Quick Shifts: Maple Leafs’ new plan to lessen Andersen’s load

Here's all the top plays from this past week in the NHL, including Auston Matthews' highlight reel goal vs. the Sabres, Jonathan Quick with some big-time robbery, and Andrei Svechnikov miraculously pulling off another lacrosse-style goal.

A quick mix of the things we gleaned from the week of hockey, serious and less so, and rolling four lines deep. This week’s column was written lacrosse-style.

1. Wins.

They’re the only thing Michael Hutchinson had set as his objective heading into this Toronto Maple Leafs’ campaign. He wasn’t concerned about his save percentage or goals-against average. W’s by any means necessary.

And yet, here we are on the first day of winter, 346 days removed from Hutchinson’s most recent NHL victory, and everyone involved is getting anxious for anything but an L.

In Hutchinson’s six starts this season, his best save percentage was .897. No goalie whose seen as much time as him has a worse save rate (his is .876 overall).

And yet, he’ll take the crease Saturday night, cold off 22 nights’ rest.

“Not playing is one of those things that comes with the position,” says Hutchinson, who’s been trying to treat practices like games, believing the more pucks he gobbles in practice, the more confidence the Leafs will have playing in front of him.

“As a backup goalie, you’re always looking forward to your next start, your next opportunity.”

Toronto’s goaltending coach, Steve Briere, has been preaching positivity and encouraging his pupil to live in the moment. The GM has also given “Hutch” a vote of confidence.

“He’s been a good goalie in the past,” Kyle Dubas said. “I’ve got full belief that he can get back, that you just don’t lose it overnight, and there’s always a regression to the mean to be had.”

Hutchinson’s career mean is .905. He’s due, right? Right?!

“I’m sure he’s anxious to play,” said coach Sheldon Keefe, who skipped a scheduled Hutchinson start earlier this month upon starter Frederik Andersen’s request. “We wish we could’ve got Freddy a break in there.”

The only other NHL team still searching for its first backup win is Columbus, and Elvis Merzlikins still has Hutchinson beat in standings points earned (three).

With a healthy Andersen — the NHL’s first to 29 starts — on pace for a whopping 70(!) appearances unless Toronto’s backup earns something other than back-to-backs, Keefe says the Leafs are trying to ease the burden on hockey’s hardest-working goalie in other ways.

Last week, after an intense, breakaway-heavy game in Vancouver, they scrapped an off-day practice entirely. Andersen was surely one of the biggest benefactors. They’ve also invited a third goalie onto the ice during practices, to make practice days easier on Andersen. Even on the road in Edmonton, they borrowed in Grant Macewan College goaltender Marc-Olivier Daigle for a day.

“One of the things, in coming here, we’ve tried to make a priority is to try to change some of the way that he faces shots and where the shots come from and those types of things,” Keefe says of his thought process.

“If we can limit the amount of shots that he faces from the interior of the ice, he’s going to make lot of those saves on the outside. Not only just make those saves, but in doing so, we hope that with a lot more pucks getting in from the outside, it’ll help him feel a bit better and more confident so that he’s there when the big chances come.

“That’s part of the theory behind it, but whether that’s happened or not, I don’t know.”

Keefe has pulled his wingers off the wall in the D-zone to clog middle ice, block more shots and force the opposition to cycle around the perimeter and try to find holes from range.

It’s a fascinating conundrum. Toronto needs to play the wheels off Andersen in order to make the playoffs, but a fatigued Andersen harms the Leafs’ chances of embarking on a deep run.

Sure, it might be early to throw out the term “must win.” But if your name is Michael Hutchinson, it’s entirely fair.

2. Bummer that Jack Eichel’s incredible point streak officially ends at 17 games (16 goals, 15 assists) by his sitting out with an upper-body ailment.

Even if the Buffalo Sabres star were to get on the sheet in his next game played, the NHL doesn’t recognize point streaks interrupted by injury.

Eichel was just one productive game away from tying Gilbert Perreault for the longest streak in franchise history.

The streak kicked off in splendid style on Nov. 16, with a 4-2 win over Ottawa in which the captain scored all four goals. It included another trio of three-point nights, and four straight multi-point games before dying on a technicality.

The same thing happened to Taylor Hall during his rip to the Hart Trophy in 2018, when his run of points in 26 consecutive games wasn’t counted as an official streak because of some missed games due to injury.

Can’t say I’m a fan of this accounting.

3. Eichel can’t relate to being on the trade block, but after four playoff-free seasons, he can relate to Hall’s desire to be in the race.

“Everybody wants to win, right?” Eichel says. “Hallsy’s been in the league for a while, he’s won the MVP, he’s one of the best players in the world, he obviously wants a chance to play in the playoffs, win the Stanley Cup just like everyone does.

“Every season, you come in and you have the same goal. So, it’s tough when it’s not happening for you and you feel like you need a change of scenery. I’m sure he felt like he needed one.”

Arizona-born Auston Matthews believes the Hall trade could add some juice to a struggling Glendale market that has seen attendance at home games climb from 13,989 last season (81.7 per cent capacity) to 14,318 (83.6 per cent) so far this season.

“For sure. That trade in the summer with Phil [Kessel] I think created a lot of buzz, and to add another guy like that I think will be good for them,” Matthews says.

“He’s gonna add a lot of skill, a lot of depth for them. Obviously they’ve got some fast, skilled players to begin with, but a guy like that is experienced, he can create plays, he’s fast, and I think he can complement that team pretty well.”

So far, so good. Hall registered points in his first two games as a Coyote this week.

