31 Thoughts: Pressure mounting on the Toronto Maple Leafs

Toronto Maple Leafs right wing Mitchell Marner (16) reacts at the final buzzer after his team's 3-2 loss to the St. Louis Blues. (Chris Young/CP)

• What’s different about the 2019-20 Buffalo Sabres
• Impressions of John Carlson‘s historic start to the season
• Will anyone follow Jack Hughes‘ path to the NHL?

Moments after Jack Eichel scored in overtime to give Buffalo a 4-3 win over San Jose on Tuesday night, the Sabres walked back into their dressing room as the No. 1 team in the NHL. Their 17 points is one up on Washington, two on Colorado and Edmonton.

So, how crazy was it in there?

“Actually, it was pretty casual,” answered winning goaltender Carter Hutton. “We learned our lesson last year, after our 10-game winning streak. We got too comfortable playing with fire. (Head coach Ralph Krueger) has us focussed on the process, sticking with what we do right. If we give up good chances, we’re going to pay.”

Down 2-0 after one to the Sharks, the group emphasized staying true to the plan.

“We have a lot of trust in the system,” Sam Reinhart told reporters post-game.

“Maybe the younger Jack gets frustrated,” Hutton said. “Now, we always talk about the grind of it, how you have to stick with things instead of getting down. But guys feed off him. If he stays right, we follow.”

Four Eichel points later, the Sabres won. This hasn’t been the only example in 2019-20. Two nights after his giveaway led to the winner in an overtime loss to Columbus, the captain had another four-point game in a win over Montreal. They blew a 2-0 lead in Anaheim to start their West Coast swing, but recovered to shutout Los Angeles and beat the Sharks in an absolute roller-coaster ride in San Jose.

On a 31 Thoughts podcast, Eichel said Krueger won him over during their first dinner together — at last year’s World Championships. Hutton said a similar thing happened when the coach invited him for dinner with teammates Zach Bogosian and Kyle Okposo. Hockey only came up at the end, after Krueger made sure to know about them and their families.

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He’s made other changes. Hutton says he doesn’t think the Sabres have used their video room once. Meetings are in the dressing room, “short and sweet.” Smaller groups, not necessarily everyone.

“We’ve got a lot of younger players, and it is not as easy for a 19-year-old to speak up in front of everyone. They think they are stepping on toes.” This makes it more comfortable for them, as does the arrival of 600-game veteran Marcus Johansson — especially for the Sabres’ Swedes. “He is their voice breaking that ice. (Rasmus Ristolainen) is not as outgoing, he just likes to focus on playing. Plus, he’s a Finn. Marcus has become the leader of that group. He’s been huge for us.”

When I ran into Hutton last season, he said he learned things about being a No. 1 goalie that he hoped to put into place for this year. San Jose’s first goal ended a career-long personal shutout string that reached 134 minutes. He didn’t change the way he prepared in the summer, but did alter his mental approach.

“You have to manage the highs and lows. It is very hard to be so emotionally attached to 50 games a year. You’re going to burn out, it’s hard to play with that fire. You have to stay even-keeled. I’m also managing my output in practice.”

What about games? What has changed in front of you?

“Predictability,” he replies, and refers to a 4-0 shutout of Dallas last Monday. “I only had to make two or three solid saves. We’re doing a good job of allowing the chances we want to give.”

You can’t win the Stanley Cup in October. But you sure can lose it then. It’s early, but the Sabres seem better prepared to handle it. They have to be.

“We’re not fooling anyone anymore,” Hutton says. “We’re getting everyone’s best.”

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1. With Artem Anisimov and Colin White down to injury, Ottawa is trying hard to add a forward.

2. It’s not a trade that will get a ton of attention, but Tuesday’s Ian McCoshen/Aleksi Saarela deal between Chicago and Florida is notable for one reason: it features two players who wanted a change; two prospects of whom much was once expected.

