The Canucks keep picking up points in places they need to. Meanwhile, there are still roster questions to consider.
God forbid we should have to see the Canucks face the Coyotes in the playoffs.
Coming into today’s play, the Canucks held a 64 per cent chance of making the big dance.
(Needless to say, this win will up their chances.)
Who they could face in the playoffs remains very much up in the air. Credit the dog’s breakfast that is the Western Conference wild card race as well as the Pacific Division.
Their most likely opponent, at a measly 12 per cent, is, yes, these same Coyotes.
Rick Tocchet’s team plays a trap. They trap better than just about anyone in the league. And they’ve had very good goaltending behind that defensive shell.
The Canucks did enough Thursday to take a grinding win away from Arizona.
And sure, there’s ever reason to think they could do that four times come April. And sure, this town is desperate to see playoff hockey again.
In other words, we’ll take it if we have to, but it would be so much nicer to see an opponent that is looking to go run and gun against the Canucks, even if that would make for two coaches pulling their hair out.
Random Jake facts
Jake Virtanen is tied with Elias Pettersson with five game-winning goals, best on the Canucks, also 9th in the league.
That said, his goal on Thursday night was the first time anyone has scored a goal while he’s on the ice with Pettersson and Miller. They’ve been a line several times this season. That’s not a good rate of production for a line that’s otherwise been one of the league’s best.
All this said, Virtanen has been producing. He’s well aware of how slow things went for him in the second half last season.
His answer on how to avoid hitting the skids again was blunt.
“I want to make sure that I’m working my working my ass off, to keep working hard and and doing what I’m doing,” he said.
Mathieu Perreault was not pleased that Virtanen went unpunished for the elbow the Canucks winger threw at his head on Tuesday night.
Asked about the situation earlier on Thursday by Winnipeg reporters, he pulled no punches.
“Player safety, my ass. This was literally an elbow to the face to a guy that didn’t have the puck,” he said. “I see him coming, I brace for a hit. It’s a late hit, I didn’t have the puck and he flicks his elbow in my face.”
“If they’re not going to do anything about it, I’m going to take matters into my own hands, next time this happens: I get to swing my stick across his forehead and I shouldn’t get suspended.”
“I can’t really protect myself there if the league’s not going to protect me. I’m the smallest guy on the ice so I can’t really fight anybody, the only thing I can do to defend myself is use my stick, so the next guy that comes at me like that is going to get my f***ing stick. And I’d better not get suspended for it.”
Virtanen wasn’t around for the morning skate so it wasn’t until after the game the media was able to quiz him about the incident.
The winger said he’d heard Perreault’s comments but said he didn’t think there was an issue with the hit. What he heard was frustration.
“He’s a good player and I’ve nothing bad to say about him. I wasn’t trying to just go out and murder a guy and I could have could have been a lot worse if I really hit him. He’s a good player and I honestly didn’t even mean to do that and you know, it is what it is. He can be frustrated, I mean, I think anyone would kind of be frustrated at that point. He’s a good player and that’s about it.”
“…Stuff’s going to happen and it’s not going to be flowers and roses all the time, where everything is clean. It’s hockey and things move fast out there and sometimes it’s, you know, whatever and I didn’t even mean to do it, so it is one of those.”
Between Player Safety passing on disciplining Matthew Tkachuk for predatory hits on Zack Kassian — if it were Raffi Torres, would it still be a pass? — and now Virtanen going unpunished for his head blow, who knows what the league is looking to punish these days.
A contract to consider
Troy Stecher, you may have heard, needs a new contract. He’s proven to be a dependable defender, a guy who can play on a shut down pair, who can dish the puck pretty well, who is also perfectly fine on your third pairing.
He generally makes every partner he’s with better. But in a world where the Canucks can only keep one of him or Chris Tanev, one where Brogan Rafferty and his one-way 2020-21 contract are waiting in the wings, it’s a hard read to determine what his future role on the club might be.
Asked last week about whether he’s had contract talks with either Stecher or Jake Virtanen’s camp, GM Jim Benning said they hadn’t.
“For the most part, you know, we’ll wait and see how they perform over the course of the year and try to get those guys signed in the summer,” he replied, essentially drawing in the bulk of the pending free agents on his docket into his answer. (That would also include Chris Tanev, Jacob Markstrom, Josh Leivo, Tyler Motte, Adam Gaudette, Zack MacEwen and Oscar Fantenberg.)
He also added that he had his pro scouting meetings coming up — the Canucks’ quartet of pro scouts are actually in town as we speak — to build the final picture of Benning’s strategy for the months ahead.
