Quick Shifts: ‘Secretive’ Lamoriello returns to new-look Toronto

John Tavares chats with Shawn McKenzie following the Toronto Maple Leafs' 4-2 victory over the Columbus Blue Jackets, in which the center man scored two goals.

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

1. During a time long before his 76th birthday, before the five Stanley Cup appearances and three rings and the Hockey Hall of Fame induction that didn’t come close to signalling a wrap on his career, Lou Lamoriello was a baseball player. He preferred catcher.

That way, he could control the game.

“I believe in hands-on,” the New York Islanders’ new/experienced driver said on the NHL Executive Suite podcast. “I don’t know any other way of doing it.”

So, Auston Matthews — Lamoriello’s last great draft pick — will tell you how Lamoriello made a point to get to know his family and how he felt sad to watch a living legend leave Toronto, where Lamoriello helped get a historic franchise back on track and groom his own successor.

“My sisters loved him, my parents loved him. They were really close. So it’s sad to see him leave the organization,” Matthews said when the news was fresher. “I got to know him over the course of the two years, and he’s a great person. I think he did so much for this organization. Everyone was so thankful to just be around a guy with his resume, already a Hall of Famer.

“Pretty sad about him leaving, but you bring in a guy like Kyle Dubas. His plan, his vision, everything he wants to accomplish, it’s very exciting. You wish Lou the best.”

Under Lamoriello, as you might have heard, the Islanders lost their captain and best player, John Tavares. But they gained the reigning Cup champion head coach, Barry Trotz, and have raised eyebrows by running neck-and-neck with Pittsburgh for the third playoff seed in the Metropolitan Division.

Lamoriello and the Isles arrive in Toronto Saturday riding a two-game winning streak and with a vastly improved defensive game.

“Everybody thinks Lou just stands back. He’s constantly talking to players, guys. He’s even texting the players. I sat beside a 75-year-old guy who’s involved in texting back and forth with young men. It’s impressive,” said Mark Hunter, the former Leafs assistant GM and “a Lou guy” who left the organization when Dubas was named GM. “That’s why I felt good when I see how Lou do his business. It confirmed what you’re doing yourself, when you’re around the team interacting with players.

“You run the London Knights and you wonder if you’re doing the right things, then you see a guy like Lou and go, ‘Yeah, I’m on the right page.’”

Hunter says Lamoriello — perceived as the posterboy for the old-school hockey man — was much more interested in analytics than people give him credit for.

“I see some people say that about him. I go, ‘No.’ He’s all over statistics of kids’ ages. That stuff’s on his table Monday morning of every statistic around the whole world, and he goes through it,” Hunter explained. “He kept notes on past things a player’s done, from scoring to shots. It shocked me how much notes he kept that backed up [each] player.

“He was constantly taking notes. The Corsi, he followed. Puck possession, he was all into it. I shouldn’t even be telling this secret about him,” Hunter said, laughing. “Because you know how secretive he is.”

The Dubas Era has seen the ouster of in-your-face toughness — Leo Komarov and Matt Martin return as Islanders — and those super-vague injury updates.

Leafs can now grow all the facial hair they wish, and there’s been a noticeable uptick in player endorsement deals and a general loosening of personality.

But as was the case under Lamoriello, the club is tight on trade-rumour leaks. They all still wear helmets during warmups. And the GM has direct line to his players. It’s not uncommon to spot Dubas chatting with one of his front-line employees.

Maybe he picked that up from Lou, a mentor. Or maybe, like Hunter, watching Lamoriello just confirmed which habits he should keep.


2. Not every move Lamoriello made during his three years as the Maple Leafs’ shot-caller was perfect. The jury is still out on whether handing a long-term extension to defenceman Nikita Zaitsev after one season in North America was the right call. Zaitsev still has five more years after this one at a $4.5-million cap hit, and we’re not certain his ceiling goes much higher.

But the brilliant moves were very brilliant.

In April 2016, Lamoriello locked in both Morgan “Norris Talk” Rielly ($5-million cap hit) and 30-goal centre Nazem Kadri ($4.5 million) to six-year deals at what now look like massive bargains.

And the trade-and-sign of Frederik Andersen, a true No. 1 goalie who’s already set a franchise record for wins, cannot be questioned.

3. Think Max Domi packs a sucker punch? Believe Tom Wilson is the master of the blindside?

Well, Dallas Stars CEO Jim Lites’ on-the-record verbal attack of his two best players – after Dallas shut out the reigning Presidents’ Trophy winners, no less — was savage.

I suppose there is some safety in going after two high-paid superstars, buddies Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin, as opposed to alienating just one, but I doubt such a public undressing was the wise way to go.

Why not chew them out behind closed doors? Or float an “ownership is dissatisfied” rumour through the media?

This is encouragement via embarrassment.

With Dallas still a bubble team since switching to its third coach in three years, it’s obvious Lites’ next move would be to fire GM Jim Nill, who’s won landslide trades (Seguin), signed some steals (John Klingberg), and made shrewd draft picks (Miro Heiskanen).

The Stars are in danger of missing the dance for a third straight spring. How do Benn and Seguin respond? Their contracts include full no-move clauses.

