Quick Shifts: Why Maple Leafs players could alter GM’s deadline plans

Toronto Maple Leafs centre Auston Matthews (34) is congratulated after scoring his 50th goal of the season, against the Arizona Coyotes during the first period of an NHL hockey game Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2024, in Tempe, Ariz. (Rick Scuteri/AP)

A quick mix of the things we gleaned from the week of hockey, serious and less so, and rolling four lines deep. Beautiful, big-bodied, righthanded defencemen just don’t fall out the sky, y’know.

1. As the Toronto Maple Leafs hopped off a plane and laid an 18-man, 7-3 beatdown on the Stanley Cup champs in their own building Thursday, Joel Quenneville, watching from afar, took notice.

“They were flying. I don’t think I’ve ever seen them skate that well,” the three-time champion coach told The Leafs Nation Friday. “I think I’m a lot like Sheldon, where we let the players dictate who deserves more ice time.”

Toronto GM Brad Treliving spent the first half of his club’s campaign lamenting a lack of consistency. In his last public comments, he downplayed the notion that a big splash was coming.

Is he reconsidering that stance based on recent evidence?

Judging by the past two weeks, a switch has been flipped. Consistency has set up shop for a six-game stretch of Leafs dominance.

And Quenneville echoes the sentiment of the players themselves when he points to Ridly Greig’s aggressive ENG and Morgan Rielly’s visceral response as a flashpoint for inciting action.

“Hey, that was a great moment,” Quenneville said. “Maybe not the guy you’d expect to do it — made it even better.”

(Sidebar: Quenneville was asked when he’ll be back behind an NHL bench. “Good question. I can’t put a number on it,” he replied.)

To follow any recent Leafs regular seasons is to strap into Leviathan and ride the narrative’s summits and plummets.

The way the team is performing on its current road trip — which wraps Saturday in Denver with a Hart Trophy debate game and showdown against the mighty Avalanche — offers optimism.

The players are building a case for Treliving to be more aggressive at the trade deadline than previously planned.

Heck, betting sites are now offering lines on whether Auston Matthews will score 80 goals or more (+500).

Believed a bust just six weeks ago, Ilya Samsonov is on a five-game win streak, and Joseph Woll is warming in the bullpen. Support scoring is coming around. The defence pairs are rounding into form — although the lineup is screaming for a top-four right shot. (Rielly needs a partner, and T.J. Brodie needs to keep playing his natural left side.)

Further, the players seem to be sticking up for one another in scrums.

If you’re the one with keys to the picks and prospects, is the room starting to convince you to invest?

Treliving has been quiet of late. Patient.

Not getting a jump on the trade market early and letting his current roster prove they’re worth spending on appears to have been a wise choice.

Now, the million-dollar question becomes: Just how much does management believe in this particular group?

Are we talking third-rounder-for–Ilya Lyubushkin belief? First-rounder for Chris Tanev? Sean Walker?

Or something even bigger and bolder?

Right now, the players are voting in favour of a boost.

2. John Tavares is graciously accepting his (temporary?) bump to the second power-play unit and third line, where he’s centring the relatively inexperienced Bobby McMann and Nick Robertson.

“Our team’s obviously been playing really well, so Keefer’s wanted to keep things rolling,” Tavares says. “Two guys that have made great impacts for us all year and certainly have been playing really good hockey as of late. Bobby’s been on a roll and finding the net, doing a lot of good things, so a great chance for me to go out there and impact the game and help make them better and find chemistry with them too.” 

The captain has responded with his first 5-on-5 goals since Dec. 11. One in Arizona, then another in Vegas. He’s been effective against softer matchups.

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While the coach may have stumbled into his new-look, balanced top-nine when Tavares dealt with the double blow of an illness and minor injury, the shift away from a loaded top six is contributing to wins. Moreover, it’s a refreshing look for the fans and many of the players.

