Quick Shifts: 8 thoughts on the Toronto Marlies magic

Marlies Captain Ben Smith spoke after the Marlies captured the Calder Cup on Thursday night in a decisive 6-1 Game 7 victory over the Texas Stars.

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

1. At some point between the sixth Toronto Marlies goal fired into the Texas net right in front of us and the confetti and fireworks and DJ Khaled blasting through Ricoh Coliseum, my seven-year-old son turned to me Thursday night, looked up and said, “Dad, this is the best game I’ve been to in my life.”

The Marlies were the last thing on the boy’s mind going to bed and the first thing he wanted to gab about waking up.

There is something fitting about a Maple Leafs organization snapping its half-century championship drought with a team of kids guided by a relative kid in front of so many kids.

A cheap ticket with plenty of weekend matinees held in an intimate barn, the Marlies — and the AHL in general — have served as a gateway drug for future NHL addicts.

A few rapid-fire thoughts on the Calder Cup champions:

• Goaltender Garret Sparks delivered an incredible bounce-back effort in Game 7’s decisive victory after getting pulled in Game 6. That he expects to be in the NHL next year puts GM Kyle Dubas and Leafs backup Curtis McElhinney (superb in 2017-18) in a tricky spot. To keep Sparks in the AHL now would be demoralizing. There’s nothing left for the 24-year-old to accomplish in this farm system.

• You wonder if Auston Matthews watched MVP Andreas Johnsson’s effort and thought, “I need that man on my wing.” If Johnsson isn’t in the Leafs top six come October, I’ll be surprised.

• Roster depth meant AHL rookie Jeremy Bracco only squeezed into four Marlies playoff games, but all he does is win championships: under-17 world gold in 2014, under-18 world gold in 2015, under-20 world gold in 2017, Memorial Cup in 2017, and now a Calder Cup in 2018. In Mike Babcock parlance, he’s a serial winner.

• In the span of a week, Maple Leafs defenceman Connor Carrick watched two of his former teams, the Capitals and Marlies, hoist cups. As always, he handled the situation with the utmost class.

With Carrick an RFA and the way a guy like Justin Holl played this season, you can’t help but wonder about Carrick’s future as a Maple Leaf. Coach Mike Babcock healthy-scratched him with the Leafs’ season on the line.

• Very cool to see Ben Smith score in the finale and lift the Cup. He didn’t pan out at the NHL level but was an excellent AHL captain and is deserving of the three-year contract he earned in the German league.

• Timothy Liljegren might still need two more AHL seasons before he’s NHL ready, and that’s OK. Be patient.

• That Trevor Moore is a player. Emblematic of a level of desire seldom seen in these parts but running all over this Marlies squad.

• Buckle up for the most competitive Leafs training camp in memory. Dubas just won with these guys. Championships bond people for life. This is where loyalty starts. Johnsson, Holl, Colin Greening, Miro Aaltonen, Frederik Gauthier, Martin Marincin, Kyle Baun and Calvin Pickard all have something in common: no contract for 2018-19.

2. Admittedly starstruck, Rasmus Dahlin says the highlight of his first NHL game as a spectator — Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final in Washington — wasn’t so much talking a little hockey with Nicklas Backstrom or William Karlsson.

It was meeting Don Cherry.

The Swedish phenom has been watching Cherry’s videos since age five because his dad was a fan.

“Oh, yeah, that was awesome. He had a sick suit,” Dahlin said. “I just wanted to take a picture. He said to me, ‘Thumbs up,’ so I did thumbs up.”

Strikingly humble and overwhelmingly positive — Dahlin used the word awesome nine times within the first three minutes of his scrum at the final — the kid Buffalo is pinning its defensive hopes on refuses to get ahead of himself.

Despite being a slam dunk, he won’t consider himself a Sabre until next Friday.

“The only thing I try to think about right now is to get my strength up, get up in weights,” said Dahlin, poised to become just the second Swedish No. 1 ever (Mats Sundin, 1989).

“If that happens, I will be so excited and happy and glad and all the emotions. We have to see.”

Dahlin got stumped trying to think of the second-biggest hockey game he’d seen in person. He decided on the world juniors: “I watched from the bench sometimes.”

If this hockey thing doesn’t work out, Dahlin could ghostwrite for @boringmonahan.

He cracked everyone up when he described his maiden voyage into Anchor Bar for the Buffalo wings.

“I took the medium,” he said. “They were so spicy, I’m going with the mild next time.”

Dahlin’s fellow prospects have taken a liking to him.

“Rasmus is an awesome kid,” says American defenceman Quinn Hughes. “I can’t say enough about him as a player, obviously, but he’s just as good as a person. He deserves everything that’s coming his way for sure.”

3. When watching next Friday’s NHL Draft, look for the six teams with multiple first-round picks to make trades. We’re always a little more playful when spending other people’s assets, and there are teams without a first-rounder (cough, Flames, cough) who will be angling to move up.

The group with bonus first-round tickets: Ottawa Senators (picking fourth and 22nd, with the option to give the fourth to Colorado), Detroit Red Wings (sixth and 30th), Chicago Blackhawks (eighth, 27th), New York Rangers (ninth, 26th, 28th), New York Islanders (11th and 12th), and Philadelphia Flyers (14th and 19th).

