A quick mix of the things we gleaned from the week of hockey, serious and less so, and rolling four lines deep.
1. Zach Hyman sits next to his friend and centreman, Auston Matthews, in the Toronto Maple Leafs dressing room.
Hyman is always quick to give props to the Calder champ, as he did after Matthews’ pre-season hat trick versus Montreal Monday, but it was Matthews patting Hyman on the back during the first intermission.
Hyman got hit by Brendan Gallagher and didn’t like it, so he gave the five-foot-nine Habs pest a shot back. In a heated-moment blink, Hyman found himself in his second-ever NHL scrap (watch below).
“He’s not a guy who fights often, but he plays with his heart on his sleeve,” Matthews says. “When you see a guy like that drop the gloves, it gets the team going.”
Hyman’s first fight was also an exhibition tilt, a unanimous-decision loss to Detroit’s Brendan Smith last October, according to hockeyfights.com.
Teammate Matt Martin took the six-foot-one, 205-pound Hyman aside last fall after Smith got the best of him.
“Always look at the guy,” Martin instructed. “When you turn away, you don’t know where the punches are coming from.”
“That was a cool tip he gave me,” Hyman says. “It stuck.”
Today, Hyman’s left hand is a spider’s web of scabbed-over cuts from Gallagher’s visor.
“Those plastic helmets are sharp. It’s unfortunate, but that’s how it goes,” smiles Martin. You detect a proud papa vibe. “He did good. He stood up for himself. He stayed pretty square to him and used his size to his advantage.
“In that situation [Monday] night, he’s bigger than the guy he’s fighting. There’s no reason to look away. Use your size and reach.”
Only three NHL skaters had more fighting majors than Martin’s 13 last season.
The first rule of Matt Martin’s Fight Club is look your opponent in the eye. Sure, there’s an intimidation element to that, but the veteran details the practical necessity.
“First thing you do if you don’t want to get hit in the face, you look away. If you’re not looking, I will contain you and throw punches and you’ll never regain your ground. I know you can’t throw a punch at me if you’re looking this way. I had to learn that, too. There’s times you do get hit, you turn your head, and you have to find your way back into the fight,” Martin says.
“The easiest thing to do is look away and kinda hide. You don’t want to get hit so you don’t watch the fight. For me, when a guy’s not looking, he can’t throw a punch at you. It allows you to control the fight when guys have their head turned. That’s one of the things I told him: ‘Keep yourself square, protect yourself, and watch what’s happening.’
“A fight’s a hectic thing. Try to find a calm inside of that. Settle yourself down. He’s a pretty big kid. He’s got some reach and he’s got some size, so it’s not going to be easy for guys to reach and hit him. He was so much more composed and confident this time. That comes from experience as well. I don’t know if he’d ever been in a fight prior to 2016.”
2. Sportsnet’s Hockey Central at Noon returned this week. Insider Nick Kypreos again brought up Claude Giroux and rumours that the Philadelphia Flyers might not be long for their captain, who’s inked through 2022 at a $8.275-million cap hit.
Giroux’s actual salary is $9 million in each of the next two seasons, which would make a possible trade difficult-to-impossible to orchestrate.
The Flyers have not missed the playoffs in consecutive seasons in 24 years. Skating in a stacked Metropolitan Division, they’re in danger of ending that streak — especially if Giroux’s production and plus/minus rating declines for a fourth straight season.
“G is unquestionably the leader of our team and our captain,” defends teammate Wayne Simmonds. “G takes things the hardest. He’s his own biggest critic. I have no doubt in my mind that he’s going to be ready to play this year. He had a little injury last year coming off double hip surgery. That kinda hurt him. You ask him, and he’ll never admit it.
“He’s a top-15, top-10 centre in this league. I expect him to get back to that level.”
Giroux didn’t miss a game in 2016-17 and finished 24th in scoring among centremen, with 14 goals and 44 helpers. Only 27 of his points came at even strength. Giroux is getting looks on the wing in training camp.
“Anytime you’re a captain and you’re dealing with struggles on the ice and criticism in the media, it’s not the easiest. He takes that to heart. He wears it on his sleeve. He’s a very proud person,” says former teammate Michael Del Zotto, now of the Canucks.
“He’s the face of that organization and has been for many years. He’s tough on himself. That’s what you want. You don’t want complacency. He’s never satisfied with his performance.”
