A quick mix of the things we gleaned from the week of hockey, serious and less so, and rolling four lines deep.
1. The tenuous hope that the Toronto Maple Leafs don’t need to look elsewhere for top-four defence help, that they can promote from within, lies within the impressive play of odd-couple third pairing Travis Dermott (lefty, homegrown) and Igor Ozhiganov (righty, imported).
Dermott’s rapidly improving play has earned him praise from coach Mike Babcock, and his ice time (up by well over a minute on average from last season) reflects trust. Ozhiganov’s dependability has made it almost impossible for black-ace righty Justin Holl to get a peek.
“[Holl] is in a tough situation right now because we’re not giving him an opportunity,” Babcock announced Friday. “Don’t plan on it right away.”
The challenge here, for two guys trying to stick in the NHL, is that Ozhiganov spent his first 26 years on this planet communicating in Russian, only. D partners tend to perform better when they’re speaking the same language.
“He’s getting it more every day. We’re talking more every day. He’s learning different words. It’s nice to see. He wants to learn. He wants to make the game easier for himself and for everyone around him, so it’s good to see him going in the right direction,” Dermott said.
“It could be tough if he wasn’t as dedicated to learning and wanting us to have a good communication basis. That could mean an extra half-second where he has to realize what I’m saying or I have to think an extra half-second to realize what he’s saying.
“I don’t, like, feel bad for him — that’s what he expected coming over here — but I kinda do. You want to help him as much as you can.”
Ozzy’s a quick study, and we could see the pair’s usage continue to inch upwards.
“He’s picking up on everything now,” Dermott says. “It’s beyond ‘Pass!’ or ‘Go here!’ Pretty much anything I’d say to any partner is good to go for him now — if I say it slow enough and I’m not flying through it.”
Ozhiganov flew to Toronto with his wife and young child, so his windows to bond with Dermott have mostly been restricted to the Leafs’ one road trip and dressing room chirps — which, hilariously, must be filtered through the Leafs’ only translator, Nikita Zaitsev.
“He’s a funny guy,” Dermott smiled. “He’ll send the odd shot my way. Whether it’s him saying it or through Z, his translator, we’ve had some fun interactions for sure.”
Needing to wait a beat for the delayed punchline doubles the funny.
“He’ll chirp what I’m wearing or whatever. Whatever we can get on each other, we’ll use,” Dermott said. “He can’t even say it himself half the time, so I have to listen to someone else say it for him.
“And then he’s there smiling.”
2. I had a chance to follow up with John Tavares on how he views childhood friend Sam Gagner’s surprise demotion from the Vancouver Canucks to the Toronto Marlies.
“It ain’t easy for any player. For Sam, he signed a three-year deal in Vancouver and was very excited about helping that team, especially through the transition they’re going through. It was tough on him,” Tavares explained.
“He’s an extremely motivated guy, he works hard on his game, he has a great attitude and is a great teammate. So it was tough, but what impressed me most is his ability to fight through adversity.
“It happened to him once in Philly, and he responded with a great year in Columbus [18 goals, 50 points]. All the guys down there [in the Marlies] should be happy to have him because of his work ethic, his skill set and the kind of guy he is. I know it works out well for him and his family. It’s a lot easier travel with two young boys. He’s making the most of it.”
And it’s true Tavares offered to billet Gagner?
“He’s a good friend and considering the amount of free ice time he gave me as a kid, it’s probably warranted,” Tavares said. “I don’t want to see him under these set of circumstances, but I get to connect with him in the next few days.”
3. Jack Campbell never expected to start five straight games for the Kings, but when Jonathan Quick fell to injury, he did his best to step up, posting a .917 save percentage while going 2-3 despite minimal run support.
Already the goaltending prospect has appeared in more NHL games this season than any other.
“He’s been awesome for us, man. He’s the hardest-working guy on our team. When he succeeds, we couldn’t be more happy for him,” Drew Doughty said. “Just watch him in practice. He battles for every single puck. He could be 10 feet outside the net and he’s diving across trying to make that save. He works his bag off. He’s in the gym all the time trying to make his legs stronger so he’s moving quicker. He’s just a hard worker.”
I told Campbell how Doughty raved about his effort.
“I remember when I first got traded here [from Dallas], it was an eye-opener and how hard these guys work in L.A. I saw that and tried to build on it. It’s a huge honour that he’d say that. I look up to Drew and so many of the guys on this team. I just want to be better in there for the boys,” Campbell said.
The kid had just lost 4-1 to the Leafs Monday, on the heels of getting chased by Ottawa Saturday, and his voice was quavering. He felt horrible, but he would’ve needed a shutout to win.
