Quick Shifts: Mike Babcock loves the media game

Brad Marchand continued to play on the edge, Komarov also got away with a questionable hit while the Flames pounded the Panthers and Canes.

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

1. You probably know Mike Babcock is hockey’s longest-contracted and highest-paid coach. He has five and a half more seasons of fan and media scrutiny ahead of him in Toronto.

So, why not enjoy it?

Since Christmas, the Toronto Maple Leafs have been playing infuriating .500 hockey. Yet, thanks to a duvet-soft Atlantic Division, they still have the luxury of a 12-point lead over their closest threat to unseat them from the playoffs.

The honeymoon, as they say, between the coach with the golden resume and the puck-obsessed, championship-starved city with razor teeth is winding down.

Make no mistake, however, this is still all fun and games. Crisis mode? Come back in two or three months when elimination is in sight.

“I live scared every day ­– every single day,” Babcock said this week, when asked if the Leafs’ comfy spot in the standings allows him time to tinker. “Not as much in the summer, but all winter. That’s how I live.”

Scared that Toronto isn’t shaping into an all-cylinders contender? Maybe.

But he’s not really stressing about ice times and line combos the way Torontonians have started to. And, for five minutes per day, the coach mostly enjoys the gamesmanship with reporters. (Though probably not as much as he loved Frederik Andersen calling out his teammates Thursday night after another sloppily blown lead.)

One gets the sense Babcock likes his windows to control the message, to drop hints, to sprinkle life wisdom, to take bullets for the players he likes and skim over the ones who are only temporary. And, occasionally, to fire tiny jabs at the league, our coverage, or men who don’t play the right way.

“The competition didn’t even know who they were last year and, if you remember, you [the media] didn’t even know who we were either last year. Now you’re just starting to take us seriously yourselves, and so are the other teams,” Babcock said this week. That was in response to a question about Mitch Marner and William Nylander’s drop-off in production.

He reads. He listens. He knows what you think of Roman Polak and Leo Komarov and Zach Hyman and Connor Brown.

“This is how I kind of look at it: I think they hired me to decide,” Babcock said. “I’m just going to keep on keeping on.”

The coach has done his part to ensure there haven’t been more stories about Nazem Kadri not scoring a goal with his stick since Nov. 30. Or that first-line winger Hyman’s three goals in the past 37 games isn’t dominating headlines. Should Auston Matthews not be partnered with a better finisher?

Babcock will remind you who’s in charge, and he’ll do it with a grin and a dash of folksy Saskatchewanese. He’s smart enough to realize that negative noise is ultimately good, that it means the city cares. He’s curious enough to take off the earmuffs but stubborn enough to ignore your advice.

Yes, this is the first prolonged wave of scrutiny in the Babcock regime, but it’s a whisper compared to the potential backlash if his Leafs don’t improve upon 2017’s house-money playoffs.

“When I look at our last couple games, I think we’re in a good situation. I guess I don’t feel like you guys do, how’s that? Not one bit. But when I do, we’ll change some things, how’s that?” Babcock said, albeit it prior to the Philly loss. “In your lifetime, you get to decide what you react to.

“Imagine in your life, every time someone told you that you couldn’t do it, you listened to ’em. Where would you be? Not holding that microphone.”

2. The announcement of Team Canada’s men’s hockey team stung the NHL players and coaches who otherwise would’ve been involved.

Babcock confessed feeling a pang of jealousy regarding head coach Willie Desjardins (imagine that), and 2014 gold medallist Alex Pietrangelo (a shoe-in for Canada) tries not to think about what could’ve been.

“It’s above my level and out of my control,” Pietrangleo said. “To this day, I will say it’s the best thing I’ve done. The experience is unbelievable.”

The all-star defenceman did send a wish that 2022 hopefuls like Connor McDavid and Matthews get their Olympic bid down the road.

3. The Blue Jackets are well aware that the One That Got Away, William Karlsson, has skyrocketed from Columbus role player to expansion draft fodder to sixth overall in goal-scoring.

Karlsson’s 24 goals through 44 games (five of them game-winners, two of them shorthanded, and only three with the man-advantage) easily set the pace for the Vegas Golden Knights. (He or Jonathan Marchessault should’ve been the club’s all-star representative over of James Neal, in my opinion, but I’ll digress.)

“He’s been unbelievable. We’ve seen nothing but great things. Hopefully when we play him [Tuesday], he doesn’t get one against us,” says Jackets defenceman Seth Jones, who buys into the Knights’ chip-on-the-shoulder mojo. “They looked at the expansion team and said, ‘It’s a fresh start.’”

