A quick mix of the things we gleaned from the week of hockey, serious and less so, and rolling four lines deep. I missed the “Barbie Girl” song and who knows what’s going to be on when I come back…
1. Mark Scheifele, a shameless hockey nerd, has been binging Canadian division games in his spare time, even the ones that don’t involve him.
The Winnipeg Jets star takes mental notes when he observes the show being put on by this season’s leading point-getter (Connor McDavid) and goal-scorer (Auston Matthews), in particular.
In doing so, Scheifele is heeding advice from the late, great Dale Hawerchuk, who coached the centreman in OHL Barrie.
“Dale always told me: ‘It’s free education.’ You get to learn from them and pick up little things they do and try them at practice the next day. It’s about learning from the best players in the world and trying to add that to your game,” said Scheifele ahead of a three-game Leafs-Oilers series that kicks off Saturday.
“From watching Connor and Auston play, you pick up little subtleties, little passes they’re making, the way that Auston’s shooting the puck, all those little things.”
Appointment television for players and fans alike. But Matthews vs. McDavid may be more fun for us to watch and debate than it is for the participants.
“I don’t know if I’d describe it as fun, but it’s always a challenge,” Matthews said last time the Leafs left Edmonton. “It’s always a challenge going up against that amount of talent and speed coming at you.”
On Friday, McDavid predicted 180 more tight-checking minutes between the two best teams in the North. Edmonton and Toronto are tied 2-2 head-to-head with an aggregate score of 12-12.
“Both teams have that kind of respect for each other where neither really wants to open it up and let the other offensive guys get going,” McDavid says.
Lost on neither side is that an Edmonton sweep would vault the red-hot Oilers over injury-tested Toronto and into first place.
“They’re playing as good as anybody in the league right now,” Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe acknowledges.
A healthy Mike Smith has been a boon to the crease, Edmonton’s depth forwards are chipping in, and coach Dave Tippett is finally seeing an improved defensive commitment.
The Oilers have charged a 11-2-0 run through February.
“Everyone’s buying in and starting to really believe. That’s the main thing,” McDavid says. “When everyone believes in what we’re doing, that’s when it gets real dangerous.”
Despite all the individual awesomeness boiling in the capitals of Alberta and Ontario, team is (finally?) trumping all — in both markets.
McDavid would have you believe he’s not drawing any extra incentive from facing off against the other Hart Trophy favourite.
“There’s obviously guys that you watch and compare yourself to. When you see them doing well, you want to do the same,” McDavid says.
“But I’m a pretty motivated guy. That’s not an issue I have each and every night.”
2. The reporter in me loves Sheldon Keefe’s honesty when it comes to Auston Matthews’ nagging wrist injury.
The cynic in me has to wonder: Now that this info is public, will opponents target Matthews’ wrists during these divisional battles?
Too sore to take face-offs toward the end of Wednesday’s overtime win, Matthews took it easy Thursday and Friday. He has not been ruled out of Saturday’s showdown in Edmonton, however.
“He’s just a tough customer. We’re lucky to have him on our side,” Jack Campbell says. “It’s incredible what he’s able to do, whether he’s at 100 per cent or not.”
Adds Joe Thornton: “He’s played through stuff all year long, and he’s been a complete stud. So, we’ll see what happens tomorrow.”
3. The swiftness with which Marc Bergevin dismissed Claude Julien — 18 games in, winning record, positive goal differential — and assistant Kirk Muller (a bigger surprise) had me wondering if the climate is actually more tense on NHL benches these days or if it just feels that way from the press box.
Neil Glasberg is the founder and president of PBI Sports. His agency represents 30 coaches at the NHL level, including Muller. (Check Glasberg’s excellent appearance on the 31 Thoughts podcast from earlier this month.) In other words, he’s in tune with how his clients are feeling.
“I think there is way more pressure this year. You look at the standings now, you’re already starting to see how things are going and how they’re going to shake up. Nobody’s gonna help you — because everyone’s fighting for the same prize,” Glasberg says.
Owners look at the folded seats and worry about money. General managers worry over job security and the difficulty of completing trades under a flat cap. And everyone feels the added stress of the virus. People, in general, are a little more on edge. Why wouldn’t that seep into the hockey world?
Tack on the fact that every game is a four-pointer, practice time is scarcer than ever, and there are 26 fewer games to sort out your lines, and the stressors have been juiced.
No wonder so many healthy scratches and waiver placements have made headlines.
“Every game is so important, and you have no reprieve. Anybody can beat anybody in this league,” Glasberg goes on. “So, you could say that the Ottawa Senators are the worst team in the league. They have the ability to win. They could beat anybody.”
