A quick mix of the things we gleaned from the week of hockey, serious and less so, and rolling four lines deep.
1. We asked Toronto Marlies graduate Travis Dermott to name one player on the AHL’s best team — regardless of position — who could make the jump to the National Hockey League no problem.
“Because I leaked the Justin Holl thing?” Demott smiled.
Then he named Andreas Johnsson, who has been absolutely on fire of late, ascending to the top of Marlies scoring (22 goals and 42 points in 44 games) and making a run at the league’s crown.
“That’s a guy who could easily transfer into the NHL. He’s got the elite speed, elite hands, elite mind for the game. If he got thrown into a couple NHL games,” Dermott said, “he’d excel if not do just fine.”
Johnsson, 23, is that rare seventh-rounder who should bear fruit. He’s been playing pro (first in Sweden, now as an AHL sophomore) for five years. His father, Jonas, played for a decade in the Swedish Elite League. His older brother, Jonathan, is a serious hockey player too. It’s in his blood.
Andreas is a major reason why the Leafs have not talked contract extension with left wing James van Riemsdyk and will likely let JVR walk off for a payday elsewhere this summer. (To be clear, the JVR succession theory is me talking, not Dermott.)
Johnsson will be a restricted free agent on July 1 and should get every chance to fill in the left side of Toronto’s top nine in 2018-19 with Zach Hyman and Patrick Marleau.
“He’s not that tall [5-foot-10], but he’s strong. He uses his edges really well. Once he gets going, he’s pretty quick,” Dermott said.
“It’s weird. He’s one of those guys who does make plays that would stick out in your mind a lot but he’s just consistently one of the best players on the ice down there, if not the best, every game.
“He’s a guy you can rely on every time. If you’re breaking the puck out, you’re thinking, ‘If I can just get it to this guy, it’s going to get out.’ Or if you’re on a long shift and you really need to get it out of the zone, he’s the guy you look to.”
Consistent? Reliable? Gets the puck out? Sounds like a Babcock guy.
Consider this as well. In 2014, Johnsson was named the SHL Rookie of the Year. Two of the guys he beat out for that honour — Frölunda teammate Alexander Wennberg (now with Columbus) and HV71’s Kevin Fiala (Nashville) — are already fixtures in the top six of strong NHL clubs.
For all those fans irked that Marleau’s three-year contract ate into money earmarked for JVR, well, Johnsson looks like he could make for a smooth transition away from the van Riemsdyk era.
2. I never like to hate on skills competitions. Of course they’re frivolous and forced and, at worst, a tad awkward. But they’re fun for fans and make the kids happy. Sometimes that’s enough.
Plus, they can give us moments like this one, from the Winnipeg Jets‘ skills event: Dustin Byfuglien‘s one-handed slapper, where brute strength meets ingenuity. Try this at home to appreciate how difficult it is.
Dustin Byfuglien's shootout move was !
— Winnipeg Jets (@NHLJets) February 15, 2018
3. I followed up with Mitch Marner on the moment Will Arnett walked by and gave him props for his five-point night versus Ottawa Saturday.
His face kinda says it all, but he had more to add. First, watch this:
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) February 11, 2018
Marner had seen the actor on the Jumbotron, so he knew he was in the building.
“The look on my face kinda describes it. I’m a huge Will Arnett fan. I love a lot of movies and TV shows he’s been in. It kinda sucked. When he came and said his words to me, I got starstruck. I didn’t know how to say anything back,” said Marner, who holds a soft spot for Blades of Glory.
“I had an interview right after, so I didn’t get to chat with him or anything. But that was amazing. It was definitely one of the highlights of my life. It’s pretty funny. I told my parents about it after, and they went absolutely bonkers. He’s a helluva an actor, and it was awesome to meet him.”
4. The forgotten man in the Calder conversation is Tampa Bay Lightning forward Yanni Gourde.
Never drafted, the undersized 26-year-old late bloomer made an impression during a late-season call-up in 2016-17 necessitated by all of the Lightning’s injuries, not unlike teammate Brayden Point.
“He scored [six] goals for us last year, but we had a much different lineup. We weren’t as deep,” coach Jon Cooper said.
