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A Toronto Maple Leafs Christmas Wishlist – Maple Leafs Hot Stove

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Let’s start with the most important stuff right off the top – I’d like to wish all our readers a Merry Christmas and a Happy Holidays spent with family, friends, and good food (and wine!).

As for the Toronto Maple Leafs — who are winners of six of their last seven and are finally reasonably healthy — let’s look at what they might be asking for from Santa as the second half of the season approaches.

Productive backup goaltending

No real secrets here. Frederik Andersen leads the league in total minutes played and is third in the league in shots against. He has played in 29 of 37 games. While the Leafs have made headway in the standings of late, they need Andersen to play a lot to make the playoffs. That said, they also need a rested Andersen to go anywhere in the playoffs. For three consecutive years, the Leafs have made the playoffs and Andersen has managed mixed results (although he did post a .922 save percentage in seven games last Spring).

This has consistently led to questions about fatigue and whether he was overplayed come playoff time. You generally play every other day in the postseason, and should the Leafs ever advance beyond the first round, the amount of hockey really adds up. Who knows, they might even need a game or two out of a backup in the playoffs (we’ve seen a number of teams call on theirs over the years).

A top-four defenseman

It’s unfortunate that this is still a need given they made a big trade for a defenseman in the summer and Justin Holl has emerged this season, but here we are.

The Rielly – Barrie pairing is fun when you’re playing Detroit and New York, but it’s hard to see them holding up in a playoff series against Boston, Washington, or Tampa Bay. The Muzzin – Holl pairing has been solid so far and there is little reason to think that won’t continue, so if they can find a defense partner for Morgan Rielly and push Barrie down next to Travis Dermott on what would essentially be an offensive-zone-faceoff-only pairing that’s dedicated to offense, it is the best they can do.

With some forwards starting to emerge amid injuries (Ilya Mikheyev, Pierre Engvall, possibly Dmytro Timashov), does that make an Andreas Johnsson or Kasperi Kapanen expendable to help address this need?   

Stability

It has been a whirlwind start to the season in Toronto. It didn’t help that Zach Hyman and Travis Dermott were rehabbing from offseason surgeries followed by injuries to John Tavares and Mitch Marner. Alexander Kerfoot and Trevor Moore have also missed time, and now Andreas Johnsson is out. The roster has never been settled, and while no team is ever truly healthy, they didn’t even a chance to slot their players in as they really envisioned it at any point. It has been a constant game of musical chairs.

Then, of course, Mike Babcock was fired. That, too, was a whirlwind — from the firing itself to the stories that emerged after. It would be beneficial for everyone involved to just enjoy a drama-free run here for a bit, allow the team to get healthy, settle in (which they seem to be now), and play without distraction. This is still a very, very good hockey team when healthy and they are starting to look like it again.

If you wanted to add a stocking stuffer, I’d throw in a depth forward, too. When the Leafs are fully healthy, Engvall and Moore are bumped to the fourth line and then there is a collection of players vying for that other spot (Frederik Gauthier, Jason Spezza, and Timashov). I think a true defensive forward who they could use up the lineup at certain key times in games would be a nice fit there (similar to what the Penguins did with Matt Cullen or Chicago with John Madden at one point).


Notes

– In all three games this past week, the Toronto Maple Leafs started the John Tavares line on shift one along with Jake Muzzin and Justin Holl on defense. Sheldon Keefe has pretty much been doing this for weeks and it looks like this will be the Leafs’ go-to line to start the night and set the tone. It’s important to have consistency in that spot and a trustworthy unit that can get the team into the game. When Tavares was out — as well as Marner — the Leafs tried a few different combinations, including the Matthews line, and there were a number of occasions that they were dominated by the opposition on the first shift of the night. Now, with a relatively healthy team and a trustworthy defense pairing, the coaching staff looks like it generally knows who they are starting the game with. That said, you can’t give up a first-shift breakaway against the Detroit Red Wings.

