The thought of quarterbacking one of the best power plays in hockey must have fired John Klingberg’s imagination when the free agent first talked to the Maple Leafs around July 1.
On Saturday, the defenceman had his first chance at the controls, with Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares and William Nylander bobbing and weaving beneath him.
“We’d talked about my role, where I’d fit in right away,” Klingberg said after the No. 1 unit’s first dedicated special teams’ practice of training camp at the Ford Centre. “The chance to play with world-class players is a huge thing, very exciting.”
Since signing Tavares in 2018 to load up a power play that already featured three first round draft pick forwards, Toronto has been consistently potent, leading the NHL at 27.3% two years ago, and 26.0% in 2022-23, second to the Connor McDavid-Leon Draisaitl strike force in Edmonton (32.4%).
But to stay elevated, Klingberg replaces Morgan Rielly as point man; possessing a harder shot that will come from the right versus left. He’s also taller than Rielly with greater puck reach.
Those new creative options were explored Saturday with incoming assistant coach/power play professor Guy Boucher. He set up pylons and painted bright orange lines to emphasize where he wanted net presence and bumpers to give Klingberg and the others optimal conditions.
The Leafs do not allow assistants to speak to the media, but head coach Sheldon Keefe said Boucher’s props were displayed just to underline what was discussed in team meetings and not likely to be used as practices ramp up towards the beginning of regular season on Oct. 11.
Boucher also threw in such wrinkles as two live pucks on the same drill — “that warms up the brain,” Klingberg said — and when the second unit came out in the afternoon, tall Tyler Bertuzzi was planted near the crease, Max Domi and Calle Jarnkrok were on the side, but there were two defencemen, Rielly and Timothy Liljegren.
Rielly insisted he’s not slighted by Keefe’s perceived demotion when the change was discussed in summer.
“It’s pretty short, you want what’s best for your team. I’ve watch John on the power play for years, one of the best in the league, with patience and puck skills that are unmatched.
“Our (second) group can’t take the opportunity lightly.”
And for those frustrated faithful who holler ‘shoot!’ when the Leaf stars often get too enamoured with pretty plays, Boucher loudly counted down to zero during Saturday’s sessions to have the group execute a timely scoring chance.
“He wants to add more elements to create chaos in front,” an approving Klingberg said.
Matthews and Marner were also enthused with Saturday’s rollout, although 5-on-0 exercises versus NHL calibre penalty killers will be the greater test.
“Hopefully we can all build chemistry starting today, creating lots of chances and volume,” Matthews said. “Guy is extremely focused and there’s a lot he brings to the table, communicating with him and all of that, what he likes, what we can improve on. It’s fine-tuning little things to make it that much better.”
Let the games begin as eight Maple Leafs pre-season contests uncoil
In Maple Leafs camp on a PTO, Gregor has enthusiastic designs on earning a spot
Maple Leafs’ defence corps will come under scrutiny as pre-season gets underway
This was also a day for Matthews to test his penalty killing chops, an experiment Keefe intends to proceed with after years of discussion. Matthews said he’s watched Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand in that role trying to shut him down in games against Boston and has taken notes on PK roles during special teams’ meetings.
With a few Leaf penalty killers moving away the past couple of years, it’s a good time to see if the 2022 Hart Trophy winner can add the same dimension McDavid brings to the Oilers. He has been one of the league’s best shot blockers among forwards in recent seasons and is ideal in an NHL where aggressive penalty killing with bi-name talent is in vogue.
“Not bad,” Matthews said of his first PK exposure. “The more reps I get, the better understanding and feel I get.”
He praised assistant Dean Chynoweth for getting him up to speed on a role linemate Marner has been active on for many years. Matthews spent almost no time until now on the other side of 5-on-4s, with Keefe having wanted him fresh at even strength after a kill to jump on against a tired or frustrated foe.
“Dino hasn’t piled too much info on at once and let me feel it out,” Matthews said. “We have some pretty good penalty killers here I can lean on.
“It’s hockey, it’s all about anticipation, I feel I have a good stick and can break up plays. We can start right from the jump here in camp.”