A quick mix of the things we gleaned from the week of hockey, serious and less so, and rolling four lines deep.
1. There is something you must keep in mind: No one likes being a Toronto Maple Leaf more than Morgan Rielly.
So when Toronto trades for a legitimate top-pair defender in Jake Muzzin, and Rielly’s mom, Shirley, giddily rushes to Google to see Muzzin curves his blade the same way as her Norris-convo son, something’s gotta give.
Rielly, the longest-serving Leaf with a letter on his sweater, said all the right things Thursday after practising on his unnatural side, taking one for the team, making it a little easier on the new guy.
The lefty told the gathered media that hockey’s randomness would often push him to the right side anyway. That if you’re communicating with your partner, sides don’t matter much. He downplayed switching east-west in the middle of the best season of his life, as any good pro should.
But I couldn’t help but flash back to a conversation I had with Rielly in the fall of 2017, when the acquisition of security blanket Ron Hainsey meant he’d get finally get the chance to skate on his preferred left side for a full season.
“It’s tough,” Rielly said then, twice, when I asked him to describe playing right D as a left shot.
“When you have the puck on your off side, your forehand is facing south and you want to go north with it. So you have to bring it across your body and you have to open up more. It’s tougher to survey the ice as opposed to when you’re playing the left side and your forehand’s going north and you’re looking up-ice — that’s easier.”
Hey, if Hainsey can get used to playing the off side, so can Rielly. Or Muzzin.
“Some things are easier, others are harder,” said Hainsey, who’s had to take an adapt-or-die approach late in his 16-year career.
“Once you get over there for a while, your skating and your pivots and stuff down low become relatively easy. There are things puck-handling-wise that you’re limited with. You’re limited going cross-ice because you’re opened up instead of looking up-ice.
“In the neutral zone you’re limited, but in the offensive zone, if you can walk the line, you have an advantage. In the corners, sometimes it’s easier to make a play on your backhand instead of your forehand. Stuff like that. There’s pros and cons to both.”
We’re certainly not saying the versatile, amenable Rielly can’t handle a challenge.
We are saying that positioning your best defenceman anywhere less than his most comfortable position is not a long-term solution.
2. Sidney Crosby’s list of NHL trophies won is jaw-dropping. At 31, the man had already captured 13 different major league or individual awards heading into all-star weekend, some of them three or four times over.
Then, after going out last Saturday and capturing an honour he’d never won before (the All-Star Game MVP), he drew up blueprints on his next heist.
Have you ever mastered one thing to the point where it’s so easy that you have to dream up new challenges to keep yourself motivated? Micheal Jordan had to take up baseball. A younger Luke got so dope at NHL Hitz in 2003, I tried to win the Cup using the Atlanta Thrashers.
Crosby has added the Frank J. Selke Trophy to his bucket list and, slowly but surely, he’s wedging himself into the conversation.
It wasn’t until 2010 that Crosby popped up on any writer’s ballot, finishing 30th in Selke voting. He was a fringe player in the ballot count until the past three seasons, where he’s finished in the top 10.
Crosby’s Selke peak was in 2015-16, when he finished seventh overall (4.7 per cent of the votes).
I had him a hair outside my top three at the halfway mark, so here’s betting he sets a new personal best in Selke votes.
“I’d like to be in the conversation, for sure. I mean, I think your play has to earn that. Anyone can say that, but I think I definitely want to be known as a player who’s responsible defensively, and I want to be good offensively, but do it the right way,” Crosby says. “For the most part this year, that’s been the case. I think you leave that up to others to watch and decide, but I certainly take a lot of pride in being good defensively.”
Despite carrying the burden of a shutdown role, Crosby’s plus-19 rating ranks 11 points higher than any other Penguins forward and sets him up for his best mark ever in season in which he’s played more than 41 games.
He’s skating nearly 21 minutes nightly and winning 56.3 per cent of his draws. Anything above 55.9 would signal a career best.
While Crosby’s reputation as one of the game’s elite offensive talents could cause some Selke voters to overlook him, the only legitimate knock might be that he’s averaging just 0:23 per night on the penalty kill.