– Checking ice time around the league, I was a little surprised to see that Morgan Rielly is 10th in total time on ice played (for players), so far this season. The next highest Leaf is Cody Ceci, who ranks 41st in the league. I don’t think many would argue at this point that Rielly is even the best (or most important, perhaps) defenseman on the team; it’s really the two defensemen getting the most responsibility each night. It would also be hard to argue that Ceci is within their top four most important defensemen.

That seems to be evening out a bit now as Ceci played between 19:14 and 20:06 over the past week. Against Calgary and Vancouver in back to back games last week, he was in the 16-minute range. Meanwhile, the Leafs look to be resting Muzzin where possible – he played only 19:58 vs. the Rangers and 17:39 against the Red Wings, but when Barrie went down against the Oilers and it was a tight game, he played 27 minutes.

Zach Hyman is now tied for second on the team in shorthanded time-on-ice per game (Marner is first). I’ve seen a lot of commentary surrounding the Leafs special teams improving since the coaching change, but a large part of it is simply getting healthy and the personnel improving. Especially on the penalty kill, you can only really coach so much. Players have to know how to read what the opposition is doing in the zone, where to put their stick, how to position themselves, block shots, and so on. Hyman is strong in those areas. He had a great read on the penalty kill against the Rangers to poke the puck out for a breakaway opportunity; he knows how to pick his spots when it comes to whether or not to be aggressive while shorthanded.

– I didn’t think Hyman had that backhand goal in his bag of tricks, though. What a crafty little shot that was. It’s propped up a bit by his three-point night against the Wings, but he has 11 points in 18 games so far this season — is a 50-point pace — although he is shooting 18.6%.

– I pointed out the Leafs having a high forward in the offensive zone in a previous notebook; Ilya Mikheyev made another play there on a give-and-go with Holl leading to an Engvall goal. More than anyone, Mikheyev looks really comfortable at the top of the offensive zone.

It was also noteworthy to see him beat a goalie cleanly (against the Rangers) off the rush as his shot hasn’t generally been that dangerous from distance — if that starts developing, lookout. He has seven goals on the season, including an empty-net goal and a few rebound tap-ins.

– Good on Justin Holl for stepping in after a dangerous hit by Andreas Athanasiou. The game is over, it’s the final minute, and an opponent took a big run at a Leafs player. We’ve seen a few instances where the Leafs haven’t stepped in (including earlier in the week when Travis Dermott was boarded from behind against the Sabres), so it was nice to see it actually happen for once.

– I want to wish Josh Leivo a speedy recovery from a fractured knee cap. He was playing to a 43-point pace and was a solid top-nine forward for the Canucks. I have watched a good number of Vancouver games this season and they have consistently trusted him in big situations, particularly offensively whenever they pulled the goalie to make it a 6v5 situation. I also saw an instance where he was on for a 6v5 defensively, too. After Leafs traded him for Michael Carcone straight up with the coaching staff basically refusing to play him, he has become a legitimate NHL contributor elsewhere.


Quotes

“It’s definitely a weight off your shoulders. Winning – there’s no better feeling than it.”

– Michael Hutchinson after notching his first win of the season

The nice thing about the win is, even though it came against Detroit, Michael Hutchinson legitimately earned it. He stopped a number of breakaways and it was a genuinely good performance. It’s a shame they couldn’t close out the shutout at the end. It’s nice Hutchinson got the win, but it would be even nicer if he gains some confidence from it and goes on a bit of a run (when he plays), too.

“It is the way that it goes. Some nights, guys are going to play more than others. Obviously, Willy had an outstanding game yesterday and produced a lot for us and was a difference maker for us. Today, it was other guys. That is the way it goes. That’s part of having a team and it is part of an 82-game season. You mix it up back and forth.”

