Quick Shifts: Where does Jeremy Bracco go from here?

Sam Cosentino discusses the young players in the system for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

A quick mix of the things we gleaned from the week of hockey, serious and less so, and rolling four lines deep. To challenge myself, I wrote this week’s blog shirtless from a Red Lobster parking lot while getting roundhouse-kicked by a Jeff Goldblum doppelganger.

1. Saying so little often says so much.

The Toronto Marlies held a conference call this week upon the cancellation of the AHL season. I asked GM Laurence Gilman to assess the development of prospect Jeremy Bracco and his future as a hopeful NHLer.

“Jeremy had an interesting season,” Gilman responded. “We conducted an exit interview with him, as we did with many of the other players. Like the rest of our group, we’re going to assess as a hockey operations department what we’re going to do, with not just with Jeremy, but all our players going forward. That decision and that analysis has not yet occurred.”

If my wife asked my opinion on a dinner she cooked, and I described it as “interesting” and then broadened the conversation to meals in general, I’m guessing she’d take that response as something less than an enthusiastic endorsement.

Bracco finds himself in a fascinating, if not a troubling, spot with the franchise, with no firm date to resume hockey in sight.

Let’s flash back to 2019’s training camp. Bracco was excited by his chances of earning a spot with the big club. He’d just had his first 20-goal season as a pro and led the Marlies with 79 points. He was better than a point per game in the ’19 AHL playoffs. He skipped summer vacation to train regularly at the club practice facility, learning from Jason Spezza.

Not only did he miss out on the opening-night roster, Bracco watched six other Marlies forwards get called up to play an NHL game during the season. That he’s not included among the group of Marlies who will be brought in as black aces should the NHL season return speaks volumes.

And the arrival of wingers Nick Robertson and Alexander Barabanov at 2020’s training camp throws more hurdles his way.

Bracco’s production dropped in 2019-20 to four goals and 34 points. He was a minus-10, his worst recorded mark in that column. He was subjected to trade rumours. He took a break for personal reasons in February but had returned to the team prior to the pause.

This week, Bracco saw the Leafs re-sign teammate Adam Brooks to a two-year extension, while he remains on track for restricted free agency, with no arbitration rights.

On the bright side, coach Greg Moore was much warmer when talking about the right winger. He chuckled when Bracco’s name came up on the call.

“The reason I kind of giggle is because he’s such a fun-loving guy. He brings so much energy to the room, to the ice rink. Teammates love being around him. He definitely brings the fun, and everyone enjoys working with him,” Moore said.

“A tremendous player. Has a lot of ability and skills. A lot of vision. Has an ability to distribute and make teammates around him better with a spatial awareness, supporting of teammates on the ice when somebody else has the puck. On the powerplay last couple of years, he’s been pretty dominant with how he plays the flank and generated a lot of offence for this organization.

“So, he’s definitely a talent. And as a person, he’s a joy to work with and a fun person to be around.”

Bracco turned 23 during the pandemic. After three pro seasons, it would be a stretch to say he’s on the brink of realizing his NHL dream in Toronto.

Where he goes from here will be… interesting.

2. There is a belief that Monday’s cancellation of the AHL season could begin triggering interviews, if not movement, with regards to the professional coaching ranks.

In a typical spring, some of the best coaching candidates from the farm can prove their value to NHL clubs by making a deep run and, even better, hoisting the Calder Cup.

The list of Calder Cup–winning coaches who have graduated to the show is longer than this weekend is about to feel. In recent years, it’s a group that includes Sheldon Keefe, Jared Bednar, Jon Cooper, Jeff Blashill, Willie Desjardins, Todd Nelson, John Stevens, Claude Noel and Todd McLellan.

Belleville’s Troy Mann, 50, guided the Senators to a .643 points percentage, top seed in the North and far and away the most goals scored (234) on the circuit. Mann sticks out as one coach missing out on a potential résumé jewel.

The completion of the AHL year also allows GMs to use this time to make calls on their free agents in the farm system. We saw that Thursday with the Marlies re-signing of Brooks, an impending RFA.

3. The AHL’s cancellation doesn’t harm the Marlies as much as some other clubs. Toronto’s farm club endured a tumultuous 29-27-3-2 campaign laden with turnover and lost some of its best talent — including their head coach — to a Maple Leafs team besieged with injuries. They were tumbling out of the playoff race when COVID-19 slammed the brakes, and the organization is better poised to ride out economic uncertainty than most.

Aside from top defensive prospects Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren, who will both be gunning for full-time NHL gigs in 2020-21, I asked coach Greg Moore to name a few Marlies that especially impressed him with their development since his arrival in December.

Here, in order, are the players he raved about.

Kristians Rubins, LD: “I was really impressed with, No. 1, who he is as a person, on and off the ice. Especially off the ice, his continued thirst for education and learning and growing as a person, how good of a teammate he was, and all of those factors applying to his gameplay and how much he improved from the beginning of the season to the pause. He really added a lot of different layers to his game, and it was fun to see.”