Stecher is a sharp guy. He knows the ins and outs of NHL roster construction. So it wasn’t really a surprise that he didn’t shy away Thursday when I asked him if he’s been thinking about his contract at all. It would have been an easy out to say he hadn’t been. But that’s never the way with Stecher. He considers his thoughts. He puts forward, often, a lesson he’s learned.
And that’s what he did.
“I did early on,” he began. “I’d definitely be lying to you if I said I wasn’t but in the early months I did and it kind of dwelled on me and I think it affected my play.”
But then it hit him to not think about it. He even went so far as to not talk to his agent Eutace King. It’s been a couple months since they’ve spoken, in fact. Whether that was because it was obvious to him that contract talks weren’t going to be forthcoming anytime soon, given the game of Tetris building next year’s squad is so obviously going to be, it is clear that focusing on what he can do has helped him in his play, at least in his own mind.
“I don’t think my minutes have gone up that much but I feel like my play on ice as an individual has increased and I’m giving our team good quality minutes.”
He then had some interesting things to say about plus/minus, a stat he knows is flawed but also one that does have a great deal of importance in contract negotiations. Stecher is currently +5, tied for second on the team.
“People have their opinions on their plus minus but it’s something I try to pride myself on, especially playing in the third pairing, with the minutes I’m getting. I don’t want to be a minus player because it’s just an excuse for them to take me out. I want to make sure I’m doing something where I’m helping the team, that shows that I’m not affecting us in a negative way.”
Plus/minus’ greatest flaw as a stat is that it credits or assigns blame to the whole lineup when a goal against could be about one player’s gaffe or simple bad luck in timing. Luck has a lot to do with the stat.
There’s an existential truth to his focus. He doesn’t want to be on the ice for goals against. He wants to be making decisions on the ice, whether that’s in his own zone, looking to stop the opposition, or in the neutral zone, forcing turnovers, or in the offensive zone, looking to make a smart pinch and help create a scoring opportunity for his mates.
When you’re playing on the third pairing, you don’t get a lot of chances but you want to make them all count was his message.
“After my first year, I think every single year I’ve started on that third pairing. My first year I got cut and then my second year I started with Hutty on the third pair. It’s just been that way every year and with injuries I’ve been given some different opportunities. This year, thankfully, we’ve been really healthy and with that we’ve had a better record as a group. I think I learned that at an early age that it’s a privilege to play in this league and you can be out of it pretty quick so no matter how much I’m playing I always want to make sure that I’m not giving anybody a reason to even contemplate taking me out of the lineup.”
The cap question
Which brings us to the next though: what about Stecher vs. Tanev? The cap is going to be a tight situation next year. If Jacob Markstrom is re-signed — Benning has made it clear that’s his preference — he’ll be earning a raise of some kind. He won’t be the only one after a raise, either.
Jake Virtanen is also building himself quite the arbitration case, given how excellent his even-strength production has been.
But I digress: this is a strange goalie market this summer. There are going to be some intriguing alternatives available for less than what Markstrom is surely after. And there will be the Bobrovsky mess hanging over everyone. The late-blooming Markstrom certainly doesn’t have the popular reputation that Bobrovsky carried into the summer of 2019.
He can still point to contracts like Martin Jones’ ($5.75m x 5 years) or Robin Lehner’s ($5m this year) or Mikko Koskinen’s ($4.5m x 3 years) and say “that’s my value.” He’s clearly got a case to be paid more than that trio.
Equally, the Canucks can look at some of the other good young goalies who will be looking for a new team — Alexandar Georgiev, say — and note that the market may not be the best situation for a goalie, aged 30, looking to chase a big ticket contract.
Even so, if he’s retained, that will be less money to spend on Tanev and Stecher.
Plus Brogan Rafferty has a one-way contract next season, meaning that if he’s re-assigned to Utica, he’ll be making his full salary, not a reduced amonunt like it is this year. There’s no reason to think he’d be able to replace Stecher or Tanev on the defensive end, but his scoring talents are obvious, even if he is a 24-year-old cleaning up on players who are four years younger.
It all adds up to the reality that the Canucks should recoup some sort of value from one of the defencemen. Call it the Trade ____ Club.
There’s going to plenty of pressure on Jim Benning to both satisfy the short term desires of making the playoffs while also recognizing the long-view challenges, like their cap constraints next season, and weighing that against the chance of at least recouping a pick or a prospect for one of his to-depart quality defencemen.
Me, aloud, to no one in particular: Who is Ilya Lyubushkin?
Drancer, replying to me: the ultimate no-name NHL. I only know about him because I didn’t before and looked him up.
Loui Eriksson joined the Bo Horvat line just before Christmas, a forced move because Josh Leivo shattered his knee cap. As we know, Horvat and Tanner Pearson have been producing since, and they’re getting lots of chances offensively too.
Eriksson, it can’t be denied, has had a positive effect.