4. Casey Mittelstadt played all of last season and the first 31 games of this one with the Sabres. Then he got sent down to the farm and made his debut with the Rochester Americans this week.

An abnormal trajectory for a prized first-rounder, but he wasn’t producing and his ice time was minimal.

Sabres coach Ralph Krueger explains that Rochester can offer the skilled youngster top-six minutes and the power-play looks he wasn’t earning with the big club.

“It’s all about reps for a 21-year-old that will only do him well. His attitude, his work ethic, the way he went through last summer was outstanding. And this is nothing but a positive step for him,” Krueger says.

“Before he came in the National Hockey League, he had the puck the whole game, so he didn’t have to play without it, and we’re going to be doing some really good work with him down there.”

The Sabres believe this is the smartest path for Mittelstadt to develop a responsible defensive game. He’s a career minus-23. Krueger figures it’s nearly as difficult for centremen to jump into the NHL as defencemen. There’s nothing wrong with extra seasoning. They need to arrive trustworthy.

5. Is it me, or does it feel like there is a race to become the second player to pull off The Svech, Andrei Svechnikov’s lacrosse goal?

6. Lots of Sabres notes this week, mostly because Krueger is such a thoughtful interview.

Krueger notes that he and Buffalo Bills head coach Sean McDermott communicate regularly, encouraged by the Pegulas. And when the Sabres swung through Toronto this week, Krueger said several fans approached him at dinner to talk about the Bills’ run to the playoffs.

“We’re all about treating people right in both organizations, and Sean and I are both passionate about feeding the hunger of the Buffalo sports population. It’s a very, very passionate base,” Krueger says.

“We exchange at the sports science level, we exchange at the at the off-field and off-ice level. There’s a lot of natural flow of information going on there, which I find really interesting, and it’s a wonderful opportunity for me to learn and grow as a leader, having that relationship with the Bills, which is, I would say, as strong as any NHL team has with another sport in North America.”

The Raptors and Maple Leafs might be second, as Sheldon Keefe has gleaned much from Nick Nurse.

7. Staying with the theme of organizational info-sharing, the Maple Leafs brought new AHL Marlies coach Greg Moore on a 10-day road trip so he could pick Keefe’s brain as he prepared to take over the farm club, which the Leafs want to operate on and off the ice much like the big club.

Moore shadowed Keefe and his staff the entire time, attending meeting and practices, and talking hockey over lunches and dinners.

Before the Leafs took the ice in Edmonton last Saturday, Moore and Keefe watched the Marlies game on TV together. But the brainstorming sessions weren’t top down.

The Kyle Dubas Leafs have placed an emphasis on collaboration.

“We’re just sharing ideas back and forth both ways,” Keefe said. “He’s helped me with some ideas that might help us here [with the NHL team].”

8. Zach Hyman loves the visitors’ dressing room at Edmonton’s Rogers Place (est. 2016), figuring with the nice showers, state-of-the-art workout area and spacious stalls, “it’s gotta be up there” with the best in the league.

“Just like a brand-new car,” Hyman says. “It’s just newer. You got more space in this one.”

In an ESPN poll of 50 players, Edmonton’s away room rated No. 1, followed by Vegas and Detroit — new facilities all.

Asked to name the league’s worst visitors’ room, Hyman smiled before pleading the fifth.

“I’ll have to think about that one.”

9. Fun fact: Already 98 Sweden-born players have appeared in at least one NHL game this season, tying the record (2017-18 and 2018-19). The next Swede to get called up and into action will make history.

10. Gutsy but respectable move by Jon Cooper to bench Nikita Kucherov versus the Sentators.

Can’t say we can ever recall a reigning Hart winner getting sat like that, but we like it. There’s only so many cards a coach can play, and that’s a biggie.

It speaks volumes about the pressure in Tampa to start ascending the standings and sends a loud message not only to Kucherov but to everyone in blue and white.

“As a coach, you have to make decisions and what was best for us to win tonight,” Cooper told reporters post-victory. “It was our decision. He’s a huge part of our team. It could be anybody.”

Captain Steven Stamkos, who already delivered a public wake-up call to the room back in October, spoke to The Athletic’s Joe Smith about Kucherov’s benching.

“He’s a prideful player, and he’s going to go out and be great,” Stamkos said. “And hopefully we’ll never have to talk about it again.”

11. The morning skate is dying fast.

As sports science uncovers the value of rest and the NHL schedule gets truncated by bye weeks, rarer and rarer is the game-day twirl.

“It’s evolved over time. The more data that you’re provided with in terms of how one thing affects another and how chain reactions can create some [health] problems — maybe not necessarily for this particular game, but down the line. I think you’ve seen it all across hockey,” Keefe says.

“My philosophy right now is basically to get our work done on the practice days when we have an opportunity to, and the morning skate [is] really for scratches, to make sure they get the extra work.”

The Sabres returned from their Swedish excursion to play 21 games in 38 days. To squeeze extra skates for the purpose of warming up would be counterproductive. So they’ve regularly ditched pre-game skates in favour of an off-ice workout.

“We felt that any place we can gather energy is of value,” Krueger explains. “You need to do something else, though, and the work we do off the ice and the commitment these guys have to the work off ice has been amazing, whether it’s their pre-activation or their lifts after games.

“It’s probably also on the psychological side, just trying to keep the quality high and the quantity low where you can. The games are not changeable, and the spaces that you have in there are always going to be the same, but it’s what you do with the rest of the space that’s important.”

12. T.J. Oshie is a beauty.

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