A quick mix of the things we gleaned from the week of hockey, serious and less so, and rolling four lines deep. Just a few thoughts from a Rinkside Karen.
1. The Toronto Maple Leafs are in the trade market for a forward.
The Calgary Flames have a forward who wants a change of scenery.
So, fans are wondering, is there a match? Is there a path to lure GTA native Sam Bennett back to his home province?
Well, it’s complicated.
From the point of view of Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas, who has reportedly expressed some level of interest, Bennett fits the profile of an attractive target: Local guy. Top-five pick with something to prove. Significantly elevates performance in the post-season (from 0.35 to 0.63 points per game). Hard to play against. No cross-border quarantine. Not a pure rental (Bennett will turn RFA in the off-season). Versatile enough to be tried at left wing alongside John Tavares and William Nylander or centre a checking third line.
Despite Bennett’s sluggish start — one assist, minus-5 rating, healthy scratch — there’s intriguing upside here.
There is more than one hurdle to overcome, however.
Toronto is tight to the cap, and Bennett carries a $2.55-million hit. That’s significant when you consider all the bargain depth Leafs — Travis Boyd, Wayne Simmonds, Jimmy Vesey, Nic Petan, Adam Brooks, Jason Spezza — already outproducing Bennett.
While Dubas has shown a willingness to trade the future (i.e., first-round picks) to help the present, Calgary GM Brad Treliving must also win now.
Treliving would prefer a roster player in return, which explains Larry Brooks’ report that he’s doing some due diligence on the Rangers’ Tony DeAngelo. And we’d have to assume Treliving will be wary of dealing Bennett within the division, lest he come back to bite the Flames (see: Tyler Toffoli versus Vancouver).
Travis Dermott’s name has been thrown out there, but I don’t like that move from Toronto’s perspective. The Leafs still aren’t comfortable with Mikko Lehtonen in the six spot. And with blue line injuries inevitable, there is no need to subtract from what appears to be the deepest Leafs defence corps in years.
(Stray thought: Would Treliving take a chance on Pierre Engvall?)
Bottom line: If Treliving keeps his asking price for Bennett high, Dubas might be better off accruing cap space and waiting to spend a draft pick or prospect in the rental market, which won’t heat up until late March.
2. “Youth will be served on this team, for sure,” Doug Armstrong announced upon being named GM of Canada’s 2022 Olympic team. “This group we are going to assemble is probably going to have a lot of faces that have never worn the Canadian jersey at this level of competition.”
Let the debates over who should don the red and white in Beijing begin. Snub SZN is nearing for what will be the most scrutinized hockey roster in eight years.
“I’d like to welcome aboard and thank all of our special advisors — the 37 million Canadians out there that will have an input on this team,” Armstrong said Wednesday. “I can't guarantee victory, but I can guarantee this group will work tirelessly to put a team on the ice you can be proud of.”
Like past Team Canada architects, Armstrong has vowed to build a complete team with penalty killers and shutdown players, not simply an all-star squad. He will load up on natural centres and push extra pivots to the wings.
Here is this advisor’s working roster for Team Canada 2022, starting with the Fastest Line on Earth:
Mathew Barzal – Connor McDavid – Nathan MacKinnon
Brad Marchand – Sidney Crosby – Patrice Bergeron
Jonathan Huberdeau – Ryan O'Reilly – Mark Stone
Sean Couturier – Brayden Point – Mitch Marner
Extras: Steven Stamkos, Mark Scheifele
Shea Theodore – Alex Pietrangelo
Morgan Rielly – Cale Makar
Thomas Chabot – Shea Weber
Extras: Dougie Hamilton, Bowen Byram
Extra: Mackenzie Blackwood
“You want to have a good mix” of veterans, emerging stars and players in their prime, assistant GM Roberto Luongo said. “When I was involved, it was three different scenarios all three years there.”
3. As the Leafs continue tinkering in lab, trying to discover their optimal line combinations, it’s worth pointing out the club is drawing nearer to a contractual benchmark for centre/winger Engvall.
The forward can only play three more games until he loses his waiver-exemption status.
As coach Sheldon Keefe juggles his bottom six, essentially extending tryouts into February — we see you, Nic Petan — and Joe Thornton and Nick Robertson keep hitting the ice for rehab, Engvall’s status is something to tuck into the back of your mind.
In this season of depth, a competing general manger might take a flier on a versatile 24-year-old like Engvall, who will remain under club control after his ($1.25 million AAV) contract expires in 2022.
