In this edition of Toronto Maple Leafs News & Rumors, I’ll share captain John Tavares’ work during the suspension of the NHL’s regular season. I’ll note the further exploits of young Nick Robertson during the training camp in place of injured Zach Hyman, and share the news that Teemu Kivihalme re-signed with the organization.
Item One: John Tavares Earning His Stripes as Captain
John Tavares was busy over the NHL’s regular-season suspension. His son Jace, who was born on Sept. 12, 2019, is growing. He became a player representative on the NHL’s plan to restart the season. He also began his own foundation to help children have brighter futures.
Tavares also worked hard to perform his duties as the team’s captain during the pause. He took the work seriously and kept in touch with his teammates to help ensure they were prepared for the return of play.
Head coach Sheldon Keefe noted during a recent interview that Tavares “played a great role, as did the rest of our leadership group. As Phase 2 arrived, there was a real push by our leadership group to take advantage of that time. Now it looks like it’s paying off. We have a number of changes (to the playbook) and we’re fortunate the players put the work in so that we can go right to that.” (from “Sheldon Keefe makes his mark on the Maple Leafs, and four other things we’ve noticed at summer camp, Mark Zwolinski, The Star, 17/07/20).
Item Two: Zach Hyman Deemed “Unfit to Play” in Saturday’s Training Camp
According to the NHL’s new policy, Keefe didn’t say much, but Zach Hyman missed Saturday’s training camp session. Speculation is that he blocked a shot with his foot on Friday with the result being a “lower-body injury.”
Although he finished Friday’s practice, Hyman was hobbling. During Saturday’s practice, he was replaced on the Auston Matthews and William Nylander line by rookie Nick Robertson.
Item Three: Nick Robertson Continues His Push to Be Part of the Phase 4 Roster
It might be getting tougher for the Maple Leafs not to play Nick Robertson sometime during Phase 4. With teammate Hyman hobbling after being hit by a shot on Friday, Robertson came in and skated his stuff in Saturday’s scrimmage. In the Toronto Sun’s Terry Koshan’s words, he “dazzled.” (from “Robertson makes immediate impact on Matthews’ line in Leafs camp scrimmage,” Terry Koshan, Toronto Sun, 18/07/20)
For Keefe, inserting Robertson into Hyman’s spot on a line with Matthews and Nylander meant he didn’t need to make adjustments to his other three lines. However, I’m already on record of saying that’s the spot where I see Robertson best fitting and have used the example of the Edmonton Oilers’ offense improvement when head coach Dave Tippett put Kailer Yamamoto (who, at 5-foot-8 and 153 pounds, is even smaller than Robertson at 5-foot-9 and 164-pounds) on the Leon Draisaitl line.
Robertson didn’t disappoint. He scored a short-handed goal as Team Matthews beat Team Andersen 6-2 in Saturday’s scrimmage. The goal came during the first period when he went short side on Frederik Andersen. However, as good as Robertson looked, Keefe didn’t go overboard with praise.
However, Keefe pointed out Robertson’s work ethic: “There’s a lot of emphasis on his skill, with his shot and his goal-scoring ability, but he’s a guy who has a relentless work ethic and that’s a nice foundation for him.”
Keefe added, “You saw him hounding the puck. Those are little intangibles to his game that don’t get talked about enough. So it was really nice to see that.”
Indeed, anyone who’s watched the Maple Leafs videos of training camp will likely see Robertson forechecking like a machine. On Saturday, he forechecked NHL regulars and more than held his own. During the scrimmage, he forced defenseman Justin Holl to turnover the puck inside the blue line, helping Matthews go in alone to score against his quarantine-buddy Andersen.
Item Four: Defensive Groupings Are Traditional
There’s been a lot of talk about moving players to shore up the right side of the Maple Leafs defense. But, that might be a project for the offseason. During training camp thus far, Keefe is employing the standard groupings he used during the season when his team was healthy.
Specifically, Keefe is using three left-right combinations during practice. Left-shooting Morgan Rielly is playing with right-shooting Cody Ceci; left-shooting Travis Dermott with right-shooting Tyson Barrie; and, left-shooting Jake Muzzin with right-shooting Holl.
Although Rielly had been partnered with Dermott during the small-group Phase 2, that pairing hasn’t continued during the training camp thus far.
Item Five: Toronto Marlies Teemu Kivihalme Signs a Two-Way Contract
The Maple Leafs announced on Saturday that they had signed Teemu Kivihalme to a two-year, two-way contract. The 25-year-old, left-shot defenseman spent the entire 2019-20 regular-season with the Marlies, scoring 4 goals and 18 points in 55 games.
Kivihalme will likely play in the AHL for the next two seasons; however, should he be called up to the Maple Leafs roster, his salary will jump to $700,000 next season and $750,000 for the 2021-22 season. If he stays with the Marlies, his contract calls for a $100,000 salary during each season.
Interestingly, Kivihalme was born in Cloquet, Minnesota. His father was from Finland and his mother an American. He’s a dual citizen of both Finland and the United States. His father played NCAA hockey at the University of Wisconsin-Superior. Kivihalme was drafted by the Nashville Predators during the fifth round (140th overall) of the 2013 NHL Entry Draft.
What’s Next for the Maple Leafs?
Really, one of the most interesting issues of the Maple Leafs training camp is what happens to Robertson as the team’s training camp moves into its second week. Keefe didn’t show his cards or even hint where Robertson might be during Phase 4. In fact, Keefe actively directed the media’s excitement for Robertson’s play onto the team’s progress in general.
Keefe only commented on Robertson’s play Saturday, noting that, “We thought there would be some benefits to him in terms of giving him a little bit of confidence (playing with Matthews and Nylander).”
What happens next with Robertson will be fun to see. There’s no doubt he’s played well against NHL talent.