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 should be up for the Hart, Selke, Rocket.
1. With all due respect to the Vancouver Canucks’ dismal start, we’re counting just four teams that should already be considered undisputed sellers in advance of the NHL’s April 12 trade deadline.
In light of 2021’s truncated schedule and delayed player availability due to mandatory quarantines (see: Dubois, Pierre-Luc), there’s good reason for buyers and sellers to start dealing sooner rather than later.
Here are the notables on expiring UFA contracts, some of whom have already cleared waivers and most of whom are purely depth options…
Buffalo: Taylor Hall, Eric Staal, Brandon Montour, Jake McCabe, Matt Irwin, Tobias Reider, Riley Sheahan, Carter Hutton, Linus Ullmark
Detroit: Darren Helm, Valtteri Filppula, Luke Glendening, Bobby Ryan, Sam Gagner, Marc Staal, Patrik Nemeth, Jon Merrill, Jonathan Bernier
Nashville: Mikael Granlund, Erik Haula, Pekka Rinne, Brad Richardson, Luca Sbisa
Ottawa: Derek Stepan, Ryan Dzingel, Erik Gudbranson, Mike Reilly, Braydon Coburn, Artem Anisimov, Matthew Peca
Seven rapid thoughts on the standouts from this group:
• Hall, the biggest name here by a mile, is eligible to sign an extension with the Sabres as early as March 12. His camp will entertain that idea… the same way Hall entertained the idea of re-signing in Arizona. If you’re Kevyn Adams, you need Hall’s signature by April 11 or you need to find a way to move him. A one-year, $8-million rental for a lottery team is disastrous asset management. The no-move clause here seems very risky.
• Stepan, who’d prefer to move back to the U.S., may be miscast as a top-six forward at this stage but could improve a playoff team’s 3C spot. Strong underlying numbers on a bad team. Provided the price is low, Haula is another option here.
• Montour, a minus-7, is only 26. Surely the right-handed defender has better days ahead?
• Eric Staal can submit a 10-team no-trade list. Centres are always in demand, and a $3.25-million cap hit could be workable.
• Need a dependable, stay-at-home defender? Make Steve Yzerman an offer on Marc Staal.
• Mikael Granlund, 28, could have more success sheltered on a good offensive team’s third line than trying to produce on a bad offensive team’s first line, as is the case now.
• If the Leafs are willing to take risk on Alex Galchenyuk five years removed from his 30-goal season, surely someone will add Dzingel two years removed from his 26-goal season.
To refresh: Tkachuk accidentally on purpose planted his knee on Leafs backup goalie Jack Campbell during a crease kerfuffle on Jan. 24. Campbell, who also injured his leg in that win, hasn’t played since.
As the buzzer sounded on the following game, another Toronto victory, defenceman Jake Muzzin flipped the game puck at Tkachuk’s chest as a screw-you souvenir. Muzzin was dealt a meaningless unsportsmanlike minor for the insult, and Tkachuk lost it. After mixing it up with Muzzin, Tkachuk slammed doors and Gatorade bottles upon exit:
Muzzin and Matthew’s brother, Brady, exchanged a few jabs in this week’s Ottawa series, suggesting some bad blood still boils:
During a fun interview on Spittin’ Chiclets earlier this month, Tkachuk teammate Johnny Gaudreau gave some insight into what the other Flames were thinking that night.
“I had no clue what the hell happened with Muzzin and him, and he was freaking out. I was like, ‘Alright, just another scrum for Chucky I guess.’ I didn't see him shoot the puck at him. He's going bananas, and I was like, ‘What? We just lost. Why are you freaking out right now?’ I didn't see that happen. So, he got a little heated about that.”
Gaudreau considers Calgary lucky to have Tkachuk on its side and loves that he gets right in there, “mixing it in with the big boys” whenever things turn physical. Interesting to hear Gaudreau point out that none of the Flames saw Muzzin’s puck flip in real time. They caught it on the evening highlight shows.
