Quick Shifts: Patrick Marleau vs. the Babcock pace

In this week's edition, Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews set up Patrick Marleau for his first goal with the Maple Leafs, Byron Buxton crashes the wall, and Connor McDavid is really, really fast.

1. Practice? We’re talking about practice?!

Yes, we are talking about practice.

In 20 years as an NHL player, Patrick Marleau has never had a coach who runs practice like Mike Babcock.

“Babs has a way with what he wants to accomplish with his high-tempo practices. What I’ve notices about his practices is you get one or two chances at your drill, and if you screw up your drill, you don’t get to do it again. It’s game-like. You might only get one or two good rushes [in a game], so you better make the most of them,” Marleau explains.

“It makes you focus that much more in practice.”

Even Mike Commodore, the world’s most ardent Babcock detractor, is on record saying that the man knows how to run a great practice.

We noticed last season that Babcock’s morning skates all run precisely 17 minutes long. Every player knows what to expect.

Marleau says he’s been on past teams where players sense they’ll be doing the same drill for a while, so they let their guard down. It’s human nature to relax when you know you’ll get four chances to dial it in. That’s not the case in Toronto.

The Leafs coach runs a tight ship.

“I’ve had practices like that in the past, but Mike does it every practice,” Marleau says.

“You know going into it: Working on the power play, we’re gonna get two chances, 45 seconds each. You lose the puck, you’ll sit and watch the next group do it. It adds intensity and focus to the practice.”

So far, it works. Marleau is on pace for his first 164-goal season.


2. The Maple Leafs’ kids are no longer rookies, so it’s a safe bet we’re going to gradually see more intersections between the players and outside businesses.

Mitchell Marner recently tweeted a photo of himself shouting out Red Bull, so I asked him about it.

The energy-drink giant approached Marner in summer and asked if he liked the product. Red Bull is one of the many beverages available to Leafs players between periods, and Marner says he picked up a habit of downing one during the second intermission of games in 2016-17. (The London Knights didn’t offer as many choices.)

“It’s not like I drink it a lot off the ice, but I definitely have one a game. I like the taste of it,” Marner said. “I like to keep hydrated. I drink a lot of substance throughout the game. That’s one I think helps me.”

Red Bull declined comment, per company policy, but did confirm they have an agreement with Marner, their latest sponsored Canadian athlete.

“I know they have a lot of snowboarders, skiers, skateboarders, a couple NASCAR drivers. You feel like a tight family. I got a couple tweets replaying to that shot from people I haven’t me yet that are on the brand,” Marner said. “I’m very happy to be a part of it. It feels like one family with that sponsorship. I’m excited to move forward with them.”

The drink brand had a similar deal with Dion Phaneuf when he was captain of the Leafs. Sources say the defenceman’s trade to Ottawa decreased their sponsorship exposure.

The former Leafs captain memorably got ripped back in 2014 for wearing a Red Bull hat during post-game interviews. Marner is well aware of the kerfuffle and sees no issue.

“I don’t wear hats during post-game. I keep it off and stay face-to-face,” Marner said. “Free time, I wear hats like everybody.”

3. So, which companies are lining up to associate themselves with Auston Matthews, whose worth continues to rise?

Upon signing his eight-year, $80-million extension this week, Jack Eichel told insider Pierre LeBrun that he received a congratulatory text message from Matthews, a former teammate.

When you write hockey, you tend to make predictions. Most never come true, but you remember the ones that do. I pegged Connor McDavid’s AAV at $12.5 million on the dot.

Matthews’ eight-year extension next summer should make him more than Eichel and less than McDavid. The crystal ball says $11.25 million per year.

4. J.T. Brown may take athletes’ protest against racial injustice to the ice this weekend.

Heading into Friday’s Tampa Bay Lightning opener, the checking forward is considering raising his right fist during “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Brown, 27, told the Tampa Bay Times he spoke with several active military, along with his family before deciding what he felt was right.

Expect coach Jon Cooper, captain Steven Stamkos and leader Ryan Callahan to have Brown’s back. Brown also donated $1,500 to help remove the Confederate statue from downtown Tampa.

“For me, right now, we’re going to keep trying to bring awareness,” Brown told the Times. “You want to make sure you’re in the community, you’re backing up what you’re talking about, what you’re supporting, not just talk.”

The raised fist echoes back to the 1968 Olympics, when African-American track stars John Carlos and Tommie Smith drew attention to black power on the medal stand.

If Brown does goes through with the protest, it will be an act of courage in this small-c conservative sport.

5. Kris Letang apologized to Matt Murray and Antti Niemi after Pittsburgh’s “embarrassing” (in Sidney Crosby’s words) 10-1 loss to Chicago Thursday.

Head coach Mike Sullivan assumed the blame.

“Everything went wrong,” Sullivan told reporters. “It’s disturbing. We have to do some soul searching.”

