Quick Shifts: Intriguing, NHL-ready free agent leaves KHL early

Friend of the show Joel Ward joins Hockey Central to discuss what the next chapter in his career might be after officially hanging up the skates.

A quick mix of the things we gleaned from the week of hockey, serious and less so, and rolling four lines deep. Isiah Thomas refused to shake my hand after reading this week’s column.

1. Of all the European import signings who have been trickling into the NHL over the past month, Mikko Lehtonen could make the greatest immediate impact.

Let the bidding begin.

Lehtonen and Jokerit mutually agreed to terminate the defenceman’s contract one season early Friday, leaving the 26-year-old free to sign in North America and chase a Stanley Cup as soon as the 2020–21 season.

Never drafted, Lehtonen hails from the cultural centre of Turku, the oldest city in Finland and the same one that blessed the NHL with Miikka Kiprusoff, the Koivu brothers, Rasmus Ristolainen and Kaapo Kakko.

Lehtonen is a left-shot offensive defenceman who can quarterback a power play and wields a seeing-eye wrister from the point. He won gold medals with his country at the 2014 world juniors and 2019 world championships. He also repped for Finland at the 2018 Olympic Games. He has bounced around Europe’s top circuits, starring in the Finnish and Swedish Elite leagues before dominating in his first season in the KHL.

In 2019–20, he scored 17 goals and 32 assists in 52 games for Jokerit, making him the top point-getter among all KHL defenders and the sixth-highest scorer overall. The all-star’s four points in six games led Jokerit to a Round 1 playoff series victory over Lokomotiv. Then the KHL cancelled its season.

In a statement, Jokerit GM Jari Kurri thanked Lehtonen and wished him luck in the NHL, “where he has every chance to become an important player on his team.”

Side note: This week the KHL’s board of directors implemented a flat salary cap of 900 million rubles (US$11.9 million) for 2020–21, when they’d considered increasing the cap to 1.3 billion rubles (US$17.2 million).

The New Jersey Devils, Los Angeles Kings and Montreal Canadiens — long in the market for a play-driving, left-shot defenceman — are but three teams said to have interest in the NHL-ready import whose stock and confidence have soared since that world championships gold last May.

“It all started with the world championship,” Lehtonen told the KHL website. “Then, after a good summer, I arrived in a good team. It’s easier when you have fantastic teammates, and they make you a better player.”

2. Super rookie defenders Cale Makar, Quinn Hughes and Adam Fox hopped on an NHL-organized Zoom call and were asked the forward they’d least like to defend one-on-one with the game on the line. Unsurprisingly, Nathan MacKinnon and Connor McDavid topped the list.

Hughes on MacKinnon: “He’s got this thing now where he does this spin-o-rama move. He does a spin-o-rama right in front of the crease almost. He’s got you beat wide and he still does a spin-o-rama and beats you that way. He did it to me a couple of times when we played them two months ago, so I was really impressed with him that game.”

Fox on McDavid: “The way he can change speeds, it’s tough to play against. You saw his goal against Toronto where he comes in, slows down and then picks speed back up. Obviously, he has the hands to go along with the speed, which is pretty rare. So he’s a scary guy for sure.”

McDavid recently reflected on that January goal, where he dusted Morgan Rielly man-on-man.

“To score that in my hometown in front of lots of friends and family, that was special — especially (because) the Oilers and myself have struggled playing in Toronto in past years,” McDavid said. “So to get a win and score a goal like that was special to me and special to my family.”

McDavid’s highlight is a slam-dunk contender for Goal of the Year — and already has the vote of Mark Scheifele, who broke it down this week here.

“It’s something I take a lot of pride in, to try and be in that category each and every year,” McDavid said. “So it means a lot that the fans responded so excitedly to that.”

The young defencemen were also polled on the toughest forward to clear out of the crease.

Fox named Jordan Staal: “He’s a moose in front of the net.”

Makar singled out Ryan Getzlaf: “He’s got a few inches on me, so that was some work there.”

