Quick Shifts: Bad blood brewing between Maple Leafs and Jets

Wayne Simmonds responded to the Winnipeg Jets not being happy with the Toronto Maple Leafs' physical play and explained his altercation with Pierre-Luc Dubois.

A quick mix of the things we gleaned from the week of hockey, serious and less so, and rolling four lines deep. Peace and Humptiness forever.

1. For those of us who have watched the Toronto Maple Leafs turn the other cheek for half a decade, for those of us who looked at the NHL’s most penalized and hardest-hitting teams and routinely see the Leafs way down among the league’s gentle giants (they currently rank 27th in PIM per game), the notion of these Leafs as a dirty team is almost laughable.

If anything, the swirling criticism around this fleet and high-scoring bunch is that they haven’t been dirty enough. Gritty enough. Mean enough.

They’ve openly pined for a killer instinct. Leafs' scrums almost always involve logo'd microphones and TV cameras and cliches.

So, it was quite the ear-opener to hear Winnipeg Jets coach Paul Maurice respond to the question: Are the Maple Leafs dirty?

“I don't think so. I don't feel that,” Maurice responded Friday. Then the coach’s tongue glided into his cheek.

“The league has said that they're not, so we will abide by the league's rulings. But they are a poorer team, right? They've had some fines. Probably they'll be looking at some part-time jobs now. That's going to hurt.”

The sound you hear is me popping corn in preparation for Saturday night, the ninth of 10 Leafs-Jets matches and a possible precursor to the 2021 Canadian division final.

More Maurice: “Guys get banged up. We’ll bang their guys up; they’ll bang our guys up. The game doesn’t turn on that, where they’re not running us out of our building. The league can handle that stuff. We would never get involved in circling a name.”

Within a week, Zach Hyman was fined for his retaliatory two-handed slash to Jets defenceman Neal Pionk and icon Joe Thornton got dinged for a high hit on Mathieu Perreault. Cushion change for multimillionaires, but gold for fan bases starved for a sense of animosity as Canada’s teams play out the string.

“The fact we’re playing nine times, or 10 times, that will add to it, for sure,” Perreault said Friday, acknowledging the growing bitterness. “They’re the No. 1 team in our division right now, and we’re pushing to try to catch them. So that’s kind of where that’s going to get created, for sure.”

The most harmful blow went unpunished, however.

Alex Galchenyuk took out shutdown centre Adam Lowry Thursday for an indefinite amount of time, and Lowry’s absence greatly alters line matchups.

“If you circle a guy's name on the board, you get sued,” Maurice said postgame, when asked about the possibility for retaliation.

New Jet Pierre-Luc Dubois — an enemy of Leafs Nation since he put Jake Muzzin on a stretcher during the 2020 Columbus series — was in the thick of it Thursday, making contact with former Jackets mate Nick Foligno and getting up in goalie Jack Campbell’s kitchen.

“On the ice, you don’t really have friends. Everybody just becomes another player on another team, whether it’s him or anybody else,” Dubois said of his former captain. “They’re a talented team, but they compete hard. They play physical when they have to. You mentioned a few plays, and I remember a few other plays in my head.

“We also have that physical game. It’s a card that you can play, and I’ve always said, in the playoffs, the teams that win are the teams that don’t just have one identity. They can play multiple kinds of games.”

The Maple Leafs used to have just one identity, and on Friday coach Sheldon Keefe urged for even more physicality from his group. Not post-whistle nonsense but in puck battles and earning and defending space.

In what Keefe described as Wayne Simmonds’ best game in a long time, the rugged winger wasted no time going after Dubois once he felt Jack Campbell was in danger. Call it two minutes well served — and message for the next crease crasher.

"I'm sick of guys jumping on our goalie and being allowed to spear our goalie, and the refs not calling it,” Simmonds said Friday, game face still attached.

"Every time we've played them, they've tried to come and run us out of the building to start games. So, we come back and we're physical and now we're a dirty team? I don't buy that. I just think we're defending ourselves."