Of the NHL’s 31 head coaches, only 11 are signed beyond 2022.
We’ve already seen smoke in markets from Nashville to Detroit, Vancouver to Calgary.
But just because Julien was dismissed does not necessarily mean some imaginary seal has been broken and there’s more pink slips to follow in-season. (The off-season is another story.) Montreal’s decision, in these eyes, stems from the urgency to make good on a hefty investment to win now and is reflective of Bergevin’s own pressure.
“There’s no first-mover advantage to firing the coach, put it that way,” Glasberg says. “I don’t think it has any impact on anyone else’s decisions…. I doubt a GM wakes up in the morning thinking, ‘OK, now I can toast my guy since somebody else has already done it, and I’m not going to look like a schmuck.’
“And what kind of PR value do you get out of firing somebody in a pandemic when there aren’t a lot of jobs? There’s probably some amount of empathy on behalf of the owners, in general, to hold off terminating people unnecessarily.”
About PR value: When it comes to a major overhaul (i.e., front office, bench) Glasberg believes ownership groups feel significantly more pressure when fans call for change than when members of the media do. Fans can’t throw sweaters on the ice or chant awful things when the losses mount, but a hashtag campaign still get noticed.
Bruce Boudreau — thrice hired, thrice fired — believes the coach about to be fired feels it.
“I think every coach knows when it’s coming. Sometimes you get blindsided a little bit, but you can feel it,” Boudreau told Lead Off this week. “It’s almost like a divorce. All of a sudden, your GM stops talking to you. We stop having those meetings that were so important. They’re more contentious, quite frankly. And he’s asking you questions: ‘Why are you doing this? Why are you doing that?’ ”
4. Loved seeing how quick Marcus Foligno flipped the switch from fury to empathy in his fight with San Jose rookie Nikolai Knyzhov.
“I caught him with the first one, and the second one made him bloody. I know he’s a young kid and probably didn’t know the fighting aspect of it. I just thought it was enough,” said Foligno, who motioned for the officials to intervene mid-scrap.
Post-game, Foligno gave the 22-year-old Knyzhov credit for stepping into ring in the first place, let alone getting his visor bloodied.
“There’s things you do when you’re young to answer the bell, and you have to do it. And you gain a lot of respect from your teammates. So, I’m sure he got that tonight,” Foligno said.
“I thought it was over after the first couple of punches. So, that’s all. I’ve had guys let up on me before, and it’s just kind of the respect code of the whole thing.”
McLellan on #mnwild: I think they're a tremendous team. I don't think they get enough respect."
— (@jessi_pierce) February 26, 2021
5. The best advice your mother gave you: Keep your head up around Radko Gudas.
The Florida Panthers defenceman is a dang menace this season. As our pal Matt Larkin points out, Gudas’s 98 hits through 18 games would put him on pace for 446 over 82 games. He’d slaughter the NHL record of 382.
“That’s what we needed,” Jonathan Huberdeau told reporters of Gudas. “I think we were missing a defenceman like him. He’s just been great this whole year.”
The next most frequent checker on any blueline? Chicago’s Nikita Zadorov, who has needed three more games played to throw 74 hits.
“He certainly does bring an element of competitiveness and physicality,” said coach Joel Quenneville, who has increased Gudas’s minutes from where they were with Washington last season. “Overall, he’s done a nice job of playing the game. I think his thoughts and his mind have been very effective. He puts himself in a lot of good spots.”
All that physicality is taking a toll, though. Gudas sat out Thursday’s win over Dallas and is day-to-day with an upper-body injury.
6. When a young Mark Fraser dived into GM mode on his NHL video games, he came armed with a specific strategy.
“I played on PlayStation or Sega Genesis. I would make trades to get all the brothers in the league on my team. That’s how I felt represented,” Fraser said Thursday during an excellent Lead Off interview.
“Jarome Iginla was my favourite player growing up. I wonder why, right? He’s got amazing talent and personality. But to see someone who looks like you doing that job allows you to feel that it is possible for you as well.”
Bravo to MLSE for hiring Fraser to the role of player development, equity, diversity and inclusion. He’s excited to act as a connector from the grassroots to the Leafs, eager to “create a more safe and inclusive culture around the game.”
Fraser, 34, has lived it. As a Kitchener Ranger, he recalls being told by a crowd in Erie to stick to basketball. “When I was 14 years old, I was told by some parents in Buckingham, Quebec,” a stone’s throw from his native Ottawa, “to go back to the bush in Africa.”
That wasn’t every night, but it shouldn’t be any night.
