ANAHEIM — Following a convincing 6-2 win against the Los Angeles Kings, the Toronto Maple Leafs couldn’t have been faulted for taking a day away from the rink.
The team had travelled from New York to Los Angeles two days prior and had a stop to Northern California sandwiched between two Los Angeles-area games.
But the team still practiced.
Maple Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe said he thought about giving the team the day off before or after the game on Friday against the San Jose Sharks, but he wanted to keep the team engaged.
“We just felt that on a trip such as this where the weather is nice, there are some distractions and things, keep the guys busy,” Keefe said.
It was just a 30 minute session on Thursday. On Saturday, the team practiced for just over 20 minutes.
The approach seems to be working and there appears to be no known dissenters.
“I kind of with him. I mean, the most enjoyable thing you can do win is win,” Leafs defenseman Morgan Rielly said before the team’s 4-1 win against the Sharks on Friday. “Days off are fine if you want to go do your own thing but to win games and have the feeling in the room afterwards, that’s plenty more enjoyable than anything else you’re going to do with your spare time.”
The veterans were in agreement.
“We’re at work. We didn’t come out here for vacation, we came to play hockey,” Wayne Simmonds said. We don’t expect to get days off and enjoy the sun and all that type of stuff. It’s not what we’re here for, we’re here to play.”
But perhaps the real sign of buy-in has come from William Nylander, who scored in the opening minute of the team’s latest win.
“I think maybe we’ve learned from past years where we have played a couple [of] really good games, and then we just relax and take out foot off the gas,” Nylander said.
The Maple Leafs have won 13 of their last 15 games and have 11 wins in November, the most of any month in franchise history. They can make it 12 with a win against the Anaheim Ducks on Sunday.
The attitude seems to have shifted.
In October, the team was mired in a four-game slump and fell below .500 for the first time since Keefe took over as coach of the Leafs on Nov. 20, 2019. The team had aimed to stay more relaxed and that included a new relaxed dress code.
In a Sportsnet interview with Christine Simpson, Auston Matthews disclosed that the team went back to the traditional business attire following the team’s four-game losing streak. With a bit of tongue-in-cheek, he said that’s why the team is winning games again. But there may be some element of truth to the all-business approach the team is currently taking on.
“That stretch when we were struggling there, I think that was good for us to learn,” Nylander said. “We’re not always going to be winning games. That stuff happens. So you’ve got to learn how to fight through that.”
“It might happen again this season and we’ll know how to deal with it.”
The expectations were high for the Maple Leafs last season. A disappointing loss to the Montreal Canadiens in the opening round of the 2021 humbled them. A rough start to the season made them change things up.
Now they are the hottest team in the NHL and the template has been set to try to keep it that way.
Spezza’s milestone game and influence on the club
Jason Spezza will play in his 1200th NHL game on Sunday. The 38-year-old has made a successful transition from top-line point getter to everyday contributor.
His adaptability and unofficial role as a player-coach on the Leafs has been carved out by his enthusiasm and self-awareness for the game.
“When I talk to younger players, I think a big skill, if you want to play for a long time, is just being honest in assessing how you’re playing,” Spezza said. “I think if you wait ’til your coach tells you you’re not playing good, a lot of times it’s too late.”
Spezza has four goals and three assists in 22 games. He doesn’t assess his play based on statistics, but rather how he contributes to the team. He doesn’t play for the money, obviated by the fact that he only takes the league-minimum salary just to be on the Maple Leafs.
“You have to change your value system on what you judge yourself on,” Spezza said.
Kase dealing with ‘upper-body injury’
Ondrej Kase will miss his second consecutive with an upper-body injury. The severity of the injury isn’t known but Keefe said he had been lifting weights and taking part in team meetings while they were in San Jose.
Kase has a history of injuries, including a concussion that forced him to miss all but three games last season. They are obviously taking a cautious approach to whatever is forcing the player to remain off the ice for practice and games.
In Kase’s absence, Nylander saw time on the penalty kill and it’s likely he’ll reprise that role.
Clifford to make season debut, Dermott back in
Kyle Clifford will draw into the lineup against the Ducks on Sunday. Acquired in a trade from the St. Louis Blues for future considerations last week, the forward skated on a line with Spezza and Pierre Engvall at practice.
All three players skated on a line together during the 2020 NHL Playoffs against the Columbus Blue Jackets. The team fell in the best-of-five series 3-2, ending Clifford’s previous tenure in Toronto.
Travis Dermott will slot back in on defense after sitting out the previous four games. Timothy Liljegren will sit out as a healthy scratch.