A quick mix of the things we gleaned from the week of hockey, serious and less so, and rolling four lines deep.
1. The season before the Toronto Maple Leafs won the draft lottery, the club’s power play was as weak as green tea, the second-worst in the league (15.4 per cent).
Since Auston Matthews pulled on a blue-and-white sweater, assistant coach Jim Hiller — overseen, as all things Leafs, by head coach Mike Babcock — has operated the NHL’s third-best power play (22.8 per cent). Pretty nice jump.
Even nicer when you consider the only two teams ahead of Toronto in this category when you combine the 2016-17 and 2017-18 seasons: 2017 Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh and 2018 Stanley Cup favourite Tampa Bay.
Guess which forward has averaged the most power-play time for the Leafs in the last season and a half. Matthews, at 2:24 per night.
Matthews’ use on the man-advantage pales only when compared league-wide to his fellow all-world snipers like Alex Ovechkin (4:08 this season), Phil Kessel (4:05), Nikita Kucherov (3:52) and Vladimir Tarasenko (3:54). Yet criticism of the future captain’s PP minutes percolated on Toronto’s airwaves this week.
Not that Babcock should be beyond reproach (cough, Polak, cough), but Matthews’ power-play time is a minor if not silly quibble to take with Toronto’s effective special teams (the Leafs’ 83.8 per cent penalty kill ranks No. 1 in the East). Even if the club’s sole All-Star Game representative might secretly desire the chance to rack up more points with a looming contract negotiation.
Saying Auston Matthews has the puck on a string gives way too many props to string. https://t.co/5rroGxmiTu
— luke fox (@lukefoxjukebox) January 11, 2018
Why we’re not stressing this issue:
(i.) Matthews’ 2017-18 power-play production (two goals, four assists) is fine but unspectacular. He’s tied for second among Leafs forwards in PP ice time but ranks seventh on the team in PP points.
(ii.) The first forward unit of James van Riemsdyk (who, at 2:21, only averages three more seconds on the man-advantage than AM34), Tyler Bozak, Nazem Kadri and Mitch Marner has simply yielded better results. JVR alone is 7-5-12 on the power play.
(iii.) Matthews is easily the Leafs’ best five-on-five player, and they rightly save his breath so he can make an impact there. At 18:36 per game, Matthews handily tops among all Toronto forwards (51 seconds more than linemate and PK man Zach Hyman, who ranks second).
(iv.) Whose PP time do you subtract? Not JVR’s. Nylander could make his own case for more ice. Kadri and Bozak have endured prolonged slumps, and you need to give them opportunities to catch fire. Marner and Connor Brown are top-six wings playing bottom-six roles; take away some of their PP time, and how do they feel? There’s a whole team to worry about here, folks.
(v.) Eighty-two games plus is a long haul. What good is forward depth if you don’t use it? Edmonton is throwing Connor McDavid over the boards every other shift, but is that a recipe for team success? Trust me, when playoff position is in doubt or the Leafs need a mid-April win, Babcock knows who needs the extra ice time. Best to keep his most dangerous weapon as fresh as possible.
2. Before flying home to Minnesota to take care of some personal business during the bye week, van Riemsdyk had himself a game to make Corsi lovers swoon.
The Leafs lost to Ottawa Wednesday, squandering JVR’s 18 shot attempts in 60 minutes. The big winger’s 11 shots on net eclipsed his previous high of nine, set way back on Oct. 27, 2011, when he was with Philadelphia.
“We were making smart plays with the puck,” van Riemsdyk explained. “We were playing fast, and the D made a good job of getting the puck up to us in stride so we could make plays coming into the zone.”
JVR chuckled when we asked if he purposely faked his patented between-the-legs shot the one time he did beat Craig Anderson that night (watch below). Yep.
“On that play I kinda expected him to be more over toward the far post than he was,” van Riemsdyk said. “So when I looked up and saw that he was there, I was trying to change [my plan] last minute on the fly and ended up shovelling it in. I got a nice break there.”
3. Since the Artemi Panarin trade, the power plays of both the Columbus Blue Jackets (30th) and Chicago Blackhawks (26th) have each taken a step back.
Jackets captain Nick Foligno wants his team to look at the Bread Man — they just call him “Bread,” by the way — as a complementary piece instead of the sole focus. And shoot!
“Sometimes you feel like you need to make a prettier pass. Instead of shooting, you may be thinking, ‘Oh, I have to find that guy back-door.’ It hurt us early on,” Foligno says. “We didn’t have our identity going. Now you’re seeing one or two passes, then it’s quick shots on net, and our big bodies are around the net to score. That has to continue.”
Foligno always admired Panarin’s work in the offensive zone but has been blown away by the completeness of the Russian’s game and his intelligence.
