Quick Shifts: Meet the NHL’s All–Healthy Scratch Team

All the best hits from the week that was in the NHL, including Alexander Ovechkin colliding with a couple Oilers and Milan Lucic welcoming Capitals forward Travis Boyd back into the league.

A quick mix of the things we gleaned from the week of hockey, serious and less so, and rolling four lines deep.

1. The healthy scratch is many things to different people: a teaching tool, a punishment, a flare in the sky signaling a fading superstar, a slap in the face, a chance to get more use out of your game-day suit, a preview to a terminated career, a wake-up call.

Look at how Calgary’s Michael Frolik (seven goals) has responded.

Less than six weeks into the 2018-19 NHL campaign, we’ve seen the hard bench used in a myriad of ways on a range of players — high draft picks and new free-agent acquisitions, the waiver-wire preview and the disrespected vet.

Even the mere threat of a healthy scratch (Kevin Fiala, Brandon Saad, Milan Lucic) can be used as a coaching poke.

“Everyone handles it differently,” Bryan Rust told reporters recently. “But it’s rough. Really rough.”

It’s early, but we’ve cobbled together a fairly decent lineup based entirely off of players who’ve been scratched already this season:

Michael Frolik – Tomas Plekanec – Jesse Puljujarvi
Patrick Maroon – Daniel Sprong – Andrew Shaw
Martin Frk – Valentin Zykov — Marcus Sorensen
Andreas Johnsson – Tomas Nosek – Austin Czarnik

Jay Bouwmeester – Kevin Shattenkirk
Michael Del Zotto – Karl Alzner
Olli Maatta – Michael Stone

Curtis McElhinney
Anton Forsberg

2. William Karlsson is a rare exception to the Vegas Golden Knights‘ pattern of extending its core players to deals between four and seven years, usually months in advance of their contracts ringing due (Marc-Andre Fleury, Alex Tuch, Jonathan Marchessault, Max Pacioretty, Brayden McNabb).

Coming off an uncharacteristic and virtually impossible to replicate 43-goal, 78-point campaign in which he led all NHL regulars with a 23.4 shooting percentage, the Knights’ No. 1 centre has bet on himself with a one-year, $5.25-million deal.

Reality slap: Karlsson is shooting at an 11.5 per cent clip and is now on pace to finish with 15 goals in 2018-19. Think of the contractual impact if he finishes in that ballpark.

“Going into the season and thinking realistically, it’s going to be tough to get 40 goals again. It’s really just Ovechkin and Laine who’s that consistent,” Karlsson said during his second six-game drought this fall.

“I tried not to put any goals before coming into the year, but I want to be a guy that scores points and whatnot. That’s my mindset.”

Shooting percentages invariably regress.

Ten of the top 12 goal-getters all have shooting percentages exceeding 20 per cent five weeks into 2018-19. Wonder-rookie Elias Pettersson is in the Rocket Richard hunt thanks to his firing at 35.7 per cent.

When the dust settled in 2017-18, of the NHL’s top 156 goal scorers last season, Karlsson was the only shooter with a success rate above 20 per cent.

The 25-year-old will again be a restricted free agent with arbitration rights on July 1, unless he and George McPhee come to terms on an extension some time after Jan. 1.

After finishing with a league-high plus-49 rating, Karlsson was sixth in Selke voting last season (and 10th for the Hart). Despite being a 43-goal comet, he figures he has a greater chance of winning an award for defensive prowess.

“That’s for sure how I see myself too, trying to be good at both ends. Of course, you’d like to be a 40-goal scorer every year. That’d be great,” he says. “It’s not that realistic. I just go in every year and try to be a two-guy and try to be important that way.”

Karlsson cut his golden locks this week. Perhaps the more streamlined version can get on the board.

3. Among the 150 players outscoring Karlsson this season is teammate Ryan Reaves, whose four strikes already matches his 79-game total from last season.

The fourth-liner now skates on the power play and is out there 6-on-5 with the goalie pulled.

So unaccustomed to scoring in bunches, after potting one in Carolina last weekend, Reaves butchered a hybrid celebration:

“I’d like to apologize to the Vegas fans for that trash celebration, though. I’ll do better. Just not a lot of enthusiasm. I think I’m running out of cellys. I’m not used to doing it so often. I’ll figure something out,” Reaves explained.

“I had a couple in mind, and I think I got caught up in between two. I’ll do better next time.”

Reaves’ career-high 11:06 nightly ice time is more than three minutes above his NHL average. Dude is making the most of it.

