A quick mix of the things we gleaned from the week of hockey, serious and less so, and rolling four lines deep. [INSERT WILL SMITH JOKE HERE.]
1. Sheldon Keefe learned something when he dialled up Ted Donato, head coach at Harvard University, ahead of Nick Abruzzese’s Toronto Maple Leafs debut on Saturday.
Keefe knew the buzz-worthy prospect served as captain of the Crimson. What Abruzzese’s new coach didn’t know was that captaincy at Harvard is voted on by the players. To Keefe, that speaks volumes about the latest Leaf’s maturity, character, and leadership.
Much like Marlies coach Greg Moore — who guided Abruzzese with the Chicago Steel — Donato endorsed the 22-year-old as a player coaches can trust.
“Really smart player, very skilled player. Has produced at a very high rate, both at the USHL and the now youth college hockey,” Keefe says.
“We’ll see where he’s at and where our team and our lineup is at, but he’s going to get in here in the near future.”
Abruzzese is a nifty playmaker and power-play threat who piled up 77 points in 59 games spread over two NCAA campaigns.
Absolutely, Abruzzese weighed the option of staying in school — knowing full well that unsigned NCAA alumni can pick their own landing spot.
But by signing with the Maple Leafs over the weekend, the player gets a head start toward RFA status and was guaranteed a taste of NHL action for a contending team down the stretch.
“There was a little bit of back and forth,” Abruzzese said of his decision. “At the end of the day, I think I was ready to make this jump to professional hockey, and I’m happy to have done that.”
By all accounts, the young man’s approach dictates that he’s ready to turn pro. (Forgoing ELC salary bonuses to aid a cap-crunch franchise doesn’t hurt.)
Here’s the catch.
Abruzzese’s strongest attributes don’t exactly fit the roster’s immediate needs heading into the playoffs. Is he going to supplant an established weapon on the NHL’s most dangerous power-play? Can a five-foot-nine, 160-pound winger make a meaningful impact on the fourth line, where he’ll start in Philadelphia?
Ask Nick Robertson how difficult it is to stick in the NHL without some serious AHL grooming.
Wearing No. 26 and taking his first Leafs line rushes at Tuesday’s morning skate in Boston, Abruzzese felt a tangible leap.
“Definitely the pace and physicality of even just being out there for a morning skate, where it's pretty relaxed and everyone’s just trying to get loose, you can definitely feel a higher pace and higher intensity level,” he said.
“Just trying to help the team in whatever capacity I can. Obviously, they're having a great year and have some pretty big aspirations. So whatever way I can help them, I’m here to try and do that.”
A one-two punch of the pandemic and elected hip surgery robbed Abruzzese of his entire 2020-21 season. He delayed signing his entry-level deal to rehab his body and his game.
The layoff presented him with some perspective as well as time to bulk up as best he could.
“Just to have another hockey season was maybe something I took for granted but I'm super grateful for,” Abruzzese said.
Abruzzese has been immediately welcomed by the big club. Chatting with a couple of fellow Harvard men in the room, Alexander Kerfoot and Colin Blackwell, helps. And he’s already started picking the brain of Jason Spezza, who addressed Abruzzese and the Leafs’ other hopefuls at development camp in August.
“An incredible player with such a great career,” Abruzzese said of Spezza. “I’m just trying to take small things [in] and get acclimated as best as I can.”
Kerfoot spent time around the prospect in the off-season. He raves about his puck skills and “elite brain” for the game.
“The other thing you notice is just his hunger. He wants to get better,” Kerfoot said. “He wants to be the best player on the ice every night.”
2. Keefe was encouraged by watching Abruzzese’s strong Olympic game against Team Canada, whose roster featured a bunch of players with whom the Leafs coach is familiar.
“The first time putting on the jersey for our first game was pretty cool because I’ve never represented our country,” Abruzzese said. “Being able to do that was really special,”
He struck up a fast friendship with fellow Team USA member and Leafs prospect Matthew Knies.
“Really skilled and kind of a moose on the ice. Physically, he’s kind of a freak. We had some good chemistry at the Olympics. It was good getting to know him, and he’s an incredible player.”
A freak? How so?
“He's three years younger than me, but he makes me look like a boy. He’s just explosive and is really strong on pucks and athletically is really gifted.”
With all due respect to Abruzzese, the sense from scouts is that he’s more of an amuse-bouche when it comes to the next big thing in Leafland. Knies is the entrée.
3. Attention to the Maple Leafs’ lengthening list of injured players would be heightened if they hadn’t just rattled off three big wins in a row.
Jake Muzzin won’t play Saturday, but he’s travelling with the team now. Expect a return in Florida.