“It’s really hard to put this relationship back on the rails,” former exec Brian Burke said on Friday night’s Sportsnet broadcast. “This is the Uber for an owner.”

4. On the topic of underwhelming production, William Nylander has now gone seven games without a point and is a minus-2. This is by far the most ineffective stretch in his career; throughout 2016-17 and 2017-18, he never lasted more than three games without putting numbers on the board.

He’s goal-free through 10 games.

“When I talk to Willy, we never talk about production. You never, ever talk to players about production. You talk to players about the process and working hard and competing and doing the little things in the game that allow you to be successful,” coach Mike Babcock said.

“When I met with Willy [Thursday], and I did meet with Willy, all I showed him was all of the battles he won [versus Detroit Sunday]. I thought that was his best effort, and it’s important to understand that it was a good effort for him. We want him to just continue to work hard and compete. When he gets his feel back, the rest of it will come.”

5. When Nylander pushed his negotiations to the Dec. 1 limit and still scooped a nice payday, there was a feeling that future restricted free agents might follow suit.

Not proven playoff performer Jake Guentzel, who re-upped in Pittsburgh Thursday for five years and $30 million.

We wonder if Nylander’s noticeable struggles to catch up with the league might sour RFAs and GMs on playing such hardball and using every available day to figure out the future.

6. Flying to Arizona and back for a tight three-day Christmas break wouldn’t make sense from a rest standpoint and Auston Matthews’ family couldn’t make the voyage to Toronto, so the most popular Maple Leaf was immediately invited to the Marleau house for the holiday.

“It’s hard to not take him up on it, just how close we are and how much fun we have with his boys every time we go over to his house,” Matthews said. “They wore me out the day and a half I was there, but it was definitely a good time.”

Thank goodness he went. The world would be much worse off without this Instagram gold:

“It’s a little tradition they do, so they gave me the Macho Man onesie,” Matthews smiled. “I was surprised it fit, but it looked pretty nice in the picture. Pretty realistic.”

Babcock said the club made sure no one was left alone. It’s just that the Matthews-Marleau connection is one that gets publicized.

“It was important that everyone was looked after for Christmas, even guys who got injured and had to change plans. It was important they had a place to go,” Babcock said. “Our team reached out to those guys and made sure they were looking after.”

7. Marleau said he’d give Matthews the keys to his house in San Jose when the 21-year-old flies west for the All-Star Game in a month: “I don’t know if he’s going to throw a party or not, but…”

Another week, another milestone for the man Morgan Rielly calls “the most respected” in the dressing room.

By skating in the 1,613th regular-season game of his career Friday, Marleau surpassed Ray Bourque to grab sole possession of 10th place on the NHL’s all-time games played list.

“If he didn’t have that grey beard,” Rielly quipped, “you’d think he was one of the younger guys.”

8. Among goaltenders with at least 12 appearances, Winnipeg’s Connor Hellebuyck — a Vezina finalist in 2018 — ranks 27th in save percentage at .909, right at the league average. Last season, his breakout year, he was a .924.

He must find another level by April if the Jets are to contend.

Hellebuyck was vocal about shrinking goalie equipment early in the season, and after Thursday’s loss to Calgary, he sounded off on Matthews Tkachuk and Noah Hanifin being allowed to crash his crease and interfere with his ability to make a save.

“They don’t want it to change,” Hellebuyck told reporters, referring to the league.

“They like the goals. They want more goals and want to take more from us. [Hanifin] wasn’t shoved in or anything. What needs to happen is a penalty needs to be called, and then their coach is going to say that was a dumb penalty to take, and then he’s not going to come storming at the net when I’m covering the puck.”

Hellebuyck is calling for change. He wants the NHL to protect the men who protect the nets.

“I’ve definitely noticed a trend where they’re trying to take a little more from us,” he said.

9. Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy has yet to announce which of his accomplished goaltenders, Tuukka Rask or Jaroslav Halak, will be tasked with starting duties for the Winter Classic at Notre Dame Stadium.

But that didn’t prevent Rask from getting this awesome mask specially designed for the occasion:

10. A friendly reminder that impending free agents Erik Karlsson (San Jose), William Karlsson (Vegas) and Mark Stone (Ottawa) can officially sign extensions with their current teams as early as this Tuesday, Jan. 1.

With the Senators racing towards a lottery in which they don’t have a ball, Stone’s future is by far the most pressing. The de facto captain has amassed 41 points through 38 games and is, amazingly, a plus-11 skater on a defensively porous team.

11. I’ve watched this 1-on-4 Claude Giroux clip about 43 times and I’m still mesmerized by the stick lift:

12. It’s Christmas Eve.

My eight-year-old son and I are leaving a parent-and-tots shinny session at our local outdoor rink. The ice is snowy and rutted. An open men’s shinny hour is scheduled next.

Marlies Jeremy Bracco and Rich Clune arrive to play, then up walks Leafs forward Kasperi Kapanen. He’d just played a back-to-back and scored an overtime game-winner less than 24 hours prior. Made my kid’s day.

Pro hockey players heading out on a rare day off to skate outside on bad ice? Wonderful. Shows just how deep the love of the game runs with some of these guys…

Kasperi Kapanen

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Christmas Eve shinny in the Beach

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