A quick mix of the things we gleaned from the week of hockey, serious and less so, and rolling four lines deep.
1. Two autumns ago, Ottawa’s Guy Boucher was coaching SC Bern in Switzerland against his current assistant, Marc Crawford, and an 18-year-old kid who shunned a free ride at college and flew overseas to turn pro early.
That would be Auston Matthews, who excelled for the Zurich Lions as a teenage import: 24 goals and 46 points in 36 games.
I asked Boucher, who led Bern to the 2015 Swiss championship, if Matthews’ atypical detour through Europe could pave the way for other high-profile North American prospects to take their talents overseas.
He was doubtful and thoughtful.
“I don’t think it’s good for everybody,” Boucher began.
“First of all, the league’s extremely strong. It’s a much faster league than the American League — full of older players, ex-NHLers, national team players from other countries. It’s a much better league than you’d expect. I was quite surprised. The NHLers that come over are 32, 33 [years old], and sometimes the league’s too fast for them. It’s not for boys; it really is for men.
“Him coming in and playing well there was so impressive. At that age, it’s so difficult to perform. I just think his size, smarts, the fact that he’s so serious about his training and all the details of a pro athlete gave him a chance to be able to evolve in that league,” Boucher went on.
“But you could get another guy going there and being an absolute flop after a month and a half, easy. Easy. I wouldn’t bet on a lot of kids being able to play in that league at all. He’s a superstar, that’s why he was able to.”
Swiss law stipulates that a player must be 18 to obtain a work visa, and National League clubs are limited in the number of North American imports they can sign. Plus, the inherent risk of pre-draft injury to a teenager skating among 30-somethings can scare away prospects.
“Being an import is very specific. It’s not like just being part of a team. The pressure’s on you. You don’t perform for one or two games, it’s like the world is crashing on you. Not a lot of guys can take that, let alone a kid,” Boucher explained.
“He was able to — that’s what’s so impressive. Last year people asked me, how long do you think it’s gonna take before he becomes a star? Not very long. He’s a special player, a special person, and he’s getting special results.”
So how the heck did Matthews hang four goals against Crawford and Boucher — the two NHL coaches who knew him best — in his rookie debut?
“I wasn’t expecting four goals the first game, I’ll be honest,” Boucher smiles. “We could’ve done without it.”
2. So, about the legend of that four-goal debut….
Matthews was getting props for his clever chirp of Senators’ goaltender Craig Anderson, who later asked the kid to sign his goal stick from that record-setting night.
“Thanks FOUR making my first game memorable,” Matthews scribbled in Sharpie.
Anderson loved the wit: “I guess it’s kind of expected of a guy that’s that creative on the ice to be that creative intelligently.”
In truth, the joke wasn’t Matthews’. Credit instead Maple Leafs assistant equipment manager Bobby Hastings.
“He ran it by me, and I thought it was hilarious,” Matthews said this week.
Hey, you think Letterman wrote all his own material?
Matthews has begun a stick collection of his own. So far, he owns a Joe Thornton and an Alex Ovechkin: “It’s got a pretty big curve.”
Toronto flies to Los Angeles next week for the rematch.
“I’ve played him so many times. Oh, my God,” Drew Doughty said when I asked about the greatest challenge of defending Marleau. “His speed, and he tries to shoot through you.
“He’s just fast, and he doesn’t seem like he’s that fast. He’s deceptively so fast. Back in his prime, he was one of the fastest guys in the Western Conference and I had to face him every shift, every night I played him. He was playing with Joe [Thornton] and whoever else. He looks effortless. There’s a lot of guys who skate like that now. He’s still one of the fastest players and he’s however old.”
Doughty was the first player we’ve spoken with who wasn’t overly surprised that Marleau left San Jose.
“Sometimes it’s good for a change,” Doughty said. “He hadn’t won a Cup yet in San Jose. Maybe he saw a bright future with this team, kinda like everyone else is seeing. He wants to win a Cup — that’s probably why he left.”
4. Brent Burns — the very embodiment of a beauty — deserves all the extra dough he can make through endorsements. Since he looks exactly like the kind of guy who could survive in the wilderness off dried meats, poisonous berries and willpower, Burns is the perfect spokesman for beef jerky. Fun ad.
5. Seldom are October post-game exchanges as curt and testy as the one with Jonathan Quick after the Kings’ only regulation loss Monday night in Toronto.
Goalies are creatures who cling to routine and rhythm, so, yes, the sloppy concussion protocol incident in Period 1 ticked him off.
Quick isn’t the most verbose interview at the sunniest of times, but I think he was more angry over the needless roughing penalty he took on Leo Komarov in the waning moments of a one-goal game, his temper essentially ending the Kings’ comeback bid early:
Coach John Stevens spoke to Quick face-to-face about that play immediately after the loss but didn’t throw his man under the bus to the media.
“He’s a really fiery competitor. Emotion in his game is a good thing,” Stevens said. “It’s not an ideal situation to short-handed for the last two minutes of a hockey game. He’s a stand-up guy, and I’m sure he knows that.”
After sitting out the bulk of 2016-17, “Quick’s on fire,” to borrow the words of Mike Babcock.
Los Angeles’ No. 1 leads all goalies in save percentage (.944), goals-against average (1.88), and shutouts (two).
