Welcome to our weekly tour of the NHL’s North Division. Fingers crossed that this column will live beyond this season. Do it, NHL. It’s best for everyone.
When Sheldon Keefe replaced Mike Babcock as coach of the Toronto Maple leafs less than two months into the 2019-20 NHL season, many of the things he’d say after practice and games seemed to serve as a good ol’ fashioned subtweet towards the man who held the seat before him.
Expressing care and compassion for his players and going out of his way to put them in positions to create special moments they can look back on fondly when their careers are finished, Keefe’s words often belied the actions we saw from the former Maple Leafs coach, who in many ways had a distaste for sentimentality.
No subject laid these facts bare more accurately than Jason Spezza, who Babcock chose to scratch on opening night last year, denying the veteran the opportunity to experience something special versus his former team — the visiting Ottawa Senators.
In what almost seemed like an effort to make up for the loss of that moment, Keefe started Spezza on a matinee game two days before Christmas last season, on a hunch that his four daughters would be in attendance that afternoon.
Keefe said he started Spezza because he had a feeling his girls would be in the building. Thought it could be a special moment.
— Justin Cuthbert (@jccuthbert) December 23, 2019
As it went, Spezza scored on that opening shift. The special moment once lost, Spezza now had for his family.
Not to paint Keefe as cold in any way, but now one year later it seems we’ve learned a little bit about why the Leafs coach made a concerted effort to make members of the organization feel a certain way — and it was not to criticize or challenge a previous regime.
He’s suggested in his media appearances this season that he believes the team he inherited was, if not broken, seriously fractured. Because of this, he believed his only option in his first weeks and months on the job was to try and improve the feeling and atmosphere around the group. If not the music blaring through the speakers while the team practiced, that at least explained Keefe’s focus on accentuating the players’ strengths, not always attacking their weaknesses.
Fast-forward to now, treading lightly has not been one of Keefe’s mandates in his first full(-ish) season at the helm.
He’s not stroking egos, instead challenging his star players to show more than what they have; he’s revealed that he’s stickler for habits and details, perhaps to the extent that Babcock was; and he’s demanding more from the team’s workouts, changing the foundation in which the club’s on-ice sessions are built around. What’s also true is that as a leading voice in the conversations around roster construction and salary cap manipulation, Keefe, and by extension the Maple Leafs, appear willing to make unpopular decisions, to get blood on their hands.
On Sunday, Spezza, the same player who Keefe and the Maple Leafs management team seemed to believe was owed something for the mistreatment he received previously, was placed on waivers three games into the season, offered up for free to any team that might have interest.
Now, Toronto’s intentions weren’t to show malice, or even to cut ties. Instead, it was a move required to maximize the flexibility on a roster being restricted by the rules governing the salary cap. But regardless of why the decision was made, the reality was that the Leafs made the decision to surrender control of what remains of Spezza’s fabulous career.
Powerless to the decisions of 30 other teams, Spezza’s only defence in preserving the life he and his family chose — which was, accepting less money to settle in his hometown — was his agent desperately working the phones, asserting that his client would simply retired if claimed by another team.
Thankfully, not a single team was convinced the agent was bluffing. Spezza went unclaimed on the open market (though it’s possible that would have happened anyway), preventing an 18-year career from ending on a waiver-wire transaction. Now he’ll be in the Leafs lineup Monday night versus the Winnipeg Jets.
Leafs fans were able to breathe a sigh of relief, and so too should the team’s braintrust.
Because the opportunity that Babcock stole from Spezza would not compare to making the decision that would prevent one the game’s most respected veterans, and a former superstar in the league, from not only exiting the game the way he should, but being blindsided by the end of his playing days.
And elsewhere up north:
Montreal: Would you include Nick Suzuki or Alexander Romanov in a trade for Pierre-Luc Dubois? As much as I believe that PLD would elevate the Canadiens, reaching that next tier may be an opportunity that only exists with Suzuki and Romanov remaining in the fold. The partnership Suzuki has created with Jonathan Drouin and Josh Anderson is so exciting, while Romanov looks like a 10-year veteran on the blue line, having exceeded 22 minutes in his debut. These two players hold the key to meeting the preseason hype. That’s worth seeing through for Marc Bergevin.
But Jesperi Kotkaniemi on the other hand….
Ottawa: How can you not be encouraged by this start? Ottawa split its first two games in 10 months — against the Maple Leafs, no less — and actually came away with a plus goal differential.
