Quick Shifts: Why the Maple Leafs’ new ZIP Line is ‘a juggernaut’

Watch as Maple Leafs' forward Zach Hyman scores his 6th goal of the season on Toronto's first shot of the game.

A quick mix of the things we gleaned from the week of hockey, serious and less so, and rolling four lines deep. Rest in peace, Walter Gretzky. We lost a beauty.

1. It’s been almost as difficult to contain as it has been to name.

Only in the world of the hyper-analyzed, exhaustively covered Toronto Maple Leafs (guilty as charged) can a trio of role players be thrown together for four games and spark nearly as many acronyms as shifts.

Sheldon Keefe’s newly formed third unit of Ilya Mikheyev, Pierre Engvall and Zach Hyman has been dubbed the MEH Line (because opponents’ shrug and underestimate their prowess — to their own detriment); the HEM Line (due to their ability to stuff the Edmonton Oilers in their own zone); and the ZIP Line (thanks to their extreme speed).

After witnessing the three-headed forechecking monster’s role in sweeping Edmonton this week, Mitch Marner offered a fourth nickname.

“It’s a bit of a Juggernaut Line with the speed it has on it,” Marner enthused. “A bunch of dogs, really. It’s been fun to watch those three go to work.”

The ZIP Line (my favourite here) will start its fifth straight road game Saturday night, when Keefe’s Leafs try to avenge Thursday’s loss in Vancouver to the Canucks. Despite Hyman’s minimal power-play time, the trio has produced five goals (at least one per night) and combined for 10 points on this trip.

The Leafs have long searched for a third line with an identity, one that can gel and provide a supplemental scoring punch on the odd night the $40-million top-six can’t do all the lifting.

Secure Hyman could complement anyone in the top six, Keefe wanted to reach outside the box and see if the pending UFA could drive his own shutdown line. Originally, Alexander Kerfoot was cast to pivot this group, but since Wayne Simmonds went down with a broken wrist, Kerfoot has found a niche on Tavares’s wing. And Engvall, who failed to make the opening-night roster, has responded to some tough love.

“I knew he was going to be an important piece of our team here this season,” Keefe said.

“We’ve made things harder on him to earn that opportunity, mainly because I just feel like with a player with his skillset, his size, his speed, his physicality, the potential that he has, I don’t even know he realizes how good he can be. We didn’t want to hand him anything.”

Not only are the six-foot-five Engvall and six-foot-three Mikheyev large bodies. They’re fast as gazelles, with eagle-like wingspans. More than ever, they’re starting to use those gifts for good.

Case in point: Mikheyev out-hustling Connor McDavid on Wednesday in a long sprint.

“You don’t see it often where it’s a strict one-on-one race, hash mark to hash mark,” Hyman said. “His speed was on display there. We know about it internally. He shows it all the time. But to see it against McDavid was obviously cool.”

(These moments resonate. Playing some after-school keepaway on the pond when my 10-year-old Thursday, the kid chirped me: “‘C’mon, Dad! Do you have Mikheyev speed or just McDavid speed.’”)

Hyman points to the ZIP Line’s pressure in all zones for their success. Quick breakouts. Immediate trouble on the dump-in. Three hounds, one bone.

“They’ve been really fun to play with. I feel like we have the puck a lot because we can all skate and we can all move up and down the ice really well,” Hyman said. “We’re trying to use their speed as much as possible and put the puck in position for both those guys to skate onto it and, once we’re in the zone, just control some O-zone time.”

Ever the chemist, Keefe still uses Hyman on Matthews’ wing in critical situations and may throw Kerfoot back to 3C at some point.

But the coach is pleased with the ZIP Line right now — and we can’t remember the last time the Leafs’ third unit was getting rave reviews for a week straight.

“It’s a lot of speed. A lot of tenacity on the puck,” Keefe said. “The other lines have to be performing and have to be going well in order for us to maintain it with the injuries that we’re working through. But we liked the idea of it, and the small sample it’s been together, it’s been effective.

“We like it on the road, especially, where matchups are difficult. Just to have a line like that you can feel pretty good about when you put them over the boards.”

2. Hyman’s superb play of late is all the more impressive considering he’s skating on a badly battered foot.

Hyman missed two games in late February after taking a pair of hard shots off the boot. But he never left a game in progress. He said the play happens too fast to think: “Oh, I should get out of the way on this one.”

