Quick Shifts: Keefe looking into a troubling Maple Leafs trend

All the best saves from the week that was in the NHL, including Carey Price turning back the clock to make a 5-alarm stop, and Darcy Kuemper putting up a wall against the Jackets.

A quick mix of the things we gleaned from the week of hockey, serious and less so, and rolling four lines deep. When the fans were let down by last week’s column, I approached my editor and demanded I get another crack at it this week.

1. “We need to find a way to get more power plays,” said Jason Spezza, following the third straight game in which the Toronto Maple Leafs’ opponents drew the majority of the minors.

If part of the Leafs’ identity is to burn foes 5-on-4, they need to conjure up more of those situations. And yet, in only nine of Toronto’s 30 games have the Leafs earned more power plays than their opposition. They are 5-2-2 when they do.

So, why can’t they use their speed and skill to make it happen more often?

“It’s not really up to us,” said Mitch Marner, who leaves those decisions in the referees’ hands.

But there is a disturbing, enduring trend here that we can’t simply pin on the stripes.

For the third consecutive season, the Maple Leafs are the worst in the NHL at drawing penalties.

They ranked 31st in 2017-18 by averaging 6.9 PIMs by opposition.

They ranked 31st in 2018-19 by averaging 6.7 PIMs by opposition.

Now, they rank 31st by averaging 6.1 PIMs by opposition.

Conversely, Colorado — tops in the category and top-three in each of the past three seasons — is giving its power play much more work by drawing an average of 12.7 PIMs by opposition.

The eye test suggests Toronto’s rush-based offence and lack of nastiness leads to more whistle-tucked nights, and the Leafs didn’t do themselves any favours in this category by trading away Nazem Kadri, historically a good penalty-drawer.

But what does the coach think the issue is?

“It’s a good question. It’s one I’ve been asking,” Sheldon Keefe said. “We’ve got to figure that out. The natural thing for me is to say we’ve got to get the puck to more dangerous areas, and we’ve got to attack the middle of the ice a lot more.

“We do have to skate a little bit harder and be a little more competitive to fight through situations and things like that to perhaps cause infractions.”

The good news is that Keefe is on the case. He plans to study video and push his players to battle for space in effort to get what should be a deadly power-play more looks.

“Now, we don’t take a lot of penalties either. I think that in itself creates a situation where you’re not going to get a lot,” Keefe notes.

“We certainly want to generate more than we are.”


2. All due respect to Quinn Hughes, but the Calder Trophy is Cale Makar’s lose.

The Colorado defenceman has 28 points through 28 games, leading all freshmen in scoring and game-winning goals (three), while ranking top-three in goals, assists, ice time and plus/minus.

“He makes my life really easy,” says Nathan MacKinnon, whose line coach Jared Bednar tries to use with Makar as frequently as possible.

“I think he’s the most dynamic defenceman in the league. I mean, I haven’t seen any anybody like him. And he’s only just turned 21, so it’s amazing he’s almost at 30 games played and he dominates. There’s been some games where he’s the best player on the ice by mile.

“He’s in the Norris running this year, I think, not just the Calder. He should be looked at for Norris as well.”

We’ll throw in one more trophy: the Lady Byng.

Makar has zero penalty minutes in his NHL career, which speaks to his positioning. (The only other first-year NHLer we can recall winning the Byng is Wayne Gretzky.)

Even the man he replaced on the Avalanche’s top power-play unit has nothing but rave reviews.

“He came in last year and was unbelievable. It was almost hard to fathom he was [20] years old, stepped into the playoffs and was beating guys one-on-one,” Tyson Barrie says.

“I kind of called it before the year — he’d be my pick for the Calder, and he’s had an unbelievable start. He’s a great player in the way that he’s shifty and skates. He’s honestly got it all — the shot, hands, vision, everything.”

Bednar describes Makar as a humble kid who expects much of himself. The challenge will be endurance.

At UMass-Amherst last winter, Makar’s entire season lasted 41 games, exactly half the NHL gauntlet.

“I’ve already played over half the games I did last year in the span of two months,” Makar says. “It’s a new learning curve.”

One he’s passing with flying colours.

3. Here’s how MacKinnon himself could be in line for some hardware and capture the trophy that barley eluded him in 2018.

If current scoring trends continue, it’s possible Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl hurt each other’s Hart votes by playing for the same team. Ditto top-five producers Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak in Boston.

MacKinnon, however, is third in NHL scoring while playing in all situations, and his next most productive teammate is a rookie defenceman (Makar ranks 20th in league scoring).

“Nate Dogg” is a marvel to watch every night and is the main reason the Avs haven’t skipped a beat despite injuries to Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog. Ten times already he’s exceeded 22 minutes of ice time.

Asked how to slow down the hottest player in hockey (26 points in 13 games), frenemy Tyson Barrie just smiles: “I think everyone is trying to figure that out.”

