Quick Shifts: Toronto Maple Leafs down to one last big decision

Elliotte Friedman joined Lead Off and talked about the possibility of Jason Spezza being demoted to the AHL or joining another NHL squad.

A quick mix of the things we gleaned from the week of hockey, serious and less so, and rolling four lines deep. We originally wrote 13 notes but had to cut one this week due to cap reasons.

1. “What’s he doing at the rink?”

That’s what Toronto Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock wondered aloud after the last NHL game Jason Spezza played.

This was last Saturday night in Philadelphia. Spezza had committed a couple of costly minor penalties, but he’d also scored his first goal as Leaf and kept the longest shootout in franchise history alive as one of just two Toronto shooters to solve Brian Elliott over 11 rounds.

Twice, reporters lobbed softballs to the coach in the post-game scrum, chances to say something nice about a hockey lifer who took the league minimum to come home to a contender and play a bit part.

“Sometimes he’s a fourth-line guy, sometimes he’s scratched. Why the heck would he come to the rink?” Babcock said. “He loves hockey, wants to be around the guys. He loves it. What you do is you show the people how much you love hockey and your passion for the game, and I think that’s great.”

Instead of saying how much the Leafs appreciated Spezza, or even how nice it was that he found the net twice, Babcock made the conversation about how much Spezza adores the sport.

Which is to say, we have a pretty good idea where the coach stands on whom to waive in the next few days.

With Martin Marincin and Nic Petan already clearing waivers (and, more importantly, cap space) Friday to accommodate the imminent return of Zach Hyman, one of Spezza, Nick Shore or Dmytro Timashov must be cut next.

Timashov, 23, makes sense to keep because of his potential for improvement and the fact the organization has invested four years of development. He’s the most in danger of getting scooped off the wire.

Just because Babcock prefers Shore on his fourth line — Spezza’s eight healthy scratches serve evidence — doesn’t necessarily mean Kyle Dubas will abide.

It’s a tough call, which is why it appears delayed.

Cut Spezza, and Dubas risks damaging his power to lure future inexpensive veteran UFAs who might be wary of similar treatment.

Keep Spezza, and Dubas risks forcing upon Babcock a player he doesn’t really want on his fourth line. And if this is truly Babcock’s last shot to run with this core, there is case that the coach should be able to ride with a roster he believes in.

“When you’ve been a top player and now you’re trying to fit into that role piece, that’s the hardest part,” Babcock said Wednesday. “These other guys have gotten used to it. Some of them have spent 10, eight, five years doing it and have found a way to survive and stay mentally strong and still are feeling good about themselves. Because the wear of it can take all your energy.

“You know, [Spezza] is lucky. He’s got a whole life going on. He’s got four girls, and so when he leaves the rink, it’s going to be great there too.”

What must be considered in all of this, and what John Tavares’s broken finger should’ve reminded everyone involved, is the very real possibility of injury.

Spezza is more versatile than Shore.

He’s willing to play the fourth line, but he can also run a third line if necessary, set an example and be a sounding board for a predominantly young forward core, pitch in on the second power-play unit, win a key faceoff, or snipe in a shootout.

He’s seen and done it all (almost).

We don’t get a vote, of course. But if we had one, we like the room a little more with Spezza in it.

2. Mark Stone and Cody Ceci’s Ottawa tenure overlapped almost perfectly, so it wasn’t a surprise to hear the former defend the attributes of the latter when he rolled through Toronto this week.

“He’s good at mostly everything. He might not be a stud like [Morgan] Rielly making those passes, but he makes a good, solid pass and he’s a guy you want to be on the ice with,” Stone says.

“There was a lot of pressure on him in Ottawa. He had a new D partner every year, and he was asked to play against every team’s top line every single night. That’s tough. Especially when the team was as poor as we were. He got a really unfair scouting report. I know how good he is. He knows how good he is. So I think for him to get that fresh start was a good feeling.”

A portion of Leafs fans have already been quick to dismiss Ceci. Stone knows this.

