Quick Shifts: Maple Leafs will face tricky Nick Robertson decision

Kyle Dubas spoke about the importance of sticking to a plan, even if media and fans are calling for something entirely different.

A quick mix of the things we gleaned from the week of hockey, serious and less so, and rolling four lines deep. Zoom is making all the hockey-related revenue these days.

1. Nick Robertson could find himself in a tricky spot when 2020-21 is ready to roll.

The prized Toronto Maple Leafs prospect will be 19 by October. He’ll be too young to join the AHL Marlies. At five-foot-nine and 164 pounds, he’ll perhaps be too slight to make the leap all the way to the NHL — and swiping a roster spot from one the club’s established top-nine wingers is no easy task.

Yet how much would a fourth OHL season improve his development? Robertson dominated the junior circuit with a 55-goal, 86-point showing in 46 games for the Peterborough Petes.

In retrospect, GM Kyle Dubas might’ve underestimated the second-rounder’s readiness and buried him too far down the pecking order at the Leafs’ 2019 camp.

“Looking back and reflecting on it, I think we probably should’ve given him more of a look in training camp and probably rewarded him with an exhibition game or two to see how he did there,” Dubas said Tuesday. “But he went back to Peterborough, he had a great attitude, and he was an excellent player for them right away.

“It’s disappointing, of course, that he won’t be able to see how far he could have run it up in regard to chasing 60 goals, but he’s one of the more focused and hardworking prospects that I’ve seen in my time in hockey. I think he knows the areas that he needs to continue to work on. He’s got a great read on that.”

Robertson is back home in California, dedicating this extra-long summer to weight gain, strength training and boosting his acceleration with the hopes of hanging with the pros.

While he has arrived with less fanfare and expectations, Robertson could find himself in a similar situation as Mitch Marner did in 2016: undeniable talent packaged in a frame so small that there is real risk of getting injured trying to create offence while weaving around towering defencemen.

“The part of his game that I think that we really came to admire during the season was his play on the defensive side and, especially on the penalty kill, his ability to win the puck back and then tear down the ice and produce chances and scoring for the Petes,” Dubas said.

Marner made the jump out of juniors at 19, put up 61 points as a small teenager and never glanced back at the O. That’s the challenge being thrown at the feet of Robertson. A lofty blueprint to match.

“I think come training camp we’ll give him every opportunity to potentially make the team and put the ball in his court and see what he can do in in the fall,” Dubas said.


2. Inside the pressure cooker that is Toronto, new captain John Tavares has faced some criticism for failing to live up to the high standard he set in his first year as a Leaf.

In 2018-19, Tavares was healthy for all 82 games and centred one of the league’s most dominant trios with Mitch Marner and Zach Hyman. The result was a career-best 47 goals, 88 points and plus-19 rating. A lofty bar.

This season, he’s had to battle through a broken finger and a juggling of wingers. Still, he was tracking for a 31-goal, 71-point season with seven missed games.

It was refreshing, then, to hear how his young competitors view him.

Brady Tkachuk has skated with Tavares in the summer and is blown away with his “no-days off” work ethic.

“We do some skill sessions and I see his skill and try to do it, but it doesn’t really work out,” Tkachuk said.

Dylan Larkin is usually the Red Wing tasked with facing off against Tavares.

“It seems like you can never break him. His intensity and his drive out there, he never gives up, and it’s one thing I admire about him,” Larkin said. “He’s definitely the rock of a team that has a lot of skill, but he plays the right way and leads in that department.”

3. Have 24 minutes to kill? (Yes, you do.)

I thoroughly enjoyed the dual interview GQ set up with Wayne Gretzky and Connor McDavid (watch below). Three highlights:

On Edmonton…

McDavid: “What’s it like to win there?”

Gretzky: “Oh, wow. Well, we created a job for the guy who carries around the Stanley Cup.”

On the Olympics…

Gretzky: “It would be something you would never, ever forget.”

McDavid: “I’m dying to play, for sure.”