Did you see his shot on Frederik Andersen on Wednesday? Neither did Frederik Andersen.

“It’s quick, it’s hard, it’s accurate… all the above. It checks all the boxes,” teammate Nazem Kadri says.

“I knew Nate was a great player, but I didn’t quite realize how lethal his shot was until I started playing with him on a regular basis. So anytime he gets in the scoring area, we encourage him to shoot the puck.”

4. As P.K. Subban returns to Nashville on Saturday in Devils clothing, we are all reminded to not be so hasty to declare a trade winner in those instinctual seconds after a transaction is processed.

Whereas the Predators were left with cap space (since gobbled by Roman Josi) and hope in what was essentially a salary-dump deal to Jersey, Montreal has itself a true captain (albeit an aging and expensive one) in Shea Weber.

Subban arrived in Newark with Ric Flair fanfare but hasn’t been nearly the same player since his nerve injury last winter. Despite an uptick in ice time (23:06), the 2013 Norris winner has but two goals and five points this season.

He’s mired in a 15-game point drought. He’s a career-worst minus-12. He’s given the puck away six times for every one time he’s stolen it. He’s blocking shots at the lowest rate of his career. And his possession numbers are average.

You can lump Subban’s work in with the list of underwhelming individual performances that hastened the ouster of coach John Hynes.

Now, Nashville did reach its only Stanley Cup final with Subban on fire. Maybe that’s enough (Weber has played just one playoff series with Montreal).

But on July 1, the Devils need to cut Subban a $6-million bonus cheque.

Here’s hoping Subban and his uncharacteristically low shooting percentage can turn things around enough to justify that payday.

“I feel like I’ll be right back where I need to be,” Subban told Chris Johnston in September. “I’m 30 years old, and hope to play another eight to 10 years in the league.”

5. The more I think about it (which is an unhealthy amount), the more I think the New York Rangers and Toronto Maple Leafs could solve each other’s problem.

The following is simply speculation of trade fit that might work:

Toronto’s issue is well documented. The Leafs need an NHL-calibre backup as bad as Billy Ocean needs you out of his dreams and into his car.

The Rangers are creeping rapidly toward a crowded-crease conundrum.

Backup Alexander Georgiev (55 appearances) will need waivers to be demoted to the AHL after he plays Game 60. With a career .918 save percentage, the 23-year-old doesn’t deserve a demotion. With a $792,500 cap hit, he’d be claimed off the wire, no question.

Toronto may have particular interest in the kid, considering he made 99(!) saves against the Leafs in the past two Rangers-Leafs games.

Rangers general manager Jeff Gorton’s pressure here comes in the form of Russian prospect Igor Shestyorkin, also 23, who’s excelling his first season stateside with AHL Hartford (7-3-3, .927 save percentage).

Shestyorkin has an out clause that permits him to return home, where he’s been a star in the KHL. He didn’t fly over to not join the Rangers at some point.

Shestyorkin’s friend and fellow Rangers draft pick Vitali Kravtsov already pulled the chute and left Hartford after five games this fall to re-join his KHL club.

Do the Rangers call up Shestyorkin and carry three goalies? They could, but that never keeps everyone happy.

What the Leafs don’t have is cap space. What they do have are trade options in the form of young, middle-six forwards.

A straight-up trade of one or two of their young forward talents in the Marlies system for Georgiev might do the trick.

Or, and hear me out: This could be a juicier, multi-player deal that includes impending UFA Chris Kreider (who does hold an 11-team no-trade list). Kreider, 28, adds the kind of grease the Leafs lack and has 77 games of playoff experience.

Of course, shooting for something that significant would mean cutting into the roster, starting with, say, a Kasperi Kapanen. (You have to give to get and all that.)

Because the Rangers have cap space and aren’t in win-now mode, they could carry some of Kreider’s hit to make something like this work.

Just spitballin’ here.

6. I had the pleasure of co-hosting this week’s Tape II Tape podcast with pal Ryan Dixon and enjoying a chat with Dallas Stars beat writer Sean Shapiro, who shed light on the state of the emerging contender (listen in full here).

Shapiro’s take on Jamie Benn’s inconsistency over the past couple of seasons is interesting, as he makes the case for load management for a 30-year-old whose style of game leads to hard miles and considers the likelihood of Benn not skating out the remaining five and a half years on his contract in Big D.

7. “BoroCop” is a late entry into Best Sports Nickname of 2019. This is an incredible story of how a Senators defenceman thwarted an attempted robbery during Ottawa’s road trip to Vancouver.

The world needs more Mark Borowieckis.

Key quote: “I’m a mediocre fighter on the ice but I’m very confident handling myself off the ice.”

