Quick Shifts: Should the Maple Leafs trade for a forward too?

Kyle Bukauskas and Luke Fox discuss the Maple Leafs' upcoming game against the Canucks, Jack Campbell's return in net, Wayne Simmonds' 1000th career game, and the looming trade deadline.

A quick mix of the things we gleaned from the week of hockey, serious and less so, and rolling four lines deep. Whenever my son beats me at ping-pong, I tell him I’m just playing down to my opponent.

1. When I asked Buffalo Sabres coach Don Granato a question about the Toronto Maple Leafs’ top line, he half-jokingly responded: “Which one is their top line?”

Because the common belief is that the Leafs’ top six — constructed on $40 million worth of star forwards — is this relentless one-two combination punch that devastates enemies at even strength.

This season, however, that’s only half true.

Absolutely, Michael Bunting–Auston Matthews–Mitch Marner is one of the hottest lines in hockey. They’ve outscored the opposition 35-18 at 5-on-5.

But the struggling Alexander Kerfoot–John Tavares–William Nylander group has faltered to the point where they’re basically a tug-o-war line. The total score is 20-20 when that trio is on the ice 5-on-5 this season, and they hold only a slight edge in shots (205-191).

"I think [Tavares and Nylander] would probably say they expect more from themselves, and it's up to us to try to help them get there," GM Kyle Dubas said Friday.

On Saturday, that means giving that duo a jolt with Nick Robertson, as Kerfoot slides down to reenergize the fourth line.

"If I get the opportunity, I definitely gotta make the most of it," Robertson said.

Without question, the Maple Leafs’ top priority heading into the trade deadline should and will be sorting out their blue line, which requires getting a grasp on Jake Muzzin’s recovery timeline (and, thus, their LTIR spending budget).

If Muzzin's recovery is stalled, Dubas would be wise to consider using some of that cap space to poke around the forward market as well. Let’s look at candidates.

The Dream: If Filip Forsberg or J.T. Miller legitimately become available, Toronto should be aggressive. Either would instantly turn the Leafs’ second line into a nightmare.

Dubas has explored a Forsberg trade in the past, but now that he’s on an expiring deal, pressure is on Nashville GM David Poile to get his signature on an extension prior to March 21. Keeping such a talent as an “own rental” would be a risky gambit for a team considered a second-tier contender.

No one would blame the Canucks for holding onto their best forward, but sooner or later, Vancouver’s refurbished front office must make its tough decisions. It’ll be more expensive to buy Miller for two playoff runs as opposed to one.

The Complicated: The Maple Leafs have reportedly inquired about pending UFAs Claude Giroux and Max Domi, as well as breakout Chicago winger Brandon Hagel.

While no one doubts Ontario native Giroux will be changing addresses this month and will make some contender better, the veteran can dictate where he lands. At this point, Colorado, Florida and New York seem to have a leg up.

Domi should be available, too. But we’re not fans of the fit here. The onetime 28-goal-scorer has struggled to carve a meaningful offensive role in Columbus. The expectations of Domi joining his dad’s old team when his game is uneven could be overwhelming.

No wonder Dubas is intrigued by the 23-year-old Hagel. He’s pumped in 17 goals and is a bargain $1.5-million cap hit through 2024. So why in the heck would new GM Kyle Davidson get rid of him? I bet he stays put.

Out west, Reilly Smith and Rickard Rakell are fascinating options. With Vegas skidding, do the Knights bring back Mark Stone to the rescue off LTIR? If so, they’ll need to clear cap space, and playoff-tested Smith is in the final year of his deal. Dubas should be more interested in Anaheim’s expiring defenders, Hampus Lindholm and Josh Manson, but left-winger Rakell (15 goals) is worth a look.

The Canadian Division: Kevin Cheveldayoff wasn’t planning to be a seller, but the Winnipeg Jets are losing steam. Potential rentals Paul Stastny and Andrew Copp both play a brand of hockey built for the postseason and could improve a contender’s middle six.

We’re fans of depth wingers Tyler Motte in Vancouver, Artturi Lehkonen in Montreal, and Nick Paul and Cup winner Zach Sanford in Ottawa. None of these role players will break the Internet, but they could chip in with impactful plays when it matters.

2. Thatcher Demko’s appearance on Spittin’ Chiclets this week is one of the more free and interesting interviews from an active player.

There was the story about getting robbed at gunpoint. There was his effort to rock a full Kirk MacLean replica setup when the Vancouver Canucks threw back to the Flying Skate sweaters.

And there was that time Patrick Roy ripped the Boston College star for his “Dancing Demko” antics.

“When I was in college, it’s something I did to keep myself in a good frame of mind during the game. I used to be pretty hard on myself. In between whistles, they played tunes and dancing kept it light for me,” Demko explained on the podcast.

