Quick Shifts: Maple Leafs’ 6 best defence rental options

Mike Babcock spoke to the media on where he thinks his team ranks in comparison to the Tampa Bay Lightning.

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

1. Kyle Dubas said if he doesn’t see enough gains from his blue line by late February, the Maple Leafs will explore an upgrade on defence prior to the passing of the trade deadline, and he has the cap space to make it happen.

While right-shot, youngish, penalty-killing defenders with term are likely the preferred target (the idea of Vancouver’s Chris Tanev or Carolina’s Brett Pesce still linger), a pure rental D-man makes for an easier and cheaper trade to pull off before Feb. 25.

Dubas admitted he wasn’t particularly enticed by the 2019 rental market, likely because the most enticing UFA-to-be defencemen belong to teams that are going for it now. Erik Karlsson? Anton Stralman? Zdeno Chara? Tyler Myers? Good luck.

But let’s take a brief look at the best bets for Dubas finding his Michal Kempny based on the current playoff picture:

Alex Edler, 32, Vancouver: Dubas has already funneled a trade route to Vancouver (Josh Leivo), and although Edler possesses a no-trade clause, he could always sign back in the summer if he loves it so much. Of all the potential rentals, none comes close to logging Edler’s minutes (22:33), matching his production (0.61 points per game), or wielding his experience — factors that should compensate for the fact that, yes, he’s another lefty.

Jay Bouwmeester, 34, St. Louis: A Team Canada alum, Bouwmeester’s game is yards from where it once was, but he has a history of winning with coach Mike Babcock on the national squad, and that means something (see: John Tavares, Patrick Marleau). Could he waive his trade protection in order to go from healthy scratch in disappointing Missouri to sentimental, stay-at-home shot-blocker in T.O.?

Niklas Kronwall, 37, Detroit: Babcock reminded us when Zach Hyman went on IR Thursday night that he doesn’t have enough “heavy” skaters. Stay-at-home Kronwall brings an edge and a savvy other rentals don’t. Yes, he is in his final days, but like Bouwmeester, he has a history with the Toronto coach and still logs well over 18 minutes nightly. He holds a modified no-trade clause and submits a 10-team list of approved destinations.

Nick Jensen, 28, Detroit: We’re not certain the Red Wings want to part with their leading minutes-muncher on the kill, but as a right shot under age 30, Dubas would be wise to at least give Ken Holland a ring.

Ben Lovejoy, 34, New Jersey: The Devils’ minus-23 goal differential is the worst in the East (thanks, in part, to games versus Toronto), and yet Lovejoy co-leads the club with a plus-1 rating. He won’t deliver direct offence, but the Leafs are good there. A veteran who can defend and eat some hard minutes.

Marc Methot, 33, Dallas: Toronto was interested in acquiring Methot back when the Golden Knights held his rights, but the feeling, reportedly, was not mutual. Does Methot’s opinion change after an injury-plagued season if the Stars — under pressure to qualify, not rebuild — tumble out of the picture in the next two months?

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2. Roberto Luongo has already suffered two injuries this season. Health issues limited him to 35 appearances last season, a career-low for an 82-game NHL schedule. His contract doesn’t expire until 2020. He’ll be 43.

In actual dollars, the deal pays him just $3.382 million this season, a significant drop from the $6.714 million earned annually from 2011-12 through 2017-18. In 2019-20, his salary plummets to $1.618 million before bottoming out at $1 million in each of the final two years.

Did he truly think he was going to see this contract through to the end?

“Yeah, that’s why I signed it,” Luongo said Thursday.

Even with its back-diving structure?

“You guys said that. I never said that. My intention was to play as long as I could. I never put a number on it. I never said I was going to retire at a certain age. I was going to play as long as I enjoyed it.”

Luongo says he still believes he can perform at a high level. Another playoff run, another Cup shot is all he cares about — not his place on the all-time wins list (look out, Ed Belfour, at No. 3 you’re next).

I believe him.

Still, I asked if watching the way things ended with Marian Hossa and Henrik Zetterberg — Hall of Fame–calibre players from his era who signed similar deals but failed to complete them — has changed how he views his contract.

“Yeah, it’s tough. I’m not gonna lie. It’s not easy. There’s a lot of stuff you have to deal with when you get up there,” Luongo responded.

“Recovery is not as fast. You have to put a lot of work into it to make sure you’re ready to play the next night. I understand what they’re going through. I feel it every day. Right now, I’m willing to do whatever it takes to keep going, and we’ll see how long I play.”

The difference between Luongo and Hossa/Zetterberg goes beyond their Twitter presence: One of them still needs a ring.

3. As indestructible beast/human Alex Ovechkin is seemingly running away with what looks like his eighth Rocket Richard Trophy over 12 seasons, I humbly submit a darkhorse in this race.

Of the top seven goal-getters, none has registered more shots than Boston’s David Pastrnak. And none has a worse shooting percentage than Pasta, who’s firing at 16.2%. (Ovie’s at 21.6%.)

