NIAGARA FALLS – On the first shift of the first scrimmage of the first day of Maple Leafs training camp, John Tavares slid one of those how-did-he-do-that passes to Mitch Marner, sending him in on a clear-cut breakaway.
Not long after that, on the same shift, Auston Matthews sped up the ice carrying the puck, with strides that seemed longer and stronger than anyone else, yet graceful like Beliveau, with a confidence and a purpose you don’t normally find on Day 1 of any hockey camp.
And those were the first 45 seconds that really mattered at training camp – in one short shift, the window opened to the talents of centre one and centre one-eh on this new Maple Leafs team, the diversity and depth of Tavares and the pure power of Matthews, playing head-to-head, each of them playing with a kind of intensity that is rare to be found from veterans on the first shift of the first day.
Each of them trying to establish their territory, mark their places with the coaching staff, with their teammates, against each other. This isn’t about finding a spot as much as it is about pushing each other. Showing their stuff. How great can one make the other. How much better can you be when pushed by an opposite yet an equal every day in practice. The push comes now. And then the goal – to be ready to play between around 36 minutes a night, 54 minutes if you include the new third-liner, Nazem Kadri. Which leaves something like six minutes for whomever is chosen to centre the Leafs’ fourth line.
The Leafs are in a category they haven’t been since Keon and Kelly and Pulford played here, and none of those three were offensively gifted the way Tavares and Matthews are naturally gifted. The last three Stanley Cup champions were all about depth and strength down the middle. Pittsburgh won two recent Cups with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin at centre and Washington celebrated last June with Evgeni Kuzenetsov and Nicklas Backstrom, combining with Lars Eller, to put up 73 playoff points, monumental playoff numbers.
Now come the Leafs with Matthews, Tavares and Kadri – certain to score more than 100 goals this season, injuries aside – and Ron Hainsey, after his first scrimmage, has some kind of understanding of what this Leafs team can look like. He played with Crosby and Malkin in Pittsburgh. He knows how a defence changes when you don’t worry about getting the puck, because you always have it. Washington and Pittsburgh won two Cups because of their strength down the middle, but also because of their ability to play in the neutral zone, preventing the other team getting the puck.
Tavares, who skated onto the ice for the Team Apps vs. Team Horton scrimmage to a rather loud and enthusiastic ovation, wasn’t really comfortable to compare he and Matthews to Crosby and Malkin. It was, after all, just Day 1. But a day that mattered very much to Tavares.
“I don’t really think it’s really smart to compare yourself to Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin,” said Tavares. “Obviously, they’re two special players.”
He then went on to add that he can push Matthews in a certain way, and Matthews can push back to the benefit of both players, the way Crosby and Malkin have fed off each other all these years.
When Tavares was asked who the most creative players he had played with on the Islanders, he referenced former Leaf P.A. Parenteau and Josh Bailey. Marner, his new right-winger, is in a different class, playmaking-wise, vision-wise, than anyone he’s ever played with before. This is new and exciting and educational for Tavares. This was like watching a quarterback and a wide receiver, throwing to each other on the first day of training camp, having never played together before, trying to figure out what each other wants from the other.
Marner thought the first day of work was a good one, although he admitted there is lots of learning to do. The defensive zone and the neutral zone seemed fine. It was the offensive zone that worried him.
“We’re still growing on the chemistry,” he said. “We have to learn where each other likes to be. Down low, we didn’t know what each other was doing.”
That’s what this time is for. There aren’t many battles for positions in Leafs camp. There will be some fights for the final roster spots and a decision to be made on who will be the backup goaltender – but all the primary positions are already spoken for, and this is less about trying out and more about preparation for the season.
But you can’t help but watch this on Day 1, what Tavares brought, what Matthews brought, the way they went back and forth, head-to-head, and you can’t help but he excited about the possibilities these two can bring to the Maple Leafs.
There was a little bit of Ali-Frazier in two periods of a scrimmage. Not with punches being thrown, but with artistry. A chance in one end. A chance at the other. A hockey counter-punch. Tavares putting his skill on display alongside the multi-skilled Marner. Matthews more by himself with William Nylander still in Sweden and the animosity between his camp and the Leafs’ negotiation team at war.
The scrimmage ended in a 1-1 tie and went to shootout, where Matthews scored the winning goal. “Yeah, I called it beforehand,” said Marner. “I told Patty (Marleau) he was going to do something that’s crazy, and he did something crazy.” One of those moves that gets highlight reel play on the sports shows at night.
Advantage Matthews for now. Back on the ice Saturday. Your serve, John Tavares.
Source:: Toronto Sun – Movies