A quick mix of the things we gleaned from the week of hockey, serious and less so, and rolling four lines deep. New rule: If you score the OT winner at home, you must immediately toss your stick to the fans.
1. When your greatest spend in free agency is $11.4 million for a tandem goaltender with an injury history, seeing him hobble down the hallway midway through his debut is about as crummy as it gets.
“It sucks to see him come out of the game,” Jason Spezza said of Petr Mrazek Thursday night in Ottawa.
We’re guessing GM Kyle Dubas and coach Sheldon Keefe used more colourful language after watching their Frederik Andersen replacement sidelined by a groin injury only 40 minutes into his Leafs career.
Or when realizing they’d need to recruit a University of Toronto student as backup for Saturday’s rematch.
The good news is that (a) third-stringer Michael Hutchinson slipped through waivers unclaimed toward the end of training camp, so Toronto has an NHL-experienced backup for Monday. And (b) starter Jack Campbell has been excellent through 80 minutes this season, posting a .976 save percentage.
Campbell is 29 and coming back from a groin injury of his own. He notes that the save on which Mrazek strained himself looked similar to the play that harmed him in Calgary back in February and forced him to miss a month’s worth of action.
At the NHL level, Campbell has never played more than the 39 games he did last season (playoffs included), and that was pushing it. He needed to rest some practice days and push through pain at various times.
Selecting the proper 1B for Campbell was “a big priority,” Dubas said, in advance of July 28’s goalie carousel.
“We can talk about all of the other parts of our roster all we want, but if we don’t properly supplement our goaltending and provide a partner for Jack who can challenge him and support each other, I think we will be putting ourselves in a tougher position,” Dubas said. “Really, that is the key.”
The key unlocked Mrazek, a fine goaltender when healthy and one who fit Dubas’s restricted price range.
This is the third lower-body injury Mrazek has suffered since April 2019. Last season he broke a thumb. The season before that, he suffered a neck injury.
He’s a Leaf for two seasons beyond this one.
For the foreseeable future, Campbell must shoulder the load essentially by his lonesome, with Hutchinson chipping in on back-to-backs.
“It was too bad. You never want to see that for anybody. I went through it last year. And he really battled for us in that second period,” Campbell said.
“I wish him well. I’m sure he’ll get healthy quick, and he’ll be stronger than ever.”
We’re not so certain that’s how groin injuries work.
Campbell, God bless him, is keeping his head high and saying all encouraging things. Because the alternative, to borrow Spezza’s word, sucks.
2. Chances are you gathered the impression that the Maple Leafs’ decision-makers were ready to turn the page on the Frederik Andersen era from binging All or Nothing.
In case you didn’t, Keefe’s response when we asked him to assess assistant Dean Chenoweth’s new-look penalty kill drove the point home.
This was not a goalie query, but he took it there.
“Our penalty kill has terrific potential here,” Keefe began.
“I think our [24th-ranked] penalty kill was probably underrated last season with some of the results. If you just look at the games that Jack Campbell played, I think we were up around 90 per cent on the penalty kill, which would have been the No. 1 penalty kill in the NHL over the course of the season.”
Campbell posted an impressive .913 save percentage shorthanded in 202-21 and has yet to surrender a shorty this fall.
Andersen (.791 in 24 games), Michael Hutchinson (.889 in eight games) and David Rittich (.750 in four games) fared less than optimal in 4-on-5 situations.
The coach noticed.
3. How ’bout some divisional playoff team predictions?
Atlantic: Lightning, Maple Leafs, Bruins, Panthers
Metropolitan: Hurricanes, Islanders, Rangers, Capitals
Central: Avalanche, Jets, Wild, Stars, Blues
Pacific: Golden Knights, Oilers, Kings
4. Seven fast thoughts on pending RFA Charlie McAvoy’s massive eight-year, $76-million contract extension:
• Boston has prided itself on stars taking a little less for the greater good. The Bruins’ highest current cap hit is captain Patrice Bergeron at $6.875 million. How will McAvoy’s contract affect one of the NHL’s smartest internal cap structures?
• If U.S. interest in hockey takes off with the ESPN and TNT investment (more on that below) and the cap ceiling rebounds, $9.5 million a year for a No. 1 defenceman could well be a steal in the latter half of McAvoy’s deal.
• I guess we know why Don Sweeney was so noncommittal to Torey Krug when his free agency arrived in 2020. GMs can only bet big on a few players, and youth is now king.
• In 2022-23, when McAvoy’s raise kicks in, he’ll tie Seth Jones as the fourth-highest cap hit of all defencemen. Six of the top 10 highest-paid D-men, by AAV, will all be under 30.
• McAvoy will be only 33 when this whopper expires — young enough to get paid huge once more.
• I wonder if Mattias Ekholm, who reupped for four years at $6.25 million Wednesday, wishes he’d waited two more days before filing his paperwork.
• Norris champ Adam Fox (RFA 2022) may or may not have sent McAvoy a fruit basket.
5. So many individual feel-good goal stories on the various opening nights.
Jonathan Drouin scoring a beauty after missing out on the Canadiens’ entire playoff run. Veteran Brian Boyle earning his contract the hard way with the Penguins, then scoring in his first period back. Tyler Ennis going from PTO to difference-maker in Ottawa. The Columbus Blue Jackets exploding for eight as they honoured No. 80.
I particularly love the surreal story of 19-year-old rookie Hendrix Lapierre, who got to suit up alongside childhood idol Alexander Ovechkin.
The boy from Gatineau, Que., sported an Ovie sweater when he attended his first NHL game and cheered on his favourite player when the Capitals visited the Senators.