And more importantly: Tim Stutzle, y’all.
That’s an unbelievable debut goal.
Toronto: Best sign through three games for the Leafs? John Tavares is flying out there.
Winnipeg: If Patrik Laine decides that his means to earn a trade out of Winnipeg is to score the lights out, we’re in for some serious entertainment. That was special, singular stuff from the Finnish sniper — on and off the ice. It’s too bad he’s already dealing with an injury, though.
Calgary: If this were a ranking of the seven Canadian teams, I would have touched on the Flames first. Just one win through two games, but massive potential shown already with Jacob Markstrom holding things down in net.
Edmonton: It’s crazy how upgrades in net just seem to escape this team. The Oilers went big-game hunting for a goalie over the summer and ended up bringing back Mike Smith. And in their desperate attempts to bring in a third goaltender with Smith on the shelf, they have dudes flying in from Austria and California over the weekend — and are therefore subject to quarantine rules — while Aaron Dell (already in Canada) is claimed by the New Jersey Devils one day later. It’s just not breaking right for the Oil in net, an area that could be the difference in making or not making the playoffs.
Vancouver: I’d be concerned, frankly. The Canucks have seemed second-best in terms of talent in both of their matchups so far this season, having faced the Oilers and Flames to this point. J.T. Miller will help in this regard, obviously, but this team has the look of one that could be overmatched on most nights.
More from Yahoo Sports:
‘Bubble Demko’ returns as Canucks earn one of their finest wins of the season – Sportsnet.ca
“Bubble Demko” lasted only three games, and it has taken the Vancouver Canucks’ goalie much longer than that to rediscover the sublime form that briefly made him the story of the playoffs last summer in Edmonton.
On Monday, six months after he single-handedly extended the Canucks’ Stanley Cup tournament another three games against the Vegas Golden Knights, Thatcher Demko looked again like “Bubble Demko,” stopping all 27 shots for his first official NHL shutout in a 4-0 win against the Winnipeg Jets.
“I try to black out those memories,” Canucks defenceman Nate Schmidt, who played for Vegas against Demko in that seven-game series, said Monday when asked if his goalie’s form looked familiar. “Those are selectively deleted. But he looked fantastic tonight. He was really comfortable back there, made a lot of great plays. He looked good. . . and when we needed him to be good, we didn’t give up a whole lot of shots tonight.”
Filling in for injured starter Jacob Markstrom, Demko stopped 123 of 125 shots Vegas hammered him with over three games before the outmatched Canucks finally lost Game 7 last September.
That performance by the 24-year-old reinforced the organizational belief in him and was a factor in general manager Jim Benning’s decision in October to let Markstrom leave in free agency.
Demko lost his first three starts this season and in his first eight games had some of the poorest goaltending numbers in the NHL, allowing seven goals twice and at least four goals five times.
Like the team in front of him, Demko got a lot sharper in the second half of February. But like the team, he kept losing.
Each ended four-game losing streaks on Monday, when the Canucks scored three first-period deflection goals and, for a change, maintained the flow of oxygen to their brains after recent two- and three-goal collapses against the Edmonton Oilers, Calgary Flames and Jets.
“You’re just trying to get the win and just take one shot at a time,” Demko said. “I thought the guys played really solid tonight. First two periods, I didn’t see much. Obviously, they were going to push. . . and try and claw their way back in the game there in the third. I thought we did a good job handling that and playing the right way for a full 60.”
Still possessing the third-worst defensive record in the league, allowing 3.4 goals per game, the Canucks limited the Jets to just 12 shots in the first two periods. Winnipeg had 15 shots in the third, when Demko’s confidence and positional efficiency were most evident.
It was his fourth start in five games, and seventh in nine. Clearly, coach Travis Green believes in the goalie who has seized the No. 1 spot from veteran Braden Holtby. In his last six starts, Demko’s save percentage is .931.
“I think it’s a lot of just learning,” he said. “There’s a tonne of things that I was picking up on, and you kind of just learn how to manage everything day to day. Obviously, playing is nice and getting into a rhythm, like you said. But I’ve just got to continue to work and continue to grow here, and continue trying to help the team win.”
The Jets and Canucks play again Tuesday night.
“His game is growing,” Green said. “Much like our team, I don’t think he had the best start to the season. But he has worked hard on his game. I think the team’s playing better in front of him, and he’s given us some real solid goaltending here and it’s good to see.
