Quick Shifts: Why a Maple Leafs run at Pietrangelo isn’t so crazy

Alex Pietrangelo talks with the media about wanting to stay with the St. Louis Blues if possible and his legacy with the team.

A quick mix of the things we gleaned from the week of hockey, serious and less so, and rolling four lines deep. Anyone else feel like the Kasperi Kapanen trade happened six weeks ago?

1. The question must be asked (and not only because Toronto is the centre of the hockey universe): Does Alex Pietrangelo become a Maple Leaf?

I get it.

It’s almost comical that any time the top UFA happens to originate from the Greater Toronto Area, hockey writers pen speculative pieces that he might be coming home.

Understood, Pietrangelo prefers to re-sign in St. Louis, the city that drafted him 12 years ago, and remain close to his wife’s family and take a bunch more runs with the core he won a Cup.

But two things happened this week that make a Pietrangelo signing a little more likely in these parts.

For one, Kyle Dubas — feeling direct heat for the first summer in his tenure — began clearing salary-cap space, trading away tangible asset Kasperi Kapanen for futures and wiggle room. The Leafs GM noted afterward that the Kapanen deal “shows us that our players have good value around the league” and did not rule out dealing more players off his roster.

For two, Vladimir Tarasenko’s future in this game has become a giant question mark. Undergoing a third surgery on his shoulder, the explosive winger won’t even been re-evaluated for another five months.

The uncertainty surrounding Tarasenko should give Blues GM Doug Armstrong pause at another major investment on the blue line, where he’s already deep and must re-sign RFA Vince Dunn — at 23, seven years younger than Pietrangelo — for a raise.

Once Dunn is taken care of, does Armstrong not use his available cap room to find some scoring to boost a ho-hum offence that ranked 14th in the regular season and 14th in the post-season?

Armstrong’s words say he’d like Pietrangelo to stay put. His actions have him trading for both Justin Faulk and Marco Scandella during Petro’s contract year and signing each to an extension. Maybe that’s just smart insurance. Maybe it’s a sign.

The bet here is that the Blues do make an offer, but it’ll be lower than the one Pietrangelo could get on the open market. Maybe he takes less to stay where he likes. Hey, Steven Stamkos did.

But if Pietrangelo wants to maximize his next deal, increasingly it feels like that would be elsewhere.

Dubas likes big-game hunting (see: Tavares, John) and bold gambits (the Nazem Kadri trade).

In a pandemic that might handcuff other GMs, Dubas is backed by cash-rich MLSE and has always been able to structure player-friendly deals that might give him an edge.

Toronto’s biggest need is right-shot defenceman, and Pietrangelo is miles ahead of the UFA field in this category.

Yes, this would mean clearing even more cap space — and, perhaps, big chip William Nylander — and giving a 30-year-old leader more term than makes sense.

But Dubas can’t afford to think small. He has to at least explore the idea.

2. I was overcome with disappointment Wednesday night when the games went on, so I picked up my keyboard.

And while the timing of the NHL players’ response was a beat too late for many, these guys deserve a bravo for how they’ve responded the past 48 hours.

Turns out, embarrassment can switch to pride fast.

The Canucks and Golden Knights reaching out to each other amidst a hotly contested series to get the conversation rolling; the Hockey Diversity Alliance challenging the NHL; the Western Conference bubble standing together en masse for a common cause; Brad Marchand telling the stick-to-sports crowd where to stick it (“Too bad. We have bigger things we care about, want to do, and want to improve on”)… the response has been forceful, unified and, best of all, driven by the players.

They are finding a voice and using it all at once.

Once the games stop and they leave the bubble, the real work begins.

These are millionaires who can certainly throw a wad of money to help at the grassroots level, then push their respective team owners and sponsors to do the same.

I also loved Peter Mansbridge’s idea.

These players are heroes, role models to kids. Carving out some time to talk to children about race and the value of inclusion during their off-season, which now — hey! — coincides with the school year, is a simple but impactful way to affect change for the future.

