Time to roll out the MAT Pack with Mitch, Auston and Tyler, with a sprinkling of the Swedish Chefs.
While most Maple Leaf forward lines rarely stay together long enough at 5-on-5 to warrant a catchy acronym, without disruption by change or injury, the first day of training camp does permit some literary licence.
Moving right to left, Marner, Matthews and Bertuzzi could stick, while contract misfit William Nylander began as advertised between countryman Calle Jarnkrok and Max Domi, an honourary Swede through his Mats Sundin ties.
These lines aren’t carved in stone as coach Sheldon Keefe says, with so much to be settled in the three weeks up to the Oct. 11 season face-off against Montreal.
Nylander was a teenage centre, but primarily a right winger as a pro, shifted for now as the Leafs look to replace Alex Kerfoot.
Free agents Bertuzzi and Domi are at a greater disadvantage, trying to learn nuances of Toronto’s system on unfamiliar lines.
“I won’t take too much out of today, because they’re new and we’re moving really fast out there,” Keefe said. “But I’m not worried about Bertuzzi fitting in. He’s got a great skill set and when games start, you’ll see a lot of that fit well with those guys.”
The potential for production is certainly there with Matthews’ shot, Marner’s creativity and Bertuzzi hammering home the leftovers.
“It’s a big opportunity and I won’t take it lightly,” vowed Bertuzzi. “I’m going to glue my stick to the ice (for Marner’s threaded passes).”
The trio skated together at times the past few weeks at the practice facility and hung out socially, though Thursday was their first public exposure as part of 24 players in one of two main camp groups, with five coaches on the ice, a mass of media and Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment’s VIPs on hand.
But the 28-year-old Bertuzzi overcame NHL stage fright a long time ago.
“It’s a pretty cool opportunity to play for an original six franchise and I’ve played for three (Detroit and late last year, Boston).”
Simply sticking a big body on left wing with the two Leaf all-stars doesn’t always work as the Nick Ritchie experiment showed a couple of years ago. Michael Bunting was a decent fit as a scorer who could get under opponents’ skin, before he was moved off as part of a top six shake-up, then not re-signed.
General manager Brad Treliving had noted Bertuzzi’s bite in Boston with 10 points in seven games, during his long-awaited first NHL playoff test. His one-year $5.25 million US deal could get extended if the MAT Pack succeeds.
“I want to create space for those guys, bring energy,” the 6-foot-2, 200-pound Bertuzzi said. “(Net front), that’s where I’ll be.”
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Throughout Nylander’s stalemate on an extension (reportedly the sides are at least a million dollars apart on a long-term AAV in the $9-million to $10-million range) he has been accurately sized up by Treliving as “a cool cat.” Captain John Tavares predicted a deal is inevitable because Nylander was “built to play in Toronto,” unfazed in its hockey spotlight.
“Nice of John to say,” Nylander said after sailing through his first autumn media mosh pit. He repeated a desire to stay in “the only place I’ve known” and is keen to try centre.
“I told Sheldon ‘wherever you want me, I’m happy.’ Maybe I get the puck more in the middle, but on wing maybe more breakaways.”
Keefe put thought into Willy’s sidemen, too.
“You have two guys who’ve also played centre and can take on responsibilities low in the zone. “Domi can take lefthanded faceoffs, he and Willy are dynamic on the rush getting open. Jarny’s a worker on defence.”
Both Bertuzzi and Domi know their checking game must be solid under Toronto’s tent, where Marner was just a Selke Trophy finalist and Matthews specializes in puck retrieval.
Leaf franchise scoring leader Sundin took a big interest in Max’s career through father Tie, his long-time Leaf bodyguard. But for the purposes of his new line, Max didn’t pick up any Swedish phrases.
“I wish I did,” Max laughed. “I was telling the boys today I might need some lessons through the year.
“Centre won’t be an issue for Willy at all, he’s such a great skater and smart player.”