Sheldon Keefe’s media availability on the first day of Maple Leafs training camp was just about finished on Sunday.
The Leafs coach then dropped a Jumbo bombshell: Joe Thornton will be on the left wing on a line with stars Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner when on-ice sessions begin on Monday at the Ford Performance Centre.
The intriguing looks speak to the Leafs’ depth, but here’s a factor to keep in mind: No matter who Matthews and Marner play with — by the time the opener against Montreal rolls around on Jan. 13, they could have different linemates — there’s another step for each to take in the abbreviated 56-game season. More to the point, each can get deeper into their skill sets to not only ensure the Leafs make the playoffs, but go on a significant run.
“They were a big reason why I came here (in 2018), so I think that these guys have so much room to go,” Tavares said. “There’s things that are tough and that sting (the Leafs’ early playoffs exits), but the trajectory that they’ve been on has been pretty tremendous. It’s fun to be around that.”
Matthews was steaming toward a 50-goal season last March when the NHL went on pause and finished with 47 goals in 70 games; Marner was second in Leafs scoring with 67 points in 59 games, including a team-high 51 assists. Both players are becoming more defensively aware as their NHL careers progress. As one example, Matthews was tied for first among NHL forwards in 2019-20 with 78 takeaways, while Marner wasn’t far off with 64.
Though Marner wasn’t consistent in the qualifying round against Columbus in August, Matthews was the Leafs’ best player.
“I want to play to a new level,” Matthews said. “The series with Columbus wasn’t the result we wanted, but individually I felt really good in that series. I just want to be consistent. It’s a short season, so all these games matter.”
Said Marner: “For me and Auston’s sake, we do want to go out there flying (to start), but at the same time, we want to be responsible. Auston’s one of the best at tracking back and getting pucks. Our line can really do that a lot this year, of tallying steals throughout the neutral zone and coming back quickly on teams.”
For Keefe, what Matthews and Marner accomplish in every aspect, whether on the ice or off, is crucial.
“You want your best people to be the ones that set the standards,” Keefe said. “It makes life a lot easier for everything to fall in place. We’ve had those conversations with all of our players, but particularly our top guys and regardless of age.”
For now, and perhaps well into the rest of the week and into the regular season, the two will have Thornton to help set those standards.
“I’ve watched him for a long time,” Marner said. “What he does with the puck, controls the puck in the O-zone, it’s impressive to watch.
“We’ve been practising for a couple days, the chemistry is getting better every day. For me, it’s just trying to find holes and soft spots for outlets.”
And Matthews’ view: “He’s been playing (in Switzerland), he looks sharp and he just looks like Jumbo out there. He has great vision, even with guys draped all over him. Everybody’s just super excited to have him on the team.”