A quick mix of the things we gleaned from the week of hockey, serious and less so, and rolling four lines deep.
1. Bruce Boudreau sounded off post-game on his Minnesota Wild players this week after a poor loss to an injury-depleted Boston Bruins club left them stuck in the basement of the Central Division.
A number of Wild players agreed their coach’s use of the word embarrassing was justified.
“It’s a coach’s sense of frustration getting out, and rightfully so,” Marcus Foligno said. “It was embarrassing. It was a tough loss. We didn’t have emotion in the first and second. It was embarrassing because we’re playing a Boston team that’s badly injured and they had a lot of American Hockey League players in there, yet we got beat by them.”
Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Connor Carrick was eloquent on the power of embarrassing.
We spoke at length on the motivational tools at a coach’s disposal when things aren’t going well: how he runs practice, how he speaks to a player one-on-one, how he refers to them to the cameras.
“It’s one of the heavier words you can use,” Carrick said. “If you’re going to use that word, embarrassing, it’s a huge shot. It’s a shot at the way you go about your work. It’s no secret NHL athletes are well paid and we’re at the high end of what we do. That’s why we’re all here. Consistency, effort and execution level night in and night out is the name of the game. Fans pay a lot of money to watch you play, and you’re always thinking about that kid, when you were young, and how much you would give to be out there. You have to remember that. You have to channel that as a player.”
“[The Wild] are a good team, so the expectation level is probably high. Bruce Boudreau has been around a long time. I’m sure he doesn’t use a word like embarrassing lightly.”
Carrick said he purposely avoids watching Mike Babcock’s scrums.
“I don’t think in Toronto it’s a good thing [to watch]. There’s more media involved than with other clubs. Babs is good. If there is something wrong, he’ll come talk to you anyway. I don’t think there’s a need for it. I’m sure there are coaches who use [media criticism] as a tool to harness the focus of their players,” Carrick said.
“I don’t watch. We have enough meetings in here. I’m not going home to have another one.”
For the most part, Babcock has avoided ripping core members of the young Leafs via the media. His shielding of Morgan Rielly last season, in particular, sticks out.
“I’m sure that’s his MO, and I think it filters down to the team. Those conversations come from the top. He’s going to direct. Even me personally, I don’t get many questions [from reporters] about other individuals. I don’t think it’s healthy. I wouldn’t answer a question about a teammate unless it’s positive anyway. I’ve had questions about other players that made me uncomfortable. I think it’s unprofessional to ask or answer those,” Carrick said.
“When the game’s not going for you, do you need one more thing to play against? Public shame, I know coaches have used it. Maybe they think a guy would be motivated by that. It’s an individual, case-by-case basis.”
I asked Carrick if a coach ever used the word embarrassing to his face, behind closed doors.
“Yeah, we’ve had discussions about guys. Fans are paying X amount of money for a ticket, and that’s the effort we give? We all respond to that. Most of us come from blue-collar-type homes.
“If Babs comes and talks to you like, ‘You’ve been playing poorly,’ and it goes down the road of embarrassing, chances are I felt that already. I might’ve talked to my dad, and he wasn’t happy. I’ve even gotten texts from my younger brother saying, ‘Hey, I thought you coulda done more.’ They’re watching. They know my tendencies and when I’m playing well or not. When those words come out, it’s not a shock. Usually there’s an agreement that this is rock bottom. Enough’s enough.”
And usually those talks result in a positive response?
2. Wild beat reporter Michael Russo had a revealing piece this week on the Maple Leafs’ trade for backup goaltender Alex Stalock during their tank season.
“They pulled me in and pretty much told me, ‘We don’t need you,'” Stalock told Russo. “It was a bad deal.”
Stalock and his young family were living out of a hotel and could not get into the Marlies’ AHL lineup. He played just three games for the Marlies and won one of them.
“It ticked me off because I want to win wherever I am, and they have a team that can win and they’re telling me, ‘Oh, we don’t have you in the plans,'” he said.
“An under-one-year-old kid living in a hotel for a month? That’s the business. That’s what we sign up for, but it was sad and not fair.”