4. Top prospects Hughes and Brady Tkachuk — both projected to go top-10 if not top-five, both offspring of rich hockey families — have developed a kinship as roommates and co-stars on the U.S. national development team. They’re soaking up the opportunity to share all the draft-class hype together.

“He’s awesome. We got really close. We’re pretty much brothers,” Hughes explains.

“We went through… I don’t want to say hard times with the program, but when you move away at 15, it’s tough. You miss home and stuff. We kind of bonded there, and I stay in close contact with him. He’s one of my best friends for sure. We’re closer to brothers than best friends, because with friends you’re always having fun, but brothers go through rough patches too.”

They fight over the remote. Hughes wants to watch basketball; Tkachuk is addicted to his superhero TV shows, like Arrow and The Flash.

“There’s definitely tons of those arguments,” Hughes chuckles.

No shocker: They’re both content watching hockey.

5. I’m wondering if the Tampa Bay Lightning don’t take another run at an Erik Karlsson trade. Vegas got farther down that road at the deadline, and Steve Yzerman spend his first-rounder on Ryan McDonagh instead.

But consider when Karlsson’s next deal kicks in: 2019-20. At that point, the only NHL defencemen on Yzerman’s cap will be Victor Hedman (a reasonable $7.875 million) and Mikhail Sergachev ($894,166, the final season of his entry-level deal). The other veterans will be off the books.

We know Hedman and Karlsson are tight. We know Ottawa is desperate to fix its mess. We know the Lightning were hoping for more blue-line production than the six goals total they got from D-men over three playoff rounds. We know players, like the rest of us humans, aren’t big on paying income tax.

Cap space for 2018-19 is tight, and a Ryan Callahan buyout may be a last resort, but if anyone can pull this off, it’s Yzerman — who has never shied away from the bold move.

I had a fun chat with Greg Linnelli of Lightning Power Play Live about Karlsson, John Tavares and a bunch of other topics this week:

Each week, Jeff Blair and Stephen Brunt tackle the most impactful stories in the world of sports and their intersection with popular culture. Come for the sports; stay for the storytelling and cigars.

6. The best part of this job is getting to spill onto the ice 20 minutes after the Stanley Cup is awarded, swirling about in the most joyous type of chaos, snapping photos and talking to players, coaches and execs at their most emotional. Tears and hugs and families and beards everywhere. Fans still banging on the boards and chanting nearly an hour after the buzzer has sounded.

Walking away from T-Mobile Arena last Thursday night, stories filed, friend and colleague Chris Johnston turned to me and said, “I must’ve left a dozen 10-out-of-10 quotes on the cutting-room floor.” Ditto.

A week after the fact, I listened back to my 30 minutes of audio of the scene in Vegas, what the Washington Capitals sound like bellowing from the summit. There must’ve been dust in the room.

Matt Niskanen, who can be a thoughtful and intense man on a Wednesday in November, tried his best to put it all into words through a throat that kept quaking and lips that kept quivering with happiness.

“A bunch of 10-year-olds who just won their first hockey tournament. It was like we were a bunch of little kids again. Amazing. Amazing,” the defenceman said.

“Man, what a group of guys. What a performance by a lot of individuals. But we played together. Showed a lot of character, boy. It’s something we got criticized for a lot in the past, but, boy, we showed a ton of it this spring. Many, many times we could’ve been down and out and we just got better. I’m so happy for the guys.

“I don’t know what changed. I really don’t. But something did. Confidence? Playing the underdog a bit? Whatever it was, man, we played well. Guys just played the game hard and well. Big goals at big times, big saves, and we got a little luck along the way. Man, we played hard for each other. That’s something to be really proud of.”

I asked him what the rest of the night would look like.

“That first beer is going to taste really good,” he said. “I haven’t had one in over two months. That’s going down really fast and taste amazing. Lotta hugs. Spray some champagne. Have a couple pops.”

7. Earlier in the series, Niskanen thought way back to the Capitals’ consecutive road losses to Nashville (6-3) and Colorado (6-3) in mid-November. They’d been feeling sorry for themselves, and coach Barry Trotz sensed it.

Trotz and some of the leaders read the group the riot act. Soft effort would no longer be tolerated.

“It’s a long season. There’s those games that make you wake up. Look in the mirror. They make you find out whether you have it or not, the character in the room,” Niskanen said.

“I remember I had a rotten game. It was one of those nights in the doldrums of the regular season where we didn’t have very good stuff. We didn’t have good energy. We stunk. We didn’t execute.

“Boy, it seems like a long time ago now. We’ve fixed our attitude, our competitiveness and our execution. Boy, that game doesn’t seem too important now, does it?”

8. T.J. Oshie’s post-win interview with Scott Oake about his father’s battle with Alzheimer’s yielded the quote of the year.

Through tears, the winger elaborated in a small scrum afterward.

“Day in and day out, [my dad] still stays positive. He tells me after every game how proud he is of me. A lot of the character, the stuff I try to bring to this team, I get from him. This is going to be exciting to share with him,” Oshie said.