3. The NHLers’ two-day pause to twist the spotlight toward systematic racism had nothing to do with hockey, but the extra rest could have an impact for key injured players trying to climb back into their respective series. Erik Johnson, Philipp Grubauer, Tyler Myers, Ryan McDonagh, to name a few.

How about Oskar Lindblom?

The top-six forward has been in the bubble alongside his Flyers for days now, playing ping-pong and eating breakfast with the boys.

“For the team, it means everything,” says GM Chuck Fletcher, noting that Lindblom’s return to practice had the coaches’ room in tears.

Kevin Hayes sees him at practice and thinks he’s not far off. The latest timeline for Lindblom’s return was purposely vague: September.

Well, Game 5 goes Sept. 1.

“Things took a really bad turn for him in December. Here we are in August, and he’s climbing back and getting his career and his life going again,” Fletcher says.

“Hopefully we can keep playing long enough that he can come join us.”

4. Fletcher says the lack of liquidity in the system under a flattened salary cap for potentially three years could be tough for free agents but might be good news for fans who like trades.

“It’s going to force teams to be more creative,” Fletcher says.

“You might see more hockey trades, the dollar-for-dollar trades where teams need to improve or need to upgrade in certain areas. If you don’t have the ability to go into the UFA market, you have to be creative and find solutions with other teams. So, it’s going to be very interesting.”

Giddy-yap.

5. No question the most valuable elements the Leafs acquired from Pittsburgh this week were cap space and a first-round pick.

But Dubas had been eyeing Swedish prospect Filip Hallander, now 20, since the 2018 draft.

“He was right at the near the top of our board when we picked in the second round and we selected Sean Durzi [at 52nd overall] and then Pittsburgh selected him [at 58],” Dubas says. “He was right there for us. We were kind of hoping he would fall to the next pick that we had gotten in a previous trade [76th overall, where the Leafs chose Semyon Der-Arguchintsev]. So, we’d done a lot of work on him leading up to the draft.”

An injury limited Hallander to 27 games with Lulea of the Swedish Elite League in 2019-20, but he made noise on that team’s top six late in the season.

“So, we’re excited for him. We think he’ll certainly add to our depth in our prospect pool upfront,” says Dubas, citing the centre’s intelligence and competitiveness as major upsides.

The Penguins had previously signed off on loan agreement with Lulea, which Dubas was happy to honour.

“He can come to training camp, and if he makes the team, great. If not, he gets loaned back. They were an excellent team last year and should be an excellent team this year,” Dubas explains. “That’s a good setup for us with him, which was also appealing.”

6. Perhaps the most interesting nugget Dubas spilled in his Kapanen trade presser was that he’s entertaining the idea of not spending all the way to the cap before the puck drops on 2020-21.

Surely the cap restraints of 2019-20, which were only relieved by heavy use of LTIR, left him handcuffed in terms of in-season manoeuvring.

Dubas says he’s open to accruing space early in the season “so that we could add once we got into the year via trade — something that we really haven’t been able to do for a while, really, aside from the [Jake] Muzzin deal,” he noted.

“That’d be a nice benefit to us, to be able to stay flexible during the season also.”

7. Of all the players I’ve had the privilege of watching live this month inside the Eastern Conference rink, two forwards I knew were good have stood out as great upon repeat viewings.

One is the Islanders’ Anthony Beauviller, and the other is Andrei Svechnikov — who is so much more than lacrosse goals. (“The Svech” is coming soon to NHL 21, so Svechnikov went out and bought a PlayStation so he can embarrass goalies virtually as he heals his high-ankle sprain.)

Both will become RFAs in the 2021 off-season, whenever that is. I’m no GM, but if I was, I’d want to lock these two up ASAP, which would be the 2020 off-season.

Svechnikov, 20, said Friday that he’s open to early negotiations.