“We didn't find out till we watched SportsCentre. He was in the locker room. He was still pissed off, like, really heated in the locker room. Buddy, it's Game 4. Like, relax. We got a lot more games against these guys. You’ll get your chance back at ’em. It’s alright,” Gaudreau recalled.
“On SportsCentre you can see all five of us skating off to go to the bench, and none of us saw it. We felt bad, but we play Toronto soon. I'm sure he’ll get ’em back, maybe. I dunno. We’ll see.”
3. In the city of Toronto, they don’t ask how many.
They ask how.
Despite taking five of six standings points from this week’s three-game series versus Ottawa, the Senators’ historic four-goal comeback on Monday dredged up a history of trauma in Leafs Nation.
Crazy. Even with the club atop the league standings, the microscope is still picking out flaws. Toronto’s backup goalies are a perfect 3-0-0. But did you see how often Michael Hutchnson got bailed out by a post or crossbar?
John Tavares has 16 points in 18 games. William Nylander has 14. But are the Leafs nothing more than a one-line team?
I would encourage some Leafs fans to glance around the league.
You’re stressed about Tavares and Nylander? OK. How severely would you be freaking out if your favourite team’s hopes in 2021 rested with Evgeni Malkin or Jack Eichel? Mika Zibanejad or Erik Karlsson?
Big picture, Toronto’s collapse Monday might serve them well in the long run. Coach Sheldon Keefe was given a rare opportunity to get mad about something and keep his group on task.
A teaspoon dose of adversity in a pool of early success.
“I don't think the target on Toronto's back has ever been small, no matter what is happening with the team over the years,” Keefe says. “As it is right now, we sit at the top of the standings. So, I think that that's something. Yet, it's still very early, and things can change very quickly. We're conscious of that.
“I get the sense over my time in the league here that Toronto often gets other teams' best. I think it's probably magnified even more in the Canadian Division. We're focusing on ourselves to be at our best to match that. There’s no easy nights.”
4. Despite their NHL-leading 13-3-2 record and 28 points, there is something missing from this Maple Leafs squad.
His name is Wayne Simmonds.
5. Quote of the Week comes via William Nylander on his pal Auston Matthews, scorer of a ridiculous 16 goals in 17 games played:
“He’s picking goalies apart. They don't really stand a chance.”
Here’s a heat map (via Icy Data) locating where Matthews has scored his goals. That so many of his strikes are coming from distance and outside the home-plate area is insane.
“He shoots with a purpose every time,” says Frederik Andersen.
6. As time goes on and Jeff Skinner keeps hanging doughnuts on the scoresheet, it feels more and more like Kevyn Adams may have inherited the worst contract in hockey.
Skinner has zero goals and one assist through 13 games played this season. He is a dash-23 since signing his life-changing, $72-million contract.
The 28-year-old has tumbled all the way down to Ralph Krueger’s fourth line. And in Thursday’s loss to Washington, Skinner’s ice time hit a season-low 11:26. He didn’t register a shot.
Among the top-100 cap hits in the NHL (injured players notwithstanding), no one is seeing less ice time than Skinner (under 14 minutes per night).
He is a $9-million cap hit with a full no-move clause through 2026-27.
7. A mediocre team is going to make the playoffs in the West and do their rebuild a disservice.
As expected, St. Louis, Vegas and Colorado have risen to the top.
That fourth playoff spot is for the taking — and should increase the value of securing the No. 1 seed.
Arizona, L.A., Anaheim, Minnesota and San Jose have a combined negative-30 goal differential. One of them is going to limp into the post-season.
My money is on the Wild, a franchise that seems forever destined to finish in the mushy middle.
8. The Washington Capitals have slipped from first to third in the East, in large part because they need a save. Their team save percentage has dwindled to .892, seventh-worst in the league.