That may be. But this is what happens when your backup goaltending takes the sharpest drop-off in the league. The Pens went from Marc-Andre Fleury, a top-10 starter, to Niemi, who hasn’t had an average save percentage since 2015.

Even more perplexing: Pittsburgh let Vegas’s Calvin Pickard — who showed great for Team Canada at the World Championship and has a better career save percentage than Niemi despite playing in Colorado — slip through waivers unclaimed.

6. I had a fun assignment during last month’s NHL Rookie Showcase. I got to conduct a bunch of lighthearted on-camera interviews with prospects. (Rest easy: They’re on camera, not me, and they’ve been edited lovely.) Hopefully they’ll give you a glimpse into these kids’ personality.

7. I was blown away by Little Caesars Arena, the Detroit Red Wings‘ new home, Thursday. Even more so than when I checked out the Edmonton Oilers’ new digs last winter. A couple things that didn’t make my column on the rink:

• Like the Oilers, the Red Wings have a giant 3-D team logo on the ceiling of their spacious dressing room, which means there’s zero chance of ol’ Clumsy Feet here stepping on the logo and invoking the hockey gods’ wrath. Great new architectural trend.

• Unlike The Joe, the rink sits below grade, giving the bowl a swallowing effect. Also, the ceiling of the rink has panels of lights.

• Fans chucked multiple octopi on the ice during the anthem, and the clean-up crew swung them around joyfully for the cameras. Thus foiling PETA’s grand plan.

• The Wings’ practice pad is built underneath the plaza. Like Columbus, the players have only one place to go for all their needs.

• The concourse offers such a bounty little craft-beer bars and cool viewing areas, fans tend to be drawn out of their seats to mingle. This could spell empty seats in a sellout, but because the seats are all red (no obvious class designations here), the same colour as most fans’ attire, it’s harder to notice vacant bums. “That’s something we gotta fix,” Jeff Blashill said. The coach did notice.

• Henrik Zetterberg said the ice was a little soft due to the heat outside. It was patio weather in October in Detroit.

8. For the past few years, coaches and players have spoken increasingly about the value of a “leadership group” as opposed to a captaincy.

Now that trend is being formalized. Both the Toronto Maple Leafs and Carolina Hurricanes are comfortable heading into a second consecutive season without a clear C.

The Hurricanes announced defenceman Justin Faulk and centre Jordan Staal as co-captains. Jeff Skinner is an alternate.

The hot rumour was that Oliver Ekman-Larsson was a shoe-in to succeed Shane Doan as the Arizona Coyotes’ captain. Instead, he and Niklas Hjalmarsson were named alternate captains. Derek Stepan, Brad Richardson and Alex Goligoski will serve as alternate captains on a rotating basis.

Wait: Alternate captains to the alternates on an alternating basis? This is getting complicated.

The Vegas Golden Knights, according to GM George McPhee, won’t name a captain. Neither will the Buffalo Sabres, who let Brian Gionta walk. When I spoke to Gionta this summer, he endorsed Eichel for captain. The Sabres are willing to give the young centre all the extra money but no extra felt.

That’ll be five clubs without one clear-cut captain all year if this holds. Gotta be a record.

9. Martin Frk played two NHL games for Carolina last year, but nothing like Thursday’s arena-opener for Detroit on his 24th birthday.

“Frky got a chance to show off his shot and it went in,” beamed captain Henrik Zetterberg.

How dangerous is the rookie’s shot, the thing he practised for an hour a day against a four-hole cardboard cutout his dad made for him?

“We had to tell him to tone it down a bit in practice. He winds up,” Red Wings goalie Jimmy Howard says. “In practice, for me, I just hope it doesn’t hit me. If he scores, he scores. He can be a great weapon for us.

“As it gets around the league how big and heavy his shot is, he’s going to have to find ways to get open so teams don’t key on him.”
10. The Golden Knights will only host just five Saturday-night home games all season. No more than one per month. That’s among the fewest in the NHL and a curious stat considering the assumption that the league would want to promote its new toy on its biggest TV night.

But there’s a reason for that. In Las Vegas, every night is Saturday night. No surprise: The largest employment sector in the Las Vegas area is leisure and hospitality, with almost 300,000 workers.
11. Due to the tragedy in Vegas last weekend, plans for the city’s first pro team’s opener have changed out of respect.

Not only is the franchise donating money for the victims’ families — $300,000 with the NHL and Foley Family Charitable Trust — but the Knights have been out in community, meeting with those families as well as the first responders.

Tragically, the tone of opening night will be sombre when it should’ve be joyous.

We learned that Sports Illustrated was planning a big feature on happy-go-lucky Marc-Andre Fleury, smiling face of the Golden Knights. Appropriately, the publication went in another direction.

12. Because we all deserve a good laugh heading into the weekend, here’s the latest version of KHL’s Funniest Home Videos. Slapstick, the highest form of humour:

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