Veteran forward Eric Fehr has yet to play in his first game as a Maple Leaf, but he and fellow new addition Brian Boyle already are having an impact on their team as it pushes for a playoff berth in the tightly-contested Eastern Conference. Toronto's core of youngsters have all sorts of talent and enthusiasm, but it's the experience players such as Boyle and Fehr bring to the table that help keep the group grounded and focused as pressures mount and games become even more competitive.
"With Boyle, Fehr, both these guys, they've won, and they've been in these positions before and they know how to win," Leafs centre Auston Matthews said Friday at practice before the team flew out to Carolina to take on the Hurricanes Saturday. "It's really important to have those guys around to help carry this team into the playoffs which is where we want to be."
"A lot of experience, more depth, big bodies," added blueliner Morgan Rielly when asked what Fehr and Boyle have added to the dressing room in their brief time with the team. "So far I think their presence has been felt most off the ice with their presence and leadership."
The 31-year-old Fehr has watched from the sidelines since Toronto acquired him on March 1 from the Pittsburgh Penguins, but he understands the Leafs value his professionalism and know how as they battle down the stretch. And the affable Winkler., Man. native isn't the type of person to be expectant of opportunities. Instead, he's someone who wants to keep the room loose and make the most of every minute of his NHL days.
"I pride myself on being a fun guy to be around," Fehr said. "I like to enjoy my time at the rink, have some fun with the guys, and work hard when you're here and that's definitely what I'm doing right now."
For both Fehr and Boyle, the leadership role isn't one they assume right away. To have a serious impact on their new teammates, they have to earn their respect with hard work and humility before they can weigh in with words and/or direction.
"There's definitely a time and a place for all that stuff, but right now, for me, it's more of a feeling out process, trying to get to know the guys," said Fehr, who appeared in 52 games with the Pens this year and has 561 games of NHL regular-season experience. "You don't want to be the guy to come in and think you know everything right away. So right now just kind of watching from the sidelines and getting to know the guys. That's the first step."
"A couple of us have been brought in for a reason," added Boyle, who has played in five games with the Leafs since being traded from Tampa, and who has 608 regular-season games under his belt. "For me, I'm trying to play the best that I can play. That's the No. 1 thing I have to do, and to do that, it's preparation, what's worked in the past. Staying positive and upbeat and working hard in practice. Those are things that make me better, I know that. So that's what I'm going to try to stick to. That's my main focus.
"You want to contribute as a player however you can, but you want to have an impact on the game itself, too. You figure out a way to do that, and then you can be a bit more of a presence and a leader when you have a big impact."
Leafs head coach Mike Babcock hasn't inserted Fehr into the lineup, but as the season unfolds, it's more than likely he will, and he'll expect a similar contribution from him as he's received from Boyle. Both players provide crucial depth and character, and no team that intends on embarking on a deep playoff run can have enough of those things.
"I haven't had Eric in a game yet, so I don't know that part," Babcock said. "But just on the bench, in the game (against Philadelphia Thursday), Boyler (was) just a guy to keep you settled down. I thought their line reestablished our game a number of times last night, both in the 'D' zone with good plays, and the 'O' zone with good forechecks and heavy shifts. To me, that's what's important. In some ways, your top three lines probably aren't playing as much as they were before because you've got four now. But I think when you're playing every night, I think that's important."
The Leafs square off against the Hurricanes Saturday before continuing their road trip in Florida next week, with games against the Panthers Tuesday and the Lightning Thursday. Both those franchises would love to creep past Toronto in the playoff race, but with players like Fehr and Boyle on board, Toronto's players will understand how vital it is for them to batten down the hatches, minimize mistakes and keep their focus narrow.
"This time of the year is where everyone's tightening up defensively," Fehr said. "You can see the grade-A scoring chances are down, and the scores around the league are all dropping. Guys are giving that little extra in the 'D' zone, so it's important to really limit your mistakes and realize how important every play is in your end."
And for Babcock, the minimal differential between teams - be they teams like the Hurricanes, who now are a very long shot to make the playoffs, or teams like the Panthers and Bolts, who easily could go on a run - makes his two new weapons much appreciated.
"I think every team we play, when you look at the league, the separation between us and anybody in the league, there's hardly any," Babcock said. "It's not like it used to be. Ten years ago when I was in Detroit we were flat-out better than the other teams, and you'd smack them around. That doesn't happen (now). Every night it's a tight game, and the talent difference in the league is hardly any, so it makes everybody scary and you'd better be focused and ready to play."