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GRAVENHURST – It wasn’t just the fall foliage that took the Maple Leafs out of breath on Thursday.

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Coach Sheldon Keefe followed up the team’s previous round of golf at Muskoka Lakes with one of his toughest practices on training ground, determined to reap the full benefits of this swing on the course. There were two workouts, topped off by a conditioning skate, that lasted almost two hours in total.

“It’s not just coming here on vacation,” Keefe said outside the town’s community track. “It is a beautiful place, a great place to be when we are not (on ice), but it was important for me to have a really good work day, both on the competitive side, as well as on the work, constructive and pedagogical side.

“This was a longer session than normal, but because we have had a gap in the games (one in the next eight days before the first game of the season on Wednesday against Montreal) it has allowed us to put pressure on them in this way. I am very happy that we have made the decision to come here. “

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Toronto hasn’t made this preseason excursion north since the days of Pat Quinn, but with COVID-19 canceling plans for another visit to eastern Canada, it was a welcome break.

“Just watching the trees change color made my day,” Captain John Tavares said of Wednesday’s golf outing. “It’s an opportunity to come together and have a little change of scenery. We are at the Scotiabank Arena and the Ford Center all day, every day, during the season. This is an amazing part of the province, great weather, a great time of year.

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“Now we are in a group and we are pretty close to what the list will look like.”

There are 26 players here, 16 forwards minus William Nylander who stayed home to be monitored after his second COVID shot last week, eight defenders and two goalkeepers. Ondrej Kase is playing in Nylander’s forehand spot with Tavares, while Keefe watches Saturday’s final display against Ottawa.

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That could be Auston Matthews’ return to game action after wrist surgery in August. Keefe might also want to see what the few players left on the sidelines can do. Four forwards were extras on Wednesday, Kurtis Gabriel, Adam Brooks, Michael Amadio and Kirill Semyonov.

“There will be a mix,” Keefe said of Saturday’s roster options, “but it will look a lot like what our (final) lineup will look like.”

This is the Arizona-raised Matthews’ first visit to Muskoka after performances in Canadian cities like Niagara Falls and St. John’s, Nfld.

“You (the media) follow us everywhere, so I wouldn’t call it a getaway,” he laughed. “But it is good to be here. It’s a beautiful time of year and everyone has enjoyed it so far. “

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Matthews was a member of Wednesday’s victorious quartet with group captain Jake Muzzin, Kase, and Russian Ilya Mikheyev, a novice to golf, albeit apparently a clutch putter.

Keefe saw some personal benefits from the trip for everyone.

“We are switching to full preparation mode for the regular season at a time when camp is starting to wear down and they just want to keep going. Now there is only one group and that in itself brings people together. You meet players in more informal settings and have discussions that have nothing to do with hockey. And that is positive.
“Several players are new to us and I am still trying to get to know them. And just to get away with our coaching team (who also have new staff) and have different discussions with them is just one more opportunity to have a singular purpose. “

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