TSN SportsCentre Reporter Mark Masters reports on the Toronto Maple Leafs, who practiced in two groups at the Ford Performance Center on Thursday.
Toronto’s new tandem of Matt Murray and Ilya Samsonov made a good first impression on their new head coach.
“Today was my first time on the ice with them,” said Sheldon Keefe. “I though they looked great. They are real big men in the net who take up a lot of space and move well. Murray looked really dialed in and focused. As far as day one of camp goes for a veteran goaltender, he looked pretty dialed in to me. That was good to see.”
Murray, 28, is looking for a fresh start after an injury-plagued stretch in Ottawa. He posted an .899 save percentage in 47 games with the Senators over the last two years. Murray cleared waivers and played a pair of games in the American Hockey League last season.
“Going through adversity is a huge part of growing and getting better so there’s a lot to draw on for me,” the Thunder Bay, Ont., native said. “Obviously, I feel like I have a lot to prove.”
Murray has already proven he can get it done in the playoffs. He backstopped the Pittsburgh Penguins to Stanley Cup titles in 2016 and 2017. For a Leafs team starved for post-season success, that is a resume that resonates.
“With any of the players that I spoke to this off-season, that was one of the things they were really excited about,” said Keefe. “I don’t know how many goalies there are who are playing in the league right now who have won those games and won the Stanley Cup. There are not many. We have one here who has that experience and has the ability.”
Murray owns an impressive .921 save percentage in 51 career playoff games.
“It hasn’t gone the same way for him in the last few years or so, but we believe the talent is there,” Keefe continued. “We think we can do a good enough job in front of him to really help him out and help him gain some traction to get going. He had a terrific off-season. His time spent in our facility here has been great. He is off to a great start on day one.”
In his first meeting with the Toronto media, Samsonov admitted he was “a little bit” surprised that the Washington Capitals did not extend him a qualifying offer in the summer.
“I understand it’s just a business,” the 25-year-old Russian said.
Samsonov, who posted an .896 save percentage in 44 games last season, embraced the chance to bet on himself with a one-year, $1.8-million pact despite getting some longer offers.
“It’s good for me and good for the team,” he said.
“A very nice guy with a great attitude and a great approach,” Keefe observed. “He speaks okay English. He goes out of his way to talk to guys. He is not the loudest guy by any means, but he is certainly around. Any time I have engaged with him, he has been great. It seems like he is enjoying being here … He is putting in lots of work and he is a very motivated guy coming in here.”
Samsonov appreciated that Toronto’s new goalie coach, Curtis Sanford, traveled to his off-season base in Florida to work with him in the summer. The focus was on getting faster and improving his post play. He also skated alongside countryman and reigning Vezina Trophy winner Igor Shesterkin.
Samsonov thinks he’s ready for the intense spotlight of the Toronto market, but also acknowledged it’s tough to know exactly what that will feel like. The 2015 first-round pick is impressed with Toronto’s large support staff.
“It’s the best organization in the league and I understand right now why,” he said.
Samsonov is already well-acquainted with Toronto’s offensive attack. He was pulled in both games against the Leafs last season.
“I just remember I went to the bench after the first period,” he said with a smile. “Everybody knows this is the best team to score goals. A lot of goals.”
In his first practice as a member of the Leafs, Calle Jarnkrok skated alongside Austin Matthews.
“He’s just as good as they say,” the 30-year-old Swede quipped.
It was a move designed to make Jarnkrok feel at home.
“I don’t know if there is a better way to come into a new team and feel a part of things,” said Keefe. “Also, I think he has the skill set to be able to play with Auston or John [Tavares]. He has the ability to do that. He can play anywhere in our lineup. He is a very similar player to [Alex] Kerfoot with his ability to move around.”
Mitch Marner will be back with Matthews and Michael Bunting soon, but there is a job available on the second line with Tavares.
“I feel like I can bring a little bit of everything,” Jarnkrok said. “Whatever they need from me, I’m ready to do that.”
After bouncing between Nashville, Seattle and Calgary over the last two seasons, Jarnkrok signed a four-year deal with Toronto in the summer.
“I didn’t want to sign a short-term deal,” he said. “I wanted to go to a place and stay there for a while. I feel like they have something good going on here and I wanted to be a part of it.”
Is Jarnkrok ready for the intense glare that comes from life in the center of the hockey universe?