The Panthers, who believed their defensive play needed big-time improvement, lost faith in McCoshen’s ability to provide that. The first pick of the second round in 2013 was at AHL Springfield after playing just 19 games in Florida last year. He wanted a new start and gets it, at AHL Rockford to begin. Saarela is a fascinating case study. A third-round selection by the Rangers in 2015, he went to the Hurricanes in the Eric Staal trade, to the Blackhawks with Calvin de Haan and now to the Panthers just four months later.

There is no doubting his talent — one former teammate said he has an absolute bomb of a shot, but “there’s a reason he’s been traded so many times.” He blasted Carolina on his way out, with the organization responding that he didn’t do the work expected of him and didn’t care to change that. He was not playing much at Rockford and didn’t like it. This is probably his final North American stop. Two guys with something to prove, two teams willing to gamble.

3. It is tense in Toronto. You could see the organization was curious how things would transpire without an injured John Tavares and his calming influence. They are 1-1-1, but it simply doesn’t look right. In last year’s playoff, during the three games in Toronto, Patrice Bergeron had 35 even-strength minutes and saw Tavares for 31 of them. Coach Mike Babcock gave us something fun last Saturday at home against the Bruins — a solid taste of the Mitch Marner/Auston Matthews combo, the second-most ice-time of Matthews’ career, and 11:24 against Bergeron at even-strength (in the re-match Tuesday in Boston, Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy showed he wasn’t afraid of keeping it that way).

I loved that Babcock made the challenge, but you can see he’s not ready to trust this full-time — especially when riddled with the kinds of mistakes that came Monday at home against Columbus. As of Wednesday, Matthews has taken just 17 defensive-zone draws (winning 29 per cent of them), one of which led directly to a Blue Jackets goal on Monday night. The improving Frederik Gauthier has taken 66, Nick Shore 62 — and both are over 60 per cent.

You can understand why Babcock is doing it this way, he’s got to win games in a much tighter division, and he believes prime time is earned, not given. That’s not wrong, but I wonder if these times call for something different. In Winnipeg, Patrik Laine clamoured for more responsibility, and the Jets made him a deal: “Fine, but we will take it away if you don’t compete hard enough to make it work.” Laine got the message, and the early season difference is noticeable. In Edmonton, the ice time for Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid is probably unsustainable, but the two have accepted a challenge and it is a big reason the start of their season feels so much more promising.

Toronto’s cap situation means their top players have to be the drivers, as both Babcock and Matthews indicated after the Boston loss. Is it time to fully unleash them and challenge them to make the necessary improvements without sheltering?

4. As the pressure mounts, there will be plenty of talk about Babcock’s future. One thing everyone should remember: he takes a lot of the heat. A lot of it. What I respect about him is that he recognizes it as part of the job. Where does it go if he’s gone?

5. Kind of a weird thing, but heading into the Columbus game, Frederik Andersen allowed eight goals (38 per cent of his total) through the five-hole. According to Sportlogiq, the league average for goalies was 11 per cent at the time. Boston was looking for it. So were the Blue Jackets. Andersen made some nice saves on those attempts, so he’s working on it.

6. This may interest only me, but I thought it was interesting to watch referee Tom Chmielewski Monday in Toronto. In the first period, watch him making the call on Ryan Murray. He thinks about a penalty shot, hesitates a bit, but doesn’t call one.

Then, in the overtime, he makes the call. I know some people didn’t like it, but the goal is to promote offence and entertainment.

7. Detroit tried to move Jonathan Ericsson before waiving him on Tuesday. If this is the end of his NHL career — and life has a funny way of making things turn out like no one expects — respect to a last-overall draft choice who played 662 games. That is beating the odds.

8. With Buffalo tight to the ceiling and Ristolainen seeming very happy, the talk has turned to Marco Scandella. He’s in the final season of his contract, playing 17:51 per night. Cap hit is $4 million.

