A quick mix of the things we gleaned from the week of hockey, serious and less so, and rolling four lines deep. My wife insists the toothpaste be cap-compliant by opening night.
1. Wayne Simmonds may not enjoy the precarious situation he finds himself in — what with the Toronto Maple Leafs roster guillotine raised and ready to slice downward any day now — but he understands it.
And the proud veteran is carrying his head high throughout his training camp of insecurity.
Heading into preseason, a simple message was passed from the head coach, who became the first to healthy-scratch Simmonds, and the manager, who signed the power forward so he could skate two more years for his hometown crest.
“Nothing crazy. Just that it was gonna be a lot of competition. I think that it didn't really need to be spoken. I think I already knew that,” says Simmonds, 34.
“Kinda on the bubble here. I know that I’m battling for my job here. So, you just gotta put that to the back of your mind and come out and do everything the right way.”
The right way means the Wayne Train laying out Senators No. 1 D-man Thomas Chabot like an open-ice steam engine:
It means dropping the mitts with noted tough act Austin Watson in that same exhibition match:
And it also means conducting yourself “true professional” (Keefe’s words) when wearing fifth-line grey and spending the bulk of camp skating alongside future Marlies.
“Everyone’s cognizant that not everyone is going to make the team,” Simmonds says. “But at the same time, I think we've done a good job of pushing one another in a positive way.”
Simmonds is an all-star game MVP and charismatic leader. A two-time 30-goal scorer and 60-point man. His voice and his fists, his silver stick and his résumé wield great weight around the league.
Yet with a new wave of prospects (Nick Robertson, Alex Steeves, Pontus Holmberg) and imports (Zach Aston-Reese, Adam Gaudette, Denis Malgin) angling for his minutes, Simmonds’ off-season efforts to increase his footspeed and hang on as an energy fourth-liner may not cut it.
That others are willing to hop the boards for less than his $900,000 salary doesn’t do him any favours on a team so tight to the cap. And Simmonds’ sitting five of the seven games against the Lightning in last spring’s playoffs reveals where the staff sees him trending.
“When you're a player that played at the bottom end of the roster and you're on a team that's trying to get better, there's going to be competition,” Keefe says.
“The competition this year is far greater and more competitive than I've seen in any other year. Simmer is caught in that mix. But when I just isolate him and his camp, I think he's done a good job in his effort and his execution and his attitude.”
Wayne Simmonds has never played an AHL game in his life. Surely, the Scarborough native wouldn’t be thrilled with the idea of getting claimed off waivers and moving away from his young family.
“I honestly think that this is the deepest team that I've ever been a part of. I think even if you were to add a fifth line to our team, I think that line would do pretty well playing up against anybody,” says Simmonds, optimistic in the face of stacked deck.
“I feel pretty good about my game. I just keep working my butt off, and we'll let the cards fall where they may.”
2. Toronto’s goaltenders swivelled heads early this week when they took to the ice wearing thick, rubber goggles under their masks.
Swivel Vision sport goggles, which retail for about $30 U.S., claim to focus an athlete’s vision by removing his peripheral view and forcing him to move his head and focus with the strongest section of the eye.
They’re not just for stopping pucks but for other sight-tracking skills, like hitting or catching a baseball, snagging a football, and whacking a golf or tennis ball.
“It’s just a tracking aid, basically forcing you to use the middle of your eyes and the strongest part of your eyes,” Matt Murray explains. “It gets you in the rhythm of turning your head, tracking the puck.”
New Leafs goalie coach Curtis Sanford told Sheldon Keefe that Swivel Vision is gaining more traction in the goalie community.
“I think you’ll see more of it probably happening around the league,” Keefe says. “I know we’re not the only team using that device.”
The Colorado Avalanche is another, and it fared pretty well.
That said, Swivel’s goggles have not yet reached universal acceptance among pro goalies.
The science here may still need some fine-tuning, and we’re told that a more effective version of the Swivel Vision goggle is still being patented.
“They definitely can help in some ways, and some in the goalie community like them to get goalies to turn their head rather than cheat with peripherals,” a goaltending source says.
“Proper head movement can help us achieve proper top-down rotation habits in movement essential to efficient goaltending patterns. But Swivel misses a key component because it only blocks off the sides and still allows goalies to cheat that movement in a way that doesn't create that ideal pattern.”
Something to keep an eye on.
3. WhenMathewBarzal’s juicy $9.15-million AAV extension kicks in next season, he’ll become the 31st-highest-paid player in the league.
A very fair rate for the New York Islanders when you consider (a) that the Number 1 centre has largely believed to have a higher ceiling production-wise after being deployed in one of the league’s most defensive systems, and (b) he is far and away the greatest scoring threat on the roster.
Since becoming an Islanders regular in 2017-18, Barzal has been the franchise’s most productive player (311 points), and it’s not particularly close. (Josh Bailey ranks second over that span, with 249 points.) Barzal has also delivered in the postseason, piling 38 points in 48 playoff appearances.
Prior to signing, Barzal was on track to become, arguably, the most intriguing restricted free agent of 2023.
Pierre-Luc Dubois, Alex DeBrincat, Timo Meier, Jesper Bratt, Roope Hintz, Troy Terry, Jamie Drysdale, Trevor Zegras, Jeremy Swayman, Cole Caufield, Matt Boldy, and Tanner Jeannot are all entering critical platform seasons and gunning for pay raises.
Dubois feels like a longshot to re-up early in Winnipeg, to put it mildly. Bratt has had two lengthy negotiations that resulted in short-term extensions in New Jersey, so his file will likely wait until summer. And Anaheim Ducks GM Pat Verbeek has said he’ll wait until end of season to negotiate with his trio of budding stars, Terry, Zegras and Drysdale.
