Quick Shifts: Why did the Maple Leafs let Michael Grabner go?

This edition of the Hotels.com Plays of the week includes Ondrej Pavelec making a spectacular save in his NHL return, and some cheeky play by Stoke City.

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

1. Roberto Luongo had a brilliant line (imagine that) last season in Toronto after stoning then-Maple Leafs winger Michael Grabner on a breakaway.

Luongo was asked how he felt about the supportive chants of “Luuuuu!” ringing out in an enemy building, albeit one filled with fans hoping to file another lottery ball in the chamber.

Wit as quick as his trapper, the goalie replied: “You sure they weren’t booing? They might’ve been booing Grabner.”

Yes, Grabner’s one-year stint as a Leaf was so jeer-worthy, some close to the game wondered if he’d even be in the NHL this season. Just nine goals over 80 games. The 11th-most productive offensive player on the worst team in the league.

No wonder the New York Rangers scooped him off the free agent market for a pittance: $3.3 million spread over two years, no trade protection, with the thinking that his second year might be spent in Las Vegas.

On Thursday, Grabner scored a shorthanded goal and an empty-netter, leading New York to a 5-2 win and surpassing Toronto’s Auston Matthews with the most even-strength goals in the NHL (20).

Teammate J.T. Miller called Grabner one of the Rangers’ best players. Grabner himself said it tasted sweet to score and win at the ACC.

“You’re happy for him,” Leafs coach Mike Babcock said, describing the speedy Austrian as “a good man” prior to the loss.

“We would’ve loved to have kept him, but we felt with the wingers we had coming, one of these kids wouldn’t have gotten any ice time. [Assistant coach] D.J. Smith, who’s running the penalty kill, was begging to keep him.”


Grabner had his opportunities last season, but converted on an abysmal 7.8 per cent of his shots. This year? He’s converting 21.6 per cent over 97 shots, proving more accurate than any NHL player with a minimum of 75 shots.

“It was on its way. He got so many chances. He was snake-bitten,” Babcock said. “But he got his confidence back.”

We believe the Leafs made the right call, despite how it looks in hindsight. The Rangers took a low-risk gamble, and hit 21 — Grabner’s 2016-17 goal total, already more than his previous two seasons combined. Good on ’em.

Now: Do they expose Grabner in the expansion draft, knowing well that his shooting percentage will tumble toward his career average of 12.7?

2. Brilliant line from the combustible Robin Lehner this week to local reporters, a couple days after this unfortunate series of events.

“It’s hypocritical to apologize for who you are,” the Sabres goalie said. “I don’t want to leave the net. I want to sink with the ship.”

We’re sure he just meant for the game, not in general.

3. Speaking of sinking ships, Buffalo centre Ryan O’Reilly still stays in touch with his friends on the Colorado Avalanche. In addition to being the worst team in the NHL, the Avs are flooded with trade rumours and injuries. Only their No. 1 goalie and No. 1 defenceman got hurt this week.

“They’re frustrated, the guys I have talked to. It’s been unfortunate there,” O’Reilly told me. “I’m shocked. You look at the standings and see how low they are, the number of regulation losses [29]… it’s tough. I haven’t gone into detail with them about it. When we talk, we want to catch up on other things. Last thing I want to do is bring up why their team’s not doing well. They want to get away from it.”

You look at the Avs’ talented young forward group and wonder how it went so sideways. I think it started with the trade of O’Reilly, one of the best 200-footers in hockey.

“For myself, being out of that [Central] division has helped a lot. That’s the toughest division in hockey—that changes every year—but for the last few years it’s been that one,” O’Reilly said.

“Chicago is a dominant team, Minnesota’s a very tough team to play against. St. Louis is big and strong. Nashville, too. Every team is good there. That makes it tough to get into a rhythm. I noticed that a lot. We never had many winning streaks, even when we were playing well. You get in these tough matchups, and everyone’s competing for that playoff spot.

“Playing in the East, there’s some games that aren’t as physical when you have a divisional game, which is interesting. A little easier.”

4. Minnesota’s new bench boss Bruce Boudreau — our midpoint pick for the Jack Adams — tries to think of himself as Lou Holtz, the only college football coach to lead six different NCAA programs to bowl games. The 80-year-old Holtz went 249-132-7 over his career and is well known for his wisdom-packed quotes.

“Every team Notre Dame played when Lou Holtz was there was the greatest team in the world. You have to find reasons why they’re great to get your team up for that game, no matter whether Notre Dame was playing a high school team. Didn’t matter. That high school team was the greatest in the land,” Boudreau told Hockey Central at Noon this week.