Enough negativity. What is the best thing about Giroux’s game?
“Watch him on the power play,” Del Zotto says. “I don’t know a guy who’s better at making plays on the half-wall under pressure. Backhand, forehand sauce—whatever the pass may be, he’s the best on the half-wall.”
This video breakdown on Giroux’s passing math is great:
3. I asked a handful of 2017-18 rookies before camps opened if they had the Calder Trophy on their list of freshman goals.
The Coyotes’ Clayton Keller was the only one to not give hockey’s typical team-first answer.
Keller said the Calder is “definitely” something he’s chasing. He also said that he’s trying to improve his offensive game; most rookie centres insist their top priority is rounding out their defence.
“My game is in the offensive zone. That’s where I’m going to be successful, so I’m just trying to get better at that,” Keller said. “I want to have an impact right away. I’m not going to be there just to be there. I’m going to have an impact right away. That’s my goal. I’m going to just play my game, and [the Calder race] will take care of itself.”
Keller trained all summer in Arizona. Not at the same rink as Auston Matthews, but the good pals golfed a few rounds and talked hockey. Matthews’ rookie campaign inspired Keller, who already has six points through three exhibition games.
“Auston’s a great player, and I know him well,” Keller said, “so it’s good to have a friend like that.”
Keller will have real Calder competition in a wide-open race featuring Nico Hischier, who’s looking like the real deal:
4. Also in the Rookie of the Year mix is Vancouver’s Brock Boeser, he of seven points in four exhibition contests.
“It’s cool to think about if I could win that, but my main goal is to get on the team and stay on the team. I’ll go from there,” Boeser says.
Keller, Boeser, Alex DeBrincat, Charlie McAvoy, Kyle Connor … We could witness back-to-back U.S.-born Calder champs.
“Seeing the way Americans are playing now and how the sport is growing across America is cool,” Boeser says. “It’s good for us Americans to show ourselves because there’s always Canadians.”
The puck from Boeser’s first NHL goal last spring holds a special place on his mom’s shelf.
Boeser dropped out of the University of North Dakota after two years, before deciding on a major.
“I was leaning towards business. I promised my mom I’d graduate at some point. I don’t know when, but I’ll get it done,” he says.
“Hopefully this hockey thing pans out for you,” I say.
Boeser laughs. “Yeah, right?”
5. There was a time, not so long ago, when skate guards were considered lame and Rollerblades were less than cool.
So the Buffalo Sabres put them together, and it looks brilliant:
Roller skate guards .. now a team thing.
— Buffalo Sabres (@BuffaloSabres) September 26, 2017
6. Leafs coach Mike Babcock has gotten a head start on lighting fires under the backsides of certain players.
Is suggesting Jake Gardiner may be Toronto’s best defenceman a way to juice Morgan Rielly? Is skating Miro Aaltonen in the 4C spot a tactic to drive veteran Dominic Moore?
Thursday, Nazem Kadri’s teammates praised the centre’s fitness and attitude.
The coach pushed the conversation back down to earth Thursday.
“I thought early he was really going good, but that line’s got to be better,” Babcock said. “I told them all that today. They’ve got to be better. That group can be way better, way quicker, way more diligent, so they got to upgrade. We need Naz to be real good for us to be effective, so that group’s got to find some chemistry and get going.”
To Kadri’s right is familiar face Leo Komarov; to his right is newcomer Patrick Marleau, who’s style of play differs from Connor Brown’s. It’s something Kadri needs to get used to.
“I’ve learned that when he gets the puck in the corner or in open ice sometimes you tend to want to go support your winger and be a little bit closer to him, but with Patty I think you got to give him some space,” Kadri explained.
“He’s a big, strong guy. He can beat guys one-on-one, so in order for me to read off him I have to get into areas where I can be a threat offensively to score because he’s going to get me the puck.”
7. “You don’t have a particular individual as the face of the franchise,” Vegas Golden Knights GM George McPhee told Hockey Central at Noon. “The logo will be the face.”
McPhee doesn’t imagine naming the inaugural captain of the franchise, which is essentially Marc-Andre Fleury but he plays net.
Instead, look for a leadership group that features Fleury, Jason Garrison, Reilly Smith, David Perron and Deryk Engelland.
