A quick mix of the things we gleaned from the week of hockey, serious and less so, and rolling four lines deep. As resilient as this column was with him injured, you can’t deny Quick Shifts is in a better place now that Sidney Crosby is healthy.
1. When I happened to see Dion Phaneuf leaving a meeting with Toronto Maple Leafs executives Thursday morning, my mind immediately saw one heckuva headline and a Justin Williams–style mid-season comeback.
The Leafs have lost two veteran, left-shot defencemen to injury, and free-agent Phaneuf has not only yet to announce retirement, he sounded adamant in the summer, when speaking to Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston, that he wanted another shot.
For someone who loves a good narrative — Criticized captain re-signs for league minimum for last shot at glory with Leafs! — it was disappointing to learn that Phaneuf, 34, is preparing for life after hockey by shadowing president Brendan Shanahan for a few days.
Yet the idea that a calculating executive like Kyle Dubas would just trust in what he has doesn’t quite add up. Not when there are options out there.
He doesn’t like to repeat mistakes, which is partly why Mitchell Marner didn’t go to the brink in contract negotiations like William Nylander did, and partly why Nazem Kadri wasn’t given a chance to get suspended during a third Toronto playoff series.
At last year’s trade deadline, Dubas could’ve shopped harder for a depth defenceman but elected not to. Then an obviously injured Jake Gardiner and a hurting Travis Dermott ended up playing heavy minutes because, well, who else was going to?
Even if Morgan Rielly and Jake Muzzin return to full health, Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe has his players blocking more shots — Dermott took a painful one off his foot Thursday — and virtually all teams that make deep runs end up calling on their seventh, eighth or ninth D-man.
Toss in the willingness of a club like the Anaheim Ducks — who are open to absorbing cap space — an antsy cluster of potential trading partners in the West, and there are ways for Dubas to add something more enticing than Phaneuf without trading the first-rounder he doesn’t have.
With Muzzin and Tyson Barrie either gone or getting more expensive come June and a rich well of young wingers to dangle, there is a window to pounce.
“We just put those decisions and the trust in management,” said captain John Tavares.
“Kyle and everyone else will obviously assess where everything’s at. If he wants to do something, we as a group have to go out there and show it and make him believe there’s something special here, and we have a great opportunity that we want to maximize.”
We see an opportunity, too. And we no longer think Dubas sits this one out.
So it wasn’t a surprise that both big names expressed difficulty with his firing this week, extolling the respect they have for their fired GM.
“I think he’s a great manager,” said Hughes, who’s endured a tumultuous rookie season. “Coach gets fired, GM gets fired, a lot of changes with the team. That’s what it is, and obviously coming to the rink is a lot better now with us winning more hockey games, so it’s been better as of late.”
“Ray’s door was always open for us, and it’s tough to see him go,” Subban added.
“At the end of the day, there were expectations for our team at the start of the season, and whether they were realistic or not, they weren’t met.”
Realistic or not is the key phrase.
The struggling Subban admitted it’s only within the past eight or nine games that he’s felt comfortable and in a rhythm, getting the minutes and power-play usage he feels he needs to be at his best.
Subban, 30, has two more seasons at a $9 million cap hit on his deal. He was asked if he’s excited to stick around and rebuild with one of the NHL’s youngest cores.
“Listen, in my career to this point, I’ve never asked for a trade. And that’s because maybe I’m a little bit old school that way,” Subban replied. “I learned from a lot of veteran players in the league that put their head down, come to work and do their job. And I’m getting paid to do a job. I have to come and do it every day.
“As frustrating as the season’s been on the ice, we actually get fired up and are excited to play every game.”
Hughes likes Subban but admitted he was a little surprised the defenceman could be the same larger-than-life personality behind closed doors as fans see in public.
“When you see his social media stuff, from afar you could say it’s fake. But it’s 24/7,” Hughes smiled. “He is what he is. He’s a nice guy, and he’s playing well for this team as of late.”
3. I asked P.K. Subban which Devil has surprised him with how good he is, now that he’s been with the club for a few months.
“Nico,” Subban replied, not missing a beat.
“What I like about him is that he’s so talented offensively, the way he sees the ice, but it’s his commitment to playing both sides of the puck, and it’s very hard for guys to learn that young — and he’s learned it.
