Quick Shifts: Why Mark Messier sees 'massive growth' with Maple Leafs

Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Morgan Rielly (44) celebrates his goal with teammates Auston Matthews (34) and Mitchell Marner (16) while playing against the Tampa Bay Lightning during second period, first round, game seven NHL Stanley Cup playoff hockey action in Toronto on Saturday, May 14, 2022. (Nathan Denette/CP)

A quick mix of the things we gleaned from the week of hockey, serious and less so, and rolling four lines deep. It was not a distinct kicking motion.

1. Mark Messier knows.

The six-time Stanley Cup champ believes the Toronto Maple Leafs “took a massive step forward” this season, despite their sixth consecutive one-and-done exit from the playoffs.

During a great appearance on The Fan Morning Show Thursday, Messier said past incarnations of the Maple Leafs were simply not committed to playing the brand of hockey needed to win in spring.

He used the Tampa Bay Lightning’s four-game closeout of the Florida Panthers as a prime example of that dedication: the details in execution, the blocking of shots, the egoless five-man support, the clutch saves and the unrattled mindset.

“Without that, you’re not going to win a Stanley Cup. You’re not going to back into a Stanley Cup. You’re not going to win a Stanley Cup because it’s your turn. You earn the Stanley Cup — that’s the only way you win,” Messier drilled home.

“When I watched the Leafs this year, I noticed a remarkable difference in the attitude and the body language of (Mitch) Marner, of (Auston) Matthews, of (Morgan) Rielly. They were playing at a much more intense pace than they had in the other (series). It meant more. The sting hurt them more. The loss hurt them more. Those are all things that you hope help teams grow.”

Messier knows.

I remember speaking to the Maple Leafs’ young stars after they had lost Game 7 in TD Garden in 2018. They seemed to take that defeat, relatively, in stride. Why not? The future was still bright.

The loss to Tampa, however, left them gutted. Their small voices and red eyes at the podium made you feel for their pain.

“For me, they got beat by an incredible hockey team with a lot of championship DNA and a goaltender that may go down as the best ever. So, I don’t think there’s any shame for the Leafs losing this year,” Messier said.

“I saw massive growth.”

2. Darryl Sutter was asked if the best team won the Battle of Alberta.

“The best player won the series for them,” he responded.

Love the quote, but it’s inaccurate.

“The role players on the Oilers have an impact on the series,” said Messier, who credits coach Jay Woodcroft for empowering the whole bench.

“We’re seeing that from the Oilers for the first time in a long time.”

Yes, Connor McDavid has taken a Once Upon a Time in Hollywood flamethrower to this post-season. But to diminish the contributions of the supporting cast is to do them a disservice.

Leon Draisaitl: 17 points in five games.

Zach Hyman: six goals and eight points in five games.

Evander Kane: five goals in five games.

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins: six points in five games.

Evan Bouchard: three goals in five games from the back end.

Darnell Nurse: averaged 21 minutes a night and finished a plus-4 against some of the most dangerous offensive players in the regular season.

And then there was the dramatic (and unexpected) difference in net.

Mike Smith’s .907 save percentage may not leap off the page, but it crushed Vezina finalist Jacob Markstrom’s horrendous .852.

3. “A lot of pride comes with being able to say you played with one organization for most, if not, all of your career,” Bryan Rust told reporters upon re-signing with the Pittsburgh Penguins and skipping out on a free-agent bidding war.

We say the Penguins should be the proud ones here, as they locked up a point-per-game asset for a bargain $5.125-million AAV over six seasons. That Rust’s no-move clause disappears after three years — and that his actual salary declines as well — makes the forward more movable if age catches up to him.

A fine bit of business by GM Ron Hextall here that should look even better when UFA forwards like Johnny Gaudreau and Nazem Kadri break someone’s bank.

Rust plays an understated, dependable, versatile two-way game and is always a plus.

"Hockey-wise, the staff, the owners, management, players, coaches — everybody does such a good job of making Pittsburgh an unbelievable place to play,” Rust said.

“We get treated so well; we get pretty much everything that we can want. That definitely played a big factor.”

4. Due to their recoveries from off-season surgery, the 2022-23 season will be deprived of Tom Wilson and Brad Marchand for its first couple of months.

We’re going to be forced to invent controversy, aren’t we?

5. The final four TV markets: Edmonton, Denver, Tampa, and leaning toward Raleigh.

The NHL might not be exactly thrilled about the number of smaller cities involved in the business half of its playoff tournament and would probably like to see a Rangers rally this weekend.

From a marketing-the-stars angle, however, the Western Conference final could not be juicier.

Connor McDavid versus Nathan MacKinnon, with both speeding stars scoring electric goals and finally leading their respective organizations over a second-round hump that has lingered for 16 years in Edmonton and 20 years in Colorado.