But it is rather hilarious how much of the production has been because of their late-game presence defending against opposition who have pulled their goalie.
It all adds up to some fantastic online humour.
Did you spot him?
The Canucks hosted a Canucks media alumni night and also recognized Jim Robson’s birthday (it’s tomorrow).
When they put the great broadcaster up on the screen, we all couldn’t help but notice a blur at the bottom of the screen.
That was, we realized, Elliott Pap.
I was later sent a very nice photo of the group from former Province Sports colleague Jim Jamieson.
Olympic diplomatic boycott: PM says decision coming today – CTV News
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says there will be an announcement later today on the government’s decision about whether to proceed with a diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Beijing Olympic Games.
Speaking to reporters on his way into a caucus meeting on Wednesday, Trudeau said it’s important to align with allies – many of whom have chosen not to send government officials to the Games, but allow athletes to continue to compete.
“For the past many, many months we’ve been talking about our approach with allies around the world. We know that on issues like this it’s important to make sure that we are working with our allies…we will have an announcement to make later today,” he said.
The U.S. announced a diplomatic boycott on Monday as a means of protesting against human rights abuses in China towards the Uyghur Muslims in the Xinjiang province.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters that the U.S. has a “fundamental commitment to promoting human rights” and that it “will not be contributing to the fanfare of the Games.”
Since then, Australia and the U.K. have followed suit.
China has denied those allegations and says the boycott violates “the principle of political neutrality of sports established by the Olympic Charter and runs counter to the Olympic motto `more united,”‘ Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian told reporters.
Many former diplomats and international security analysts suggest Canada should go further and enforce a full boycott, withdrawing all Canadian presence, including athletes.
Foreign Affairs Minister Melanie Joly also commented on the issue on Wednesday, noting that Canada is acting in a “diligent” manner.
“The most important thing for Canada right now is to make sure that we can have a strong voice on the question of human rights in Xinjiang in China,” she said.
With a file from The Associated Press.
Nick Ritchie finally scores his first as the Leafs get the jump on the Blue Jackets – Toronto Star
In the understated words of Nick Ritchie: “It had been a while.”
On a night of highlight plays from Michael Bunting and Jack Campbell, and a scoring streak continuing for Auston Matthews, it finally happened for Ritchie.
It took 27 games and 40 shots but the $2.5-million-a-year free-agent signing finally got his first goal with the Maple Leafs in Toronto’s 5-4 win Tuesday night over the Columbus Blue Jackets.
“It felt good, helping the team, scoring a goal at home, and a win after a couple of losses,” Ritchie said. “It had been a while. Two months. A lot of games. As long of a (drought) as I’ve had in hockey. Feels good to get one. Hopefully I can build some confidence.”
The crowd was particularly supportive when public address announcer Mike Ross announced it was Ritchie’s “first goal as a Maple Leaf” and his teammates seemed happier than Ritchie.
“That’s almost better than scoring, seeing how much your team cares,” he said. “We have a tight team and everyone gets excited for little things.”
Ritchie had proven himself as a goal scorer, with 15 last year in a shortened season in Boston. He wondered sometimes why he was having trouble scoring in Toronto.
“It’s not an easy league to score in,” he said. “You have to get lucky, too. I had a couple of good chances the last little while. I just had to stay with it. I knew eventually it would finally go in for me.”
Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe said he predicted Ritchie would score Tuesday, but admitted he’s been predicting it would be Ritchie’s night for a while.
“It’s been a long time coming,” Keefe said. “I started calling it, then I stopped. It was his birthday the other day. But in the coach’s room before the game, I called it. I thought it would be on the power play.
“I can’t take a lot of credit for it, because I’ve been calling it and calling it. I did feel strongly that today was going to be the day. He’s been very quietly putting up points in the past five games. You could see it coming. He’s had good chances. I’m thrilled for him.”
About the game: Ritchie’s goal, the team’s offence and the play of Alex Steeves and Kristians Rubins. both of whom got into their first NHL games. was about all Keefe liked about the game. But it was a fun one to watch.
Matthews ended the night with two goals and an assist, Morgan Rielly had four assists, William Nylander had a goal and an assist and John Tavares also scored in a game in which the outcome never felt in doubt despite a late-game push by the Blue Jackets.
Olivier Bjorkstrand scored twice for Columbus. Sean Kuraly and Max Domi scored late for Columbus — Domi with one second left — to make the result look more flattering for the Jackets than the game really was.
“I didn’t like much about the game in any period,” Keefe said. “We found ways to strike offensively, whether it was on the power play (Nylander, Tavares) or off the rush (Matthews, twice) but, in terms of how we like to play, I don’t think there was a lot to like about the game.
“I’m happy the third period caught up to us, because it should have. Not a good game for us, but a good result. Needed to get back on the right side of it.”
