Quick Shifts: Why Leafs’ Auston Matthews just won’t take penalties

Auston Matthews scores his 23rd of the season after he beats Islanders goaltender Thomas Greiss with a wicked release.

A quick mix of the things we gleaned from the week of hockey, serious and less so, and rolling four lines deep.
 
1. Patrick Marleau says Auston Matthews could “quite possibly” win a Lady Byng Trophy. We’re going to guarantee it. Maybe not this spring but soon.

The Toronto Maple Leafs top centre’s restraint when it comes to taking penalties is remarkable. Matthews almost always turns the other cheek even when getting pestered and whacked, although there was one shift a couple weeks back when St. Louis defenceman Joel Edmundson persistently bullied him in the corner and Matthews did tussle back.

“As a star player, you know people will try to get under your skin. You just can’t feed into it. It’s keeping that composure, within reason. I think [versus St. Louis] he got tied up and he was shoving back. You have to let ’em know you can’t do that without getting pushed back,” Marleau told me.

Matthews took just seven minor penalties as a rookie. This season, he’s down to just two. He finished second only to Johnny Gaudreau in the PHWA mid-season Lady Byng voting as a result.

“It’s hard to take penalties when you have the puck on your stick. Where he would get penalties is hooking and holding, but he’s so good with his stick and takeaways,” Marleau says.

“He gets like three or four a night from where we’re watching on the bench, so he’s very aware of what he can get away with and plays right on that fine line.”

Matthews takes pride in this aspect of his game. He says he’s never taken many penalties. Never had to, argues coach Mike Babcock, because he keeps his legs moving.

“If you want guys to go after ya, react. You decide, not them. You decide when to get mad. You decide when to react,” Babcock explains.

“Number 1, he’s a big, strong guy who puts himself in good position, powerful enough that he skates. He doesn’t reach. He doesn’t need to take penalties. And he’s smart: He knows he wants to be on the ice.”

Nazem Kadri uses the term “level-headed.” James van Riemsdyk says Matthews is “being a good team guy” because he knows a coincidental trip to the box creates an advantage for the opposition.

Regardless, Jake Gardiner says four penalty minutes for a guy of Matthews’ size who goes into the areas he does is unexpected.

“He’s getting—not attacked but focused on hard every single night,” Gardiner says. “For him to keep his composure and not get frustrated, it’s impressive.”


 
2. This tweet/video makes me so happy on so many levels: Phil Kessel’s expression, Evgeni Malkin’s caption, that element of what-the-heck-is-even-going-on-here. Just when you start resenting social media for scrambling our brains to oblivion, this little jewel pops up in your feed and everything makes sense.

3. A bunch of John Tavares’s thoughts didn’t fit the column I wrote on 2018’s most scrutinized UFA this week. Here are five quotes from the director’s cut.

On the NHL returning to the Olympics in 2022: “You’d like to think everybody involved believes it’s the right thing to do. It’s as simple as that. You’re not always going to love the issues that come with it—scheduling, the time of the year, injuries [Note: Tavares suffered a season-ending injury in Sochi]—but I think there’s a lot of positive that comes from it. A lot of special things about the best players in the world being at the Olympic Games. It’s a unique experience, a best-on-best tournament like that. I can’t lie: We wish we could be there.”

On the coach’s challenge: “[The Islanders] haven’t had too many incidents where it’s been really controversial or really tight. If you can make it as cut-and-dry, as clear as possible, that’s what you want to do. You don’t want any grey area… The process, too: If there’s any way to make it faster. I mean, the NFL reviews every play now, it feels like, but they’re not always relying on the referees in-game to make those decisions. You want to get the calls right. I believe in that. I don’t have a problem with the challenge. But anything to make it more clear and make the process quicker would be ideal.”

On critics who take shots at the Islanders organization: “I don’t take it personally. I think sometimes people aren’t as well informed as us being there on a daily basis.”

