Maple Leafs notebook: Subway rides, and can Simon Benoit keep it going in Toronto?

If you were riding the TTC’s Line 1 northbound midday on Feb. 8, you might have seen a few faces out of the ordinary. As has become tradition, the Maple Leafs took the subway from Scotiabank Arena north to Nathan Phillips Square for their annual outdoor practice, dressed in full gear.

“It was a mix of confusion and excitement,” Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe said in describing the reaction from TTC riders when his team boarded the subway. “Some people were asking questions, not sure what was going on. Others were maybe planning ahead and expecting us.”

The TTC isn’t always known as a punctual transit system, but the Leafs got lucky for their two-stop ride.

“Smooth sailing,” Morgan Rielly said.

If any Leafs were hesitant about the transit system, they had something of an ambassador to check in with: William Nylander routinely takes the subway to home games and has been featured in a Rogers commercial on the subway.

“Willie’s pretty popular. He’s obviously very familiar with the subway and he’s got his little crew down there. He seems to know what he’s doing,” Rielly said with a smile.

“He was getting hounded walking through (the station), people wanting pictures and autographs and asking him questions,” Keefe added. “I asked him, ‘Is this what it’s like for you on the subway?’ Normally he’s not wearing full equipment with his name on the back.”

When the Leafs did make it to their brief outdoor practice, it included a three-on-three tournament, a visit from some Leafs family members and, naturally for dog-lovers like Nylander, plenty of four-legged friends.

Jake McCabe missed practice Thursday, though it doesn’t sound like he’ll suffer from a lengthy absence. The defenceman took a questionable hit from Dallas Stars forward Mason Marchment on Wednesday night that left him with a bloody cut on his nose.

“We think he’ll be OK,” Keefe said. “We just wanted to make sure he got the day (off) today. He’s a little banged up from yesterday, obviously.”

Mark Giordano also missed practice for a maintenance day. That’s not the worst thing for the 40-year-old, as rest will continue to be at a premium. The Leafs have very quickly found themselves in a packed schedule, with 10 games in 20 days after their bye week.

Congratulations are still due to McCabe for a few reasons.

First, for being awarded the team’s wrestling belt for player of the game following his hard-nosed performance in the Leafs 5-4 win over the Dallas Stars on Wednesday night.

But also for winning the Leafs’ fantasy football league.

Giordano recently – and begrudgingly – nodded a few stalls toward McCabe, who flashed a knowing grin, when asked about the league champ.

“It feels really nice,” McCabe said.

The turning point in his season came when he scooped Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott off waivers. From there, McCabe was off to the races. He said that while he drafted just fine, it was keeping a sharp eye on the waiver wire that propelled him to the championship.

“I had a couple good waiver pickups,” McCabe said, nodding. “Kyren Williams was a big one.”

No word yet on what McCabe will do with his winnings, but he’s sure to walk into the Leafs’ Super Bowl party on Sunday with a little extra swagger.

“I’ve got a babysitter and everything,” he said, proudly.

Is there any more popular character among the Leafs fanbase right now than Simon Benoit?

With Benoit’s open-ice hits and friendly demeanour, the Leafs haven’t had a bruising, defence-first blueliner like him in their lineup recently. And certainly not one who has battled against the odds to land in Toronto, either. Benoit was on the outside of the top six looking in at the start of the season after signing a one-year, $775,000 contract last offseason.

But he’s since forced his way into a top-four role alongside McCabe.

Given his rise in the lineup, I’ve spent the last few weeks trying to learn more about Benoit.

Above his heart, Benoit has tattooed a Mahatma Gandhi quote that defines his journey as a professional hockey player: “Strength does not come from physical capacity, it comes from an indomitable will.”

Benoit had it inscribed during the 2016-17 QMJHL season, his second junior season, during what he calls a “personal challenge.” Benoit hesitated to go into much detail on the challenge, but it’s fair to make an assumption or two. He was never drafted in the NHL. Skating issues plagued him. Then-Shawinigan Cataractes assistant coach Steve Larouche remembers Benoit lamenting that he would become a 20-year old junior player with a limited future.

But just as he’s shown this season, Benoit’s positivity won out. He began seeking the advice of his coaching staff to improve.

“Simon would listen to everything,” Larouche said. “He wanted to be on the ice every day working on everything. He had such a passion. Some players, they look at you and you can tell they don’t believe in you. That guy, he put all his trust in you.”

That trust paid off when, in 2018, he earned an invite to Anaheim Ducks development camp, then main camp, and then eventually earned an NHL contract.

“I’ve been doing it my whole career,” Benoit told The Athletic earlier in the season of his efforts to stay in the top six. “You just have to seize your opportunity when you have it, and not let it go.”

All along, his pleasant demeanour hasn’t dissipated.