It is worth noting that Ceci’s even-strength possession metrics (49.9 per-cent Corsi) are the highest since his 2013-14 rookie campaign despite getting most of his starts in the defensive zone. He’s also tied with Travis Dermott for the best plus/minus (plus-5) among Toronto defenders.

Has he blown some assignments? Sure. But so have Rielly, Jake Muzzin and Tyson Barrie.

“He’s just not a flashy defenceman. He just makes every good play. As the average fan, all you want to watch is the flashiness of Morgan Rielly or Erik Karlsson,” Stone explains.

“It’s kind of what the fans like to see. You don’t kind of appreciate the little things that he does.”

3. In the past dozen days, Babcock has thrice begun a press availability by raving about food.

There was a post-practice kale salad to die for. On Thursday is was the Italian sausages available on the concourse during Toronto FC games. But our favourite was the coach’s review of an undisclosed cheesesteak restaurant former Flyers coach Dave Hakstol took him to in Philadelphia.

“Hak set a new precedent. He took us to… what we have last night? What do they call their sandwich in Philadelphia?”

Cheesesteaks.

“Oh, my God! It was unbelievable. I could hear my daughter — she’s a nutritionist — yappin’ in my ear. But the smell, the lineup, the people. So, Hak set the bar for pre-game meals like I’ve never seen before. So I think that’ll get us over the hump tonight.”

What was the name of the spot?

“I knew you were gonna ask that. I dunno. He took me there, I ate, we left. It was great, though. Unbelievable. You should go there sometime.”

4. So much was made about the San Jose Sharks losing captain Joe Pavelski to free agency that the loss of Joonas Donskoi — scooped on the July 1 open market by Colorado for four years at $3.9 million per — flew under the radar.

Donskoi scored as many goals Thursday night (three) as Pavelski has for the Stars in five weeks. With eight goals and 11 points through 16 games, the 27-year-old Finn is second only to Nathan MacKinnon on team goals and is set to crush career highs.

The extra minutes with the Avs’ top line due to injuries to Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen certainly help, but, man, the goal-starved Sharks could use his contributions.

5. When Tavares spent three weeks away from game action to heal his broken digit, the rink rat stayed busy working on individual skills with a host of tutors before joining regular team practice.

One of his teachers was Hayley Wickenheiser, who serves as the Leafs’ assistant director of player development.

“It’s fantastic. Obviously, the greatest woman’s player that has played the game, her pedigree, what she’s accomplished, and a pretty smart individual on and off the ice,” Tavares beams.

“Being able to work with with her, it’s really second to none. So I’ve been getting a lot of benefit of that area, something that you don’t get a whole lot of in-season, a lot of that individual work and get perspective from her and some thoughts and ideas and to work on some things, especially in the early stages of [the recovery] process, was great.”

6. Quick. Name the top three goal-scorers among 2020’s impending UFA class.

OK. Hands up if you had Erik Haula (eight), Evgeni Dadonov (seven) and Jean-Gabriel Pageau (seven).

The much-discussed Taylor Hall is tied for 21st among this group (with two goals).

7. The legendary Paul Coffey, one of the more forthcoming and interesting interviews among NHL alumni, made the storytelling rounds this week while promoting wearing your skates two sizes too small whiskey.

During his Vancouver radio appearance (listen below), Coffey relayed the fallout from the time he did an interview and described Wayne Gretzky as the “greatest” player he’d ever been teammates with but Mario Lemieux as the “most talented.”

Well, Gretzky caught wind of Coffey’s comments but only the second half.

“It was a phone call. All he heard was, ‘Mario Lemieux, the most talented player I ever played with.’ He called me up and just ripped on me. I said explicit words back to him and hung up,” Coffey said.

“All great athletes are sensitive guys. They all care about everything around them, they care about their teammates, they care about what’s being said. That’s what makes the great.”

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8. Tip of the cap to the excellent Pittsburgh Penguins’ Twitter account, which stomped out Isles Territory’s running meme during New York’s 10-game win streak in a clever way.

