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Maple Leafs roster is full, but scoring is not


Sheldon Keefe finally has all the king’s horses and all the king’s men.

But can he put a winning Maple Leafs lineup together again?

The first game of the season with the entire Toronto roster — minus checking winger Trevor Moore — was more disjointed than dominating on Wednesday, up against the rested resources of the Colorado Avalanche. It would be hasty to judge the new defensive pairs on just one outing, but at forward, some lines failed to make it through the first period before being broken up in search of more scoring.

There are likely to be an ongoing experiments on a number of fronts, to get Auston Matthews out of his funk, make the most of Mitch Marner’s return, not take away from John Tavares or Zach Hyman, and get more out of rookie Ilya Mikheyev, who has no goals since Oct. 25.

The good news, unlike a couple of years ago when there were few options, is the Leafs have some intriguing possibilities still to sort through.

“We know anyone can play with anyone on this team, and everyone’s deadly with the puck,” said Marner, who played a team-high 28 shifts in his return, almost 23 minutes. “It doesn’t matter who you’re on the ice with, it’s the amount of chemistry you have with that person. But I think that comes pretty quick on our team. It’s just attention to detail down low in our zone and making sure you do things right.”

Matthews, Marner and William Nylander saw some shifts together Wednesday, the third line of Hyman, Alex Kerfoot and Kasperi Kapanen has potential, and Keefe can always go back to last season’s top line of Hyman, Tavares and Marner. Andreas Johnsson had to leave the game halfway through because of a shot block injury, though his numbers have slipped lately, too. When Moore does return, he can either move up the chain or at worst, augment Jason Spezza or the Marlie grads on the fourth unit.

“I do intend on moving things around with those top guys,” said Keefe, before the Leafs departed Scotiabank for a day off Thursday. “You lose Johnsson and it changes things a bit, but you’re looking for a spark, trying to score.”

That said, Keefe didn’t fault the overall effort on Wednesday after a shocking end to a 6-1 loss in Philadelphia the night before. The Leafs, now 4-3-0 under the new coach, didn’t lag against the rested Avs, but couldn’t crack their defence despite 39 shots on goal.

“I thought the urgency was fine and some of the adjustments we’ve been working at defensively have been there for us,” Keefe said. “While our attention has gone there, we’ve gotten away from some of the things offensively we need to focus on.”

On the blueline, Jake Muzzin and Justin Holl were given the shutdown role against Nathan MacKinnon’s line, while Morgan Rielly and Tyson Barrie had a chance to expand their offensive games. Again, Keefe said he just wanted different looks and gauge how more ice time affected certain defencemen.

TROUBLE SHOOTING

Former Leafs team psychologist Paul Dennis already was busy before the spotlight fell on hockey coaches who allegedly have abused their power to coerce and intimidate players.

Dennis, a retired professor at York University and former coach of the junior Marlies, has been working with OHL commissioner Dave Branch the past three years to create an education program to assist OHL and other Canadian Hockey League coaches with player relations.

“It’s so they can have a better understanding of today’s players, so they’ll be able to create a coaching environment where unwavering trust between players and coaches becomes the norm.,” Dennis said. “The program teaches coaches that there can never be an attack on a player’s self-esteem. In short, coaching by creating a threatening environment based on physical or emotional abuse will never be tolerated. Such behaviour has long-term negative effects on players, such as depression and anxiety.”

As such stories found their way to a mass audience in recent days, Branch conducted a conference call with OHL general managers, reinforcing that teams are required to contact Dennis if they identify an issue, and that the league can initiate contact if it has grounds to believe there is a problem.

“The program was embraced by the (OHL) Board of Governors and we’ve been very pleased with the teams we’ve dealt with so far,” Dennis said.

HUTCH TIME?

After a practice on Friday, the Leafs will have four road games spaced out by a day or two — which prompts the question: When will Michael Hutchinson make his next start? Moved aside Wednesday after Frederik Andersen convinced Keefe it was best to let him lead the team for a shot at quick redemption, Hutchinson will play once on the trip, though Keefe just doesn’t know when.

Facing the Stanley Cup champion Blues in St. Louis on Saturday might be too tall an order, as would Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl a week later in Edmonton. So the winless Hutchinson might be looking at the Vancouver Canucks on Tuesday, or the Calgary Flames on Thursday. Versus the Canucks, the former Winnipeg Jet has a sparkling record of 4-1-0-0 with a .949 save percentage.

LOOSE LEAFS

A huge confidence boost for the Leafs penalty kill was giving the Avs next to nothing on a four-minute minor to Muzzin in the third period Wednesday after MacKinnon scored easily on the visitors’ first power play. Asked about the Leafs’ power play (19.0%) drawing just two or fewer chances in 10 of the past 11 games, Keefe pointed out the Leafs aren’t being called too often themselves of late. At 94 times short this season, the Leafs rank 12th highest, but have the third-most goals against … Rielly is two assists shy of 214 and tying Bryan McCabe for sixth among Leafs defencemen in franchise history.

