A quick mix of the things we gleaned from the week of hockey, serious and less so, and rolling four lines deep. Our most talented sentences got benched this week.
1. My problem for your problems.
Categorize this as a blockbuster. A 44-goal sniper for a young No. 1 centreman. Both 22 years of age. Both under team control.
Here are my initial thoughts on the Saturday-morning thunderbolt that sent Patrik Laine and Jack Roslovic to the Columbus Blue Jackets and Pierre-Luc Dubois and a 2022 third-round pick to the Winnipeg Jets:
• This is about as close to an NBA-style transaction as you’ll see, as three young talents — without the leverage of no-trade clauses or impending UFA status — all managed to force their way out of situation they weren’t happy with.
Laine did so through his agent and blatant discontent off the ice (“I’m here, aren’t I?”). Roslovic simply wouldn’t sign with or show up for a team he didn’t wish to play for. And Dubois forced the issue with lacklustre effort on the ice.
They all found a way to get their way.
• Say what you will about John Tortorella, but I appreciated his candor and unrelenting standard for attitude and effort during Dubois’ exodus.
The coach, too, accelerated the ripping of the Band-Aid with his (deserved) benching of Dubois Thursday and a fantastic speech Friday. (Watch in player above. It’s worth a couple minutes of your time.)
Tortorella didn’t expliciting label Dubois a “prima donna,” but he used that phrase in discussing the crossroads.
“This is an all-consuming job with the different type of athletes we have right now and a little bit of the prima donna type stuff that goes on — in not waiting your turn for situations on the ice, not waiting your turn in the locker room,” Tortorella said. “What type of teammate are you? Will you play under a team concept?
“I think it’s really important with today’s athlete that we watch that daily. And I do. I do.
“I don’t care how much money you make. I don’t care when you’re drafted, free agent, fourth line, first line. It does not matter to me. We live and die on our team concept. We live and die playing as a team.”
• Columbus was desperate for a pure scorer, and Laine should have no worries leaping immediately to the top line. Last season, the Jackets had but one 20-goal forward (Oliver Bjorkstrand), and they started this season without a healthy Gustav Nyquist.
• Low key, a big winner here is Roslovic. The Columbus native refused to fly to Winnipeg for the season or re-up with the club that drafted him in the first round of 2015.
Restricted free agents must be signed by Feb. 11 to participate in the season, so time was running out. Because the Jackets’ top six is not as deep as Winnipeg’s, Roslovic suddenly gets a chance to prove himself as an important forward.
• Columbus was bracing for this departure. Tortorella was already giving 21-year-old centre Alexandre Texier prime offensive looks in Week 1, and he’d responded with three goals and four points thorugh five games.
• Where the Jets and current No. 2 centre Paul Stastny go from here will be interesting. Stastny is beloved by teammates and the coaching staff in Winnipeg, but he’s a pending free agent.
At 35, will he re-sign in the off-season and take a pay cut to be one of the NHL’s better 3Cs? Or will Stastny seek a 2C role on the open market?
• Once he clears quarantine, Dubois will be a fine addition to the North Division’s drama. Can’t wait for the next Maple Leafs–Jets match.
• The John Tortorella–Patrik Laine relationship sure will be fun to watch develop, won’t it? Remember, Laine still needs a new contract this summer.
• I love that both teams didn’t sell a star for prospects in this deal. Both remain firmly in go-for-it mode.
2. Add Darnell Nurse to a quietly growing list of NHL players who have picked up the practice of meditation.
“Yeah, I actually did start to get into that a little bit. I do [meditate]. I’m not very good at it yet. It takes a lot of practice,” says Nurse, who finds an appeal in the calming state.
“This day and age, you stare at your phone, your TV. Everything is going a million miles an hour. So just to be able to sit down and put life in perspective and slow down, I find that really useful, especially in today’s day and age.”
In addition to reading The Mindful Athlete: Secrets to Pure Performance by George Mumford, famous for working on the mental game of the ’90s Chicago Bulls dynasty, Nurse is also tackling The Millionaire Next Door: The Surprising Secrets of America’s Wealthy and Cribsheet: A Data-Driven Guide to Better, More Relaxed Parenting, from Birth to Preschool.
“A different read for me,” he smiles.
In the COVID era, the laughter-filled card games between teammates on plane rides are on hiatus. Players must remain spaced out in individual seats. Masks on.