8. Eric Fehr’s game action in a Toronto Maple Leafs uniform since being acquired from Pittsburgh at the trade deadline has amounted to a grand total of 10:44 of ice time. Fehr broke his finger on March 22, his first and only game for Toronto, and the digit will never bend the same.
“It’s frustrating. For myself, the second half of last season was mostly the finger that kept me out after I got back in. It’s not the way you draw it up. There’s a lot of things you can control, and that’s not one of them,” Fehr says, but he’s smiling. There’s no sense of woe-is-me. “I don’t think the finger will ever be a full 100 per cent; it’s going to be my version of 100 per cent.”
During Thursday’s Leafs practice, Fehr outduelled Matthews in the final of a team shootout contest and went to shake the kid’s hand. Matthews jokingly refused.
Unlike Ben Smith, Fehr still appears in the mix to make the 23-man roster, and interestingly says the crackdown on faceoff encroachment could favour him.
“I used the foot quite a bit last season. That’s going to be something that’s tough now,” Fehr says. “But I haven’t been playing centre that long, so I don’t have a bunch of tricks I lean on. I can switch up my style pretty quick. It’s going to be more difficult for the guys who’ve been taking draws for the last 10, 15 years that have to change. I’m hoping that’s an advantage for me.”
At a $2-million cap hit and coming off the injury, we’d be surprised if an opponent picked up Fehr if he hits the waiver wire before Oct. 4.
9. In MMMMA news, Martin Marincin — our best guess to be the Leafs’ seventh defenceman — added mixed martial arts to his off-season training.
“That was something new in my summer workout, so it’s good. It’s good for your whole body,” Marincin says. So, Marincin must be feeling more confident than last year?
“I’m still working on that.”
10. George Parros, the new sheriff in NHL town, has handed out two suspensions already. Washington’s Tom Wilson and the Rangers’ Andrew Desjardins were each banned for two exhibition games due to shady hits.
Wilson, we imagine, is just fine taking a pre-season breather, but Desjardins is on a tryout. How do you make the cut when you can’t even get into games and prove yourself?
11. Ex-Penguins find themselves in an interesting position regarding the upcoming White House championship visit.
Nashville’s Nick Bonino said he won’t be attending the ceremony because it conflicts with the Predators’ schedule. They’re hosting the Flyers on Oct. 10, the reported date of the Trump handshake.
Bonino declined comment to local reporters when asked whether he would go otherwise.
“We respect everybody’s right to protest, to say what they want to say, act how they want to act,” Bonino told The Tennessean.
“No matter race, gender, ethnicity, I think everybody wants everybody treated equally. I think that’s what America’s founded upon. As a team, we’re going to stick together, make the decision as a group as to what we do and go from there.”
Detroit’s Trevor Daley told the Free Press that everybody is entitled to their own voice but did not sound interested in attending.
“It is just something I never really got into, that politics stuff. I like to play hockey. I am good at that. I try to stick to what I am good at,” Daley said.
“I’ve already been, so I don’t know if it would mean that much this time. I am on a different team now.”
We haven’t heard Minnesota’s Matt Cullen’s opinion yet.
Toronto’s Ron Hainsey refused to meet with media the day after the Penguins’ announcement, instead letting his younger teammates respond to uncomfortable questions. The next day he told some reporters he won’t talk politics, waited a beat, and walked away.
The Penguins insist the White House visit isn’t political.
The Leafs don’t play Oct. 10. I asked Hainsey if he’s going. He didn’t answer. That’s his right.
The picture and who’s in it will tell 1,000 words.
Georges Laraque’s candid take on the topic may be my favourite. Listen:
P.S. Bill Russell opened a Twitter account at age 83 so he could post this photograph. Powerful.
12. Hockey journalists assigned to weeks of pre-season coverage can grow starving for colour. So we gobble up tales of Nazem Kadri’s weakness for Mom’s chocolate chip cookies and get giddy when we learn that Leo Komarov and Miro Aaltonen carpool to morning skates bumping Finnish rap music like there’s no other kind.
A rap aficionado myself, but one more versed in the North American brand, I asked Komarov which Finnish act I should check out.
“JVG,” he said. “Very good.”
Wanna party like Uncle Leo this weekend? Flip your visor to the sky and crank up the volume: