Quick Shifts: Why the Maple Leafs believe Joseph Woll is ready

Jack Eichel reflected on his time with the Buffalo Sabres and why he feels fortunate to have been apart of the organization.

A quick mix of the things we gleaned from the week of hockey, serious and less so, and rolling four lines deep. We’re rooting for Carey Price.

1. Two things can be true.

The Toronto Maple Leafs electing to start NHL newbie Joseph Woll Saturday in Buffalo can be seen as both an indictment of third-string journeyman Michael Hutchinson (who is still searching for a win at either the NHL or AHL level this season) and an endorsement of that hardworking, affable kid they drafted in this same arena back in 2016 — 61 picks after selecting Auston Matthews.

“Draft Day is the worst and best day of your life. You’re sitting there waiting for your name to be called. It’s tough, so it was good to have a lot of family there with me. When your name’s called, it quickly became the best day of my life,” Woll once told me.

“When the Toronto Maple Leafs draft you, it’s not a bad thing. It’s perfect.”

An organization that hasn't developed a bona fide NHL goalie since 2006 fourth-rounder James Reimer has gone to great lengths to develop Woll into the real thing.

He went on the road with the core to Boston during its 2019 series so he could soak up the playoff experience. He was invited to bubble up and taxi during the NHL's 2020 return to play, even though there was no chance he'd play outside of practice.

“It doesn’t feel too uncomfortable, which is nice," Woll says. "I feel like I belong.”

And when Petr Mrazek was felled (again) by a pulled groin, it was Woll, not Hutchinson, who was recalled Sunday to stare down extra shots from Matthews and William Nylander all week.

"The big thing, as an organization, is that we really believe in him. We believe in his talent," says coach Sheldon Keefe. "In an ideal world, you would want him to get on a roll with the Marlies. As it turns out, there's an opportunity here."

Keefe was playing Saturday's starter card close to the vest — 25-year-old Swedish import Erik Kallgren was also an option, and his Marlies numbers are better than Woll's — but quietly let Woll know midweek that he'd be making the Show.

The St. Louis native is tight with his family. He said his first call would be to Mom once he found out he was getting a start.

“However you can get a special goaltender — whether drafted or traded for — it’s a big thing. The Leafs historically have had a lot of great goaltenders, from Johnny Bower,” a fresh-faced Woll said during a development camp.

“To start for the Maple Leafs, that’s my goal. I want to play here, and I want to be a guy who can lead this team to a Stanley Cup.”

Toronto is downplaying Woll's numbers. The 23-year-old holds a career 20-24-3 record for the Marlies and has yet to post a save percentage above .895 in any of his three part seasons.

Yet Woll believes the difficulty of jumping from college stud to rollercoaster pro has helped him learn some hard lessons, to work on both his mental and technical game.

“If they call on me, I’ll be ready. I’ve put a lot of work in. I feel confident in myself, and I feel confident in this group. It’s been a lot of development," Woll said this week.

“It’s been a long road, and I feel ready.

“It’d be pretty cool if everyone in my life could come and support me. That’d be sweet.”

2. Keefe doesn’t step foot on the ice during the Maple Leafs’ optional morning skates, leaving duties to his army of assistants.

“It’s a long season, and I address the team a lot and talk to the players a lot individually. And we’ve got great staff, so it’s a chance to empower them and get them to do different things,” Keefe explains. “When we say a skate is optional, it’s very much optional.”

Some Leafs feel strongly about getting in a sweat and some puck touches on game mornings; others don’t want anything to do with a morning skate and prefer to save their energy.

Imagine your boss saying to you: “I’m coming into the office early to prep for the big presentation, but you do whatever you need to do.”

Keefe figures if he were to participate in morning skates, his players would feel passive-aggressive pressure to do the same. “Maybe I should be out there,” they’d think.

“While the morning skates are optional,” Keefe assures, “the games are not.”

3. Panic in Dallas?

The Stars have dropped five straight, slumping to a 4-6-2 record with a minus-12 goal differential.