9. Two wins in a row for Minnesota after Jason Zucker’s outburst in Montreal. While it made a ton of noise because Zucker mentioned Bruce Boudreau by name, it sure sounds internally that everyone recognized what the player was trying to do. Boudreau himself wasn’t fuming, especially since Zucker went to him on the plane that night to apologize. (I would bet that if he ever does it again, he’ll leave the coach out of it.) As a media member, the only thing I hate about stories like this is we can’t stand cliches, then we rip people for being honest. They were losing and he was frustrated.

10. One thing about the Wild other teams are noticing: they really show that frustration on the ice against each other. Whether it is for holding the puck too long on the power play, or passes not on the tape or dumb penalties, there are some obvious (and heated) conversations. Winning cures everything.

11. GM Bill Guerin does not see the need for a quick fix. “I’m getting calls,” he said last weekend, “but I’m not going to do anything just for the sake of it, or because things are emotional. Still evaluating.”

12. Philadelphia is going to be interesting. The Joel Farabee call-up was sooner than expected, but it indicates how important getting back into the playoffs is for this franchise. They sent down Carsen Twarynski, but there is certainly a feeling he was the pick because they could send him down, not because they wanted to send him down. They liked how he played and he doesn’t need waivers. The young guys are pushing the veterans.

13. The Flyers, by the way, may have found another one. There are good reviews for WHL Calgary defenceman Egor Zamula, who they signed last season as a free agent.

14. It looks like Edmonton is going to dip its toe into the Darnell Nurse contract waters in the near future. He and Oscar Klefbom are taking big-time blue line responsibility. Nurse’s contract is up, he’s two years away from unrestricted free agency. Here’s another important part of the conversation: You can see his passion for the team, his want for it to do well. It’s not easy for the Oilers to attract players, you’ve got one who likes it there.

15. Chris Johnston reported that other clubs are assuming Konstantin Okulov of KHL CSKA Moscow is picking between Montreal and Toronto. The Canadiens, in particular, lusted after him a year ago.

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16. I do not doubt Braden Holtby, who’s won three straight after getting pulled against Colorado and watching Ilya Samsonov receive a prime-time test against Toronto. He’s proven many times he can handle ups and downs, especially when he didn’t begin the 2018 Stanley Cup championship run as the Capitals’ starter. But, uncertainty can cloud the strongest minds, so I asked GM Brian MacLellan if not having a contract was affecting Holtby.

“I don’t think so,” he replied. “We spoke at the beginning of the year, so we could communicate about contract, about team situation, about cap situation. It might be affecting him, but my interpretation is it is not. He goes through some periods where he gets a little off. He’s trying to improve his game and he’s trying certain things, maybe they don’t work as quick as possible. He always seems to be able to recover and we anticipate him playing at a high level soon.” Looks like he’s getting there.

17. One of the reasons for his struggles was Washington’s new system. The Capitals are trying to be more aggressive, similar to what Carolina does. It got them trapped down-ice a few times against Colorado and Toronto, leading to some ridiculous highlight-reel goals against.

They look like they are sorting it out. MacLellan had an interesting comment about the Capitals from last year to this year: “Part of it, I think we labelled as fatigue, ran out of gas,” he said, referring to the 2018-19 team. “And probably another part of it is the hunger. The hunger to go through it all again. It’s a long grind and I would not say that we had 20 guys with the will to win it the second time, and consequently we made some choices and some changes in our lineup.” This is not a group satisfied with one Cup.

18. Early-season sensation John Carlson is averaging 1.82 points per game, something no defenceman has ever done over the course of a full season. Bobby Orr holds the record of .1.78 in 1970-71; only he and Paul Coffey have reached 1.5. If you watch Carlson, it’s so impressive to see the little things he does so well. See how he quickly glances to find Alexander Ovechkin as the puck is coming to him in Chicago. That’s not a slow-moving puck, either. Seconds later: goal.

Against Toronto, watch how he looks off the super-smart Tavares, opening up the lane for a lethal one-timer. The last one is just obscene, with Ovechkin leaving the zone, gaining speed to set up his own blast, only to set up Carlson at the last second. Seriously, what’s a goalie supposed to do with that?