How much does a clapper off the foot hurt? Well, Hyman once played half a playoff series with a torn ACL.

“You can battle through a little bit of pain,” Hyman said. “I feel like I’m able to skate and do all the things that I can do otherwise. It’s more painful not playing, to be honest.”

The bruising could be worse. Hyman wears protective shot blockers over his skates, an addition to his equipment bag since his AHL days.

Hyman saw fellow Marlie Connor Brown get in a lane and suffer a broken foot on the penalty kill in 2015-16.

“And I’m like, ‘I don’t want that to happen to me,’ so I decided to put it on,” Hyman explained. “You have to get used them a little bit, but I think it’s extremely important because you can’t control a puck hitting you in the foot. There’s nothing you can do. It’s just a part of the game. You can limit that damage. Give yourself a better chance to get out of it with a less of an injury.”

Even hurting, Hyman is the model of consistency whenever he’s fit to dress.

“We all know that when he puts his jersey on, he plays the same way, no matter what,” Keefe said. “That’s what we’ve come to expect.”

3. Quote of the Week.

“The guy that’s playing tonight was born in Russia.” —Islanders coach Barry Trotz, playing coy with his starting goalie and generally not giving a flying fig about your fantasy team.

4. Topping the reasons the 2021 trade deadline could be sluggish — thin rental crop, quarantine conundrum, minimal playoff-gate incentive — is a serious lack of financial liquidity under this flat salary cap.

More than half the league is already using LTIR. Another handful have less than $1 million in cap space, and most of the teams with wiggle room are rebuilding.

Four contenders stand out, then, because they have enough space to make a traditional pick-for-player rental trade (per CapFriendly.com). They’ll just need to convince ownership to spend in tight times.

Florida Panthers ($5.8 in million projected cap space): Will rookie GM Bill Zito get the greenlight to invest in this surprising contender? If so, a young defenceman (Dante Fabbro, Vince Dunn) could be the play.

Carolina Hurricanes ($4.6 million): Carolina poked around the goalie market in the off-season, and Petr Mrazek’s injury may inspire Don Waddell to bolster his depth in net. The GM needs clarity on UFA-to-be Dougie Hamilton, too.

Boston Bruins ($3.4 million): The core isn’t getting younger. A left-shot defenceman or scoring winger won’t hurt.

Philadelphia Flyers ($2.7 million): An experienced defender (Mattias Ekholm?) is the rumoured target of the day.

This is not to rule out the other Cup hopefuls, like Colorado, Toronto, Washington and Vegas, adding a piece; they’ll just need to get creative.

5. That the sputtering Columbus Blue Jackets are searching for help up the middle after trading away Pierre-Luc Dubois and buying out Alexander Wennberg (Florida) should be of no surprise.

Captain Nick Foligno is a wonderful leader and excellent checker but, at 33, he’s not going to be a driving playmaker. Alexandre Texier could well develop into a force, but the kid is 21. He’s not there yet.

So, if GM Jarmo Kekalainen searches the NHL’s top-100 point-getters or top-120 goal-scorers, he won’t see a single Jackets centreman.

Jack Roslovic needs help.

The man who was supposed to seize the opportunity here is Max Domi, on his third team in four seasons. Domi has been given plenty of offensive opportunity. He’s starting 56.3 per cent of his shifts in the fun end of the rink and gets power-play time.

Alas, Domi has only three goals, seven points and a team-worst minus-11 rating through 25 games. He’s currently skating on the wing.

6. Joe Thornton has a gift and a reputation for giving his teammates nicknames that stick.

Stuck in a house to serve his pre-camp quarantine with Mac Hollowell, Rasmus Sandin, Auston Matthews and Thornton, William Nylander was christened “Willy Styles” by Jumbo.

“He started calling me that, so I put that on my sticks now,” Nylander said.

John Tavares believes the new handle suits his flashy Swedish friend’s personality.

“Me and him always joke about how we’re very opposite of each other, but we get along really well,” Tavares said.

“People would see me as being a lot more reserved, a little bit quieter. And Willy’s just a fun, outgoing guy and obviously likes to be a little bit different and showcase that, which is fantastic. It’s part of who he is and what makes him a great person, a great teammate, a great player so, obviously, we love having him and those styles.”

7. I’m a huge fan of cringe comedy. The original Office? Curb Your Enthusiasm? The Comeback? Bring it on.

Well, Zoom reporting — with its technical difficulties and accidental audio delays — has ushered in its fair share of heightened awkwardness and cringe-worthy moments.