Jones believes Karlsson’s middling stats in Columbus had nothing to do with lack of talent and more to do with lack of offensive opportunity.

“He had great skill. Anytime we were down a couple men in our lineup, he’d be on our power-play working the half wall. You could see the skill he had,” Jones says. “I just think we had a lot of depth. He was one of our best PKers. Now he’s playing in all situations in Vegas, and we’re happy for him.”

General manager Jarmo Kekalainen dived into the topic during a good interview on Sportsnet’s Vancouver station (listen below). He doesn’t sound bitter and pointed out that just because Karlsson is a 20-goal man in Vegas doesn’t automatically mean he would’ve put up the same numbers had Columbus kept him. So many un-quantifiable factors at play.

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January 10 2018

4. A fine would have been the easy way out for rookie NHL department of player safety chief George Parros. But fines are typically punishments for slashes or dives or unsportsmanlike behaviour, not hits to the head of a player without the puck.

However painful in light of his awe-inspiring ironman streak, suspending Andrew Cogliano was the right call.

I had a chance to sit down with Cogliano a couple seasons ago, and he was incredibly modest about his ongoing accomplishment.

Two things stood out: his comments on his parents’ work ethic and the fact he couldn’t even remember missing a practice. Practice?!

A quick snippet from that old column:

Cogliano’s perfect attendance record stretches back beyond his Oilers days. Has he ever missed a game? A morning skate? At the University of Michigan? As a kid playing minor hockey in Vaughn, Ont.? Bueller?

“Probably I did,” he says, guessing. “I just can’t think of it. Doesn’t ring a bell.”

5. It makes me happy when wealthy people spend their money on cool if a little ridiculous things, the type of indulgences the 12-year-old you would see and say, “I’m totally buying that when I’m rich.”

Check out what California boy Patrick Marleau had constructed in his new bad-ass backyard in Toronto — the Marleau Bros Arena.

“Selfishly it was because of my childhood,” Marleau told NHL.com’s Dave McCarthy.

“I wanted to give it to [my sons] and let them have that experience as well. For me growing up in Saskatchewan we had a pond that we’d clean off in the winter and skate on, and I thought that was pretty cool. Being up here in Toronto in the snow and the cold, I thought it would be a great opportunity for the kids to skate whenever they wanted.

“It’s nice seeing my kids going out there when there’s snow to shovel it off. I can’t get them to pick up clothes off the floor, but they’ll go shovel the snow.”

6. Coming home from their bye week, the Maple Leafs updated the team slogan that hangs above their practice lockers at the MasterCard Centre.

Out is “Play fast. Play right.” In is “It’s a privilege. Not a right.”

The new all-caps motto is a nod to the way the late, great Johnny Bower felt about wearing the Maple Leaf on his chest. The initials “JB” punctuate the signage.

“Johnny is a special guy, a special Leaf, special human being,” Babcock explained. “For him to view [playing in Toronto] that way, and at his celebration of life for people to talk that way, I thought it was really special and what jumped out to me.

“So I like to think we all take it seriously. I think it looks good [on the wall] and Johnny Bower is with us.”

Nazem Kadri agrees: “That’s our motto, our identity, it being a privilege every day to put on that sweater and represent Toronto.”

The sentiment also aligns with Babcock’s culture of not taking anything for granted, of living scared, of fighting for ice time and power-play minutes, and always putting the good of the team first.

7. They call him Starter Hutton now.

What impressed Blues coach Mike Yeo most about Carter Hutton — the million-dollar backup he chose to start Tuesday coming off the bye week even though Jake Allen was well-rested — in his 2-1 victory over Toronto is how he responded after giving up this shorthanded breakaway to Connor Brown in the third period.

“I bit too early,” Hutton said. “I think the last three goals I’ve given up were on breakaways, so that’s something I need to tighten up. Trying to be a little more patient.”

Yeo thinks it could’ve easily been 3-0 Leafs had Hutton not shaken that off and responded with big saves late.

“He’s a competitor. That’s what you like,” Yeo said. “You can see the way he’s battling around the net. You think he’s down and out. Next thing you know, he’s up and in position for the next play.”

The Blues have lost eight of the past nine games in which Allen, a 27-year-old with more money and security in his contract, has taken the crease.

Hutton leads all NHL goalies in save percentage (.943). His last six starts have resulted in wins over Carolina, New Jersey, Vegas, Toronto, Ottawa, and an OT loss to Washington.

“He’s played well. He deserves to be in,” Yeo said of Hutton, who has swiped the No. 1 job.

“There’s been a lot of talk about Jake, and that’s understandable. We’re not going to try to dodge that. Jake’s not going to try to dodge that. He would agree that, Number 1, he’s not solely to blame for the losses he’s gotten there, but he would be the first to admit there’s another level to his game there, and we’re confident he’ll get there.”