“He’s going to be a hell of a good player in this league, and not just on one side of the puck. On both sides. And I think that’s really, really good to see, to have a young player developing that way.”
Subban then ups the ante with a pair of weighty comparables, Jonathan Toews and Patrice Bergeron, neither of whom will be joining Hischier at the NHL All-Star Game.
“I look at some of the two-way guys, centremen, in the league — Toews, Bergeron — still doing it for a long time,” Subban said.
“I can only hope that Nico has a similar type of career as those guys. I think that for this organization, it’s promising, especially with those two guys you look at.”
4. Rasmus Sandin’s second game since his recall to the Leafs was a little reality check after his two-point showing against the Devils. He committed a penalty, was on for the one goal against, and saw a dip in ice time.
Yet we believe he’ll be up with the big club when it matters, and that would mean burning the first year of his entry-level deal.
Theoretically, however, if Jake Muzzin (foot) is healthy by the conclusion of the bye week — the veteran is trading vacation time of rehab with Toronto’s trainers — Sandin could be sent down with precisely nine games played.
Another barrier to tuck in the back of your mind: If Sandin plays a total of 40 NHL games this season, that’ll bring him one year closer to UFA status.
The Leafs need only sit the teenager for three of their remaining dates to delay that. Sounds like a plan, but standings will dictate.
Winning trumps contractual technicalities.
5. While the likes of Sandin, Travis Dermott and Tyson Barrie are swallowing the attention regarding the “Who’s gonna step up with Morgan Rielly and Jake Muzzin injured?” conversation in Toronto, call-up Martin Marincin has quietly delivered some effective shifts.
His response to an increased penalty-killing role and bigger minutes up the lineup justifies his coach’s praise.
Marincin simply will not create offence — through 15 games, he’s still looking for his first point — and that’s fine. The other guys have got that covered.
The underlying numbers are sparkling. Despite starting just 41 per cent of his shifts in the offensive zone, Marincin’s Corsi is a 55 per cent.
Gradually, there’s hope he hangs in the bigs, and isn’t relegated to shutting down forwards in the AHL.
“Some players struggle with that with that jump. For some, it’s a little more seamless, and those are the ones that become full-time NHLers and thrive. Marty hasn’t been able to do that yet. He’s remained confident in himself,” Keefe said.
What I find interesting is that the Leafs, when healthy, have given Marincin the option to be sent down to the farm or stay up, a benefit of having the Marlies in town: Are you good? You want to stick around?
Every time, Marincin told Keefe he wanted to get sent down. That way, he could keep playing. (Also: In the minors, there’s no escrow clawing at his $700,000 salary.)
When Muzzin was felled, Keefe pulled Marincin aside.
“You’re here. You’re going to play. You’re going to get an opportunity. Just relax. Go. I believe in you. I’ve seen you do really well,” the coach told him. “Just go and do your thing and have some fun with it.”
Whoa. Back up.
Does that usually happen? Organizations giving bubble players a vote on whether they stay up or go down?
“I’m only familiar with our situation,” Keefe said. “For players in that circumstance, you try to have a little bit of understanding about what they may be going through and sometimes going up and down can weigh on a player, but some guys, sitting for too long also weighs on them and they want to get playing. They are hockey players and they want to compete.
“You’ve also got to do what’s either right for the team or right for the player to find that balance, and Kyle does an excellent job of that. Even when I was with the Marlies on a different level, we would always try to communicate that for those types of players that are in that spot of being in and out of the lineup.”
6. Take a bow, Kyle Robertson.
The Columbus Dispatch photographer captured this incredible image of the NHL’s tallest player hulking over its tiniest, giving us the closes thing to hockey’s version of Twins.
We love that Nathan Gerbe (64 inches) can get a self-deprecating laugh at the ridiculous visual of him entering a puck battle with Zdeno Chara (81 inches):
— Nathan Gerbe (@NathanGerbe14) January 15, 2020
7. Sources say Gerard Gallant was just as shocked as you were Thursday morning to learn of his firing.
— Evander Kane (@evanderkane_9) January 15, 2020
Much like his replacement, Peter DeBoer, Gallant is open to jumping right back into the fray and coaching somewhere else this season.