About time.

2. Adam Brooks has played all of four games and never skated more than 9:01 in any one of them. He starts most of his shifts in the D-zone and has fired all of three shots on net.

Yet the taxi-squad call-up has scored twice and impressed his coach so much that Keefe spoke glowingly about the Winnipeg native before the game Thursday, after the game Thursday and again after Friday’s practice.

Keefe got to thinking about winning the 2018 Calder Cup with the Marlies and how he had full confidence rolling out an AHL fourth line centred by Brooks, with Trevor Moore (now an L.A. King) and Mason Marchment (now a Florida Panther) on the wings. How they’re all making a name for themselves in the NHL through hard work and persistence.

Keefe called Thursday’s effort Brooks’ best NHL game yet.

“Brooksy's a very smart player, very reliable. Can play many positions, can contribute on both penalty kill and on the power play. Very versatile guy. He's very useful and while we're dealing with some injuries and stuff here right now, we like having him in and he's played well,” Keefe said.

“He's skating well. When he has the puck, he makes a play, yet he's responsible defensively. He's been competitive. I've liked a lot of things about his game, and I think his teammates are recognizing that as well. It's been nice to have him, and we want to give them a little bit more of an opportunity here.”

Brooks spoke thoughtfully Friday about what it means to play pivot between Joe Thornton and Jason Spezza, a kid bookended by 41 years of NHL experience.

The biggest benefit, more than Spezza’s faceoff tips or Thornton’s puck protection, Brooks says is their attitude. They’re constantly talking — on the bench, on the ice, in the room — and have gone out of their way to lessen what should be a high-stress situation.

Brooks is fighting to stick in the big leagues.

3. New guy Sam Bennett skated 21:12 in Florida’s 4-2 loss to Carolina Thursday. Do you know the last NHL game Bennett logged that much ice?

Trick question. In his six-and-a-half seasons in Calgary, Bennett was never used so much.

A minus player his whole career, the deadline pickup has produced three goals, five points and 19 penalty minutes through just four games as a Panther. He’s a plus-6.

Yes, winger Jonathan Huberdeau has something to do with that, but playoff-bound Bennett is making quite the statement here. He’s playing 2C, dropping the gloves, and endearing himself to fans.

“We got a really good team here,” Bennett said.

4. David Pastrnak came clean on the impetus for this out-of-left-field Tom Wilson tweet he fired off early in the 2020 playoffs:

It stemmed from an experience at Toronto’s Hotel X, the players’ most coveted bubble headquarters and the stomping grounds for the Metropolitan Division. With a bye into the final 16 and only a few warm-up games to play, members of the Boston Bruins and Washington Capitals intermingled during downtime.

A wager was made ahead of the Caps-Bruins round-robin tilt.

“I obviously lost a bet, which I was really confident going into. The bet was, if I lose, I’m going to make this tweet. And if I win,” Pastrnak revealed on Spittin’ Chiclets this week, “we would drop gloves, I would throw a punch and knock the s--- out of Tommy.”

A clown tweet versus a beatdown? Wilson had much more on the line and was determined to win the contest.

“I’m not going to get into what the bet was, but he beat me by a mile,” Pastrnak smiled. (Later, on the topic of beer-chugging, Pasta said of Wilson: “He’s pretty good.”)

The Bruins sniper says his online proclamation still gets mentioned to this day whenever Wilson scores a goal.

5. Time and again, Kendall Coyne Schofield steps up and delivers. What a fierce and fearless ambassador for women’s hockey.

6. Sunbelt attendance is on the rise.

Arizona upped its seating to 7,900 per home date, from 25 to roughly 50 per cent of Gila River Arena’s capacity. And with the Coyotes clinging to fourth seed in the West, one wonders if the possibility of playoff gate revenue partially informed the club’s decision to stand pat at the trade deadline and not rent useful players on expiring deals.