3B. A reminder to stop and smell the flowers…

4. When I walked by Reaves hanging over the rafters, half in discussion and half watching the Toronto Maple Leafs practice Monday, I thought it odd that a rival player was checking out the next evening’s opponent — but also pretty harmless considering the Leafs and Knights will only play each other twice before they meet in the 2019 Cup Final.

A couple minutes later, security asked Reaves to leave. He did. No biggie.

“Not allowed, apparently,” Reaves shrugged. “I was just talking to someone.”

This rule falls under the purview of a gentleman’s agreement.

Morning skates are cool, and it would be rare not to see the opposing brass or a few players taking a peek.

Practices? That’s a no-no.

My pal Chris Johnston reminded me of that time Montreal coach Michel Therrien booted three Rangers staffers from snooping on the Habs’ practice between games 3 and 4 of the 2014 Eastern Conference final.

Coaches from both sides go over these types of guidelines in a conference call before each playoff series.

5. The recently retired P.A. Parenteau’s last good showing was his year in Toronto, where he scored a team-best 20 goals during the lost Maple Leafs season of 2015-16 that led to some nice lottery odds and some rook named Auston Matthews.

Appearing on Good Show this week (listen below), Parenteau — who butted heads with Therrien in Montreal — gave his take on Mike Babcock, a man renowned for his intensity.

“I’m not going to lie: He’s not the easiest to deal with on a daily basis, but he gets the best out of you. And if you want to win, he’s the guy. I believe in him,” Parenteau said.

“It’s tough for younger guys to have a coach that intense and on you every day, but you learn from it.”

Natural offensive defenceman Morgan Rielly — who now leads all D-men in goals — is the perfect example.

“At first he didn’t play on the power play when I was there because they wanted him to play defence first. Remember that?” Parenteau recalled.

“I thought that was nuts. I was on the power play and was like, ‘Get this guy on the power play – now!’ Like, it was crazy. It looked weird at first; no one understood it. But they had a plan for him, and I think it worked out. He’s really good defensively now.”

Too true.

Leafs Hour
Nov. 5: P. A. Parenteau on John Tavares
November 05 2018

6. Breaking news: The Maple Leafs have made a trade.

In another sign of the Kyle Dubas regime thinking outside of traditional boxes, sources say the Maple Leafs are trading their annual fathers’ trip for a mothers’ trip, to Florida in mid-December.

Dad’s not mad. He’s just disappointed.

We watched the Toronto fathers, all decked out in their sons’ sweaters, having an absolute blast during their New York City–Boston vacay last winter.

The Maple Leafs are hardly the first to bring a dose of gender equality to the annual AA roadie.

Back in 2011, the Oilers’ mothers flew to Phoenix.

In February, the Devils, Hurricanes and Flames each traveled with their moms, Calgary pulling off the fun-heist of the century by bringing the parents to Vegas. (Not playing guilty enough, the Flames got shut out 4-zip. Look, Ma, no goals.)

P.S. Read this Alex Prewitt piece on why Barry Trotz’s Predators started the dads’ trip tradition 20 years ago.

7. As discussion of the next potential lockout picks up, Jason Spezza reflected on how he spent the lost season of 2004-05.

The second-overall draftee was coming off his first full NHL campaign for Ottawa, in which he put up an impressive 22 goals and 55 points. Bigger things were expected, and suddenly he found himself back in Binghamton, the farm club he’d just graduated from.

“Looking back it was probably the best thing that’s happened to me. When you’re getting sent down [in 2002-03] and you’re a top pick, it’s tough. You think you should be playing in the NHL,” he said.

“When you’re down there and it’s the lockout and nobody’s playing in the NHL, and all I had to do was focus on getting better, my next year I came out and I was leaps and bounds more confident with my game.”

Spezza now describes his 117-point tear through the AHL as his “most influential year.” Prior to the lockout, the youngster had been focusing so hard on trying to please Sens coach Jacques Martin and stick in the lineup, his offensive skills eroded.

Thanks to Binghamton coach John Paddock’s diligence, Spezza’s creativity flourished and the pressure lifted.

“Not a day went by when he wasn’t teaching me or yelling at me or making me get better,” says Spezza, now a 1,000-gamer. “I came back after that and I felt I was a No. 1 centre and confident about it.”

Spezza tells a great story of those junior Sens forwards — a group that also included Antoine Vermette, Chris Kelly and Chris Neil — slacking on the back check so much that Paddock threw five defencemen over the boards at once to make his point.

8. Sunday’s attendance in Ottawa was 11,364. Due to decreased need, fewer buses are now being tasked with ushering fans to and from Canadian Tire Centre. Average attendance (14,214) ranks fifth-worst league-wide and is on track for the team’s lowest figures of this century.

