A quick mix of the things we gleaned from the week of hockey, serious and less so, and rolling four lines deep.
1. A month ago, before he was a rap song, a TV reporter on a U.S. network posed a question to Auston Matthews.
“One word answer: Are the Leafs a playoff team?” he asked.
“I think so,” Matthews said.
The sloppy, streaky, wonderfully flawed, critically injured, and increasingly desperate Atlantic Division is in for a heck of a March to the post-season.
We’ve written off the Red Wings, who should appear in your trade alerts any minute. And maybe Buffalo, too. But the rest of them?
We can see a future where any one of Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, Boston, Florida or Tampa (a long shot but a scary one) wins the No. 1 seed. And a world where any one of those clubs falls out of the race completely.
Matthews and Co.’s greatest intangible asset may be that they’re playing with house money.
Toronto’s brass shrewdly drove expectations so low through 2015-16’s tank and the rhetoric (“There’s pain coming“) that everything is gravy.
Ottawa and Florida have financial pressure to make it. Boston and Montreal have fan base pressure. Tampa has a championship window that may be closing. Jobs are on the line, but not so much in Toronto.
The big worry for a Leaf fans is: How excited do I allow myself to get?
“The position they’re sitting in right now is the one we want to be in,” Sabres centre Ryan O’Reilly said. “With their youth, to see them climbing into a playoff spot, that’s a little unexpected. I didn’t expect to see them do that.”
Jamie Benn: “They have a lot of young, exciting players. It’s pretty fun to play against these guys. When you’re not on the ice, you just watch the kids fly around.”
Ryan McDonagh: “Even when you have numbers back, they make a pass through you and find someone’s tape. They just need a little bit of ice to make something happen. It’s a challenge defensively.”
Henrik Lundqvist: “They’re on one the most skilled teams in the league. They have a confidence now that we haven’t seen in a couple years with that young group.”
Mike Babcock: “At Game 60, we wanted to have a chance. We have a chance. It’s up to us. Nobody else.”
Popcorn, meet lap.
2. When Mitch Marner returns to Toronto’s lineup (possibly as early as Saturday versus a slouching Montreal), coach Mike Babcock must remove a winger from his current lineup. Opportunist Josh Leivo will make that a difficult decision.
Got into a debate with someone arguing Matt Martin should be the odd forward out. No way.
I understand there is a feeling that lineup spots should go with the fastest skaters and the guys with the best possession metrics, but Martin is a valued member of this group, despite his limited time on ice.
Babcock didn’t like how the Leafs got pushed in 2015-16, and Toronto went out and signed the best fourth-liner on the open market. His teammates love him.
Look no farther back than Tuesday’s sloppy, nasty game versus Winnipeg. Nazem Kadri nails Ben Chiarot with a hit the Jets thought questionable, Dustin Byfuglien goes after Kadri, and Martin wastes all of zero seconds to step in and take on one of the baddest hombres in hockey, rescuing Kadri.
Yes, hockey is softer than it used to be, but it’s not soft. Martin is necessary.
So, my best guess, and I could be completely wrong: Nikita Soshnikov sits out until Leivo or another winger hits a rough patch.
3. In a perfect world 10 years from now, Martin is Shawn Thornton. Florida re-signed the veteran at age 39 when any chart or graph would say, “Steer clear.”
GM-slash-coach Tom Rowe raved about Thornton — a retirement candidate, again, this summer — on a recent conference call.
“What I see is a real intelligent hockey player,” said Rowe. He notes that Thornton’s decision-making is just as important as his physical presence, which changes the complexion of the roster and gives guys like Vincent Trochek some breathing room.
“What I love about [Thornton] is he’s always saying the right things on the bench. He got seven-plus minutes [the other] night, and he’s not sitting there complaining about it, bitching about it, or moaning. He’s handling it like a real pro.”
Florida is 18-9-7 with Thornton in the lineup.
“I’m sure he didn’t even expect to play this much,” Rowe said.
4. If the report that the holy grail of the rental market, Kevin Shattenkirk, was not interested in joining the Lightning on a sign-and-trade is to be believed (and reporter Jeremy Rutherford knows his Blues), then it’s probably safe to say the defenceman will be taking this all the way to July 1 for a major payday.
You don’t want to work a power play on a perennial contender like Tampa? You also turn down a chance to play with Connor McDavid?
He’s far from the perfect D-man, but look at the rest of the 2017 UFA class. Shattenkirk brings a skill-set that separates him from anyone else under 30. He’s going for the Keith Yandle–style home run deal.
5. Montreal is reeling. The Canadiens are the only team that hasn’t benefited from the new-coach bump this season. Claude Julien has yet to get a regulation win with the Habs, who are averaging one goal per game since he took over.
The Canadiens’ grip on the Atlantic Division crown is tenuous. Easy for me to say, but it’s time for Marc Bergevin to push all-in. The trade for Shea Weber, the firing of a first-place coach. Go get Matt Duchene. Don’t half-step with Martin Hanzal.
We see the window for a championship closing upon the expiration of the Max Pacioretty and Carey Price contracts. Go for it.
6. Paul Maurice could write poems about Patrik Laine. You may have heard of him. He’s the kid who surpassed Ilya Kovalchuk’s franchise rookie goal record Tuesday. Thirty goals, with 19 games to pile on.
“He’s got an incredible sense of humour in his second language. Dry sense of humour. Which is one of the tells on how bright he is,” Maurice said. “Really smart man. Reads the game well. Smart man—he’s 18. He’s been fun.”
An example of Laine’s humour: I asked him after the Toronto loss if he’d be doing any traveling this weekend for Winnipeg’s mandatory bye week.
