A quick mix of the things we gleaned from the week of hockey, serious and less so, and rolling four lines deep. We’re just trying to stay on Jake Voracek’s good side.
1. After months of sitting in our basements wearing nothing but sweatpants covered in Doritos crumbs, we have officially and suddenly entered urgency season.
No exhibition contests, 56 “four-point” games and zero tolerance for not getting your contending team gassed-up and rolling. “Show up or sit down” appears to be the mandate through three days of NHL action.
Recent Stanley Cup finalist Corey Perry was waived before puck drop. Recent Stanley Cup champion Jordan Binnington got yanked after five periods.
Top centre Pierre-Luc Dubois has been called out on the radio waves by John Tortorella, who prefers coaching the guys who want to be here. And Max Domi got a late-game benching to go with his new contract.
Colin White was a healthy scratch in Game 1 of Year 2 of a $28.5-million contract.
Joel Quenneville was threatening to end Keith Yandle’s ironman streak.
And Tony DeAngelo was last seen skating with the NYC taxi squad.
Patience is in short supply.
There is no doubt coach Sheldon Keefe, who has poured a tremendous amount of effort into readying his group, gave his players the verbal gears during the 5-3 loss to 2019-20’s 30th-place team. (Even with no fans to scream over, his vocal chords sounded worn post-game.) But we’re more interested in the actions that come next.
How much tolerance will Keefe have for starter Frederik Andersen’s unimpressive start (.839 save percentage)?
“Obviously, too many pucks have gone in the net, but as we’ve talked about a number of times, that’s not all on him. We’ve got to do a better job in front of him,” Keefe said. “We need to improve in a lot of areas. I think Fred would probably agree that goaltending is one of them. But there’s a lot of other things happening out there that we’ve got to get better at.”
And what if Jack Campbell shines in Saturday’s contest?
How long will Keefe stick with his new power-play formations when the familiar loaded-up PP1, although used sparingly, scored once Wednesday and again Friday?
Is it worth dressing rookie Alexander Barabanov when he’s only skated a total of 9:46 through two games?
And — dare we say it — how long until you start doubting Joe Thornton (0 points, minus-3, two shots) as a top-six forward at this stage in his career?
The current mix isn’t in sync. Nick Robertson, Rasmus Sandin and Travis Boyd are champing at the bit. Feels like lineup tweaks could come to Toronto sooner than later.
And at this point, Keefe’s actions will speak louder than his words.
Patience or pressure: The coach will decide which button to press.
2. Here are my playoff team predictions. Let’s revisit in May so I can come clean with how little I know about hockey.
North: Maple Leafs, Flames, Jets, Oilers
East: Capitals, Flyers, Bruins, Rangers
Central: Lightning, Hurricanes, Stars, Blue Jackets
West: Avalanche, Golden Knights, Blues, Sharks
3. During his fun and informative Spittin’ Chiclets appearance Tuesday, Jack Eichel noted the agreement between the NHLPA and owners that limited off-ice fitness testing when players reported to this month’s abbreviated training camp.
“Some teams still buried their guys on the ice with fitness testing,” Eichel said. (Ralph Krueger takes it easier on the Sabres than Phil Housley used to in this regard.)
“Even like Toronto, I was talking to a couple guys up there. I know their skate test was pretty tough this year.
“I talked to a few guys that were complaining that they had absolutely no legs whatsoever when they got on the ice for practice because they just got completely smoked during the skate test.”
Eichel’s former teammate, Jimmy Vesey, described Keefe’s regimen as difficult a camp he’s had in five years in the league. The Maple Leafs didn’t so much as look at a puck for the first 20 minutes of camp.
“Extremely demanding,” 12-year vet John Tavares said.
Keefe is in go mode, and he’s not shying from instilling what he describes as “Stanley Cup habits.”
“I really felt we needed a reset,” the coach explains during the first episode of The Blueprint. Strict emphasis is being placed on conditioning.
“We’re not gonna hide behind it,” Keefe said. “If we can’t handle that, we can’t handle what’s ahead. Our practices, we are coaching effort.”
That philosophy extends to the taxi unit, which Keefe has renamed the “Stay Ready Squad,” a term cribbed from Brooklyn Nets rookie head coach Steve Nash.
“We think that speaks to the mindset that we need our guys to have in terms of (staying) ready. And it’s also a reminder for us as a coaching staff that we’ve got to do our part to keep them ready. Shout out to Steve Nash for that, because I think it’s just a great mindset to have, in particular for a season like this.”
Nash is the brother-in-law of Leafs new assistant coach Manny Malhotra, and the two speak about the craft of coaching often.
“I have a lot of really good talks with both him and his (younger) brother Martin, who’s a soccer coach, and both of them are incredibly intelligent when it comes to sports and understanding not just the Xs and Os, but philosophies and concepts and ideas and traits of successful people,” Malhotra told me.