Doughty wondered aloud why Quick still hasn’t won a Vezina, suggesting it may be the time zone he plays in.
6. The best thing you’ll watch all week is Kings stars Doughty, Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown arguing over who has to cover Erik Karlsson in 3-on-3 overtime — I don’t want him! You take him! — and Karlsson’s reaction:
So cool to see some of the game’s best players having a laugh in the middle of a tied match. Brooks Laich says Doughty is “a joy” to play with. Doughty says he hasn’t had this much fun since he won the Cup.
“The human spirit is the most important thing,” Stevens said, in relation to Doughty’s good mood.
“Hockey’s a game of emotion. If you don’t have it, you’re gonna have a tough time winning.”
(P.S. We know Boucher thinks defence first, but with all the skill on the Sens, why the heck is Johnny Oduya starting 3-on-3?)
7. I’m not sure what I enjoy more: Ben Bishop and Ken Hitchcock already going at each other through the media three weeks into their relationship, or the fact the Dallas Stars have the integrity to post these videos on their website.
We’ve seen comments much less testy get edited out of a team’s promotional material. Good on Dallas.
8. It’s no secret Laich was unhappy with his lot in life last winter, when the Leafs swiftly sent him down to the Marlies. The 34-year-old believed he was an NHL player and yet he didn’t skate in a single NHL game in 2016-17.
A Los Angeles resident, Laich tried out for the Kings. Making the local team was his sole focus this summer. The fourth-liner said he experienced a neat moment of reflection after signing his one-year contract with the Kings last week.
“It was a pretty sweet moment in my life. I’m actually grateful for the challenges I went through when I was here in Toronto because it made that moment that much sweeter,” Laich said.
What kept him going when teams weren’t exactly banging down his door as a free agent?
“Just a belief. Aside from wife, hockey’s the greatest joy in my life,” he said. “I was focused on the Kings. They were my first choice. I never really explored anything other than that.”
I asked Laich if he allowed himself to consider that his NHL career might be done.
“Really interesting question. I won’t say it never crossed my mind, but I never believed in it. I believed I still had a voice in the conversation. My health is 100 per cent, which is a big factor,” he said. “There was still a glimmer of hope.”
Laich credits his skills coach, Mike Ellis, for pouring hours upon hours of work in practice and improving his centre-ice tactics.
The veteran said he was prepared to keep training until Christmas or mid-January in hopes of earning a contract before hanging them up.
9. It is difficult to overstate the importance the Carolina Hurricanes placed on bringing champions into the room.
Responding to a general question about his top-four defencemen Thursday, head coach Bill Peters brought up that third-pairing D-man Trevor van Riemsdyk has a Stanley Cup ring.
Answering a questioning about his fourth line, Peters reminded that Marcus Kruger is a two-time NHL champion.
No less than seven members of the Cup-winning 2015 Chicago Blackhawks have since been acquired by Carolina, and GM Ron Francis made sure to win a bidding war for Mr. Game 7, Justin Williams, in free agency.
It’s about changing a collective mindset, the losing culture of the team currently immersed in the NHL’s longest playoff drought.
Scott Darling lit up when I asked him what it meant to come to a team with so many former teammates. It’s eased his transition immensely.
10. We have to wonder if the New York Islanders’ yo-yoing of Josh Ho-Sang, who was sent down to the minors again this week, are developing a unique talent properly.
Ho-Sang is 21. He has put up four assists through six games this month playing down the lineup. The previous season, he dressed in 21 big-league contests and scored 10 points. He’s a plus player in the NHL.
Sure, he still has much to learn in the D zone, but why not work with him at the NHL level at this point? He’s a major-league talent.
11. When Ottawa called up 28-year-old Chris DiDomenico from AHL Belleville Saturday, some suspected it was because the forward’s relationship with Guy Boucher stretches back to their junior days.
Boucher gave an interesting explanation on his philosophy regarding AHL call-ups.
“We brought up the guy who deserves to be brought up. There’s no other reason. It’s always the same. I don’t choose the guys that come up,” Boucher said. “He was just the best all-around player down there.”
DiDomenico had put put three goals and five points through four AHL games prior to his promotion. He’s a sixth-rounder who was drafted by Toronto a decade ago. Hardly the enticing new hotshot.
“Ninety-five per cent of the time it’s which player deserves it? I’ve been in the American League. The worst thing that can happen is a guy gets brought up just because he’s a high pick or he’s supposed to be your best player and he’s not,” Boucher said.
“That’s not right. Because then the rest of the players down there don’t see a deserving culture. They see a culture based on things that aren’t current and things they can’t control. If you’re a first-round pick and you’re dogging it down there and you get called up … well, you just killed your culture. I’ve lived it. I know.”
12. Connor Brown’s suggestion that besties Matt Martin and Mitchell Marner dress up as Dr. Evil and Mini-Me for Halloween was brilliant.
Too bad their girlfriends shot the idea down.
“Rightfully so,” Martin shrugged. “I don’t think the girls want to be Fembots. It makes sense, but I thought it’d be pretty funny.”
This counts as another minus for Marner.
“We weren’t too happy about it,” the would-be Mini-Me said. “Nothing we can do about it. We had a pretty wicked costume in mind, but it got squashed pretty quick.”