Quick Shifts: Surviving the Year of the Healthy Scratch

Check out some of the best saves from the week that was in the National Hockey League.

A quick mix of the things we gleaned from the week of hockey, serious and less so, and rolling four lines deep. Written while listening to loud rap music.

1. Could this be the year of the health bomb?

Every season gets spiked with a few notable benchings, be it players past their prime or rookies who need to learn from their mistakes.

But less than two months into the 2019-20 campaign we’ve seen what feels like an inordinate number of high-profile — and high-cap-hit — cameos in the press box.

You could dress a decent squad with all of the recent healthy scratches (if they were allowed to dress, of course).

Consider the talent in this group, all of whom have been paid, at times, to not play: Kyle Turris, Brendan Perlini, Colin Miller, Ilya Kovalchuk, Marc Staal, Pavel Zacha, David Backes, Tyler Toffoli, Kevin Fiala, Jason Spezza, Mikkel Boedker, Loui Eriksson, Bobby Ryan, Brent Seabrook, Shayne Gostisbehere….

Now, some of these are past-their-prime vets trying to find their niche in an accelerating sport. But others are young, well-compensated talents caught in a swoon.

“When you’re playing with a lot of crap in your mind and you’ve got confidence issues, it’s harder to make those plays and adapt,” Philadelphia’s 26-year-old Gostisbehere, who still has four years left on a $27-million contract, told the Courier Post. “I’ve just got to reflect on myself, and I’ve just got to realize how good of a player I am, and that players like me don’t grow on trees.”

After sitting Wednesday, Gostisbehere responded with the game-winning goal and a first-star performance in Friday’s win over Detroit.

Turris, 30, hasn’t squeezed into the Predators’ lineup for two weeks now. The centre only has four more seasons beyond this one at a $6-million salary. Things are getting testy between the player and the coach, and the fans and the coach.

Peter Laviolette hasn’t elaborated beyond calling it a “lineup decision,” and GM David Poile is deferring to the coach to deploy a roster best suited to winning each game.

Situations can change quickly, though.

A combination of injuries and a coaching change has allowed Toronto’s Spezza, 36, to regain some footing within the Leafs organization this month, but the oldest player on the roster has been dealt 10 health bombs already this season.

“You have to constantly try to evolve your game to not to get left behind,” says Spezza, enjoying a run of six points in six games.

“I put a lot of time in on the ice, and I’ve found I benefit from it. It’s not easy as you get older, but you fight it. You want to stay relevant. You want to stay part of the team, and it’s too fun to play.”

2. The Bill Peters embarrassment is about many things, foremost being repulsive power abuse.

But it’s also about secrets, some stuffed in a vault for a decade, and the notion that unsavoury issues are best-dealt with within club walls.

It happened in Rockford.

It happened in Carolina.

Spezza has spent his life in dressing rooms, on buses and in private planes around hockey men, many of whom learned from the hockey men before them.

The veteran held court for a lengthy, thoughtful conversation this week with a handful of reporters about a culture he’s seen evolve over his decades in the game.

“You don’t want anybody to feel uncomfortable in a dressing room. But as you would with your family, I think you want to deal with things in-house before you deal with things publicly. I think that if you have a strong nucleus in your locker room, there should be a positive environment where nobody feels threatened and, in turn, then I think you take care of things in your house,” Spezza said.

“So, no, I don’t love stuff being aired out publicly, but I see why guys feel like they need to get it out there. I think as a team you try to do a good enough job where guys feel like they can confront each other, guys feel like they can talk if they feel threatened, and you have mentors and guys you can lean on in the room that can help take things face-first instead of having to go around the back and feel not confident enough to talk to your teammates.

“Our culture becomes important.”

Bouncing from Brampton to Mississauga to Windsor as an OHLer in the late ’90s, Spezza admits his was “a more harsh locker room” in junior. He couldn’t count the number of pucks he was forced to gather or the number of older players’ bags he needed to lug just to gain acceptance.

Spezza often felt like he was bearing the brunt of a coach’s frustration. Such was the case with Bryan Murray and the extra bag skates or video sessions he got put through. Other coaches, such as Lindy Ruff, gave off a distinct don’t-dare-say-good-morning vibe.

But Spezza insists he’s always felt safe, respected and at home in his dressing rooms. He understands his coaches were trying to squeeze the best out of him.

“Once you have kids, you realize you can’t just be all butterflies and roses all the time,” Spezza explained. “Just with society changing, I think people are a little more mindful of what they’re saying and how they say it.

“You can’t lump everybody together. Every case is individual; every case is different. We’re in a time right now where I know everybody wants to lump everybody in together and there’s old school, new school, analytics, and I think it can all work together. It can all be married.

“There’s a place for good hockey people that have been around for a long time, and you being able to adapt.”

Hearing that, we’re reminded of Paul Maurice’s comments this week on softening his approach to player relationships.

But Spezza says there is an onus on the experienced players in the room, too.

“The game changes. People change. And if you don’t adapt, that’s when you run into problems,” Spezza said. “I love telling stories. I definitely love talking to [young] guys about how things were before, but I try to go out of my way to make sure young guys feel comfortable now.

“It’s very important to have a locker room where everybody’s comfortable now, and especially with so many young players and not a lot of older players, I think it’s important that the older players become really approachable for the younger players — to help them and have guys to talk to.

“So you have to kind of be a little bit of an older brother to guys, where guys can kind of lean on you a little bit.”

3. Great to hear Wayne Simmonds speak up and explain the crap black hockey players have to put up with in order to reach the highest level. And know it’s a matter of legalese, but it’s a shame the word racism was never used upon the dismissal of Bill Peters. Let’s call it what it is.

