Quick Shifts: Best UFA, trade options for Maple Leafs’ defence corps

Tony McKegney spoke about his experience being one of the few black players in the NHL and how the league has progressed since his playing days.

A quick mix of the things we gleaned from the week of hockey, serious and less so, and rolling four lines deep. We weren’t feeling well, so we got a Zamboni driver to write this week’s column… and it’s still a winner.

1. As the NHL’s trade deadline came and passed without Kyle Dubas seriously improving his long-term defensive depth (the pickup of Calle Rosen acknowledged), the Toronto Maple Leafs general manager said it would be a need he’d address later, sometime around the draft.

Fair enough.

The 2019-20 iteration of the Leafs doesn’t deserve help in the form of a sure-shot, top-four defender, and it’s safe to assume prices for those players were sky high.

So, let’s look at what might be available for Dubas this spring, because he can’t realistically tread into 2020-21 with a right side of Justin Holl, Timothy Liljegren and (scrolls down… and farther down) Joseph Duszak on the blue line, right?

If you, like me, assume impending free agents Tyson Barrie and Cody Ceci will seek better fits and more money elsewhere, let’s peek at the options Dubas will have on the open market this summer.

The undisputed No. 1 is Alex Pietrangelo of the St. Louis Blues. Both Petro and his GM, Doug Armstrong, want to work something out, but one side is going to have to bend on money at some point.

“He is a 30-year-old pro. He’s the captain of our franchise. He’s someone I have the utmost respect for. Our goal is to try to get him signed,” Armstrong told reporters this week. “Our focus is to see if we can get him signed.”

After that, the unrestricted free agent market for right shots who’ve played top-four roles this season gets thin fast. Sami Vatanen, Travis Hamonic, Mike Green, Dylan DeMelo, Justin Schultz, Chris Tanev and Kevin Shattenkirk represent the second tier.

The Leafs have expressed interest in Hamonic and Tanev, a Toronto native, in the past. Count them as sturdy candidates. (We’re very skeptical about the Dustin Byfuglien idea.)

But the lack of standout options, combined with Toronto’s cap crunch at the forward position, will further fuel the notion that Dubas should pursue a trade for an under-30 defenceman who curves his stick the right way.

Matt Dumba, Josh Mason, Troy Stetcher, Brandon Montour and Rasmus Ristolainen are some familiar names you should hear kicked back into the rumour mill come June.

Absolutely, the focus is on the present. Sweeping the state of Florida with the 2018 Calder Cup D-corps has been a welcome relief. But if you really think Dubas is going to bet next season on a bunch of green bananas, think again.

2. When news surfaced of Jake Muzzin’s broken hand and the realization hit that the Maple Leafs must now battle their way to the playoffs without their best pure defender (Muzzin), their best offensive defenceman (Morgan Rielly) and their most experienced right-shot defenceman (Cody Ceci), Dubas tweeted out a link to the following parable, The Story of the Chinese Farmer, in Zen response:

The message — “maybe” this is a bad thing but “maybe” not — is very much in keeping with what Dubas said earlier in the week about the David Ayres debacle / triumph.

“I don’t think the consequence of every bit of fortune or the consequence of every bit of misfortune is as stark as it seems in the moment that it happens,” Dubas said.

“Saturday night was an embarrassing night, not because our team lost a game and the goaltender of record for the other team was the Zamboni driver when we actually started generating shots on him. At those moments, yeah, impatience and frustration certainly boil — there’s no BS about that. But, in the end, we set ourselves up on a journey that it’s going to be difficult. It’s going to be hard. We’re going where we question what we’re doing, question each other, question ourselves. But you get up every day.”

I admire that philosophy. Honestly.

Harder to buy is Dubas’s selling of the Carolina loss as a “no-win situation.”

“If we won the game, it would be embarrassing as well, because you’re down 4-1, and then it would be a whole other set of controversy that would come up,” Dubas spun. “Like, ‘Oh, geez, you know, the Maple Leafs, it’s their own employee.’ I think everyone in here can imagine what that would have been like as well. So, we were in a no-win situation in that game.”

Losing to a Zamboni driver will always be slightly less embarrassing than pumping six by a Zamboni driver. Had the Leafs won, the league would be taking more heat than Toronto.

And while Ayres’ wonderful fairy tale should be exhausted after a week-long celebration in the spotlight that culminated with his donating the winning goal stick to the Hockey Hall of Fame on Friday, if the Hurricanes edge out the Leafs for a wild-card spot, it’s going to come up all over again.

3. As the Maple Leafs lament an absence of forward depth and bottom-six production, the easy piñata would be to take a whack at a Nazem Kadri trade that has paid off better for Colorado. (Counterpoint: Imagine the Maple Leafs’ depleted blueline without Tyson Barrie skating 25 minutes a night right now.)

But what if homegrown, discount-taking Connor Brown, who was shipped out because his modest cap hit ($2.1 million) was deemed too expensive for his role?

