Quick Shifts: Maple Leafs and the challenge of ‘mass hysteria’ media

Maple Leafs forward Auston Matthews says he's "pretty bummed" about the league's decision not to go forward with the World Cup of Hockey, meanwhile Mike Babcock says he has enough other problems to worry about.

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

1. The notion that today’s spotlight athlete can simply choose to block out the noise — the scrolling stream of negative and positive energy spewed at them by the strangers in the media, in the nosebleeds and hunkered over keyboards — is foolish.

Daniel Winnik, who played nearly 800 NHL games for eight different teams before taking his pro career to Switzerland, hopped on Good Show this week (listen below) and informed Ben Ennis and JD Bunkis that, yes, they do read the mentions.

In our information age, ear-muffing criticism is not as simple as deciding to not pick up the newspaper or flick on the TV the morning after a bad game.

“Everything pops up on your phone,” says Kyle Dubas, GM of the Toronto Maple Leafs. “Your whole way of communicating with the world has alerts coming to you nonstop.

“Ignoring it is ineffective. Finding ways for players to use it in a productive way has been the biggest challenge.”

The NHL’s youngest GMs, Dubas, 33, and John Chayka, 29, shared a dais last Friday night at Western University’s inaugural Ivey Sports Management Conference, touching on a number of topics for a group of 150 or so students in a discussion led by Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman.

I had the privilege of participating in the conference and appreciated the execs’ candour when it came to the influence of media, social and otherwise, on today’s player. (Also: Low key, Chayka has a wicked sense of humour.)

“The thing I’ve found most interesting, especially this season, every time one of our players has a good week, it’s mass paranoia about how are we going to keep this group together?” said Dubas, whose impending cap crunch is a bottomless well for debate and analysis.

“I don’t condemn that or feel negatively about it; it’s media members legitimately doing their job and saying, ‘OK, Kasperi Kapanen, now he’s on fire. He’s going to need a big contract. How are they going to fit all this together?’ That’s the challenge, of course.”

In a funny twist of coincidence, as I write this in front of a game, our intermission panel has a poll up encouraging viewers to vote on the AAV of Kapanen’s next deal ($4.1 million sounds good to me).

“I don’t ever take the tact that I say, ‘I don’t read it. I don’t pay attention to any of that.’ I think I have to at least know what the general discussion is in this market because it affects the players and their disposition,” Dubas added. “Because they’re reading it, or their agent’s reading it, or most importantly their parents are reading it, their families are reading it.”

So even if a player consciously chooses to watch Netflix instead of Sportsnet (like Auston Matthews does) and resists opening his Twitter app, someone he knows is relaying the hottest take on his power-play usage or contract comparables.

“Even today [Jan. 11] — I saw one of our players walk in today in not his normal disposition,” Dubas said. “When I spoke to him, he said, ‘Ah, there’s just a lot going on. A lot of noise.’ I said, ‘Are you talking media stuff or family stuff?’ ‘Nah, the media stuff. My family’s on it. It’s been a lot of late.’ So it comes up all the time. I don’t think you can say to a player or their family now: ‘Don’t pay attention to it.’ “

Jan. 16: What does "running someone out of town" mean in 2019?
January 16 2019

Different strokes for different markets. For as much as Chayka and Dubas may have in common, they operate in polar-opposite hockey towns.

“In Kyle’s case, it’s that constant nonstop pressure that shifts around,” Chayka said.

The Coyotes experience a “totally different” player-media dynamic. Chayka can sell a player on the anonymity and limited press obligations Arizona can afford him. Depending on the personality of the athlete, that can be attractive. If anything, their challenge is generating coverage. Hence, fun and innovative in-house products like “Pillow Talk with Biz.”

“We’re trying to build a fan base,” Chayka said. “So in a lot of ways, more media for us is helpful.”


2. I asked Trevor Georgie, president and GM of the Saint John Sea Dogs, how he deals with a generation of junior players who grew up on the ‘Gram.

Not only does his organization run players through social-media info and behaviour sessions, but they offer the same service for the players’ parents.

Dubas acknowledges the Leafs’ lunchroom is crowded with guys scrolling through Instagram and Twitter feeds, discussing various celebrities’ posts.

