Quick Shifts: Nylander’s return to Leafs will affect Kadri’s line

John Tavares speaks on the Nylander situation and Brendan Shanahan's recent comments and philosophy on keeping the young core together on a budget.

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

1. It may be a tad early to start tinkering with the Toronto Maple Leafs’ forward lines, especially considering the only in-game action we’ve seen from William Nylander is that odd Sonnet commercial.

But we know coach Mike Babcock likes his playmakers in pairs. Auston Matthews and Nylander (when he returns)? Wonderful. John Tavares and Mitch Marner? Bring it on.

Somewhat lost in Marner’s chemistry with Tavares is that he was on fire with Nazem Kadri in the last couple months of 2017-18, a combo that pulled both players out of early-season slumps.

Now it’s Kadri who appears in need of a dance partner.

“He’s skating better than he ever has, he’s in good shape and is a nasty guy to play against,” Babcock said of the 30-goal third-line centre. “We’ve got to get his line sorted out, and will over time.

“He plays man-in-the-middle on the power play. He’s got good grease on him. He’s not scared to be there, so that’s why he can score in those situations. But 5-on-5, we’ve still gotta get that line going.”

Kadri is currently centring Connor Brown and Josh Leivo. They haven’t quite wowed yet. (Kadri did see a couple bump-up shifts on Tavares’s wing Wednesday.)

“As time goes on, we’re only going to get better once we figure out exactly how to play with each other,” says Kadri, remaining positive. “As the pre-season moved forward, I felt we got more and more dangerous. That’s what you’re looking for.”

When Nylander does return, the trickle-down effect will be compelling.

Essentially, Tyler Ennis and Josh Leivo feel they’re still on a tryout, talking about working hard and striving to make an impression.

Does Ennis get a shot to spark the third line? Will the speedy Kasperi Kapanen, who has shown offensive flashes in the past three weeks, replace the hardworking Brown? Can Andreas Johnsson get promoted? Is Leivo destined to be the 13th forward again?

The bottom six’s game of musical chairs should start soon.

2. It was bittersweet seeing Brent Burns shave buddy Joe Thornton‘s face prior to the Sharks’ season-opener. It was like one of the Bushwhackers deciding he was tired of looking like the other one. On the flip side, Thornton doesn’t look a day over 39.

As a media member, one of Kadri’s most attractive traits is his willingness to comment on any league happening.

Kadri recalled that crazy night last season when he got the jump on Burns and tore a chunk off ol’ Jumbo’s beard.

“I’m sure he didn’t want that situation to happen again,” Kadri smiled. “That was a trademark of his. I’m not sure if it was getting a little itchy or what the situation was. He can pull it off either way.”

3. To a small scrum of reporters after a late-summer workout in his hometown of Toronto, Tom Wilson spoke about being in frequent communication with the NHL’s department of player safety.

He said it was beneficial for him to know what they’re looking for in terms of clean versus dirty checks. He said both parties can learn from the other’s perspective. He also said “stuff” — i.e. nasty collisions — are bound to happen in a contact sport that employs certain athletes because they play on the edge.

“I don’t want to be in the stands. My team doesn’t want me in the stands. I gotta make sure I’m on the ice and not in the box, playing as much as I can,” Wilson said that day, still riding high off a championship summer and the kind of payday that can change a man’s life for good.

“The game is definitely moving in a direction. I’ve got to be the unique player, which is why they gave me that contract, but I can’t cross the line so I’m spending time in the box or in the stands.”

Jacked up for his first season on Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov‘s top line, Wilson went on about playing hard within the rules.

“I’ve always had a pride in my physical play. A lot of guys I play against know I’m not the guy to go out and try to hurt guys; I just play hard and honest. I’m not going to take that out of my game, but I’m going to have to continue to adapt,” he said.

“It’s kind of a two-way street. I want the game to be a better place. I want to see the game safe, too, but no one wants to see hitting taken out of the game. It’s a big part of our unique sport and what makes hockey so great.”

Sidney Crosby’s response to Wilson’s latest infraction is something:

4. There is an urban legend about Henrik Zetterberg, and it goes like this: Whenever the Red Wings were offered a day off in a fun road city if they won that night, Zetterberg would absolutely explode on the score sheet.

Last fall in Vegas — when no one could beat the Knights at home — Zetterberg scored four points in Sin City with a bad back for a bad team. That’s captain material.

Detroit had two days off afterwards. Must’ve been fun. The Wings followed that victory on The Strip with six straight losses.

Nice touch by the Wings, bringing Zetterberg over from Sweden to drop the puck at Thursday’s home opener in Detroit.

