Quick Shifts: The mysterious value of finishing No. 1 in Canada

Edmonton Oilers' Connor McDavid (97) is chased by Winnipeg Jets' Derek Forbort (24) and Neal Pionk (4) during second period NHL action in Edmonton. (Jason Franson/CP)

A quick mix of the things we gleaned from the week of hockey, serious and less so, and rolling four lines deep. Nikita Kucherov will go down as the best trade deadline acquisition of 2021.

1. The funny thing about the race for the No. 1 seed in Canada is, be careful what you wish for.

The Toronto Maple Leafs have held pole position for three months now and essentially could run the 56-game sprint/marathon wire to wire. But they’re a better road team (14-5-1) than they are a home team (14-7-3).

And we’re not sure the hard-checking, defensively stauch Montreal Canadiens (the presumed 4 seed) would provide a more favourable matchup for the Leafs than the Edmonton Oilers (the likely 3 seed), whom Toronto has already beat six times.

The only NHL team with more road wins than Toronto?

The Winnipeg Jets, who rolls home to host the Oilers after amassing a 16-8-1 away record.

“I’d take that,” Jets coach Paul Maurice said Thursday, when it was suggested his group performs better outside of Manitoba. “The road game is the game that’s played in the playoffs.”

Smart. Hard. Patient. Low-scoring. Opportunistic on special teams.

Multiple times Maurice has brought up that the Jets have been dished 17 road games in a 22-game span. Someone told the coach no club has been dealt such a schedule since 1980.

“Everybody’s a little edgy right now. It’s 17 in 22. We don’t have a road game in our time zone,” Maurice said, after his latest road win.

Maurice keeps bringing it up because he wants outsiders — fans, critics, media — to appreciate his players’ grind, their accomplishment.

The Jets are within striking distance and, frankly, could swipe that No. 1 spot from Toronto with three home games against the Leafs next week.

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Ironic: two elite road warriors battling to play at home.

What’s more, Edmonton has earned just as many points on the road as it has at home (26), and Montreal has gained more ground skating away from the Bell Centre.

Toronto coach Sheldon Keefe wonders if the value of home ice may be “overblown” this May.

On one hand, holding last change can give the home coach some advantage when it comes to line matchups. But on the other: “I think there’s also some advantages to being on the road and just rolling your lines and forcing your opposition to adjust to you,” Keefe said.

“All of that said… you’re competing to put yourself in the best position possible. And for us, we’ve been in first for a good portion of the season, and that’s something we’ve wanted because it shows we’re doing good things.”

The question remains: How much is the top seed even worth in a pandemic? In a country stuck in various states of lockdown?

“I’m not sure anybody can give you an answer that has any substance to it, because nobody knows. There’s no fans. There’s no people in the building,” Leafs veteran Jason Spezza says.

“Most importantly, we just want to win games just to be feeling good about ourselves and also be playing the right way with good habits. If you have good habits and you play the right way, the results follow. If we’re playing the right way, it’s important.

“So, I’m not sure how it will play out in playoffs. This is a unique year. But regardless, we want to be playing good hockey heading down the stretch.”

2. As if the Taylor Hall debacle in Buffalo couldn’t look worse, multiple reports have surfaced that Kevyn Adams was offered at least one package that included a first-rounder for his $8-million man.

“I know for a fact a team that offered a first-round pick. And there’s more than one,” GM-turned-analyst Brian Lawton said Wednesday on the Real Kyper at Noon podcast. “It cost the Buffalo Sabres millions of dollars.”

Hall confirmed that his no-move clause helped steer him to Boston, a preferred destination.

Lawton argues that Adams should’ve insisted Hall give him a list of five teams he’d be willing to accept a trade before the season began.

“I doubt that happened. If it did happen, Kevyn Adams should say that,” Lawton said. “If the player says, ‘I’ll go to one team,’ say, ‘Good luck in the summer, dude. It ain’t happening—because I can’t trade you to one team without embarrassing this organization.’ ”

Adams hired associate GM Jason Karmanos hours after the deadline passed.