And Hughes gave the nod to pals Matthew and Brady Tkachuk: “I’m trying to move them out, and we’re both laughing. It’s pretty funny, but they’re both really big, strong guys and they can tip anything, so they’re really dangerous there.”

3. I called up Hall of Fame player and Lightning VP of corporate and community affairs Dave Andreychuk for a forthcoming interview on the Maple Leafs’ 1993 playoff run. We spoke about his current team as well. Specifically, young two-way centre Anthony Cirelli, who’ll be gunning for a new contract after a breakout campaign.

Tampa aside, Cirelli, 22, and Andreychuk have something in common. Both spent their junior days piling up points for the Oshawa Generals. Because of that, Cirelli was on Andreychuk’s radar early.

Even though Andreychuk isn’t directly involved in the hockey side of the Bolts’ operations, he did play a role in Cirelli’s getting drafted to Tampa (72nd overall) in 2015.

“I had talked to some of the Oshawa faithful there about him getting him, and they filled me in on a lot of things that came to light,” Andreychuk explained. “There’s no doubt his hockey IQ is off the charts. He competes really hard. He’s the total player. I think he takes pride in his game. It’s not necessarily about goals and assists. He could evolve into a 20-goal scorer, but I think he takes pride in everything else — the little things in the game.

“He’s come a long way. He’s a big part of this team. He’s going to be here for a while. They’re going to try to lock him up as best they can, because this kid is the real deal — and he’s only going to get better.”

4. I asked Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper to chime in on Lightning nemesis Brad Marchand’s comments that older teams, like Marchy’s Bruins, would have a tougher time gaining momentum after the pause: “I honestly think the teams that are gonna come back and look good are the really young teams. Teams like Toronto, Tampa, just really high-end skill teams. Because they’re just going to have the legs. Older teams are really going to struggle.”

Cooper chuckled and shook his head at the Marchand quote, clearly enjoying the gamesmanship.

“He’s the best. All I know is, the Bruins, they’re the No. 1 team in the league right now in just about every statistical category, including points,” Cooper responded. “If anything, I think probably the rest helps teams, especially if you’ve got a little bit more miles on you. I don’t think it matters. I think every team has got skill; every team is talented.

“What this break has done, in all seriousness, has allowed for so many outstanding players in this league that were on the shelf because of injuries get healthy. And I think when teams come back, you’re really going to get a true indication of what the team is all about, just in the sense that everybody, for the most part, should be pretty healthy.

“Mindset is going to be a big part of it when coming back, because you just don’t know how this is gonna affect certain individuals or as a team — as a group. But I don’t think anybody’s going to have one leg up on the other.”

I posed the same question to Andreychuk: Will age play a factor?

“The older you get, the longer it takes to rebound. And I think (Marchand) is right — that for some of these older teams, it can be hard for guys to get back into the swing of things the way they were going,” Andreychuk said. “I don’t know if anybody will be as ready as they want to be, but we’ll see what happens. Most of this group has stayed here (in Tampa0. This group has got a good chance to make a good run here.”

5. I enjoyed Cooper’s take on the concept of playing meaningful hockey in front of no live fans.

“You usually practise in an empty arena. There are times during the year when you have an open practice, fans show up, and then you’re practising in front of fans. It is really weird. Conversely, you play games in front of fans, so playing without the fans would be really weird,” the coach said.

But Cooper believes the strangeness will evaporate after a couple of shifts — and he has a real-life example to draw upon.

“The first five minutes, everybody gets their shift in, and there’s no fans in the stands, there will probably be a little bit of sarcasm going out of the bench — like there is on every single NHL bench — about what’s going on. But I’m telling you, once the banging starts and the competitive juices kick in, I don’t think guys will even notice,” Cooper figures.

He flashes back to his run to the 2012 Calder Cup with the Norfolk Admirals. In Round 2, both Norfolk and Connecticut’s home arenas were booked, so the clubs had to wage Game 5 in Bridgeport.

Cooper recalls Mark Messier and Ray Bourque showing up to watch, but actual fans were scarce. Cheering and jeering were nonexistent.

