Quick Shifts: Projecting USA's Olympic roster from 'deepest pool' ever

Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe says he's confident that this current group he has is good enough to be title contenders, even if GM Kyle Dubas stands pat at the upcoming trade deadline.

A quick mix of things we gleaned from the week of hockey, serious and less so, and rolling four lines deep. Is this the best column on Sportsnet.ca? Not even close.

1. Following Wednesday’s announcement that Team USA’s 2022 Olympic roster would be designed by general manager Stan Bowman and assistant Bill Guerin, I took a stab at doing their job.

Man, there are some quality players on the outside looking in. Get ready for Snub SZN, America.

When building a group that could go head to head with Team Canada next winter, I left names like Johnny Gaudreau, Jake Guentzel, Brady Tkachuk, Vincent Trocheck, Chris Kreider and Thatcher Demko off my list.

“The good news is that we’ll have an extremely difficult task in settling on a final roster as we have so many great players,” Guerin said. The man ain’t lying. “We’ve got the deepest pool of players that we’ve ever had.”

Here’s who I got:

Alex DeBrincat – Auston Matthews – Patrick Kane (captain)

Kyle Connor – Jack Eichel – Brock Boeser

Anders Lee – J.T. Miller – Blake Wheeler

Matthew Tkachuk – Dylan Larkin – T.J. Oshie

Extras: Max Pacioretty, Joe Pavelski

Jaccob Slavin – Charlie McAvoy

Zach Werenski – Seth Jones

Quinn Hughes – John Carlson

Extras: Jeff Petry, Adam Fox

Connor Hellebuyck

John Gibson

Extra: Cal Petersen

2. This anticipation of the 2021 trade deadline feels different to Paul Maurice than the 22 others he’s spent behind an NHL bench.

Maybe it’s the two-week quarantine his new forward Pierre-Luc Dubois endured before he could start acclimatizing himself to the Jets race. Maybe it’s the compact schedule, which comes with compact standings.

But there’s something else, another effect of playing a team sport in a pandemic: a tightening bond among men who spend all their non-family time in each other’s company. Because, well, what else can you do?

“There's been a great opportunity here for the team to spend time together,” Maurice said. “There feels like a real closeness in our group, right?”

When you live life in a bubble — rink, plane, rink, home, repeat — it’s tougher for the noise to penetrate.

“Maybe it feels like there hasn't been as much talk about it. That's what it feels like here. The normal trade deadline feels like there's a long ramp up to it and there's more time for speculation. Maybe we’ve just been on the road and haven't been reading anything, but it doesn't feel the same. None of this feels the same,” Maurice continued.

“There's a chance we’re closer together now than at any other time. We only see each other, so it's a pretty tight-knit group. There doesn't seem to be as many guys asking, ‘Hey, what are you hear out there? What's going on?’ They're pretty happy with the group that we have.”

3. I wonder how Demko’s five-year, $25-million extension will affect the rest of the pending RFA goaltenders: Nashville’s Juuse Saros, Philadelphia’s Carter Hart, Washington’s Ilya Samsonov, New York’s Igor Shesterkin, Arizona’s Adin Hill and Carolina’s Alex Nedeljkovic — who slipped through waivers in January and got crowned Rookie of the Month in March.

The prudent play in cases with inexperienced goalies is to opt for the bridge route. But the team wins if it can buy UFA years early on a No. 1 in the making.

Vancouver’s bet on Demko began when they let Jacob Markstrom walk. Braden Holtby’s two-year deal was signed in the off-season, in part, to meet expansion exposure qualifications.

If Holtby’s career-worst stat line — 4-6-2, 3.57, .894 — and second season of decline scares Seattle from selecting the 2018 Cup champ, would Jim Benning sweeten the pot?

Remember, Pittsburgh traded a second-round pick to Vegas to ensure George McPhee selected Marc-Andre Fleury.

If Holtby’s $4.3-million AAV remains on the books, the Canucks would be taking a $12.34-million hit in the crease, thanks to Roberto Luongo’s lingering deal.

Holtby’s actual salary jumps to $5.7 million in 2021-22. That would be a $13.74 million crease for Francesco Aquilini — in a year Quinn Hughes and Elias Pettersson need significant raises.

Ron Francis might be smelling an opportunity to snatch an extra asset from his geographical rival.

4. Quote of the Week deserves the audio and visual treatment. Erik Karlsson blessed us with the ultimate sound bite:

5. Nick Robertson felt “kinda relieved, to be honest” when he found the net for the Toronto Marlies on Wednesday, scoring the game-winner in his first game back from an oblique injury.

Marlies coach Greg Moore reunited Robertson with his ol’ Peterborough Petes friend and linemate Semyon Der-Arguchintsev, who already has three assists in his first two AHL games since returning from the KHL.

“I thought they complemented each other really well. Uncle Joey (Anderson), as a mentor, I thought he did a really good job. He was talking to those guys every shift, helping coach them up with details, keeping them all on the same page. It was really good to see the creative play between the three of them. You could tell that Robertson and Semyon definitely have some chemistry,” Moore said after defeating Stockton.

“The communication is at a high level. Any time you have players who have played with each other in the past and have had success, it makes sense to give them a look together and see how they can do at a higher level.”

While Robertson and his elite shot garner more attention than any other Leafs forward prospect, Der-Arguchintsev is one to watch.