Getting rest: Keefe thought the team was simply tired. They’d been out west for three games, came home for one, and then went back west for two, so it felt like a long trip. Plus the roster was in flux.
Mitch Marner missed his third game with a shoulder injury, suffered in practice Friday. Rasmus Sandin was out with the effects of knee-on-knee injury suffered Sunday in Winnipeg. Travis Dermott, too, was sidelined with a shoulder issue. And Jason Spezza missed the first-game of a six-game suspension for his knee to the head of Winnipeg’s Neal Pionk, whose knee injured Sandin.
“We’re a tired group that needs time,” said Keefe, who gave his team Wednesday off. “We’re a team that needs to regroup itself.”
Quick start: Nylander, Matthews and Ritchie got the Maple Leafs off to a 3-0 lead in a first period they dominated. The led the shot-clock 18-9 after 20 minutes.
Nylander scored on the power play, and Matthews made it 2-0 on a nice feed from Michael Bunting who, with a defenceman draped all over him, pulled off a between-the-legs pass to Matthews, who had an easy tap-in to extend his goals streak to seven straight games. Tavares and Matthews scored seven seconds apart in the final two minutes of the middle frame.
Matthews is on a tear, with 10 goals in his last seven games and 17 on the season. He has rejoined the conversation for the Rocket Richard Trophy, putting himself within striking distance of NHL goal leaders Leon Draisaitl and Alex Ovechkin, who had 21 and 20 as the games began Tuesday.
The new guys: Steeves and Rubins are feel-good stories.
Rubins, who is on Latvia’s short list of potential Olympians, is 23 and worked his way up the Leafs system. Undrafted out of the Medicine Hat Tigers, he started with the Newfoundland Growlers in 2018. He’s six-foot-five and cuts an imposing figure on the blue line.
“Dream come true, just a special night for me,” he said, after being paired with Timothy Liljegren and going minus-1 in 13 minutes and 40 seconds.
Steeves was a standout at Notre Dame last year who kept up his scoring ways with the Marlies, despite missing camp with an injury. Steeves had seven goals in 12 games with the Marlies.
“It was super special, really happy we got the win,” said Steeves, who was minus-1 while playing 8:28. “It was a tangible goal of mine to play for the Leafs this year. I didn’t really have a set date. To get the call this early was special. It wasn’t something I was really thinking about, but I just knew I wanted to get here.”
Roster notes: Veteran defenceman Alex Biega was also among the call-ups, as insurance, due to the litany of injuries. He was scratched for Tuesday’s game … Forward Joey Anderson was returned to the Marlies … Jake Muzzin left the game briefly in the first period after taking a shot off his foot.
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Maple Leafs support Spezza’s appeal, but must ‘press on’ after suspension – Sportsnet.ca
TORONTO — The way Jason Spezza practised Tuesday morning is the way he always practises.
Smiling and laughing with his Toronto Maple Leafs teammates, you’d have no idea the veteran was only hours away from a significant suspension.
Through his 19 years and 1,203 games in the league, this marks the first time the 38-year-old Spezza has faced supplemental discipline.
And he is appealing the Department of Player Safety’s ruling.
“Look,” coach Sheldon Keefe said Tuesday night. “I think everybody in this room, everybody in the game knows the character and integrity that Jason Spezza has through his entire career. We do and always will support him. He’s going to weigh his options that he has in this process.
“But from our perspective, it’s important that we just press on here. That’s all we can do.”
Spezza’s initial appeal will arrive on the desk of commissioner Gary Bettman, who seldom overrules his own safety department. Next, Spezza and his camp could take their objection to an independent arbitrator.
These steps take time, and Spezza is available to return to action for the Leafs on Dec. 19 in Seattle.
During Spezza’s in-person (Zoom) hearing, the Maple Leafs argued that (a) this was not kneeing, (b) Pionk was eligible to be checked on the play, and (c) Spezza could’ve delivered a legal check had Pionk not fallen further toward the ice before contact.
Player safety agreed only that Pionk was eligible to be hit. Even so, the department maintains that the onus is on Spezza to get lower to deliver a clean hit and avoid head contact.
Player safety described Spezza’s actions as “reckless and retaliatory” for Pionk’s knee-on-knee hit of Rasmus Sandin earlier in the game, describing the Spezza hit as a “forceful retribution on a player who is in a vulnerable position.”
The department also weighed Pionk’s injury; the Jets announced the defenceman is in concussion protocol.
Though they disagree with the ruling, the Maple Leafs wish to avoid excuses or finger-pointing while Spezza sits.
“We’ve got to have guys come in and play and accept more responsibility,” Morgan Rielly said. “And I think we’ve got the depth to do that.”
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