“I never realized how good he is away from the puck, how hard he competes on pucks, and that he can generate all the time. That’s a very hard thing to do in this league. Every time you step on the ice be a threat to score? There’s only a select few who can do it themselves. He’s one of those guys who can literally make something out of nothing.”
This rush-dangle-snipe in Buffalo Thursday makes us want to order another round of Bread:
The man of bread and beautiful dangles. pic.twitter.com/K5LLmBMPN7
— NHL (@NHL) January 12, 2018
4. What the heck has made the San Jose Sharks’ penalty kill so efficient?
In the first two seasons of coach Peter DeBoer’s tenure in Northern California, the club’s PK ranked 18th overall. At 84 per cent this season, it’s shot up to second.
DeBoer credits assistant Dave Barr, who was hired in June and used to run DeBoer’s kill in New Jersey. The Devils, DeBoer notes, broke a modern-day PK record in 2011-12, the year they went to Cup final. But when the head coach got the San Jose gig, he tried switching philosophies and didn’t bring Barr with him.
“Just thought the game was changing. We hired Dave and we went back to that. I think that’s made a big difference. He’s done a great job implementing it,” DeBoer said.
“It goes to show you, sometimes you can overthink things. Everyone says, ‘The game’s changing, the game’s changing.’ A lot of the principles still apply. It was just a matter of us re-instituting those.”
Of course, the players must buy in to a new system. Logan Couture believes they have. The centre says the four-man unit is running with a more aggressive approach.
“We’ve done a good job shutting down other teams’ entries into our zone. We have a hard stand at the blue line, and when we’re in zone, we’re hard on pucks when backs get turned or pucks get bobbled,” Couture says. “We force other teams to make skilled plays. We get beat once in a while, but our PK’s done a solid job winning us some games.”
5. All-Star Game host Tampa Bay had five members invited to the mid-season party — coach Jon Cooper, Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman and Andrei Vasilevskiy — but you could make a case for a sixth.
Second-line centre Brayden Point, 21, actually has more even-strength points than Stamkos (32 to 28), shuts down the opposition’s top lines and has a team-high three points on the penalty kill.
Not bad for a third-rounder who stands five-foot-10 soaking wet.
“You guys see it every night,” Stamkos says. “He’s such a smart player. He has the skill-set, but not very often do you see a guy of his age come in with the mental part of the game down. That’s the preparation, the way he practises. He’s probably the most low-key guy I’ve ever met. It’s a great attitude to have, especially as a young guy.”
Point tore it up as a late-season call-up for the injury-plagued Bolts last spring and was a big reason they nearly rallied for a wild-card spot. When the playoffs didn’t come, Point shone again for Cooper’s Team Canada at the world championships.
“As a young player, that’s all you can ask for — a chance to show what you can do. He did that,” Stamkos says.
“I knew the moment I stepped on the ice in training camp and saw him for the first time this summer, he was going to be special this year. He had that extra jump. He had the confidence from playing a big role down the stretch.”
6. If Hedman’s leg injury is serious enough to remove him from the all-star game — and let’s hope not, as this could be the year he finally gets a Norris — his Atlantic Division replacement should be Toronto’s Morgan Rielly.
Rielly ranks sixth among all D-men in scoring with 31 points and leads his team in assists (26). If not Rielly, expect Hedman’s teammate, Mikhail Sergachev (26 points), to sub in and give the local kids another favourite to root for.
7. It’s the final game of the regular season, your team has been out of the playoff race forever, and — what’s this? — your coach benches you.
That’s what John Tortorella did to his best defenceman, Seth Jones, versus Chicago halfway through the Blue Jackets’ final meaningless game of 2015-16.
Jones was quickly a minus-2, and Torts decided his off-season might as well start. The franchise D-man skated less than 14 minutes, half his normal load.
“Jonesy wasn’t ready to play, and I benched him. I did that for a reason. Not to embarrass him in the last game, a nothing game, but I wanted to set the table with him — what’s expected of him as we start our next year,” says Tortorella, thinking back.
“Right from then – I know he remembers – he’s just improved himself mentally. That’s not skill; that’s mental readiness, mental toughness. He’s grown so much, and he still has so much more to offer in his growth, so it’s exciting for us.”
That benching was a season and a half ago. Jones’s ice time hasn’t dipped that low since. Thrice this season he’s broken the 28-minute barrier. He was named to his second all-star game this week and paces all Columbus D-men with 29 points.
“I don’t look at it as growing offensively. I look at it as being a leader,” Tortorella says.
“When Jonesy came to us after that [Ryan Johansen] deal, Jonesy just kind of waded into games. It took him a period to get ready to play, quite honestly. I think he has really taken a couple of huge steps in wanting to make a difference right away. He has skating ability, he has the length of his body, hands, he has everything that you need to be a top player, and I think he is showing that.