Take this wonderfully atrocious exchange between Montreal’s Jonathan Drouin and reporter John Lu, that has Drouin attempting to leave the podium three times. You can’t script this stuff.

Très bien.

8. After Kasperi Kapanen busted out the ol’ fake-the-slapper, score-on-the-wrister move on a rush Tuesday, he was quick to give credit to the move’s godfather.

“Jason Spezza, the big daddy himself. I saw him do that, and I wanted to try it out. His was a lot nicer than mine,” said Kapanen of his former teammate.

“He actually texted me after the game and said: ‘Keep the move alive.’ ”

Whether it Kapanen cribbing from Spezza after watching some Oilers-Leafs highlights or Trevor Zegras boldly attempting to score his first NHL goal the Svechnikov way, I love that today’s players are borrowing from each other’s style of scoring.

There is a hunger to get creative and expand what’s possible.

Spezza’s linemate, Travis Boyd, explains how Spezza turned Mike Smith into a statue last Saturday before firing into a sea of open net short-side.

“He sells the shot really well,” Boyd said. “A lot of people fake a shot, but it’s kind of quick and it doesn’t actually fake anyone out. You can kind of read that it’s a fake. He sold the fake on the slap really hard, and then just pushing it that few feet before he shot it gave him that whole side and really locked up Smith.”

Or, as Jack Campbell, put it, watching 200 feet away: “Wow.”

9. If Mark Stone isn’t an Olympian in 2022, we riot.

Chuck him in your top six, Doug Armstrong.

10. We’re not ready to say Alex Galchenyuk will pan out as a reclamation project (seven teams in four seasons, you know the story).

We are ready to say that the Maple Leafs are giving the 27-year-old flyer the best (last?) chance to stick by approaching Galchenyuk’s integration the proper way.

Toronto has the forward depth, the resources and the standings cushion to be patient where an organization like Ottawa did not.

Even though the 2012 third-overall pick had never played an AHL game in his life, Keefe said it was “an easy decision” to reassign Galchenyuk to the Marlies, “a place where he can find his confidence and be not so concerned about his place in the lineup or making mistakes or things like that.”

The plan is for Galchenyuk to eat up a ton of minutes on the Marlies’ top line so he can familiarize himself with Toronto’s systems, rediscover his timing and feel important to a team’s success before getting recalled to the Show.

“How good he is, I don’t think it’ll take too long for him to adjust,” Marlies coach Greg Moore predicted prior to Galchenyuk’s AHL debut. “We’ll definitely lean on him. He’s a special talent and we’ll take advantage of that.”

Galchenyuk set up goals in each of his first two games with the Marlies, both wins.

“I don’t really approach it in the sense that a player has lost his way,” Moore explained. “When they show up here, it’s a clean slate, a new opportunity. All the trust is given to a player that is joining us.

“He’s hungry. He’s excited. We’re going to do our best to put him in the right spots to succeed and build himself up.”

11. Rich Clune has scored a grand total of 20 goals in his five seasons with the Toronto Marlies. In recent years, he’s been a regular scratch.

And yet, naming the inspiring 33-year-old captain of the Maple Leafs’ farm club was essentially a no-brainer.

“He’s been the unofficial captain of the Marlies, really, for as long as he’s been here,” said Keefe, who still sees effects from the workhorse Clune in the Leafs room now. “I was thrilled for him.”

Clune’s battle with substance abuse and his remarkable perseverance have been well documented, most notably in the 2020 short film Hi, My Name Is Dicky.

“He has the full respect of everybody. He’s lived an incredible life,” said Marlies coach Greg Moore, who gave Clune the C on Monday. “Presenting that with him… it was difficult to get the words out and find the right words. I actually was nervous to give the speech. Just because I don’t know if I could’ve done him justice, to be honest, with the right words.

“He means so much to this organization. He means so much to everybody for so many years — even with people who aren’t here now.”

A mentor. A gym rat. A wellspring of positivity. A living example of what beating the odds looks like.

“I don’t know what to say, boys,” said Clune, fidgeting with his newly altered sweater. “This is the best thing that’s ever happened to me.”

12. Want to feel the power of sport?

Make time to watch the excellent Pelé documentary on Netflix. My 10-year-old enjoyed it as much as I did.

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