A quick mix of the things we gleaned from the week of hockey, serious and less so, and rolling four lines deep.
1. Morgan Rielly is supposed to be the Toronto Maple Leafs‘ best defenceman, and on many nights he has been. Since his ankle injury, however, not so much.
Rielly has all of three goals and is a team-worst minus-22; Jake Gardiner is a team-best plus-23.
Leafs coach Mike Babcock has explained that Rielly gets the tougher minutes, the D-zone starts, and misses out on a stats boost from power-play time. He’s also been partnered with a rookie to the North American game.
Rielly was matched against the Claude Giroux line in Thursday’s important win over the Flyers. He and partner Nikita Zaitsev had positive possession numbers, and Rielly snapped an eight-game pointless streak with an assist on his birthday. Victory keeps the critics at bay.
“We’re just happy that we were able to pull out a win and play well,” Rielly said.
Still, many wonder if the 23-year-old is still feeling the effects of his injury. He’s looked more hesitant and mistake-prone of late. Slower. He had a giveaway Thursday and missed a check on Philly’s opening power-play goal.
Asked directly about the injury by a reporter Thursday, Babcock instead invoked Toronto’s last most contractually secure defenceman.
“It’s an interesting thing. There’s a guy who used to be here named Dion Phaneuf that took all the flak for everybody. When you trade that guy, someone else gets the flak, especially when it doesn’t go good for ya,” Babcock said.
“[Rielly]’s just gotta quit thinking and worrying about what anybody else says. He understands the manager and the coach think he’s great, and his mom and dad think he’s great. I’d spend less time worrying about what anyone else gives you feedback on and just play.”
A couple things: (1.) As he did with William Nylander earlier this season, Babcock is excellent at going to bat for his guys. (2.) Don’t expect to squeeze injury details out of this team.
The coach is making this about the mental side of sport and not the physical. You’d be hard-pressed to find a Leafs fan who thinks of Rielly as Phaneuf, except for maybe that they’ve been miscast as No. 1’s by default.
Most of us feel more confident when we’re healthy.
“I think he’s like a lot of us. When you’ve got a swagger to your game and you’re playing real fast and things are going real good, you don’t think about anything. You’re just doing what you do,” Babcock said. “I think he’s probably got himself thinking a little bit.”
2. It’s OK. You can respect Mario Lemieux’s career with the Pittsburgh Penguins and still be cool with Josh Ho-Sang wearing No. 66 for the New York Islanders.
Love the way Ho-Sang — that rare hockey kid who does not speak in cliches — has handled this nontroversy.
What I love more is how coach Doug Weight has his back. Watch how Weight 86’d the 66 question in Edmonton Tuesday night:
“People try to paint him as a bad kid because he looked up to [Lemieux],” Weight said. “It’s an homage.”
That night Ho-Sang went out and fired his first career goal. A bull’s eye from the point.
Is it too early to scratch Weight’s interim title?
Marner’s 37 assists lead all freshmen and have him ready to break a 73-year-old Toronto franchise record as early as this weekend. Points-wise, he’s on a four-game streak and still trails Patrik Laine and pal Auston Matthews, but not by much — and he’s seen less ice time than them both.
So how often does he peek at the leaderboard?
“Never. I don’t care,” Marner says.
“We want to win in here. We want to be a playoff team. If we’re all focusing on points, it’s not going to happen. We’re all in here together. We’re a team.”
Somewhere, a single, happy tear trickles down Lou Lamoriello’s cheek.
4. For three seasons before this one, Ben Bishop appeared in more than 60 of the Tampa Bay Lightning‘s games. In one of those, he backstopped the Bolts to the Cup Final. In two of those, he ended up a Vezina finalist.
This year, the club tried to smooth-transition Andrei Vasilevskiy into the starter role and essentially had the goalies split starts 50/50. Everyone knew the plan and said the right things publicly, but the fence-sitting approach failed miserably.
Bishop wasn’t playing at the same level of awesome. He was shipped to L.A. at the deadline, and in a candid interview with ESPN’s Scott Burnside this week, he said what many were thinking.
“I was a little frustrated, at the beginning of the season, coming off of probably my best season of my career and not getting to play as much as I wanted to in Tampa,” Bishop said.
“I wanted to kind of keep it the same as the last three years, because it had been working. We started switching goalies back and forth in Tampa, and it wasn’t working. We were falling in the standings and it was making me a little bit upset. Why fix what’s not broken?”
5. Eyes rolled when Tampa GM Steve Yzerman traded away actual humans Bishop, Brian Boyle, Valtteri Filppula and Mark Streit at the deadline for picks and then said straight-faced that the Lightning are still gunning for a playoff spot. Uh huh.
Don’t look now, but Tampa has earned points in 12 of its past 14 outings, and Steven Stamkos continues to participate in morning skates. Is this the Tampa run we’ve been waiting on for months?