The firepower on both sides is off the charts.

Thank goodness the first four games of the series will feature 8 p.m. ET starts. This will be appointment television.

6. The most obvious selling angle in the East, which delivered two comparatively tame second-round series (in drama, in controversy and in goal-scoring), is the Lightning’s bid for a three-peat.

Though hardly considered an underdog, Tampa will start a third consecutive series on the road. (Fun fact: If the Oilers and Bolts are both victorious in Round 3, the Bolts could wait until the Cup final to have home-ice advantage for the first time in these playoffs.)

So many great stats flying around during the Lightning’s run of 10 consecutive series wins, but none more telling than this one.

In the regular season, the Florida Panthers scored more goals than any team in the salary-cap era (337). They were not shut out once … until their season was on the line in Game 4, and Andrei Vasilevskiy did the Andrei Vasilevskiy thing.

In the Battle of Florida handshake line, Jon Cooper told Andrew Brunette, in an almost apologetic tone, that his goalie stole that game.

That’s not the full story.

The Lightning blocked 12.56 shots per 60 minutes in the regular season (22nd overall). That figure leaped to 16.28 in the playoffs — the most of any Eastern club that survived Round 1.

A telling bit from Cooper’s Game 4 pump-up speech to his players was captured in Quest for the Stanley Cup:

Take the risk out of our game. We don’t need it. They will put enough risk in their game that we will capitalize. It’s exhausting to play against us — when you’re defending, when you’re into guys, when you’re on top, when you’re giving them no time and space.

Just think about it. You think about how f------ hard it is for us to play that way. How hard is it for them to play against us when we’re doing that?

7. Another great moment from the NHL’s behind-the-scenes mini docu-series took place in the Panthers’ room pre-game.

Assistant equipment manager Thomas Anderson jumped out of a laundry bin situated in the middle of the visitors’ room like a jack-in-the-box. He was holding a WWE-style belt. He let loose into an enthusiastic roll call of the starting lineup that had the boys in stitches.

Sure, the Panthers might need to learn a thing or two about winning, but they might well be the champions of having fun.

8. How loose is this legend of a man they call Pat Maroon?

Minutes prior to puck drop for Game 6 of Round 1, with the Lightning’s season on the ropes against Toronto, I spotted Maroon in the bowels of Amalie Arena banging away on mascot ThunderBug’s electric-blue drum.

Just because it was there. Because it would give him a chuckle.

Maroon has 14 consecutive playoff series wins — matching his sweater number.

9. I appreciate Brunette’s honesty in saying he learned a lot from the sweep, and the interim coach did a fabulous job in the regular season under some unforeseen circumstances.

And yet, despite his desire to remain behind the bench and the support of his players, Brunette has not been given an endorsement from GM Bill Zito.

“We respect him a lot. We love to play for him,” captain Aleksander Barkov told reporters, following the loss. “We love to work hard for him, and we had a lot of fun doing it.

“Everyone in the room loves Bruno, and hopefully he will stay here for next season and more to come.”

Understandably, Zito will be tempted to peek at the accomplished field of free agents — Barry Trotz, Paul Maurice, Claude Julien, Rick Tocchet, John Tortorella, Peter DeBoer, a Joel Quenneville return? — before making a decision.

Brunette struggled to find offence when it mattered most, and Florida’s deadly power play dried up like a raisin in the sun. The Cats looked less inspired, less desperate than their cross-state counterparts.

10. So, Brunette is a finalist for the Jack Adams Award, alongside Gerard Gallant and Darryl Sutter. If Gallant’s Rangers can’t rip off a two-game win streak, none of the NHL’s three best coaches will have made the semifinals.

Voting on the best coach before the playoffs begin is like reading out the honour roll before final exams.

The true coaching test comes head-to-head in adapting and outsmarting your opponent over a series of momentum swings.

Cooper is the longest-tenured bench boss by 208 games. He’s chasing a fourth final appearance and third banner. He’s never won a Jack Adams.

11. More Andrew news!

New York Rangers rental Andrew Copp is looking like the smartest mid-season pickup east of Evander Kane.

The former Jet has scored 13 goals and 28 points in 28 games since the trade. He’s also a plus-15 that kills penalties. Copp has more playoff goals (five) than Artemi Panarin (three) and fellow UFA Ryan Strome (one) combined.

No wonder GM Chris Drury is trying to make him more than just a rental.

“Sometimes we get too cute, and we get fancy, and we try those plays up high. But when we get people going to the net, things open up. That’s what he does real well,” Gallant praises.

Smart Winnipeg fans will be rooting for Copp on Saturday.

If the Rangers rally to defeat the Hurricanes in this series, one of the second-rounders the Jets received in the trade will get upgraded to a first-round pick.

12. Seeing William Nylander at the world championships just hits different:

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