Cooper refuses to categorize what Gourde has done this season — 22 goals, 21 assists for 43 points through 57 games, earning a spot in arguably the NHL’s most dangerous top six — as secondary scoring to Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov. It’s main scoring.
Gourde ranks first among all rookies in plus/minus (+24), short-handed points (two), game-winners (five). He’s second in goals, fourth in points, and yet with Mathew Barzal, Brock Boeser and Charlie McAvoy dominating the conversation, he may not even get a nomination.
“I’m a little biased, but if you’re going to do the ballots for the Rookie of the Year, you’re hard-pressed not to have him up there,” Cooper said. “He’s been a pleasant surprise, no doubt.”
5. After Saturday’s highly entertaining and wildly emotional P.K. Subban–Brendan Gallagher scrums, you got the sense Gallagher’s honesty spilled over in the heat of a fresh loss but that he’d rather let this blow over as quickly as possible.
Subban, however, was happy to keep chatting up the incident the next day (watch below).
“I’m 217 pounds of all-Canadian beef, so anybody that wants to take a run at me, I welcome it,” he told the NHL Network, flashing that smile.
Ever get into a text-message conversation with a friend who always has to send the last speech bubble? I get the feeling Subban is that guy.
6. The Maple Leafs keep the specificity of player injuries under tight wraps, especially when the guys are out, but it seems they don’t flat-out give their individual players instruction to never tell.
Auston Matthews and Nikita Soshnikov eventually came clean with their concussions.
And this week Morgan Rielly said that the “upper-body” ailment he incurred January in Philadelphia was his left elbow.
“It was my left arm that got tangled up. I mean, even my mom thought it was my right arm because I landed on it, but the left arm was tangled up. Not intentionally by [Jakub Voracek], but it was just the way the play unfolded,” Rielly told reporters.
His conditioning is fine, but regaining the feel of the play has been a challenge after sitting out six games.
“It’s just hard to get your hands back,” he said. “So it’s not wind. It’s not brain. It’s more just the rhythm and the pace of the game. It takes a little time, but I’ve felt better and better, and I’d expect myself to have more success moving forward and get back into the rhythm.”
7. In an arena this week I overheard two goal-lamp operators discussing the pressures and perils of a job no one thinks about until a mistake is made.
One of them shook his head, lamenting the times he signalled a goal that never quite crossed the line: “Premature illumination.” Both laughed.
8. That Matthews wrist shot where the Leafs star drags the puck in towards his body and whips it with his stick pulled in tight turns a frozen defenceman into an unintentional screen.
It’s impressive, unique, effective, and the league is taking notice.
Power-play mate Patrick Marleau said he sees Matthews practising it often at practice, and the Maple Leafs have a mannequin that can be dragged onto the ice for such occasions.
“I’ve done it a lot,” Matthews said. “One summer I just worked on my shot all summer and it kind of just becomes habit. You just tweak different things.”
The day before the Matthews-Nylander duo victimized the Lightning, I asked Victor Hedman how you defend that move.
“The last game [versus Ottawa] he scored like that again, right?” Hedman said, knowingly. “If he gets separation, we have to make sure we block that shot. Don’t get beat by the fake. Have our stick on the puck as much as we can.
“You’ve got to make sure you’re close. If you give him too much space, he has the skill to pull that off. Be as close as possible so he doesn’t have room to make that move. A lot of guys use the D-man as a screen. [Alex] Ovechkin is a good example, the way he’ll shoot between the D-man’s legs. Just whistling the puck. He’s so quick. Matthews as well.”
9. Ryan Callahan was asked to single out a game Andrei Vasilevskiy stood on his head and bailed out the Tampa Bay Lightning.
“The entire season. Can I pick that?” Callahan responded. “He’s been our backbone all year. I think he’s been the MVP of our team. Without him, we’re not in the spot we are.”
Hedman agreed: “I don’t know if you can count one. He’s been so solid all year. … We’ve lost count of how many games he’s played good.”
I’ve been big Vasilevskiy supporter (see No. 2 here) and voted him for the Vezina during the PHWA’s Mid-Season Awards, but his save percentage has been in decline for two months. In eight of his past 13 outings, Vasilevskiy has surrendered four or more goals.