“That way the players don’t have a distraction. It gives the players the full year to kind of just concentrate on playing hockey and then at the appropriate time we’ll talk with the agents and do what we got to do,” Verbeek told The Athletic.
A similar situation is playing out in San Jose with Meier.
“We have not received any offers yet, and don’t expect anything until the end of the season,” Claude Lemieux, Meier’s agent, told San Jose Hockey Now.
Pierre Dorion, however, is opting for a more aggressive route.
The Senators are actively working to extend DeBrincat before he plays his first game in Ottawa, according to Kevin Weekes, which would instantly add merit to the trade.
4. For all the deserved fanfare over Ottawa’s improvements upfront, the back end remains a serious concern. (And Cam Talbot’s preseason injury doesn’t help.)
Jakob Chychrun wants out of Arizona State. The Coyotes want a king’s ransom in return. And the Senators make the most sense for a landing spot.
When you think of how the Ryan Ellis trade has worked out in Philadelphia (i.e., not at all), there is reason to hesitate here.
Chychrun, 24, is entering Year 7 of his career. Here’s his list of games played: 68, 50, 53, 63, 56, 47. His body is starting to look like the Operation guy. In addition to wrist surgery, the bruising defenceman also had bone spurs removed from his ankle this summer. He’s not yet cleared to shoot pucks.
His left shoulder has been surgically repaired. He’s torn the meniscus in his left knee and the ACL in his right. Then there are some unspecified LBIs and UBIs on his injury history.
Love the dude’s resiliency and would enjoy seeing Chychrun play some meaningful games. But durability has to be a serious concern for any acquiring team.
5. Please take two minutes out of your day to watch Cody Glass make the Nashville Predators’ opening night roster after playing 66 games in AHL Milwaukee last season:
6. Here, in order, are my playoff picks.
Atlantic Division: Maple Leafs, Lightning, Bruins, Red Wings
My boldest prediction by far has the Presidents’ Trophy–winning Florida Panthers tumbling and Detroit surging.
Metropolitan Division: Hurricanes, Rangers, Islanders, Penguins
Washington will suffer from Nicklas Backstrom’s injury. I was tempted to pick the Blue Jackets over the Islanders but have serious concerns about their centre depth.
Central Division: Avalanche, Blues, Predators, Wild
Similar group as last year. The Preds could be sneaky good here.
Pacific Division: Flames, Golden Knights, Oilers, Canucks
7. The more interviews he conducts, the more I’m rooting for Kyle Okposo.
The Buffalo Sabres forward is precisely the type of quality veteran you want influencing the dressing room culture for a young group of athletes.
If you didn’t catch Okposo’s appearance on Spittin’ Chiclets back in July, it’s well worth a listen, particularly for Sabres fans, Islanders fans, or anyone who’s ever dealt with a concussion.
More recently, he gave this beautifully candid answer when asked about his source of motivation:
8. How detail-oriented is Sheldon Keefe?
Not only does he watch back game video, like all coaches, but he also watches the team recordings of practice.
Practice?! Practice? We talkin’ about practice. Not a game. Not the game they go and die for. We talkin’ about practice, man.
“Let me be honest, when we watch practice back, a lot of times we're not always focused on the players. It's more of a focus on the coaches,” Keefe explains.
Were the drills executed properly? Was there the proper flow? How does the coaches’ plan for the 60 or 90 minutes play out? Was it effective?
It’s more of a self-assessment at this stage of the season.
“You're looking at individual players (too) — how they're playing inside the structure. Little nuances of the structure and the system, either they’re getting it right or they're not. Positioning and things like that,” Keefe continues.
“But a lot of times we're looking to see how we do as coaches.”
9. The fellas over at Pucks in Deep have made an annual tradition of inviting me on their podcast for a lengthy preseason dissection of the Maple Leafs, complete with rapid-fire predictions.
Honoured to be a guest on their 100th episode. Listen here. Congrats, boys.
10. Good on Tim Hortons and Telus and Canadian Tire for pulling sponsorship of Hockey Canada’s men’s program and spurring other corporations to follow suit.
It’s an unfortunate reality that hitting an organization in its pocketbook may be the quickest path to change.
11. Leafs and Raptors fans are in for some creative new snack options when they attend home games at Scotiabank Arena this season.
Doing a little taste-drive of concession stands’ offerings this week, my three stars for the best rink food options are:
• Aloette’s slow-cooked, boneless baby back rib sandwich (section 106), which answers the question: “What if the McRib was available and actually tasted like food?”
• Wicked Carib’s vegan jerk fritters and jerk chicken roti wraps (section 110). Legit.
• Tecolote’s adobo beef tacos, a slow-cooked tribute a recipe created by Chef Elia’s grandmother in Veracruz, Mexico (section 120). Add the medium-hot sauce. Thank me later.
Forget the most delicious.
How about the most interesting mashup items?
Well, there’s The Poutinerie’s pierogi poutine, which is a big carton of heavy: fries, cheddar pierogis, smoked bacon, gravy, five-year-old cheddar, and sour cream (sections 120, 320).
There’s Chungchun Rice Dog (section 307), at once the most interesting and most challenging to digest. I tackled the Gamsung potato dog — a secret rice-batter-fired beef and chicken sausage encrusted with golden taters — and doused it in honey mustard and sweet chili glaze.
And St. Patties’ ridiculous grilled cheeseburger (section 121), a smash burger topped with lettuce, pickles and sauce that swaps out a bun for two grilled cheese sandwiches. Angioplasty not included.
12. In other fusion cuisine news, Phil Kessel was presented with a hot dog cake on his birthday.