The 32-year-old Hutton, a career backup, will be an unrestricted free agent on July 1. The Blues also have highly touted 22-year-old goaltending prospect Ville Husso excelling in the AHL. Goalie controversies are nothing new in St. Louis, but it’ll be fun to see how this all shakes out.

“It’s such a long season, you need two guys to carry you through 82 games. Whether it’s Jakey or I, we’re going to compete and help the team win,” said Hutton, who has never had a contract beyond two years.

“I honestly don’t think of the end of the road. I try to chip away at it. Truthfully, with experience, you learn to take it game by game and practice by practice. We have a really good setup here with Jake and [goalie coach] Dave Alexander. He does good work with me and keeps me sharp. If I am playing a lot or if it’s spread out, I am ready to go. I just worry about winning games.”

He accomplished that Tuesday by stoning William Nylander on breakaway, then Matthews on a one-timer. The Blues scored seconds later.

“[Nylander] got in a little tight and made a move and I was able to stay with him. It’s a timely save; it’s overtime. The next one, I kinda knew Matthews was open, so I was cheating toward him,” Hutton said.

Cool side note. When Hutton discovered he was starting in Toronto, he texted his “hockey nut” father in Thunder Bay: “Find a flight.” He booked his dad a hotel because he’d never been able to watch him at the Air Canada Centre.

8. One more on Hutton.

Goalie stats can be skewed depending on the strength of the defences they stand behind (thinking of the New York Islanders here), and Hutton knows he has operated behind two good ones in Nashville and St. Louis.

“A little more size here, bigger bodies net-front battling with guys. In Nashville, they were a bit smaller. They had guys who could really wheel,” Hutton says. “But I’ve been very fortunate to have good D cores who do a good job battling on rebounds and eliminating second chances.”

9. The Blues have fallen to 19th overall in scoring with Jaden Schwartz (ankle) on injured reserve. It’s not just that Schwartz, who has 35 points in 30 games, isn’t around to produce. Brayden Schenn and Vladimir Tarasenko haven’t been quite the same without Schwartz driving the top line.

“He’s like an engine, really. Every time he goes out on the ice, he brings momentum to your team,” Yeo explains.

“It’s the skill level he plays the game with, it’s the hockey sense, but more so than anything else, his tenacity, his second and third efforts are contagious with the rest of the group.”

The power play has also taken a hit. St. Louis won’t win many playoff series without improving a 29th-ranked (14.5%) PP performance.

Alex Steen was asked this week what he thought of the power play.

“Not very good,” he replied. Then came six excruciating seconds of silence. ‘Nuff said.

10. I wrote about the possibility of Toronto’s Morgan Rielly subbing in for Victor Hedman at the All-Star Game earlier this week but didn’t have space for Rielly’s thoughts on Hedman.

Rielly says he is a student of the league and likes to crib elements from other top defencemen.

“But at the same time, you want to be your own player. Every player is different. You have to be a little unique. It’s important to mix and match between styles and things you like to do,” he explains.

So what about Hedman’s style impresses him most?

“The way he jumps up in the play,” Rielly says.

“He’s a big guy. He’s very responsibly defensively. He’s a great skater. He can jump up in the play and score goals and create offence as good as anybody else in the league. He’s a guy I’ve really admired for a long time.”

11. As the Leafs await the return of injured second-pairing defenceman Nikita Zaitsev and rotate bodies to fill in the gap, we asked Rielly whom he believes has made the most of the freed-up minutes.

Newbie Travis Dermott was the first name out of his mouth. Rielly is a big advocate of the rookie.

“Dermy’s played some games now. He looks good,” Rielly said. “When you lose a guy that’s very important to the team like Z, it’s important that multiple guys step up.”

For Dermott’s debut earlier this month, he was given the number 3, last worn by ex-captain Dion Phaneuf. (For what it’s worth, Dermott wears 8 with the Marlies, but that number is taken by Connor Carrick.)

When Dermott returned to the Leafs’ room Monday, there was a “23” on his helmet instead. Don’t ask, just play.

“I don’t think I’ll come in telling anyone what number I want anytime soon,” Dermott smiled.

12. Count Lawson Crouse among the millennial pros who can’t help but scan Hockey Twitter.

In a hilarious display of fact-checking Tuesday, the Arizona Coyotes prospect corrected @kunfu_canuck, who replied to a James Mirtle comment on teams passing on Mathew Barzal in the draft:

A good sport, the hockey fan and blogger changed his Twitter handle to “Victim of Lawson Crouse.”

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