However, Demko stopped cutting an icy rug once Roy ripped into him during an interview with the Colorado Avalanche at the 2014 combine.

“He f-----’ laid into me for this ‘Dancing Demko’ thing, man,” Demko said. “Patty Roy, man. I grew up idolizing this guy. I can’t wait to see what this guy is like. And the first thing that comes out of his mouth is: ‘What the f--- is wrong with you?’ I was like, ah, this is not going how I would hope it would go. I’m just a young, scared kid.”

According to Demko, Roy went on: “I see you out there, dancing around like you don’t give a s---. How are we supposed to draft you? Looks like you’re just here to have a good time. We need a guy who is willing to do anything to win.”

Demko concedes, to a certain extent, Roy was right. It’s one thing to dance around in college. That wouldn’t fly in the NHL.

“It was kinda a bummer having the meeting go that way,” Demko said.

Vancouver plucked Dancing Demko 36th overall, 13 picks after Colorado chose centre Conner Bleackley. (Bleackley went unsigned and got drafted again in 2016 by St. Louis. He currently plays in the ECHL.)

3. With the Chicago Blackhawks deciding on a general manager, Kyle Davidson, to lead their reset, I’m infinitely more curious to see what happens with 33-year-old lynchpins Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews than Marc-Andre Fleury.

Both will be eligible to sign extensions as early as July 13. The last time they were pending UFAs, they only waited a week before inking identical $84-million, max-term deals.

Chicago’s previous regime handcuffed itself with some loyalty contracts, like Brent Seabrook’s.

Kane, in particular, is still an elite talent who leads the club in scoring and looks like he has years in the tank. How this all unfolds will be fascinating.

“Let’s be honest, I love Chicago. I love the city and the fans,” Kane said Wednesday. He holds a full no-move clause.

“There’s always business decisions. I know in the game of hockey there’s not many guys that play their whole career with one team. So, it would be a privilege and an honour to do that. But I guess we’ll see how it all plays out.”

Does Davidson truly believe he can build around an aging Kane in the summer of 2023 — when Alex DeBrincat will need a hefty raise? Or is a more thorough roster turnover to youth necessary here?

Imagine the haul of futures the organization could retrieve for Kane while he’s still performing like a $10.5-million threat.

Something worth noting here: Kane will cash $4-million signing bonuses at the end of this season and next, while his base salary will be a manageable $2.9 million. That should be tempting to owners looking for a marketable star.

“Jonathan and Patrick are extremely important pieces to the organization,” Davidson said at his opening presser. “They’re definitely going to be brought into the loop.”

4. Of all Eastern Conference clubs poised to qualify for the playoffs, the Washington Capitals have the lousiest save percentage (.905).

Vitek Vanecek and Ilya Samsonov have a combined 140 big-league appearances in the regular season and a combined four in the postseason.

This veteran group won’t roll the dice with such inexperience come May, will it?

“We called around earlier,” GM Brian MacLellan told reporters this week.

“It’s gotta be an obvious upgrade for us for it to make sense. Or otherwise, we go with our guys. Is this going to get us over a hump on the goaltending side? I don’t know that there’s that many guys out there that are that quality. There might be one or two.”

I’m wrestling with which would be the better story: Fleury agreeing to join the other side of the Caps-Pens rivalry? Or Braden Holtby coming home?

5. Saturday night. Hometown. Full barn.

Wayne Simmonds will flash that hockey smile and play his 1,000th game. Soak it in.

“That's spectacular,” says Mitch Marner, who bonded with Scarborough’s scrappiest son when they shared silver at the 2017 world championship.

“For all the years he's played, all the roles he's played, it's a spectacular thing for him and where he came from. And the things he battled through to be where he is now, today. For our team, what he does in the community and just in the eye of people from Scarborough especially, it’s spectacular.

“So, we're super stoked for that one. He deserves all the love he's going to get for that game, and it's definitely a cool one to be a part of and get to watch.”

6. Feel buried alive / This city is uptight / Suffocated and lonely in the crowd / I'm surrounded by…

Those are the opening lyrics to “Hypnotized,” by Purple Disco Machine and Sophie and the Giants, the dancey 2020 track Marner selected for the Maple Leafs’ celebratory win song this season.

“It's just a banger,” Marner said. “It's a helluva song. It's got great jams to it. It's got a great little tune. It's fun to groove to and sing to. I was the one to kind of throw that one in there and tell the boys it's happening.”

He’s not wrong.

“Hypnotized” is an earworm that puts you in a good mood, and DJ Mitchy Mitch’s selection has been given the thumbs up from fellow alternate captains Morgan Rielly and Auston Matthews.

“It’s really good. It’s a nice tune,” Matthews approves. “I forget what it’s called, but it’s got a nice little rhythm to it.”

7. Not only do you need to get wary of getting embarrassed by the Michigan, now you need to defend the Fake Michigan:

8.What’s up with that?