“It is a good opportunity to look at some different things,” Keefe says. “John has taken a bit of a step back in terms of his role on the power play or with different linemates. But at the same time, it is an opportunity to embrace some of our younger guys, bring them along, and support those guys with his leadership.”

4. “We need to get younger,” Kyle Dubas declared this week, while fielding a series of trade-deadline questions at his press conference.

That much is obvious.

With an average age of 31.3, the Pittsburgh Penguins are the oldest team in the league.

For sure, the general manager will and should consider trading Jake Guentzel within the next two weeks. That’s his best chance to get a first-rounder (plus) in return.

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But all this talk of restocking the cupboards and turning the roster over with a movement of youth cannot begin in earnest until Dubas slices into the core.

Evgeni Malkin is 37 and under contract for two seasons beyond this one.

Kris Letang is 36 and locked up for four more.

Erik Karlsson is 33 and signed for three more.

They all hold full no-move clauses. Dubas has no easy outs here.

Father Time hasn’t caught Sidney Crosby yet. But the captain is 36 and eligible to sign an extension this summer.

We’re fascinated to see how quickly Crosby re-ups with the franchise he’s been loyal to. Or if he wants to see how the landscape is shaped around him before he commits.

5. With the Flyers open to trade, opposing clubs would love to get their mitts on a gamer like Travis Konecny. The 26-year-old is on pace to set career highs in goals, assists, and plus/minus. He’s also a pain in rear end.

That Philadelphia slapped an A on his sweater this month suggests the organization is much more interested in re-signing Konecny (UFA 2025), perhaps as early as July 1.

John Tortorella very much will have a say in the core of this roster, and the coach is a fan.

“TK has brought a different level of game and attitude toward us. I think he deserves being part of that group with the letters,” Tortorella says.

“He’s by example. He got an engine on him that doesn’t stop and has made big plays at key times. Does everything for us. He’s a penalty killer for us now. Power play. I’d hate to think what we would be if we didn’t have his energy in our lineup. So, not so much him talking. Just what he is as a pro, what he’s become as a pro. And I think there’s more there.”

6. One final thought on Morgan Rielly’s failed appeal to his five-game suspension.

Anyone else wonder if the department of player safety maxed the defenceman’s ban at five games to prevent the appeal process from elevating to the second stage of an independent adjudicator? Some in the Leafs quarters believe so.

Surely, Gary Bettman doesn’t want to encourage a flood of appeals following suspensions. Whether you agree with the ruling or not, by backing George Parros, the commissioner is doing his part to discourage future appeals.

If players believe the process pays off, more will file. Otherwise, they may just accept their punishment, figuring an appeal is a waste of time. Why bother?

7. Who cares if 2024 still has more than 10 months to go?

That stunt Quinton Byfield pulled on the Columbus Blue Jackets will be Goal of the Year:

Memo to managers: Be patient with your prized prospects. Quinton’s on the way.

“He took a little bit of flak early in his career but is just starting to get his legs going,” Kings interim coach Jim Hiller told reporters. “As a young player, you just got to get out there and establish yourself as a dependable player that works. Once you do that, then the coach gives you a little bit more freedom, and you gain a little more confidence.”

8. For those inside the NCAA rink, the Mullett Arena experience remains an absolute blast for a once-a-year anomaly. Like catching a band that has long achieved stadium status rock a dive bar.

However, for the Coyotes, sentenced to 41 games of amateur atmosphere, the setup is embarrassing and financially detrimental.

With the franchise’s future unknown, it occurred to me Wednesday that Auston Matthews and Matthew Knies might have to wait a while for their next homecoming game. Both weighed in on the necessity for a proper NHL rink in the Scottsdale area.

“That’s kinda been the story for the last little while. It would mean a lot. I think that’s the only way to do it. Obviously, there’s a lot of hoops you gotta jump through, a lot of people, regulations, all that stuff,” Matthews says.