8. When I grow up, I want someone to ask me to find the 10 different places my name is etched onto the Stanley Cup.

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Hockey legend Larry Robinson has a hard time remembering all the years he’s won the #StanleyCup it’s been that much ! A total of 10 times over 5 decades – with the most recent being this year on the coaching staff for the @stlouisblues @nhl @thehockeyhalloffame ps he was the answer to yesterday’s trivia tuesday, did you get it right?

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9. From the “Where Are They Now?” files, 29-year-old Marcus Kruger — who didn’t land an NHL contract as a free agent this summer — is thriving under coach Rikard Gronborg for the first-place Zurich Lions in the Swiss A League.

A checking centre for nine years with the Blackhawks and Hurricanes, Kruger has four goals and nine points in 16 games for Zurich.

It speaks volumes of his love for the game that a guy with millions in the bank is happy to keep his pro career rolling away from the limelight.

Gronborg and Kruger have a built-in familiarity, having worked together at the world championships, Olympics and World Cup on the Swedish national team.

“He’s a very important player for us. He’s adapting very well. He has a huge role with us. He plays power play, penalty kill, all situations, and a lot of minutes,” Gronborg says.

“It’s fun to watch a player with the accolades — the medals and the [two] Stanley Cups — and the success he’s had still blocking shots in the Swiss league. That tells you his character.”

Gronborg, who gave an enlightening interview this week, wants North Americans to know that the quality of pro hockey in Switzerland is no joke. Any Americans or Canadians flying over to ski the Alps should make a point to take in a game live.

10. The expectation is that Ray Shero will conduct a thorough coaching search once the Devils’ season wraps. Some of the suggested top candidates include Islanders assistant Lane Lambert, 54, and Chicago Wolves head man Rocky Thompson, 42.

We’d be surprised if New Jersey, which has operated under the salary cap for years, would have much interest in taking on the bulk of Mike Babcock’s hefty contract.

Minnesota’s Bruce Boudreau is months away from free agency, and his track record of making the playoffs is excellent.

Let’s throw another name out there: Mike Vellucci. Vellucci, 53, guided the Charlotte Checkers to a league-best 51-17-8 record and a Calder Cup in 2018-19 with a shoestring payroll — under $2 million when most AHL teams operate with double that, or more.

Vellucci pulled the farm system’s version of a Barry Trotz, leaving the organization a champion.

Jim Rutherford hired Vellucci to take over the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, and they’ve already jumped to a 13-6-3 record after failing to make the cut last year.

Mike Sullivan’s contract and track record with the big Penguins suggest he’s not going anywhere.

So, how long until Vellucci graduates to the NHL?

11. The weird mix of feelings Nazem Kadri experienced heading into Toronto on Wednesday still lingered as he sat in his visitors’ stall victorious.

“Part of me is glad it’s over. Part of me wished it went on for a few more seconds,” Kadri said.

Since Kyle Dubas took over, every ex-Leaf has been greeted by a classy little tribute video during the first TV timeout of their return game.

Not once have we seen the building rise to its feet and start applauding immediately the way Leafs Nation did for the scrappy centre who’d devoted nine seasons to the Blue and White.

Kadri’s mom, wearing her son’s new sweater, had to wipe away tears.

From the ice, Kadri tapped his heart, saluted the crowd and nearly did the same.

“It was nice getting that ovation, for sure,” Kadri said. “I came close to shedding a tear there. That was special for me. I’m just forever thankful for the fans for embracing me and treating me so well here in Toronto, and I just tried to give them everything I had.”

Kadri had zero regrets for losing the five figures he threw on the board to help inspire the 3-1 win.

“Definitely worth it,” he said. “I do it over again if I could.”

12. Colorado’s Jared Bednar is one of the wave of men who entered the NHL ranks with the label “players’ coach.” He took a moment Wednesday to reflect on the state of the athlete-coach relationship. What’s encouraging is that the rash of recent allegations haven’t changed how he perceives his role.

“I saw [Arizona’s Rick] Tocchet the other day saying it’s not a dictatorship, it’s a partnership. And I agree with that,” said Bednar, a staunch believer in open communication between players and coaches.

“Everyone has a voice, and we try to make it a family atmosphere. It takes a little bit of time to grow that family and get trust, but I think we’re getting to that point now, especially now in my fourth year. We’ve got some great leadership in the room and there’s an open dialogue.”

Even if the person of authority frames the relationship as a partnership, some players might be hesitant to speak their minds for fear it may impact their ice time or ruffle feathers.

“Sometimes it’s good to ruffle feathers,” Bednar counters. “Just like your family at home: you try to encourage people when they’re doing things right, and sometimes you have to be a little harder on them and bring attention to them when they’re not.

“So, that starts with us as a staff and then our leadership in the room, and it’s real strong with Landy [Gabriel Landeskog] and Mac [Nathan MacKinnon] and guys that we’ve added, like Nazem. As many leaders as you can have in the room, the more the better.”

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