Gretzky: “Hear that, everyone.”

On getting checked…

McDavid: “Now they’re starting to do the shadowing, which I’m sure you got a lot of. Which is the dumbest thing ever. It’s not a lot of fun to deal with.”

Gretzky: “It should be an automatic penalty soon as the guy’s standing beside you.”

McDavid: “The coach should get kicked out.”

Gretzky: “It’s the dumbest thing in hockey. I used to hate it, but you’re too fast for any of those guys. I don’t know who’s gonna shadow you.”

4. Selfishly, an upside of this paused season is that interviews with hockey players have become more varied, more human. Questions around last night’s power play or tomorrow’s big tilt have disappeared, opening space for more personality-based interviews.

Capitals star Nicklas Backstrom held court over video conference this week and happily reported that he and fiancée Liza Berg had just returned from the hospital with their third bundle of joy, baby Alizee. He left struck by all the good work nurses and doctors are doing.

“Without them, this is going to take a lot longer,” Backstrom said.

“I mean, they’re sacrificing themselves for others, which is probably the nicest thing a human being can do. God bless them.”

Backstrom has been texting back and forth with Nationals star Ryan Zimmerman over this break and staying active with runs, bike rides, baseball and hopping in the pool with his children.

“Me, personally I can’t sit around too long. My kids can’t either,” Backstrom said. “I know Zoom, as a business, is probably doing good.”

Backstrom gets a chuckle at the Instagram stickhandlers out there — “That’s not the same,” he said — and believes a mini training camp with a couple exhibition games would be necessary before a return to action.

Despite the uncertainty of staying in shape without an end goal, the star playmaker definitely wants playoffs — even if that means waiting until August.

“You want to have a champion this year if possible,” Backstrom said. “The best-case scenario would be to finish the season.”

5. Backstrom negotiated his own contract extension in-season and will get a well-deserved bump from a $6.7 million AAV to $9.2 million in the fall.

But Capitals GM Brian MacLellan said on a conference call Monday that he now finds himself in a holding pattern that makes it difficult to work plot a course for all his UFAs still unsigned: Ilya Kovalchuk, Radko Gudas, Brenden Dillon and Braden Holtby.

The likelihood of a flattened salary cap will be particularly challenging to MacLellan considering Washington has already committed more than $71 million in salary for 2020-21 and was banking on a raised ceiling.

“We talk over all the possible scenarios and you try to prepare mentally for anything. What happens to the cap? Does the cap go down because revenues are going to decrease? Do they artificially keep it where it’s at? So, the answer to those questions puts us on pause on your UFA negotiations,” MacLellan said.

“If we did (play) through August, could we have a couple of months off and then start back up in November? What do they do with that cap number? I think there are so many questions that we haven’t even considered that’ll pop up given whatever the result is at the end of this.”

Backstrom confessed he actually forgot the Capitals were leading the Metropolitan Division at the pause. He made a pitch Wednesday to maintain the core intact because he likes their chances of hoisting a second Cup. He’d love to see Holtby re-sign.

“You obviously know the salary cap is going to be different,” Backstrom said. “Hopefully we can keep the same.”

6. John Chayka, who’s been generous in these difficult times, spoke to NHL.com this week about his very preliminary contract extension talks with Taylor Hall.

Outside of the rink, the Coyotes GM is hoping Hall has fallen for Phoenix’s great weather and the city’s affordability.

“That was our bet when we acquired Taylor,” Chayka told Jon Lane. “I think he’s enjoyed living here and enjoyed playing with our team. He’s always wanted to be in a playoff hunt and have a chance to compete for a Stanley Cup. We feel like we’ve got that here, and not just this year but every year moving forward.

“We can be a real top destination for any player in the league.”
Chayka’s negotiations with Hall’s agent, Darren Ferris, won’t plunge into the nitty-gritty of exchanging numbers and salary structures until the economic landscape of the NHL becomes clear.