– Sheldon Keefe on benching William Nylander

Well, he’s right and William Nylander did deserve to be benched. I’m curious how this will unfold as time goes on, though. Basically, every coach I’ve ever seen behind the Leafs bench has come out and benched a few players early, and everyone goes, “this is awesome! Players are finally being held accountable and treated fairly!” When that same player gets benched a few more times, inevitably, the narrative changes to coach X hates player Y.

That said, the nonchalant play of Nylander when he tried taking a puck off his skate — leading to a breakaway for the Red Wings — would drive any coach crazy.

“We had the [ping pong] table but it wasn’t really used a lot. So now it’s in the locker room every practice day. Right there [in the middle of the room]. It’s a more relaxed atmosphere, I think. You’re not really walking on eggshells as much.”

– Justin Holl on the culture around the team right now

Obviously, none of us were in the dressing room, but so many players on the team have spoken out with comments that suggest to varying degrees that the room was essentially toxic by the end of Babcock’s tenure.


Tweets of the Week

Interesting thread here. As noted in the replies, technically Matthew Tkachuk was suspended against the Leafs in 2017. The general point stands, though, and it’s pretty clear all the attention the Leafs receive in the media has a negative effect on them in this department.

The Kyle Okposo hit was similar to the one that got Zach Hyman suspended against Boston. He’s a repeat offender, but Nazem Kadri got suspended for four playoff games on a play that had a degree of danger that happens nearly every week in the league (Alexander Kerfoot was not that far from tearing significant ligaments in his knee on Saturday, for instance). I don’t really know the solution to this and this isn’t just a Leafs problem. The league has to be more consistent and accountable, though.

It has been interesting watching Jake Gardiner from afar this year. He was a lightning rod for debate in Toronto, extremely overvalued by some, and extremely undervalued by others. As is often the case, the truth lied somewhere in the middle of all the noise. In Carolina so far, he’s clearly a third-pairing defender and he’s on pace for under 20 points (which would be a career-low) after signing a 4×4 deal in the summer.

First and foremost, I hope Anthony Mantha is okay. An injury always gets people fired up one way or the other (especially on Twitter). At the end of the day, though, when you throw a clean hit and are approached aggressively, all bets are off and you should prioritize protecting yourself.

There was a somewhat similar incident with Muzzin recently against the Blues where he crushed Jaden Schwartz (on a much better hit, in my opinion) and Brayden Schenn engaged him, but nothing of consequence happened because Muzzin didn’t want to fight. I’m just not sure what you can expect to happen when a player skates towards another and punches him in the face.


5 Things I Think I’d Do

1.  I think everything has to be taken in perspective when it is a game against the Red Wings, but we’ve been calling for a Zach HymanAuston Matthews reunion for quite some time in this space and that was a little preview as to why. As long as the Tavares line is going head to head against top lines (which will always be the case, basically), it makes sense to have Hyman on that line. He’s their best defensive winger. But his forechecking and grunt work does give Matthews a spark. I still think it would be interesting to see Andreas Johnsson paired with Tavares and Marner when he returns. Mikheyev’s play is giving the Leafs options on the left side as well.

2.  I think it works out well for the Leafs that they have a back-to-back right after the Christmas break, playing New Jersey followed by the Rangers. That gives the Leafs a chance to get Michael Hutchinson right back into the net to see if he can continue to build off of his win and get himself rolling. Beyond back-to-back situations, they have to actively look for opportunities to put Hutchinson in favourable matchups to rest Frederik Andersen.

3.  I think the faster we get over this idea of trying Kasperi Kapanen in the top six, the better. He’s a really nice player due to his speed, forechecking, and his shot. When he’s engaged physically, he’s very noticeable. But he is best suited for the Leafs third line at this point in time. I’d much sooner try any of Mikheyev, Engvall or Moore in the top six.

4.  I think Frederik Gauthier just won’t go away — and good for him. He deserves kudos for that. Prior to the past weekend, he had played in the single digits (minutes wise) in six of his last seven, but he was over 10 against New York and Detroit. Keefe noted after the Detroit game that he thought he was going. I’m still unsure if he’s a full-time solution on the fourth line, but to his credit, he has managed to stay in the lineup and make some contributions. He deserves to be in right now.