3. Is there an NHL general manager acting with more job security than Steve Yzerman?

Blessed with salary cap space and loaded with draft picks, the Hall of Famer had ownership’s blessing to spend money at the deadline to help push along this slow, smart rebuild in Detroit.

Not only was Yzerman able to pry first- and second-round picks from Washington for taking Jacob Vrana in exchange for Anthony Mantha, he scored a fourth-rounder from Tampa for eating some of David Savard’s salary, and another fourth from Colorado for retaining money in the Patrick Nemeth deal.

When so many GMs either tighten up (Arizona and Nashville’s refusal to sell could hurt them in the long run, for example) or scramble, Yzerman’s patient plan sticks out.

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4. “I’m excited to get back to all the crazy Canadian fans,” Ben Hutton, a former Canuck, said in the wake of his deadline trade to Toronto. “The Leafs are a top team in the NHL.”

Hutton, 27, was recruited as an inexpensive depth rental to support a six-man D corps that has (knock wood) endured a busy regular season largely unscathed.

He won’t chip in much offence (he posted one goal and four assists for the Ducks this season), but he eats minutes (18:31 TOI/GP, which would rank him fifth in Toronto), kills penalties and has been driving play forward despite starting most shifts in his own zone.

“Finally get to come back east, so it’s not as late for my parents to stay up and watch the games,” the Brockville, Ont., native said from quarantine. “My dad used to be a Habs fan. He’s now a Leafs fan. So, we’d get to a lot of the Habs-versus-Leafs games growing up.”

Kyle Dubas explored signing Hutton when he was a UFA in 2019 but opted instead to bring in Cody Ceci and Tyson Barrie. The Leafs continued scouting him since that time.

“In terms of depth, we have a lot of guys that can come in and play on the power-play and play more offensive minutes. We just wanted to bolster what we had defensively, and we feel that over his career he’s done that. So that was what led us to Ben,” Dubas said.

“I would expect that Ben will compete with the group, and if he wins the [playoff lineup] spot, that’s great for him and great for our depth.”

Expect Marlies Timothy Liljegren and Rasmus Sandin to get another big-league look down the stretch as the Leafs rest bodies and evaluate their options ahead of the postseason.

“No matter who you are,” Hutton says, “you have to earn your ice.”

5. If it’s true Marc Bergevin made a pitch to acquire Tony DeAngelo, Montreal’s general manager may be more desperate than originally thought.

And DeAngelo, who reportedly rebuffed a move to Montreal, may be less desperate to get back in the game.

After the Rangers buy out DeAngelo’s contract this summer, it’ll be fascinating to see which team takes a chance on the offensive puck-mover. Such a signing won’t come without a PR hurdle.

6. Dallas Stars rookie phenom Jason Robertson, 21, is two years younger, skates two fewer minutes a night, and has played four fewer games than Kirill Kaprizov — the man he’s hunting down for the Calder Trophy.

Each has tallied the same number of goals (11) and points (27) at even-strength. Each has scored two game-winners. Kaprizov has made more hay on the power-play, but the red-hot Robertson leads all freshmen with a plus-13 rating.

Younger brother Nick, who registered his first regular-season point this week, lights up when you ask him about his big brother.

“I get so fired up when I wake up and I see he’s got a point or two, or his team’s doing well, or that he’s doing well,” Nick says. “I know he’s putting in the work, and people are starting to see what he can really do.

“But I’ve seen it since Day One, training with him all the time. It’s just great to get the recognition he deserves, and I love him.

Nick, 19, says he and Jason talk all the time. Jason got excited when Nick told him he’d be back in the Leafs lineup Monday and gave him a little brotherly advice.

“I look forward for him to continue succeeding in his career,” Nick says. “I just hope I can do it with him, too.”

7. Non-trades don’t make waves. But props to Philly GM Chuck Fletcher and L.A. GM Rob Blake for locking up impending UFAs Scott Laughton and Alex Iafallo, respectively, on Monday.

Hate to harp on Adams in Buffalo, but Linus Ullmark — the most attractive potential rent-a-goalie — was neither traded nor signed.

The Sabres don’t have an NHL-level goalie under contract for 2021-22.