The only bad thing about Carlson winning the Norris is that it would make David Amber right. He’ll be impossible to deal with.

19. One scout who has seen Dallas a few times: “The way they grind you, they are built for the playoffs. That’s why they gave St. Louis so much trouble. The problem is, you have to get there. The regular season is not like that.”

20. Jack Hughes is going to be a great player, but he took a unique route to the top of the draft: right from the Under-18 US National Development team to the NHL. Go through the history — from Auston Matthews to Matthew Tkachuk to everyone in between, there was another stop between there and the big league. That was big-time culture shock for Hughes. He dominated the puck at that level, but is learning that’s not going to be so easy now. I counted 17 games against universities last season and 18 this year, but will Hughes be the last one to go this way?

21. Blue Jackets captain Nick Foligno was rolling in his pre-game scrum Monday in Toronto. The team knows that it has to be more careful defensively in the post-Bobrovsky era. The Blue Jackets still grind you when structured, but used to take a lot more chances. Some players — like Seth Jones and Zach Werenski — still have that green light, others need to be more aware.

“The difference now is that before, all of us would go up ice, see the puck go the other way, and say, ‘Good luck, Bob. We sold the farm,’” Foligno laughed. “Now, we know we have to do a better job.” Joonas Korpisalo was very good that night against Toronto.

22. Head coach John Tortorella said he spent a lot of time in the summer reminding himself that this was going to be a very different group, and he had to be more patient. I asked Foligno if this was happening, and he got this big smile on his face. “There have been moments this season I thought it was coming, and it didn’t,” he said. Tortorella loves an underdog. And this is one.

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23. Waiting outside the Columbus dressing room that morning was Michael Lawrence. Lawrence, from Ontario, is the goalie coach at HC Lugano in Switzerland. His prized pupil of recent seasons was Elvis Merzlikins, now in the NHL. The Jackets have high hopes here. He lost his first game 7-2 to Pittsburgh and his second 3-2 to Chicago in overtime on a fluke bounce. Interestingly, Tortorella said he didn’t want to pull the rookie against the Penguins, because a) he didn’t want to embarrass him and b) he thinks Merzlikins is competitive and wanted to fight through it.

Lawrence sent a text to the young goalie after that game, saying, “Do you want to be remembered for this, or for your career? Pick up your lip and get moving.” He agreed that Merzlikins is a competitor. “He will be fine. He’s in good hands here.” What’s his best attribute? “His feet. He has elite feet.”

24. Speaking of good goalies, a scouting buddy was raving last week about Florida first-rounder Spencer Knight: “His team may not be that good, but he is.”

25. Kirby Dach has not played organized hockey with his brother, Colton, who is now with the WHL Saskatoon Blades as a 16-year-old. If Kirby gets sent back, it would be special for the family. But, after watching him against Vegas, I don’t know that I’m betting on it.

26. Your ECHL champion Newfoundland Growlers held their ring ceremony last Friday and added a nice touch. The homegrown players/staff had their rings presented to them by their families. It’s a small thing, but a big thing. It was very emotional and a source of pride for that crowd and that province to see it.

27. The NHL is fixing an issue with its stats system that was uncovered by the smart @evolvingwild Twitter account. Individual shot locations were off, creating mayhem of expected goal calculations. (An expected goal tries to determine the likelihood that someone scores on a particular attempt. It’s an interesting idea.) As you may know, the league will be adopting puck tracking at some point this season, and a new computer system is part of that. The screens are larger than they used to be, and the scale was off. So shots were being “recorded” farther than they really were. A “fix” was in place last Wednesday and all previous games are being corrected.

28. Craig MacTavish was fired after just eight games (3-5) into KHL Lokomotiv’s season. His replacement, Alexander Ardashev, won five of 10, but decided to return to his job as the manager. Now running the bench is Mike Pelino, a true survivor of that league’s coaching rollercoaster. Pelino, who was leading Brock University back when I covered post-secondary hockey in 1989, lost his first game, 2-1 to Traktor Chelyabinsk. This is his seventh straight season in the KHL.

