Telepathic message for Sheldon Keefe via Obi-Wan Kenobi — “Use the Fourth!”.
The second year coach of the Maple Leafs, seems guided by some inner voice to change Toronto’s fourth line game-to-game; part instinct, part necessity, with NHL teams carrying extra players this season who need ice time.
On Thursday in Edmonton, Keefe kept his taxi squad — he prefers ‘The Stay Ready Squad’ — on high alert with centre Jason Spezza and winger Alexander Barabanov coming back in to replace Joey Anderson and Pierre Engvall. He did keep newcomer Travis Boyd on the right side after a goal in his Leafs debut. On defence, Travis Dermott also returned on the third pairing with Zach Bogosian, bumping Mikko Lehtonen.
The changes come despite a pretty good outing by the bottom six forwards on Tuesday in Calgary, including a second goal in as many games by promoted third-liner Wayne Simmonds.
“With Engvall, Anderson and Boyd, that was the best I felt about our fourth line to date from a structure standpoint,” Keefe observed on Thursday morning. “The way they skated and defended, that’s a really good standard to set for that line.
“We have been moving people in and out and are providing opportunities for others to get in and get some looks. We want to keep everybody sharp and not have too much time expire. We never really know when we’ll need all these guys.
“We’re also still unsure who the right guys are on that line, so we’ll keep moving things around until we find the right fit. To those coming in, it’s a chance to follow suit and keep up with that competition.”
FREE AS A BOYD
Until Tuesday, Boyd had not scored in almost a calendar year, against Montreal while with the Washington Capitals.
“Travis hasn’t had very many practice reps with us, so for him to step in and play the way he did was great,” Keefe said. “Not only because he scored a big goal for us, but production from that line is a nice bonus.
“He has the ability to do that. He’s scored a lot at different levels and has found a way to produce at the NHL in his limited time.”
Boyd reached double-digit points in both of his first two partial seasons with the Caps and has been up as high as 63 points in the AHL with Hershey following three years in the U.S. National Development program and four playing on his home state University of Minnesota.
There’s plenty of speed on the line of Ilya Mikheyev, with a lighter John Tavares at centre and William Nylander. Now, how about a couple of goals from the two wingers?
Mikheyev went into Thursday’s game looking for his first of the season, Nylander his third after netting two in the season opener. They’ve totalled six assists overall in various duties. Nylander acknowledged his shots are down a bit.
“We haven’t been getting the solid offensive zone time we’re used to,” Nylander said. “We’re working on that. Myself, I’ve been looking to pass in certain situations where I should definitely get a shot on goal. It’s something I have to do better to get some pucks on net. After the first shot, we have to get the puck back. We’re stuck on the retrievals and we have to start over again.”
Nylander feels the trio had potential as a unit up to last year’s mid-season, when newcomer Mikheyev suffered a gruesome cut to his wrist that shelved him until the summer playoff series.
“We clicked before and that speed will help,” Nylander said. “We just need to get the second pucks back.”
GOOD NEWS FOR MARLIES
The announcement Thursday that the American Hockey League will let the Flames operate their farm team in Calgary instead of its regular base in Stockton, Calif., should pave the way for the Toronto Marlies and the rest of the AHL’s Canadian Division to get started sometime next month.
The cross border call-up issue with COVID-19 and quarantine would have affected any call-ups the Flames wanted to make, though Vancouver, with its team in Utica, N.Y., and Edmonton (Bakersfield, Calif.,) are still in a tough spot.
Laval (Montreal), Belleville (Ottawa) and Manitoba (Winnipeg) join the Marlies and the Heat. While U.S. clubs had drawn up a schedule, the Canadian Division was waiting on the Calgary decision before proceeding and now the AHL must also revise its Pacific Division plans with Stockton gone north.
Toronto and Belleville still need to prove they have COVID protocols in place and final permission from the Ontario government. It’s unlikely fans will be
allowed into either team’s rink for the first while.
While Eastern viewers had to stay up late on Thursday night to watch the Leafs in Edmonton, the team will be back in its traditional 7 p.m.
Hockey Night In Canada
slot on Saturday in the second road game against the Oilers … Toronto led the North Division with a positive faceoff percentage of 55.7% before taking on the Oilers … Leafs defenceman Morgan Rielly noted that card games have been forbidden on long flights for NHL teams these days due to COVID, but added it was nice to see some teammates picking up a book.
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