For the most part, Fraser says, he felt acceptance through hockey. But the deeper his career got, the more racism he saw. Mounting micro-aggressions and persistent stereotyping.
So, bravo to Fraser for initiating the conversation — and subsequent job opportunity — with MLSE on his own.
In June, Fraser penned the candid and damning “Silence Is Violence” article for The Players’ Tribune. Read it. In July, the Leafs alum reached out to GM Kyle Dubas, knowing a respected powerhouse like MLSE could be a diversity leader in the hockey community and the Toronto community.
Dubas was receptive, off the bat.
“I was thrilled immediately to know, this is a guy who gets it. He fully understands, fully supports the importance of it. Same with Shanny.”
7. Quote of the Week goes to Matthew Tkachuk ahead of the Flames’ miniseries with brother Brady Tkachuk and the coach-killing Ottawa Senators:
“Anybody that thinks we’re going to fight is an idiot.”
It won’t happen, but if it did, it wouldn’t be historic.
Brothers Keith and Wayne Primeau dropped gloves and exchanged blows on April 7, 1997:
“We were laughing about it,” then-Whalers coach Paul Maurice said at the time (per Sun Media). “It must’ve been pretty tough at the Primeau dinner table when there was only one pork chop left.”
Keith was the winner (HockeyFights.com has him at 74 per cent), but any older brother could’ve told you that already.
“You could tell he was holding back, but he was still hitting me in the head,” Wayne said post-game. “It wasn’t full through with the punch, but I was getting a little bit pissed off. I went to throw an uppercut and it just missed.”
Keith wasn’t happy with how it went down.
“There was some hesitancy, yes. I knew who it was. That’s blood, man. I was real disappointed it happened,” Keith said at the time. “Right away, I came in and called my parents and apologized.”
8. I really like Rob Blake’s patient approach to the Los Angeles Kings’ rebuild since he took the helm, and his approach as the trade deadline nears will be fascinating.
Even with L.A.’s recent six-game win streak and a playoff spot in the lopsided West there for the taking, the GM has indicated a stay-the-course approach. From an organizational standpoint — especially with playoff gate revenue moot — slow and steady is the smart way to play it.
Blake is reportedly in the market for a young, dynamic left-shot defenceman, and his veteran trade chips may never reach higher value than they hold right now.
Would flawed rosters in go-for-it-mode benefit from the addition of a Jonathan Quick or Jeff Carter, a couple of guys with rings on their fingers who are enjoying nice rebound campaigns?
Would Blake — who already holds seven picks in the first four rounds of the 2021 draft — dare ruffle the room by dealing away from a core that seems to be guzzling from the fountain of youth?
L.A. could enhance any potential return by eating salary here. In our eyes, this is an opportunity to plunder another high pick or decent prospect.
9. Thanks to Bodog, you can actually place bets on which actor will play David Ayres in his upcoming Disney flick.
Hot tip: Steer clear of Chris Pratt. Not a hockey fan.
10. I’m not mad at the NHL for hosting outdoor games at sunny Lake Tahoe. The visuals were spectacular, and the event had people talking, for better or worse.
Whether it was Kevin Hayes’s deep thinking or Alex Pietrangelo fearing an oncoming Nathan MacKinnon, the players delivered some fine mic’d-up moments:
The NHL can dream up these unique big-splash events, but the players’ willingness to play along is critical. Complaints about the world’s longest first intermission were essentially nonexistent.
Little touches like no-nonsense Bruins captain Patrice Bergeron’s idea for the team to dress up in ’90s ski gear, David Pastrnak’s “Barbie Girl” interview, Philipp Grubauer’s going full Karl Alzner with the sunglasses, or Charlie McAvoy’s fun tweet after the fact… they all go a long way.
11. Also well executed was the Pittsburgh Penguins’ celebration of Sidney Crosby’s 1,000th game.
The quantity and quality of tribute videos uploaded from around the hockey world was one thing. His teammates’ all wearing No. 87, all stopping to knot their skates during warm-up — that was priceless.
12. Mitch Marner compared the Maple Leafs’ Matthews–centred game plan to that of youth soccer coaches Will Ferrell and Mike Ditka in 2005’s Kicking & Screaming.
“Get the puck to Matts,” Marner said. “It’s the new, ‘Get the ball to the Italians!’”
Marner’s analogy inspired me to rewatch Kicking & Screaming with my 10-year-old, and that was the best decision I made this week. Underrated Ferrell classic.
Subsequently, I tumbled down a YouTube rabbit hole and discovered this wonderful behind-the-scenes Ditka story during filming: