Quick Shifts: 5 good, 5 bad signs for the Maple Leafs

Sheldon Keefe said it's unfair for fans and media to blame Nick Ritchie for the Toronto Maple Leafs' top line struggles, and that Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner deserve equal criticism.

A quick mix of the things we gleaned from the week of hockey, serious and less so, and rolling four lines deep. The author further relaxed his dress code while writing this week’s blog.

1. There once was a Toronto Maple Leafs coach who liked to divide the schedule into five-game segments. Win every segment (i.e., earn six points) and you make the playoffs, the thinking goes.

Sort through the first five-game segment of the 2021-22 Leafs campaign — which concluded with Friday’s 5-3 home loss to the undefeated(?!) San Jose Sharks — and you’ll see five standings points and a mixed bag.

Coach Sheldon Keefe’s brief pause when asked if his group has found his identity speaks volumes.

“I feel like we’ve done good things in some areas, but a big piece of our team is executing on offence,” Keefe replied.

“And we haven’t done that.”

Without leaping to any grand conclusions yet, here are five good and five not-so-good trends from the mediocre Leafs’ first five games.

Five good:

• William Nylander: Five points, nearly 20 minutes per night, using his body, eagerly taking on some penalty-kill and leadership responsibilities.

• Jack Campbell: Sparkling .953 save percentage and 1.18 goals-against average through four appearances. Petr Mrazek’s health and Michael Hutchinson’s shakiness underscore how badly Toronto needs Campbell at his best.

• Michael Bunting: Number 58 sweaters are selling, Darcy Tucker is tweeting, and the Scarborough late-bloomer is drawing penalties and scoring goals.

• Third line: The underlying numbers of Ondrej Kase and faceoff beast David Kampf are phenomenal. This despite starting the vast majority of their shifts 180 feet away from the opposition’s net.

• Fourth line: Pierre Engvall, Jason Spezza and Wayne Simmonds have all scored. Much more effective unit since Auston Matthews came back and bumped Michael Amadio to 13th forward status.

Five bad:

• Superstar scoring: Lots of chatter about chances — and we’re sure the puck will cross the line eventually — but Matthews, Mitch Marner and John Tavares have combined for one goal through 12 man-games played.

Marner’s 13-game goal drought is his longest since 2018.

• Slow starts: The Maple Leafs have allowed the first goal in four of five games, a disturbing trend spilling over from the post-season. On Friday, San Jose looked like the more organized and determined group despite playing its third game in four nights.

• Health issues: Mrazek, Ilya Mikheyev and top prospect Nick Robertson have all suffered significant injuries. Matthews (wrist) missed the first three games. Justin Holl got sick, and Jake Muzzin has already needed a maintenance day.

Nick Ritchie: Whether the big winger was miscast or has simply underperformed in his top-line trial, Keefe’s bumping Ritchie down the lineup Friday was a warning shot.

But the coach believes the left winger is absorbing too much blame for not registering a point as a Leaf.

“I can just tell by the line of questioning I’ve been getting over the last number of days that we want to pile on Nick Ritchie here, but let’s not narrow the focus too much,” Keefe steered after Friday’s loss.

“It was more to me about the fact that line wasn’t going today. You should be asking as many questions about Matthews and Marner today as you should be Ritch.”

• Backup goaltending: Mrazek and Hutchinson have allowed seven goals in five periods of work and are a combined 0-2.

2. A little surprised Rick Tocchet’s comments on Matthews didn’t go viral.

Here’s what the former Arizona Coyotes coach and current analyst had to say on Real Kyper & Bourne when asked about the possibility of the Toronto superstar coming home in three years and signing with his boyhood team as an unrestricted free agent:

“Auston Matthews has got a ton of money, right? He can go anywhere, and he spends most of the summer in Scottsdale — that’s 110 degrees. So, the kid loves Arizona; he loves Scottsdale. He’s there anytime he can.

“Is there a possibility? There’s a huge possibility. Obviously, the Coyotes can’t do anything for three years. But I can honestly tell you that there’s going to be, probably from ownership, a big push to take a shot at him in three years.

“Minor hockey — they’ve done a great job in the kids’ program, and Auston Matthews is the posterboy, right? So, is there a big chance? Yeah, I think there’s a big chance.

“If the Leafs can somehow be very successful the next three years — is there a Cup or something? — I could see Auston Matthews staying in Toronto. If they’re not so successful, you see maybe Auston make the jump.

“But saying that, the Coyotes got three years to make sure they can get their team up to par where they’re a challenging team. Because why would Auston Matthews sign there if the team’s not good? Obviously, he’s going to get that money anywhere. The next few years are gonna be intriguing, how it’s gonna work out.

“The Leafs better win – put it this way.”

3. Interesting to see a storied franchise like the Leafs heed some player requests and take a cue from the Coyotes by relaxing their game-night dress code.

“I think it’s where the game is heading, instead of having that old-school, suit-and-tie rule,” Arizona’s Christian Fischer told reporters. “You look around other leagues, these teams when they walk into their games — and it’s actually pretty exciting to see what players are wearing, what their taste is.”

Fischer received texts from players on rival clubs hoping their GMs might follow, um, suit.

“Guys on other teams are kind of jealous: ‘What the heck are you guys doing?’ I know quite a few of my friends around the league who are pretty jealous that we get to wear some fashionable clothes, some nice, high-end streetwear to the games.”

Matthews is certainly leading the charge here, as the guys strike a “happy medium” between casual and formal.

“I don’t mind wearing a suit, but it gets old pretty quick,” he told Emily Kaplan over the summer. “I think it’d be fun to wear different things and be able to express yourself, similar to what the NBA does or even the NFL a little bit.”

The captain is on board, too.

“Trying to keep it professional, but certainly we’ve tried to give a little more freedom. It’s gone well so far. Guys have been really receptive,” Tavares said. “I don’t think anyone will worry too much what I wear compared to some of the other guys. They’re really into their style and their fashion. For me, just kind of keep it simple.”

Most Leafs have been downplaying excitement over shedding their collars, and some (Jason Spezza) still choose to rock a suit like old times.

“I don’t believe there’s much correlation in how they dress coming into the building and how they perform, but there’s some bigger-picture stuff in there that they believe in,” Keefe explained.

“I’m good with it. As a parent of young kids in minor hockey, who has had to put them in a shirt and tie to drive out to the arena, I’m all for some relaxed dress codes.”

“Walking into the rink in Toronto, I feel right wearing a suit. So, it’s just kind of my values,” says Spezza, who may unknot the tie on the road.

“You see the Raptors doing it. I think it’s a great thing. The younger generation has a love for the fashion and for showing their personalities. It’s very subtle and doesn’t affect our game at all and allows guys to have personality. So, it’s great. I think the fans will enjoy it.”

4. Larry Brooks floated the possibility of Montreal Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin jumping to the L.A. Kings next season. (Both Bergevin and current Kings GM Rob Blake are in the final years of their contracts. Bergevin felt it necessary to address the media Wednesday, saying he’d like another extension with the Canadiens.)

Naturally, the uncertainty around Bergevin’s future has compounded with his hockey team’s ugly 0-5 start and resulted in another round of Patrick Roy rumours.

A trusted source says there is “nothing imminent” regarding Roy returning to the NHL and that his immediate focus is on running the Quebec Remparts, who are off to 6-1 start in the QMJHL.

That said, Roy remains open to another big-league front office job, whether that’s “with the Canadiens, Sabres, or anywhere else.”

5. The Canadiens’ power-play finally snuffed its 0-for-15 run — 0-for-21 if you stretch the drought back to the Stanley Cup Final in Thursday’s loss to Carolina.

The Habs were only operating at a 19.2 per cent success rate at 5-on-4 last season (17th overall). On Thursday they improved their 2021-22 rate to 5.3 per cent.

Yet when Dominique Ducharme was asked if he prioritized power-play improvement during training camp, the coach said he did not.

His thinking was that if you devote too much time to the power-play, you’re taking away from attention to even-strength play and the penalty kill. So, every situation was given equal attention.

Teams this starved for goals need to get their mojo from somewhere, and finally Montreal’s special teams got on the board Thursday.