On his favourite Nassau Coliseum memory: “My first goal there in my first game [in 2009] is something I’ll never forget, playing against [Pittsburgh], the defending Stanley Cup champions. Going out, being in awe and really excited and really nervous. Being able to score my first goal in my first game was really special. You think about it so many times in your head what it’s going to be like. Then for it to actually happen was surreal. The overtime goal against Washington [in Game 3 of the 2015 Eastern Conference quarterfinals] was a special one, and the last one when we pushed it to a Game 7 against Washington was a great night.”

On why linemate Josh Bailey is breaking out at age 28: “He was being moved up and down the lineup and being trusted in a lot of different situations [back in 2016]. But when Kyle [Okposo], Fransy [Neilsen] and Matty [Martin] moved on [via free agency], there was a big hole to fill. He saw that opportunity. I’ve always believed in the talent he has and the type of hockey player he is. He knew it was a great chance, and you could just see the confidence grow and grow. He was playing first power-play, and [that] really emphasized his ability. You could see him run away with it. A couple years ago, when Kyle went down with his eye injury, they put Bails with me and Anders [Lee], and we had an unbelievable five weeks playing together. The chemistry developed. He helped me so much and has been a big part of my success.”

4. The way Kasperi Kapanen is playing, how does Matt Martin get back into the Leafs’ lineup? Justin Holl is likely to become a Marlie again, once Toronto’s defence is healthy, but Travis Dermott can’t go back, can he?

“I thought Hollsy was really good. Dermott has been good. We seem to have some good depth that you don’t know until you try,” says Babcock. “The ball is in their court. They’re all good players.”

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From his crease, Curtis McElhinney said the game doesn’t feel any different when the AHL call-ups are in the lineup.

“Very impressive to see,” the Toronto goalie says. “It goes a long way to say about the development of the Marlies system right now and where some of their prospects are at. It’s great that those kids can jump into the lineup and have an impact right away.”

The Leafs are at the maximum number of contracts. Something must give. Either someone — Martin? Josh Leivo? Nikita Soshnikov? — gets traded, or they’ll push NHL-ready talent into the minors.

5. Jake Gardiner is getting a kick out of sharing the ice with call-up Justin Holl. The Gardiner and Holl families were close back in the day, when the boys and their fathers were skating around the frozen ponds of Minnesota’s Lake Minnetonka.

Holl was especially tight with Jake’s younger brother, Max, a St. Louis Blues pick who was selected in the same draft (2010) as Holl.

“To see another guy from your hometown play on this level and his first game being on the same team, it’s pretty special,” Gardiner says.

With the Leafs on their annual fathers trip and Holl’s dad, Gerry, late to join, John Gardiner got concerned that Justin, a 26-year-old rookie, might lose his way in transit.

“[Dad] kinda looked after him a lot when I was a kid. We got to the airport, and he said, ‘Does Justin know where he’s going?’ ” Gardiner recalls, laughing.
 
“I’m sure he’ll figure it out,” Jake replied. “We’ve got guys that’ll take care of him. Don’t worry.”

6. Brayden Schenn always wanted to be a centre.

When the Blues traded for him at the draft, they decided they’d give him a shot but were ready to pull him back to the wing in short order if it wasn’t working.

“He didn’t really give us a chance to give any second thought to it,” Blues coach Mike Yeo says. “He has good character, a great teammate, he’s competitive. What he’s added for us offensively through the middle of the ice has been huge, and I’ve been really impressed with his defensive game.”

Schenn, 26, should destroy every one of his career-high marks — goals, assists, points, plus/minus, penalty minutes — and soaked in his first All-Star Game in Tampa.

Fellow Blues all-star Alex Pietrangelo calls Schenn “a pain in my butt to play against” and was thrilled to be reunited with his old world juniors teammate.

“The best thing about it is, he fits in perfectly with our group. His personality, it just fits in well. It’s good to have a guy that comes in and it feels like he’s been here for 10 years,” Pietrangleo says.