29. Sadly, I missed one of my favourite nights on the calendar Monday night. Working Columbus/Toronto prevented me from attending the NHL Alumni Awards Gala Celebration. It is always emotional, always classy, always full of great speeches and stories.

Ray Bourque was named the Keith Magnuson Man of the Year; Laila Anderson received the Keith McCreary 7th Teammate Award; Cliff Koroll the Outstanding Alumni Award; Captain Charles Scot-Brown — credited with firing the first shots in the D-Day Invasion — was named an honorary member. Chris Joseph, whose son, Jaxon, died in the Humboldt bus crash, received the Ace Bailey Award of Courage. I heard his speech was so beautiful, I asked for a copy of it.

“I can’t give it to you, because I ad-libbed it,” he said in a phone call. “The only time I’ve ever written a speech was the funeral, I was so worried I’d never get through it. (Monday night), Ray was sitting next to me, and I was joking with him that his notes were even worse than mine. He had five things in chicken scratch on his paper. I guess doing interviews in hockey trains you.”

At the microphone, Joseph apologized to Bourque for cheering for the Blues to win the Stanley Cup. His family is very tight with the Paraykos as Colton’s oldest sister, Kendra, babysat the Joseph children.

“You ever see those families, they raise their kids and you say, ‘That’s just how it should be done?’ They’re the model. All their kids are fantastic, the parents are fantastic.” Then he adds, “Actually, I felt bad for Louie DeBrusk, too. He and I are close.”

30. Joseph said he and the other parents “chat with each other all the time, although we’re obviously closer to the St. Albert families. We’re a strong group, and we kind of do group counselling…pick up the phone, bitch to each other and we vent. If you are having one of those days, we will unconditionally support you. We just listen, we’re here for you.”

He is coaching a midget double-A team and loves it. Asked if he reminds himself of any of his coaches, he thinks for a few minutes, then names Terry Crisp and Wayne Cashman. “Passionate, fun and loud, although Wayne wasn’t as loud as Terry. Hockey is one big family, it does feel that way for me. Since (the crash), we have received so much love and support. Hall of Famers, players I never played with texting and calling. Kelly Chase organized the ‘Country Thunder’ benefit concert. Forty alumni showed up. Shea Weber, Paul Coffey, Joe Sakic. Sakic sat with eight or nine Broncos boys, telling them about the 1986 Swift Current bus crash. A guy I grew up with, a pure and classy guy, spending that moment with the boys, little things like that.”

Joseph continues to push for mandatory entry-level training for Class 1 truck drivers. Some provinces (Alberta, Ontario, Saskatchewan) are very good, but others aren’t. Joseph recently met with Alberta’s Minister of Transportation after there were discussions of a rollback on the requirements due to a backlog. But what he really wants is this to become a federally mandated issue.

“You have to police 10 provinces and three territories, there should be a national standard for Class 1. Even if you’re based in Alberta, you have to go to Saskatchewan. There’s a big difference between driving through flat areas in the summer and the Rockies in the winter. Air, rail, marine travel in Canada is national, this should be too. What we are asking for isn’t extreme, isn’t contentious, the only people who don’t want this care about money first. This is also about abusing new Canadian workers, and we don’t want that. It is a big immigrant workforce, they should be trained well, not pressured to be driving a truck they don’t want to drive.”

I hope people are listening.

31. I had someone along the way, I can’t remember if it was a teacher or a University professor, but someone who ran a classroom. And he banned the phrase ‘unskilled labour.’ He would say to us “If you think it’s so unskilled, I would like to see you try it.” I loved that philosophy. I was reminded of this when I saw that Donald Brashear story about working in Tim Hortons. Life is a challenge. It’s supposed to be fun, but it’s a grind. All we try to do is make it better for ourselves and our families. Nobody should be made fun of for that.


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