“You have to find different ways to make your time useful,” Nurse says. “There’s more guys reading books and playing Nintendo Switch than I’ve ever seen.”
The Oilers’ Nintendo game of choice? MarioKart.
An awesome pick for a number of reasons. Here’s one: Forbidden from partying on the Vegas Strip until they’d accomplished their mission, the 2018 Washington Capitals binged on the goofy race game during their championship series against the Golden Knights.
3. Cannot recall the backup (or backup to the backup) goalie carousel spinning so furiously as it did during Week 1 of the NHL season. If you placed a heavily padded man on the waiver wire, chances were slim he’d be slipping through unclaimed.
In Toronto, Kyle Dubas knew signing (for a bargain) and training Aaron Dell, one of the most accomplished No. 3s on the market, was a risk. Dell didn’t play so much as a minute for the Leafs before he needed to be waived to clear valuable cap space.
A heckuva pickup for the New Jersey Devils, who were able to upgrade their No. 2 hole in the wake of Corey Crawford’s retirement. Toss in the early-season COVID listing of Mackenzie Blackwood, and Dell should be given a greater opportunity to contribute in Jersey than he would’ve got in Toronto.
We have to assume the Edmonton Oilers put in a claim for Dell, too. We do wonder if Dubas or Ken Holland even bothered trying to trade Dell. If they weren’t suddenly divisional rivals, maybe that could’ve worked.
Dell, 31, is slightly younger than Oilers starter Mikko Koskinen, 32. He has more NHL appearances, more wins and a better goals-against average. Dell’s career save percentage (.908) is just a hair behind Koskinen’s (.909).
Because Mike Smith is on IR and current Oilers backup Troy Grosenick has all of two NHL appearances (from 2014-15!), Oilers coach Dave Tippett will cross his fingers and ride the Finn.
“He’s been solid,” Tippett said Friday. “He’s our option we have to go with right now, and he’s up for the challenge.”
Leafs fans are hard on Michael Hutchinson, whom Dubas re-signed to play for the Marlies and fulfill the club’s goalie qualifications for the 2021 expansion draft. But take a glance at goalie depth charts around the league. One could do much worse in terms of experience for a third-stringer.
4. Tippett had a conversation with Zack Kassian Wednesday morning. The coach wants to see more engagement from his top-line winger.
“He knows he can play better. He said there’s lots going on in his life with his new daughter,” Tippett said. Kassian and wife Cassandra celebrated the birth of Olivia (7 lbs., 7 oz.) earlier this month. “He needs to get back to playing the way he can.”
Kassian was beat in the corner later that night in a puck battle by Auston Matthews, an error muted by Edmonton’s victory:
Still, Kassian is a guy who thrives in emotional environments. He concedes that empty barns force players to manufacture some of that intensity on their own.
He only has no goals, five shots, one assist and is a minus-1 in the early going here. Kassian’s ice time (14:59) is below last year’s pace (15:40). Not good enough when you’re skating alongside the planet’s best.
“When you play on the top line, you gotta score. There’s no first-line player that goes to the whole year without creating and scoring goals, so you definitely need to score,” Kassian acknowledged Friday.
“Is it pressure? Yes. But that’s just the name of the game. Obviously, I’m not hitting the panic button. We’re five games in here.”
The fun-loving Barrie would regularly carpool with MacKinnon and Matthews, his next-seat neighbour on Leafs charters in 2019-20. He considers them close buddies.
“I was kind of laughing,” Barrie says. “I’ve got to play with Nate and then Auston and Connor. So, I’m kind of ticking off all the top dogs. It’s a cool experience. You see different things that they do to prepare and how they conduct themselves and you try to take little things. I feel very fortunate to be on a team with such high talent.”
Barrie says McDavid and Matthews have distinct personalities.
“Connor is a little more reserved and I don’t want to say shy, but just quiet and kind of composed,” Barrie explains. “Auston, he can be… a goofball, I guess. He’s a pretty funny guy.
“He’s just a great guy and super humble, down-to-earth guy. I don’t know if a lot of people know how humble he is, and there’s not a whole lot of ego there.”
Outside of the two Hart Trophy winners, which Oiler has snatched Barrie’s attention on the ice? Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.
