A quick mix of the things we gleaned from the week of hockey, serious and less so, and rolling four lines deep. I thought this week's column was good, but I guess I thought wrong.
1. Actions speak, and Sheldon Keefe tipped his hand.
When the Toronto Maple Leafs needed to score on their closest rival Thursday, when they were at risk of extending their losing streak to four games — the longest of their coach’s tenure — Keefe formed the best top line he has. And stuck with it.
Promoted to Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner’s left wing mid-game, it was Hyman who hounded the puck in Winnipeg’s end, stole it and extended the O-zone possession that eventually resulted in a Marner goal and revealed Connor Hellebuyck human.
Hyman didn’t receive an official assist on the play, but the verbal credit flowed through the intermission and deep into the post-game Zooms.
“He’s been lights out,” Matthews beamed. “You know what you're gonna expect from him every night, and he's extremely easy to play with because you know he's just gonna get in there and battle and work. He's had a couple really, really nice goals lately. He's really been letting the hands come out to play, so it's been pretty fun to watch.”
Flying in the face of your age-regression charts, Hyman is adding layers to skill-set at 28. Oh, and it just so happens to be a contract year.
Hyman was Kyle Dubas’s first meaningful trade acquisition as a member of the Leafs front office, and he has long been highly regarded for his dogged forechecking and selfless penalty-killing.
But his ability to create scoring chances, knock ’em in, and establish himself as a net-front power-play guy have increased his value to the Leafs. Or any other club that tries to outbid them for his services.
Keefe’s relationship with the coach’s dream extends back to their Marlies days. And just as the coach has asked William Nylander to step in shot-blocking lanes, he’s challenged Hyman to get creative. To attack the middle of the ice instead of straight-lining into the corners. The payoff is remarkable.
“He’s got a lot of confidence,” Keefe said. “We’re encouraging him to hang on the puck a little more, encouraging him to look for linemates and make plays when they are there, encouraging him to challenge defencemen with his speed and the way he protects the puck.
“We know he’s great a retrieving the puck and those types of things and we still obviously need that from him, but I love the way he challenges the defencemen. He doesn’t let them off the hook. He doesn’t make it so they can go back for a puck all the time. Sometimes he’s just burying his head and challenging them to take it from him — and that mindset, I think defencemen don’t like that.”
— Darcy Tucker (@16DarcyTucker) March 10, 2021
This may be a longwinded way of saying the Maple Leafs need Hyman. Perhaps more than Hyman — who has always professed a desire to stay put and already took a hometown discount as an RFA — needs the Leafs.
Other teams will knock. Like Tom Wilson with the Capitals (but different), Hyman is that rare support player who can cash in.
Dubas must step up with a nice raise this summer ($5 million AAV?), because the elements and consistency Hyman brings won’t be easily replaced. And the window is now until Matthews' contract is up (2024).
All reports say negotiations have not begun, and it makes sense to shake hands and wait until after the expansion draft to minimize exposure risk.
Dubas has been reluctant to give his core term deep into their 30s. John Tavares will be 34 when his deal expires; Jake Muzzin will be 35.
Would Hyman — who plays a high wear-and-tear brand of hockey — accept extra years and salary bonuses in order to keep his cap hit workable and everybody happy?
Even with the winger’s leverage at an all-time high, and the futures of Frederik Andersen and Morgan Rielly to consider, I think there’s a path to make it fit.
2. Jordan Binnington's six-year, $36-million extension matches the contract Jacob Markstrom signed in Calgary.
We don’t foresee another UFA goalie this year eclipsing that bar, which appears to be the limit for No. 1 goalies under a pandemic-flattened cap.
Frederik Andersen, Tuukka Rask and Philipp Grubauer top the list, but they’re all older than the 27-year-old Binnington — and none have backstopped their team to a championship (yet).
Incredible how the NHL’s new math has tightened the purse-strings on netminders. The windfalls of Carey Price, Henrik Lundqvist and Sergei Bobrovsky now feel like outliers.