“I think just overall as a line we’ve been strong at both ends of the ice,” Crosby says. “I feel pretty good about my game. I feel like the consistency has been there.”
Hey, Jordan won the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year. If Crosby is setting his mind on accomplishing something, only a fool would bet against him.
Side note: Crosby also represents the NHL’s best bet to end the All-Star MVP curse, in place for a decade.
Since Eric Staal in 2008, no player named Most Valuable Player of the All-Star Game has been invited back to participate in the weekend the following year. (Vancouver’s Brock Boeser, who gave the free car in 2018 to his sister, fell victim this winter.)
As long as Flyers fans don’t start sewing voodoo dolls, Crosby should be a 2020 all-star.
3. I lied. There were more than 19 awesome things about all-star weekend.
The 20th awesome thing is the event serves as an unofficial Comic Con for hockey nerds, a term I used endearingly. Takes one to know one.
“Especially in an atmosphere like this, there’s a lot of those guys, which makes it a lot of fun,” said Mark Scheifele (another Selke contender on the rise) of hockey’s pocket-protector class.
“You can kinda tell by watching a guy play. And you talk to guys and hear stories about certain guys, so you learn which guys like to talk about that kinda stuff and be analytical.”
Before he returned to Winnipeg, I asked Scheifele if there was a single interaction from his first all-star experience that stood out.
“I was talking with Sid at centre ice, and we were looking at each other’s sticks. I’m a big stick aficionado. I love talking to guys about that side of the game — skill stuff and curves. Talking to him about that stuff was pretty cool, something I’ll remember for a long time,” Scheifele replied. “That’s the coolest thing.
“You’re at an event with a bunch of elite hockey players that think the game at a really high level, so it’s cool to bounce ideas off guys, pick their brain. Patty Kane is one that comes to mind; I talked to him a lot [over the weekend], so picking his brain was exciting.”
Crosby’s left curve is famously mild to enhance his backhand. Scheifele says he changed his curve a few years ago at the behest of Adam Oates, hockey whisperer to the stars.
“He’s probably the smartest hockey mind I’ve ever met. I’m pretty lucky I get to work with him. He’s happy with my curve right now. There’s a few other things we gotta fix,” Scheifele said.
OK, so how specifically did you change the blade?
“That’s my secret,” Scheifele said. “Can’t tell you that.”
4. If the Colorado Avalanche hoped it had set an internal cap when it gave young franchise centre Nathan MacKinnon $6.3 million times seven years out of his entry-level deal, Mikko Rantanen will force Joe Sakic to break out his calculator.
The man holding down second place in the Art Ross race will earn a paltry $832,500 in 2018-19 salary. No one forward currently on the Avs’ roster holds a lower cap hit.
Colorado hardly qualifies as a cap team (only Carolina and New Jersey operate with a smaller payroll), so space isn’t the issue here.
But as antsy as Colorado fans are to have this bit of business tidied up, Rantanen says both sides have agreed to delay extension negotiations until the off-season and devote all focus to rallying in the playoffs.
“The contract year, I can’t deny it or say I don’t think about, but it’s been good. Everybody on the team has helped me a lot, and my linemates have helped me a lot. It’s been a lot of fun. I try not to think about it too much,” the impending RFA says.
“It’s next summer’s thing. I don’t have to think about it now.”
The gigantic 22-year-old’s humility is arresting. He repeatedly described his all-star invite as “a dream come true” and exudes a genuine happy-to-be-here vibe, despite following up an 84-point sophomore campaign with a ridiculous 74 points in the first 50 games of his platform season.
“If it’s a contract year or not, you’re trying to prove yourself because you’re still a young player. It’s my third year in the league, so I’m still trying to prove I can do what I did last year,” Rantanen insists. “I don’t think there’s time for talks too much. Just concentrating on hockey right now.”
