Conor Timmins looks ready to take one of the vacated positions on the Maple Leafs blueline, but the team hopes an injury to its biggest off-season pick-up on defence isn’t serious.
Timmins’ four-point night in St. Thomas, Ont., in Wednesday’s 5-2 win over the Buffalo Sabres was overshadowed by the absence of John Klingberg after the second period with an undetermined issue.
Klingberg had a strong game on Monday versus Ottawa, getting used to his prominent power play duty and his new 5-on-5 partner Jake McCabe. For Timmins, who has a team-best six points through two NHL exhibitions, it was another very encouraging performance.
The 25-year-old excelled in his new surroundings in Toronto last season when acquired from Arizona, though he was mostly kept in developmental dry dock by the coaching staff when Luke Schenn and McCabe were added for the playoffs. Schenn and Justin Holl signed elsewhere in the summer and Jake Muzzin’s continued designation on injured reserve means Timmins has a green light.
He also played a strong own-zone game at the Joe Thornton Community Centre in the NHL’s annual Kraft Hockeyville game, Toronto’s first pre-season win after two losses to the Ottawa Senators.
Two breakaway goals linked to Max Domi’s penalty provided the push for Toronto in the second period.
With all the pre-season speculation on how Auston Matthews will fare as a penalty killer, Matthew Knies showed his potential should the chance arise. He raced out of the zone with Sam Lafferty and executed a couple of dekes before deferring to Lafferty for the goal.
When Domi did exit the box with no Sabre in sight, Timmins hit him at the Buffalo blueline from the Leaf end with a perfect pass. He started the scoring by clanking a point shot off the blocker of Ukko-Pekka Luukonen.
After Timmins helped on Kyle Clifford’s goal, he ended the night with a power play drive past sub Michael Houser.
It was a second strong game for PTO winger Noah Gregor on a line with Pontus Holmberg and Lafferty. Toronto’s third unit has some interesting possibilities with William Nylander’s projected move from wing to trying out at centre. But should Holmberg prove capable there after being squeezed off the roster last year by numbers, it would allow Nylander to stay in a familiar position if need be.
First round pick centre Easton Cowan had a tough act to follow after his goal, assist and lots of ice versus Ottawa on Monday, but kept pace in a big-league setting again to the delight of many family and friends who dropped in from nearby Mount Brydges. He assisted on the last Timmins goal, while fellow junior Fraser Minten was in on a lot of chances through the evening.
Captain John Tavares might have got his stick on the first Timmins’ goal, but was just happy to get his first game in.
Knies and Nick Robertson also looked good at even strength among the younger generation trying to make an impression.
Martin Jones played the whole game in the Leafs net, not overworked, but good on his angles when needed. Neither Buffalo goal from Jeremy Davies and Henri Jokiharju could be put on him as he tries to stay in the hunt to back-up Ilya Samsonov ahead of Joseph Woll. Jones stopped a Dylan Cozens breakaway.
The Sabres are showing why they might end a 12-year playoff slump, with their prospects coming of age, trying to build on a 91-point season.
“I truly belive we are just scratching the surface of what this team can be,” said general manager Kevyn Adams.
West Lorne, 53 kilometres to the southwest of St. Thomas, won the right to host the Hockeyville game. Since its inception, the NHL’s Canada wide contest has generated $5 million to re-furbish 97 community rinks. The league donated $250,000 to improve West Elgin Arena in West Lorne with a further $10,000 from the NHLPA for new equipment and commissioner Gary Bettman was on hand for the game.