Two-time champ Matt Murray’s $25-million deal has Ottawa concerned it may have overpaid.
Binnington’s deal is the same one then-recent Cup champ Corey Crawford inked way back in 2013: six times six.
“I’m not looking to kind of crush the bank,” Binnington said on a video call with reporters. “It’s not all about money to me. At the end of the day, I think what you look back on and you feel in your heart is the memories made and competing and being successful and going through tough times and getting out of them and being there for your teammates. We’ve got a good respected group here, and I’m excited.”
Guys like Andersen and Grubauer, hoping for their big payday, may need to curb their expectations.
If Toronto can retain Andersen at his current $5-million AAV, the Leafs may have to consider it. Although, his performance in the playoffs will sway things immensely.
3. Great year for goalie graduations from the American League to the National League.
Look at all the solid NHL performances by the netminders who shone in the farm last season.
• Minnesota’s Kaapo Kahkonen: 11-4-0, .918
• Washington’s Vitek Vanecek: 11-5-3, .906
• Chicago’s Kevin Lankinen: 10-4-4 0.919
• New York’s Igor Shesterkin: 6-7-1, .921
• Carolina’s Alex Nedeljkovic: 5-2-1, .927
• L.A.’s Calvin Peterson: 4-4-4, .914
• Dallas’s Jake Oettinger: 3-1-4, .918
With Vegas down Robin Lehner, the Golden Knights might give 24-year-old Logan Thompson a peek soon. He was set to be next man up when Marc-Andre Fleury had his false-positive COVID test. Thompson’s numbers with the AHL Silver Knights — 6-1, 1.72 GAA, .946 — are shiny.
4. Extended tryouts in Leafland are over.
Much-discussed and heavily courted KHL imports Mikko Lehtonen and Alexander Barabanov are now elsewhere. Lehtonen was headed to the Marlies before being sent to Columbus Friday in exchange for goalie prospect Veini Vehviläinen. Barabanov will bide his time on the farm.
Both signed one-year deals to join Toronto and try to carve a niche in the world’s best league.
Lehtonen registered three assists in nine games as a Leaf but hadn’t appeared since Feb. 24. Barabanov was given an 11-game look with limited minutes and did not get on the scoresheet.
“We've reached a different phase of the season here. I think we gave lots of opportunity to different people early in the season, Mikko being one, at times when maybe we really didn't have a reason to change the lineup other than to give more opportunity for Mikko and others,” Keefe explained Thursday.
“You've got to give yourself the best opportunity to win each day. That's all part of it for us here now. Everybody really is just going to have to wait for their next opportunity and continue to put in the proper work to do so.”
With integral winger Wayne Simmonds targeting a return to full team practices next week, Alex Galchenyuk eager for a peek, and the Leafs searching for a top-six forward on the trade market, Barabanov may have a harder time getting back to the NHL than Lehtonen.
Columbus is in need of an offensive jolt. The Jackets have the sixth-worst power-play in the league. Have to wonder if Lehtonen gets a better chance to prove himself there.
“In Mikko's case specifically, we have no doubts or questions about the work that he puts in. He's extremely committed, extremely focused, works very hard. We're happy with all of those kinds of things. For the last little while we just haven't seen a reason to make a change on defence,” Keefe said.
5. Jimmy “Hollywood” Vesey estimates Joe Thornton has given him 15 to 20 nicknames since they became teammates.
“He's got seven California-themed nicknames for me,” Vesey said Friday.
The friendly monikers — “Willy Styles” Nylander is a big hit — mostly stem from secret origin, and new ones pop up as quickly as the old ones vanish.
“He's a nickname machine,” Frederik “Fredzilla” Andersen explained of Jumbo. “He has a lot. He even has nicknames you guys don't even hear before they come and go. He cycles through them pretty quick. He loves throwing out a good nickname."