5. May all your daughters grow up to be as inspired and inspiring as Kendall Coyne Schofield.
As the speedy Olympic champ’s profile skyrocketed once she became the first woman to compete (mighty well) in the NHL’s skills contest, she was invited to provide some colour commentary during NBC’s broadcast of Lightning-Penguins on Wednesday.
Coyne Schofield was a communications major and sideline reporter when she studied at Northeastern University. Describing herself as “more than ecstatic” upon receiving the offer, the actual execution has been categorized as, at best, awkward and, at worst, mansplainful to watch:
Revolutions aren’t supposed to go down smoothly, but Coyne Schofield is doing more than her part to dampen the dust clouds as she curb-stomps barriers. The letter she tweeted in response to the negative reaction to how she was framed during her sideline cameo was a masterclass in, um, class.
— Tampa Bay Lightning (@TBLightning) January 31, 2019
Also: This photo!
6. Devan Dubnyk might be the last grown-up taking the NHL All-Star Game seriously. Turns out, the Minnesota Wild goaltender’s gotta-see-it windmill glove save on Connor McDavid’s breakaway was no fluke.
“I watched him go high glove like four or five times, and they all went in. The guys all played it more orthodox. So I thought, the only way to stop him high glove was to take a big swing at it,” smiled Dubnyk, surprised how much sweat he’d worked up during a 10-minute shift.
“Yeah, he was laughing. I can’t repeat what he said. He was joking. It was funny. Hopefully the fans enjoyed it.”
McDavid’s temporary teammate, Marc-Andre Fleury, loved the highlight so much, he started smacking his stick on the ice from the other end.
“That was a fun save to watch,” Fleury said. “It was awesome. He’s such a big guy, right? When he throws it out there, it’s so fun to watch.”
McDavid was in disbelief.
“I said, ‘You thought I was shooting there? You must’ve just known,’ ” McDavid said. “Obviously, he’s a guy that does his homework. A really nice save, but I’ll have to get him back one day.”
Laughing, Dubnyk told McDavid that he’d just summoned bad karma by pre-scouting an all-star opponent. The Oilers travel to Minnesota Thursday.
“I’m sure he’ll find a way to bite me after I threw it in his face like that,” Dubnyk chuckled.
The scene prompts a question: Which is the last goalie in the world McDavid wants to see as he’s streaking in on a breakaway?
“I’m not going to say,” McDavid said. “I don’t want him to know he’s the guy.”
— Meghan Chayka (@MeghanChayka) January 23, 2019
7. When I asked McDavid to describe his relationship with new Oilers interim GM Keith Gretzky, he said this: “Basic. I know him a little bit. I don’t know him a tremendous amount, but that’s [the case] with a lot of GMs.”
While it would be unreasonable to expect McDavid to be super-tight with an Oilers scout, the superstar was especially tight with his Erie Otters GM, Sherry Basin. (Check this headline out.)
The new wave of NHL exec is taking a hands-on approach. It’s not uncommon to see Kyle Dubas engaged in one-on-one chats with Leafs players after road games, and John Chayka says he has “tons of communication with players” in Arizona.
Chayka tells an anecdote from early in his tenure when he invited a struggling Coyotes player out for dinner during a Denver road trip. That raised eyebrows with the some of the veterans on the club.
So Chayka said, “Well, are you fine with it? Does it bother you?”
“We’re OK with that, but we’ve never really seen that,” a veteran replied.
“If you’re OK with it, I don’t see an issue,” Chayka replied. “Get used to it, because that’s the type of relationship I want to have with my players; it’s their careers and lives; know how they’re valued and in plans long-term; more a supportive chat than breaking out salt and pepper shakers.”
Chayka isn’t shuffling the salt and pepper shakers around the table and running through forecheck strategies during these meetings, but he is trying to be a voice of support for his players’ careers and their lives. He wants the dialogue open.
Both Chayka and Dubas share quotes or recommended reading to their players if they think it can help.
There is a way, some GMs believe, to have a beyond-basic relationship with your players without undermining the coach.
8. The Tampa Bay Lightning are in a fascinating positioning heading into the trade deadline. The league front-runners only have $1.7-million in projected cap space, and depending if they win the Cup or not, they’re either losing their first- or second-round pick to New York as compensation for last year’s Ryan McDonagh trade.