Adam Brooks, C: “Really impressed me in terms of his skill, his brain, how good of a person he is on and off the ice with his teammates. I don’t think there was any guy in the room that could point a finger and say they don’t care for being around Brooksy. He’s just a really good person, fun to be around, loves the game. But he obviously got his first taste of the National Hockey League this year, and it was really impressive to see him thrive within those opportunities. He definitely took advantage of time on the ice, his time up there, and then when he came back, you could also see a level of confidence that he’s gained from that experience, and he’ll carry to continue into his development.”

Kenny Agostino, LW: “The last two months of the season before the pause, he was without a doubt our most consistent and best player…. He is a person who wants to be the guy that makes a difference for the team — and you could throw him in any scenario. He’s a competitor. He’s a good leader. Obviously has a real knack for the net and scoring touching and a great shot. Great person to be around. I was really impressed with what he brought to the team on a daily basis.”

Teemu Kivihalme and Jesper Lindgren, D: “Pretty steady defencemen for us. They did a really good job this year. There was a lot of people in and out of the lineup, especially on the back end, and outside of Lindgren’s injury, the two of them had been pretty consistent and brought really good minutes for us. I’m really excited about how they surprised me with what their talents are. There’s even another level for them to get to if they keep working, much like Liljegren.”

Kalle Kossila, C/LW: “We didn’t get [him] in for a lot of games, but he’s a really skilled individual in the games that he was in. He definitely had a big impact for us.”

4. Happy 50th anniversary to the 1970 Boston Bruins and the most iconic hockey photograph, period.

I had a genuine laugh-out-loud moment reading this exchange between Bobby Orr and a media member, via Don Brennan (also a legend).

Reporter: “How would the ’70 Bruins do against today’s Senators?”

Orr: “We’d probably win 1-0.”

Reporter: “Just 1-0?”

Orr: “Yeah, well, most of us are in our 70s now.”

5. Noted chicken-wing enthusiast Tuukka Rask (UFA 2021) wants to make it loud and clear: He’s not contemplating retirement.

“I still have that passion of winning and playing,” Rask, 33, said Monday on a Zoom conference.

“The winning drives me. I haven’t put a number into it, at what age it might be, but we’ll see. Maybe it’s 36, 37. Maybe it’s 42. You never know. [Zdeno Chara] is still playing, and he’s getting older [43], so maybe I’ll be the goalie who plays until 45. Maybe not.”

During the pause, Rask and his wife welcomed their third daughter. He’s savouring this rare family time and steps to down to basement to bang away on his drum set whenever he needs to blow off steam.

Retirement, Rask believes, has everything to do with checking your health and desire, not checking your birth certificate.

“It’s not necessarily 40 or 36 or whatever. You’ll play as long as you can and your body feels healthy and you want to keep doing it,” he said. “But whenever that drive slows down, then you’ve got to rethink it, revisit, ‘Is this really something I want to do?’”

6. Nazem Kadri tweeted a set of wide-open eyeballs and a flame emoji upon learning the news: The Colorado Avalanche are considering Quebec Nordiques throwbacks in 2020-21 to celebrate their 25th anniversary.

“I think there is an opportunity,” Declan Bolger, the senior vice president and chief marketing officer for Kroenke Sports and Entertainment, which owns the Avalanche, told The Athletic. “We’ve talked about it, but the opportunity has not arose up to now.”

Bolger noted that the Avs have twice returned to Quebec City for exhibition games, that Nordiques achievements are included in Colorado’s record books, and that those sweet baby-blue threads are available in Pepsi Center shops.

“It’s something we have leaned into instead of away from,” Bolger said.

“Up to now, we have not had a uniform that has incorporated the Nordiques, but it is clear other clubs like Carolina have recently leaned into their past.”

Tweeted the Hurricanes: “Do it. We’ll bring our Whalers sweaters.”

While I understand those purists opposing the idea on some sort of salt-in-the-wound platform, personally I love those unis. A vintage Nordiques ringer T-shirt has been a fixture of my rotation for, oh, 16 years now.

Draping Nathan MacKinnon in the Fleurs-de-lys will only ignite conversations about the lost team for the generation that missed out.

7. With the risk of NCAA stars sticking around the college ranks to gain an education and become a free agent by delaying putting their signature on a contract (see: Jimmy Vesey, Justin Schultz, Kevin Hayes), it came as good news for the Vegas Golden Knights that they were able to agree to terms with Providence star and 2017 fifth-rounder Jack Dugan this week.

Now, Dugan will not officially sign until a decision on the NHL’s 2019-20 season has been made, per agent Brian Bartlett, as there remains a (slim) chance of burning his first entry-level year early.

Vegas is deep on the wings but tight to the cap, and Dugan is certainly a less expensive option than the club’s list of pending free-agent forwards: UFAs Ryan Reaves and Tomas Nosek, RFAs Chandler Stephenson, Nick Cousins.

The 22-year-old is just happy to be making a jump to the pros and is eager to adapt his game to whatever role given.