Yes, Brown had been pushed to the fourth line and surpassed on the depth chart and pay scale by fellow middle-class wingers Kasperi Kapanen and Andreas Johnsson.

Neither of those younger players took a step forward this season, however. The Leafs’ penalty kill has taken a step back. And Brown has thrived with his increased shifts under D.J. Smith in Ottawa.

“I feel like I’m on the other side of it now,” Brown says. “Smitty’s given me every opportunity to succeed here. Obviously a different role for me here than in Toronto.”

He leads all Senators in points — 40, a career best, despite starting 59 per cent of his shifts in the D-zone — and has become one of the better bargains in hockey.

Moreover, Brown’s work ethic has been missed in one Ontario city and welcomed in another.

Yes, it’s way too easy to criticize the Brown trade in hindsight, but with the way this campaign has played out, we have to wonder if they dealt the wrong winger.

One Smith went to bat for.

“Well, I probably had more of a look at Connor. I watched him lead the OHL in scoring when I was there [in 2013-14], and I watched him play on [Connor] McDavid’s line and all the offensive things he could do,” Smith says.

“In Toronto, I saw how he had to adapt to play the defensive side of the game to get to the NHL. A lot of players buck that system, and it takes them longer to get to the NHL. Connor did a really nice job in doing that. So I knew he’d get more of an opportunity here with us not being as top-heavy as Toronto.

“I don’t know if he’d have been able to [produce as much] in Toronto with the [Mitch] Marners and those guys there. I don’t think the minutes would have been there for him.”

4. David Ayres may have beat Cory Schneider to an NHL victory this season, but that didn’t make Schneider’s 4-1 victory over the Red Wings on Tuesday any less heartwarming.

Schneider is one of the good guys. You want to root for him.

He’s put on a brave face through two disastrous, injury-riddled, confidence-shaking seasons.

Schneider’s win this week was his first since March 25, a tumultuous stretch in which he’s appeared in 11 Devils losses and endured countless bus rides with Binghamton, where he’s at least improved his record to 7-7 from last year’s 2-6.

“Winning kind of cures everything. You feel good about your game. You feel good about your team,” Schneider said recently, projecting a glass-half-full outlook. “Just trying to take care of my business down there as best I could and give myself an opportunity.

“Just build some momentum and prove that I can play in this league.”

It’s a baby step. One that may not have even been feasible had Devils starter Mackenzie Blackwood been injured and backup Louis Domingue not been dealt to Vancouver, Schneider’s old team.

With Schneider’s health and performance no longer elite, the 33-year-old tried to help the franchise in other ways.

He and wife Jill took in Jack Hughes as their billet in September to ease the 18-year-old’s transition.

Although Hughes left the nest once Schneider was demoted to the AHL, the veteran remained in his corner.

“Just checking on him and making sure he’s not burning his apartment down, making sure he has some food in the fridge. My wife’s on that. She’s gonna send him some food, I think,” Schneider smiled.

“It’s amazing, at 18, how demanding he is of himself. You’re accustomed to scoring three, four points a game your whole life, and you come to the best league in the world and it just doesn’t happen that way.

“He’s understanding, but it’s a tough adjustment, and I think he’s handled it really well. Just trying to work on other areas of his game and understand that the best players in the world are a point-per-game. So that means one shift they score. What are you doing the other 20 to 25 shifts you’re out there to impact the game? So I think he’s come a long way in understanding how to impact the game if he’s not scoring.”

Funny. Schneider learned how to make an impact, even if he’s not winning. Heck, even if he’s not present.

“Devils Nation is a community, and you don’t forget that right away,” said Schneider, who would routinely check in from the farm with staff, coaches and teammates.

“Just trying to get a pulse from afar, trying to talk to Mackenzie or talk to Jack and be what I’ve always been to them. Just because I’m not there didn’t change anything. So I just really tried to stay involved and stay plugged in.

“Here I am. It feels like a long time, but it doesn’t feel like that long at all now.”

5. The reset died at 11:20 a.m. ET on Monday, Feb. 24, the moment Chris Kreider re-signed in New York.

Here come the Rangers.

If the hottest team in hockey (9-1 over its last 10) makes playoffs — and, with the 12th-best points percentage overall (.587), that’s not a silly proposition — Artemi Panarin goes on my Hart Trophy ballot.

The Breadman is tied for third overall in points (87), leads the NHL is even-strength points (66), sees less power-play time than anyone in the top eight for the Art Ross, and has racked up 25 more points than the next most productive Ranger (Mikka Zibanejad).

6. In a fluky and unfortunate way, the Rangers’ great decision on its monstrous, three-headed goaltending controversy got delayed at the perfect time.

Wonder rookie Igor Shesterkin’s rib injury, a result of a car accident, un-crowds the crease at the tensest of times.

A week ago, Henrik Lundqvist was healthy scratched for the first time in his Hall of Fame career.