“Talking to the guys who play here and friends on the [Coyotes], it’s an amazing place to live, amazing place to play. But just missing the rink situation, it’s a little bit off. So if they could figure that out, I’m positive they could find a solution.”

Knies fondly recalls attending the whiteout playoff run of 2012 and seeing Shane Doan, his buddy Josh’s dad, play meaningful games every other day. He got to hang around the dressing room and meet the local hockey heroes. He wishes a new rink could offer the same for the next generation of Arizona youth.

“It’d mean a lot,” Knies says. “I loved growing up and watching hockey here. It’s important that young kids get the same opportunity I had. I was pretty fortunate to be around all those NHL players and get to watch the Coyotes in the playoffs. Arizona grew to be more of a hockey [state]. I’m looking forward to them growing a place here and building a bigger community.”

9. Quote of the Week.

“I wanna say thanks to Dominika, my girlfriend. She is too young to remember I played in Pittsburgh. But I told her all the stories, so don’t worry about it.” —Jaromir Jagr, certified legend, during his number retirement ceremony in Pittsburgh

10. Lauded as the PTO that paid off, the speedy Noah Gregor had established himself as everyday fourth-liner for the Maple Leafs — until this week.

Despite the absence of Calle Järnkrok (broken knuckle), the internal battle for bottom-six ice time in Toronto is heating up.

Gregor, now mired in a 25-game goal drought, has been healthy-scratched in two of Toronto’s past three games.

Coach Keefe says he’s disrupting the winger’s rhythm in hopes he can re-evaluate his role, get refreshed, and snap back in place.

“Whether it is Reavo [Ryan Reaves], McMann, [Pontus] Hölmberg, or Robertson, these guys have all played well and taken steps,” Keefe says. “Each of them has responded well when their number wasn’t called and they had to take a step back, miss games, or move around the lineup. [Gregor] hasn’t taken the same kind of steps.

“He has plateaued a little bit in his play — not just because it has been a long time since he has scored but also the other intangibles of his game that we need to be really good.”

Gregor had endured the scratch treatment in San Jose before, just not with the Leafs. He concedes to a “dip” in his play.

“Just trying to get back to my game,” Gregor says. “Continuing to play with pace. Bringing some energy. I think I’ve done a pretty good job of that consistently throughout the year, having a high compete level. But it’s always having it — not taking any dips. Because if you do, there’s other guys that want to get in the lineup that having been playing good.

“It sucks. You never want to be out of the lineup. You want to be helping the guys win. So when you get back in there, you gotta do your best to not come back out again.”

11. Blame the media!

Feeling the heat as his Devils trail the likes of the Flyers and Capitals in the standings and are in danger of missing the postseason, coach Lindy Ruff used a rather weak excuse as to why his power-play has scored just twice in its past 46 opportunities.

“I imagine you’ve asked every player — now they’re feeling it, and you guys are creating excess pressure,” Ruff told New Jersey reporters.

The coach added that the Devils staff met with individual PP groups to make tweaks that will yield improvement.

The notion that reporters are creating pressure by inquiring about an underachieving team’s flaws, however, is silly. Pressure and expectations are inherent in professional sports.

Excuses like Ruff’s this week are a lazy way out. Coaches who want accountability from their players are better off keeping themselves accountable, too.

For contrast’s sake, here’s Rick Tocchet after the Canucks lost a season-worst fourth straight Thursday: “Not much compete from the guys. That’s on me; I’ve got to take the blame for that. I didn’t get the guys to compete hard enough, so I’ll take the heat on this one.”

12. During the Islanders’ shutout loss to the Blues Thursday, head coach Patrick Roy yanked his goalie with 11(!) minutes to go and his club down 3-0.

Sure, Pavel Buchnevich promptly deposited an empty-net dagger with 9:21 still to go, but I do appreciate having Roy’s unpredictable boldness back in the show.

The league needs more wildcards.

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