With Henrik Lundqvist’s heart condition, a lack of trust in Craig Anderson and Ilya Samsonov still pushing through a conditioning stint in Hershey, rookie Vitek Vanecek was given his 12th consecutive start Thursday in Buffalo. He performed well against a bad Sabres squad, but it’s too much too soon.
Honestly, with the NHL expanding to 32 teams, there simply aren’t enough great goalies to go around.
Even organizations that believed they’d addressed the position over the off-season are having a rough ride.
Pittsburgh, Ottawa, Vancouver, Nashville, Detroit, San Jose and Columbus all have a team save percentage of .896 or worse.
9. Can’t say we like how Matt Murray has played, but we like the responsibility he took after Thursday’s 7-3 blowout loss in Toronto.
Murray wasn’t supposed to play in the second half of that back-to-back but was called into action when Marcus Hogberg went down to injury eight minutes in. Murray wasn’t requested to the Zoom podium but felt compelled to speak. To own it.
“This one's on me,” Murray said. “If I just do a better job coming in and keeping the team in, who knows what happens?”
The goalie has failed to live up to his $25-million payday, and the organization is doing the best it can to minimize the criticism directed at his crease.
Coach D.J. Smith said Murray was expecting Thursday off: “We’ll just wipe that off the record and we’ll get back to work.”
That said, Murray knows he needs to be better.
It’s one thing for a rebuilding organization to finish in the basement and salvage another high draft pick. It’s another when your supposed No. 1 netminder of the future is giving up 3.82 goals per game and an emerging core ends up playing out too many go-through-the-motions games.
10. It’s remarkable how the flattened cap and the creation of taxi squads has ballooned the number of roster transactions.
Check out this stat from the essential CapFriendly.com. Just thinking about managing the cap is enough to bring on a math headache.
11. Enjoyed catching up with Hurricanes emergency goaltender David Ayres this week for an interview that’ll drop on Feb. 22, the one-year anniversary of his stranger-than-fiction victory in Toronto.
For all those who witnessed Ayres’ miracle night and thought, This feels like a Disney movie… well, it’s totally going to be a Disney movie.
Ayres has already been consulting on the scriptwriting.
12. Willie O’Ree’s No. 22 was scheduled to be hoisted to the TD Garden rafters Thursday, and I’m glad the Boston Bruins opted to delay the ceremony until next season.
O’Ree and his moment deserve a full house.
About his sweater: O’Ree also wore Nos. 18 and 25 in his career. He says he would’ve kept his No. 22 jersey had he known he’d be traded to Montreal in the 1961 off-season. It was lost but has since been found.
“I do have the Bruins jersey, the one that I wore in ’60 and ’61. It was given to me by a kind gentleman in Boston. I have it now, but the NHL had it in their travelling black mobile,” O’Ree told reporters. “But it’s shrunk. It was a wool jersey. Somebody had worn it, and now I don’t think I could get it on, but it is the No. 22 that I wore when I went up with the Bruins.”
O’Ree was “overwhelmed” when Bruins president called to inform him 22 would be immortalized. Like his 2018 Hall of Fame induction, the honour feels a little tardy. But O’Ree, ever gracious, will never complain.
“In 1991, I got a call from the NHL inviting me to the all-star game in Chicago. And when I picked up the phone and answered, I said, ‘Well, why are you inviting me? I haven’t played in 30 years.’ He said, ‘Well, we realize that you broke the colour barrier and we’d like to invite you to the all-star game.’ So, my wife and I went, had a great time. That was 30 years after I left the league,” O’Ree explained.
“Sometimes things take a little longer.”
O’Ree, 85, was asked what he’d like to tell children today about his legacy.
“Just Willie O’Ree, a young Black kid that set goals for himself and stayed focused on what he wanted to do. Believe in himself and wanted to play not only professional hockey, but hopefully one day play in the National Hockey League,” O’Ree said.
“I said that I would strive to be all that I could be. And I could probably just leave it at that.”