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Maple Leafs’ Riley Nash Hopes to Accelerate Learning Curve During the Playoffs

Injured as a member of the Columbus Blue Jackets, the Toronto Maple Leafs forward has learned a lot about his new team from a distance. Now he hopes to put it all together during the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Riley Nash was out for lunch with his wife Clare and two-month-old son Rhett when Columbus Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen phoned to tell him he had been traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs

“I hadn’t quite thought it through where a team like this or another team close to the cap (that) it might actually help them in hindsight,” Nash said.

Nash last played on Apr. 4 when he suffered a knee sprain against the Florida Panthers. The Blue Jackets announced that he was out for four-to-six weeks. 

That’s when the Leafs saw an opening.

On Apr. 10, Toronto acquired the forward from Columbus in exchange for a conditional seventh-round pick in the 2022 NHL Draft.

Upon acquiring the 32-year-old, the Leafs had to make a series of moves to fit him onto the roster. Goaltender Frederik Andersen, out the lineup with a knee injury for nearly a month, moved to the long-term injured reserve list (LTIR). That allowed Toronto to add Nash before he too was moved to LTIR.

In doing so, the Leafs acquired an experienced center who they are quite familiar with and it didn't cost them anything against the salary cap.

“We were a little bit stunned at first,” Nash said. “Once you kind of let it set in, you realize you’re going to a franchise like Toronto and a fan base like this and a team and the build up they’ve had in recent years, you kind of turn into a little kid again about the excitement that lies ahead.”

The Leafs are quite familiar with Nash's defensive ability. He helped shut down Toronto during the 2020 qualying-round series. He also helped the Boston Bruins defeat the Leafs in their 2018 first-round series.

In the age of COVID, Nash’s transition to his new club has been anything but smooth. First he had to begin a seven-day quarantine as mandated by the league an Canadian federal government. Once that was completed, the Leafs were on the road in Vancouver and Winnipeg as he stayed back in Toronto for his rehabilitation. When the team returned, Nash said there was a minor incident that forced him to quarantine for another couple of days.

“It was kind of strange where it was three-and-a-half weeks after the trade deadline and I was finally able to meet the guys and get to know the group a little bit,”.

Last week, Nash took part in his first full practice with the club and he has slotted in as the team’s third-line center heading into Game 1 of Toronto’s first-round series with the Montreal Canadiens.

“It brings a different look and a different option within our bottom-six (forwards),” Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe said on Sunday. “We’re going to get him involved right away and just rely upon the fact that he’s (a) very smart player, (an) experienced guy in the NHL and the playoffs in particular and trust that’s he going to fit right in.”

Although the Leafs were clever in their ability to land the experienced forward, the only real cost was a seventh-round pick (it turns to a sixth-round pick should Nash play in 25 percent or more of the team's 2021 playoff games) and a lack of reps with his new club. 

If it's anything like Nick Foligno's experience with the Leafs thus far, it could take a few games to learn the system.

"I notice they make a lot of possession plays" Nash said. "Definitely going to be a bit weird (and) not as natural to begin with (but) my line mates have been great."

Nash is projected to skate with Ilya Mikheyev and Alex Kerfoot as his wingers for Game 1 against the Montreal Canadiens. He's also expected to be used regularly on the team's penalty kill. 

At practice, Nash was paired on a PK unit with former Jackets teammate Foligno.

The players were both traded from the same team to Toronto just 36 hours apart.

"I was messaging him after because I had heard some rumors and Twitter that the Leafs were obviously interested," Nash said.  "And I was like 'it'd be the greatest thing if we could end up together again' and fortunately we were."

Foligno has since settled in as the second-line winger alongside forwards John Tavares and William Nylander.

Nash will have to prove to be a quick study when he slots in for Game 1. But it cost the Leafs so little to get him that there is only upside to his acquisition.

"When it's playoff time it doesn't matter," Nash said. "Let's just hit the ground running."

Wickenheiser promoted to Sr. Director of Player Development, Goyette added to staff

The Toronto Maple Leafs announced on Monday that the club elevated Dr. Hayley Wickenheiser to the role of Senior Director of Player Development.

Wickenheiser had already been working in skills development with the Leafs as Assistant Director of Player Development since 2018. She recently completed her education at the University of Calgary's Cumming School of Medicine in 2021. 

"To have her take a significant step into a leadership position here now within the player development program is a huge win for our organization," Keefe said of Wickenheiser. "I can't speak high enough about Hayley."

Wickenheiser said that Leafs GM Kyle Dubas gave her the option of hiring her No. 2 and that's when she chose Danielle Goyette.

"I phone and said 'how'd you like to work for the Leafs, your favourite team?'" Wickenheiser said.

Goyette will serve as Director of Player Development after serving as head coach of the University of Calgary Dinos women's hockey program since 2007.

Bogosian inching closer to return

The Leafs may ice an entirely healthy roster by the time the puck drops for Game 1. The only player in limbo was defenseman Zach Bogosian, who suffered a shoulder injury last month.

On Monday, Bogosian swapped his non-contact red jersey for a black regular kit. 

"He's not quite there yet from what I'm told but obviously the more reps that he gets then he's going to get even closer," Keefe said on Monday

According to TSN's Darren Dreger, Bogosian received his medical clearance to return.

The Leafs will take Tuesday off before returning to the ice on Wednesday, their final practice before the playoffs.

Defenseman Ben Hutton missed practice for a second straight day, Keefe said he has been out with a Non-COVID, non-hockey medical issue that they will continue to monitor.



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