“It’s tough to do any business of that magnitude,” Chayka said. “Taylor knows what we think of him as a person, as a player, and at the right time we’ll maybe look to move forward on those discussions. But anything right now is probably on the back burner, realistically.”

7. “Tootka” Rask, a strong Vezina candidate, is tempering expectations that he might retire after his current contract ends in July of 2021.

Rask can begin negotiating an extension with general manager Don Sweeney as early as this off-season.

“I’m sure we’re going to have good conversations with (Sweeney) after this season and go from there,” Rask said on WEEI 93.7 FM’s The Greg Hill Show Tuesday. “But I’m only 34 (when my deal expires), so it’s not too old. So, I might play another year or two and then go from there.

“But I don’t want to promise anything either way because you never know what’s going to happen.”

It’s worth noting that the Bruins’ two greatest cap hits — Rask ($7 million) and David Krejci ($7.25 million) — are set to come off the books at the same time.

Marc-Andre Fleury inked a three-year, $21-million extension with Vegas around the same age Rask will be, so that might provide a ballpark for negotiations.

8. Blake Wheeler and wife Sam don’t have time to get bored. Their days are packed with homeschooling three young children and breaking up squabbles between Louis, 7, Leni, 4, and Mace, 2.

“It’s a full day job, and I’m more tired now than I was a few weeks ago,” the Jets captain sighed on a Zoom call with Central Division leaders. “We get ’em all down by typically 8 on a good night, and then there’s a half-hour of just numbness. Our wine collection’s getting low, so… yeah.”

Fellow dad Zach Parise said he and his wife started cracking a bottle at 5 p.m. the other day.

“Five o’clock cocktail hour? That’s actually pretty impressive,” Wheeler countered. “Our’s is starting to creep into the threes.”

The candid Wheeler also let us into his love-hate relationship with rival Jamie Benn. The two finally met off-ice last summer and shared “a couple laughs and a couple of cold ones,” but the possibility of an on-ice throwdown remains. Largely because Benn keeps asking to drop the gloves.

“There was one game we faced off against each other, like, 20 times, and he asked me to fight 20 times,” Wheeler said. “Third period of a tied game, whatever: ‘We goin’?’”

9. Sadly, Nazem Kadri did not nail this chip on the first attempt.

“I was in the basement for hours trying that shot, and I finally nailed it and was pretty proud of myself,” Kadri confessed on Good Show on Friday.

We appreciate the honesty, but sometimes you don’t want to hear how the sausage gets made.

10. Sad thought: What if Zdeno Chara has played his last NHL game and no one knows it?

Not that Big Z has suggested retirement, but he does not have a contract for next season, and the Bruins’ UFA priority has to be the younger Torey Krug.

The oldest man in the league put up an assist and helped shut out the Philadelphia Flyers on March 10, logging a mellow 23:49 of ice time against one of the hottest clubs in hockey.

One week later, Chara “celebrated” his 43rd birthday by packing up his family and driving 24 hours south from Boston to their place in a gated Florida community. Why? Warmer weather for the kids to run around outside. A private pool and a gym to keep in tip-top shape.

“So, not really big celebrations,” Chara says. “You reach a certain age, you try to hide it.”

11. I love the creativity that has sprung out of this stagnant state (and I’m not just talking about the Toosie Slide).

NHL players and teams have drummed up some fun. The Maple Leafs created Zoom backdrops for fans to use.

The Vancouver Canucks reached back and retweeted their original in-game tweets during a broadcast of their classic 2011 Game 7 overtime match versus the Blackhawks.

And the Edmonton Oilers brilliantly found a Simpsons image to match every NHL club. Great stuff:

12. So, Dylan Larkin, now that you’re cooped up with your girlfriend and your dog and have some time on your hands, can we expect a sequel to your legendary “D-Boss Shooting Pucks in the Basement” video?

“Might come,” Larkin teased. “I got a little shooting area in the garage — the Dungeon 2.0. So, I might have to get out there and make a video. Fans might like it, so we’ll see.”

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