According to Kyle Okposo, such was the reaction in the Sabres dressing room when Granato announced he’d be recasting right-winger Tage Thompson as a top-six centre.

“A lot of people laughed at it,” Okposo said. “Look at it now. He has all the tools. He has the skill set. He’s a great skater. He's got a heck of a shot. And he started to put it together.”

Thompson still needs work in the face-off circle (41.5 per cent), but with 23 goals, 41 points and roughly four minutes more ice time per night, the 24-year-old is enjoying a breakout campaign.

With Vladimir Sobotka now plying his craft in the Czech league and Patrik Berglund long gone to Sweden, and the draft picks still developing, Thompson is the lone Sabre fans can look at as a tangible return from the 2018 blockbuster deal of Ryan O’Reilly to St. Louis.

“Tage had the burden of being traded for who he was traded for. As a young guy that hadn’t had much experience coming to Buffalo from St. Louis, the expectations on him were daunting. He had to fight through that. To arrive where he’s right to this point [is commendable],” Granato explained.

“I kept telling Tage, I have more confidence in him than he has in himself.”

Thompson is a big body (6-foot-7, 218 pounds) with fast feet and a smart stick. Granto says he just knew the career winger would thrive in the middle ice.

The coach saw a talent rich in what he calls “long-term confidence” (It’ll work out eventually) but devoid of “short-term confidence” (I need it to work out today). It is that shift in thinking, in ramping up Thompson’s urgency and competitiveness to be an impact player now, that Granato zeroed in on.

The player has responded to be the Sabres’ leading scorer.

“There's still more levels that he can get to,” Okposo said. “There's still more in there. And that's the exciting thing about him and a lot of our young guys — this isn't a ceiling for Tage.”

9. The Hurricanes host the Avalanche Thursday in a marquee matchup of legitimate Cup contenders.

Here’s Rod Brind’Amour on 23-year-old Norris Trophy front-runner Cale Makar:

“How good is this guy going to get, you know? Where's it gonna end when we’re done talking about this guy? I mean, this is incredible what he can do. I think that's all from how the game has changed and evolved over the years to allow a guy like that to grow up playing that way. He’s always been that offensive defenceman and creative. And he goes to Colorado, and you know Jared [Bednar] is coaching him that way. Like, ‘Go. Do your thing.’ And you see what you get.”

10. The NHL's oldest defenceman (Zdeno Chara) and oldest forward (Joe Thornton) have been given plenty of flowers the last couple of seasons. But what of the league’s most senior goaltender?

Buffalo’s Craig Anderson will celebrate his 41st birthday in May, and he’s battled through injury and behind a thin roster to build a respectable 7-7 record and .909 save percentage.

The Sabres have tried six starting goalies this season. None have more W’s or better numbers than the old guy making minimum wage. Anderson is only two wins away from 300.

“Well, Andy's obviously been around a long time, and we like to rib him about it a little bit,” smiled Okposo, a smart veteran caught in a rebuild. “But he's able to articulate certain points that he wants to get across very well, and he's able to impart some wisdom on our team. And I think that's really important at the stage that we're in.

“He's been awesome for us when he's been healthy, and he just reads the game so well. He makes difficult saves look easy, and he's got such a calming influence back there. He's been a big piece for our team.”

Is it crazy to think of Anderson and his very manageable cap hit as a potential trade chip this month? His .909 isn’t so far off Fleury’s .911 and Holtby’s .912, especially when you consider the defence he’s playing behind.

11. When the NHL hired Amazon Web Services to crunch data from all 200,000-plus face-offs taken over the past decade for the league’s new Face-Off Probability prediction tool, one of the most interesting findings was how much in-game success matters.

Getting on a heater. Finding the flow. Dialling in. It can result in ownership of your face-off foil.

“It could be attributable to that thing we always talk about — like, being in the zone, right?” said Dave Lehanski, the NHL’s executive vice president of development and innovation. 

A trend was spotted when creating all these face-off profiles. Certain centres, once they’ve already won five or six draws, by the time the third period rolls around, they’re nearly a lock to keep swiping them.

“There's a good chance they're gonna keep winning,” Lehandski said, “because they just they have it that game — whatever that it is.”

12. Tossed out a poll for fun this week and was pleasantly surprised to see more than 10,000 votes and a neck-and-neck race between Calgary and Toronto. (And, yes, we’ve called the coroner on the 2021-22 Winnipeg Jets.)

Coming into this season, I’d lean the Maple Leafs' way.

But the way the Flames check and compete, the way they defend and tend goal — plus the fact they have a decidedly easier divisional path — I must agree with the 46 per cent. The Flames look like Canada’s best hope to quench our country’s 29-year Stanley Cup drought this summer.

That said, let’s see what these rosters look like following the trade deadline.

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