The first day of the Toronto Maple Leafs rookie tournament was a definite downer for the defence.
After sophomore Marlie and NHL candidate Travis Dermott was scratched early in the day with an illness, hulking Finnish-born Kingston Frontenac Eemeli Rasanen hurt his ankle in the first period of last night’s 5-2 opening loss against the Montreal Canadiens at Ricoh Coliseum. Also not finishing the game was Keaton Middleton, who took a punch to the face near the end of a spirited bout with Michael Pezzetta and was sent to the room for possible concussion assessment.
While Dermott’s bigger test was expected to come next week in Toronto’s main camp, it was disappointing to be scratched when he and fellow Marlie Andrew Nielsen had been around the Leaf practice facility all summer hoping to gain an edge for an expected opening at the sixth or seventh defence spot.
The 6-foot-7 Rasanen and 6-5 Middleton are representative of a large Leaf blueline in this three-team tournament, a trend the club turned to via the draft in hopes of unearthing a physical stud.
Coach Sheldon Keefe had no update on the injuries post game, but hopes Dermott will play tomorrow afternoon against Ottawa. Keefe also said high scoring WHL centre Adam Brooks is not 100% after a summer bout of mono, missing both this game and the Ottawa contest to be ready for main camp.
Carl Grundstrom tipped a Jeremy Bracco power play shot to give Toronto a 2-1 lead soon after Martins Dzierkals got Toronto on the board. But third-period goals by Thomas Ebbing (his second of the game, Alexandre Alain and Daniel Audette on overwhelmed late 2017 draft pick Ian Scott powered the Habs.
“The first came coming out of the summer, you expect a lot of mistakes — and there were a lot,” said Keefe. “Those are teachable moments. It’s obviously about the individuals here and we’ll try and clean things up. We won’t put too much stock in this game.”
The defence was out of sorts before losing their big men, allowing odd-man rushes that didn’t help Scott or starter Kasimir Kaskisuo. Both faced and stopped some odd-man rushes and breakaways that might have made the score worse. The Leafs had 36 shots on Michael McNiven, giving up 27.
“We were a lot rusty and things were happening a lot faster than in 4-on-4 summer skates,” Nielsen observed.
Timothy Liljegren, Toronto’s No. 1 pick in 2017, was in a tough spot when Montreal’s collegiate centre Ebbing, split the back line and beat Kaskisuo for the game opening goal. He recovered from some other miscues, including a costly giveaway that Keefe put down to poor team structure, before giving a nice quarterbacking performance on a third-period power play.
“That and some other things he did showed some really positive things,” Keefe said. “A lot of kids come here from junior and all different programs and you throw those factors in and it will lead to those types of mistakes.”
One of the challenges for the Swede is smaller North American ice, which he attempted to get better acquainted with during the world junior showcase in late July in Plymouth, Mich.
“I’m settling in pretty good,” Liljegren had said Thursday. “Players shoot more often from different angles. It’s harder to read and the play goes a lot faster.”.
Stephane Robidas insists he wanted to come back and play out the final two years of his Toronto contract — but couldn’t because of injuries.
In a rare public exchange about his sudden departure from the lineup at the start of the 2015-16 season, the Leafs’ new assistant director of player development said yesterday that a cumulative amount of damage to his leg prevented him from a desired return.
Robidas had turned 38 during 2015 training camp and appeared ready to win back his job on defence in the second of a three-year contract approved by former general manager Dave Nonis, worth $3 million US a year. Departing when he did gave new general manager Lou Lamoriello vital cap relief.
But Robidas said he’d been nursing an exhibition game injury to his right knee, part of the twice-broken leg that caused him so much grief in his two previous NHL stops, Dallas and Anaheim.
“I couldn’t do it,” he said of continuing to play. “I had two surgeries, a fracture, two screws in there ... there was a lot happening with that right leg.”
Robidas’s first season with the Leafs had been cut short by a severe shoulder injury. When the knee flared up Robidas disappeared from day-to-day Leaf life, though he had permission from the club to spend part of his recovery in the Montreal area where his children live.
“It was not an easy year (to be in limbo), but I’d had my fair share or injuries, surgeries and rehab. The last injury was tough and my body can’t keep up. When you can’t play, that’s how it goes. So it was a chance to stand back and take care of my body, reflect on all those years I played. I was lucky, I was a smaller guy, but it caught up to me.
“It was sad to not fulfil the whole contract. I wanted to help the Leafs, but there is not much you can do.”
He says it still hurts to even kick a soccer ball in the back yard with his daughter.
For Grundstrom, a 2016 second round pick, that’s five points in seven Toronto games counting playoffs with Marlies. “My game wasn’t that good today,” grumbled Grundstrom, who has an aggressive streak as well as a scoring touch ... Toronto-born Pezzetta took a few shots from the 6-foot-5 Middleton, who had four inches on him, but caught him with one in the face that led to a dressing room repair job ... Winger Mason Marchment is no stranger to these parts, having hung on the fringe of the Marlie roster last year. Bryan’s son had the Leafs’ best shift in their sluggish first period, two hits and a scoring chance ... All high-ranking Leaf scouts were in town for the game, including Lindsay Hofford, whose fate was unclear after being charged with a drinking offence last month in New York state ... Bob McGill was back doing Leafs TV analysis Friday with partner Todd Crocker after suffering a stroke earlier in the summer.