“That’s sort of the thing we do here: We find all the good points of the team we’re playing, and if we’re not ready, this team is going to beat you.”

Boudreau’s Wild is 18-2-1 in its past 21 games. More incredible: The club has only lost two games by more than one goal. Minny’s goal differential (plus-46) is an astonishing 29 goals greater than the second-best goal differential by a Western Conference team (San Jose, plus-17).

“We have been in all the games,” Boudreau said. “When you believe that you can always come back, there’s a good chance you can do it.”

5. Hockey players are cautious not to throw gasoline on opponents’ tire fires.

Before facing — and losing to — the Rangers, Toronto’s James van Riemsdyk dismissed Henrik Lundqvist’s well-publicized struggles, saying those dips even out over 82 games.

“With a guy like him, who’s smart and has good hockey sense, it’s a chess match,” van Riemsdyk said. (JVR’s dad still has a soft spot in his heart for the Blueshirts, next to the Leafs and Blackhawks, of course.)

Frederik Andersen, not one to throw stones, told me this about the King’s screech: “It’s something that happens to everyone. You see every goalie throughout the year have some tough stretches. It’s all about how quick you can get out of them.

“You gotta try to simplify everything. Try really hard to concentrate in practice. Challenge yourself. That’s what me and Stevie [Briere], my goalie coach here, try to do. That’s what works for me, but it’s different for everyone.”

6. Anyone else like how the NHL waited for the shortest month to institute the tinier goalie pants? February is Slim Pants Month!

Andersen doesn’t sound too concerned: “I haven’t worn them yet, but you just gotta adjust for it. Same rules for everyone, so you just gotta live with it.”

Corey Crawford does.

The Blackhawks netminder told the Chicago Sun-Times that the way to increase scoring is to make better ice. Hadn’t heard that one before.

Smoother ice gives play-makers ability to create with their heads up and spend less time settling pucks. Crawford also said the United Center ice used to be really bad, but they’ve worked hard to bring it up to the top third of NHL buildings.

7. Unsettled pucks can be fun, too. It was a week of brilliant, spontaneous offensive hand-eye (or foot-eye) plays made with the puck in midair.

Check out William Carrier…

… and Dale Weise

… and now Jared Spurgeon.

8. The Sharks’ beard promo spot featuring Brent Burns and Joe Thornton is wonderful. Even more entertaining? The outtakes.

Guessing the wookiee call is like rolling your R’s: You need to be born with the ability. Tried for eight minutes after watching this clip and still couldn’t whine like Chewbacca.

9. Sounds like Islanders’ GM Garth Snow waited as long as humanly possible to fire friend Jack Capuano. Now that he’s played that card, we’d be surprised to see Snow as the GM this summer.

Snow let three key free agents walk for nothing last season. Frans Nielsen is Detroit’s All-Star Game rep. Kyle Okposo is Buffalo’s.

I spoke to the third, Toronto’s Matt Martin, and he couldn’t be more thrilled for Okposo’s recognition.

“He was a big part of the team on the Island and a big leader in the room,” Martin said. “He’s not the most vocal guy in the room, but when he does talk, everybody stops and listens. He’s a passionate guy. He’s big.”

10. After seven years together, Martin is still tight with the Isles and imagines he always will be, especially Casey Cizikas, Nick Leddy, Cal Clutterbuck, and John Tavares. He called Tavares this week after the captain scored a hat trick.

“I would imagine they’re frustrated,” Martin said. “When they’re losing games, I don’t call them to talk about it because that’s the last thing I would want to talk about. Really just talk about life and see how things are going.”

But he must have been surprised Snow didn’t keep Okposo and Tavares together?

“Yeah, I’m not going to pretend to understand how the business side of this sport works,” Martin said. “He’s a very good player, and I think Frans Nielsen’s a very good player as well. Decisions are made every year and teams question — people sign and don’t sign — I’ll always wonder.”

11. Loved Carey Price’s response to a Montreal reporter’s question about his blocker side:

Also loved NHL.com’s Arpon Basu follow-up the day after:

12. Some guys you just assume are in the Hockey Hall of Fame until you find out they aren’t. Paul Henderson is one.

How about Willie O’Ree, who became the NHL’s first black player 59 years ago this week?

I believe the Hall should not be solely about the numbers on the back of your hockey card. O’Ree, 81, deserves to be inducted — and not posthumously, please. Let’s learn from Pat Quinn and Pat Burns and give flowers while they can smell them.

If O’Ree is good enough for the Order of Canada, he’s good enough for Front Street.

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