The Toronto Maple Leafs have had one game in 21 days, so they don’t have much to discuss other than practice. So, yes, in the infamous words of Hall of Fame NBA star Allen Iverson, “We talking about practice, not a game, not a game, not a game, we talking about practice, not a game… we talking about practice, how silly is that.” But, silly or not, it’s all the Maple Leafs have to talk about after a long lay-off, and they are understandably a bit stir-crazy.
Sheldon Keefe admitted it’s been a challenge, “but it gets to the point where the players are like, “Uncle! Enough practice. Let’s get playing here.” The coach has essentially had enough time to run another full training camp. Ironically, Keefe, who is in his third season with the club, did not have a regular training camp until this season – now he has had two. “It has been a different challenge that I haven’t really faced a lot other than in training camp settings. As a coach mid-season, we are making sure we are addressing the things that we feel we need to do address while providing enough variety in giving the guys enough to keep them engaged through these long stretches of practices.”
Several players took some extra shots after the scheduled practice. Captain John Tavares explained why, “we obviously haven’t played a lot of hockey games as of late, so you have a little more energy, look to up the workload on a practice day like today… we’ve only had one game in the last little while, and sometimes you just want to get a better feel for things.”
Toronto faced a significant outbreak of COVID during the past three weeks, so the players haven’t practiced together every day. However, Morgan Reilly is relieved that they are getting back to work. “I think to have the group around each other and a more normal schedule has been good. But we are looking forwards to playing and then hitting the road.”
Maple Leafs Benefitted from Break
The time off has healed up some bumps and bruises while returning many players to the same starting point. When Ilya Mikheyev returned for his first regular-season game on Dec. 14, 2021, he seemed a bit behind the play. However, he looked to be far ahead of many players on Jan. 1, 2022, when he scored two goals against the Ottawa Senators.
Then there is Justin Holl. It’s no secret that his play has struggled during the first 30 games of the season. However, during that 6-0 victory over Ottawa, he scored his first goal of the season. He is not relied upon for goal-scoring, but the rare goal resulted from playing the penalty kill to perfection. Holl went on to put together one of his better performances thus far in the 2021-22 season.
Maple Leafs Reset is Complete
“You have no choice but to look at it as a reset,” said Keefe. “No matter what your situation is, you should be looking at this as a reset. We have talked about that as a team. Ultimately, it is just about reconnecting with what we do as a unit, not so much as individual pieces, but what we are trying to accomplish as a team. The quicker we can get back to our team game, the better it will be for everybody.”
Toronto has ten games over 25 days if there are no further schedule changes. Not the heaviest workload, but still more work than they have had for weeks. If the Ottawa game was any indication, perhaps slight cabin fever isn’t such a bad thing.
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.