5.  I think the Next Gen Game is a great idea as a creative attempt to introduce new/younger fans to the game and the Leafs. There are three more this season, and it’s a worthy initiative. All for anything that attempts to grow the game.

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Flames start hot, burn out vs. Oilers as new coach Sutter watches from afar – Sportsnet.ca

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The Jolly Rancher didn’t even have to be behind the bench to start Sutterizing his new team.

While Darryl Sutter watched from his farmhouse in Viking, Alta., as part of his COVID-19 protocol, the Calgary Flames responded to his hiring with a first period that exhibited the type of spirited start the veteran taskmaster will be pushing for.

Fully engaged from puck drop, the Flames took it to the Oilers in a rugged fashion befitting the Battle of Alberta and Sutter’s style.

Two first-period fights, 21 shots, a whopping 19 hits and a tenacious forecheck that led to a power play goal and a 1-0 lead.

Clearly they knew the boss was watching.

And then came the predictable drop-off that got Geoff Ward fired.

Failing to record a shot in the first seven minutes of the second, the Flames allowed the Oilers to push back and eventually even the game late in the frame.

From there the see-saw battle continued.

By night’s end it was the Oilers earning kudos for persevering through a tough spell that ended with Connor McDavid’s late goal, ending his club’s three-game losing skid.

While there’s little time in this shortened season to celebrate moral victories, no one could fault the Flames’ effort on this one.

“It’s obviously difficult to lose – I thought we had a really good start,” said Noah Hanifin, whose first goal of the year early in the third put the Flames up 2-1 following the type of grind-em-out shift from Elias Lindholm’s line Sutter would cherish.

“I think if we play that way and compete that way we’ll have success more often than not. The one thing we’re looking to improve on is our compete and work ethic and I think that was there tonight. It was a step in the right direction.”

Perhaps Sutter’s tack will include being furious with the mere suggestion progress was made.

However, it didn’t seem there was much Sutter could fault his new troops on early in the third when Lindholm, Dillon Dube and Matthew Tkachuk put their work boots on for a series of battles down low that led to Hanifin’s goal.

“When we have big, heavy shifts like that it’s going to help us wear down teams and have success,” the defenceman said.

“That’s the game we want to play.”

McDavid spoiled Ryan Huska’s coaching debut by setting up a Kailer Yamamoto goal five minutes later, before picking up his third point of the night with a snipe from the face-off dot that bounced in off the far post with four minutes left.

“I think we played the whole game — I thought we played great,” said Jacob Markstrom, who made 30 saves in his return from injury, yet still tried to fall on his sword post-game.

“The biggest difference tonight was goaltending. I think Smitty (Mike Smith) made a couple saves and I didn’t when I needed to. It sucks feeling like you didn’t bail out your teammates.

“I thought we played a great game over 60 minutes. There are obviously things to improve, but I think it’s a step in the right direction. It sucks getting the loss out of this game when the guys played so well in front of me.”

The highly entertaining display of big boy hockey saw the Oilers finish the night with two more hits than the Flames (42-40), and they deserve plenty of credit for the moxie they displayed throughout.

Darnell Nurse did his best to stop the Flames’ early momentum by dropping the gloves with his former teammate and pal Milan Lucic, earning the latter the distinction of being the only player ever to earn a fighting major while playing on either side of the provincial punch-up.

James Neal fought Tkachuk later in the period with what would have brought the house down had there been fans at Rogers Place.

“I think (the emotion) was where it needs to be and that’s the challenge moving forward,” said Huska, whose NHL head coaching experience now matches the number of games he played in the show – one.

“The effort in the first period was really good. There was an emotional attachment to the game, which was important for us. That’s something we have to work on maintaining for 60 minutes, not just the first period. I thought we gave up a little too much room as the game went on and we allowed them to get into our zone too easily, which is really how they got their three goals.”

