A quick mix of the things we gleaned from the week of hockey, serious and less so, and rolling four lines deep. This week’s column was written while looking right and dekeing left.
1. Morgan Rielly has never played so many minutes.
And it’s never been more difficult for Rielly to play those minutes.
As the Toronto Maple Leafs’ most-used and most-loyal defenceman told Jonas Siegel of The Athletic, he has battled “a pretty significant amount of pain” in his lower body while averaging a career- and team-high 23:53 every night for the Maple Leafs.
He’s had an MRI. He hasn’t skipped a game.
He’s taken multiple practices off, most recently an easy go during Thursday’s outdoor 3-on-3 exhibition at Nathan Phillips Square.
And he hasn’t grumbled once, at least publicly, as he’s watched friend and current partner Tyson Barrie take over his spot on the club’s lethal top power-play unit.
“Mo is a special guy, special player. He’s the heart and soul of this team. Guys love him in the room, and he’s battling some things, but he never complains about it,” Barrie said. “I love the guy, and I think everybody feels that way.”
Kasperi Kapanen echoes the sentiment.
“It just says he’s a pretty big warrior, and he’s just a really big part of our group,” Kapanen said. “That’s reason why he hasn’t been really skipping any games, and it’s huge for us. We need a guy like that on our team, and he’s a big presence in the locker room too. So, hats off to him.”
For months, Rielly, now the longest-tenured Leaf, has played his cards close to the chest — which is not a bad strategy under the Toronto microscope.
Hockey culture tells players not to make excuses. To suck it up when you’re not at your best, or — this week — when the best player on the planet posterizes you on national TV.
But for the first time in seven NHL seasons, Rielly has seen his personal results plummet.
It’s a result of a crazy-low shooting percentage (2.5); the aforementioned injury; the high standard he set in 2018-19’s breakout (which resulted in a high number of Norris, NHL All-Star and Lady Byng votes); the removal of a security-blanket partner in Ron Hainsey; and, now, decreased power-play time.
“It says just how committed he is to the team. That’s a big one. It speaks to his character and just the leadership,” head coach Sheldon Keefe said.
For all the justified press Keefe has received for boosting the non-Mike Babcock guys like Jason Spezza and Barrie, it’s worth noting that Rielly was a Babcock guy.
The former coach would never have demoted him to PP2.
“He’s a team-first guy and he’s out there doing everything he can for us, and we’re happy he’s feeling a little bit better these days. He’s an important guy for our team,” said Keefe, the one who had to tell Rielly to sacrifice his own assists for the sake of Barrie’s mojo.
“Right from my very first discussion with him, he’s recognized the importance of it in terms of getting Barrie more involved in what was happening and accepted that very well. And since then, his attitude towards it has been very good.
“He and Barrie have taken really good steps, with more consistency. Most importantly, Morgan with his attitude, has really shown that he really is about the team, but also recognizing, as I explained to him, that so many other things that he does are important for us, that lessening his load on the power-play may serve the greater good, and he recognizes that.”
2. The Frederik Andersen that smashed his helmet on the bench and got curt with a reporter following what he felt was a premature pull in the Leafs’ 6-4 loss to the Edmonton Oilers Monday night barely resembled the Andersen we saw at practice Tuesday morning. Chatty and happy, he held court with a few reporters for a good long stretch.
He’s a competitive man that hates to abandon the fight — but he flushed it fast.
Keefe typically allows goalie coach Steve Briere to do the bulk of communication. Keefe spoke to Andersen on the bench immediately after pulling him but understood that wasn’t enough.
So, the coach brought his No. 1 into his office prior to Tuesday’s practice to explain his decision: he didn’t like watching the players giving up the Grade-A chances that wear Andersen down, he wanted to grab the skaters’ attention and the club is trying to pick spots for backup Michael Hutchinson to pick up some slack and gain traction of his own.
“I just wanted to make sure I spent some time to elaborate on my brief conversation with him (on the bench). He was really good about it and understood it, recognizes it,” Keefe said. “If we’re going to talk about managing Freddy’s workload, I don’t see any reason why he should’ve been in the net anymore in that game.
“We’re trying to trying to get Freddy at a manageable number (of games played).”