“It’s just the way they communicate. In watching it, it’s not going to change. It’s only going to grow,” Dubas says.

The trick isn’t banning online interaction. The trick is using it as a platform for personality — or as a signing carrot.

In a cap system, Tampa and Nashville and Dallas can offer paycheques in a tax-free state; Toronto can offer lucrative endorsement bonuses if an elite player is cool with attaching himself to a brand.

“We’ll give you a Mercedes for three years if you send out one tweet,” Dubas says. For example.

3. Auston Matthews will not put the same restriction on RFA negotiations that Mitch Marner has.

Marner’s agent, Darren Ferris, recently told The Athletic‘s Pierre LeBrun that the winger remains “100 per cent” committed to holding off extension talks until after the season.

This tidbit surfaced as ol’ pass-first Marner embarked on a run of 13 goals in 14 games.

Matthews’ representation, however, is open for business 24/7. Agent Judd Moldaver — holder of leverage — reinforces that his client loves being a Maple Leaf and would be thrilled to re-sign.

The sense here is that Marner and Ferris are taking the Leon Draisaitl approach, preferring to wait for the franchise centre to drive up the financial bar.

4. Dubas singled out the Lightning as the team to beat, but Chayka — more familiar with the Western powers — mentioned a pair of Canadian clubs as the real deal.

“We went through Winnipeg, and they’re a deep team,” Chayka said, still impressed by the efficiency of the Jets’ power play in their 5-3 win.

“It wasn’t even close. They’re scary. I don’t even know if they’ve reached full capacity yet. They play a certain style that’s tough to match up against, for us at least.”

It’s remarkable how much better Arizona’s penalty kill is compared to the other 30 clubs. The Coyotes’ No. 1–ranked PK (88.2%) is roughly three per cent better than Minnesota’s No. 2–ranked unit. (Since 1977-78, the first season that penalty kill percentage was tracked, only six teams have finished above 88.7%.) Arizona has also scored 12 shorthanded goals from five different shooters. Only the Flames have more shorties (14).

“Calgary’s good. They’re deep. They come at you in waves,” Chayka said. “They play hard, and they’ve got elite, talented players. [Johnny] Gaudreau’s having a hell of a year.”

5. Highly touted Leafs prospect Jeremy Bracco was healthy-scratched for the bulk of the Marlies’ run to the 2018 AHL championship.

Now the 21-year-old is a top-six fixture who’s already eclipsed last year’s totals in every major category, going 8-29-37 though 38 games. He’s driving play at even strength.

Yep, there’s still more winger depth coming, Leafs Nation. And one need not look further than the shrewd Trevor Moore signing to realize how crucial cheap forward labour will be to this club’s future.

“It might of been last year while we were celebrating the Calder Cup on the ice, I congratulated him and kind of said, ‘This is going to be your team next year’ in terms of offence,” Marlies coach Sheldon Keefe told reporters.

“He looked at me a little sideways because it’s quite a jump from going from being a scratch in the playoffs to doing what he’s doing, but that’s what we felt about his abilities — and he’s taking advantage of the opportunities that he’s gotten and he’s rolling.”

6. You think you know how it’ll shake out, but you never do.

When Pittsburgh’s Jim Rutherford pulled the strings on last year’s three-way deal that saw Derick Brassard become a Penguin, he crowned it “the most complex trade I’ve ever made.” And it cost his club Ian Cole, goalie prospect Filip Gustavsson, plus first-round (2018) and third-round (2019) picks.

“He’s the type of player who will fit into our system very easily, so it should be pretty seamless,” Rutherford said at the time.

A good move on paper, but it’s been a bust. Even alongside sniper Phil Kessel, Brassard hasn’t found his niche, and now the 2C/3C is on the market again.

Fascinating that Blue Jackets insider Aaron Portzline has Columbus as a pursuer. Makes sense considering John Tortorella loved the player when they were both Rangers, but do you trade with your potential Round 1 opponent?

I like Nashville and Winnipeg as potential rental targets here. The Jets, in my opinion, made the smartest 2018 deadline rental in nabbing Paul Stastny and should look at centre depth again. The Predators always want more secondary scoring.

Hey, could Kyle Turris and Matt Duchene end up on the same team? Ha.