Stalock is Devan Dubnyk’s backup in Minnesota this year, and he’s put up a .925 save percentage in four appearances.
3. Not one of the Pacific Division teams currently slotted in playoff positions — Los Angeles, Vancouver, and Vegas — were invited to the dance last year.
Looking back on an interview Connor McDavid gave in the summer, I wonder if he saw this coming. He was asked in a scrum about how things were looking up for Canadian teams and was quick to lower expectations.
“In the NHL there’s so much parity. Anyone can beat anyone on any night,” McDavid said.
“You see teams that miss the playoffs make the playoffs, and it kind of rotates every year, so you never really know. You gotta be lucky to have a good season. We were lucky we didn’t have too many serious injuries [in 2016-17]. So we’re hoping for something like that again… it’s hard to predict what’ll happen.”
No one would’ve predicted it would take the Oilers until Nov. 9 to register consecutive victories. But the signs of a turnaround are showing.
4. The Maple Leafs have had a heck of a time clearing their own zone of late and are working on their on-ice communication.
“People that are confident, you can hear them all over the rink yelling for the puck,” Babcock said Friday. “You can hear Ron Hainsey in the booth. Some guys you never hear. That’s why they don’t have the puck.”
Hainsey says talking with your D partner on the ice is “paramount” to exiting your zone quicker.
“It’s something we’re constantly harping on. We’re getting better. But there’s sometimes when it doesn’t go so well. Sometimes the language barrier gets in the way, whatever it is,” Hainsey said. “We’re getting there.”
Hainsey and Morgan Rielly are the most talkative pair. Nikita Zaitsev, Jake Gardiner’s partner, is Russian. Andreas Borgman, the Swedish rookie, is getting more vocal with Carrick’s encouragement.
“I try and be as vocal as I can,” says Carrick. “I know the pressures of coming into the NHL, what that’s like. I found I play better when I’m more vocal, and I think it’s the same for him. I’ve heard him more the more we play together.”
5. Marcus Foligno is a mountain of a 26-year-old: 6-foot-3, 232 pounds. Since arriving in Minnesota from Buffalo, he notes the one big difference between conference play in the East and West is neutral zone strategy.
“There’s a lot of fast centremen in the West and good centremen who can carry the puck into the zone. The East is more of a run-and-gun style. In the West, there’s more clogging of the neutral zone and fighting for every inch,” Foligno said.
The power forward has six points already. Maintain that pace, and the 26-year-old will set career highs in goals and points.
“The forecheck is so heavy. The forecheck is such a key component in helping win games in the West. Going and getting the puck and setting up offensive zone play. The East, you get more two-on-ones,” he said. “There’s big, strong guys in the West, so I think it suits my game well.”
6. Foligno keeps in touch with several members of the Sabres core: Zach Bogosian, Ryan O’Rielly, Jack Eichel, Sam Reinhart.
Buffalo has the worst goal differential in the East. What does this team need to finally turn the corner?
“I hate to say it, but I think just time,” Foligno said. “They have all the right people in place now. With [coach] Phil Housley and the new GM [Jason Botterill], they have professionals and the right type of system. Now it’s time to trust the system.
“When I was there, we had four different coaches over a five-year span. When you’re doing that, systems change all the time. Now they have a set system. They have a leadership now. They have some young talent. With Eichel more responsible now, I think that’s going to help. Time is going to turn that ship around.”
Boudreau had this to say about Foligno and Tyler Ennis, the forwards acquired from Buffalo.
“He’s learning in a hurry that losing is not acceptable. You can’t make positive things out of losing. Bottom line is, you’re not winning. The only way to have fun is to win. Nothing else matters. The sacrifices you have to make, whether it’s in practice or in a game, are probably something that he hasn’t been used to,” Boudreau said.
“This is a team that’s accustomed to winning. I’m accustomed to winning.”
Boudreau predicted a good run for the Wild right before they shut out Montreal 3-0 Thursday.
7. Ottawa got the best player, but the main reason why I think the Nashville Predators won the three-way Matt Duchene trade is because David Poile was the only GM dealing from a position of financial strength.