A players-only meeting and a very curt 29-second Rick Bowness post-loss press conference Wednesday:

Respected veteran (and long-serving dressing room DJ) Blake Comeau was placed on waivers Thursday in attempt to jolt the room.

Bowness is in the final year of his contract, and there is already a sense the season is starting to slip away.

4. Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy gave us a thorough breakdown of how Taylor Hall is settling into a more permanent life in Boston, finally free of contract pressures:

“He’s a good person, and he's trying to work hard and be a Bruin. And I think with [left wing Brad Marchand] around, it was the perfect scenario for him. He slides in right behind a world-class player, can have some competition with a world-class player; he can get back to being a world-class player. So I think that's been the biggest help for Taylor with us is having a guy like March — watching him every day in practice, how he's grown his game, how hard he works. Because Taylor loves to work; he's on the ice a lot.

“I think he's hard on himself. That's one area we're trying to pick. It's not the end of the world if it's a bad period or something goes wrong. This is how we play here. Just keep pushing, keep pushing, keep the puck out of our net. Help the team win, however you can.

“He’s now our net-front power-play guy. He hasn’t done a lot of that; he’s been more of an elbow guy. But to be on that first unit, that was what's available. So, he’s changed his game a little in that regard to suit the team.

“Doesn't have to be the face of the franchise. We've talked about that. Just be a good solid player. I think that's how his game has been. He's developing chemistry with Charlie Coyle now. They’re still a work in progress. But I like what he's done for us. He’s made us a harder team to play against and should only get better.”

5. Interesting to note that Bob Murray’s ousting from Anaheim was spawned from a tip (or tips) through the NHL hotline.

That the league publicized this suggests a PR effort to display that it cares and that its whistle-blowing processes can work.

But, hey, the hotline is working. Is the change too late? Absolutely. But change is underway.

6. Quote of the Week.

“This all seems like a lot to celebrate the second-best athlete in your family.” —Craig MacTavish to Kevin Lowe, whose No. 4 sweater was hoisted to the Rogers Place rafters.

(Lowe’s wife, Canadian ski race legend Karen Percy, won two Olympic medals in Calgary in 1988.)

7. Team Canada hopeful Shea Theodore put up only three points through his first nine games. Now, he’s finding his groove, with five in his past five.

“It's tough when you miss time in training camp,” Vegas coach Peter DeBoer says. “Shea Theodore missed training camp. It takes a while to catch up and get back to that.

“You look around the league. The two guys in Vancouver that held out — I don't think it's an accident. But anybody that either has injuries or is late to camp is a little bit behind to start. So, unfortunately, we've had a lot of that, and some guys are playing catchup.”

Elias Pettersson is still waiting to break out. Three goals and nine points isn’t horrible, but the guy is getting plenty of offensive opportunity. He starts 68.5 per cent of his shifts in the enemy’s end.

8. Last season, with the Montreal Canadiens, Phillip Danault needed 33 games to score three goals. He accomplished the same feat within his first 12 as an L.A. King.

Danault’s new coach, Todd McLellan, was aware of the shutdown centreman’s on-ice character, but his professionalism off the ice has blown him away. The way Danault talks to his younger teammates and has fit in with the established vets has impressed.

“He walks into the room, you can tell he’s been in the league. Carries himself with a real strong presence,” says McLellan, who doesn’t feel the need to keep explaining tactical points to Danault. “He’s usually one and done.”

On road trips, especially, the addition of Danault alleviates exposure to mismatches up the middle and allows McLellan to properly shelter young centres like Rasmus Kupari and Blake Lizotte.

Meanwhile, Anze Kopitar is tied for eighth overall in NHL scoring (16 points). Selke guy Kopitar maintains he’s just as committed to defence as ever, but the increase in his production is no coincidence.

With Danault starting 55 per cent of his shifts in the D-zone, Kopitar is now starting the majority of his shifts in the O-zone (54.3 per cent), a sharp increase from his career average.