"I didn't give ’Zilla his nickname, by the way," Thornton chuckles. "That was not me. I know who did, but it was not me. As a kid running around with my brothers and my cousins, we always had nicknames for each other, so it started at a young age."
A lover of life and keeping things light, Thornton believes balancing hard work with a double-scoop of humour relaxes the dressing room. And it makes sense with that performance on the ice.
"He's got more excitement every day than anyone else,” Alexander (“Kerf”/“Footer”) Kerfoot says. “We can all learn from that.”
6. Very cool… and very overdue.
CCM’s collaboration with Auston Matthews for a personalized skate feels like a long time coming when you consider basketball stars’ longstanding relationship with sneaker giants. But the execution here is pretty sweet.
The Toronto skyline, tiny-type bio info and blue highlights are nice touches. Would love to see a royal-blue blade holder for the AM34 2s.
— CCM Hockey (@CCMHockey) March 10, 2021
— CCM Hockey (@CCMHockey) March 10, 2021
7. Ryan Johansen’s two-question second-intermission interview with Nashville trailing Carolina 4-0 tells you all you need to know about the Predators’ campaign:
Mindset heading into the third? “Go score five goals.”
The Preds did not score five goals. They lost 5-1 and fell to 11-15-1 with an ugly negative-26 goal differential.
8. Quote of the Week.
Buffalo Sabres coach Ralph Krueger, speaking on Jeff Skinner finally finding the back of the net for the first and only time this season: “That’s certainly something for Jeff Skinner, who’s measured his whole career on goals.”
9. Can’t say I was this optimistic about live attendance at 2021 NHL games by the halfway mark. Canada’s arenas are still exclusively reliant on pumped-in fake crowd noise — although the Edmonton Oilers are lobbying the Alberta government hard — but south of the border, more and more rinks are swinging open the doors.
With the state of Minnesota approving up to 3,000 fans indoors starting April 5, the Wild is poised to become the 18th NHL club to allow partial attendance at home games. That’ll be 75 per cent of U.S. hockey cities with a green light.
Barns in Chicago, Washington, Colorado, San Jose, Los Angeles, and Anaheim remain empty.
On the one-year anniversary of the mandatory masks and six-foot buffers, Joe Thornton spoke eloquently on hockey night’s missing ingredient.
“It just gives the atmosphere you need to really enjoy the experience. Just coming into games and seeing the fans with the jerseys on, giving the pucks to fans and things like that. As soon as you get in the buildings, you know where you're playing,” Thornton said.
“If you're playing at home or on the road, it just gives that goosebump feeling of coming out and getting your name announced and the place goes crazy… it’s little things like that you definitely miss.”
10. Finding a way to award a Stanley Cup in the heart of a pandemic, inside a completely COVID-free bubble. And now bringing hocky back to ESPN.
Boo him if you choose, but some props are due. Gary Bettman has a had a better six months than most.
The $2.8-billion, seven-year commitment is one thing, but the fact a second U.S. broadcast partner will hop in the mix is critical. The NHL can now following the NBA-NFL-MLB blueprint of spreading its reach — and income streams – across multiple channels.
ESPN should also assist in turning hockey’s growing influx of American talent — Auston Matthews, Jack Eichel, Alex DeBrincat, the Tkachuk brothers, et al. — into superstars, which should in turn fuel sweater sales and all those other good things.
I’m not quite convinced I need Stephen A. Smith yelling some hockey randomness through my TV, but this deal is massive win.
11. Thirty-five NHLers have scored 11 or more goals. Sixteen of those players are American; 10 are Canadian.
Seven of the top 12 goal-getters are U.S.-born (compared to three Canadian) — and that group does not include stars like Jack Eichel, Jake Guentzel, Matthew Tkachuk, Brady Tkachuk, Dylan Larkin, Blake Wheeler, J.T. Miller and Phil Kessel.
Traditionally we think of Team Canada having a hard time picking and choosing its offensive weapons for the Olympics.
Team USA will face some headache decisions upfront for 2022, and goalies from the other nations will be under siege.