Huska will be behind the bench again Sunday night when the Flames host Ottawa.

Sutter expects to complete his COVID-19 protocol before joining the team for practice Tuesday and will make his return to the Flames’ bench Thursday at home against Montreal.

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Four-goal explosion in second period powers Canadiens 7-1 over Jets – Montreal Gazette

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It was Montreal’s first win over Winnipeg in four games this season, moving them three points behind the second-place Jets in the Canadian division.

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Carey Price made 28 saves and all four lines contributed at least one goal as the Canadiens defeated the Winnipeg Jets 7-1 Saturday at the Bell Centre.

It was Montreal’s first win over Winnipeg in four games this season and the Canadiens moved three points behind the second-place Jets in the Canadian division. Montreal also enjoys a game in hand.

The Canadiens blew this game open with four goals in the second period.

After Tyler Toffoli scored his 15th goal of the season, Brendan Gallagher scored twice. Both of Gallagher’s goals — his eighth and ninth of the season — were scored from the slot after taking a couple of no-look passes from long-time linemate Phil Danault.

The Gallagher goals brought an end to Connor Hellebuyck’s evening. The 2020 Vézina Trophy winner gave up four goals on 19 shots.

Laurent Brossoit replaced Hellebuyck, but he received a rude welcome when he was beaten by Joel Armia on the first shot he faced.

The game got off to a slow start, but opened up after Mathieu Perreault was sent off for high-sticking Shea Weber midway through the first period. The much-improved Montreal power play didn’t look much-improved as it managed only one shot on goal, but it did provide the Canadiens with some momentum.

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Hellebuyck made a blocker save on Jonathan Drouin, who was sent off on a breakaway by Gallagher’s stretch pass, but Hellebuyck was out of the picture when Josh Anderson opened the scoring at 15:29.

Anderson, who returned to to the lineup after missing three games with a lower-body injury, took advantage of a lucky bounce to give Montreal the lead. Jesperi Kotkaniemi attempted to rim the puck and Hellebuyck went behind his net to cut off the pass. But the puck never got there because it hit a stanchion in the glass and came out to Anderson, who put the puck into an empty net for his 10th goal of the season.

Fourth-liner Paul Byron and defenceman Jeff Petry added goals for Montreal in the third period, while Perreault scored a power-play goal to spoil Price’ shutout bid.

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Dominique Ducharme did some line juggling and put his two top goal-scorers, Toffoli and Anderson on a line with Kotkaniemi. The young Finn responded with what might have been his best game of the season as he distributed the puck well and was a dominant player in the faceoff circle. He won 13 of 15 draws for an 87-per-cent success rate. Danault won seven of his 12 faceoffs and Jake Evans won four of six. The Canadiens as a team won 57 per cent.

The Canadiens flew Sunday to Vancouver, where they face the Canucks to open a six-game Western Canada trip. The schedule maker has done a favour for fans in Montreal because none of the games start later than 8 p.m. ET.

phickey@postmedia.com

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Friends and family mourn Walter Gretzky at funeral in Brantford – Toronto Star

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The world’s most renowned hockey dad, remembered for having a “love for life” and being important to the “culture of Canada” by his legendary hockey son, was laid to rest on Saturday.

Walter Gretzky’s funeral took place at St. Mark’s Anglican Church in Brantford, Ont., but was significantly scaled back from anywhere near the scope and grandeur fitting the mark he left, with capacity limited to 30 per cent due to pandemic protocols.

“I don’t think I met a prouder Canadian than my dad,” Wayne Gretzky said of his father. Dozens of community members, including throngs of youngsters donning hockey uniforms, gathered outside the church, located near the home where Gretzky raised his family.

Wayne told the sombre gathering of family and friends that his father, who suffered a brain aneurysm in the early 1990s and had a decade-long battle with Parkinson’s disease, had sustained a bad hip injury a few weeks ago.

