A few Toronto Maple Leafs took the optional morning skate, just hours before the puck drops against the Montreal Canadiens in the season opener. As always, the expectations are high. Many analysts pick Toronto to win the North Division, but there is something else that is high around this team entering the 2020-21 season — vibes.
“The vibe is really good,” said head coach Sheldon Keefe, “the guys are really enjoying coming together, the way they have the worked… to get ready to play real games — there is a lot of excitement.” Keefe enters his first season full season as head coach. He repeated the same message during the morning skate as he did when training camp opened. “The message to our guys this morning was just to continue to build on the structure and the systems as we go. The habits and the identity and mindset of our team should be apparent right from the start here.”
Season 8 for Morgan Rielly
Morgan Rielly is entering his eighth season in Toronto. My, how things have changed during his time. When he started back in 2013-14, Phil Kessel was the leading scorer, Dion Phaneuf was captain, and Joffrey Lupul put up 44 points. He’s been through the teardown, the rebuild, and all of the ups and downs along the way.
Still, he sees something different with this team, “I think we have more experience. And I think we are more prepared this year than we have been in the past,” said Rielly. He also addressed the vibe around the team, “I think we are confident with the group we have… I think we are in a good spot. I think just the overall feeling our group has as a team right now is great.”
Zach Hyman was all smiles taking questions after the morning skate, “I think this group is set up for success, and we are excited to work towards that.” Hyman pointed to the offseason moves that added experience and character to the room. “We have so many new additions to the team and young guys. I think we have a fantastic mix of players who complement each other, and I think we are much deeper both offensively and defensively this year.”
The positive feeling may also be how the players are being treated. While the non-starting players have been referred to as the taxi squad around the league, that won’t be the term used in Toronto. “We are going with the stay ready squad. I think that speaks to the mindset we need these guys to have in terms of how they have to stay ready; they have to continue to work,” said Keefe. He attributes the idea to Steve Nash, the Brooklyn Nets head coach and Canadian basketball legend who implemented the term on his team.
Return of the Morning Skate
Keefe also says the morning skate routine has changed. It had been eliminated by most teams. However, Keefe sees it as an opportunity to both keep the “Stay-Ready” players in the mix as well as a way of dealing with the new reality of the schedule. “If we don’t have a practice (the day before) then we would have a full team skate and that is when you would see a little more teaching and a little more structure base rather than just getting them out and getting them a little bit of a sweat,” said Keefe, who acknowledges the plans are fluid. “Yeah, that is just how we will adapt to it as the schedule gets heating up here.”
The real challenge, according to Keefe, is keeping the vibes positive through the condensed schedule. “It is a whole other challenge, and we are looking forward to seeing how our players respond and how we can maintain those good vibes we have around our team throughout the season.”
That will be a challenge facing all teams due to the irregular schedule that has limited time between games. A team that loses the good vibes and falls into a prolonged downturn could quickly find themselves crashing to the bottom of the division.
Kevin Armstrong is an award-winning journalist with more than two decades of experience. He’s been rink side for World Juniors, Memorial Cups, Calder Cups and Stanley Cups. Like many Canadian kids, his earliest memories include hockey. Kevin has spent countless hours in arenas throughout the country watching all levels of the game.