7. Find yourself someone who loves you the way the Blue Jackets love hearing that a Tortorella practice has been cancelled:

8. Travis Green — a Jack Adams contender if the Canucks squeak into the dance — certainly has his doghouse players. Defenceman Michael del Zotto couldn’t get into the lineup and was traded this week.

Talented but frustrating forward Nikolay Goldobin, who’s also on an expiring deal at a movable $1.08-million hit, has watched his ice time limited to less than 10 minutes in three of the past eight games.

His agent, Igor Larionov, was asked about the situation by Sportsnet’s Rick Dhaliwal and said only this: “Very disappointed.”

Goldobin, 23, has already been traded once. Even Brock Boeser, subtly, took his teammate’s play to task.

“Goldy has amazing skill, but you have to know when to pressure guys and make sure you’re competing every shift. You see [Elias Pettersson] blocking shots and causing turnovers and getting us odd-man scoring chances going the other way,” Boeser told Ben Kuzma of The Province.

9. Remember Darren Dietz?

The former Montreal Canadiens defence prospect slid into just 13 NHL games before bouncing to the Capitals and Stars’ farm systems and eventually to Kazakhstan.

Well, the right-shot blue-liner appears to have rediscovered the offensive flair he flexed in junior (he racked up 58 points in his final year with the Saskatoon Blades).

Skating more than 23 minutes a night for Astana Barys, Dietz leads all KHL D-men with 12 goals, 33 assists and a plus-23 rating through 49 games.

He’s only 25. Does he get another opportunity in North America?

10. How essential is Capfriendly.com?

The site launched its latest feature, a GM Tracker that allows users to look back on all the signings, draft picks and trades an executive has made.

Incredible resource.

11. “What happens if you eat the skin of a banana?”

“Is Santa Claus real?”

“But Jake Gardiner is still good… right, Dad?”

These are three questions my innocent (for now) eight-year-old asked me this week.

Because I was in the building at the time, I do feel the booing of Gardiner has been overblown. It wasn’t as if 19,000 fans were showering him with hate. This isn’t full-blown Larry Murphy.

The rink was especially quiet — Monday night, white-collar pricing, show-me Toronto crowd, a weak effort against a slumping team — and a smattering of vocal fans exercised their right and exerted their frustration.

Good on Gardiner for trotting out and facing the cameras, not only Monday night but again at the very next practice, and saying the right things.

Some would’ve ducked. It may not be the Leafs, but some team will benefit from a quality player and teammate in 2019-20.

“You hit a boiling point. We do that the same way in the room. If we’re not playing well, we start getting frustrated. I think that’s what happened,” Gardiner said Wednesday.

“It shows that they care, and that’s what we want. It’s a very passionate fan base. Obviously we’re losing right now, so it’s going to be negative at times, but if we start winning, I think it’ll turn around.”

Jake Gardiner is still good.

12. I love seeing the rare in-season hockey trades, and a couple of middling franchises made an intriguing one Thursday, hoping a change of scenery jolts a nice player out of a lousy year.

Nino Niederreiter to Carolina. Victor Rask to Minnesota. Brief thoughts:

• Yikes! Rask had 21 goals in 2015-16 and he’s scored just once this season. His third consecutive season in decline.

• Finally, the Hurricanes, with the NHL’s lowest payroll, are using their cap space for good, taking on the more expensive player. Amazingly, Niederreiter ($5.25-million cap hit through 2022) walks in and instantly becomes the highest-paid, longest-term forward on the Hurricanes. He was the fifth-highest-paid forward on the Wild.

• That Minnesota took the lesser talent (IMO) reinforces the value of centremen on the market. It also makes us wonder if impending UFA Eric Staal, 34, is down to his final days in Minny.

• Niederreiter, a fifth-overall pick, will be 27 when next season starts. As a power forward, did he actually peak in 2017 with 57 points? Always seems to fall into the “great potential” category, but maybe we’ve been overestimating all along.

• Trade-wise, is this just the tip of the iceberg for two frustrated franchises and two GMs who inherited some significant — but diverse — challenges?

• Paul Fenton is so desperate to shed salary and age, he just took on a player one year younger and with one goal to his name.

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