A slightly shaken up Maple Leafs roster has the unenviable task of slowing down the surging Vancouver Canucks on Saturday night.
Marlies call-up Bobby McMann will replace right winger Ryan Reaves on the fourth line while defenceman John Klingberg returns to the blueline as the Leafs complete a back-to-back against the rested Canucks.
Klingberg got some relief from a stretch of woeful play by sitting out Friday’s 5-4 shootout win over Calgary with what coach Sheldon Keefe said was due in part to unspecified nagging injuries. But Keefe cleared the newcomer after a Saturday team meeting, with Simon Benoit sitting out.
It’s the last game before Toronto takes off for a week in Sweden and two games against the Minnesota Wild and Detroit Red Wings as part of the NHL’s Global Series.
“We’ve liked Bobby for awhile,” Keefe said. “His training camp was disrupted by a knee injury. But we like the size and speed he brings and playing in a back-to-back against a team such as Vancouver he can help us.”
In 10 games last year, McMann had one assist but it was not for lack of trying to score on many close chances.
“He was all around the puck on the forecheck, too,” Keefe said. “His greatest asset, is addition to his speed and to generate scoring chances is (ability) to get on the puck first on the forecheck.”
Reaves is looking at an ugly team-worst minus 11, though Keefe says that number doesn’t tell the full story and he remains solidly in his Reaves’ corner as a deterrent against other teams taking liberties with the Leafs.
This might be the most fear a visit by the Canucks has generated here since the Sedin Twins were at the height of their powers. Coach Rick Tocchet has his team second in the Pacific Division to the defending Stanley Cup champion Vegas Golden Knights, with a record of 10-2-1 and a goal differential of plus 33, best in the league.
The Leafs, already with a franchise futility record of eight straight home games to start a season allowing four or more goals, must trot out a tired defence. And hope goaltender Ilya Samsonov can keep the team – and himself – composed as Joseph Woll is slated to get a night off after Calgary stretched his workload.
The Canucks look to continue a successful three-game Eastern trip, much different than when their record made past travel very arduous. After missing the playoffs seven of the past eight years, Scarborough-born coach Rick Tocchet is getting results. Forward Elias Petterssen and defenceman Quinn Hughes are top five in NHL scoring as of Saturday, Hughes’s 21 points tied for fifth with Toronto’s William Nylander.
“It’s nice to come back and nice when you’re winning, too,” said Tocchet, whose team is in Montreal Sunday. “There is a little extra juice for Toronto.”
The Canucks have bought into Tocchet’s plan after he replaced Bruce Boudreau, making changes to game preparation while the hockey office swapped out most of the defence.
“Accountability starts with the players. It’s hard for the coach to always be in their ear,” Tocchet said. “I give them a lot of credit, they know how to handle stuff when things are going a little bit haywire.”
Tocchet says he’s pleased some Canucks have come to him expressing concern if their game is lacking, as opposed to him seeking them out. He’s also picked up on welcome bench chatter of players admonishing each other for not being hard enough on pucks.
One of his key newcomers is Sam Lafferty, a bottom six forward the Leafs moved on from to make room for rookie Fraser Minten on the opening night roster. Minten was eventually returned to junior after a few games while the Leafs are only now finding a third line that works and still looking for a fully effective fourth.
“A big pick-up for us,” Tocchet said of Lafferty. “Heavy guy on the forecheck. Our scouting report was that he was a good skater, but I didn’t know he was that good through the neutral zone.
“He’s only been here a month and guys love him. When you add a guy that 24 others love, you know you’re getting character. He’s bounced around, but this could be a spot he hangs around. I love Laffs, he’s a player we need.”
Thatcher Demko, another big part of the Canucks’ story so far, starts in goal.