(Quick aside: Is it possible that all three Vezina finalists come from the Atlantic? Vasilevskiy, Frederik Andersen and Tuukka Rask all have a chance.)
“He’s our hardest-working guy and he’s been our best player,” Stamkos said. “We just don’t want to rely on him as much as we have, especially of late.”
Still, in the midst of this rockier stretch, the “Big Cat” (as the Russian cat lover is sometimes referred) made the Save of the Year, robbing Anze Kopitar on Saturday. Watch again:
Reaction to that one save was great.
Cooper: “It was calculated. He fights through the screen by getting so low and looks through his legs, sees the play develop, and knows he’s in a little bit of trouble. That will put you in awe on that one.”
Vasilevskiy: “To be honest, I didn’t see anything. I just saw the blade of Kopitar’s stick. I realized I didn’t have enough time to be square to the puck so I made the decision to turn the other way and I got lucky.”
Hedman: “That one is obviously very special. Behind the back, on purpose? That’s just an unbelievable save. That one against L.A. was so special. I had no idea what happened. He said it was lucky, but he made it on purpose.”
Nazem Kadri: “It’s that kind of year for him. He’s huge. He takes up a lot of space. He’s very athletic too, which is unusual for a big goaltender. Usually they don’t move as well laterally, but he seems to have it all.”
Kopitar: “I told him to go buy a lottery ticket.”
10. It was one thing when rascally rover Brent Burns oscillated from defenceman to forward a few seasons back, when his position was less established. (Hey, Byfuglien’s doing it too! It can’t be that weird!)
It was quite another to see Wonder Beard take shifts up front this week as the reigning Norris Trophy champ and the guy who propelled the San Jose Sharks to the franchise’s only Stanley Cup Final from the back end.
The hockey world raised a collective eyebrow when Burns jumped to the wing in Tuesday’s loss to Arizona.
“We’re not rewinding to three years ago,” coach Peter DeBoer told reporters. “There’s no question what this guy is. The hockey world has acknowledged that he’s the best defenceman in the world.
“That’s not a move we take lightly, but the one thing about him is, he’s all-in for whatever we ask him to do to help the team win. If that means putting the pads on and playing net, I have no doubt he would do that. It’s great to have a guy with that type of pedigree that’s willing to do whatever we ask him to do.”
Joel Ward, Tomas Hertl and Joe Thornton are all out with or battling injury.
Hey, when you’re scratching and clawing to make the post-season, you get creative. Burns has experience up front and is the club’s leading point-getter.
Is temporarily moving him to forward unusual? Yes. Is it dumb? Not at all.
11. This brings us to Sharks GM Doug Wilson, who is starved for scoring depth. Injuries aside, captain Joe Pavelski isn’t producing at his usual rate, and recent secondary-scoring additions like Mikkel Boedker (nine goals) and Jannik Hansen (no goals) have under-delivered sorely.
Adding a deadline rental will be tricky since Wilson has already spent his second- and third-round picks in 2018, so it was interesting that the GM told Scott Oake on “After Hours” that the Sharks will be watching the Olympic tournament closely and may look to add a free agent from that group.
Led by Thornton’s $6 million, tons of significant contracts are coming off the Sharks books this summer. Hertl ($3-million cap hit) and solid backup goalie Aaron Dell ($625,000) are in line for raises, but Thornton, Hansen ($2 million) and 37-year-old Ward ($3.275 million) are either gone or taking pay cuts.
With the salary cap rising, look for Wilson to be a significant spender on July 1.
“We’ve got a lot of cap space coming up,” he said. “There’s a good chance we’ll be using it.”
12. They may not even know it, but Toronto history will be in the balance Tuesday, when the Maple Leafs host the Florida Panthers.
With the Buds’ home victory over the Columbus Blue Jackets Wednesday, the Leafs and Raptors have now combined to win 13 straight games at Air Canada Centre.
This, according to the crack minds behind @SNStats, matches the longest such streak in the building’s history. The two clubs also won 13 straight from March 20 to April 15, 2007.
A home win Tuesday would set a new mark for excellence, as simultaneous hope for the city’s hockey and basketball teams hasn’t never been this high.