While injured, Quick would chat with Campbell over text after every game, offering encouragement and improvement tips.
“We have a great relationship. We’re more than just teammates; we’re pretty good buddies off the ice. He’s always giving me pointers, and he helps a lot. I’m interested to see what he has to say about this one,” Campbell said.
“He’s a simple guy. Just black and white. Works hard and competes. It’s just great hearing from him.”
4. Doughty, an absolute quote machine, rolls through Toronto once a year to deliver gifts.
The award-winning defenceman’s assessment of his own temper is great.
“As you grow older, you start caring more and more and more about your team and about how you play, and mentally I start getting frustrated now as I’ve got older. I used to go home and if I made a few mistakes in the game I was like, ‘Whatever, tomorrow’s a new day.’ Now, it’s a little different. You go home and you’re literally sour for the whole night and can’t sleep after a game. So, mentally I wish I was as strong as I was when I was younger,” Doughty, 28, explained.
Interesting that Doughty has leaned on the steady (but quote stingy) Dion Phaneuf, 33, to help manage his emotions.
“I get frustrated sometimes and I’ll take take it out on either the refs or take it out on myself or my stick or whatever it may be,” Doughty went on.
“He’s kind of taught me that when I’m showing frustration in myself that affects the whole team, and as a leader on this team, I can’t be doing that. I’ve been working on that for years and working on it, and sometimes I’ll just go psycho, but he’s really helped me with that. He’s just a good person, good friend and good teammate.”
Kings head coach John Stevens has a great line on his best defenceman: “Sometimes his passions turn into frustrations, but I’d rather try to dampen a fire than try to light one.”
Doughty admits he loved stirring up the Toronto locals when his contractual situation was up in the air and couldn’t help throwing another troll quote out there regarding Phaneuf.
“I love the guy. He’s awesome. He’s a great fit for our team, great player. Plays so hard and stands up for his teammates all the time. Always stands up for his teammates and we’re really happy to have him,” said Doughty.
A pause before the kicker: “You know, the Leafs could probably use him now, having a veteran guy like that back on the back end.
“But we’re happy to have him and he’s going to help us.”
5. Just because you know it’s coming doesn’t mean you can stop it.
No club should be more familiar with that maxim than the Washington Capitals.
On one hand, they have Alex Ovechkin continuing to burn goalies from the same spot in the same circle, as he did to Henrik Lundqvist Wednesday — twice. The man is his own instant replay:
On the flip side, when breaking down Saturday’s loss to the Maple Leafs, goaltender Braden Holtby explained how he knew in advance the areas his opponents would try to exploit — and, still, it was no use.
“They’re a team that looks for that soft spot in the slot, and they got a few chances off that,” Holtby said of Toronto. “Looking at the pre-scout, one of their big things is having a guy just hanging out by the back door … a few times we got burned on it.”
Three times consecutively, in fact. Watch the Par Lindholm, Josh Leivo and Auston Matthews goals here. Back door all day:
6. The Leafs’ next game was Monday versus Los Angeles.
After the morning skate, I began explaining Holtby’s report on the Leafs’ sneaky back-door strikes to Doughty.
“Yeah, we noticed that. Oh, yeah, we know that,” Doughty jumped in.
“Everyone watches everyone. Our team will steal things from other teams’ game, and that’s one we probably stole from the Leafs.
“We know about it, but they can attack from so many angles, you can’t pay attention to just one thing.”
Doughty was a dash-2 in the Kings’ loss that night.
You’ll notice Doughty taking away the Connor Brown back-door option when Patrick Marleau decides to shoot (and score) on the power-play. Later, defending a rush, Doughty goes after Zach Hyman in the middle, and Mitch Marner taps in a back-side pass.
7. Toronto defender Jake Gardiner singles out Adrian Kempe as a Kings forward who must be respected for his speed, but Los Angeles has too few forwards with Kempe’s feet.
In losing the last three games of their first big road trip by a combined score of 16-4, a legitimate question has arisen: Do you believe the aging Kings have enough speed to contend in the modern NHL?
“Yeah, I do,” Doughty said. Full stop.
Can they find another gear?
“I think we can. I think we have to,” Stevens said. “Everyone talks about speed, and Toronto has a lot of speed, but Toronto’s puck speed is excellent. That’s an area we can get a lot better at.”
The newest King is the oldest King. At 35-and-a-half years old, Ilya Kovalchuk still wields a lethal shot and is still a threat with the one-timer.
What has surprised Stevens is how much Kovalchuk wants the puck on his stick, and with Dustin Brown sidelined, having two puck-carriers like Anze Kopitar and Kovalchuk on the same line might not be giving Los Angeles optimal chemistry.
