A quick mix of the things we gleaned from the week of hockey, serious and less so, and rolling four lines deep. Tanking is an imaginary concept secretly promoted by the Illuminati to distract us from the pinnacle of parity that is the National Hockey League.
1. How GM Kyle Dubas tackles the final trade deadline of his current contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs is a bottomless source of fascination and speculation.
Who does he bring in? How much does he pay? Which position does he prioritize? And what if it all goes sideways faster than bald summer tires on an unplowed Buffalo side street in February?
Specific target names have started trickling out, and hockey insider Frank Seravalli highlights Chicago Blackhawks defenceman Jake McCabe as one of the more intriguing ones.
Chicago GM Kyle Davidson’s reported asking price: a second-round pick and a B-level prospect, if acquired at his full $4 million AAV. More to convince the Blackhawks to eat salary.
McCabe, 29, is a bright light on a franchise embracing dark days.
He’s a plus-4 on a tanker vessel with a minus-54 goal differential. He’s a left shot who — like T.J. Brodie — is happy to play the right side, can eat 19 to 20 minutes a night against top-six competition and is accustomed to starting most of his shifts in the D-zone.
More important: McCabe is a big body (204 pounds) who will kill penalties, block a couple shots and throw a couple hits per night — and he is not a rental.
He is signed through 2024-25, which would give Dubas a cost-controlled Jake Muzzin replacement without shelling out the premium price of a Jakob Chychrun.
Further, Davidson has a range of forwards available, from the high-end (Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews) to the support pieces (Andreas Athanasiou, Sam Lafferty).
Dubas has a track record of addressing multiple needs with two-player trades in the past.
Naturally, the Leafs hope Davidson drops his price closer to the deadline.
But the very fact this is the type of transaction Dubas is exploring makes one wonder if he really has the appetite to take a serious swing at some of the marquee-name targets that sell sweaters. And cost first-rounders.
2. John Tavares is coming into Game 1,000 hot Sunday versus the Washington Capitals.
The Maple Leafs captain has racked up 15 points in his past 12 games and is on track for his first 80-point season in four years.
“This year he’s been great,” defenceman Morgan Rielly said. “That’s kinda his mentality — he just wants to keep going. I don’t think he thinks about the end.”
Tavares prides himself on consistency, nutrition and living in the moment.
With age, he’s shown a willingness to adapt and take instruction from the Maple Leafs development staff on his stride and skating posture in an effort to extend his shelf life.
“Trying to play with pace and be direct,” Tavares explained of his focus. “Trying to be lighter on my feet, generate pace and momentum in my game.”
Rielly marvels at Tavares’s work ethic and how he dependably hangs big numbers, no matter the circumstances.
“He loves playing hockey. He loves the grind. He loves the work,” Rielly said. “So, I don’t expect him to stop anytime soon.”
That’s because of Tavares’s diligent habits in all facets of his life and commitment to taking care of his body like no one else, according to defenceman Mark Giordano.
“I know I’m older than him, but you can look up to guys like him,” said Giordano, 39, who earned his Silver Stick last season. “He has it circled on his calendar.”
Added Justin Holl: “It’ll be a big celebration for him on Sunday.”
3. Five years after leaving the New York Islanders and signing home as a free agent, Tavares told reporters that, yes, he still throws money on the board whenever the Maple Leafs face the Islanders: “The guys won’t let me off the hook for that.”
4. Tavares has been thinking about the All-Star Game selection process and believed, like many fans, the showcase is in need of a rethink. Maple Leafs top goal-scorer William Nylander’s omission is but one example.
“I’ve always thought that it’s important to recognize the players that are very deserving, and every year there’s always gonna be a couple of guys that, because of the format, don’t get the recognition,” Tavares said. “It’s important that gets looked at, whether it’s Willy or anyone across the league.”
Tavares believes the process, which now requires representation from all 32 clubs, is “worth looking at” and floats expanded rosters as a suggestion.
5. Can’t stop scratching my head over the Vancouver Canucks’ decision to rebuild around a combustible winger J.T. Miller over their captain and 200-foot centreman Bo Horvat.
Now Vancouver has taken coveted trade chip Andrei Kuzmenko off the market, signing him to a two-year, $11-million extension.
Like the player, for sure, and he’s developed nice chemistry with centre Elias Pettersson. But imagine the multiple pieces Jim Rutherford & Co. could’ve reaped by flipping him to a cap-crunched contender.
Kuzmenko’s new AAV, $5.5 million, precisely matches Horvat’s expiring one.
Good on the player and great job by agent Dan Milstein for getting his 26-year-old client a whopper payday after just 47 NHL games played, mostly for a team that hasn’t been in the race.
Further, Canucks management gave Kuzmenko a 12-team no-trade list, which will make it more difficult to move him if Vancouver is still selling in 2024-25.
Kuzmenko’s shooting percentage on the day he signed: 24.7.
The NHL’s average shooting percentage: 9.5.
6. Coach Bruce Cassidy called out his Vegas Golden Knights’ most handsomely paid star, Jack Eichel, in the wake of a dismal loss to a mediocre Detroit Red Wings club:
“Jack just hasn’t been the same driving force for us as he was at the start of the year on both ends of the ice,” Cassidy told reporters. “The expectations are not being met from Jack. He needs to be better for us, especially as we’re down a few guys that create offence for us. He needs to be one of the drivers.”
In the four games since Cassidy challenged his $10-million man, Eichel has gone pointless and is a minus-4. He has one assist, no goals, and a minus-8 over Vegas’s past six.
