The Toronto Maple Leafs are in the Mile High City tonight for game two of the Sheldon Keefe Era. Between the return of Tyson Barrie to the Leafs first game after practising under Keefe, there is a lot to watch for in this evening’s game.
Here are five things to watch for:
1) The Return of Tyson Barrie and Alex Kerfoot
Tyson Barrie and Alex Kerfoot return to Denver for the first time since being traded to the Leafs. Barrie admitted going into Denver without a goal would’ve weighed heavily on his mind. Well, he got the monkey off his back in Arizona, and he’s got to be feeling good about his game right now.
Kerfoot returned to the Leafs lineup after dental surgery on Thursday and I would think he’s pretty fired up to play against his old team, too. I’d expect some sort of video tribute by the Avs in the first commercial break — both may be in the starting lineup — and it may get emotional for a few seconds.
With Barrie’s new lease on the rest of the season, I’d expect him to activate more in the rush and create more scoring chances. It seems like every player who plays the Leafs after leaving/being traded scores, so here’s hoping Barrie or Kerfoot flip the script on the Avs.
2) Nazem Kadri’s First Game Against His Hometown Squad
Drafted in 2009, the hometown kid was part of the organization for a decade before Dubas sent him to the Avs in July. Many would argue that Kadri was the heartbeat of the team, but two straight postseasons with a costly suspension will put you in a very uncomfortable position.
Kadri has been really good for the Avs on their second line thus far, providing secondary scoring to the tune of 15 points in 22 games. He’s getting more power-play opportunities in Colorado, playing on the first PP unit and getting almost 18 minutes of ice per game. Expect Kadri to be amped up to play against his former team, as he’ll probably look to engage physically to get himself into the game.
After 10 years with an organization, it’s probably a blessing his first game isn’t the return to the old city, but expect Kadri to have an impact on the game one way or another.
3) Systematic Changes
With one practice under their belt, there are bound to be some changes in the way the Leafs play under Keefe. While I don’t expect a new system to be fully implemented and functioning until close to Christmas, Keefe has definitely made some changes already.
The Leafs’ structural adjustments in the D-Zone were incredibly apparent against Arizona, and there are likely more pronounced ones to come. It is likely the Leafs will play more compactly in their own end, while pressuring the quadrant of the ice where the puck is.
On entries, the Leafs played a tighter gap, and that is a hallmark of Keefe’s coaching. He expects his forwards to track back with speed and support the defence to allow them to step up and kill plays at the blue line. With the puck, the Leafs will employ some soccer mentality, in that they will possess the puck. Dumping the puck in and out is not going to happen nearly as often, the Leafs hold the puck to make changes, reload and come at teams.
4) The Altitude Effect
While the Leafs did have the benefit of flying in 40 hours before the game, there’s a reason it’s called the Mile High city. There isn’t less oxygen in the air, per se, but the partial pressure is lower, which can lead to a hypobaric condition. If the body isn’t accustomed to these conditions, it can impact athletic performance because there is an oxygen deficiency at the heart and lung tissue level. This is why athletes tire more quickly at altitude.
The Leafs have the benefit of a practice day, albeit for only 32 minutes, so the dip in play may not be as evident. However, players may appear to be more physically worn out as the game enters the later stages. They will need to combat this by keeping shifts short and hanging onto the puck as much as possible.
5) Who Gets A New Opportunity?
Between injuries and a new coach, it will be interesting to see who gets some new opportunities from here on out. Against Arizona, Engvall was given penalty kill time and he made the most of it. With Andreas Johnsson practising on the PK, he will likely see time there as well. I’m very much a fan of using some skill on the penalty kill, and would love to see Johnsson, Tavares, and Marner (when healthy) get opportunities to kill over Gauthier and Shore.
Barrie has been moved to the top power-play unit and I would expect him to set up in the “Ovechkin spot” for one-timers, with Matthews on the other flank. As for as ice-time, unless absolutely necessary, I don’t think we see a huge uptick in Matthews or Tavares’ time, when you factor the altitude effect.
Will Mikheyev remain on the left with Tavares, and what will he do with that opportunity? Will Travis Dermott do more to get up ice and earn more ice time? He’s certainly shown he’s capable of playing more than 13 minutes.