“Everybody respects Simon because Simon respects everybody,” Larouche said. “Two years ago, I had a surprise party for my 50th birthday. And, out of nowhere, Simon called me on FaceTime to wish me happy birthday and to tell me how helpful I had been for his career. We hadn’t spoken for a long time before that. I’m sure he’s never changed.”

Benoit has really taken to Toronto. He lives near Trinity Bellwoods park. He calls himself a nature-loving, calm person and has come to enjoy spending his downtime in local cafes. Benoit loves the city and the organization so much that he wants to stick around beyond his one-year contract.

“I would love to stay here,” Benoit said when asked about his future. “They’ve built a winning culture. Now it’s just time to seize the opportunity and make it happen. I can see it happening this year and the coming years. It’s up to management, but I would love to stay, for sure.”

If he does stay in Toronto, Benoit might have to open his home for team dinners. Asked what people might not know about him, he made a rare boast.

“I’m a good cook,” he said with a smile.

Benoit makes his own ravioli from scratch, filled with with corn, ricotta and mustard seed microgreens. I’m still working out the kinks with the pasta maker I received for Christmas, so I asked Benoit what type of pasta maker he uses.

Benoit scoffed. His mitts aren’t just for fighting.

“No need,” Benoit said of a pasta maker. “I just use my hands.”

After years of bouncing up and down between the Marlies and the Leafs, Timothy Liljegren has proven he’s an NHL defenceman. Consider that box checked.

But can he now find the necessary steadiness that seems to be the final missing piece of the puzzle?

There have been times over the last three seasons when his smooth skating and puck-moving make him look like a top-four defender in waiting. And there have been other times, including as of late, when his in-game blunders have become so glaring that you wonder if third-pair minutes are the extent of what he’ll play in Toronto.

“I don’t feel like I’m at the top of my game. I’m struggling with it right now,” Liljegren said. “I’m trying to grind through it and hopefully find my groove again.”

Liljegren, for his part, seems aware of what he needs to do with his play.

“It’s just about cleaning up small details,” Liljegren recently told The Athletic. “Obviously, if you’re going to (make errors), don’t make them with a minute left in the game.”

First, against the Detroit Red Wings on Jan.14, there was an errant pass behind the Leafs’ goal with less than two minutes to go that ended up on the stick of Red Wings centre Michael Rasmussen and, quickly afterward, in the back of the Leafs’ net.

Then, against the New York Islanders on Feb. 5, Liljegren failed to pick up Islanders centre Kyle MacLean as he was coming out of the penalty box at the end of a Leafs power play. MacLean scored on a breakaway to give New York the lead.

“This is the National Hockey League. That is peewee stuff,” Keefe said when asked about the play postgame. “If you play on the power play in the NHL, they should not get behind you coming out of the penalty box.”

Timothy Liljegren has suffered from blunders at inopportune times. (John E. Sokolowski / USA Today)

Liljegren has long held the belief that if a mistake is made, the longer he’s either held out of the lineup or is given limited minutes, the more that mistake will stew with him mentally. He’s the type who needs continued minutes to be able to eradicate errors.

“(Liljegen) is not just a young guy finding his way, but for us, he’s an established NHL player that is looking to take on more, and that hasn’t gone as well as he would expect or we would have hoped,” Keefe said. “But that doesn’t mean he’s still not doing good things, capable of good things.”

But still, after recent mistakes, and the fact that Liljegren is set to be an RFA at the end of this season, it’s worth wondering what his future holds.

Do the Leafs see a way forward with him and believe he can develop consistency, enough to offer him more than a one-year bridge deal this summer?

Or is he going to receive a one-year “show me” contract that doesn’t exactly silence questions about his future?

Or could Liljegren be part of a trade?

Those are all fair questions about a player who, months earlier, looked to undoubtedly be part of the Leafs’ defence core for years to come.

And he could still be. But the thing that still seems to be evading this Leafs team — consistency — is also what’s clearly separating Liljegren from the top-four role he covets.

The Leafs recently got a visitor in their dressing room after a win on the road against the Calgary Flames: 2022 first-round pick Fraser Minten.

Minten was in town with his WHL team, the Saskatoon Blades, ahead of his own game at Scotiabank Saddledome. He was hesitant to enter the dressing room, but Auston Matthews’ hat trick meant the Leafs ended a four-game skid, and Minten was greeted with handshakes and smiles all around. Minten’s friend and former teammate Matthew Knies shed insight on how the NHL season “keeps getting harder and harder.” It was advice that Minten took to heart. He could be in for a long season with the Blades, currently the top-ranked team in the CHL. They feel like very early Memorial Cup favourites, even if former London Knight Mitch Marner disagrees.

While he was chatting about his junior season, Marner butted in.

“Mitch is always involved in a good junior discussion,” Minten said.

Old junior hockey allegiances die hard.

“He was just talking about how the regular season doesn’t matter,” Minten said, “because we’ll just lose to London in the Memorial Cup anyways.”

(Photo of Simon Benoit: Derek Cain / Getty Images)

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