“The game had to be played at a neutral site, and it didn’t change a thing. Guys were battling out, gaming it out,” Cooper said. “It was still one helluva hockey game.

“The guys would get over that pretty quick, knowing what’s at the end of the rainbow.”

6. David Krejci, the highest-paid member of the Bruins, made it crystal clear he has zero intentions of calling it a career at the conclusion of the 2020–21 season, when his six-year, $43.5-million contract expires.

The second-line centre will be 36 by the time the puck drops on the 2021–22 season.

“I’m not planning on retiring, that’s for sure. I want to play after that. How long or what’s going to happen, I don’t know. I guess we’ll see what happens after that next year. But definitely not planning on going into the next season as being my last,” Krejci said Monday.

The 2021 off-season will be another fascinating one in Boston. Centre prospect Jack Studnicka, now 21, could well be pushing for Krejci’s role. Stud goalie Tuukka Rask’s $7-million cap hit will be set to come off the books. And a cluster of younger free agents (Sean Kuraly, Ondrej Kase, Nick Ritchie and Brandon Carlo) will be hunting raises.

Time has deepened Krejci’s perspective on both his young family and his sport.

“I watch YouTube highlights pretty much every single day. We were in a pretty good position with 10 games left,” Krejci said. “The older you get, the more you appreciate everything. Your life changes at home — you get married, you have kids. So you appreciate all the little things, just being around the guys, being on the road.

“I’m really enjoying coming to the rink every day, being on the road with the guys. I also love being at home, being a dad, a husband. Just was living the dream before this whole situation happened.

“Mentally, you want to be back playing. I miss hockey.”

7. “I’m always going to be linked to it,” Andrew Raycroft said. “I’m one of those few guys in the NHL that has had trades follow them around.”

Refreshing to hear the former Maple Leafs goaltender and current Bruins analysis reflect, with 14 years of hindsight, on the lopsided trade that sent him to Toronto and 2011 Stanley Cup winner Rask to Boston. It’s an infamous deal that goes down as one of the best or worst in franchise history, depending on the team you root for.

Raycroft told Lead Off how proud he is of his first season in Toronto and those 37 wins. The second year, 2007–08, neither Raycroft nor the Leafs were much good, and the relationship was over.

“You flash forward five, six, seven years and Tuukka’s having the success he’s having here in Boston, and then, ah, it’s inevitable that if Toronto had Tuukka, then (Toronto0 would’ve won the Stanley Cup in 2011,” Raycroft said. “But I can look at it the other way and say if I would’ve been able to stay in Boston, I would’ve had Zdeno Chara and a defensive-minded coach like Claude Julian to play behind for 10 years, and that’s pretty good for a goaltender, too.”

Raycroft, 39, lives just a mile away from Rask now in Boston. They bump into each other often and laugh about it. Yet, naturally, there’s regret.

“I just wish it went a lot better in Toronto than it did, and I wish for everyone in Toronto the last 15 years had gone better,” he said. “It can be frustrating at times for me, but I know at the end of the day I didn’t do enough to be the guy in Toronto. And I’ll have to live with that forever.”

Lead Off with Ziggy and Scotty Mac
Andrew Raycroft reflects on his lack of success with the Maple Leafs
May 01 2020

8. In conducting a string of reflective player interviews on the Maple Leafs and Red Wings’ seven-game, opening-round playoff series of 1993 (airing on Sportsnet!), I tried multiple times to get players from the Detroit side on the phone. No dice.

“It sucked and I have nothing to say,” one star texted back.

That’s how losing feels, even 27 years later. This from a guy who could very well be texting with fingers banded by his Stanley Cup rings from other seasons. (Remember: The Wings outscored Toronto 30–24 in that series.)

And I kinda love that about true competitors. The sting of defeat doesn’t dissolve over time. (You saw it this week with Michael Jordan and the Detroit Pistons on The Last Dance.)

Talking to a reporter about a bitter memory you’d rather forget — why bother?