“I call him a nuisance. He skates well, he shoots. He’s not dirty, but he’s a chippy player who gets under your skin. When you have a guy like that who can put the puck in the net, it’s a pretty good recipe.”

7. How wide is the gap between the Atlantic Division’s haves and have-nots?

You can’t go to Vegas and bet on anyone other than Tampa Bay, Boston or Toronto to win the divisional title, while all eight teams in the Metropolitan are still on the board.

According to SportsClubStats.com, the Lightning and Bruins have a 100% chance of making the playoffs. (I like those odds!) Thanks to a four-game win streak, Toronto has a 99.6% shot. More interesting: The Leafs have an 89% chance of finishing exactly where they are now: third in the Atlantic.

The Florida Panthers (8%) have the next best playoff odds in the Atlantic, sucking the life out of the race. You gotta think the league isn’t too pleased with how this has shaken out, so it’ll be interesting to see if playoff format is addressed at the GM meetings.

“I don’t know if there’s a controversy there,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper says. “Those three teams in the Atlantic are constantly looking behind them to see what’s going on.”

OK.

“We’ve seen this all ways. We’ve been in first, we’ve been fighting at the bottom, we’ve been in the middle. In the end, the top eight get in,” Cooper says.

“Who plays who in the first round—that’s really the only thing that’s up for grabs. Trust me, until you see that little x beside your name, everybody’s sweating it out.”

8. Tyler Seguin reflected on the legend of Jaromir Jagr this week. The secret practices, the voyages to the weight room under cloak of darkness, the sneaking of sticks home….

“That’s all true, and so much more. His dedication and love for the game is the most I’ve ever seen. He’s addicted to getting better at his craft,” says Seguin, who played with ‘The Mullet’ during the Bruins’ deep 2013 playoff run.

“Hearing the rumours of having late-night practices with his linemates, especially before big games, I’ll never forget him asking us in the third round. We’d just finished a game and we had to play the next day, and he asked me, Marchand, Bergy if we’d all go out and skate late at night with him one time. We all thought he was kinda kidding, but really he wasn’t. That love for the game—it’s just awesome.”

9. Fun development.

If owner-player Jagr suits up for Kladno this weekend, a Czech outlet is reporting that Petr Nedved — a 46-year-old who last laced ’em up in 2014 — will come out of retirement to play for Benatky.

Take that, Mike Fisher.

A Jagr vs. Nedved showdown in the second-tier Czech league featuring a combined 92 years of life experience.
 
10. Brad Marchand has launched himself full-bore into heel mode. His playful antics during All-Star Weekend, where he smiled and waved through all the boos, were one thing.

But check his saucy Twitter replies.

Marchand is all-in engaging his haters while serving a five-game suspension, and it’s rubbing those concerned about Marcus Johansson’s health the wrong way.

11. I thought Calvin Pickard or Garret Sparks might have swiped Curtis McElhinney’s job as Toronto’s backup goalie by now, but the 34-year-old has been fantastic, posting a .932 save percentage and two shutouts in just nine starts.

McElhinney thinks he’s playing the best hockey of his career.

“The biggest thing for me the last two or three years in Columbus and even transferring over to Toronto is, I just think I’m getting better and better,” McElhinney explains.

“I don’t really think that’s the case with a lot of guys with age. I feel certainly more comfortable about my game than I did five years ago.”

It’s a nice sidebar to the Leafs’ season, but Babcock isn’t getting too warm and fuzzy about it.

“Lots of people would love to do what he does,” the coach says. “It’s how you look at your lot in life. You dig in and you do the best you can with what you’re given. Mac is a good pro, a real good teammate to Freddie [Andersen] – which I think is real important for your starting goalie to have a good partner – and then a real good teammate for the guys.”
 
12. Bravo, Daren Millard. Very brave.

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