Following suit, the Florida Panthers are raising seating capacity at the BB&T Center from 25 to 47 per cent for Round 1 of the playoffs. That figure could reportedly reach as high as 100 per cent in the later rounds if Florida advances.

(chart via hockeydb.com)

7. Let’s pile on the Nick Foligno fanfare, shall we?

The Maple Leafs rank 28th overall in hits per 60 minutes (17.21). Individually, Wayne Simmonds leads all Leafs regulars in the category (8.97).

In Foligno’s debut, he threw a game-high three bodychecks for a rate of 11.11 per 60 on the night. He’s thrown 112 hits on the year for a rate of 8.63 per 60.

A couple comparables: Noted checkers Tom Wilson (8.42) and Kyle Clifford (8.15) are throwing their bodies around with less frequency than Foligno.

Increased physicality should serve the Leafs well come May, and it doesn’t come at the expense of their identity as a skill-first squad.

“It was the best move of the whole trade deadline,” Bruce Boudreau asserted on Sportsnet 590 The Fan.

8. Seeing the impact that Netflix’s hit docuseries, F1: Drive to Survive, has had on the sport’s popularity has to embolden the NHL’s test drive with Amazon Prime Video with the forthcoming All or Nothing: Toronto Maple Leafs.

Red Bull Racing’s team principal Christian Horner was quoted saying, “My 14-year-old daughter and her friends didn’t have much interest in F1 before the Netflix series.... Now they know who all the drivers are.”

According to Huddle Up, F1 is the fastest-growing sports league across YouTube, Instagram, TikTok, and Chinese social media platforms. U.S. viewership of F1 races has climbed to its highest level since 1995.

The Premier League access drew Leafs GM Kyle Dubas into Amazon’s All or Nothing. He watched the Manchester City series with a special interest.

“I have friends who were with the Philadelphia Eagles as they went through it, so I had a bit of an idea. Steve Mayer from the NHL approached us last year about it and we declined to do it, and then came back again after the summer about wanting to do it,” Dubas said.

“The way that we view it, it's us being a good partner in the league to get Amazon involved. Then individually, as a team, I think the media and the fans, it's a good opportunity to see the way that things actually operate behind the scenes here day-to-day and a good look into what we're really truly about — more than just the three hours that you see us at game time.”

One can only hope unfiltered access into the personalities and behind-the-curtain drama can have a similar effect on hockey as it has with F1. Drive to Survive wins because it doesn’t feel like a sanitized infomercial.

9. The Arizona Coyotes added nine-year-old superfan Leighton Accardo to their Ring of Honor last Saturday.

Leighton had been an inspiration to the players since 2019 and had even delivered a pre-game pep talk when serving as Arizona’s Hockey Fights Cancer ambassador. She lost her battle with cancer on Nov. 24.

The Coyotes trailed the Blues 2-0 after the first period when captain Oliver Ekman-Larsson stepped into his intermission interview and delivered a guarantee.

“She means a lot to this organization and to the guys in that room,” Ekman-Larsson said. “We’re going to turn this around and get a big win for her and her family.”

They did.

"I was pretty emotional," Coyotes goalie Darcy Kuemper said after the 3-2 comeback. "I was fighting back tears. Obviously, Leighton inspired us in so many ways and continues to do so. It was hard to watch [the ceremony] emotionally, but [we were] very, very happy just to have the chance to celebrate her life and be able to go play.

"She inspired us in so many ways. We didn't really have to talk about it because everybody knew who we were playing for."

10. After new Maple Leaf David Rittich lost his third straight Tuesday and surrendered a couple squeakers, Keefe was as critical of a single culprit as I can recall in his tenure.

“Yeah, I’m concerned about our goaltending. Obviously, we’ve got to get that sorted out. But I’m not concerned about our team,” Keefe said.

“Sometimes the puck goes in the net more than it should. And, for anyone that’s ever played, it’s a difficult thing to overcome when you’re trying to get going and you’re trying get moving.”

