Quick Shifts: Leafs’ Borgman aims to ‘go out and hit people’

Yes, scoring is up and the speed is on display across the league but Sportsnet's Nick Kypreos is still ecstatic the Kings Drew Doughty and Flames Matthew Tkachuk still don't mind mixing it up.

A quick mix of the things we gleaned from the week of hockey, serious and less so, and rolling four lines deep.
 
1. Andreas Borgman describes his new head coach, Mike Babcock, as a straight-up guy.

“He always says what he thinks. I think he’s fair,” says the Toronto Maple Leafs rookie defenceman.

“He wants me to play as a do—hard. Go out and hit people. The right things.”

Go out and hit people.

First, in pre-season, it was Ottawa’s Mike Blunden in open ice.

Then Borgman shouldered Evan Rodrigues something filthy.

On Monday against Chicago, it was rookie Alex DeBrincat falling into the crosshairs of the Swedish brickhouse. With the puck already skirting five yards away at the moment of contact, Borgman drew an interference penalty along with thousands of gif retweets for this demolition:

When the Maple Leafs signed the 22-year-old out of Stockholm, they told him he’d have a good shot to make the big club immediately. Now with Connor Carrick nursing a minor injury, he’s played three of the Leafs’ first four games.

Borgman has one assist and is minus-1. There’s been times times he’s looked like a force, but he got exposed in Wednesday’s loss to New Jersey.

“I can’t do as many mistakes here as I can at home in Sweden,” he says. “There’s too many good players that will score on you.”

Borgman says he’s still adjusting to the smaller ice surface, but that he already prefers it: “More body contact all the time.”

Catch a glimpse of the six-foot, 212-pound specimen out of equipment and you may accidentally think he’s still wearing equipment. Dude is ripped like the guy in this incredible news headline.

Once he turned 18, Borgman transformed into a gym rat, convinced that bulking up would be his route to the NHL. “That’s what got me here,” he says.

The irony is, there’s zero tolerance for fighting in Swedish hockey. Borgman dropped the gloves just once, in junior, before arriving in North America, but even that incident doesn’t qualify as a real scrap in his mind.

Leafs enforcer Matt Martin took one look at Borgman at training camp and said, “Yeah, you’re probably going to get in a fight. Stay close. You’re strong, so just toss him around.”

After steamrolling Blunden in his initial pre-season game, the Senator went after him.

“I kinda expected it would happen at some point because I hit a lot, but I didn’t think it would happen in the first game,” Borgman says. “I tried to keep calm and not let him get too many punches on me. I think I handled it well for my first fight.”

Borgman didn’t really know his temporary partner, Sweden’s Calle Rosen, until development camp, but the D-men and Swedish Leafs forward William Nylander quickly began family dinners at Rosen’s place because he had a stove.

He’s yet to find quality Swedish dining in Toronto, but has thoroughly enjoyed his new home’s selection of tacos.

“That’s not even a Swedish dish,” Borgman clarifies.

Borgman says he’s not homesick yet. Mementos of the family he left behind are tattooed all over his muscles. Tributes to his brothers and sisters, his grandmother and other relatives are inked on his arms are torso. He got his first tat at 17.

“Seventeen?” I say. “My parents woulda killed me.”

Borgman smiles devilishly.

“My mom wasn’t that happy about it, but she said it’s OK if you have a meaning, a purpose behind it,” he recalls.

“The first one says, ‘Stay Strong. Mother’s Son,’ so it’s for her. That made it pretty OK.”

2. Upon the advice of the Maple Leafs’ internal mathematicians, Babcock has been deploying centre Auston Matthews and winger William Nylander on their strong-side faceoffs only. It’s working.

Matthews’s success rate at the dot has jumped to 54 per cent from 47. Nylander’s has popped to 47 per cent from 40.

The biggest improvement, however, comes from Nazem Kadri, whose 48 per cent win rate of 2016-17 has leapt to 58 over these early four games.

“Strong side always,” says Kadri, a left shot. “That’s my left side. You just feel like you get better leverage and you can improvise better. The weak side is a little more uncomfortable. It’s more awkward.”

Kadri has been up front about his desire to improve his work in the dot. In the summer he focused on core and upper-body rotation exercises to help win draws, but says the craft is more strategy-based than strength. “It’s more about watching film, watching what other guys are doing.”

As a whole, Toronto was one of the weakest faceoff clubs last season. Now they’re second overall, at 58 per cent, a shade below Boston.

Newcomer Dominic Moore leads the club at 68 per cent success (minimum 20 faceoffs).

“Your stronger side is your backhand side. There’s definitely differences depending on what side you’re on and what hand your opponent is, too. You gotta adjust what you do, based on that, every faceoff,” Moore explains.

“It completely depends on the [opposing] guy, what he’s trying to do. You could have two righties doing different things, and you may fare better against one particular style over another. It’s also different in every area of the ice.”

3. Jonathan Toews didn’t score his second goal of the 2016-17 season until Nov. 3.

He accomplished that feat this season on Oct. 9, already added a third, and is kicking off Chicago’s redemption tour with a five-game point streak.

“This year he seems to be the Johnny Toews that we know,” says coach Joel Quenneville, who has supported his captain with Richard Panik and Brandon Saad. “Saader was always a difference-maker with his speed. It’s been fun watching him play with Johnny again.

“That line last year wasn’t the threat last year that it was in other years.”

The Blackhawks say the Toews line is dangerous because it’s quick, balanced, heavy on the puck, and… Saad = happy.

“He’s happy with his linemates,” says Patrick Kane. “It seems like he’s skating really well right now.

“This group is a little tighter than groups we’ve had in the past.”

Last season, it took Toews until February to string together a five-game point streak.

“They got Saad back,” explained Babcock. “Last year, [Artemi] Panarin and Kane played together, and [Toews] didn’t have as much support. Now that they’ve got him support, you’re going to see him jump right back.”

Reached for comment, the rest of the Central Division issued the following statement: “Uh-oh.”


 
4. The Arizona Coyotes continue to take a gradual development approach with Dylan Strome, who was sent down to AHL Tuscon.

Strome serves as a stark reminder that just because you can average two points a night in junior doesn’t mean you’re NHL-ready.

Of course, there’s still plenty of time — the kid’s only 20 — but when you look at the class of first-rounders selected after Strome in 2015, you wonder if the Coyotes are kicking themselves.

Mitch Marner, Noah Hanifin, Pavel Zacha, Ivan Provorov, Zach Werenski, Timo Mier, Miko Rantanen, Lawson Crouse, Jake DeBrusk, Kyle Connor, Thomas Chabot, Joel Eriksson Ek, Brock Boeser, Colin White, Travis Konecny… Arizona passed on them all.

Had he been available, would the Leafs have chosen Strome over Marner?

P.S. The Coyotes are the only Western Conference team still searching for their first win.

 
5. When Las Vegas–born Bryce Harper walked out of the clubhouse following the Washington Nationals’ dramatic Game 5 loss in the NLDS, D.C. reporter Stephen Whyno noticed he was wearing an Auston Matthews sweater.

Desert pride?


 
6. The Red Wings have jumped to a 3-1 start and GM Ken Holland has a head start on making us prognosticators look like idiots.

Twenty-four-year-old rookie Martin Frk — fun fact: the Czech winger is the first NHLer in history with zero vowels in his surname — leads all Detroit players with three goals, converting on 30 per cent of his shots.

“I feel like that’s the only good thing… well, not the only good thing I can do. But I knew they were struggling on the power play last year, so I’m trying to produce,” Frk says. “When I was 12 I realized I had a better shot than the older guys. That’s my biggest weapon.”

With Dylan Larkin’s speed up the middle and Anthony Mantha’s work in the corners and in the crease, this is becoming one of the league’s sneaky-good trios. Combined, they have 13 points through four games.

“I think we have everything,” says Frk, who was drafted way back in the second round of 2012. “It took five years, but I’m happy I made it here.

“I told myself, ‘I will not give up on my dream.’ Everyone has their own way. I think I had to develop longer in the AHL.”

A good model for Dylan Strm, if he’s feeling discouraged.


 
7. Mika Zibanejad has been fabulous since signing his big contract and getting promoted to the New York Rangers‘ first line.

The part-time singer has five goals through four games.

“I just am trying to place myself in a good spot out there, and the guys are finding me, and the puck seems to be going in,” Zibanejad said. “You just have to keep shooting when you are hot, I guess.”

Problem is, Zibanejad has been one of few difference-makers. No other Ranger has more than one goal. The experiment of 18-year-old Filip Chytil as a top-nine pivot was abandoned after two games, and the absence of Derek Stepan is being felt.

“There’s no doubt Mika knew we put a lot of faith in his play. We signed him to a long-term deal and we expected him to be an impact player on the team,” coach Alain Vigneault said. “He has to continue to be a force on the ice — a difference-maker — and that’s what we expect from him.”

He needs help.

8. I love the way Matt Duchene has handled himself since puck drop.

When his childhood idol, Peter Forsberg, suggested he be benched, it must’ve stung like a thousand bees. Publicly, he’s taken the high road.