“I guess I’m going to find out,” he said. “I’ve been in a smaller market in Nashville and then Seattle, a new team, and then Calgary is a big market but coming here is a jump up from that. So, we’ll see how it is … It’s great to play in a town like this. Everybody cares about the team and it’s a little bit like back home. Hockey’s kind of everything so it’s a lot of fun.”
Adam Gaudetteanother new face, skated alongside Tavares and Marner.
“We want to give [him] a good opportunity with good players,” Keefe explained. “We think he can really score. He is a worker. He is hard on the puck. We need some guys to come in and pop, if you will, not unlike the way Bunts did last year. We see Gaudette as a candidate who could do that.”
Gaudette arrived in Toronto about a month before the start of training camp. He has been working with the team’s development staff, which he believes has made his skating more dynamic.
“I have a little more confidence handing the puck through the neutral zone and holding onto pucks longer to create a little more space,” he said. “Just using my speed and opening up lanes for other players on the ice.”
Gaudette, who signed a one-year contract worth $750,000 over the summer, played well at the 2022 World Championship producing six goals and two assists in 10 games with Team USA.
“I feel like my game has improved significantly over the last year, year and a half or so, so I’m excited to show that,” he said.
Gaudette produced five goals and nine assists in 58 games last season with Chicago and Ottawa.
Zach Aston-Reesewho is at camp on a pro tryout, skated alongside David Kampf and Joey Anderson.
“It’s a good opportunity for me to showcase what I can bring,” he said. “I’m a physical forward, who can play good defense. I’m hoping to add in a little more offense this year … The coaches and staff have made it clear there are spots available.”
“He is a guy that we had an interest in as free agency got going and just ran out of money,” Keefe revealed. “To have him still here and still competing in the mix is a good thing for us. He has come in with a very good attitude. He is a very smart and responsible player. He has played in the league a lot. He is coming from a good program with the years he spent in Pittsburgh.”
Aston-Reese played in Pittsburgh from 2017 to 2022. He led the Penguins with 187 hits in 52 games last season. That’s 16.7 hits per 60 minutes, which would have led the Leafs.
“I had an older brother who beat me up pretty good so that’s always been a part of my game,” Aston-Reese said with a grin.
The native of Staten Island, NY, had a few tryout offers, but liked the fit in Toronto.
“They care a lot about winning and they care a lot about development,” he said. “It’s a good opportunity to win the Cup and they have so many tools here to develop. I’m a little bit older, 28, but I still have a lot of room to grow.”
Veteran defenseman Jake Muzzin missed practice.
“In the last little bit, he had a little discomfort in his back,” Keefe said. “I think we are going to evaluate him after a week or so and see how things settle.”
Muzzin sustained two concussions last season and was limited to 47 games. Is the coach concerned?
“I wouldn’t say ‘concern’ especially considering it is nothing really that has been on the front burner in terms of monitoring for him.”
Muzzin will turn 34 in February.
Justin Holl spoke to reporters for the first time since the Game 7 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning. The right-shot defenseman was whistled for an interference penalty on Lightning center Anthony Cirelli during the second period of the elimination game, which wiped out a goal by Tavares. Referee Eric Furlatt ruled Holl set a pick to free up Tavares.
“That was a tough call,” Holl said. “I felt like we were both going on the same path. I actually tried to get out of the way and he kind of came into me or that’s what I felt like. Maybe if that’s not a goal it doesn’t get called, but it was a bang-bang situation. Obviously, I didn’t love it, but that’s the way it is.”
Has he relived that play during the summer?
“Yeah, but I don’t think I would’ve done anything differently. Like I said, I tried to get out of the way. You just try and make the right decision at the right time and sometimes it doesn’t go your way way.”
Lines at Thursday’s practice:
Bunting – Matthews – Jarnkrok
Robertson – Kerfoot – Aube-Kubel
Aston-Reese – Kampf – Anderson
Clifford – Minten – Simmonds
Rielly – Brodie
Benn – Mete
Kokkonen – Villeneuve
Hoefenmayer – Miller
Gaudette – Tavares – Marner
Malgin – Holmberg – Nylander
McMann – SDA – Abruzzese
Steeves – Douglas – Ellis
Giordano – Holl
Dahlstrom – Kral
Rifai – Hollowell
Pietroniro – Hellickson