“His speed, the way he gets on the puck, both offensively and defensively, really helps us,” Keefe says. “It seems like he never gets tired. He can skate from the offensive zone back to our end as good as anybody we have.”
That said, Toronto’s coaching staff has urged Engvall to better use of his six-foot-five, 214-pound frame. To use his strength and get more engaged physically. Keefe would also like to find more penalty-killing time for Engvall and have him improve at faceoffs.
“A lot of these things are really new to him, for a guy that was primarily an offensive player his whole life up until coming into pro hockey here in North America and trying to find his way,” Keefe says. “We’d like to see some improvement there, but by and large I think he's done a good job with the opportunity that he's got.”
4. Quote of the Week goes to Duncan Keith, explaining to reporters his recent explosion in shot attempts: “Getting the Corsi up so you guys think I'm good.”
5. Make hay with the man-advantage while you can.
NHL penalty calls are up significantly through the first 25 days of the season, with clubs averaging 3.59 power plays per game. A noticeable uptick from 2.97 in 2019-20, that’s the highest rate in 11 years. (Perhaps more notable: The power-play success rate — 21.3 per cent — is at its highest since 1985-86!)
Well, normally the league plays about 100 pre-season games in which players and officials can work out the kinks and get a feel for the line between fair and foul. This season we had none.
Also, some players haven’t played a game in 10 months. Some officials haven’t called a game in 10 months either, but they’ve been on Zoom calls refamiliarizing themselves with the rulebook.
Despite what some believe, sources say the league has not mandated any changes to the standard this season, the way it did with slashing in 2017. So, we’d expect the frequency of power plays to decrease as time goes on.
All the more reason for your favourite team to get its 5-on-5 game in order.
6. Leafs fans: Remember the name Veeti Miettinen.
The club drafted several smallish European talents in the 2020 draft, but the early returns on this sixth-rounder (168th overall) are particularly encouraging.
The 19-year-old St. Cloud State star’s transition from Finland to the North American game has been virtually seamless.
This week, Miettinen was crowned National Collegiate Hockey Conference Rookie of the Month for January — and nominated for the Hobey Baker Award, alongside elite prospects like Spencer Knight, Owen Power and Cam York.
Miettinen is a left shot who plays the right wing. He’s known for his quick-burst skating and is a power-play beast (NCHC-leading five PP goals) who boasts a lethal wrister off the half-wall.
His 9-9-18 stat line over 17 games leads all rookies in scoring.
Miettinen has yet to sign his entry-level contract with Toronto.
7. Patrik Laine and Jack Roslovic have already scored their first goals for Columbus while Pierre-Luc Dubois is still quarantining, two weeks after the blockbuster trade.
Surely this will give North Division teams pause when trying to make trades south of the border.
As for Laine, it’s great to know that his trademark deadpan cleared customs and immigration.
“I'm pretty known for my backhand, so I might as well try to use it,” Laine said, swallowing a smile, when describing his first goal with his new team.
Jackets fans can enjoy the honeymoon for — what? — a couple weeks before they’ll need to start sweating Laine’s next contract.
He’s a restricted free agent with arbitration rights this summer and should become the highest-paid player on the roster.
This is a critical negotiation for countryman Jarmo Kekalainen, who’s out here buying Finnish billboards.
The GM cannot allow the fleeing of high-end talent to continue, but a long-term deal for Laine will affect the internal cap for the rest of the core.
Budding star Alexandre Texier is also RFA in 2021. New contracts for Seth Jones (UFA), Zach Werenski (RFA), Max Domi (RFA), Roslovic (RFA), Joonas Korpisalo (UFA) and Elvis Merzlikins (RFA) will all be needed in 2022.
Welcome to Columbus, Patrik!
Or as they say in Finland: pic.twitter.com/SwD6kyfiL7
— Columbus Blue Jackets (@BlueJacketsNHL) January 29, 2021
P.S. Loved Nick Foligno citing of Michael Del Zotto’s experience to show how much coach John Tortorella has changed since New York:
8. That Minnesota Wild’s top pick, Marco Rossi, returned to his native Austria due to a serious case of COVID-19 is one of the most alarming stories of the season.
I spoke to Rossi heading into the 2020 draft and was blown away by his dedication to health and fitness throughout the pandemic.
When this kid vows to “come back stronger than ever,” as he did this week, we believe him.
“Like many, I was originally shocked and very disappointed, yet at this time I am very optimistic that my health is and will be good to return to train/play. One thing I know is that I come back stronger than ever!!”.