Mitchell Marner was asked if he chooses to let his friend cool after an emotional loss like that or if he tries talking to him right away.
“I texted him (that) night asking if he wanted to play video games. But I think you kind of just let him calm down. We let him out to dry,” Marner replied. “It’s unfair to Freddy, the amount of times he saved us this year, to do that to him.”
The natural follow-up: Which video game?
“Nothing really one game. I got a couple. I’m not saying anymore because everyone just keeps messaging me asking me to play with them, so I’m keeping it dark now,” Marner said.
“He was actually playing a different game. I ain’t saying any games or anything.”
3. For 48 hours, the only thing hockey fans around Toronto wanted to talk about was Connor McDavid’s goal. You know the one.
Beast-mode Matthews is something to behold, and naturally his dying-seconds one-timer gained praise. But he nearly scored on a between-the-legs shot at speed.
This is a guy who has already twice attempted “The Svech” this season. He craves highlights, thrives off creativity.
Matthews also back-checked like a hound and had a game-high three takeaways in that game.
For all the scrutiny Matthews receives for his defensive game, the 22-year-old now has 50 takeaways. Only Selke finalist Mark Stone has more (63).
4. Some weeks I just feel extra lucky to have the job I do. This was one of them.
Seeing the McDavid goal unfold in real time Monday at Scotiabank Arena, then that exhilarating 3-on-3 exhibition between the Leafs and the Winnipeg Jets on Wednesday was a blessing.
As glowingly a review was made of that 3-on-3 OT, the ensuing shootout wasn’t too shabby.
Following the victory, Wheeler gave a nice, detailed account of his shootout strategy on that particular snipe:
“I saw with the first few guys, (Andersen) was playing pretty deep in the net, so I tried to show him a little bit of speed and back him off, and then slow down on him. Our goalies tell us all the time, ‘It’s so hard when you’re stopped on the goal line and you’re trying to read what’s coming next.’
“So, from there, I think the goalies are just trying to get big and take away the bottom part of the net, and you know that five-hole will get open. So I was able to sneak it through just quick enough.”
5. A nice touch by Wheeler ahead of Wednesday’s ceremonial puck drop.
With eight members of Team Canada’s golden world junior squad walking the blue carpet to drop a ceremonial puck at the Jets-Leafs one-anthem game, Winnipeg’s American captain suggested Kitchener, Ont.–born Mark Scheifele glide to centre ice in his stead.
“I was pretty happy to do that,” said Scheifele, who was glued to Sunday’s final. “It was pretty cool to see. It’s always awesome when Canada wins and pretty gutsy when by them.”
So you get a photo op with Akil Thomas & Co. plus Scheifele and Leafs captain John Tavares, who have four world junior tournaments and three medals between them.
6. It’s interesting that only five days prior to Peter Laviolette’s firing, he took time to explain his key to growing as a coach.
“If you’re passionate about what you do as far as being a coach, like if you love what you do and you’re passionate about what you do, that’s probably the best influence that you can have on your team,” Laviolette said.
“I’ve learned that players want to go out on the ice, and they want to work hard, and they want to have fun. I think your job as a coach is to let them do that. So that’s always been kind of a mindset for me: to do the best that you can to, to bring passion to the game to inspire people, to motivate people, and then let them go on the ice and have some fun.”
Maurice, the best dry wit in the biz, considered the list of respected coaches who’ve all lost employment this season, specifically lifers like Laviolette, Peter DeBoer and Mike Babcock.
“I’m concerned about the trend. They’re coming for you one day, right? All of us, no matter what, you’re going to get fired,” Maurice said.
“All three of those guys are coming back. The difference is now they’ve all got huge contracts that they’re sitting on at home and enjoying Christmas — and when they come back, they’re probably making more.”
7. Great final question by Jeff Marek to Maurice, wondering if there has ever been a ruling worth losing $20,000 over.
Better answer by the coach (watch below), who once bought a diamond for his wife with fine money he wanted to spend on blasting an official. Instead he bit his lip and named the diamond after the referee.
“True story,” he said.
8. Wild week for Igor Shesterkin, the highly anticipated New York Rangers goaltending prospect and presumed heir to The King’s throne. The Russian celebrated his 24th birthday, was named to the AHL all-star game and was victorious in his NHL debut (he won his second start, too).