The Taylor Hall punch reinjured Ilya Lyubushkin’s neck and gave him headaches, but the Russian Bear should be good to go in Philly. (“Loooove Boosh,” Muzzin told to reporters with a smile, no doubt grateful for another hard hitter on the back end.)
Alexander Kerfoot skipped practice Friday to rest his wounds but is expected to play Saturday. How many games would Pierre-Luc Dubois be suspended if Kerfoot was seriously hurt on this play?
4. We’ve gone from Keith Yandle ironman record watch to Keith Yandle ironman over watch. The Flyers defenceman stands at an NHL-best 989 consecutive games played, but he skated on the fourth pairing for a depleted Philly squad Friday.
He’s dealing with an illness.
"I don't even want to get into the speculation on [Yandle not playing] until if we do make that decision," coach Mike Yeo told reporters post-skate. "Whenever you're dealing with any player, communication obviously is important. I'm not sure what's going to happen tomorrow, so don't want to get into any of that right now."
Could Yandle’s remarkable run really end just 11 games shy of 1,000?
His average ice time (i.e., coach’s trust) has steadily dropped every single month this season, from 16:09 in October to 12:48 in March. And even with Philly missing bodies, his metrics have not been kind.
Meanwhile, Phil Kessel (967) passed Doug Jarvis for No. 2 on the ironman list and is only 23 games behind Yandle.
5. Jack Campbell revealed to reporters that he injured his rib in Columbus on Feb. 22.
The goaltender started three more games afterward, giving up 14 goals. He got pulled in one of them and posted save percentages of .800, .821 and .867 in those outings.
Either he tried to quietly play through pain, perhaps worried about competition from Petr Mrazek, or the Leafs hoped the injury was minor.
Regardless, it’s great for the player and the club that he was given a physical and mental reset.
“I’m not going to make any excuse on my performance,” Campbell said Friday. “But it’s not fun to play through some pain. It’s part of the game. I’m fortunate the team has my back and let me heal and get stronger, and I’m just ready to go now.”
With Mrazek sidelined until mid–Round 1 at minimum, the crease is Campbell’s alone.
Starting Saturday, let’s see what he can do.
6. Said it before, and I’ll say it again: Bruce Cassidy is one of the most forthcoming coaches at the podium. Always appreciate the detail with which he breaks down some of the nuances of the sport and the gig.
Here’s the Bruins coach explaining how he puts the analytics provided from the “nerds upstairs” to real use with his players:
P.S. “They’re good nerds.”
7. Interviewed on the TNT broadcast this week, Minnesota goalie Marc-Andre Fleury confirmed that the Washington Capitals expressed interest in trading for the former Pittsburgh Penguins stalwart.
“It just didn’t seem right,” Fleury said.
You gotta respect GM Bill Guerin for challenging goaltender Cam Talbot with a little internal competition during a critical spring.
Granted his first two tests for the Wild came against non-playoff teams, but Fleury is 2-0 with a 1.50 GAA and .948 save percentage with his new team.
8. Some may have quibbled over the amount of money ($5.5 million AAV) and term (six years) centre Phillip Danault received as a free agent from the L.A. Kings.
The Year 1 results cannot be disputed, however.
At 29, Danault has erupted for a career-best 21 goals and is a plus-17 for a team on track for the post-season.
By comparison, Montreal’s most productive shooter, Nick Suzuki, has 18 goals.
“Worth every penny,” the Kings tweeted.
9. There are five blank slots on every Hart Trophy ballot.
Am I really going to burn three of those spots with two defencemen and a goaltender?
Unless things change drastically, it’ll be difficult not to.
10. On the heels of its Olympic gold medal — well earned, to be sure, but not in a true best-on-best — Finland surpassed Canada as the No. 1–ranked men’s hockey nation, according to the IIHF.
Russia ranks third, the U.S. fourth, Sweden fifth, and Switzerland is now sixth — that country’s highest ever ranking.
Seeing these (questionable?) power rankings only makes me salivate for a true best-on-best to settle this for real. World Cup of Hockey 2024 can’t arrive soon enough.
11. Speaking of which, the league announced that the next World Cup will not feature gimmick squads like 2016 runner-up Team Europe and Team North America — arguably the best collection of young talent ever assembled.
Which kinda makes TNA’s blazing finish all the more special:
12. Riding the high off his reversible Maple Leafs alternate sweaters, Justin Bieber trolled some of his own fans (those that double as Canadiens fans) when his tour rolled through the Bell Centre.
During an interlude between songs, the Biebs chirped: “How’s that playoff spot looking for you guys this year?” Then the pop star went full heel and tried to get a “Go! Leafs! Go!” chant going.