If the injured Ullmark walks for nothing in July, after the Sabres spent nine years developing him, it’ll be a disaster. Not sure why Adams doesn’t have Ullmark’s signature on a piece of paper already.

“We said all along we want Linus to be a Buffalo Sabre,” Adams said Monday. “We’ve had great conversations. Been ongoing. Continue to talk right now. I’ve spent time with Linus just one-on-one having conversations about, philosophically, where we’re at and where we’re looking to get to and what he’s looking for. That’s my style.

“That’s an important relationship to have with your players. It’s not about dollars and cents. It’s more about vision and where are we headed and why. We’ve had those conversations, and we’ll continue to work at it, but priority for us is absolutely to sign Linus and he and his agent both know that.”

8. What’s interesting about the Iafallo and Laughton deals is that both mid-tier forwards secured decent term (four and five years, respectively) when compared to the commitments other UFA forwards have been getting under this pandemic-crushed flat salary cap.

Seems clear that the valuable, versatile Laughton took a lower AAV ($3 million) in exchange for extra term. Ditto Adam Lowry and his extension in Winnipeg — five years times $3.25 million.

I wonder if this is the path Kyle Dubas and the Maple Leafs should take with their own pending UFA, Zach Hyman, this summer.

Hyman will be more in demand and command a richer payday than Laughton’s $15 million due to his uptick in production. Heck, Hyman just recorded his fourth consecutive 15-goal season.

Imagine how much Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel could benefit from such a wingman.

But the blueprint of handing out extra years to lower Hyman’s cap hit could be the path to keeping him in Blue and White.

Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman talk to a lot of people around the hockey world, and then they tell listeners all about what they’ve heard and what they think about it.

9. Quote of the Week!

“I don’t think anyone had to sell him on coming here. We’re the Pittsburgh Penguins, and we’re not here to kiss anyone’s butt to play here.” —Brian Burke, on the notion that Jeff Carter needed convincing to leave the beach

10. Last Saturday’s Marlies-Rocket AHL game was all about the Cole Caufield coming-out party.

But we can only imagine what it must’ve been like for injury-plagued Maple Leafs goalie prospect Ian Scott. Difficult to blame the 22-year-old for the 4-3 loss. It marked Scott’s long-deferred pro debut and his first hockey game since May 19, 2019, tending the Prince Albert net at the Memorial Cup.

“Ian did a great job. If you take into consideration how long it’s been for him to get into a live action game like that against an opponent like that, you could tell in the first period he had some nervous energy and movement, but he settled right in, made some big saves,” coach Greg Moore said.

“In the second period, he looked very comfortable. It’s incredible just how poised and calm he looks back there. Kind of mirrors his personality. For his first game, he should be really proud of that.”

Scott admitted to the nerves and had difficulty finding the words to describe being in the crease after a nearly two-year hiatus.

“Just to be out there again, in the atmosphere and competing out there with the team, there’s no better feeling,” Scott said. “A lot of work went on behind the scenes, and after a while coming back, I was able just to roll with things.”

The ability to roll with things is a necessity for all of us these days. Scott has no clue when his next start will come, now that the Marlies’ season has been put on hold due to COVID protocol.

11. Auston Matthews has been quick to follow friend Matthew Tkachuk’s lead into the NFT game.

“Just something that I’m looking to kind of explore and just have fun with,” Matthews says.

On Wednesday, the Rocket Richard Trophy front-runner released his own officially minted non-fungible token (NFT) collection, 107 pieces of unique digital art memorabilia, like the ones found on NBA Top Shot.

Tkachuk became the first NHL star to do so last month. Matthews’ items are available via Open Sea, the world’s largest NFT marketplace. The auction closes tonight.

A portion of proceeds will be donated to Sick Kids Foundation and the fight against cystic fibrosis.

“I’ve always been a fan of art, so it’s cool to be able to release my own that tells a bit about my story,” Matthews wrote during an AMA he conducted with fans to celebrate the drop.

“The fight against cystic fibrosis is very important to us based on the loss of my uncle. He was who introduced me to the game of hockey.”

12. Teamwork makes the dream work…

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