trip through Philadelphia, Tampa Bay, Fort Lauderdale and Dallas. There was also talk from Keefe that Blackwell may see action further up the lineup as the team continued to experiment with line combinations outside of the top line of Michael Bunting, Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner.
“I’ve talked to the three guys (on the fourth line tonight), they’ve all got to continue to get better,” Keefe said. “Blackwell has done a good job for us and he’s got a leg-up on them. Those are veteran guys that we respect greatly and we want them to continue to find their game.”