A quick mix of the things we gleaned from the week of hockey, serious and less so, and rolling four lines deep. I see you rolling your eyes like Rick Bowness already.
1. Once on the rise and looking like a sure bet to be in the Leafs’ Game 1 lineup, Timothy Liljegren is trending toward scratch status if head coach Sheldon Keefe dresses 12 and 6.
Liljegren’s ice time averaged 18:27 in November, 18:57 in December, 18:50 in January, and peaked at 19:03 in February.
In March? That number plummeted to 14:50. His past three games: 10:52, 11:36, and 10:07. He’s a minus-3 over his past four outings despite sheltered matchups.
“He’s had a terrific season for us, and he’s taken tremendous steps toward being an everyday player, reliable player,” Keefe explained. “He’s been a real key for us at different times this season. You know, the challenge for Timothy now — and other defenceman on our team — is the situation has changed. We’ve added additional depth and at times we’ve played seven, so there’s a lots of manage there, and it can be more challenging for a younger player that hasn’t been through such a situation.”
“So, my messaging to Lily is that this is a little bit of adversity in terms of the situation changing. I think when playoffs begin, that in itself has some adversity — and things change. The atmosphere, the environment changes, and the pressures change. So, the ability to handle these types of things is really important for all of our D, especially the younger ones that haven’t been through it as much.
“But I want Lily to just focus on the fact that he’s been an excellent defenceman for us all season long,” Keefe added. “And there’s little bit of adversity here right now. We’d like to help him through it.”
Our projected D pairs for Game 1 in Toronto:
McCabe – Brodie
Giordano – Holl
Rielly – Schenn
2. Golfer Brooks Koepka lives in a beautiful mansion in Jupiter, Fla., a 66-minute drive to FLA Live Arena. There’s a yacht docked out back. You can see it from his glass-walled swimming pool.
The four-time major winner frequently makes the drive south when the Panthers are in town to watch the local hockey team play.
“I’m a diehard fan, man. When they do something good, I’m the first one to cheer them. I’ll text these guys,” Koepka said this week at a LIV press conference.
Koepka did not text Aaron Ekblad the morning after he put on an embarrassing display, loudly razzing the No. 1 defenceman and comparing him to a pylon in the home team’s 4-3 loss to the New York Rangers last Saturday.
Koepka’s defence for his ridiculous treatment of a fellow pro athlete? The golfer had “absolutely” been drinking, and Ekblad coughed up a bad puck.
“Yeah, he gave up a bad goal, I think, midway through the third. And I just felt like if they didn’t win that game, they weren’t going to make the playoffs,” Koepka said. “Dedicated fan, man.
“I did not bring the cone. He gave up a bad goal. It was a bad pass in the third. I’m a diehard P’s fan, and he gave up a bad goal.”
If that’s Koepka’s apology, it rimmed out like a jittery three-foot putt.
Consider this viral moment — and Koepka’s lack of regret — from Ekblad’s point of view.
The 2022-23 Presidents’ Trophy winners are clawing for their playoff lives. Every game is now getting tagged a “must win.”
Ekblad says he is scoreboard-watching more than ever.
“The desperation is there. We feel the need to win, and we’re working our hardest to do that,” Ekblad said Wednesday.
“I mean, you look around this room. Everybody is giving everything they have on a daily basis, and you see how important it is to us. I’ve made my fair share of mistakes in the last little while, and it weighs on you. But coming back, having bounce-back games is important. That’s all we’re trying to do.”
So audacious were Koepka’s antics, some wondered if this had to be some kind of inside joke.
Maybe the hockey player and the famous fan are pals or something? Maybe they know each other? Koepka couldn’t really be that disrespectful, right?
“No. I don’t know Brooks Koepka. And if I did… nothing. I can’t say what I (want) to say,” Ekblad told me.
He’s ticked off by this, and rightfully so.
So, this wasn’t some kind of inside joke? You’re not buddies?
“No, we’re not buddies. Never be buddies. He can go cry on Netflix.”
3. Yes, Leafs forward Mitchell Marner intended to head the puck like a soccer ball Sunday in Nashville.
A brief oral history of what almost became the greatest secondary assist of all time.
Centre Auston Matthews: “I had to take a second look. It was a pretty cool play. He was chuckling back when we got to the bench, asking us if we saw it. It was pretty obvious, his whole head movement… Almost worked out.”
Defenceman Morgan Rielly: “I guess what went through my mind is, he’s never going to stop talking about it if we score. So, thankfully we didn’t.”
Defenceman Justin Holl: “That was almost the greatest highlight of all-time. We actually were kind of spared from seeing that over and over again.”