“My playmaking ability is one of my best assets, and at the same time, I’ve also tried over my career to be able to play multiple styles,” Dugan told David Schoen of the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

“If the puck’s not going in the net or I’m not able to hit the tape on some of these passes, then I definitely know I’ll be able to lay some hits and get physical in front of the net with some guys, maybe get under some guys’ skin.”

8. AHL president Dave Andrews had some blunt talk on the dangers of operating sans fans.

“The American Hockey League as it presently operates cannot play in front of empty buildings for any sustained period of time,” Andrews said this week.

Seems naive to think this is an issue unique to the AHL, which doesn’t have the big broadcast deals as the major leagues.

Andrews’s sentiment aligns with those of Carolina Hurricanes owner Tom Dundon, who spoke on-air with 99.9 The Fan in Raleigh last month.

“The start of next season, everybody has to be careful with [it], because I think you need fans. And so, if it means pushing back the start of the season for any sport, then they should consider that. Because what’s the point of having sports if you don’t have fans, right? They wouldn’t exist. They’d be called the YMCA,” Dundon said.

“I would think it’s a pretty good idea to push it back as long as you need to, to make sure you can have your buildings occupied. Whether that’s 100 per cent or 50 per cent, I have no idea. [If] it’s zero, I don’t know why anyone would want to start a new league season with no fans, but my vote doesn’t count for much.”

Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban also dropped this nugget in his recent conversation with Sportsnet’s Arash Madani.

“I think there’s the misperception that every professional sports team owner — whether it’s the NHL, NBA, whatever — are going to be fine financially through this, and they’re not,” Cuban said.

“There are owners in various professional sports that are dependent on income, and there is no income any longer.”

9. Speaking of the YMCA, this unearthed news footage of a “retired” Michael Jordan playing pickup basketball at the Athletic Club at Illinois Center in 1994 is incredible on about 23 levels.

Could you imagine a dominant athlete doing this now?

Also, the interviews with the normies Jordan was scrimmaging with are brilliant. This dude Aaron Watkins steals the show by divulging the secret to guarding the best to ever do it: “Michael’s weakness is his shot. You just keep him around the perimeter.”

10. It’s a concern kicking around in people’s minds, but Mitch Marner voiced it head-on while playing Call of Duty: Modern Warfare on his Twitch stream.

“Just imagine it,” Marner told his fellow gamers (via a video posted on Twitter by @dharma_club_). “What my thought on this is, OK, like, I’m all down for starting everything back up. Let’s rock. But what if someone gets sick and dies? What happens? It’s awful to think about, but still.”

Marner’s thoughts turned to his friend and former London teammate, Max Domi, who is a Type 1 diabetic.

“If he gets it, he’s in one, like bad,” Marner said.

Domi himself addressed Marner’s apprehension on a conference call Thursday.

“Being a Type 1 diabetic, it’s something that raises some concern,” Domi said. “But you really don’t know how everyone’s going to be affected by this disease. Being a Type 1 doesn’t change much. I would handle myself the same way as if I didn’t have it.”

11. Assistant coach Paul McFarland did improve the Maple Leafs’ power play in his one season with the club, bringing it up from 21.8 per cent to 23.1 per cent, but Toronto’s quintet didn’t reach the heights of McFarland’s 2018-19 group in Florida (26.8 per cent).

“Things like that can always get better. You always strive to improve. Even if you have the best power-play in the league, you’re still going to be thinking about ways you can do things differently. Special teams are so important in today’s game,” McFarland said.

McFarland said he came to the Leafs with his own ideas of how to reshape the 5-on-4 approach but that he listened and learned from the players as well.

In Toronto, we saw a series of tweaks: trying Tyson Barrie instead of Morgan Rielly on PP1; moving John Tavares from the net front to the bumper; giving William Nylander more time; encouraging Marner to shoot more; and, most notably, unleashing the Auston Matthews one-timer.

“Players are very unique. They constantly want feedback, constantly want to get better,” McFarland said. “That’s part of your goal — to build those relationships and be in a constant line of communication with them.

The most eye-opening difference between the juniors and the pros?

“Just the talent of the NHL players and the commitment they have on a daily basis to their craft. It’s been really impressive both in my time in Florida and my time with the Leafs,” McFarland said. “Just to see how dedicated these guys are to getting better and improving every day and working towards their own goals and obviously the team goals.”

12. This pause from normal life has provided many of us with time to immerse into shows, books, movies and music that we may have slept on.

I’ve finally gotten around to reading the copy of Tine Fey’s Bossypants I gifted my wife years ago (hilarious), and I’m devouring episodes of What We Do in the Shadows like candies (also hilarious). And I’m listening to a ton of rap music from Buffalo’s Griselda crew.

For hockey fans and wordplay fans: Benny the Butcher, just a monster on the mic, turns fellow Buffalo star Patrick Kane into a verb on Westside Gunn’s new “George Bondo” record.

Definitely one of the more creative puck references in a rap song.

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