“I thought he was more of a shooter, but he’s a really high-possession guy that makes a lot of plays,” Stevens said. “That might’ve been a little bit of a surprise.”
Not to Tavares, whose ol’ Metropolitan Division battles with the Russian run deep.
“Tremendous one-timer, but it’s not his only weapon,” Tavares noted pre-game. “It’s his ability to make plays and see the ice, the patience and poise he has, he’s a tremendous player. I saw him a lot when he was in Jersey, so I know how dynamic he is, and he’s shown that even being away for a few years.”
Kovalchuk already has five points through seven games, and there’s a feeling he still hasn’t caught his groove.
8. Friends, how many of us have them?
— Brian Snyder (@big_show99) October 18, 2018
9. On the surface, you’d think Pittsburgh would like to keep next week’s three-time-zone trek to Western Canada (Edmonton, Calgary, Vancouver) as quick as possible, so it was interesting to learn the Penguins are setting off to Banff this weekend for a fun team-bonding getaway after besting the Maple Leafs in Toronto.
“It gives the players a chance to get together away from the rink,” explained coach Mike Sullivan, who pounced on a rare four-day break in the schedule.
“Our experience has been that it’s those types of experiences that bring teams together. Even though we have a lot of returning players, we have some new guys on the team. This is a new season. It’s a new challenge. We need to come together as a team.”
I love the idea. Depending how much fun the Pens have, maybe the Oilers — who welcome Crosby & Co. Tuesday — will, too.
10. Several observers ripped the Penguins for signing UFA Jack Johnson at a $3.25-million cap hit over five seasons this summer, and the term is rich, but the early returns have been positive.
Pittsburgh has allowed just one goal on the penalty kill and was the first team to solve Toronto’s much-lauded PP. Johnson is a significant part of that.
“His first pass is good. He defends hard. He’s strong down low in the battle areas. He brings a dimension that our D corps doesn’t have a lot of,” Sullivan said. “We tend to have a lot of mobile guys, puck-moving guys. Jack brings a dimension that we thought would make us more difficult to play against.”
Besides strong goaltending, Johnson said the secret to Pittsburgh’s incredible 92.8 per cent PK (only one goal allowed) has been aggression. The four-man unit tries to disrupt the opposition’s attack up-ice, disrupting them before they even cross the blue line.
If they can’t set up, they can’t score, the thinking goes.
“We’re trying not to just back up and let teams enter the zone. We’re trying to make them earn it,” Johnson said.
Johnson’s wife, Kelly Quinn (sister of former NFL quarterback Brady Quinn), is from Columbus, and it was important, he said, to remain a three-hour drive away from those roots. The defenceman spoke fondly of his former teammates, equipment guys, trainers, even the p.r. staff.
The adjustment to playing for the Blue Jackets’ most bitter rival “has been as smooth as I think it could be,” Johnson said.
“A bit of a whirlwind. I still don’t know my way to the airport quite yet. I have to get rides from teammates.”
His decision to sign with buddy Crosby’s Penguins was made days in advance of July 1, which eased a potential headache.
“The week before free agency there were really only two [teams] that we were highly considering. It didn’t get to July 1 for me. Once this opportunity came up, we just jumped on it.”
The team Johnson turned down? “Definitely” another Cup contender, he said.
11. Derick Brassard, 31, is in the final season of a contract that carries a $5-million cap hit with Pittsburgh. The Penguins gave up a chunk, including their 2018 first-round pick, to acquire the centreman at the last deadline.
At 3C, Brassard didn’t exactly wow as a rental, and he has just one goal (no assists) in this young season.
Sullivan has tried him on Crosby’s wing and moved him back to the middle, skating between Patric Hornqvist and Dominik Simon.
A great debate: Get him more minutes and scoring chances by squeezing him into the top six, or strengthen middle ice and play to his defensive capabilities by slotting him at 3C?
Brassard has been a rock-solid 2C for most of his career and could become that again if he signs elsewhere this summer.
“Are we better if we put Brass back in the middle?” Sullivan considered. “There are pros and cons to both.”
The production has yet to back it up, but Sullivan said Brassard is finding his niche.
“I think he’s really starting to find his way in where he fits with this group and how he can help us win,” the coach said. “He’s a versatile player. We use him in a lot of situations.”
12. The slickest non-NHL goal of the season comes courtesy of KHLer Alexander Kadeikin, a seventh-round Detroit Red Wings selection back in 2014.
The Salavat Yulaev forward’s slick behind-the-back tuck in a 2-1 overtime victory over Metallurg Mg should get you hyped for a weekend full of hockey: