Quick Shifts: Maple Leafs’ Dubas scouting free agents in bubble

NHL insider Chris Johnston discussed the likelihood of upsets happening in the Stanley Cup playoffs and how the NHL will handle potential positive COVID-19 tests within the bubbles.

A quick mix of the things we gleaned from the week of hockey, serious and less so, and rolling four lines deep. It’s about to get nuts.

1. The trade deadline is more than five months in the rear view. Bubble rosters are locked and loaded. So, besides moral support, agonizing over their teams’ mistakes and providing a soundboard for their coaching staffs, what purpose do general managers serve in the bubble?

They’ll be scouting, with a keen eye to next season, which — if all goes according to plan — will fly at them faster than a Connor McDavid rush. The Stanley Cup, fingers crossed, could be hoisted as late as Oct. 4, and the league is targeting Dec. 1 to drop the puck all over again.

In the case of the Toronto Maple Leafs, coach Sheldon Keefe is immersed in the day-to-day, and while president Brendan Shanahan and GM Kyle Dubas certainly care about the next game, they’re also undergoing daily COVID-19 tests so they can step back and see the big picture — which could involve bubble personnel wearing other uniforms.

“The long term is where I’m spending a lot of my downtime,” Dubas explains. “Thinking about where our team will be going and looking at various different free agents that might be available that are here and playing, or even the games that are going to be on from Edmonton.

“This is a great chance to watch a lot of games of those players and really deeply study them before we head into what we hope will be a rapid succession of events from Stanley Cup Final to draft and free agency.”

Between a champagne-soaked Rogers Place and a brand-new training camp, executives will need to cram in all their signings, trades, draft picks, offer sheets and arbitration cases into a month-and-a-half whirlwind.

Toss in the fact that new CBA has eliminated the week-long wine-and-dine period for UFAs, and the pressure to quickly identify and pursue your targets will be hastened.

“A lot will have to get done in that time. So I think this is just an awesome opportunity: you’re in the same hotel or the same areas in the same facilities as a lot of these other teams, and you can learn a lot about teams and their players just by watching and observing the way they are off the ice and on, and I think this is a great opportunity for us,” Dubas says.

What a unique opportunity, to observe how other teams function and how opposing players carry themselves around their teammates and in public.

“It’s great,” Dubas says. “You’ve got 12 NHL teams playing for very high stakes, and they’re happening, essentially, 200 steps from where you’re living for the next number of months. So, if we don’t have a practice or a set team function, I think most of us will be there watching.”


2. One impending UFA who brings a skillset that could complement Dubas’s teams may not last until the open market.

If Washington Capitals GM Brian McLellan gets his way, Brenden Dillon could turn into more than just a rental.

“I talked to his representatives pretty consistently since we’ve gotten him,” MacLellan said Friday. “We’ll continue to talk and see if we can work something out at the end here.”

Dillon, too, has said interest in staying in D.C. is mutual.

“For me as a player and being part of the Caps, it’s been awesome, and hopefully I can be here,” Dillon told reporters. “I’m happy with being a Washington Capital from Day 1 when I came here with the trade. They made me feel right at home. I think the system, the way we play from the D-corps on, I feel a big part of things here.”

With Dillon feeling more at ease with his new club after reset camp, and contract talks underway, one must wonder about the future of UFA-to-be Radko Gudas, who dressed as the Caps’ seventh defenceman in their exhibition victory this week.

The rugged Gudas, a right shot, would improve most teams’ bottom pairing. This season he delivered positive shot metrics despite beginning the majority of his shifts in his own zone. He kills penalties, hits like a Mack truck, and was a career-best plus-15.

At an average ice time of 16:44, however, Washington used Gudas less frequently than he was in any of his seasons in Philadelphia.

3. When Leafs depth forward Egor Korshkov, a Phase 3 participant, failed to make the club’s bubble roster, it was soon reported he’d agreed to return to the KHL’s Yaroslavl Lokomotiv, with whom he spent five seasons before joining the Toronto Marlies’ 2019 playoff run.

That doesn’t necessarily mean Korshkov won’t be back in Canada sometime in 2021.

The pandemic has thrown all leagues’ schedules out of whack, so Dubas will treat each prospect on an individual basis, working out agreements that best serve development instead of going with a cookie-cutter policy for everyone in the system.

“Due to the circumstances that are impacting the world everywhere, we have to be a little bit more agile in our thinking in terms of what we want with our prospects,” Dubas explains. “None of these things are official yet, but some of these players have had relationships in Europe and they played in different places in Europe.

“If those places are safe and they’ve done a great job versus the virus and their seasons are going to start, it’s a great opportunity for us to see those players begin to get some game action.”

When NHL camps reopen in mid-November (virus willing), Toronto could bring a prospect back into the fold or decide to leave him for a full season to develop overseas.

“Those seasons should be wrapping up when we’re about halfway through our [202-21] NHL season, and then [we could] bring them over,” Dubas says.

4. How’s this for a crazy Connor McDavid stat?

McDavid has just as many career blocked shots in the playoffs as he does points: nine (hat tip to Chris Cuthbert).

Anyone else have a sneaking suspicion the Oilers captain is going to make a bunch of his peers look foolish for suggesting he’s not one of the NHL’s top three “most outstanding” hockey players?

5. ICYMI: David Amber conducted a solid intermission interview with Canucks GM Jim Benning on Wednesday, asking if UFA Jacob Markstrom’s performance in this return to play will affect contract negotiations.

“I don’t think that’s part of it,” Benning replied. “We’ve got a good relationship with Jacob, and we talked again [Tuesday]. We’re going to get something figured out for him.”

Markstrom’s agent, Pat Morris, will sit down with Benning — sounding as confident as we’ve heard him on the topic — and sort out the details upon conclusion of the playoffs.

“We want to keep him on the team. He’s been a good goalie for us here the past couple years and a big part of our team.”

6. Never imagined being so excited to be heading to a rink in the middle of a sunny August day.

Goalie Watch™ — certain to be a recurring topic in this qualification round — begins with a doozy: Rangers vs. Hurricanes at 12 p.m. ET.

Henrik Lundqvist routinely elevates his game in the post-season (.922 save percentage) and looked solid in the exhibition game he split with wonder rookie Igor Shesterkin. As of Friday night, Game 1’s starter was still a secret.

And the Rangers are far from the only team in that boat.

“That’s probably the biggest question mark,” John Tortorella said of his own goalie tandem.

“They could both play in a series. They could both play in the same game.”

The sense is, short leashes will be the order of the week.

“This is a sprint. I’m not waiting to get a guy going in a game. I’m going to go with the guys that are going – that’s from goaltenders right on out,” Tortorella said.

The man is bubbling with urgency and will coach accordingly. Questions like “Are they tired?” and “What are we gonna get from the next game?” will not be asked on his bench.

“In a five-game series? Are you kidding me? Things change pretty quickly in a five-game series,” Tortorella said.

“We’re going to give everybody a chance to see what they can do, but then you have to make decisions as the game goes on to try to win that particular game. It’s not about thinking about the series and the other games. It is about that particular game.”

7. After London Knights star Liam Foudy shone in the Jackets’ 4-1 exhibition win over the Bruins Thursday, setting up Boone Jenner’s opening goal, I loved Tortorella’s decisive response to a general question about how the kid looked.

“He’ll be in the [Game 1] lineup. He has played well. He’s had a good camp. Where he sits on lines, I don’t know yet,” Tortorella announced.

“Thing I like about Fouds is, he’s not afraid. He’s not afraid to make a play. A very intelligent player. So, he’ll be in our lineup.”

Nice little OHL duality here with the Leafs expected to bring in their own young left winger, Peterborough Petes sniper Nick Robertson, to the series.

8. The Blue Jackets forced the Bruins into 22(!) giveaways Thursday night. Part of that was Boston’s rustiness, of course; most of it was relentless pressure and a forecheck to be reckoned with. (Columbus only gave it away eight times.)

“They were on us early, forced a lot of turnovers,” Boston coach Bruce Cassidy said. “The weakest part of our game was our execution on the breakout — we weren’t clean.”

Small sample size and all that, but this is a scary sign for the Maple Leafs, who suffer a similar flaw.

Toronto rated 24th league-wide in turnovers per 60 minutes with 10.92.

Sunday night, watch for how the Leafs defenders are able to exit their own end — and how much puck support they get from forwards coming back to help with quick outlets.

9. Here is Tuukka Rask’s explanation for wearing a Boston Police ball cap for a televised NBCSN interview this week and then linking arms with the Blue Jackets at centre ice Thursday as an intended show of support to the black community:

“Listen, it was actually a recorded interview, even though they said it was live. I just put a hat on in the morning. It was not a statement. I definitely respect what’s going on in the world right now, and I know I stand with everybody for anti-racism,” Rask said Thursday night.

“I really didn’t mean to offend anybody, so there’s that. It was a recorded interview, I just put a hat on in the morning, and there’s that.”

10. Zach Werenski and Auston Matthews — a couple of ’97 borns and close friends stretching back to their U.S. national development team days —have put the fraternizing on hold until the Leafs-Jackets series declares a victor.

Under regular playoff circumstances, that’s not so tricky, but both guys are living at the Royal York.

“I don’t think we’ll be grabbing any meals or anything like that. I’m sure if I see him in the lobby elevator or something, we’ll catch up, but obviously it’s different when you’re playing against the team,” Werenski says.

“If I see [Boston’s Charlie] McAvoy around or someone I’m not playing against right now, I’m sure it’s a little different, but we’re in the middle of the series against Toronto and he’s on Toronto. You don’t really want to get too friendly with them.

“We’re here to win, and we have a job to do, and [we] kind of put that friendship aside when it comes to hockey time — and playoff time especially.”

11. A behind-the-scenes business note.

Inside the Toronto bubble, Neely noticed boxes and boxes filled with various dasherboard advertisements sitting in the locker room area. The boxes are labelled with team names, so the rink crew knows which logos to plaster up for the home side’s broadcast. They rotate every game.

So, if you’re binging hockey this weekend and think the ads are changing, you’re not going crazy — and they’re not being superimposed digitally.

“The league has made a conscious effort to try to have some make-goods with sponsors on all teams, so, yeah, you will see different dasherboard advertisements depending on what team is playing,” Neely said.

The lengths to maximize revenue and keep sponsors happy reminds us of the uncertainty that is 2020-21 and sustaining an 82-game season around rinks that are much less than full.

“It’ll be difficult to play many games without fans from a business perspective, I think,” Neely said.

“Everybody’s anticipating some kind of a [virus] spike in the fall. Whether that happens or not remains to be seen, but I don’t know if we can play too many games without fans. Everybody’s building out these models without fans: a third fans, half fans, full building…. But it’s all speculation.”

A harsh but realistic reminder to savour the hockey we’re getting right now.

12. Rest in peace, Eddie Shack. Only heard great legend of your play, but I grew up a Pop Shoppe fiend.

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