“Yeah. I’m going to warm and sunny Winnipeg,” he deadpanned.
Maurice often tells the story of how Laine got angry at himself for hitting posts during an October practice.
“You gotta relax, kid. It’s the NHL. It’s not that easy,” Maurice told him at the time. “Turns out, it was.”
Captain Blake Wheeler has noticed a change in Laine’s attitude since the early days of the season.
“When things aren’t going his way, he doesn’t get as down on himself,” Wheeler said. “When you’ve had some success in this league, you can look back on what’s made you successful. So now when he goes through a little dry spell when he’s not playing as well as he’d like to, he can kick it into high gear and get back to where he was before.”
How good is Laine? So good, his coach finds him distracting.
“You stand behind the bench and watch Patty… turn the blade over and pick his passes up with the toe of his blade. You start watching the kids. Maybe it’s me. You become a fan behind the bench. We don’t like to admit that, as coaches,” Maurice said.
“I watch him shoot the puck every time he’s going down the ice. Pretty darn exciting. What’s he going to do with it this time? Spectacular.”
Laine on the hotly debated Rookie of the Year race: “If I’m not getting the Calder, I don’t really mind, but it would be a nice surprise,” he said. “My goal is to be the best player some day.”
7. Some fans wonder why Maurice’s job security is reportedly secure beyond this season. Not Mark Scheifele, one of the world’s best centremen.
“He’s awesome. He’s been a great coach for me. I’ve learned a lot from him. Our team hasn’t gone where we hope to go, but we show promise. You see it’s there,” Scheifele said. “He’s a great motivator, that’s one thing. The way he comes into the room, his speeches get you fired up.”
Winnipeg was in the thick of it last year heading into a divisional game in Nashville when Maurice delivered a pre-game speech that moved the room. Scheifele can’t recall exactly what Coach said, but…
“I remember the feeling,” he said. “It gave me the chills.”
8. Maurice on the next generation placing an emphasis on puck skills: “I went and saw a midget showcase, maybe a bantam showcase. ’95-borns. In Toronto here because my nephew was playing in it. First thing I noticed: Bobby Orr was in the stands, which was really surprising to me.
“These kids were doing toe drags, they were putting it between defencemen’s feet, and nobody was trying to take their head off. They were allowed to make these kinds of plays. The attitude is different now in terms of how the game is defended, and it’s bought those players a comfort level within that two-foot radius to do special things. Now they work on it, and the coach isn’t screaming at them. Remember [when] Kyle Wellwood put the puck between his feet? Took a little heat from it. It was a horrible thing. Now we just wait for the next highlight because it’s usual.”
9. The three rental trades that have trickled in — Patrick Eaves to Anaheim, Ron Hainsey to Pittsburgh, Michael Stone to Calgary — are all smart ones for both sides, begging the question: Why don’t we see more trades?
Penguins GM Jim Rutherford told Hockey Central at Noon Friday he couldn’t have made the Hainsey deal had Carolina not retained half his cap hit.
“You’re probably going to see a few more of those [salary-retaining deals],” Rutherford said.
Great time to go shopping for goalies, kids. Fleury, Bishop, Mason, Neuvirth, Mrazek… lots rumoured for sale.
Jaroslav Halak is still an NHL-calibre goalie, albeit an overpriced one at $4.5 million. Will Garth Snow retain salary to move him?
He’s quietly put up a nice .931 save percentage through 16 games in AHL Bridgeport.
10. Fact: The Leafs have an overload of talented young forwards and a lack of talented young defencmen. For some unknown reason, there are people that keep leaping to the conclusion that William Nylander may be moved because of this. Nylander leads the NHL’s best power play with 19 points. He’s amassed 42 points in 59 games as a rookie while pin-balling around the forward lines, and has another year on his entry-level deal. He’s 20, dynamic and improving.
We believe his coach has heard the rumours and is subtly trying to snuff them.
Asked a question about another player altogether on Thursday, Babcock said: “William Nylander has come a million miles as well.”
11. Will the most competitive division in sports turn into an arms race in the next five days?
Pittsburgh GM Jim Rutherford already added Carolina’s Ron Hainsey (smart move). He said on-air Friday that he’ll look for another defenceman with Olli Maatta and Trevor Daley sidelined. A hard decision on Marc-Andre Fleury awaits.
Watch out for Columbus to make a move, despite its cap crunch. Best chance this team has had in its 17-year history. There must be temptation to load up.
On the flip side, Washington will likely stay pat, and New York Rangers captain McDonagh told me he’s happy with Jeff Gorton doing nothing.
“We feel real confident in our group. We have great chemistry and great character in this room. Everybody gets along. Those are the things that stand out more importantly than adding a specific skill set,” McDonagh said.
“If you don’t have those things, that’s when you look for a character guy or someone who’s been there before to get a good presence in the locker-room, but we have that. It’s helped us not stay in losing streaks too long and stay focused.”
The Rangers are the NHL’s best road team. They have the fourth-best offence league-wide. Marc Staal is healthy again. And…
12. The King is back, baby.
Lundqvist has a .943 save percentage in February, all the way up from the .879 he posted in January.
He and McDonagh both say the team has committed to boxing opponents out in front of his crease, allowing the netminder to see the puck. The goalie has also channeled more determination into his practices.
“If I have to point to one thing that’s carried me through the years, it’s the battle level. To compete against guys in practice,” Lundqvist said. “Believe in your game.”
McDonagh has noticed some other small changes: “I definitely like the way he’s challenged a lot. He’s coming out of his net. It’s good to see the confidence in his game. He’s talking to his defencemen a lot, which is a good sign.”