He can afford to deal young defencemen because he’s trading from depth, and ownership co-signed a Kyle Turris extension right away, giving the Preds a necessary one-two punch up the gut.
Joe Sakic, who made off very well from a place of presumed weakness, and Pierre Dorion are like poker players who come to the table with the minimum buy-in, and Poile could splash the pot to get what he wants.
8. Mitchell Marner hasn’t scored a goal since the Leafs’ opening-night free-for-all in Winnipeg. Sixteen games and counting.
Marner has always been the type to have twice as many assists as goals, but one goal to seven helpers is too lopsided.
“It’s always been a mind-set of mine that I’m trying to get rid of. It’s hard when you’ve been trying to pass your whole life,” Marner explains. “It’s hard. You have guys calling for the puck on 2-on-1s or whatever, or if a guy’s going back door and you have a chance to make a pass, it gets in your head a bit. You hear guys calling for it. The instincts kick in to look for a pass and you forget about shooting.”
Marner says the goal drought isn’t on his mind, which is the right thing to say, but we’re talking about a player who nearly hit 20 as a rookie and had as many as 44 goals in one junior campaign.
“It’s always been a pass-first thing in my mind,” he said. “I don’t worry much about that stuff. We’re winning hockey games—that’s the most important thing.”
9. Asked about a Maple Leafs legend, Bruce Boudreau delivered the line of the week on Johnny Bower’s birthday.
“He’s been 93 for about 22 years,” Boudreau said. “He’s just gonna keep going.”
10. Heading into the last game he played, Auston Matthews ranked 41st in average ice time among all NHL centremen. That would strike many observers as low usage, considering the sophomore is the league’s second-most-prolific scorer at even strength.
After skipping the morning skate, Matthews — a game-time decision — skated a season-high 21:11 during Monday’s victory over Vegas. Upon advice from the Leafs’ sports science department, he hasn’t played or practiced since.
“There’s sports science, and there’s Saskatchewan science. Sometimes I like Saskatchewan science,” said Babcock.
The sports scientists also forced Matt Martin and James van Riemsdyk to sit out a game, last week versus Philadelphia.
“It’s not that much of a conversation,” Martin said. “It’s usually just, ‘You’re not playing,’ and then you try to say something and it doesn’t change their mind and you just get over it, I guess.”
Heading into this weekend’s home-and-home versus Boston, Babcock was asked if he would try to moderate ice time Friday in light of a Saturday rematch.
“I try to win,” Babcock said. “We’ll worry about tomorrow tomorrow. It’s all about today.”
That response speaks volumes on how the coach worked Matthews on Monday. If you’re on his bench, you’re there to win the game. Even at less than 100 per cent, Matthews was the Leafs best player. They won.
Shorthanded a couple of regulars, they lost that game to Philly. Saskatchewan science.
11. Four Calgary Flames forwards have played at least 12 games and still don’t have a goal: Troy Brouwer, Matt Stajan, Curtis Lazar and Sam Bennett.
Bennett is taking the most heat, but this is the second team on which first-rounder Lazar has had difficulty making an impact. And Brouwer has done little to buck the tag of “free agency mistake” he earned last season.
Consider that Bennett ($1.95 million cap hit) falls into the same salary range as Toronto’s Connor Brown ($2.1 million), who has seven goals, and the return is striking.
“I’m not used to starting a season like this. It’s never happened before,” Bennett told the Calgary Sun. “As much as you try to tell yourself, ‘Don’t worry about it,’ it’s still going to be there. So I’ll take one however I can get it.”
Bennett finally got an assist Thursday, but he’s still looking for a goal.
12. William Nylander texted his good pal David Pastrnak and asked him to hang out Thursday night in advance of the Bruins-Leafs tilt Friday.
“Every time I catch up with him, he scores a hat trick, so I took a night off yesterday,” Pastrnak smiled. “I did what’s best for the team.”
Pastrnak loves competing against Nylander, and the lines will be matched head-to-head. He’s already cooking up some chirp material for his frenemy.
“I’m getting ready for it. I have a couple for him in my back pocket,” Pastrnak said devilishly. “Most of the time he just takes it. Silent Swede. He’s a good guy.”