No timetable for the captain’s return yet, but he’s “progressing well,” according to coach Jon Cooper, and feeling good enough to be tweeting out gifs of himself.
Be afraid, Atlantic Division.
6. Thanks to the beauties at SN Stats, here is the strength of schedule for every team between the trade deadline and the end of the season based on opponents’ points percentage. Canadian teams in bold.
A positive sign for bubble teams like St. Louis, Los Angeles, and the Islanders. Not so much for the Flyers, Panthers, Lightning and Leafs.
1. Flyers .593
2. Canucks .584
3. Panthers .584
4. Rangers .584
5. Sabres .582
6. Lightning .576
7. Predators .571
8. Ducks .571
9. Avalanche .570
10. Maple Leafs .569
11. Blue Jackets .567
12. Jets .567
13. Bruins .565
14. Devils .565
15. Stars .563
16. Sharks .563
17. Penguins .561
18. Flames .560
19. Capitals .560
20. Islanders .556
21. Kings .555
22. Blackhawks .554
23. Wild .551
24. Canadiens .551
25. Senators .549
26. Hurricanes .549
27. Coyotes .543
28. Red Wings .541
29. Oilers .527
30. Blues .486
7. A funny thing happened when Reid Duke became the first Vegas Golden Knight.
Reid Duke — no, the other one — got blown up huge on Twitter.
Reminds me of all the followers computer guy Michael Babcock gained on social media when a similarly named Red Wings coach became a free agent a couple years back.
Careful, kids. Those blue check marks are no joke.
8. The Ottawa Senators will consider making their alternate heritage sweaters their permanent look. Great news.
Earlier this season we learned that the NHL plans to nix alternate sweaters for 2017-18 and force teams to roll with one look.
New Sens president Tom Anselmi told Postmedia that Ottawa’s appearance has been in a state of “schizophrenia,” undergoing a bunch of tweaks since the city got its NHL team.
“There has been a lot of jerseys, a lot of logos, lots of patches,” Anselmi told Postmedia. “Whatever we end up with at the end of day, we want to stick with it. We want something that will stand the test of time.”
He likes the “O” and so do we.
“That jersey has inspired lot of people,” Anselmi said. “It’s a great-looking jersey and the players like it. But we’re not going to do anything knee-jerk.”
— christian le hawk (@ChrisDuguay69) March 7, 2017
“It’s an outstanding team, it’s an outstanding market, it’s a really great city, it’s a really enthusiastic fan base,” Shattenkirk’s agent, Jordan Neumann, told the Washington Post. “So yeah, I think if Kevin gets in there and really falls in love with it and they fall in love with him like I would expect to happen, we would certainly be open to having a conversation with Brian at the appropriate time.”
Most have Shattenkirk, a New Yorker at heart, signing with the cash-rich Rangers on July 1.
Rangers forward Brandon Pirri had played for Chicago, Florida and Anaheim before inking a one-year deal as a free agent with New York in late August. I asked him to compare the culture around the four franchises.
“This organization has been amazing for me and my wife since I got here. They took care of everything. They took all the outside-of-hockey stuff, the thinking of it, the stress of it, and put it on themselves. We didn’t have to think about it,” Pirri told me.
“They helped me find a place, they got me a car, they took care of my wife, whatever you need. It lets me, as a player, just focus on hockey. Which is huge. I’m sure the budget here is a lot bigger and they have more [staff] to take care of things, but as a player it takes away all your stress, which is how it should be.”
Pirri wasn’t pitching Shattenkirk, but even in a cap world, you see how a financially secure team might have a leg up on UFAs.
Pirri, 25, will turn UFA himself this summer. Of the four clubs he’s been on, is this the best fit?
“Yeah. Because they’re having me right now,” he laughed. “Me and my wife love it. We hope to be here a while, but I know it’s a business in the end.
“Being part of a winning team and having a role in the team is big. You never know how long you’re going to be in the league.”
10. A common belief is that the mathematicians are running the Florida Panthers. Some interesting comments this week from the Cats’ GM and interim head coach Tom Rowe about Corsi:
11. Maybe it’s because I was still high off viewing the Goon sequel, but I loved how Blake Wheeler and Evgeni Malkin — two of the most skilled players on their respective teams — handled their beef Wednesday night in Winnipeg.
They didn’t wait for the resident tough guys on their teams to do their dirty work (although that did happen later).
Wheeler challenged, Malkin accepted without hesitation, and then Malkin even gave Wheeler respect and admitted wrongdoing in his post-game interview.
Wheeler’s little pat of Malkin after he cranked him with rights signaled an end to the chapter. And they move on.
12. Want to feel behind in your development?
Watch these jumpy, dangling seven- and eight-year-old Russian kids getting trained by former KHLer Alex Antropov. Yikes.