Why not make the PP priority No. 1?

If Montreal’s scorers can find success with the man-advantage, maybe that confidence can carry over into 5-on-5 play.

6. “A disaster” is how one source described the early goings in Chicago.

The Blackhawks (0-4-1, minus-12 goal differential) made some reverse-the-rebuild moves and veteran commitments over the summer but find themselves sharing the basement with the tanker ship Coyotes.

Coach Jeremy Colliton is experiencing vice-grip pressure, and 24-year-old playmaker Dylan “Healthy Scratch” Strome needed five games to squeeze into a lineup desperate for goals.

Strome was recently leap-frogged by undrafted 22-year-old callup Mike Hardman.

“I think we’re just trying to find the right combination, recipe here,” Colliton told reporters of Strome’s benchings.

“I’m not as worried about the 5-on-5 scoring as I’m worried about what we’ve given up and the quality going the other way, and the mentality that we’re playing with. To me, that’s what Hardman brings. He’s physical, hard to play against. He just plays an honest, simple game. I think that will help push our team in the proper direction.”

7. Adam Fox, 23, has picked up right where his Norris-winning sophomore campaign left off.

Incredible to see all the smooth little plays and decisions the New York Rangers defenceman makes in-person. He’s seldom caught out of position.

His new coach, Gerard Gallant, is throwing Fox over the boards nearly 26 minutes per night — and the blueliner has delivered with a plus-5 rating and three points through four games.

Gallant already knew Fox was “real good” watching him on TV last year, but his appreciation for the 23-year-old’s game has grown significantly.

“Now I see what all the fuss is about,” Gallant says.

“The way he moves the puck. And when you watch him every day at practice, his skill level, his talent level, and the hockey IQ is second to none.”

8. Keefe is showing Engvall video of shifts from teammate Wayne Simmonds as an example of how to play more physical and use his big frame to gain position over defenders when he’s in the offensive zone.

9. One week into the NHL season and already 17 teams — more than half the league — are dipping into long-term injured reserve for cap relief.

Moreover, six of those teams have at least five players on LTIR.

10. Anze Kopitar, Alex Ovechkin and Steven Stamkos – in that order – were named the NHL’s Three Stars of opening week. Great Scott!

Apparently, the dial on the DeLorean got accidentally set for 2011.

11. To stay fresh, Maple Leafs backup goalie Michael Hutchinson partially gears down and works out during the first and second intermission.

“My last year with the Jets [2017-18] I ended up coming into a lot of games in relief, and success was up and down [depending] whether you felt good or not going in. Usually, you don’t feel good as a goalie if you’re coming in late in the second period or in the third period after you’ve been sitting around forever,” Hutchinson says.

The unusual routine caught teammate Jack Campbell off-guard, but Hutchinson’s explanation makes sense.

“Imagine singing a car ride for two hours without moving, and then getting out and someone telling you go run sprints. You’re just not gonna feel well and feel in the game,” Hutchinson says.

“Talking to a strength coach in the summer, we decided to try working out in between periods instead of lifting after the game. So I do my premium lifting in half-gear, and that way it keeps you warmed up, engaged and ready in case the unfortunate happens and you end up being thrown in. It just gives you the best chance to put yourself in a position to feel good out there and succeed.”

So, if you see Hutchinson sweating on the bench, it’s not nerves. It’s because he just pumped iron.

12. Boston Bruins president Cam Neely told local reporters that he’s not ruling out a midseason signing for UFAs Tuukka Rask and David Krejci.

“We told them both that the door is open if they do decide to come back,” Neely said. “That remains to be seen for both of them. It really depends on where they’re at both mentally and physically.”

Physically, Krejci looks pret-ty, pret-ty, pretty good. (Yes, a new season of Curb Your Enthusiasm is almost here.)

The 35-year-old centre has rung up a team-leading eight goals and 12 points through his first 12 games for Olomouc HC in his native Czech league.

Krejci announced his NHL retirement in July, making family a priority. But, hey, minds sometimes change.

No rush. Players must be signed by March 21 to be eligible for the playoffs.

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