Quick Shifts: Why Babcock’s Spezza challenge feels so familiar

Mike Babcock spoke about the Maple Leafs’ loss to the Senators and what he thought of veteran Jason Spezza.

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

1. “He’s trying to figure it out if he’s interested, and we’re doing the same.”

One open-to-interpretation comment from Mike Babcock is all it takes.

The Toronto Maple Leafs head coach’s assessment of new guy Jason Spezza’s first pre-season performance Tuesday evening in St. John’s raised eyebrows and provided the first post-Marner-contract talking point for the never-satiated beast that is sports talk in Toronto.

So, is Babcock simply trying to light a fire under an accomplished 1,065-game NHL veteran who accepted the league minimum to return to his hometown and try, at age 36, to finally realize a championship dream that has eluded him for 16 seasons?

Is he using Spezza’s situation to motivate the tryouts actually on the bubble?

Or is the coach actually hesitant to bank on a fading 90-point superstar to fill a very specific checking role? Kill penalties, win draws, forecheck hard, get off, and get used to skating (hard!) fewer than 10 minutes a night.

What’s curious is that no one thought Spezza’s 4C job would be in doubt.

Frederik Gauthier — God love the guy — isn’t exactly the type of player we’d describe as “difficult to replace.” Spezza’s experience and leadership is supposed to offset the losses of Patrick Marleau and Ron Hainsey, a couple of other guys who know what it’s like to see Round 4 of the playoffs. Spezza’s openness to filling in on the wing and ability to make plays on the second power-play unit or contribute a little higher up the lineup in case of emergency were seen as benefits.

GM Kyle Dubas said Spezza was accepting a reduced role with eyes wide open, and the player began training at the Leafs facility weeks ahead of camp, bonding with some of the young players on and off the ice.

So… now his interest and/or the Leafs’ interest is already up for debate?

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Babcock loves a faceoff won.

Working in Spezza’s favour is that no NHLer who took at least 135 faceoffs last season had more success than the former Dallas Star. He won 58.6 per cent of his draws (470 for 807), yet took only three shorthanded faceoffs.

Gauthier, by comparison, was excellent at shorthanded draws, winning 61.1 per cent of them, and held his own overall — 53.7 per cent (240 for 447).

As evidenced by his effort thus far at camp, the Gaut knows full well he’s fighting for a job.

Babcock’s comments on Spezza perk the ears because of the coach’s history with veterans in decline.

In 2010-11 with Detroit, Babcock memorably scratched Hall of Famer Mike Modano, who retired stuck on 1,499 games played. Those sittings still don’t sit well.

“It’s nothing personal, but he’s a tough guy to play for if you’re a veteran. If you’re a young guy, I think it’s great because of the accountability. If you don’t play [properly], you’re not going to play,” Chris Chelios said in 2017. “But no matter what I did — I tried so hard to win his heart over and I just couldn’t.

“It took all those years to find a coach that — I wouldn’t say not like me, but just didn’t want me in the lineup.”

To be fair, whatever lineup Babcock decides to ice needs to be his call. It’s not a stretch to believe the coach’s own fate rests with how far he can take the group.

If a man is about to live or die by the sword, he should at least get his pick from the quiver.

As for what Spezza might be thinking, we spoke to another veteran UFA who joined a Babcock team anticipating a certain role only to find himself healthy-scratched repeatedly.

“You guys [in the media] have had some good thoughts on why that might be the case,” he said.

“Obviously, as a player, you try to figure out what you can do to earn that trust. It didn’t seem like it was there from before training camp, let alone after that – which is not what I expected coming in. It was a surprise to come into that situation. What the reasons are, you’d probably have to ask others.”

2. Mike Liut is still in the process of negotiating two of the most intriguing second contracts for the unsigned RFAs. His star clients, Patrik Laine and Mikko Rantanen, are running into wildly different obstacles. According to Liut, who appeared on Sportsnet 650 Wednesday, neither situation is close to a resolution.

The Jets are thin enough on cap space that a bridge deal appears to be best path to a settlement. Colorado has oodles of cap room, but a Mitch Marner-type deal for Rantanen — and Liut openly applauds that comparable — would give the winger $4.593 million (or 73 per cent) more in annual salary than his centreman and club MVP Nathan MacKinnon, admittedly one of the league’s greatest bargains.

Powers like Tampa, Pittsburgh and Boston have sustained their windows of contention, in part, by not allowing their internal salary structures to get out of whack like that.

“The Leafs have really looked into the future,” Liut said, forecasting the cap ceiling.