(He’s gotta pull the trigger on this rush, though:)

“Semyon, he’s just high talent, lots of skill, can anticipate plays, find his teammates. Really elevates everybody that’s on the ice with his puck play,” Moore said. “It’s been nice to have the impact that he’s had in the last two games. It’ll be interesting to see where he continues to build moving forward.

With Robertson, 19, still adjusting to life in the pros, SDA’s arrival brings a level of comfort on the ice.

“We use each other as much as possible. I know exactly what he’s doing; he knows what I’m doing,” Robertson said. “We were talking about it, and we hadn’t played together in a year. It was great. I love the kid, and we’re very close. It was nice to have a game like that.”

6. This week’s signing of blue-chip goalie prospect Spencer Knight to his entry-level deal has some wondering if the Florida Panthers will make pending UFA Chris Driedger available for trade.

I get the logic of not wanting to let Driedger walk for free, but as a surprise contender, we’d take issue with Florida dealing away a 10-win netminder with the best GAA (2.18) and save percentage (.927) on the club.

The Hart situation in Philly should reinforce the need to bring young goalies along slowly.

Seller beware.

7. Since three teams fired the old guy and brought in a new guy mid-season, not one has won more games than it has lost.

Montreal Canadiens under Dominique Ducharme: 7-3-5
Calgary Flames under Darryl Sutter: 5-7-0
Buffalo Sabres under Granato: 1-4-2

8. The St. Louis Blues won the Cup in 2019 and posted the best regular season in the West in 2020. Now? They’ve lost four straight, eight of 10, registered a negative-13 goal differential, and have watched their playoff odds (19.3 per cent) slip below that of rebuilding Los Angeles.

Even if the Blues make the cut, they’ll be facing a powerhouse like Colorado or Vegas in Round 1. Defenceman Vince Dunn (RFA) and winger Mike Hoffman (UFA) have each been healthy-scratched at points during this underwhelming campaign, and we have to believe GM Doug Armstrong will shake things up.

There’s rumoured interest in Taylor Hall, but Armstrong now knows what a championship team looks like. Does he instead see this as an opportunity to reload for next season?

Left wing Jaden Schwartz is having a difficult contract year, producing two goals and 11 points in 20 games. Does he get moved?

It made sense for Armstrong to take his chances with pending UFA Alex Pietrangelo last season, but unless the Blues get on a run fast, this certainly feels like a season to avoid the “own rentals.”

Big decisions await in St. Louis.

9. We’re not sure what fining superstars and multimillionaires Connor McDavid and Nathan MacKinnon $5,000 apiece accomplishes after they’ve already been penalized in-game for their elbow and helmet chuck, respectively.

Feels like a half measure. Either the penalty is sufficient, or the action is so outrageous that the player needs to be punished.

McDavid’s salary (before endorsements) is $14 million this season. Fining him $5,000 is equivalent to fining the average full-time employed Canadian $19.51.

Reminds me of this Jay-Z couplet in response to the NBA fining the billionaire $50,000 for entering the Kentucky Wildcats locker room: “I ball so hard (folks) wanna fine me/ But first (they) gotta find me/ What's 50 grand to a (guy) like me?/ Can you please remind me?”

Fifteen dollars have been raised on GoFundMe.com.

10. When Brady Tkachuk appeared on John Scott’s Dropping the Gloves podcast, he was asked for one name. Who’s better, Matthews or McDavid?

“This is the American in me: I gotta go with Matthews. I mean, he scores in all different ways. I know McDavid has the high-end speed, but Matthews is right up there with speed, strength, and he's got an unbelievable shot. So, I gotta go with the American boy,” Tkachuk responded.

“He can fly. And he's a horse. He's strong. You can't knock him off the puck too often.”

Fun fact: Tkachuk got to attend the 2020 All-Star Game in his native St. Louis when Matthews pulled out with his wrist injury. There is also a family connection here….

Great interview, by the way. Check it out, Sens fans. Another interesting tidbit is learning that Tkachuk binges hockey fights, watching them from current players and his dad’s era.

11. I’ll stick with my guns and say Nick Foligno is the ideal forward target for the Maple Leafs’ needs, but Scott Laughton of the disappointing Flyers checks almost all the boxes.

A left wing/centre hybrid, the 26-year-old pending UFA is held in high regard by the Flyers.

Coach Alain Vigneault described Laughton as “one of our character players” during their bubble run to the Eastern Conference semifinals, and Laughton was presented with the club’s Yanick Dupre Class Guy Award, given to the Flyer who best illustrates character, dignity, and respect for the sport.

Laughton doesn’t have trade protection, but the Oakville, Ont., native proposed to his Allentown girlfriend just this week.

The Flyers’ playoff chances have shrunk to 2.9 per cent, and the long shot must consider its options.

Laughton not only brings offensive upside, he tops all Flyers forward in average penalty-kill time (1:55). Bringing in Laughton would alleviate the need to have centre Jason Spezza take PK faceoffs then rush off for a change.

Laughton is an established 3C who has won the majority of his draws in the NHL and uses his body to throw hits and block pucks. His underlying metrics would grab Kyle Dubas’s eye, he’s a plus-8 player on a minus-22 squad, and he has trained in the summer with members of the Leafs. Plus, his $2.3 million cap hit is palatable.

The catch here is that all the reasons why the Leafs may want Laughton are also reasons for Philly to re-sign him.

12. Happy Easter, everyone. Enjoy the long weekend.

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