The day he was called up from the AHL, Shesterkin ranked first in goals-against average (1.93), second in save percentage (.932), second in wins (15) and third in shutouts (3).
He could no longer be denied, and the Rangers must see what they have in the 24-year-old ahead of the trade deadline.
As a result, we have ourselves an intriguing crowded-crease dilemma.
Henrik Lundqvist won’t be going anywhere, and 23-year-old backup Alexandar Georgiev (career .913 save percentage) is no longer waivers exempt.
Georgiev is the final season of a cap-friendly deal ($792,500) and surely would get scooped if he hit the wire.
This is a spicy one.
Lundqvist starts Saturday versus the St. Louis Blues, Georgiev backs up and Shesterkin wears the civvies.
The Rangers are a step below the Metropolitan powers and should be sellers. It’ll be fascinating to watch GM Jeff Gorton’s next move.
9. The Svech is having a trickle-down effect, folks. Here’s betting we’re going to see two of these a season throughout the 2020s.
Our friends with the @Canes call this “The Svech”, but we’ve got a couple guys in the #OHL who can pull this off @FlintFirebirds’ @ev_oksentyuk with flawless execution and a groovy little dance to celebrate the occasion pic.twitter.com/5ODqF4mS1a
— OntarioHockeyLeague (@OHLHockey) January 5, 2020
10. When the Jets cruised through Madison Square Garden last season, Maurice threw three of his most dangerous weapons — Scheifele, Wheeler and Kyle Connor — over the boards for puck drop.
Rangers coach David Quinn countered with Marc Staal… “and some kid named Pionk,” Maurice recalls. “And I’m thinking, ‘This is going to be really good for us,’ and we’re down 3-0 after two. Who is this kid? We had a look at him up close there.
“You’re walking off the bench thinking, ‘Who the hell is Neal Pionk? And why’s he shutting down our No. 1 line?’ ”
Since trading cap-crunching Jacob Trouba for Pionk in the off-season, the Jets have been “exceptionally pleased” with their unsung return.
Despite getting thrown together with a mixture of D partners and having his fitness tested by a career-high usage (23:18), the consistent Pionk is posting personal bests in points (29), plus/minus (+5) and Corsi (51 per cent).
Maurice uses the name Joshua Morrissey when describing Pionk’s puck-moving style. Anytime you’re being compared to the club’s best defenceman, it’s a pretty good look.
11. We’re past the halfway mark, and potential Hall of Famer Phil Kessel has nine goals, 18 assists and is a team-worst (by a mile) minus-18 for the Arizona Coyotes. Only three of his goals have arrived at even strength, and he’s on track for his worst stat line in 12 years.
Sure, an 8.7 shooting percentage explains some of the drop-off, but yikes.
12. The Maple Leafs held a skills-only session Tuesday, splitting their forwards and defencemen onto two separate pads.
At one point, six coaches were working with the six Maple Leafs defenders on breakouts and puck retrievals — a student-to-teacher ratio that would embarrass the Toronto District School Board.
“The more the better, especially when working with smaller groups like that,” Keefe said of his posse of helper elves. “We’re very fortunate to have development coaches with very good expertise and experience, some beyond what we focus on as coaches every single day. So it’s a different voice and, in some cases, a more specialized voice in terms of what they what they’re working on.”
In the slog that is 82-game grind, Keefe believes skills development can give his group both a mental and physical break from the constant talk of systems. Plus, when all the drills are 5-on-5, individuals don’t get as many puck touches.
Marner describes it as an energizing reset.
“It’ll show up in games and make a big difference,” Justin Holl added. “Even though we’re at highest level, there’s things we need to improve upon, so there’s no reason we shouldn’t be doing it.”
There is a benefit to introducing new skills as well as refining and reinforcing basic ones, like making quick pulls off the boards for a fast first pass.
“Those details get lost over the course of the season,” Keefe said. “(When) you’re always working at big-picture things and structural things, always working with five players together, you lose the detail.
“It’s a time to really identify certain areas of the game that important or it’s just about getting the players a lot of feel, a lot of touches in a short amount of time.”