A certain Maple Leaf appears to be clinging to his spot on the blue line.
That would be the struggling John Klingberg, who was the seventh defenceman at practice on Thursday at the Ford Performance Centre.
As the Leafs, who have been abysmal in their own end, went about working mostly on the defensive side and penalty-killing, Klingberg was paired with Conor Timmins. The latter wore a red non-contact sweater and is not close to returning from a lower-body injury.
While it was an indication of where things stand for Klingberg, it’s not unexpected. When general manager Brad Treliving signed the 31-year-old to a one-year, $4.15-million contract during the off-season, questions were raised about Klingberg’s defensive shortcomings. His minus-8 rating in 13 games — worst among Leafs defencemen — has backed up those initial concerns.
“I don’t feel like I’m moving my feet well, not skating the way I can, so stuff to work on,” Klingberg said. “I don’t think I’ve been pressing, but I haven’t been able to find any offensive chances either and that comes from moving the feet, getting open and being in the right spots. I think that’s what’s missing.”
It’s to be determined whether Klingberg plays on Friday night when the Leafs play host to the Calgary Flames in the Hall of Fame game. Jake McCabe could return after missing the past six games with a groin injury and skated alongside Mark Giordano on Thursday.
Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe, in search of the right mix to combat the fact his team has allowed at least four goals in all seven home games this season, said it’s possible that he uses 11 forwards and seven defencemen.
To that end, fourth-line winger Ryan Reaves, another Treliving signing that has not borne fruit, was on the ice for extra work after practice, long after his teammates had departed. No one would be surprised if Reaves watched from the press box on Friday.
Joseph Woll will start in goal, while Ilya Samsonov, Keefe indicated, will start on Saturday against the Vancouver Canucks as the Leafs’ five-game homestand comes to an end.
Not quite 24 hours after the Leafs gave up a season-high five goals at 5-on-5 in a 6-3 loss to the Ottawa Senators, Keefe tried to put a positive spin on the play of his team, which has lost five of its past six games.
“The last couple of games, the puck has gone in the net a lot, but at the same time, I also look at it as two of our better games we’ve played all season,” Keefe said.
“In terms of scoring chances at 5-on-5, both games have been in our favour, and that hasn’t been the case throughout the season. I look at things trending in a positive direction, yet we’re making mistakes that are ending up in our net.”
The Leafs had to rally to beat Tampa Bay 6-5 in overtime on Monday before giving up six goals — including three in the third period after Toronto tied the game 3-3 — against an Ottawa team, that was last in the Eastern Conference. These are the games that Keefe was talking about.
How do the Leafs keep spirits up when there’s alleged progress but not the results?
“That’s tough,” Keefe said. “When you’re pulling the puck out of your net, it’s hard.
“You’re not going to be perfect every night. The goaltender is not going to be perfect every night. The defence is not going to be perfect, the power play, the penalty-kill, but you can still win games if you’ve got a good process.
You stay focused. Throughout the game, you stay alert. You play with intelligence and purpose. To me, that’s the next step for us.”
It’s on every Leafs player to start performing with intelligence and purpose. The Flames are feeling better about themselves after winning their past two games, while the Canucks lost just three of their first 12 prior to playing in Ottawa on Thursday. Neither opponent will be a pushover for a Leafs group that has been in a fight with playing structurally sound hockey.
Keefe said after the loss to the Senators that there was concern with Klingberg’s game and that the Leafs “need to protect him better.”
It’s at the point where William Lagesson and Simon Benoit, who should be nothing more than insurance pieces, have moved ahead of Klingberg on the depth chart.
Klingberg, if it helps, has been taking a hard look in the mirror.
“I don’t listen to much of the noise on the outside,” he said. “I put the most pressure on myself and I need to be better.”
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