Yikes.

(Anyone else endure a Mike Babcock–Jhonas Enroth flashback during that post-game presser?)

Typically, Keefe uses kid gloves when critiquing the position, careful not to toss extra pressure on Frederik Andersen, Jack Campbell or Michael Hutchinson.

The Maple Leafs have one back-to-back remaining on their schedule, Wednesday at Montreal and Thursday hosting Vancouver.

Will Andersen, now practising and Rollerblading, be ready in time for that set? Or does Rittich get a fourth and final regular-season start to try and earn some measure of trust?

In the wake of Rittich’s rough night, Nick Kypreos reported on his Real Kyper at Noon show that the former Flame was not Toronto’s first choice as rental insurance. Rittich cost the Leafs a third-round pick.

Kypreos said a source informed him that Devan Dubnyk was Dubas’s first choice, but that Dubnyk declined a move to Ontario due to family reasons.

Dubnyk, 34, was dealt from San Jose to Colorado for a fifth-round pick plus defenceman Greg Pateryn.

He has promptly gone 2-0-0 with the Avalanche.

11. As much fun as Jack Campbell had building his record-setting 11-game win streak, the pressure to keep it going and live up to an impossible standard mounted.

So, when pucks started squeaking through and three losses followed, the goalie pounded himself with blame and publicly broadcasted that he was “embarrassed” by his effort.

Campbell has never been gifted with an opportunity to seize a No. 1 job in the NHL like this one. Heck, he’s never appeared in a playoff game beyond the AHL. This is as high stakes as it’s ever been for the 29-year-old.

But living and dying by each mistake is not the mental recipe for stable post-season goaltending run.

“Personally, I was putting a little too much pressure on myself to be a little too perfect and cute out there,” Campbell said after delivering in the critical moments of Thursday’s hairy 4-3 win in Winnipeg. “Over the last couple of weeks, I've learned being a little bit too hard on myself isn't necessarily always the best thing. Just kind of let it go.”

Easier said than done, of course.

"He holds himself to such a high standard," Auston Matthews said. "But we tell him, ‘We win as a team and we lose as a team.’ ”

The self-critical Campbell has leaned on a network of friends and family, inside and outside the Leafs organization, to return to the proper headspace.

“Ultimately, everybody's point was the same: Just have some fun and don't be too hard on yourself. It's a good lesson, something I'll try my best not to go through again. But we're all human."

Two things are true. Campbell’s record is a sparkling 12-2-1 in 2021. He has also allowed three or more goals in five consecutive starts.

“I know I’ve got better for this team, this city,” he vowed after snuffing his skid.

Whomever Toronto starts in Game 1 of the post-season will trigger some fierce debate.

12. Congratulations to Patrick Marleau.

While fully acknowledging that Marleau has never been a top-five player in any of his 23(!) seasons — the highest he finished in Hart voting was ninth, during his 83-point 2009-10 campaign — the man who has participated in the most NHL games deserves swift entry into the Hockey Hall of Fame.

That accomplishment alone — to say nothing of his ironman streaks, 195 playoff appearances and four gold medals (2010 and 2014 Olympics, 2003 worlds, 2004 World Cup) — gets him in the door.

Perhaps this NSFW video tribute, executed by Marleau’s pals in Toronto, trumps a HHoF ring.

“That was probably Joe’s doing,” Marleau told NHL Network. “The first time I saw it, I couldn’t hear what Mitchy was saying because everyone was laughing so hard in the dressing room. I wouldn’t expect anything else from those guys. That was pretty special that they sent it to me. And now it’s gone viral.

“Being his roommate for a number of years, I had a front-row seat to that for a while.”

Marleau, of course, takes his craft as seriously as a cold tub. But Thornton lights up when discussing his friend’s sense of humour and knack for dropping quotes from comedy flicks.

“His laugh is just so fun,” Thornton says. “And when he's excited, he's like a little kid.”

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