Considering DeBoer and John Hynes found new jobs within 40 days of receiving their pink slips, the NHL’s execs have taken some flak for drawing from the same pool of candidates and not expanding the search.
Calgary’s interim coach, Geoff Ward (14-6-1), spent 12 years as an assistant before getting thrust into the head role mid-season. He believes familiarity with the league is invaluable and made for a “seamless” transition for him.
“If I’d come in out of junior or out of the American League, I’m sure it would have been a lot more daunting than what it has been,” Ward said.
He understands why, for mid-stream changes, going with NHL experience is the safer bet — even though there is a rich well of fresh coaching talent in the AHL, junior leagues, NCAA or in Europe.
“There’s an awful lot of good coaches out there, at every level, guys that can come in and do this job well. But I think it helps when you have a guy that understands (the NHL), because there is a learning curve when you first come into it,” Ward explained.
“When you come in fresh, I think it really helps to summer to prepare, to come in for training camp. I think that that makes it a little bit easier for guys new stepping into the league.”
Ward downplayed his own adjustment but admitted that the time-commitment jump from assistant to head coach is a whopper.
“I’m not a sleeper anyway,” he said. “But I’ve had less.”
8. The Montreal Canadiens rank 25th league-wide in points percentage (.500), they have injury issues, depth problems and need to hop five(!) teams to snatch the Eastern Conference’s final wild-card spot.
All the clubs with a worse winning percentage than the Habs — New Jersey, San Jose, Anaheim, Detroit, Ottawa, L.A. — are open for business.
It’s time for the Habs to join them. Stop the fight.
Sell your Kovalchuks and your Scandellas to the highest bidder. Try to flip cap space for assets.
The worst option is to go on a run and lessen the lottery odds when Marc Bergevin has done a nice job of stocking the cupboard and another high draft pick could develop alongside the Ryan Poehlings, Nick Suzukis and Jesperi Kotkaniemis.
Painful as it sounds, it’s time to write off 2019-20.
9. Yes! Finally a good news story from the San Jose Sharks.
Following the bye week, the club will introduce personalized goal songs — something I’d love to see more teams do.
10. As he so often does, Wild coach Bruce Boudreau delivered the Quote of the Week, upon learning that Sidney Crosby would be making his return from injury against Minnesota Tuesday:
“I really can’t wait. Is Mario dressing for tonight’s game, too?”
Of course, Crosby torched Boudreau’s defenders for four points, and the Penguins rolled 7-3.
11. Aaron Ekblad perks up when asked about teammate Jonathan Huberdeau.
“Oh, man, he’s unreal. The way he passes the puck is like nobody else in this league, in my opinion. He’s got some crazy patience. He does a great job on the power play in front of the net, finding guys up top like (Keith Yandle) and (Aleksander Barkov) to shoot the puck,” said Ekblad, who then draws on an iconic Vancouver duo to explain what it’s like defending Huberdeau.
“It’s tough, man. As a defenceman, you’re really trying to hope that you can bait the guy in, but he always wins that game of baiting a guy in. The Sedins were great at it. You always watch out for that, and I think Huby’s got that level of skill.”
High praise, sure. But Huby’s living up to it.
No one has more primary assists than Huberdeau (30), and he’s on pace to crush a career-high in points for the third consecutive season.
“He’s a hell of a player,” said Mitch Marner.
Huberdeau was given a standing ovation Sunday when he passed Olli Jokinen to become the Florida Panthers’ all-time leading point-getter (421).
The guy is only 26, which says a lot about Huberdeau and the franchise he represents. Even the Golden Knights’ franchise points leader (William Karlsson) has more than six playoff games on his resume.
“I didn’t know he had that extra level of patience or high-end playability as far as seeing plays, patience with the puck and making some high-end passes,” said coach Joel Quenneville.
“We’ve scored some goals that make you say, ‘Wow.’ The wow factor’s been in play with Huby a little bit. I didn’t know he had that level. So it’s been fun to watch him.”
12. The Maple Leafs laid such an egg in Sunrise, it didn’t make sense to play up this slick little stick flick from Auston Matthews to Morgan Rielly. But we love the ho-humness here:
The catch here is, it’s totally a penalty — if caught by an official.
In the interest of safety, rules dictate that sticks only be handed from a bench or from a player during the course of action. Still: We love the creativity.