Now Lapierre and his hero are out there scoring highlight-reel goals in the same opener.
“It was just so fun,” Lapierre said after his dream-come-true debut.
“The crowd was incredible. For a first game, I don’t think I could have asked for a better one.”
6. Don’t underestimate the ability to make fun of yourself, kids:
7. Longtime readers of this space know I’m a huge proponent of the personalized goal song. The Tampa Bay Lightning have played in this space for a while now, with Steven “Stammer” Stamkos (MC Hammer’s “U Can’t Touch This”) and Tyler Johnson (Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode”).
The Vancouver Canucks went full walk-up song in 2017, handing their whole roster quarters for the jukebox.
So, as much as I loved the Buffalo Sabres’ using DJ Kool’s party anthem, “Let Me Clear My Throat,” for their goal celebrations, I like their fresh approach for 2021-22 even more.
A fun list, and a smart marketing move to have the playlist sponsored and pumped onto Spotify.
So what if he’s a defenceman and he’s injured? For Hov’s sake, here’s hoping Henri Jokiharju pots 50 this winter.
8. Father Time watches us all. Never thought such a day would arrive, but I was able to draft both Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin to my 12-team fantasy squad.
What’s more, neither went in the first round.
9. Morgan Rielly raised an interesting (and wholesome) point this week as fans finally refilled the barns.
“Guys have their parents in town for the first time in a long time,” Rielly said. “It’s an aspect of this whole thing that’s underrated. Lots of people get to enjoy that, and to have that element back in our lives is cool, a lot of fun, and we’re extremely lucky to be here. And we want to do our best to keep it this way.”
Teammate and Scarborough native Michael Bunting says his whole family, his girlfriend and a bunch of friends all masked up for his Leafs debut.
“Honestly, people that I grew up playing with or playing against, they texted me after the game, saying that they were there — and I had no idea,” Bunting said.
“Knowing that I’m playing for the city I grew up in, playing for my friends, my family and everybody that loves the Leafs, it’s a cool experience. It definitely gives me energy going into each game.”
Thursday night in Ottawa, we walked by the players’ family room, and it was bubbling with kids running around in Daddy’s jersey and wives and girlfriends mingling.
An aspect of game night we don’t always consider.
10. If Keefe had his druthers, we’re betting centre Adam Brooks would still be a Leaf, not a Montreal Canadien. GM Kyle Dubas waived Brooks in favour of the more experienced Mike Amadio, a Sault Ste. Marie native.
“It was a tough decision and one that I, frankly, was not overly involved in,” Keefe revealed. “It is a management decision for them to sort through. As a coaching staff, we believed in both players. We have more history with Adam, obviously. He was a big part of our team last season down the stretch. He came in, played an important role for us and did extremely well.”
Keefe and Brooks hoisted a Calder Cup together in 2018. The 25-year-old was hoping to clear. Keefe spoke to Brooks before he departed for his chance in Montreal — which might come sooner than later with the Habs going 0-2 — and is happy that he’ll get an opportunity to stick.
Amadio reminds that a strong pre-season does not always signal a hot regular-season. Despite starting 57 per cent of his shifts in the O-zone, 66 per cent of shot attempts are getting thrown at Leafs goalies when he’s on the ice. Through two games, Amadio has zero shots, one hit, two giveaways, and is averaging less than nine minutes per game.
“If the [Ilya] Mikheyev injury didn’t happen, [the lineup] might look a little different,” Keefe said, “but these opportunities come about, and I know he is excited for it.”
Despite Amadio’s eagerness to show well, the trust simply isn’t there yet.
Neither is the chemistry on the Leafs’ last-minute fourth line.
Outside of Jason Spezza’s excellent contributions in the power-play and leadership departments, the impact of Spezza-Amadio-Wayne Simmonds has been minimal.
“They have to be a lot more responsible with the puck. Put it to good spots. Play to their strengths. Allow themselves to play in the offensive zone; I thought they forced the puck far too much [Wednesday]. And as a result, they’re not spending nearly as much time in the offensive zone,” Keefe said.
“Then you start to play a little bit less. So that’s a big part of it. We’re gonna need them to be better.”
How many mediocre shifts until a guy like Kirill Semyonov gets a peek?
11. Brilliant decision by TNT producers, breaking the ice with analyst Gretzky by inviting his pal Charles Barkley into studio for the premiere broadcast. Kept things light, fun, and accessible. The last thing you want to do is alienate casual hockey fans off the top.
(I also loved that Pekka Rinne donated some of his old gear for the shootout bit. As if we needed another reason to love the Finns.)
The early returns on both new U.S. broadcast partners are fantastic.
ESPN’s broadcast of Penguins-Lightning and Kraken-Knights Tuesday was the most-watched season-opening double-header ever. Ratings were up 54 per cent over 2019’s opener and 19 per cent over 2020’s. With more than a million tuning in for the Kraken’s debut, the late game became the second-most-watched regular-season NHL game in history with a start time of 6 p.m. PT or later.
TNT’s Wednesday debut with Rangers-Capitals was the most-watched NHL game ever aired on the second night of a U.S. national broadcast. Its 817,000 average viewers marked a 139 per cent jump from the same window last season.
— Nashville Predators (@PredsNHL) October 14, 2021
12. Athletes in television commercials run the risk of coming off wooden or corny. But I got a kick out of this Ovechkin spot.
This is brilliant pic.twitter.com/NGNOAIgQ1q
— Nick Alberga (@thegoldenmuzzy) October 12, 2021