It’s one thing for team accounts to joke back and forth or playing social-media Connect 4 (see: Blue Jackets vs. Golden Knights).

It’s next level for the Penguins official feed to start dunking on an Islanders fan with 2,746 followers. As clever and fun as it is harsh:

9. Max Pacioretty is calling out the Vegas Golden Knights’ lackadaisical fourth periods, saying, “We definitely need to get that extra-point pursuit.”

If they can survive overtime and reach the shootout, the Knights have a good shot at swiping a second point, but they’ve been disastrous at 3-on-3.

Since Jan. 12, seven Knights games have been decided by in the extra frame. They’ve lost every single one of those, and that includes three in their past four games.

Coming up “one goal short,” as Pacioretty says, is costing Vegas valuable standings points in a tight division.

“We got to clean up the overtime,” he said, following Thursday’s 2-1 OT loss in Toronto, during which the Knights failed to pounce on a fourth-period power play.

“It feels like we’re not even getting chances, really, or even getting possession of the puck. So we have to really figure that out, figure out why, and just work at it.

“The good news is, it’s in area of our game we can improve, and we know it. Now it’s up to us to put in the work, see what’s wrong and work on it.”

10. Who says a good goaltender can’t handle a back-to-back?

When Rangers incumbent Alexander Georgiev went on a little run of starts and veteran Henrik Lundqvist went 10 days between appearances, some observers were quick to call it a changing of the guard.

Well, the King is not dead. Long live the King.

In the span of about 27 hours, Lundqvist made 80 saves on 83 shots and earned first-star honours in consecutive victories over Detroit and Carolina.

So marvelous was the performance that MSG analyst Steve Valiquette said, “Henrik Lundqvist, holy smokes. He’s seen more rubber than a dead skunk on the Merritt Parkway.”

Lundqvist’s save percentage (.922) has climbed to a five-year high, yet his 3.03 goals-against average indicates just how porous the Rangers’ work-in-progress team defence is at this point.

11. Something from the “Where Are They Now?” files:

Nikita Soshnikov’s greatest NHL season was 2016-17, when he buzzed around like a human can of Red Bull, put up nine points and charged into a rebuilding Maple Leafs lineup for 56 games.

Things unraveled from there. A stint with the Marlies. A trade to the St. Louis Blues, where he scored once and appeared in all of 17 games during parts of two seasons. An injury. A demotion to San Antonio.

Well, Soshnikov is back, baby. The 26-year-old is leading the entire KHL in goals (14) at the 25-game mark, piling up 20 points for Ufa Salavat Yulayev.

“Oh, my God. Good for him. I’m happy for him,” says former teammate Hyman. “I saw him around this summer. He skated here at [the Leafs practice facility] for a little bit.”

Soshnikov met his girlfriend in Toronto. She’s of Ukrainian heritage and speaks Russian, so they hit it off and now have a son.

Hyman was genuinely pumped for his ex-teammate when I relayed his place on the leader board.

“I’m surprised he’s leading the league, I guess, because it’s hard to lead a league in anything. It’s pretty awesome,” Hyman says.

“But I’m not surprised based on his skill set that he’s doing it has a lethal shot. When he was here, he loved to shoot the puck and can really shoot it well. It’s a different style play over there, so maybe he has more time to get his shot off. He’s a good player.”

12. Hey, Drew Doughty. What is the biggest difference since Todd McLellan took over as head coach of the Los Angeles Kings?

“Just our systems, all different. More accountability. More teaching,” Doughty replies.

“And it’s just nice to have fresh faces in the room. A lot of us had the same coaches for 10 years on this team, and as much as you love them and appreciate what they did for your team, it sometimes gets old seeing the same people all the time.

“So, it’s nice to have fresh faces, a guy that started with a clean slate. He knows nothing. He didn’t want to know anything about us before or hear anything from the GM or anything like that. He just wanted to learn the players as he went and, you know, choose playing time based on how you’re playing.”

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