Defenceman Luke Schenn: “Off the glass, off the head to a potential breakaway. He’s just creative. I mean, who thinks of that?”
Winger Calle Järnkrok: “This kid can do it all.”
Head coach Sheldon Keefe: “It’s something I wouldn’t imagine he’s practised very much, but he just improvises in that moment.”
Florida forward Matthew Tkachuk: “Hockey happens so fast, but knowing him, he had enough time to realize that’s probably the only way he could get the puck to the guys. Just super-smart player, probably one of the smartest in the NHL.”
Florida head coach Paul Maurice: “We won’t put that on the video. If it happens, it happens. There’s certain events we won’t prepare for, and that would be one of them. It was a pretty good pass, though.”
4. Wonderful bit of business this week by the Rangers’ Chris Drury, who seems to have a quick handle on this GM thing.
In locking up 23-year-old Filip Chytil to a four-year pact at a $4.44 million AAV, Drury dodged a potentially tricky arbitration case and purchased two of Chytil’s UFA years.
The centre of the Kid Line is shining in his first 20-goal, 40-point campaign. Fine numbers for a third-liner who only sees limited power-play use.
Chytil has been known to ratchet up his contributions in the post-season, so getting his file settled prior to a potentially long spring was wise.
Drury must now figure out the futures of RFAs K’Andre Miller and Alexis Lafrenière while considering if it’s worth keeping pending UFAs Vladimir Tarasenko, Patrick Kane, and Niko Mikkola as more than rentals. (A poorly kept secret is the Vancouver Canucks’ interest in Lafrenière as a trade target.)
In a league where centre depth is critical, the Rangers now have Mika Zibanejad, Vincent Trocheck, and Chytil under contract through 2027.
5. Those clamouring for expanded playoffs should take a hard look at the wild-card snail races in both conferences and ask themselves: Do more of these average teams really deserve to be in the playoffs?
In the East, we have the Pittsburgh Penguins (37-28-10) and Florida Panthers (38-31-7). Neither team has won more games than it has lost. Neither team has won more than five of its past 10 games. And Pittsburgh has a minus-2 goal differential.
Last spot in the West is a three-way contest between the sagging Jets (42-31-3), still-hopeful Flames (35-26-15) and weren’t-we-tanking? Predators (37-29-8).
We’re not certain any of these mediocre performances deserve to be in the same tournament as the Boston Bruins. Casting a wider net and inviting more middling teams to the dance would further devalue the regular season.
Want to watch a play-in game? Tune into Jets-Flames on Wednesday night. That’ll be a doozy.
6. New NHL Players’ Association chief Marty Walsh will certainly guide the union through its next round of collective bargaining, but we’re not anticipating another 12-year reign like the one Donald Fehr had.
Walsh may eventually feel the pull back to politics.
“People are like, ‘Your political career is over.’ It’s really not. I mean, this is a different type of politics,” Walsh says.
And yes, the Bruins fan did catch his former boss’s chirp of the Toronto Maple Leafs in Parliament. But Walsh says U.S. President Joe Biden isn’t nearly as invested in sports fandom as his wife, Dr. Jill Biden.
“She’s a fanatical sports person,” Walsh says. “The President’s good. He doesn’t really get too much into it. I know he made a comment the other day. But the First Lady is a really hardcore Flyers, Eagles, Sixers, Phillies fan.”
7. His opportunity increasing since the MacKenzie Weegar trade, Brandon Montour is enjoying the season of his life in Florida.
The 28-year-old has crushed career highs in goals, assists, points, ice time and penalty minutes.
And with his overtime snipe Wednesday in Toronto, Montour set franchise records for most points (64) and game-winning goals (four) by a Panthers defenceman.
“You don’t go into the year looking to break records,” Montour says. “The coaching staff and players believe in me playing a big role in this team. I’m just trying to take every opportunity, and it’s nice to get that milestone and keep going here.”
Montour’s game comes with some risk, yet Maurice keeps leaning on him.
“You know what I love about that guy? He doesn’t play on mistakes. He just comes out to win the game,” the coach says.
“All right, so if he has something bad happen in his game, it’s not gonna effect his next shift. Not because he doesn’t care. Or he doesn’t have a conscience. It’s just, he just wants to win. Those guys are hard to find.
“There’ll be guys trying to manage a game or try to get through a game, and if they have a tough shift, they settle their game. I don’t like those guys.”
Maurice points to Montour’s game-winning burst at Scotiabank Arena:
“Monty wanted to win that game. Breaks the play up and then he gets up the ice. And you know what? We’re in trouble if that thing doesn’t connect, right? But who cares? We came to win. Not to tie. Not to lose. I love that guy.”