“I’ve found a lot of help in just chatting with those guys. Obviously, it’s different sports, but there’s a lot of things that carry over to sports in general that we discuss.”
4. The Buffalo Sabres unveiled their new dressing room seating arrangement, which is never random.
Great move putting rookie Dylan Cozens, 19, between top-two centres Eichel and Eric Staal. Plenty of knowledge to soak.
“I was rooting for him to have a good personal tournament, but I didn’t want him to beat the States,” Eichel said of his silver-winning stall neighbour. Team Canada’s Cozens took a private jet direct to Sabres camp after the gold-medal game at world juniors, then registered a point in his NHL debut.
“Must be nice, eh? Finish the game, hop on the PJ, off to Buffalo. I never had it that good,” Eichel cracked. “He’s probably a guy who’s going to make an impact on our team.”
— Buffalo Sabres (@BuffaloSabres) January 14, 2021
5. Sitting at home for nearly a year, Peter Laviolette had plenty of time to Netflix and chill before landing the Washington Capitals gig.
“I’ve watched every show out there. Every series out there. The best series by far was Cobra Kai,” Laviolette said after winning his first night in Washington. “So I thought about it, and I got this bandana for the most offensive player in the game tonight — and that would be T.J. Oshie.”
Laviolette awarded a second Miyagi-Do bandana for the club’s best defensive player of the game, Brenden Dillon.
Love this new tradition. Never forget that Laviolette can be a fun guy.
— Washington Capitals (@Capitals) January 15, 2021
6. A happy jolt ran through NHL (and, safe to assume, Rogers) headquarters when Wednesday’s TV ratings came in.
The most-watched opening night on Sportsnet attracted 6.6 million viewers. The 2.1 million average audience for the Maple Leafs–Canadiens OT funfest made it the most-watched regular-season game in network history. Toss in 1.1 million average viewers for Oilers-Canucks, and Sportsnet also enjoyed its biggest double-header.
Of course, with no fans permitted in the building and no non-hockey events dragging us away from our screens, there are plenty of reasons for the spike.
But the intrigue around the all-Canadian division is living up to the hype, and it’s a shame these refreshing rivalries aren’t being waged in packed rinks. (As predicted, the online grudges across Canada are already aflame.)
Very early returns, granted. And NHL commissioner Bettman has said he prefers a more vertical (thus border-free) divisional alignment, which makes a ton more sense for local TV start times as well.
That said, if interest in the new divisions remains high, the decision-makers would at least have to take a long look. The NHL’s divisional lines have been redrawn several times.
An issue here, in my fantasy alignment, is that with 32 teams starting in 2021-22, a seven-team division would throw competitive balance out of whack.
Quebec City, please use the “raise-hand” function if you have something to say.
7. As he takes steps to rebuilding the Arizona Coyotes, GM Bill Armstrong has already checked a couple boxes off his to-do list. He salvaged a second-round pick (and saved his employer money) by trading Derek Stepan to the Ottawa Senators before puck drop, thus gaining a nice asset in return for a 56-game rental.
More important, Armstrong hired Coyotes icon Shane Doan as chief hockey development officer Monday, repairing the fractured — and, frankly, kind of embarrassing — relationship between the club and one of the desert hockey’s greatest ambassadors.
“I’m really, really happy for him. I think it’s a bit long overdue for a guy of his calibre and what he did for the city, what he did for that organization,” Arizona native Auston Matthews says. “I hope it really works out.”
Doan was one of Matthews’ idols growing up. Their relationship has grown over the years.
Doan helped the Leafs star secure ice and organize skates during the off-season, and Matthews has skated with Shane’s son, Josh. The 18-year-old defenceman is off to a killer start this season with a loaded Chicago Steel squad in the USHL. The younger Doan has racked up nine goals and 19 points through 18 games.
“He’s a really good player. He’s still young,” says Matthews, who doesn’t take his relationship with Josh’s dad for granted.
“It’s a privilege to get to know him and the type of person that he is,” Matthews says. “He’s one of the best people I’ve ever met hockey, so I’m really excited for him.”
Shane Doan joined #HockeyCentral with @JeffMarek, @jtbourne & @StuMunrue today to chat about the impact Auston Matthews has in Arizona!
Full interview here: https://t.co/VEcN45dOgY#LeafsForever pic.twitter.com/87BKCnf68J
— Sportsnet 590 The FAN (@FAN590) January 12, 2021
8. When Randy Carlyle bounced from the Anaheim Ducks to the Maple Leafs midway through the 2011-12 campaign, a couple of Leafs at the time, Mike Brown and Joffrey Lupul, were already familiar with his coaching style.
So, the two decided to get teammate Phil Kessel all riled up about the coming of Carlyle spelling a serious crackdown on fitness.