Because these things tend to even themselves out a little over time and mostly because Pastrnak’s setup man, Patrice Bergeron is nearing a return, don’t rule out the 22-year-old making a post-Christmas push for the trophy.

Even if Pastrnak insists he never contemplates winning the Rocket.

“To be honest, not at all. It’s nice. I love scoring. It’s fun,” Pastrnak told me.

“I don’t love scoring because of some races or anything. It’s a game. It’s what I do. It’s what I’m getting paid for. I just love to score, so hopefully I keep going.”

4. Is Christmas Day too early to hand out the Lady Byng Trophy?

Florida’s Aleksander Barkov has not yet committed a penalty, even though he spends half the game on the ice and is thrown the toughest line matchups. Furthermore, he’s drawing more minors than anyone else

“Great stat, isn’t it?” coach Bob Boughner says.

To be sure. But how is that possible?

Boughner says Barkov possesses the most elite hockey sense he’s seen in a long time. He never gets caught on the wrong side of pucks, and his coach is constantly amazed when re-watching games at the number of heady plays Barkov makes that he missed in real time.

We asked a few others Thursday to explain the 0 PIM phenomenon.

Luongo: “He’s the best two-way player in the game, bar down. He’s smart. Especially at his age [23], to have that level of maturity already as a two-way player, you don’t see that very often in the NHL anymore. We all know what we have in this locker room in Barky. We all cherish him.”

Jonathan Huberdeau, linemate: “He draws penalties, too. The most in the league. He’s faster than the other guy, so he’s always in position to break up plays. It’s not that he has to reach to get the puck. He’s strong, and it just shows his work ethic.”

Auston Matthews, 2 PIM: “Kinda like myself, he’s not overly physical. He’s not trying to go out and put guys over the boards with big hits, but he’s physically strong. He can win puck battles. He’s in good position all the time. That helps. Typically when you’re getting a penalty, it’s because you’re in bad position or tired. You throw your stick out there and trip a guy or whack the guy.”

5. Barkov has surpassed Connor McDavid and Mark Scheifele for the ice time lead among all forwards (23:02), and that speaks to the Finn’s reliability as well as Florida’s lack of depth at the centre position with Vincent Trocheck still sidelined long-term.

Tuesday’s decisive win in Buffalo afforded Boughner to play his MVP “only” 20:51.

“That’s a light night for him,” says Boughner, who does worry on those nights Barkov, who works both special teams, flirts with 30.

“That’s obviously not the best situation for us, but right now without Trocheck, especially in some of these games that are tight or go into overtime, or there are a lot of penalties, those are the games that take their toll on him,” Boughner explains.

After undergoing surgery to repair a nasty broken ankle, Trocheck is now putting 20 to 30 per cent of his weight on his foot. There is still no timeline for his return. (Good news: Nick Bjugstad could play as early as tonight in Detroit.)

Luongo credits Barkov’s dedication and gym habits, something he gleaned from Jaromir Jagr, for his ability to remain in tip-top shape despite the workload.

“We wish he could play 60 minutes instead of 30,” Luongo says. “We’re upset for him that he doesn’t get the recognition he deserves.”

6. Best known for his point-producing days in Toronto, Bryan McCabe now serves as director of player personnel in Florida.

He was honoured in Sunrise last Saturday, dropping a ceremonial puck prior to the Leafs-Panthers game.

Mike Babcock’s face lit up when asked about “Caber.” He had a story to tell.

During McCabe’s final season with the WHL Spokane Chiefs and Babcock’s first, the coach would play the snot out of his best defenceman. McCabe wound up with 14 goals, 53 points and 115 penalty minutes over 42 junior games under Babcock in 1994-95.

“I played him so much, he was lying on the bench cramped up. ‘Ohhhh!’ Just hurtin’.” Babcock laughs. “In those days you didn’t have a lot of things to look after that. Probably didn’t hydrate right. Probably didn’t feed him right. All those things.

“Caber’s always had a real love of hockey, moved the puck well, stepped in and loved to play…. This is a good setup for him.”

7. Wonderful gesture by Victor Hedman, one of the sport’s most genuine nice guys. Imagine being one of the kids who opens this gift…

8. The Flyers are undefeated since firing coach Dave Hakstol and bringing up young Carter Hart, knocking off Nashville Thursday night.

But my favourite moment wasn’t watching Hart’s mom weep as her son done good.

It was the triumphant, ridiculous, hilarious return of the recently retired Scott Hartnell.

First he shot a silly series of videos with Gritty, the only mascot we’d take in a steel-cage match over Tommy Hawk. Simply seeing Gritty and Hartnell in the same room put to bed a rampant rumour.

Then the Flyers did an excellent job poking fun at Hartnell’s tenure, with a highlights montage that only showed him falling down…

…and special video messages from ex-teammates Kimmo Timonen and Jaromir Jagr:

But the pièce de résistance was Hartsy’s ceremonial faceoff, which played out like a scene from Goon 3. Prior to dropping the puck between pals Roman Josi and Claude Giroux, Hartnell threw money on the board.