“It feels like he’s been in the league for 15 years,” Barrie says. “He’s just such a great two-way player and super skilled and makes all those little plays that makes guys better. Getting to play with Nuge and seeing that up close is pretty special.”
6. Talking to a few goaltenders, they’re the group most affected by the complete elimination of exhibition games. Practices cannot replicate game action from their vantage point.
Yes, we’re only 10 nights deep, but the league-wide save percentage is trending downward for the fifth consecutive season.
As recent as 2015-16, the NHL average was .915. Last season it dipped to .910.
Goaltenders are stopping pucks at a .906 clip in 2021, but that should climb as the masked men warm up and the defensive structures in front of them tighten.
Another factor: The whistles are a-blowing.
Power-play opportunities and conversion rates are high early. Teams are averaging 3.76 power plays per game. If that were to hold, it’d be the highest penalty rate in 12 years.
7. McDavid has made a concerted effort to focus on face-off improvement over the off-season, working with former Oiler Keith Acton. The irony here is that Acton was dismissed as an Edmonton associate coach the same summer McDavid was drafted.
A beast in the dots in the ’80s and early ’90s, Acton helped McDavid with rep after rep after rep. McDavid swiped just 43.1 per cent of his draws in the Oilers’ elimination series against Chicago and has never won more than 48 per cent in any NHL season.
“Just wasn’t good enough,” McDavid says. “It was something that needed to be looked at and worked on.
“I haven’t taken a ton of draws for someone who’s played in the league for over five years,” notes McDavid, who’s often had Ryan Nugent-Hopkins or Leon Draisaitl on his wing.
“I’ve played with a lot of centremen. We kind of split them, so if I haven’t taken as many draws as I should have. So, trying to catch up on those reps. That’s only way you’re gonna get better.”
Auston Matthews owned McDavid in the circle Wednesday, but McDavid responded strong in the dots Friday and is trending for a personal best in the category (50 per cent).
8. In a typical campaign, every player is granted two tickets per road game.
For obvious reasons, that’s a no-go this winter. Provided local health restrictions are followed, home players of some teams can host a select number of guests in their own pod.
So, in order for Columbus defenceman Zach Werenski, a Detroit-area native, to get his parents into the Blue Jackets tilt versus the Red Wings, he leaned on longtime friend Dylan Larkin. Detroit’s captain set up Ma and Pa Werenski with a set.
“It goes way back to when we started playing together when we were about 10 years old. He was a year younger than I was, played for Belle Tire. And I think we played together until we were 18 years old and in college. We were roommates. We’re great friends,” Larkin said back in 2016.
Sweet story, right?
Well, Werenski and Larkin proceeded to scrap each other that night, laughing as they were chucking and ducking knuckles. The bout was just Werenski’s second in the NHL and Larkin’s fifth.
Seventy-two per cent of HockeyFights.com voters declared it a draw.
“I didn’t get hit, so I’ll take it as a win.” Werenski said post-game, as his phone blew up.
9. In my research for this week’s story on how the Toronto Maple Leafs secured the Amazon Prime Video series All or Nothing, I found out that the Amazon camera crew had been following the Maple Leafs since Day 1 of camp.
Toward the end of camp, when health officials cleared reporters to attend Leafs practice, the camera crew was pulled away from the team for three days. There was concern they’d get spotted and news would leak before the NHL and Amazon’s official announcement.
“Shocking!” Steve Mayer, league’s chief content officer, said. “Something out of the NHL didn’t leak.”
10. Here’s an eye-opening story by Larry Brooks of the New York Post on the financial toll the pandemic and its shortened season is taking on AHL players.
“Our players are filled with anguish and anxiety. Our office has received numerous calls from players and their wives, crying about what is an unpalatable situation. Players may not be able to afford rent. They can’t get four-month leases on apartments. They’re eating fast food. Is this what anyone wants?” Professional Hockey Players’ Association executive director Larry Landon says in the piece.
“Ninety-one percent of the NHL comes out of the AHL. These players are the NHL’s future. And they need help.”
11. After three consecutive games in which the Boston Bruins failed to score at even-strength, Brad Marchand was asked if he noticed any issues with the faulty tracking pucks the league recently removed from game play.
“Yeah,” he replied. “They wouldn’t go in the net.”
12. This is wonderful little story.
Rest in peace, Hammerin’ Hank.