Listen as Brown tells the story — complete with a beautiful Kessel impression — on John Scott’s Dropping the Gloves podcast. Bonus points if you can keep from laughing out loud.
How the boys pranked Phil Kessel
Hilarious story from Mike Brown: pic.twitter.com/yZAChF85nU
— Dropping the Gloves (@dropping_gloves) January 14, 2021
9. Zdeno Chara wields the longest stick in the NHL, 67 inches. The six-foot-nine defender has special permission to use this equipment, which exceeds book regulations.
Prior to the Capitals’ season opener, a giddy Evgeny Kuznetsov asked to take the twig for a test drive.
“Yeah, yeah,” Chara replied. “Just don’t break it. I don’t have enough.”
“Can I try it for couple minutes?”
Kuzy slap shot power rating updated to 99 pic.twitter.com/38Lpz5TsVf
— Washington Capitals (@Capitals) January 12, 2021
10. Gary Bettman, now 68, celebrated his 50th birthday with a group of friends by vacationing in the Canadian Rockies, touring through Banff and Jasper.
Because all Canadians know each other, one of my good friends was the guide on a boat tour Bettman and his crew took on Maligne Lake, which shows off Spirit Island, an incredibly scenic spot.
“They were a fun group. We made the whole boat sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to him. He was a nice guy,” my friend recalls.
“Definitely. Their whole group was. He seemed to really like the area. It is beautiful.”
I say this to say that the very day the playoff bubble ended in Edmonton, the NHL sent a small group of events staff to scout the Rockies’ Lake Louise as a potential locale for an outdoor game.
The snag: Because Lake Louise is designated as a national park, you can’t start papering it with corporate logos. Without fans and in order for an outdoor game to make any financial sense during a pandemic, the league would need sponsors.
Because the Canadian government was already bending over backwards to accommodate a 56-game season, the league opted not to pursue Lake Louise in a vigorous way this year.
“It’s one of the most beautiful places in the world,” acknowledges chief content officer Steve Mayer. “Never say never.”
Lake Louise did provide the inspiration to seek out comparable “wow” sites south of the border, and Lake Tahoe rose above four other strong contenders for the honours.
Remember, the 2008 Winter Classic was initially a one-off spectacle. Depending on how the Tahoe experiment goes, this could be the start of a new outdoor series.
Would the NHL drop the puck in Alaska?
“Absolutely a possibility,” Mayer says. “Sure.”
In the most heartbreaking Zoom moment of the week, Colorado’s Pierre-Edouard Bellmare had his dreams crushed by Andre Burakovsky when he was informed that their game would not actually take place on Lake Tahoe itself:
It’s too early to declare the 2022 Winter Classic a go, but if it does take place, it’ll be at Target Field in Minnesota. Some teams have called the NHL hoping to leap the Classic hosting queue, but whenever the virus permits full stadiums again, the Wild have dibs.
That decision — 2022 or 2023? — can’t be delayed for too long because the ticket-selling machine will need to kick into gear.
“To do the Winter Classic without fans, it’s not gonna fly,” Mayer says.
Target holds 39,504 for baseball games. When safe, a New Year’s gathering of that many hockey fans in one place will be quite the visual.
11. All eyes will be glued to Sunday’s starting lineup in Sunrise.
Yandle (866 consecutive games played) has fallen out of favour with the Florida Panthers, putting the NHL’s longest active and third all-time ironman streak in jeopardy. Rumour du jour: Yandle, a Boston native, would be willing to waive his no-move clause to join the Bruins, a team that lost two experienced left-shot D-men to free agency and expressed some interest in lefty Oliver Ekman-Larsson in the fall.
That doesn’t necessarily mean Boston is interested, however.
Currently, the Bruins do not have enough cap space to accommodate Yandle’s $6.35-million hit, but if there’s a will, there’s a way.
Yandle inherited the active ironman baton when Andrew Cogliano (seventh all-time with 830 GP) was suspended in 2018. Incredible to think that both streaks could get snuffed without injury.
Hot on Yandle’s heels are San Jose Sharks forward Patrick Marleau (854) and the Coyotes’ Phil Kessel (844).
“If we had to start Sunday, he’s not going to be in the lineup,” coach Quenneville told NHL @ The Rink, noting he has 11 defencemen to choose from.
“The opportunity is a little tight for him right now and tough, but things could change quickly in our business.”
12. Here are new daddy Zach Hyman’s thoughts on going into 2020-21 without a contract in place for 2021-22:
“People make a huge deal out of a contract year. Obviously, it’s a big year. But for me it’s always about the team and what can I do to help the team win. And that’s kind of where my head’s at. I haven’t really thought about the contract too much. Obviously, Toronto is a place that I love and would love to be, but just focusing on this year and focusing on the team, and that stuff usually gets sorted out pretty quickly afterwards.”
— NHLPA (@NHLPA) January 15, 2021