“I’m trying to play the same game. I’m not trying to do anything different,” says Kopitar, who praises Danault’s positioning and diligence in puck battles.

“Yes, it’s nice to not have to take the D-zone draw and instead sliding into the offensive zone.”

The double whammy up the middle made it difficult on the Maple Leafs Monday.

“Good instincts. Good stick. Knows who he is and what his job is on the ice and doesn’t deviate from that very much,” Keefe said of Danault, who neutralized Auston Matthews in the playoffs.

“You gotta play through that. That’s a tough duo they’ve put together there.”

9. Quiet times at the KeyBank Center.

Despite lugging around the NHL’s longest layoff drought (10 years), turnout at Sabres games had remained relatively respectable. Buffalo has long ranked among the top half of the league in attendance — regardless of the on-ice product.

As recently as 2015-16, Jack Eichel’s rookie campaign, the Sabres were top 10.

Buffalo plummeted to 20th in 2019-20, averaging 17,167 bums in the seats.

The early accounting after the fan-free 2020-21 is troubling.

Buffalo rates dead last, 32nd, in home attendance. It’s not even close: 7,911 fans on average, or 41.5 per cent of capacity.

The Senators rank 31st with 11,077 and 57.8 per cent full.

That the Sabres are in a five-game losing skid and it’s an expensive hassle for Canadians to get tested to cross over to the border town to catch a game certainly doesn’t help.

10. The surgery-bound Eichel wants the world to know he would’ve come back and played for the Sabres had they allowed him to get his desired disc-replacement surgery.

“A lot of people don’t know this, but I told Buffalo that if they let me get the surgery, I’d come back and play there,” Eichel said in his Spittin’ Chiclets interview. “I hope the fans in Buffalo understand, I was adamant about getting the surgery before anything else.”

Eichel says he went to Kevyn Adams with a proposal: “If you allow me to get this surgery, I’ll come back and play in Buffalo and prove to people that I’m healthy. If the issue you have is that you’re not getting the proper return because of the injury, then I’ll do that.”

We’ll never know the alternate universe here, but my bet is Sabres would’ve been better off letting a healthy Eichel jack up his own trade value.

Look at how much more intriguing a point-per-game Vladimir Tarasenko is now compared to the unhappy winger in the summer.

11. Love this money-on-the-board initiative Thursday by Kevin Shattenkirk and the Anaheim Ducks, who kicked in $17,000 for The 11 Fund on behalf of Jimmy Hayes.

Anaheim then went out and trounced the Seattle Kraken 7-4.

Karma, the good kind.

Writes Shattenkirk on Instagram: “I was lucky enough to meet you when we were 9 years old playing hockey. From that day on we stayed friends and crossed paths at every level. We got to travel the world and play hockey together as teenagers and when we went to rival colleges, we still would find time to meet for lunch just to catch up. We got to play against each other at the highest level, but we always reminisced about the early days of our friendship. Although we didn’t see each other as much lately, I was able to watch you become and amazing husband to Kristen and the best father to Beau and Mac. I can’t believe I won’t have another chance to see you Jim, but I promise you I won’t ever forget how many great memories we had together. I will always love you, big guy. Rest In Peace.”

12. Fun to hear reaction still rolling in from around the league on Connor McDavid’s Goal of the Year.

“Fifty people see an incident, no one calls 911 because they think the other person’s going to call 911. That’s what it made me think of when I saw that,” Sabres coach Don Granato told reporters of the Rangers defence.

McLellan ran the bench for the first three-plus seasons of the McDavid–Leon Draisaitl era in Edmonton.

He’s not the least surprised to see them one-two atop the Art Ross race.

“They’re arguably two of the top players in the world, and they’re playing like that right now. They’re carrying their team in a market that needs that and wants that,” McLellan says. “They’re entertainers. If I’m going to a game, I’m excited about watching those two.

“They play the game differently, yet they play the game so well together — which maybe isn’t talked about enough. One with speed, and the other is the brain and the playmaker. I couldn’t be happier for both of them. They’re outstanding players and just as good human beings.”

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