In terms of percentage, only the Islanders (66.3%) and Hurricanes (68.8%) fill fewer seats than the Sens (74.2%).

“It is hard to see the building not be full. I feel like we did a lot to fill those buildings up, and we took pride in it. It was a fun place to play, so I don’t like seeing it that way,” says Spezza, a former captain.

“That’s a hockey town. It’ll rally back behind the team. Whatever the issues are, they’ll come around and figure it out.”

9. Mark Lazerus wrote an excellent column on the lengthy cold war between a coach and his boss that eventually led to Stan Bowman’s firing of Joel Quenneville in Chicago. (Bowman denied such friction during this week’s press conference.)

I immediately thought back to a comment Quenneville, a man of few public words, made about the Leafs when he made his annual trek through Toronto a year ago.

“They’ve got some really good young players,” he said. “It gives us something to think about.”

A little subliminal jab at some roster composition, perhaps? That’s how people closer to the organization read it.

Also striking was the outpouring of support on social media for Coach Q from former players in the wake of his dismissal…

10. The name that should stick out to casual fans perusing the Rocket Richard leader board is Timo Meier. He’s tied with Patrick Kane, David Pastrnak and Alex Ovechkin for tops with 12 goals.

The 22-year-old San Jose Sharks winger has found the net more at even-strength (10 times) than all but Kane. He also has two OT winners.

The Sharks took their time developing the top-10 pick properly, giving him an extra year in junior and a half season in the AHL before bringing him up for good.

Last season, coach Peter DeBoer made a point of placing Meier on a line with the Joes (Pavelski and Thornton), his most trusted veterans.

“They really do a lot of coaching when you stick a young guy there. They really help him out,” DeBoer explained.

The coach noticed that Meier was “taking the shots he should take,” instead of deferring to the established stars on the ice. That can be an issue with young players.

Now on Logan Couture’s wing, Meier has a legitimate chance to jump from a 20-goal guy to a 40-goal guy.

11. Free from the shackles of a facial-hair policy, the Maple Leafs — led by the lip dusters of Rielly, Connor Brown and Kasperi Kapnen — are embracing Movember.

“I don’t think Mitch will be sporting one anytime soon,” chirps Brown, through ginger whiskers. “I think I saw [Jake Gardiner] with one, but it was pretty pathetic.”

If you ain’t cheatin’, you ain’t tryin’. Both Brown and Kapanen copped to growing head starts in October.

“Mine’s great. I love mine so far,” says Kapanen. “Before I haven’t been able to grow much facial hair and now I can, so might as well, right?”

Of course, there is a fund-raising element here that coincides with Hockey Fights Cancer Month.

Which brings us to Brian Boyle scoring his first hat trick one week after learning his cancer had gone into remission.

You can’t write this stuff:

“I was watching the game, he was unbelievable,” said former coach Babcock.

“I lost my mom to cancer. Anybody who has been involved with cancer knows when you get cancer, your whole family gets cancer. It scares the crap out of you. And, not only does it scare you while it’s going on, even when they tell you you’re cured, it scares you for the rest of your life. Every time you don’t feel the same way, it’s a scary, scary thing.

“I’m involved very closely with the children’s hospital, and the people over there are spectacular, we’ve made lots of advancement in that area, and you just pray to God nobody has to experience it.”

12. This weekend, the iconic Joe Bowen will receive the Foster Hewitt Memorial Award for outstanding contributions as a hockey broadcaster at the Hockey Hall of Fame. Too deserving.

I was thrilled to join Joe, hilarious booth partner Jim Ralph, plus a bunch of other distinguished media types for a dinner in his honour last weekend in Pittsburgh.

Most Torontonians have a Joe story or six.

This past summer, a friend from west was visiting me and we attended an NHLPA event flooded with star players. The only person my buddy needed a photo with was Bowen.

And I’ll never forget covering the Centennial Classic from a press box too small to accommodate Joe in his own soundproof radio booth.

So, out in the open, every reporter was treated to Bowen’s radio call at full throat while watching the action live. Best of both worlds.

“For my family and my generation growing up, the Leafs have always correlated with Joe. He’s done a lot for this city, and he’s done a great job for many years at his job. I’ve got to know him over the past couple years, and he’s an even better guy, so it’s very well deserved,” says Connor Brown, a red-haired Toronto native.

“The ‘Holy Mackinaw!’ calls are his go-to, but when I scored that goal against Pit in my rookie season to put us in [the playoffs], he said something about, ‘The little leprechaun has found a pot of gold!’ I thought that was pretty funny. He loves the Irish relations. That one sticks out.”

Touched them all, Joe.

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