Leafs test out new lines
NIAGARA FALLS — Mike Babcock rolled out a version of his new forward lines on Friday and everyone took notice.
On the benches during scrimmage. Among team brass up in the stands, the spectators at the Gale Centre and perhaps even a certain unsigned forward sitting across the ocean, tracking it all on social media.
There was Auston Matthews, split from Zach Hyman and now with his “shifty” right winger Tyler Ennis. John Tavares and Mitch Marner were just missing on some creative passes in their much anticipated debut, as Hyman joins them. Josh Leivo was with a higher profile group he hopes leads him to steady work at left wing, while two unknown Swedes played with slick Finn Kasperi Kapanen on the fourth unit.
At least one of Friday’s lines will eventually change once William Nylander’s contract is settled, but the restricted free agent and the team have a wide gulf on term and salary. For now, it’s Ennis, who was signed with an eye to being a fourth line worker bee, with Matthews and Patrick Marleau.
“Sometimes, things get old,” said Babcock of along standing reluctance to take Hy man away from Matthews’ flank the past two seasons. “It will be interesting to see how all that goes. Right now you have, Tavares, Hyman and Marner and they’re just flying, it’s a pretty good feeling. Willy’s not here, so we’ll figure that out as time goes on.”
Matthews scored a nifty shootout winner in a 2-1 scrimmage, going head-to-head with Tavares.
“I thought we found each other out there a couple of times,” Matthews said of Ennis.
The latter put the moves on a couple of defencemen in making rushes and from behind the net, where everyone thought he’d try and find Matthews through traffic, he weaved and nearly tucked in a back-door goal.
“I have to be shifty (Matthews’ description of him),” Ennis said. “I’m not the biggest guy (5-10, 170) so I’ve learned to always be moving, shake defenders and create space for myself.”
Ennis also had a shot block that Marner called “psycho” to attempt in a meaningless camp game. But his contributions to the Buffalo Sabres, three 20-goal seasons, were forgotten when he struggled with the Minnesota Wild in 2017-18.
Babcock also raved about Marleau’s speed, on the eve of his 39th birthday Saturday.
Ennis say she’ s not paying attention to the Nylander negotiations, which have now been overshadowed by the start of camp. Babcock was also pleased that Mar ne rand Ta var es hit it off.
Though the lineups in actual exhibition games next week will be more important to monitor, Babcock bumped frequent healthy scratch Leivo up to the left side of Nazem Kadri and Connor Brown, while Kapanen was put with new Swedish centre Par Lindholm on a projected fourth unit with left winger Andreas Johnsson.
“A couple of Swedes, I’m not happy about that,” quipped Kapenen. “But we played well, so I’ll take it.”
The Baltic rivalry chirping went both ways, but Lindholm is hoping to catch fire with anyone Babcock puts with him. He was a defensives tara few seasons at home, but when he generated more offence last season, many NHL teams called.
“I’ve played some hockey in my life,” said Lindholm, wary of being portrayed a total newcomer. “There’s definitely more speed here( he’ s spent the past few weeks trying to adjust to shorter rink lengths ), more starts and stops and fast turns. They (Kapanen and Johnsson) are both young players and have speed. Johnsson, meanwhile knows that his element of surprise is gone after coming up from the Marlies and playing in six NHL playoff contests.
“I don’t feel I have a spot (guaranteed),” said Johnsson, a member of the Marlies’ Calder Cup champions. “Sure I had some games last season, but I haven’t been here for a full one.”