7. Alexis Lafreniere put together his first three-game point streak of the season this week.
New York Rangers coach Gerard Gallant said he’s impressed how 2020’s No. 1 pick has responded since his highly publicized healthy scratch on Dec. 29.
“I tell people, ‘I got no problem with the kid.’ He’s a 21-year-old kid. Sometimes they need a little kick in the butt to get going again. He’s been excellent. I like the kid. He’s played great and taken another good step for us,” Gallant said during the Rangers’ swing through Toronto.
The Kid Line — Lafreniere and fellow high pick Kaapo Kakko, centred by Filip Chytil — was dancing that night, like it was in the 2022 playoffs again.
“I give them a lot of support,” Gallant said, firing back at the narrative. “I support both those kids. You do the best you can with them. They’ve both taken a big step. A lot of our media people don’t think that at times. It frustrates me, but I think the kids are great. They’re going to be good hockey players, and sometimes it takes guys a little longer than other guys.”
Gallant went out of his way to note the production of New York’s high-pedigree young forwards suffers because they can’t crack a loaded, veteran top power-play unit (Chris Kreider, Vincent Trocheck, Artemi Panarin, Mika Zibanejad).
“They might get 30 seconds,” Gallant noted. “And then you go to New Jersey and see some of their young kids playing on their first unit because that’s what they have.”
The overachieving Devils don’t have vets blocking the way.
“Jersey’s taken a big step there this year with those kids. So, Lafreniere and (our) kids don’t get the same amount of minutes and the same amount of power-play time as they do,” Gallant said. “I’m trying to win games every night. Our team’s trying to win games and be a Stanley Cup–contending team, so that’s what we got to do.
“Sometimes those kids take the tough part of it, but that’s hockey. I’m not going to sit Panarin and Kreider and Zibanejad on the bench and play other people ahead of them.”
8. Jack Hughes offers an early candidate for Primary Assist of the Year:
9. On the morning the NHL’s 28th-most-prolific offence lost its top goal scorer, Cole Caufield, to season-ending shoulder surgery, Martin St. Louis spoke not of winning games or motivating his depleted Montreal Canadiens through rough water.
The head coach spoke of pride and process. Of holding heads high while scuffling through the swamp that is the bottom of the league’s standings.
“Players are proud,” St. Louis began. “If your coaches have to constantly keep motivating your players, you’re in trouble. To me, it’s about discipline and having standards of how we do things and holding them accountable to that. That’s my job.
“If we’re a team that’s just going to be result-driven, that’s when you lose yourself a little bit. Result is part of it. I show up, I’m trying to win the game tonight. And same thing on Tuesday.
“Are we going to do that? I don’t know. But my job as a coach is to hold them accountable to the standards that we have as we’re building this culture to become a team that can win way more than we lose.”
10. Such is the mess Rick Tocchet inherited in Vancouver.
Culturally, optically, the thing is a mess.
Tocchet — one of three head coaches on Francesco Aquilini’s payroll — pointedly called out his bunch as “soft” after his second game behind the bench.
“It shows tonight that we’ve got a lot of work to do,” he said.
I appreciate Tocchet’s candour, the urge to enact change, to correct and inspire. And he’s not wrong.
Still, “soft” is a dirty word in this sport. (Sheldon Keefe memorably used it once in Toronto, backtracked, and has steered clear of the term publicly since. Even if it could be justified on occasion.)
How Tocchet navigates these early days feels like a lose-lose situation.
The captain and head of the room, Bo Horvat, could be dealt at any moment. Multiple veterans will likely follow him out the door before the March 3 trade deadline. And few skaters are playing for their next contract.
All that’s left to play for is pride. Now, the Canucks must balance that with a tornado of rumours, a new voice and system and a regular-season treadmill that does not allow for the “10 practices” Tocchet wishes he had to instill his vision.
Could be a long three months in British Columbia …
P.S. Paul Bissonnette earnestly covering Green Day’s “Good Riddance” over Henrik Lundqvist’s kingly acoustic strums as a tribute to Tocchet’s brief tenure as TNT analyst is the content we can’t live without:
11. Fascinated to see how Buffalo Sabres GM Kevyn Adams approaches this trade deadline.
The Sabres — reluctant owners of the NHL-record 11-year playoff drought — have traditionally been sellers at this time of year.
Yet with a dynamic offence at Adams’ disposal and the building blocks of an exciting core on the rise, the Sabres have positioned themselves to buy.
Not so much to chase a wild-card spot they only have a 42 per cent shot at snatching. Rather, to take advantage of their most powerful weapon: cap space.
Adams has a projected $18.3 million of it — more than all 31 other clubs.
He also has three second-round picks to dangle.
Does he weaponize his cap space and recoup assets from cap-tight contenders looking for a third party to retain salary?
Does he seek out one of the several top-line players expected to hit the market?
There is a two-year window in Buffalo before Rasmus Dahlin, Owen Power, Peyton Krebs and Victor Olofsson all come knocking for raises.
Adams has afforded himself a window to flex a financial advantage in a system begging for fluidity. Let’s see how creative he can get.
12. Small thing, big thing.
After Dylan Cozens scored the overtime winner on the night Ryan Miller was honoured by the Sabres faithful, Cozens gave his stick and the game puck to Miller’s young son Bodhi. Away from the cameras, and away from Ryan.
Cozens instantly became Bodhi’s new favourite player and an organic connection between Sabres stars past and present was strengthened.
Another tiny example of the culture growing the proper way in Buffalo.