Gretzky clung to life for 21 days, with his family sitting with him, similar to how he fought after numerous other debilitating health complications over the years. He died March 4. He was 82.

“We thought weeks ago that the end was here,” Wayne told the mourners. “He had a love for life and he didn’t want to leave.”

Wayne called his late father a remarkable man who had a “heart of gold.” He said the world would be better off if there were many more people like him.

“It’s been a tough time,” Wayne said.

He thanked the community for leaving food and sandwiches as the family waited for the worst.

Wayne told a fond story about how his father missed the birth of one of his sons, Brent, so that the two of them could attend a tournament in Whitby.

When bothered by family and friends about missing the birth of his boy, an irritated Gretzky responded, “Yes, but we got the trophy,” Wayne recounted.

“Every grandchild loved him,” Wayne said describing Walter’s close relationship to his grandchildren. “They understand how important he was, not only to our family but to the culture of Canada.”

Gretzky was remembered as a man of faith who cherished family, hockey and church. The gathering also heard how he treated everyone equally and was willing to volunteer his time and raise money for charities.

“Walter was great with kids, our kids, and all those kids he coached in minor league over the years, and those kids who came up to him for an autograph,” said Tim Dobbin, the former parish priest at St. Mark’s who presided over the funeral.

People lift hockey sticks to pay their respects across the street where Walter Gretzky's funeral service was being held in Brantford, Ont., on Saturday, March 6, 2021.

Wayne tweeted the news of his father’s death on behalf of the family late Thursday:

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“He bravely battled Parkinson’s and other health issues these last few years but he never let it get him down … He was truly the Great One and the proudest Canadian we know. We love you Dad.”

Walter Gretzky rose from humble beginnings to become the patriarch of this country’s most legendary hockey family.

Wayne honed his skills in a backyard rink that Walter built for his children and neighbourhood kids. It was dubbed “Wally Coliseum.” That’s where he taught his sons the basics of the game.

Walter was born on the family farm in Canning, Ont., in 1938, where his mom made “good, old country Polish food,” including perogies that were “second to none,” he wrote in his autobiography, “On Family, Hockey and Healing.” His father, from Russia, specialized in making wine.

Wayne Gretzky (centre) poses with the Stanley Cup with father Walter and brother Glen after the Edmonton Oilers won the Stanley Cup in Edmonton, May 19, 1984.

Walter went to work for Bell Canada as a technician after finishing school, and is reported to have lost hearing in one ear after an on-the-job injury. He stayed with the company until 1991, when he retired after 34 years.

Wayne had barely learned to walk when Walter had him out on his backyard patch of ice, teaching him to skate.

His eldest son became a child phenomenon at hockey, annually scoring hundreds of goals and skating rings around older, stronger kids.

Walter also coached two other sons. Keith Gretzky is assistant general manager of the Oilers. Brent Gretzky played 13 games in the NHL, all with Tampa Bay, and played a season in the Maple Leafs system when the top farm team was in St. John’s, N.L.

Friends recalled that Walter was also an astute coach of other boys in the Brantford minor hockey system, including former Boston Bruins tough guy Stan Jonathan.

Kids at the 2007 Wayne Gretzky international hockey tournament in Brantford knew where to go for an autograph.

In 2007, he was named to the Order of Canada, recognized for his contributions to minor hockey and support for numerous charities and non-profits, including the Canadian National Institute for the Blind and the Heart and Stroke Foundation.

In 2010, he carried the Olympic torch hours before the opening ceremony of the Vancouver Winter Games.

That same year, an elementary school in Brantford was named in his honour.

Walter Gretzky’s wife, Phyllis, died in 2005. He leaves behind daughter Kim and sons Wayne, Keith, Glen and Brent.

With files from Star staff

Jason Miller is a Toronto-based reporter for the Star covering crime and justice in the Peel Region. His reporting is funded by the Canadian government through its Local Journalism Initiative. Reach him on email: jasonmiller@thestar.ca or follow him on Twitter: @millermotionpic

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