“If history has shown us what the league does on a year-over-year basis, it’s going to go up two [or] two-and-a-half per cent revenue growth.”

Liut ballparks the cap around $83 million in 2020-21, $85 million in 2021-22. Maybe it touches $87 million and change.

“And then we’re going to get a new [U.S.] TV package, and you’re gonna be [at] $93 [million]. Your top line, your top three players, whether they’re defencemen or forwards, are going to be in that range that the Leafs have created. They’re doing it now because they can. That’s cap management,” Liut said.

“When the cap rises to meet that demand, you’re good. But that’s the bet that you’re making. That’s the business.”

This was the first I’d heard an educated guess at an actual cap number once the new American broadcast rights kick in for 2022-23.

Granted, we’re talking hypotheticals here, but at $93 million, Toronto’s big four — Marner, Auston Matthews, John Tavares and William Nylander — would account for 43.5 per cent of the Leafs’ payroll. Also that summer: Morgan Rielly will be in line for a raise.

“It’s going to be like a junior club,” Liut said. “You’re rolling your team in and out every four years. You’re not staying with the same group for extended periods of time.”

Laine & Rantanen's agent on getting new deals: We're not close
September 18 2019

3. By all accounts he can be demanding of his teammates and himself, but I’ve appreciated the way Blake Wheeler has handled the scrutiny on Laine, the Jets and his own leadership style at camp this month.

Wheeler was refreshingly candid and self-reflective during his sit-down with Sara Orlesky, and the way he handled questions about Laine’s suggestion that he’d rather be playing on the top line was superb (watch here).

Coach Paul Maurice’s evaluation that “the individual experience is secondary to the team experience” is also something to keep in mind.

The frightening part for the Jets is that the unsettling headlines keep tumbling in. If Dustin Byfuglien has indeed played his final game, that leaves only Josh Morrissey of the club’s top five D-men from 2018-19.

“What’s that quote about rough seas making a good sailor?” Maurice said. “Little bit of turbulence maybe outside the jet, but inside the jet it’s good.”

The Jets captain and head coach have been excellent at containing the blaze. But make no mistake, the fires are still burning.

4. In a bad news week for the Senators owner, the Senators GM pulled up his tights, threw on a cape and came to the rescue with some good news.

The long-term extensions Pierre Dorion has negotiated with Colin White and now Thomas Chabot this summer have put a couple cornerstones in place. Brady Tkachuk can start negotiating in July. If he re-ups, the building blocks for a contender will be in place.

Be patient, Ottawa. There’s something brewing.

Is now a good time to remind you the Sens have five picks in the first two rounds of the 2020 draft?

5. Traded for one another in 2016, Erik Gudbranson and Jared McCann now find themselves starting their first full season together as members of the Pittsburgh Penguins.

The ex-Canucks recently took time to reflect on what went wrong in Vancouver.
“I don’t think I ever found my stride there. I don’t think I found that confidence that can make you better, make you feel at ease making plays. I just never found that,” says Gudbranson, expected to make up a rather rugged D pairing with Jack Johnson in Pittsburgh.

“Now I’d like to think I’m in a spot where I’ve found something different. I don’t think it’s a knock on any side. It’s just a situation that didn’t work out as originally planned.”

To what does Gudbranson attribute the lost confidence? Injury? Ice time? Role?

“It was a number of things. A lot of it is on me. It was more just… not finding it,” the big D-man says. “It was a great learning experience. I loved living there. I didn’t stay as healthy as I wanted to, and they handled those situations very professionally and got me in good health and helped me out a lot, so I have to thank them deeply for that.”

In 2015-16, Vancouver rushed prospect McCann into the NHL at age 19 at a time the organization was in rebuild denial. The Ontario native still maintains friendships in B.C. and has nothing but good things to say about the club that drafted him.

“Things didn’t work out for whatever reason,” says McCann, who scored a career-best 19 goals last season and is upbeat entering a platform year. He wants to re-sign.

“I’ve moved on now, and I feel like I’ve found a great place to play in Pittsburgh…. I love it there. They gave me the opportunity to show that I can play at that level and be a goal scorer in the league. I would love to stay there.”

McCann remembers popping in and out of the Canucks lineup as the club was deciding whether it preferred him or their other promising rookie winger, Jake Virtanen.

“It was a tough situation for a lot of the young guys there. We were battling for a job, right? If one of us was in, the other was out. It created…”

McCann pauses to choose his words.

“Before that, me and Jake were really good friends — we still are now — but we got put against each other. As a kid, that becomes, ‘Hey, I gotta beat this guy.’ That’s just the way the NHL is. You’ve gotta have that mindset. When you move on, you look back on it, and it’s good now. We’re fine now. We talked a bit, actually, [in August].”