“I put them up to it, $100 to whoever wins it. Let’s put some intensity in,” Hartnell told reporters. “G is one of the best on faceoffs and Roman is a defenceman, so kind of knew it was going to be for him.”

9. Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman acquired Dylan Strome from Arizona to skate as his No. 2 centre behind Jonathan Toews and, in a perfect world, eventually take over the No. 1 role once Toews (nine years his senior) loses a step.

Getting served more opportunity as a top-sixer, Strome scored five times in his first 11 games with Chicago, roughly doubling his production clip during his final days in the desert.

(That Max Domi, Anthony Duclair and now Strome have all fared better with a change of scenery should be concerning for Coyotes fans.)

But Chicago is still losing games. Already Strome has been tried at the wing and away from close friend Alex DeBrincat, with whom he lit it up in OHL Erie.

Their chemistry in junior?

“Amazing. How many assists did Stromer have just giving him the puck?” says Leafs defenceman Travis Dermott, another NHL product of those talent-hording Otters clubs.

“Probably the best duo I’ve seen on any team I’ve been with, closeness-wise. They’re gonna have a lot of fun together for sure. The amount of FaceTimes they had since Strome got traded? I don’t know if they’ve gotten off FaceTime.”

We’re fascinated to see if Strome — prematurely labelled the bust of the 2015 draft class despite being just 21 — can help lead Chicago’s next wave. Dermott is certain he’ll figure it out.

“Some guys have to work a little harder,” Dermott said. “I have no doubt he’ll get going and be an influential player in this league.”

10. Patrick Marleau has seen some stuff over his 1,610 games in the league, but he needed to watch and rewatch and rewatch again the gymnastic bit of thievery Andrei Vasilevskiy laid on him in Tampa.

How often did the veteran rewind the replay of what he could’ve sworn was a sure goal?

“Probably a good handful of times. It was pretty crazy. I dunno. Right there on the line. He got his foot down on top of it and pulled it out. Pretty amazing. I try and forget about those as quickly as possible,” Marleau said, still in disbelief days later.

“The goalie had a night.”

11. While Hockey Night in Canada may have done a better job of promoting the Maple Leafs’ moms trip to Florida, the club certainly wasn’t the first to make a parent switch.

“It was really a great success. Team did a great job putting it together,” Ron Hainsey said. “Certainly different having the moms along as opposed to the dads.”

How so, Ron?

“There’s a lot of differences. I’m not going to box myself in and get in trouble.”

Even mothers of non-playing members of the organization were brought along for the ride.

“It’s all about building a family atmosphere. We try to do that as much as we possibly can. I think it’s important for them to understand we’re trying to look after their kids the best we can as well,” Babcock explained. “This was an opportunity for our players to say thanks to their moms for all they’ve done for them.

“It’s totally different from when the dads are here, but it’s been a great experience. A loud experience. There’s lots of noise, no question. They seem to be having a great time. It warms your heart, to be honest with you, just to watch them interact. There’s a lot of love there. To me, there’s been a lot of talk, a lot of laughter and a lot of fun. And that’s a great thing.”

And, yes, the Leafs did catch the clip of Bonnie Marner flossing in the suite.

“All the guys that would chirp him don’t really go on Twitter, like Hainsey and [Gardiner],” Matthews smiled.

“You look at him. He likes to dance. So it’s only right that you get a video of his mom dancing in the crowd, too. I think her and all the moms had a great time.”

12. Serious question that will totally sound like a homer question to some: Can the Maple Leafs send four players to the 2019 NHL All-Star Game?

One could make the case that five are deserving: Auston Matthews, John Tavares, Mitch Marner, Morgan Rielly and Frederik Andersen. Problem is, the NHL needs all eight teams in the Atlantic Division represented and, since moving to the 3-on-3 format, each division gets 11 representatives.

The math for five doesn’t add up, and that includes limiting the star-studded Lightning to a single player, which is kind of ridiculous considering they’re the best team in the league.

Host Tampa set the modern record with five reps last season: Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, Andrei Vasilevskiy, Victor Hedman, plus last-minute injury sub Brayden Point (Jon Cooper also coached).

In 2016, host Nashville dressed four: Pekka Rinne, James Neal, Roman Josi and Shea Weber.

Since the new tourney format, no non-hosting city has ever been asked to send more than three skaters.

Fair or not, one or two or three Leafs will be getting snubbed.

I think Andersen will be overlooked. Maybe Tavares, too.

It’s difficult to see the NHL not wanting young, entertaining stars like Matthews (despite the injury), Marner and Rielly (only the defence scoring leader) to fly to San Jose and sell the future, but Buffalo (Jack Eichel, Jeff Skinner) and Tampa (Point, Stamkos, Kucherov, Hedman, Vasilevskiy) have multiple candidates as well.

Tough puzzle.

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