The Maple Leafs held on a pair of morning skates ahead of tonight’s blue and white game at Scotiabank Arena.
It took a long time to Wayne Simmonds to truly harness his potential as a frontline presence in the NHL, but once he got the hang of it, the 13-year veteran knew he had found a calling.
“The evolution continues,” Simmonds told reporters on a Zoom call on Saturday. “In order for me to improve year after year, it’s more knowledge that I have and more insight that I gain. I am a student of the game and seek to learn whenever I have the chance.
It wasn’t until he joined the Philadelphia Flyers in 2011 that Simmonds really felt his game in this area was getting stronger. After being drafted in the second round, 61st overall, by Los Angeles in 2007, he spent three seasons with the Kings from 2008-2011, learning from some of the league’s top net players, stealing so much information from them. that he could.
“I was lucky enough to play behind guys like Ryan Smyth, who had been one of the NHL’s biggest goals in goal, and Michal Handzus too, ”Simmonds said. “I picked the brains of these guys a lot over my three years in Los Angeles and Smytty would help me tremendously. Then upon entering Philadelphia I had the chance to work with Scott Hartnell and learned a few tricks of the trade from there. I started playing in goal, and not only are you there as a screen, but you’re there to tip, and you’re there to make those little games and puck scoops.
Beyond his own teammates, Simmonds said he also admires a striker like Corey Perry, and watches his game closely.
“The way he does things in net, how smooth he is, the patience he has,” said Simmonds. “These are guys I took some advice from.”
The Leafs are hopeful that Simmonds can bring those same elements to their roster this season, so much so that he will be the net point guard for Toronto’s top power play unit to start the year.
« [Wayne] has a great tradition of producing from the front of the net, whether it’s himself scoring or just helping because of the problems a good presence in net can cause for goalkeepers and penalty killers, ” said head coach Sheldon Keefe. “So we want to give him this opportunity. Obviously this broadens its role with us and it is important … and with [assistant coach] Manny [Malhotra] come here with his [power play] planning and prioritizing the front of the net was something he wanted to do from the start.
Keefe was already very familiar with Simmonds’ expertise even before Toronto signed him to a one-year, $ 1.5 million contract in October. While Keefe was coaching with the Pembroke Lumber Kings of the Canadian Junior Hockey League, Simmonds was skating for the Brockville Braves, and during the 2005-06 season he had some memorable interactions with his future coaching club- chief.
“Pembroke was the number one team in the league at the time,” recalls Simmonds. “I remember I had just entered the league and I scored the winner of the OT to keep the boys away [against Pembroke], so it was pretty exciting. And [another time], we were at Pembroke and I remember I had a dull skate and they didn’t let me sharpen my skates so I had to beat one of their players [on the ice] just to get off.
Laughing at the memory, Keefe admitted that he didn’t know his staff’s sense of the game, but vividly recalled the Simmonds fight.
“I remember the part where he beat someone,” Keefe laughed. “I wasn’t aware of the skate part, but he let me know the first time we met here, before signing with us. I actually mentioned the fight. He evoked the backstory. We had an amazing equipment manager in Pembroke, he was as competitive as he could get. So, I imagine it was definitely a true story.
It may be an intra-team scrimmage on paper, but if Saturday’s Blue & White game is properly executed, the Leafs will gain much more than an average practice tilt.
“In my mind, this is sort of the highlight of the [training] camp, ”Keefe said. “It will end here today and we will come back and [have] two days of training before playing in Montreal [on Wednesday]. So we’re going to sort of move on to the next phase. ”
While Keefe felt his squad had more to offer after the scrum at camp last Wednesday, he’s overall happy with Toronto’s performance so far and hopes to see that continue until Saturday.
“The guys have done a lot of work, and hopefully that translates into ice. I think that will be the case in this context, ”Keefe said. “I think all the different things around him, with the NHL officials, [it’s a] game show, all that stuff that we think will add the necessary competitiveness that you hope to get out of an exhibition setting and move us to the next phase as we prepare for the regular season.
The Leafs will play three 20-minute periods in the game, with a shootout after the first and second and a five-minute OT at the end, regardless of the score. This will be a final update not only for the players, but also for the coaching staff.
” Myself, [Dave] Hakstol and Manny will work together as staff for the first two periods, spend[ing] a period with each team, ”Keefe said. “And then we’ll probably split it again from there for the third, then [assistant coach] Paul MacLean et [Toronto Marlies’ head coach] Greg Moore will be working on the bench across from the three of us.
Toronto went to great lengths to make Saturday’s competition feel as regular as possible, and those efforts are greatly appreciated in the Leafs hall, especially for the new guys.
“With no exhibition matches this year, it’s hard to get into that real games coming summer spirit,” said TJ Brodie, which signed a four-year, $ 20 million contract with Toronto in October. “So I think matches like tonight will be important to get back into this area, get a little more physical and start the fights. Just the intensity [will be ramped up]. Wednesday’s scrum was kind of a mix between an exhibition match and [a camp] melee, so I think just making it look more like a game is what we want [tonight]. »
Toronto had a horrendous 1-5-7 in the shootout last season, placing 28th overall in the NHL, and Keefe made a point of tackling this issue head on in training camp.
“Without a doubt, it’s something we’ve talked about a lot,” he said. “This is something that we want to give our guys a real opportunity to practice and try to do as much as possible in the game settings. So while we can set the settings here a bit. [for Saturday’s scrimmage], we want to make sure we get those reps. We also did this during training and our training scrums.
With the NHL roster changing this season and the Leafs facing just six other North Division opponents for the entire 56-game schedule, losing even a single point could prove devastating in the long run. .
“We’re in a season where all points are going to stay in the division, so the shootout and extra time is really bigger than normal,” Keefe said. “When you play outside of the division you feel like the extra point might not be as important if you lose it. But here, when the point stays in the division in every game, it gets even more amplified.
Keefe has incorporated shootout opportunities everywhere over the past week, including determining whether the Blue or White team could use the Leafs’ main locker room during Saturday’s game. At the end of their morning practice, the White team won a five-puck battle to earn the honor.
Brodie said at the start of the Leafs camp that his new defensive partner Morgan Rielly reminded him a lot of his former partner in Calgary, Mark Giordano. So it’s perhaps not too surprising that after a week of playing together at camp, Brodie feels pretty strongly about her relationship.
” Things are going well. Morgan is an easy guy to play, ”said Brodie. “He does it all so well it’s pretty easy to read and he’s so skillful, you just let him do his thing there. ”
With other newcomers Zach Bogosian and Mikko Lehtonen, Brodie sensed the Leafs’ blue line ploys and found them in her place.
“Some things are very similar to what I’ve been used to, so it’s not too much of an adjustment,” Brodie. “But it’s hard [to assess yourself] until you’re in a real game and the guys hit you. I hope this is what tonight is used for, [to make things more] physical and fun; it definitely helps you prepare for the real thing.