Despite their rocky starts, you believe Gudbranson and McCann — a pair of first-rounders already on their third teams — when they say that Pittsburgh feels right, finally, and that they still root for the Canadian city that dealt them away.

“The NHL is a cyclical league,” Gudbranson reasons.

“Vancouver is on the upswing. They’re just two teams and different stages — very much so. The players, the coaching staff, everything in Vancouver is taking steps to go in the right way and they’ve got some incredible young talent there that’s going to help the future. I really liked what they did on July 1. I think they’re really going to make a difference this year and hopefully push for a spot.”

6. Vince Dunn is just a hockey player out here saying hockey player things:

7. Evander Kane spoke about the loss of his unborn daughter, Eva.

“It definitely makes you realize what’s important,” Kane told NBC Sports. “Every minute, you had different emotions, different feelings. My wife [Anna], seeing what she went through, it was harder on nobody else but her.”

Kane revealed the tragedy, which occurred six months ago, on Twitter — and it was interesting that he tweeted out the NBC story to his 225,000 followers. He wants to give his fans a window into something personal.

Kane’s family also found comfort from Sharks defenceman Erik Karlsson and his wife, Melinda, who lost their unborn child in 2018.

“Having a fellow teammate that has been through that process as well, and our wives being good friends, I think that definitely helped,” Kane said.

“It will always be a process, and we just want to cherish her much as we can. For me, that’s how I’ll move on. I find myself talking to her, even though nobody is around. It’s one of the ways I kind of find peace with it.”

8. The backloaded structure of Brock Boeser’s three-year deal in Vancouver essentially ensures the young sniper will return, at minimum, for a fourth season at $7.5 million (provided the sides don’t ink an extension before the qualifying offer stage).

From the player’s perspective, Boeser’s next raise is smartly scheduled for the same season veterans Loui Eriksson, Antoine Roussel and Jay Beagle (a combined $12 million cap hit) all come off the books, plus the year that aforementioned influx of U.S. broadcasting cash is expected to pump up the cap. Even with Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes needing raises the summer prior, the bases are loaded for a grand slam.

So, you have to wonder if, in hindsight, we’ll be saying the Canucks missed the boat on a longer deal and gambling on Boeser the way, say, Arizona is gambling on Clayton Keller.

9. Jordan Binnington was shocked how often he was recognized outside of St. Louis this summer. Though he’s relatively tight-lipped when the microphones are on, he’s outgoing in public.

The realization that a simple autograph or selfie can make some stranger’s day has boosted his confidence and made him more at ease, even if it still feels like fame came out of nowhere.

“It happened quickly, but it’s been great,” say Binnington, who believes fortune favours the bold. “Just putting yourself out there.”

That ice-veined assuredness remains firmly intact.

“I’m really happy with where I’m at right now,” Binnington says. “Everyone’s their own person. For me, I try to find my motivation every day, whether it’s my own swagger and feeling myself that day, I adapt to whatever I’m feeling, so I like to have a good presence.

“Just my whole demeanour, I like the way I roll, the way I work.”

Who says “I like the way I roll” with a straight face?

A Stanley freaking Cup champion, that’s who.

10. Looking way too far ahead to February, a few teams that fancy themselves as playoff contenders will need to get creative — i.e. move out actual roster money, not just picks or prospects — if they want to be trade deadline buyers. In terms of projected cap hits, the Maple Leafs, Canucks, Capitals and Penguins are all over the limit.

Yet another challenge of the cap ceiling remaining relatively flat this season.

The fact the Leafs and Canucks have already spent their 2020 first-round draft picks, and the Penguins traded their 2020 second-rounder, will make adding a mid-season talent boost all the more challenging.

11. After playing top-four minutes as a 25-year-old defender in 2018-19, unrestricted free agent Ben Hutton finally found a team in the Kings, a full week after players reported to their respective NHL cities. Will anyone welcome Dion Phaneuf, Dan Girardi, Adam McQuaid or Marc Methot to their bottom pair?

Up front, four veteran UFA forwards who scored at least 16 goals last season are floating unclaimed less than two weeks from puck drop: Brian Boyle, Patrick Marleau, Jason Pominville and Thomas Vanek. Who retires? Who gets an urgent call when early-season injuries hit?

12. Call me sacrilegious, but I kinda liked seeing the Maple Leafs and Senators play that exhibition game in St. John’s with blue goalposts.

Why not bright green posts in Minnesota, orange ones in Philly, and golden posts in Vegas?

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