“He has turned into a guy who wants to lead the way and I think that has helped his offensive numbers.”
Jones and partner Zach Werenski each have a shot at breaking the franchise record for blue-line scoring Jones set last season. Tortorella has heard the calls to split up his best two young defenders, but keeps them together because of their comfort with each other and ability to dictate the rhythm of a game. Jones said he hopes Werenski (11 goals) breaks his record.
Since Dec. 2, Jones has amassed 17 points in 19 games, but the minutes-muncher downplays the remarkable run he’s enjoying.
“The year I got traded here, I had 11 points in 40 games in Nashville. I got traded and had 20 in 40, half a point per game. It just happens. Sometimes you get some secondary assists you shouldn’t get or you get a couple shin pads and your shot goes in. I try to be aggressive. Things are going well right now,” says Jones, who had to learn when to rush and when to hang back and save his energy.
“I think I’ve gotten a lot smarter,” Jones says. “When I see an opportunity offensively, I take it.”
8. I’m watching a hockey game at home. My wife walks in.
“What period?” she says.
“Second? Who watches the second? The first and third are the only periods worth watching.”
At this point, I should note that my wife is not Guy Boucher. But we would not blame the Ottawa Senators coach for averting his eyes during minutes 20 to 40.
In first and third periods, the Sens’ goal differential has hovered around even all season.
In the second? Yikes. Ottawa has been outscored by an incredible margin of 62-35 in Period 2. The Sens’ middles have been softer than Double Stuf Oreos.
There’s no explanation, only an admission.
“Our second periods have hurt us big-time this year,” Boucher says.
9. Love to see Connor McDavid speaking out on league issues. Superstars should use their voice.
The first glimpse of this is when he voiced his displeasure about skipping the Olympics this summer, and he sounded off on the oft-maligned offside challenge this week when the Oilers got a critical goal called back (watch below).
Interestingly, 10 months ago, Oilers GM Peter Chiarelli was a big proponent of leaving the offside review as is.
“We think offside is working,” Chiarelli said at the GM meetings. He was against the break-the-plane tweak.
(Columbus GM Jarmo Kekalainen also spoke publicly in favour of offside video review this week.)
“It’s just changing the dynamic,” Chiarelli said at the time. “Now you have to determine the dynamic if the leg is breaking the plane or not if it’s in the air. So you’ve got a number of calls that were reversed because the leg was in the air. But if you allow it, you still have to decide if it’s breaking the plane. So there’s uncertainty on both sides.”
As a fan, I’d rather live with more goals, less delays for review, and the odd bang-bang play that we can whine about the refs later.
10. Jake Virtanen cherishes his 2015 world junior championship medal, so naturally he was thrilled to see Team Canada reclaim gold last Friday with the kids’ win over Sweden. The victory also fattened the Canuck’s pockets.
He bet teammates Loui Eriksson and Daniel Sedin $100 each that Canada would upset their homeland.
Based on gross income, Sedin betting 100 bucks is equivalent to the average full-time employee in British Columbia betting 70 cents.
11. Vancouver’s Erik Gudbranson is a fun guy to chat with.
When I spoke to the defenceman about the possibility of getting traded again last weekend, he offered fun background into his being in Africa during the Panthers-Canucks deal that never made the story.
A bunch of his buddies had toured Thailand and Australia. Gudbranson and pal Shawn Matthias wanted something new.
“Let’s go somewhere no one else has been. Let’s do something completely different. I love travelling. I like to find nature’s finest. We spun the globe and ended up in South Africa,” Gudbranson said.
Which animals did he see?
“All of ’em. It’s just an incredible place. We did the great white shark diving. We did three different safaris. We saw it all. We were five or six feet away from a lion. We saw leopards pull an antelope up a tree. It’s unbelievable. Elephants are just absolutely majestic. You see them on Nat Geo Wild and they’re pretty cool, but once you see them with your own eyes, it’s beauty at its finest,” said the bruising athlete, who admitted to getting a little sacred once the sun went down.
“You go to these private game lodges. You’re stuck in the wilderness, so we came around the around one day – I was with a ranger, thank God – and there was a hyena 10 feet away from us. That was a quick [gulps]: ‘Oh. OK.’ But they walk you back. They keep you pretty safe. Just stay inside.”
Not all hockey players have such an adventurous spirit.
12. Brendan Shanahan was speaking at a coaches clinic in Toronto this week and took a few questions from the audience.
The Leafs president was asked to think back to his playing days and describe the most annoying trait a coach could have. After a moment of thought, Shanahan said it always bugged him when a coach would yap at opposing players from the bench. He said that former tough guys who later became coaches never did that.
Shanahan never respected his coach “acting like Don King — setting up a fight he wasn’t going to be in.”