9. Boredom breeds creativity…

10. The more you know!

During the second episode of Alex Killorn’s “Dock Talk” — the Lightning forward’s Instagram interview show — he jet skied by the riverside home of the recently retired Dan Girardi.

In their conversation, Girardi mentioned that his name appears in Guinness World Records 2020 for most career blocked shots: 1,954.

“No big deal,” said Girardi.

The puck-eating defender then took time to show off probably the most deformed and bulbous ankles you’re likely to lay eyes on (watch the episode below).

Girardi did note that Chicago’s Bent Seabrook has since passed him on the shot-block count (with 1,998, although Seabrook has played nearly 200 more games), but he’ll always have that 2020 book.

Killorn’s “Dock Talk” has picked up so much steam, Pepsi jumped on as a sponsor (or maybe he just enjoys Pepsi).

Coach Cooper, whose home is landlocked, is well aware of the series.

“If I end up on Killer’s ‘Dock Talk,’ that means this pandemic has gone on for a long time,” Cooper quipped.

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11. Eminem is all of us.

“The fact that there’s no sports on right now is really bothersome. There’s not even anything, besides the Jordan documentary, that gives you a sense of normalcy,” the Detroit rapper said on Shade 45 radio, bored. “When you’re home and you can’t even watch sports… there’s no boxing, there’s no baseball, there’s no nothing. You can watch the news, or you can bury yourself in Netflix. I’ve just been burying myself in the pad.”

Marshall Mathers finds the news stressful and finds The Last Dance a refreshing break.

“It’s like nostalgia city,” he said, noticing a parallel between court success and mic success. “It’s probably three (or) four times the work ethic as the talent.”

Mathers said he never met Jordan in person, but the two living legends did speak on the phone once to discuss their sneaker collaboration.

“Everything was good until we get to the end of the phone call and I said, ‘Yo, man, when are you gonna come to Detroit so I can dunk on you?’” Em recalled. “And it was crickets. I don’t remember exactly what he said, but I think he just was kinda … (chuckling quietly). I remember getting off the phone going, ‘Oh, my God, I think I might’ve just blew it.’ To me, in my head, it was a total joke.

“It’s one of those things you think is gonna be funnier in your head than when you actually say it.”

12. Giant shout out to Joel Ward, who played his last game in 2018 but retired this week.

Just an incredible example of perseverance and dogged dream-chasing, the undrafted Ward made the show five and a half years after his four OHL seasons wrapped in Owen Sound. Then he hung around for 726 games. He reflected on his journey in an excellent Players’ Tribune piece.

Ward’s longest playoff run was with the Sharks in ’16, but my personal favourite Ward moment came in the first round of the 2012 playoffs with his Capitals heading into the lion’s den that is TD Garden.

My wife had surprised me with our first trip to Boston that April. Tickets to Fenway. But the night before the baseball game, I said, “Let’s just see how much second-hand tickets to Caps-Bruins might be. If they’re too much, we can just watch the game on TV at The Fours.”

Presumably because Boston is so spoiled by playoff sports tickets and getting through Round 1 is no big deal in that city, we got into the building for a shockingly low price. And witnessed an electric overtime thriller.

Ward ended Game 7 in the 63rd minute.

“There’s Ovi, with the biggest smile on his face, flying at me full speed after I scored against Boston in overtime,” Ward wrote.

The hero. The villain. The class act who turned the other cheek and rose above the hate when some racists took out their ignorance on him afterward.

Anthony Stewart asked Ward Thursday on Hockey Central at Noon if he had a message to kids of colour who may feel like they’re at a disadvantage trying to make it in a predominantly white sport.

“Be proud of who you are. Dream big. That’s what I did. I’m from two parents who are from Barbados,” Ward said. “I’m very proud of my West Indian Caribbean culture. I loved every minute of where I came from.

“My mother raised me to work, work, work. That’s what my mother did. She was a nurse — two jobs, full time. She was busting her ass every day for us to get to the hockey rink. I picked up a stick and fell in love with it. I didn’t look at colour or anything.”

Best of luck to Joel Ward, a beauty, wherever he goes from here.

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