8. Pierre Engvall’s role, production (five goals in 12 games) and usage (15:02) have spiked since his trade to the New York Islanders, no doubt.
But when looking at re-signing the speedy winger, Lou Lamoriello must consider that Engvall’s shooting percentage over four years with Toronto was 10.9. In his small sample with the Isles it’s a juicy 22.7.
9. Leafs goalie Ilya Samsonov and his wife, Mariya, looked at their firstborn and knew right away. He looked like a Miroslav.
“The best week of my life,” said Samsonov, now a dad in pads. “A lot of emotion. A lot of nervous. But good nervous, yeah? Before he’s born. But last four days we stay all together at home. It’s unbelievable. I feel perfect. One time he comes for me on my skin, he feels so warm. So cute. Miroslav. Miro. We just like this name.”
Funny, how we work.
Samsonov routinely throws his body in front pucks launched by Alex Ovechkin and Auston Matthews. But the idea of being in the delivery room with Mariya caused too much anxiety.
“Doctors said to me: ‘You want to see?’ I said, ‘No, no, no. Just call me after.’ When I saw him first, it was shock. But good shock.”
Did you cut the umbilical cord?
“No, no, no. It’s not for me. I’m so scared. I’m afraid of this. We’re lucky. The doctor speaks Russian. He’s so helpful. I don’t talk a lot in the hospital. I’m nervous.”
Skipping his team’s weeklong road trip allowed Samsonov time to heal an undisclosed ailment (“I feel perfect… I’m 100 per cent”) and rest up for the biggest starts of his life.
Yes, he’s getting his shut-eye even with the noisy new addition to his home.
“Right now, we sleep in a different room. Me and my dog,” Samsonov laughs. “He’s smart too, yeah? He wants to sleep too, a little bit.”
10. Panthers forward Matthew Tkachuk registered his second 100-point campaign this week and should have no issue topping last season’s 104-point finish with Calgary.
While he accomplished last year’s feat as part of the deadliest line in hockey, in Sunrise his production stands alone.
Tkachuk has 33 more points than the next most prolific Panther (Aleksander Barkov).
Maurice pinpoints three things that have resonated over his first run coaching the star: incredible hands; “a quiet maturation in his game” that has helped improve his relationships with the referees; and the biggest one — off the ice, Tkachuk is a gentleman.
“So, I spent nine years in Winnipeg, and there’s a lot of stories about his dad and the quiet things he did with the off-ice staff and help when they needed help. But nobody ever knew about it. It’s not my story to tell,” Maurice says.
“But Matthew is in incredible relationship with the support people in our room, whether it’s the bus driver or the therapists or the arena guys. And it’s every day. And it’s please and thank you. He’s been an incredibly well-raised young man.
“Because for me, I’m just probably like you. He’s in Calgary. I’m in Winnipeg. I’m not thinking that, right? On the bench, I’m thinking profanity.”
11. A post-season berth would do wonders for Tkachuk’s inclusion on Hart Trophy ballots.
Ekblad calls him “the complete player” and worthy of MVP status in the Cats’ room.
“It’s a little bit of a different league with Connor McDavid,” Ekblad says. “But in our hearts, no doubt.”
Maurice is asked a similar question, and advances the conversation in another direction.
“The numbers Connor McDavid are putting up will just distance himself from anybody else. I mean, poor Leon (Draisaitl) can’t get his name in the paper. Got 100 points, and he’s anonymous. And that’s due to the specialness….” Maurice begins, then widens the lens.
“You know, what a wonderful time to be a hockey fan, too. An opportunity to see that. We saw (the Oilers) in a playoff series, and our goaltender (Connor Hellebuyck) was real good, and (McDavid) did some things on the ice that you can’t coach against. There’s just things that you can’t stop. I mean, I came into this league at the tail end of misters Gretzky and Messier, but Jaromir Jagr was like that at the start. He did things on the ice that you couldn’t stop. He’d throw that big butt out and spin off and go bar-down, and nobody had an answer for it. I feel the same way about Connor McDavid. There isn’t an answer — short of taking a penalty a lot of nights and stopping that young man.”
12. Luke Schenn isn’t tiptoeing around his new teammates.
Who cares if he hasn’t yet played 10 games in this second tour with the Maple Leafs?
The confident 926-game NHL veteran is using his voice already, speaking up before games and in between periods as if there’s a letter on his sweater.
“I’m not taking some time to get to know everyone. I’ve been around long enough, you just say what’s on your mind,” Schenn states. “This team has a lot of skill, so you just try to bring a different element.”
One bit of advice the stay-at-home D-man has shared with his puck-possession teammates:
“I’ve been telling guys a little bit that going off the glass once in a while to release some pressure isn’t a bad idea.”