— Marco Rossi (@marcorossi2383) February 1, 2021
I asked Rossi if he views himself as a pure centreman, or if he’d be comfortable starting out his NHL career on the wing.
Rossi responded by going back to age four, when his father stressed the need to keep your head up, to always think pass.
“The problem with younger kids, like four or five years old, their parents are always saying, ‘If you score, you're gonna go to the restaurant.’ My dad tried to not be like that. My dad was even happier if I did an assist or find open guys and be a good teammate on the ice,” Rossi explained.
“And then every time I went to a team, they were like, ‘You're gonna play centre because you always have your head up and give passes. You're not selfish.’ So I’ve always played centre since I'm small.
“The last time I've played on a wing was like when I was 15, playing pro hockey in Switzerland — my first game there. I played maybe two shifts on a wing, and then it would be right back to centre. It was funny.
“So, I don't care what position. I just want to play in the NHL. That's my goal.”
9. Toronto’s Jason Spezza went on a ridiculous run in January where he won 16 consecutive faceoffs over a two-game span.
It got me thinking: What’s the record for most faceoffs won in a row?
With all the time saved by morning commute from my bed to my couch, I decided to investigate. The NHL doesn’t track such nerdy minutia too far back in history, but here’s what I found out (with help from @SNStats mastermind Steve Fellin).
Best known faceoff performance in a single game: Curtis Brown of the Buffalo Sabres went 19-for-19 on Oct. 4, 2001 vs. the Atlanta Thrashers.
Best known faceoff streak over multiple games: The master, Patrice Bergeron, went an insane 25-for-25 from April 2 to 4, 2017, versus Chicago and Tampa Bay.
Even more impressive, Bergeron’s streak kicked off by swiping seven in a row from Jonathan Toews, another beast in the dots.
10. Lindy Ruff casually roasting P.K. Subban during Sunday’s post-win address to his New Jersey Devils players is a thing of beauty. Great comic timing.
He gets it! https://t.co/OLCzgKIZTT
— P.K. Subban (@PKSubban1) February 1, 2021
We only tease the ones we love — and Subban can take a joke.
The friendly “P.K.’s first game without being a minus” dagger did compel us to look deeper at the minus-5 defender.
Since Ruff took over the Jersey bench, Subban has been given more offensive-zone starts, and his ice time has climbed steadily over the past five outings. Subban is now skating more than 24 minutes a night, his most usage since he was a Norris finalist in 2017-18.
11. Despite their newfound status as division rivals, Darnell Nurse has never forgotten the instrumental role Leafs GM Dubas played in his professional and personal development when the Oilers defenceman was just a 16-year-old kid.
“Kyle was the one who drafted me to Sault Ste. Marie (third overall in 2011), gave me an opportunity to develop. Especially at that age, I was really raw when I came into the (Ontario Hockey) League. Kyle not only pushed me to become better as a player but also as a person, whether it was the schoolroom hitting the books or on the ice,” Nurse says. “I'm always so grateful for the opportunity and all the guidance he gave me at that point. For me, it's good to see his own success at this level.”
Nurse recalls Dubas monitoring his high school grades and sending him articles that would spur the young athlete to look at things with a different perspective.
“That was always kind of cool to have your new GM reach out and having that kind of connection,” Nurse says. “There’s so much more to life than just playing the game of hockey.”
12. Almost as wonderous as Connor McDavid’s end-to-end rush through all the Maple Leafs last Saturday night was the look on his face afterward.
McDavid didn’t speak to the media after his three-point show, but that smile said it all. He later tweeted out a photo of his post-goal reaction.
It’s not enough for McDavid to reel off six consecutive multipoint efforts or threaten 100 points in a 56-game slate.
The greats chase great moments.
Make no mistake: McDavid wants to score those goals that feel like five, the ones that get replayed at 2 a.m. over Christmastime on sports channels’ best-of-the-year packages.
Just as meaningful as what he accomplishes are the how and against whom.
Consider the way McDavid contextualized his ankle-breaking stunner on Morgan Rielly and these same Leafs, a Goal of the Year contender in 2020.
“It’s something I take a lot of pride in, to try and be in that category each and every year,” McDavid said a few months ago. “To score that in my hometown in front of lots of friends and family, that was special — especially [because] the Oilers and myself have struggled playing in Toronto in past years.”
— Connor McDavid (@cmcdavid97) February 1, 2021