You never wish injury upon someone. There is a weird silver lining to Shesterkin rehabbing now, as it gives the Rangers a chance to showcase and see what they have in the aging Lundqvist and raise-deserving Alexandar Georgiev.

GM Jeff Gorton has been granted a moment to breathe, but he must make a decision in the off-season. No way he can possibly carry three NHL netminders into camp next fall.

7. As the Maple Leafs strive to keep their heads above water with hockey’s least-experienced defensive pairing, Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren, veteran Jason Spezza was asked to compare Sandin, 19, to former teammate Miro Heiskanen, 20, in Dallas.

“They’re just different players. You know, Miro’s… they don’t come around very often like the way he is,” Spezza said. “But Rasmus has great hockey sense, he moves the puck really well. Just a great head for the game. He’s a confident player out there for a young guy. I think he’s willing to take a hit to make a play. He’s got a lot of intangibles that just make a great puck-moving defenceman.

“To do that at that young age is really important for our club. We lose Morgan Rielly — it’s just not a small loss, and for a long period of time. We’ve not really talked about it because Sandy has come in and been able to absorb some of those minutes, but there’s no doubt it’s been a big hole for us to fill, so he’s done a great job for us.”

8. The Leafs cannot get their alternate captain back fast enough.

Rielly tried stuffing his mending foot into a skate boot last week but it was too painful. Didn’t happen. On Monday he got squeezed it in and treaded lightly around the club’s practice rink for no more than 15 minutes.

The dry-witted D-man likened it to “a public skate” and he’s still weeks away from a possible return. It’s possible to envision a scenario in which Rielly no longer has a say on the club’s playoff fate.

He’s trying to remain upbeat, invest in his rehab. He’s using his perch from the sidelines to expand his perspective on strategy and contributing his knowledge in team meetings.

“Watching the games is probably the hardest part about the whole thing,” Rielly says. “From here on out every game is like playoff hockey, and it’s important we get dialed in for that.”

Captain John Tavares says the room has not only lacked their No. 1 defenceman’s every-situation ability but also his calmness and leadership.

“The attitude that he has is tremendous for our group,” Tavares says. “We certainly miss it. One guy, two guys aren’t gonna replace that.”

When we ask Rielly what ran through his mind watching Ayres and the Hurricanes shut down his friends, he can’t help but smile at the zaniness of last Saturday.

“It was an usual night, I suppose. It’s strange not being out there when stuff like that happens,” Rielly says, diplomatically. “I’m not really sure how to describe it, but I think that if you asked me and ask the players, it would be two different things just from our angles of how things unfolded.”

9. Consider these names added by teams with playoff ambitions at the deadline: Wayne Simmonds, Brenden Dillon, Jean-Gabriel Pageau, Zach Bogosian, Barclay Goodrow, Blake Coleman, Devin Shore, Nick Cousins, Nick Ritchie, Derek Grant, Nate Thompson, Andy Greene and Dylan DeMelo.

None are superstars. Most play in the bottom half of a deep lineup. Yet they bring a workmanlike toughness. Take a hit; give a hit.

The desire for so many championship-gunning teams to add blue-collar workers at the last minute reminded me of something Peter DeBoer told me about how a willingness to impose yourself physically is still critical to success in the spring.

“Certain players have that,” DeBoer said. “You can create some of that mentality, but there’s a reason you trade for certain guys with certain elements going into the playoffs — and it’s usually guys who have those elements.”

10. What’d I say? Monorail! What’s it called? Monorail!

NHL Seattle is going green, plus alleviating hassle and parking fees, by offering fans free public transit to the new hockey club’s rink on game nights.

With the Seattle Monorail able to transport up to 325 people per trip, the team announced that it should be able to bring 25 per cent of its supporters to the arena in under 40 minutes. The club is investing up to $7 million to upgrade the Westlake Memorial Station, which will help alleviate aggravation of driving through the city’s construction.

Great idea for keeping fans happy and getting in front of a potential headache early.

11. The trade deadline’s flood of news didn’t do the UFA market much favours.

Three of the best impending free agents at their respective positions — winger Chris Kreider, defenceman Jake Muzzin and pivot Jean-Gabriel Pageau — were all scooped off the market Monday, choosing security over intrigue well in advance of July 1.

Here’s what’s left of our All Impending UFA Starting Lineup in 2020 (and, yes, true centremen will be hard to come by, hence Lou Lamoriello’s price for Pageau):

Taylor Hall–Carl Soderberg–Mike Hoffman

Torey Krug–Alex Pietrangelo

Jacob Markstrom

12. First it’s the Zamboni drivers, now it’s the mascots taking over the league.

The recently acquired Andreas Athanasiou is wearing No. 28 for the Edmonton Oilers because nightmare-inducing mascot Hunter the Lynx has already laid claim to No. 72, a reference to the franchise’s founding in 1972.

As the newest Oiler explained to colleague Mark Spector, “I think the mascot is wearing it, and I didn’t want to get him a Rolex so…”

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