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Keefe, Leafs a hit at home


The Maple Leafs chose the low-key approach to Sheldon Keefe’s first home game, but Frederik Andersen hogged all the Hogtown screen time anyway.

Keefe can hang his first Scotiabank Arena win on Andersen’s 29 saves, including an eye-popping snare in the second period in an eventual 2-1 win over Buffalo on John Tavares’ overtime goal.

With his parents leading a clan gathering of Keefe Nation, the new coach improved to 4-1 with a difficult home-and-home split with the Sabres.

“I’ve been in this environment before (the farm team Marlies play a few times at SBA), but never quite like this, so full, as much emotion and energy,” Keefe said. “I’m hoping it’s better from here.”

Keefe’s replacing of Mike Babcock was only mentioned briefly in a pre-game in-house broadcast before many fans had arrived. Much like his predecessor, Keefe was grateful Andersen was there to save the day when his team lagged or was pushed off the puck.

“Nice to have a guy capable of that,” said Keefe, whose team lost the only game Andersen didn’t start for him, Friday in Buffalo. “You’re going to need that at certain times and it gives is confidence. It wasn’t the prettiest at times, but we found a way to get two points.”

The Leafs also won the second of back-to-back games for the first time this season, Keefe switching the rotation with Michael Hutchinson opening and Andersen closing.

“We’ve talked a little bit about how to do this scenario,” said Andersen, who seemed leery of not starting the first game. “We have a middle man in our goalie coach (Steve Briere), a little buffer there. But we talked to Sheldon as well and thought we’d try to do it this time. We started out great yesterday (Hutchinson struggled later in the 6-4 loss). It would’ve been nice to get all four points, but I’ll take two.

“When you’re seeing the puck well, you get in good position and that leads to a few more saves when you’re out of position. That’s the key to my game to track the puck around.”

Another back-to-back debate looms next week, with Toronto playing in Philadelphia on Tuesday and home again to face Nazem Kadri and the Avalanche on Wednesday.

GAME ON

After Andersen made two stops in OT, Tavares beat Carter Hutton glove side at the 1:45 mark. Hutton was tough on the Leafs, making 41 saves but has gone without a win for five weeks.

Andersen recorded his seventh victory against Buffalo as a Leaf and broke a tie with Curtis Joseph for the second most against the Sabres, who have been a prickly foe for Toronto going back to their birth in the early 1970s.

William Nylander scored on a power play, with Auston Matthews assisting, and though the latter has just one point the past three games he nearly had the winner in the final seconds of regulation when he went five-hole on Hutton and Marco Scandella swept it off the goal line.

For Nylander, his 10th goal came almost a year to the day he ended his damaging contract spat with the club, returning to double figures for the first time since 2017-18.

After a scoreless first period, in which Andersen had to be alert for teammates getting out-hustled to pucks and the Leafs survived a Nic Petan penalty, they hit on their own power play. Matthews braked by the boards and dished to Nylander, who was given too much room by an otherwise tight Sabres defence. Tavares and Matthews had their hands full with Jack Eichel, who won five of his first six draws and pressed the duo all night.

Buffalo thought it tied the game midway through the second as Conor Sheary ripped a wrister from the slot that Andersen coolly snagged. But the Sabres quickly pointed for a review and indeed most of the goalie’s glove was behind the line — but not the puck.

On another Leafs clearance collapse in that period, Andersen gloved a Jeff Skinner shot on his knees with no stick. Rasmus Ristolainen, one of seven defencemen deployed by the Sabres in this game, burst in through the left side of the Leafs and beat Andersen early in the third period.

BEST FOOT FORWARD

Keefe was glad to have Alexander Kerfoot back in the lineup after a two-game league suspension from an illegal hit in the game a week ago against Colorado. Kerfoot flew off the bench in the first period on a long change to keep a puck in during the first period.

His return meant Jason Spezza sat after being one of Keefe’s best players in the first four games. But the coach said the 36-year-old Spezza wouldn’t necessarily sit every portion of a back-to-back, citing the Leafs being on the ice six straight days for resting him Saturday.

LOOSE LEAFS

Tavares had his 400th NHL assist on the Nylander goal … The Marlies are 4-1 under co-coaches A.J. MacLean and Ron Davison, but as Elliotte Friedman reported on Hockey Night In Canada, many unemployed minor pro and former NHL bench bosses would love the gig … In a touching pre-game Hockey Fights Cancer ceremony, young survivor Khanya Solano and her family rang the bell to signify the end of her chemo treatments. The Leafs will auction off their purple warm-up sweaters and sticks … Leaf defenceman Cody Ceci apologized to referee Ian Walsh whom he surprised by hitting about 15 feet away from the net in open ice with a wild third period wrist shot … For the first time since mid-October, the Leafs have gone two games without allowing a power play goal.

