Maple Leafs ready to show off the defensive project they worked on at summer camp

Maple Leafs ready to show off the defensive project they worked on at summer camp
If you tune into Game 1 of the Maple Leafs-Blue Jackets playoff series Sunday night and see Toronto playing a defence-first type game, don’t adjust your screen.

The Leafs, the No. 1 team in the NHL in holding onto the puck in the offensive zone, are promising to be a newly packaged, defensive-minded team in their fourth consecutive season in the playoffs.

It’s not a total new look. It’s more of a series of tweaks and structural adjustments to get the Leafs playing as a five-man group in their own zone, and to get the puck out of their end before tenacious checking teams like Columbus can get a foothold on their cycle game.

“From my experience last year (in the Leafs’ first-round exit against Boston), it’s a massive defensive game that stems forward into offence,” Leafs defenceman Travis Dermott said Saturday, a day before the opening game of the best-of-five play-in series against Columbus.

“That’s what we’ve been focused on (in practices). Going against a team like Columbus, we know what they like to do and we have to shut that down. They will put pucks behind us and push hard after them. We have to get out of our zone with the first two touches. We know what they will bring and we have to be ready.”

Toronto, even during the second phase of the NHL’s return-to-play plan, when only a handful of players were allowed on the ice at the same time, has been saying its own-zone play will be different. Head coach Sheldon Keefe has had time to look not only at the Leafs’ inconsistent defensive play this season but the club’s playoff performance in the past three post-seasons — all first-round exits. He’s made adjustments and drilled home a defensive mind set with his roster.

But will the Leafs be a different team? They have talked about improving their play in their own zone since they exited in the first round against Washington three seasons ago.

“It’s been a big part of the effort the players put forth from day one (of summer practices),” Keefe said. “We’re going to play meaningful games right out of the gate now, and we’re excited to put this into action. There’s been a lot of details and structure put in … and I fully expect our players to do well with it.

“But we can’t forget who we are as a team. If we are not sharp offensively, if we don’t score, it’s going to be tough.”

Keefe unveiled his game roster Saturday, and it featured rookie Nick Robertson on the third line with Alex Kerfoot and Kasperi Kapanen. Andreas Johnsson, who was expected to return for February knee surgery in late August, had his second full workout with the team and could be ahead of schedule.

For now, the Leafs plan to have a new defensive identity.

“That (defence) can turn into a full team thing quick,” Dermott said. “There has to be lots of support from everyone on the ice, and just taking pride in our defensive game before jumping into offence.”
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