“My agent [Mark Gandler] is going to do that job, and I tell him I don’t want to know anything [until] it’s going to be done,” Svechnikov said on a Zoom call. “I just don’t want to worry about that.”

Carolina GM Don Waddell must also take into account the future of No. 1 defenceman Dougie Hamilton, who will also enter a contract year in 2020-21.

“They are both important players for this organization, and it makes more sense to get to it sooner than later,” Waddell said. “You’re looking at two different types of contracts. [Hamilton] is going to be an unrestricted free agent come next year after the upcoming year. Andrei will be coming off his entry-level deal. So, it’s two different kind of negotiations we’re looking at. There’s no timetable. There’s no deadlines. They both have another year left.

“We have a good relationship with both players. I fully expect both players to want to stay here.”

8. A more imminent UFA of interest is Anton Khudobin, a fine 1B for teams looking to solidify the position.

The 34-year-old Dallas Stars netminder has always carried the load when Ben Bishop goes down with injury, but until this summer the career backup had appeared in just two career playoff games.

With Bishop’s return uncertain, Khudobin has been stellar in the Dallas nets, going 6-4 with a .913 save percentage against some strong offensive squads.

His former coach in Boston, Bruce Cassidy, is taking note.

“For Doby, he’s carved out a nice career for himself in the National Hockey League. He did a good job for us, and it obviously give him confidence. He won a lot of games, played well, worked on his game with Goalie Bob [Essensa]. Certainly, Bob deserves some credit for that part. But Doby is the one that has to get in there and manage it,” Cassidy says. “We’re happy for him. He was always a popular guy, a great personality.”

Cassidy sees a similarity between Khudobin and Jaroslav Halak, who took the former’s spot in Boston behind Tuukka Rask.

“You got a two-headed monster in net. I think both teams are very comfortable in front of their backups. And that matters, too. You can’t be nervous out there if you don’t trust your goaltender. Obviously, if you look at the goals-against numbers, two of the top teams,” Cassidy says.

“Not surprised by it for Doby, and not surprised by it for Jaro. Two good goaltenders getting an opportunity, and here we are.”

9. I’m just here for the Vancouver Canucks’ starting lineup reads.

10. Someone hire Joel Ward.

The 39-year-old, who retired in 2018 after carving out a 726-game career as an undrafted NHLer, says he wants to coach.

Ward never really hung up the skates. Last summer he could be seen on the ice developing the NHLer who train with Matt Nichol at BioSteel Camp.

“I love the game,” Ward told Brian Burke on Hockey Central Friday. “I want to be back in it. I’ve been out for a couple years now, but I’m still in tune, I’m still doing my homework, I still watch a lot of games.

“One day I’d like to be behind the bench for sure.”

Hockey Central
Joel Ward: The locker room is a lonely place for a black hockey player
August 28 2020

11. Fans have to get resourceful to reach their favourite players during the postseason.

Matthew Kammerer, an Islanders fan and usher at Nassau Coliseum, raised more than $4,500 through GoFundMe so a banner plane could fly over the Toronto bubble.

“Let’s go Islanders” read the sky-high message from the supporters as New York prepared for its Round 2 showdown versus the Flyers.

“It just kind of went crazy,” Kammerer told NHL.com. “In 24 hours, we were well past the $3,500 and I shut it off at like $4,580 or something like that. It was amazing really, how quickly things can work in the modern world when you have an idea, and people like it. It goes nuts.”

Scott Mayfield caught a glimpse of the message sailing through a bluebird day and fired off a tweet that made Kammerer’s day.

12. Loving Tampa Bay Lightning goaltender Curtis McElhinney’s new custom mask featuring courageous black trailblazers Muhammad Ali, Willie O’Ree, Jackie Robinson, Alice Coachman, Tommie Smith and John Carlos.

The Martin Luther King Jr. quote — “Lightning makes no sound until it strikes” — is just about perfect.

Cool touch: Teammate Mathieu Joseph assisted with the design.

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