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Barrie scores again, Leafs hang on for second win in as many games under Keefe


DENVER — Tyson Barrie might have a new answer the next time he is asked about his favourite memory at the Pepsi Center.

The Maple Leafs defenceman, in his return to the only home rink he had ever known in the National Hockey League, put aside his emotions and scored a power-play goal, helping the Leafs beat the Colorado Avalanche 5-3 on Saturday night.

The victory gave Sheldon Keefe his second win in as many games behind the Leafs bench since taking over from the fired Mike Babcock.

The Leafs, who don’t play again until Wednesday in Detroit, lost their final six games under Babcock.

Toronto managed to withstand a flurry of Avalanche chances in the final minutes before Zach Hyman scored into an empty net.

“While (the win) was ugly, what it did require was us to really battle and especially down the stretch,” Keefe said. “I’ve only been here a few days, but these guys have been on the road a long time, grinding, they’ve been through a lot. I like how we persevered, and found a way, how Freddy (Andersen) battled real hard in net. It was a good win.”

Andersen finished with 34 saves, including 15 in the third period.

With Babcock coaching, Barrie had little confidence and couldn’t get on track. When the change came, Barrie described it as “a new lease.”

We bet that Barrie, who was treated to a lengthy video tribute and a standing ovation, couldn’t have predicted such a quick change in his fortunes.

One of the moves made by Keefe was to put Barrie on the Leafs’ No. 1 power-play unit. Toronto had no power plays in Arizona on Thursday, but Barrie did score his first goal of the season.

Toronto got a power play 13 minutes into the game on Saturday. Barrie, who also had an assist, needed 22 seconds to score, the goal coming when he was fed by William Nylander and fired a shot past Philipp Grubauer.

“Felt really good to get that one here,” Barrie said of his goal. “Not that there is any ill will with (the Avs), but coming home in front of all the familiar faces, it’s nice to get one.

“(The standing ovation was) amazing. I was not sure how I was going to feel coming back but that really topped it off.”

For Keefe, it’s not just about having Barrie get some renewed belief in himself.

“Confidence is one thing, and being put in position to succeed is another,” Keefe said. “He has a unique skill set, he needs to be very involved and very active in the offence. When he is not, he is holding back, even if he were confident, it’s not going to help him. We need him to be engaged, be on his toes.”

GAME ON

With the Leafs up 4-2 and on a power play in the third period, Keefe called a timeout with 57 seconds remaining in a Nazem Kadri minor. “We have elite talent, so the more we can utilize them when their energy level is good, we’re going to do it,” Keefe said. “That was sort of the method to the madness of calling the timeout. It was a key point in the game and if we could find a way to score it would be really good for us.” That did not happen, but it was a nice bit of coaching on Keefe’s part and something we can’t recall Babcock doing … Valeri Nichushkin brought the Avs to within one goal when he scored at 6:54 of the third … Leafs captain John Tavares played 22 minutes 31 seconds, his most in a Toronto uniform … The Leafs’ four goals in the first period represented the first time this season they have had four in the opening 20 minutes. It was the third time the Leafs had four in a period … Former Av Alex Kerfoot also got a video tribute … Andersen was beaten 31 seconds into the game on a shot from the point by Nathan MacKinnon. The shot wasn’t hard and Andersen wasn’t screened. Andersen said he over-pushed and thought the shot was going to be harder … Denver native Nick Shore scored the Leafs’ first goal, tapping in a pass from Pierre Engvall. Engvall spun and fed Shore with a no-look feed … It was 2-1 Leafs 67 seconds later when Auston Matthews made a subtle move and then used a quick release to fool Grubauer … After Barrie’s goal, the Leafs got their fourth when Jason Spezza sent Kasperi Kapanen in on a breakaway. Kapanen went bar-down on Grubauer’s glove side … Pavel Francouz took over in the Avs net to start the second period and faced just 12 shots in the final 40 minutes … A power-play goal by Andre Burakovsky at 10:21 of the second cut the Leafs lead to 4-2 … Ex-Leaf Kadri had two assists … One area Keefe wants to improve is defensive-zone coverage, and as with all of the changes Keefe wants to implement, time is required. “We need to protect the middle of the ice a lot better and we’re trying to be a little more patient with our wingers in maintaining positioning in the inside of the ice, not getting them outside the dots too much,” Keefe said. “In the short term it might create a little more time in our end than we would like (as players get accustomed), but we are trying to prioritize the middle and make sure we settle things down there.”

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