“They’re looking to pass the torch to other guys,” long-serving former coach Babcock said. “I know when Stevie and Shanny left that year, they passed it on to Z and Pav and Nick, and they did just fine with it. So I imagine that, as a storied franchise, that they’ll retool and they’ll be ready to go.”

While 2018 draftees Jesperi Kotkaniemi (Montreal) and Brady Tkachuk (Ottawa) are getting NHL starts, it’s fitting that the Wings are pumping the brakes on Filip Zadina, who will dress for AHL Grand Rapids.

The organization is a big believer that it’s better to overdevelop than under-develop prospects.

5. When it comes to resonating with their fan base and making hockey feel as fun as it actually is, the Vegas Golden Knights just get it.

This Happy Days intro spoof is spot-on. Not sure what I like more: Ryan Reaves’ sofa splash or Reilly Smith’s wink in the mirror.

6. You never know what life will throw at you.

Roman Polak leaves Toronto on July 1 and signs with the Dallas Stars, seemingly paving the way for Connor Carrick to supplant Polak as the Leafs’ third-pair right D. Then Carrick gets shipped off to Dallas, too.

On the surface, it looked like the two were headed for another internal tussle for ice time, but Stars coach Jim Montgomery opened the season Thursday with a Carrick-Polak bottom pairing. “Those two defended the best yesterday in practice” is how he justified a surprise scratching of Julius Honka.

Carrick, who won the Leafs’ fitness testing at camp this fall, notched two assists in Dallas’s 3-0 blanking of Arizona. A small win for second chances.

“Cees is a great teammate. He’s a great player,” Auston Matthews told me. “He’s excited, as are we as former teammates, that he hopefully gets an opportunity to thrive there. He’s a guy who always came with a lot of energy and took his craft very seriously in training and everything. He’s an infectious guy, and they’re going to enjoy having him.”

Carrick says even though he and Polak were both hunting for the same minutes last year, their relationship has always been strong.

7. Montgomery’s predecessor, Ken Hitchcock, gave a great interview to Vancouver’s Sportsnet radio station this week in which he says he can pick out a poorly or smartly coached team early in the season based on their D-zone coverage and their play on the penalty kill.

Since leaving the NHL, Hitchcock has been studying team dynamics across all sports: soccer, baseball, football.

But the closest team dynamic to a hockey club he found was by studying a music band. Fascinating listen. Unfortunately, he refused to name the band.

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8. I can’t fit enough Gritty jokes in my life. If you missed it, here’s the Philly mascot getting roasted on the season premiere of Saturday Night Live:

9. Buried in the post-game criticism of the Leafs’ defensive play on opening night, Babcock slipped in a compliment for the play of Travis Dermott, who was challenged by his coach in camp but had himself a fine outing, breaking up a sure Grade A scoring opportunity by Max Domi at one end (watch!) and nearly finishing one of his own on Carey Price.

Ron Hainsey, however, looked every one of his 37 years. The speed of the Habs’ attack had him playing catch-up. On the top pair last year, Hainsey was fantastic for Morgan Rielly’s development, but he logged an insane amount of minutes on the penalty kill. Albeit only one game into this season, he looked flat-footed.

Can Dermott rise and push him out of the top four as the season progresses?

10. Justin Holl — who, unlike Demott and Hainsey, is a natural righty — could get a look in Toronto’s first back-to-back this weekend.

All the Maple Leafs who were cut from the main roster last weekend got an email asking them to show up at the practice facility last Sunday. Holl received a different message in his inbox.

“I got an email saying I had the day off, so at that point you’re putting the pieces together,” Holl says. The 26-year-old ECHL grad called his parents, and the excitement bubbled.

“I saw Babs first thing [Monday morning]. He gave me a handshake and said, ‘Congrats.’ The other coaches too. It was a lot of fun to find that out,” says Holl, a big guy with quick feet. “I can’t wait to keep proving it every day.”

Holl is the type of story you root for. He’s made the squad. Now he has to crack the lineup.

11. As the NHL’s association with the Fortnite rage continues, the Canucks installed a team rule that forbids playing video games on road trips.

Patrik Laine, a fierce gamer who travels with a controller, offered his two cents.

“I think they just needed something to blame after last year,” Laine told reporters in Winnipeg.

Zing.

The sniper went on to say that the Jets agreed that if they start playing like the Canucks, they will stop taking their PlayStations to away games. Wow.

Vancouver’s Brandon Sutter responded to Laine on SN 650: “It’s none of his business at all. We would never have anyone in our room say something like that when they are 21 years old.”

Canucks floss their way to Winnipeg Oct. 18, kids. Should be hype.

12. Pics or it didn’t happen.

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