“He and I have a great relationship. I’m not taking it personally. I think he’s just commenting on a situation,” Duchene told reporters. “I still have the same admiration and respect for him as a player and as a guy.”

During his Twitter Q&A Thursday, Duchene named Forsberg as a dream linemate.

9. Friday the 13th: a good day for slashing.

In 2016-17, referees whistled 7.73 penalties per game. Only 8.3 per cent of all penalties were slashing calls.

In the early going of 2017-18, we’ve already seen a jump to 9.92 penalties per game, with 27 per cent of them for slashing.

Monday’s Leafs-Blackhawks tilt featured 13 minors, eight of them slashing calls.

Toronto’s coaching staff went over video with the players to show them what they can and cannot get away with. I got some reaction from the room.

Zach Hyman: “Oh, man. Eventually it’ll be good for the game to get rid of slashing on the hands, but right now they’re a lot of penalties as players try to figure out what they can and can’t do. They call pretty much anything if you touch the stick from the knee up. You don’t want broken hands and fingers and have guys out. It will be good. We just have to get used to it.”

Mitch Marner: “A lot more calls this year as opposed to last year. It’s pretty crazy. It’s getting cracked down quite a bit. We need more awareness with our sticks. You have to stay away from the hands. If you keep it near the blade area, you’ll have a little leeway.”

Tyler Bozak:
“We’re getting more wear out of the penalty-kill guys. The power-play guys aren’t too upset about it. It doesn’t matter how hard or how light it is. If you disrupt them in any way by putting your stick in that area, you’re going to the box.”

Morgan Rielly: “Rules are rules, and we’ve got to follow them. At this point there’s no excuses. We’ve got to keep our sticks down and our feet moving and not take any penalties. I think it’s good for the game. Your stick gets up on the hands, they’re gonna call it. Bottom line. The league made a choice to take it out the game. It’s not a matter of debate.”

I probably should’ve asked James van Riemsdyk after this call on Wednesday, though…


 
10. “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

That’s the Martin Luther King Jr. quote Lightning forward J.T. Brown tweeted after courageously raising his fist during the American anthem.

Brown’s actions — bravo, J.T. — stand in stark contrast to the gross display that was the Pittsburgh Penguins’ White House visit, led by Ron Burkle and Mario Lemieux.

To borrow the U.S. president’s cringe-inducing phrase: “It’s called winning. Right, Sidney?”

Then Eminem draws a line in the sand for his fans, calls Trump’s NFL ploy out for the distraction that it is, and athletes appreciate it.


 
I was told by a peer of mine, one I like and admire, that I shouldn’t comment on U.S. politics because I don’t live there. Maybe he was joking. I hope so.

To me, issues like racism and gun control transcend geography. They’re about humanity. Like it or not, they’ve spilled into sports and music and comedy and all of the other silly escapes we hold dear.

Much ink was spilled over how well the Vegas Golden Knights treated their home opener. They handled a difficult task with class, no doubt.

A reporter asked Babcock what he thought about the Knights’ ability to “alleviate” the pain of the worst mass murder in American history.

“I don’t know about that,” said Babcock, before crediting the Knights’ nice gestures.

Please, read Dave Lozo’s take on the game.

11. I surveyed a half-dozen NHL rookies and prospects, asking the best dressing-room prank they’ve fallen victim to.

A cup of water in the helmet or in the gloves right before your teammate takes the ice appears to be the most common.

“You’re wet and miserable all practice,” Leafs prospect Jeremy Bracco said. “I’ve been the victim and given it out. I’m a good hotel prank guy. Get the garbage can with water on the door. Move the guy’s whole room outside into the hallway.”

Chicago’s DeBrincat likes removing the plug of a guy’s stick and filling it with water. Or simply hiding it in the locker room ceiling.

“Chris Neil got me a couple times with the clear tape on the skates,” says Senators rookie Colin White. “I had no idea. I got on the ice and took a digger right away.”

A more labour-intensive one? Shoving your teammate’s cellphone into his pocket, sewing it shut and calling it.

12. So the Winnipeg Jets lose their first two games. They remove Dustin Byfuglien — their heartbeat and highest-paid player is said to be nursing a minor ailment — from the lineup, and they bounce back with two big road wins in Edmonton and Vancouver.

Byfuglien spent his off-day fishing with Matt Hendricks. Like, really fishing.

Paul Maurice told reporters he has “no issue at all” with the activity.

“Just a little bit jealous,” said the coach. “We get four mandatory days off a month, and I like it when they [occur] on the road because [players] get to spend some time together. It’s great early in the season. Outstanding.”

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