4. The danger of overpaying a top goaltender has rapidly revealed itself over the first two months of the season.

The average save percentage across the league is .908 — interestingly down for the fourth-consecutive season.

The world’s most handsomely paid goalie, Carey Price, has a salary of $15 million and a save percentage of .897.

The second-most handsomely paid goalie, Sergei Bobrovsky, has a salary of $11.5 million and a save percentage of .884.

Of the 12 goaltenders making a minimum of $6 million this season, half of them are operating with a sub-.900 save percentage (Cory Schneider, Jonathan Quick, Pekka Rinne and Martin Jones are the others).

On the flip side, eight of the top 10 leaders in save percentage (minimum eight starts) are making $5 million or less. In the cases of Tristan Jarry, Anton Khudobin, Anders Nilsson and Darcy Kuemper, much less.

A ton of established netminders on expiring contracts will be gunning for juicy raises this summer, using Bobrovsky’s $70-million windfall as the ceiling.

Knowing that quality netminding can be unearthed at value prices, it will be interesting to see how deep teams commit to the likes of Braden Holtby, Robin Lehner, Matt Murray, Jacob Markstrom, Thomas Greiss, and the rest of the impending free agents.

5. I got a kick out of this story from captain Ryan Callahan about how he protected teammate Mike Rupp from combustible head coach John Tortorella when Rupp was late for a New York Rangers team meeting. Crafty.

“Torts never finds out, thank God,” Callahan said. “I’m still waiting for Rupper to buy me a drink.”

6. Endearing little scene the other day in the Maple Leafs dressing room.

While new head coach Sheldon Keefe held court at one end of the room, Andreas Johnsson and Pierre Engvall sat facing each other at the opposite end. Engvall was wearing only his shorts. The two were conversing in Swedish and outlining zone exits with their fingers on his bare right thigh. An intimate X’s and O’s session. Hey, who needs a dry-erase board?

Both left wingers, both seventh-round steals, they were breaking down Keefe’s new defensive positioning for forwards.

Johnsson, 25, and Engvall, 23, played on the same junior squad for a couple seasons back home in Sweden, then reunited to win a Calder Cup with the Marlies in 2018. Now the friends are both chipping in for the Leafs — and having a blast.

Funny how life works.

“We’ve known each other a long time,” Johnsson smiled. “So I was pumped to have him here as someone I’m close to.”

7. Mark Stone ran away with the NHL’s unofficial Sticky Fingers Award last season, registering 122 takeaways. That was 22 more steals than runner-up Aleksander Barkov despite playing five fewer games than the Panthers pivot.

Stone’s supreme thievery has continued.

His 34 takeaways this fall give him a five-steal lead on runner-up Mathew Barzal. (Bonus fact: Vegas has three forwards — William Karlsson and Reilly Smith the others — in the category’s top seven.)

“I hated to play against him. When I was in Wash, we’d play against Ottawa. We’d think that 13 in Detroit, [Pavel] Datsyuk, is really great at taking pucks from behind,” chuckles defenceman Nate Schmidt, Stone’s teammate.

Schmidt says experienced Capitals defenders like Karl Alzner taking him aside to warn him about that Stone rookie.

“Hey, you gotta watch out for this guy. He’s super smart. He’s got a really good stick. You got to make sure you always know where it is,” Schmidt recalls his teammates saying. “To have that type of reputation already, it’s pretty huge.”

When Stone joined the Golden Knights at the trade deadline last winter, Schmidt said he was an instant fit because of his character, his energy and his poise.

“Like, I’m a pretty high-energy guy. I love having another guy to feed off of, right?” Schmidt says. “But the biggest thing that I’d say about him is his presence in very stressful situations. For me, it’s something that I don’t have. There’s not a lot of guys in the world that control things. It really does affect other guys in a positive way.”

In terms of how Stone sees the game unfold at both ends of the ice, Schmidt compares the winger to Nicklas Backstrom.

“I wish I could go into their mind for a day,” Schmidt laughs.

8. Five non-hockey coaches Sheldon Keefe looks to for inspiration: Joe Maddon, Pete Carroll, Nick Nurse, Gregg Popovich and Sean McVay.

9. This stat speaks volumes about the magic being conjured in Edmonton:

10. In 55 games as a Penguin, Jared McCann has 20 goals and is a plus-23. In his 212 previous games, with Vancouver and Florida, he totaled 27 goals and was a minus-5.

McCann’s shot is getting showcased in black and yellow and some credit for his release goes to his father, Matt, who owns the family’s construction company.

Matt would borrow the company supplies and pour out a concrete shooting pad on the McCanns’ grass lawn so the kids could fire as many pucks as possible. As long as his brother or sister was out shooting, Jared would grab a stick and join.

McCann estimates he devoted three to four hours a day pummeling a Shooter Tutor until it wore apart.

“We went through those pretty quick. My brother has a pretty good shot too,” McCann says. “My dad pushed me to use my shot more than anything.”

11. While we realize the standard for cross-checking suspensions is historically low, it boggles the mind that the blatant, post-whistle actions of St. Louis’s Robert Bortuzzo on Viktor Arvidsson didn’t at least warrant an in-person conversation.

There is intent to injure — and success to injure, with Arvidsson out four-to-six weeks. The play has nothing to do with a hockey battle and everything do to with spiteful reaction to the ref’s initial call. Plus, Bortuzzo is a repeat offender.

Even for those of us who love hockey’s physical side, the punishment for this one is nearly impossible to defend, especially when Bortuzzo could return to action a full month before Arvidsson does.

12. Every team feels a responsibility to generate sharable content to promote their players. Hats off to the Colorado Avalanche for putting a fun, unique spin on an old Thanksgiving bit:

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