And yet they kicked tires on Jake Muzzin and are reportedly hunting for a right-shot defenceman like the rest of the world. There is also concern in that city that the Bolts need another scorer, which seems ridiculous knowing Tampa has the No. 1 offence and No. 1 power play, but this same core bowed out of the 2018 playoffs by getting shut out back-to-back by Washington.
There is value in not disrupting chemistry. I see other contenders (Boston, Columbus, Pittsburgh, Nashville, Winnipeg, San Jose) out-bidding Tampa for the big fish, but the wild card is rookie GM Julien BriseBois.
How aggressive is he?
9. Saw a demonstration of the new game pucks with Thermochromic coating that will inform NHL officials when the puck is no longer at a temperature suitable for action.
Vulcanized rubber glides smoother and faster when frozen, so once the logo on the puck turns purple (at 30°F or -1°C), it will alert the ref or linesman that the game puck is too warm and needs to be replaced with a fresh, frozen one from the cooler.
This will cut down on bouncing, a small step toward limiting the power of puck luck.
It’s like hockey has discovered a practical use for the tech in my Hypercolor T-shirts.
The coating, supplied by PPG, was first used on the Winter Classic pucks and again at the All-Star Game.
The plan is to make temperature-controlled pucks standard for the 2019-20 season.
10. I envisioned the Vegas Golden Knights as a stay-pat team this winter until I listened to owner Bill Foley’s bold words on this week’s NHL Executive Suite podcast.
“I’ve told people now that I’m not only convinced we’re going to win a Stanley Cup but I want to create the dynasty,” Foley said. “I want to have this team known as being a dynasty, winning multiple Stanley Cups over an extended period of time. That’s my next job. That’s my next mission.”
Add the facts that (a) Erik Haula is not guaranteed to return, (b) this is the team that boldly spent big on Tomas Tatar a year ago, and (c) the Knights hold two extra 2019 third-rounders, two extra 2019 fifth-rounders, and two extra second-rounders.
Vegas could be the deadline shaker we’re not talking about.
11. P.K. Subban’s new appearance on Kevin Hart’s Cold as Balls — the Streamy Award–winning series in which the comedian conducts sports interviews in twin ice tubs — is must-see YouTube fodder.
Hart’s calling out Drake for not attending Subban’s games is great, but here’s my favourite exchange:
Hart: “First of all, I knew that. I knew you didn’t grow up in the ‘hood because you play hockey.”
Subban: “I will knock you out.”
Cold as Balls comes on the heels of The P.K. Project, Subban’s new series for NBC. In it, P.K.’s sisters roast him for his big hats, he sets his mouth ablaze by trying Hattie B’s hottest chicken, and hosts his own talk show.
Love him or hate him, the man has some great lines, like when he calls brother Malcolm “the Solange to my Queen Bey” during P.K. Subban’s All-Star Special.
“I think P.K. does have a future in television. I hate to say it. I won’t tell him,” confesses Roman Josi, “but he’s actually really good at it, I gotta say.”
12. Robin Lehner is a lock for the Bill Masterton Trophy, is he not?
“When you have a broken leg, everyone knows you have a broken leg. When you’re wounded on the inside and you’re carrying it around, nobody knows unless you’re willing to talk about it,” said Mike Babcock of hockey’s increasing effort to raise awareness around mental health.
“I think the support we have through our medical science team, including our sports psychology people, doctors and strength coaches and everything is unbelievable for players today. You do all you can. In the end, you’ve got to help yourself too. You can help yourself by talking, you can help yourself by reaching out.
“One of the questions I ask every time I meet with a guy is, ‘What are you thinking?’ And usually, you know what they say? ‘Nothing.’ And then you ask again. If you ask it enough, usually you get a pretty good dialogue. I think it’s the same when you’re thinking about your kids, when you’re thinking about anybody in your family — you want people to be doing well. You want them to feel good.
“No athlete performs at his highest level when he’s not feeling good.”