After the first two days of training camp, we know that Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe is focusing on defense. Multiple sources have quoted him saying that the team is working on all three zones of defense – the offensive, neutral, and defensive zone – to tweak or make “structural” changes to how the team was playing.
It seems that Keefe has used the NHL hiatus since March 12 to consider how the Maple Leafs might improve their on-ice system, habits, and details. That’s not a surprise; this has been Keefe’s first “offseason” to review how his team plays. When he took over from former head coach Mike Babcock, he hit the ground running.
Keefe’s message is, “We fully expect our guys to be better defensively when we come back.”
In this edition of Maple Leafs News & Rumors, I want to focus on the news emerging from training camp, including some news from before camp; for example, how does Auston Matthews feel about being the only player named as testing positive for COVID-19. As well, I’ll look at line combinations and what those might mean going forward.
Item One: Timothy Liljegren Replaced by Mac Hollowell on Defense
Given that NHL protocols don’t allow teams to release medical information about their players, all we know about young Maple Leafs defenseman Timothy Liljegren is that he was designated “unfit to play”. It might be an injury or an illness, but no details are forthcoming and none likely will be.
Liljegren isn’t alone. Other notable players who were similarly deemed “unfit to play” include Chicago Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford and Vancouver Canucks forward Micheal Ferland. Most people believe that the designation is a roundabout way of saying that they tested positive for COVID-19, but we can’t be sure.
For the 21-year-old Liljegren, it’s really bad news. Not only because he might be injured or ill, but the postseason might have been an opportunity for him to take his development to the next level and establish his place on the Maple Leafs’ depth chart.
Related: 7 Cool Things About Auston Matthews
Liljegren, who was a first-round pick (17th overall) in the 2017 NHL Entry Draft, had impressive numbers with the Toronto Marlies this season scoring five goals and 30 points in 40 games. He also had an 11-game stint on the Maple Leafs roster. He no doubt was looking forward to his first NHL playoff action.
Mac Hollowell, who the Maple Leafs drafted in the fourth round (118th overall) of the 2018 NHL Entry Draft, will replace Liljegren. Hollowell played 34 games with the Marlies this season and scored three goals and 12 points.
Item Two: Auston Matthews Reported as “Disappointed and Frustrated” By Being “Outed”
The psychology surrounding COVID-19 includes how people that have been infected by the virus are treated. Yesterday, for the first time since his positive test was reported by the media, Matthews spoke about his health. Fortunately, like many young people who’ve been infected, he was largely asymptomatic and didn’t feel ill.
However, James Mirtle of The Athletic dug a bit deeper and later discovered that Matthews wasn’t happy being the only named NHL player who’d tested positive for the virus (from “Auston Matthews becomes the reluctant face of NHL players with COVID-19,” James Mirtle, The Athletic, 14/07/20).
Specifically, Mirtle noted, “Those close to the 22-year-old said that he had been disappointed and frustrated by the fact he was “outed” as a confirmed case against his will, even as the identities of every other infected NHL player have, to date, been protected. Many media outlets, including/The Athletic/, have declined to identify players against their will, even as cases have multiplied rapidly across the sporting world.”
Although Mirtle reported that Matthews believes he’s been put in a tough spot, when he spoke with reporters he focused on his play and on what he had to do to get better. Mirtle added that agents and players across the NHL were outraged that Matthews’ privacy had been violated.
The psychology behind these reports is interesting, with terms used that are filled with negative nuances, such as Matthews “admitted” he tested positive or had been “outed” as infected. There’s a great amount of research about how humans act in the face of threat. If you are interested in reading further about why we respond this way, the BBC (British Broadcasting Company) had a fine article titled, “The fear of coronavirus is changing our psychology.”
Item Three: Has Ilya Mikheyev Moved Up to the Top-Six for Good?
One noticeable line combination in training camp has Ilya Mikheyev at left-wing, John Tavares at center, and Mitch Marner at right-wing. Keefe noted that he expected to move things around during practice, but given the reports over the first two days that Mikheyev has improved so much and that during the first two days of training camp he’d been playing in the top-six, there’s good reason to believe this change might become permanent.
In talking about his top lines, Keefe noted that Marner was such a great player he’d be good, “No matter where we put him and he certainly had great chemistry with John (Tavares).” Keefe also stressed the need for two great lines, then he added, “We think that Mikheyev will bring a lot to that.”
Keefe was planning to try different things to get players comfortable with each other and “renew” their chemistry. He also expected to move things around and believed that within his top-six forward positions, “We’ve got lots of combinations that can work.”
Right now, the top lines are Mikheyev – Tavares – Marner and William Nylander – Matthews – and Zach Hyman.
What’s Next for the Maple Leafs?
One of the most intriguing aspects of the Maple Leafs’ training camp is the status of Nick Robertson and his drive to join the team. After Day Two, we know Robertson won’t be “gifted” a spot on the Maple Leafs’ postseason roster. He’ll have to earn it.
Still, he’s impressing his teammates with his skill and hustle. It will be fun to watch what happens with this young player. I’m waffling in my desire to see him play during the postseason, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it happened.