“I was on the bench, the clock wasn’t even goin’ out yet, and I was crying over there. I didn’t know I was such a baby. A lot of emotions right now. All happy. I’m happy for my family. I’m happy for these guys.

“We worked so hard, we came together like no team I’ve ever seen. That was really our strength. We scored goals, Holts was amazing, but it was each and every guy. This wasn’t supposed to be the year, but this was the year we enjoyed the process more than just the wins.”

The questions kept coming, but Oshie politely skated away to hug his old man. Click.

9. Four years ago, I wrote (half-jokingly) that I wanted Barry Trotz to be my dad, much to my own awesome father’s dismay.

I wasn’t sure my appreciation for Trotz could go higher. Based on how he conducted himself during the playoffs, it has.

Speaking to a few reporters on the ice after Game 5, the coach tackled the meaning of trophies — specific to Alex Ovechkin — and echoed the same sentiment expressed by Public Enemy frontman Chuck D in 1988: “Who gives a f— about a G– damn Grammy?” Trotz put it much gentler, though.

“I’ve met a lot of people who are absolute champions, and they don’t have a Stanley Cup, they don’t have an award, but they’re champions in life,” Trotz said, thinking back to what happened last summer.

“When I got that clarity, everything got really calm. That’s sort of what I preach to these guys, and they started getting it. Your legacy is going on that Cup. My kids’ kids can go to the Hockey Hall of Fame and say, ‘Hey, there’s Grandpa’s name on the Cup.’ That, to me, means everything. All the other stuff, it’s just superficial. What really matters is how you live your life, your family and all of that. I’m so proud of my family because Dad’s missed a lot of important times. This is for them, really.”

How Trotz found this clarity he speaks of, he won’t get into — “Just personal. But once I figured it out, it was pretty simple. It just calmed everything down. It was an interesting summer. Interesting summer,” he said — but there is a spiritual element at play.

“I haven’t lost any sleep,” Trotz said of his expiring contract. “The good Lord, He’s got my back.”

When weighing the odds of Trotz returning to Washington next season, consider that his family loves the DMV area and he’s happy that his youngest son, Nolan, is in a “great” school. The move from Nashville was difficult for Nolan. We don’t suspect Trotz has much desire to simply chase the biggest cheque.

Nolan has Down syndrome, and Trotz has described him as a “lightning rod for the family.”

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10. If Trotz stays, associate coach Todd Reirden will join Sheldon Keefe on the short list of A-list NHL head coach candidates.

Working closely with a defence core that snuffed out the Golden Knights for four straight games, Reirden helped mold Michal Kempny from a low-risk rental to a key cog of the Caps D core and is especially tight with Niskanen and Brooks Orpik from their Pittsburgh days.

We were curious about Reirden’s style, and Niskanen broke it down. Reirden is bullish on dialogue and demands effort.

“Todd’s a detail guy, a communicator. Just hammers home habits and details. Through lots of reps, if you have good habits and believe in it, he sets you up for success,” Niskanen said.

“If you’re trying to do the right things and you’re going hard, you won’t hear much from him. He lets you play through mistakes. I’ve had periods of time with him when I’m struggling. He quietly dips your ice time a little bit and lets you know. Other times, he’ll play you more [to] try to get you out of it.”

Cryptically, Niskanen notes that Reirden takes an “unconventional approach” to his defence systems. How so?

“Without giving away too much, we’re more aggressive on odd-man situations than most.”

11. Of the seven different dressing rooms I spent time in during the 2018 playoffs, Washington’s was unmatched when it came to that elusive blend of unity, confidence, and looseness. Skill plus effort.

When they dropped Game 1 of the final, there was zero trace of panic. The Caps’ mood stood in stark contrast to that of the Knights when they went down 2-1. You could tell it was over.

I know it’s an intangible, and I certainly wasn’t around all 16 teams, but the closest room that came to the Caps’ feel of This group knows it’s going all the way was Winnipeg.

12. Conn Smythe runner-up Evgeny Kuznetsov never learned a word of English in school and he believes it was his greatest barrier when he joined Washington five years ago.

It wasn’t until 2016, he says, that he felt he could answer reporters honestly. The language hurdle affected his performance.

“Before, I just give an answer and if I see they not happy, I give different answer. There was only two options for me. Now I have total options,” Kuznetsov said.

“The more I know the language, the easier for me to handle the joke, to make the joke. For me, it’s about confidence, to have that positive emotion off the ice. When you feel comfortable off the ice, you can feel more comfortable on the ice.”

Kuznetsov drew criticism for putting up a paltry two points over a dozen games in the 2016 playoffs, but it’s the Game 7 losses that ate at him early in his career.

“You never want to feel that pain,” he said. “When you’re young you never think about that. You just think, ‘Ah, we’re gonna win for sure.’ But one day it happens the opposite way. You lose a game and go for vacation. You have to turn around quick. For me, I always stay positive and have that next chance.

“When we’re down 3-2 against Tampa [in the Eastern Conference final], I don’t know why, but I never thought we’re going on vacation. I always believed in our team, and that’s what happened.”

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