“I think he’s been working hard with Clarkie (goaltending coach Ian Clark) not just on his game but on the mental part. He’s been in a good place even though we haven’t won as many games as we would like to or he’d like to.”
Point shots by Schmidt 18 seconds apart early in the first period both ended up behind Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck, giving the Canucks a 2-0 lead. The first one deflected off Winnipeg forward Andrew Copp at 8:28, and the second was deftly tipped in by Vancouver winger J.T. Miller.
Rookie Nils Hoglander, redeployed at even-strength to the third line with Brandon Sutter and Adam Gaudette, tipped in a Tyler Myers shot at 14:50 – just the second power-play goal this season for the Canucks’ second unit.
Elias Pettersson, used by Green to defend the lead after Winnipeg coach Paul Maurice lifted his goalie for an extra attacker with 5:22 remaining, skated the puck into an empty net with 3:34 to go.
“It’s always important, I think, when things aren’t going your way to find a way to win,” Green said. “When you get up like that early in the game, you know, the game’s not over. I liked how we just stuck with our game. We stayed focused, we didn’t take any penalties, and we played a solid 60 minutes of hockey.”
It was one of the Canucks’ finest hours in a season when they haven’t had enough of them.
Oilers find out exactly where they stand after another shutout loss to Leafs – Sportsnet.ca
EDMONTON — This, Oilers fan, is a good thing.
Just 24 games into a 56-game season, your team just found out where it stands. Above the Calgary Flames, Vancouver Canucks and Ottawa Senators, but well below the Toronto Maple Leafs, apparently.
Outworked, outscored and severely out-goaltended in the second game of this three-game “Battle for First Place” in the North, the Maple Leafs beat Edmonton for fun again, following up Saturday’s 4-0 shellacking with a 3-0 win on Monday.
Is there another level that the Oilers need to to get to?
“Obviously there’s another level we have to get to,” said Darnell Nurse, “Because we haven’t won the last two games.”
The Oilers had been hot, and rightfully happy with their game. Feasting mostly on the Sens, Canucks and Flames, they had won 11 of 13 games, eight of nine and five straight before meeting the Leafs.
Now? They’re 0-2 against teams that are a lock to make the playoffs.
“We know the level that we need to play at,” Nurse said. “But, there are nights where you come out here and you’re not snapping it around the way you were on a five-game win streak. We have to find a way to win those games.”
But this is good, remember. Better to find out now, not yet halfway into the season, where you stand.
Might as well take this cold, hard slap in the face, then get back to work and try to become a team that works as hard, plays as structured, and capitalizes on its chances as well as Toronto does. Because clearly, the road to Stanley goes through Toronto when you’re coming out of the North.
That’s our take, anyhow. Head coach Dave Tippett, whose club was 2-2 versus Toronto before dropping these two games, sees his team as going through an inevitable dry period in the course of a season.
“We’re in a little rut,” Tippett said. “It seems like nothing you’re shooting is going in the net. Point shots, deflections, you can usually find one or two of those in a few games. But it’s not going in for us right now.
“There’s not a lot of juice in our group right now. (They’re) down on some energy, down on some emotion. Unfortunately it’s come at a tough time for us. This should be a big series against Toronto, and we just haven’t played very well.”
It was the first time since 1954 that Toronto has shut out the same opponent (Detroit) in back-to-back games. And it is the first time in this hockey writer’s memory that he would say the Leafs have perhaps conquered their defensive woes.
Toronto has had a great regular-season team for some time, able to outscore its mistakes and capitalize on the long grind of a regular season with its copious skill. But it has lost in the playoffs because the Leafs could never do this — absolutely shut down an opponent with solid team defence.
In administering their second one-sided beating of the Oilers in three days, the Leafs did it without Auston Matthews, while playing third-string goalie Michael Hutchinson. Toronto scored on its first two shots against a hapless Mikko Koskinen and took a 3-0 lead into the first intermission.
Then the visitors locked it down like a good team does. The Oilers upped their desperation, but a Leafs team that used to try to extend a 3-0 advantage into a 7-0 margin has changed. Now, three goals are enough, as Toronto cements its North Division lead, ahead of second-place Edmonton by eight points.
Hutchinson outplayed Koskinen, who was awful for Edmonton.
“We’re not going to get ourselves down in this room,” said Nurse. “The two games haven’t gone the way we wanted them to go, but what are we going to do? Kick ourselves while we’re down and mope around?
“We know we’re a good team, capable of winning hockey games against any team in this league. That’s the mindset we need to keep.”
The mindset, we would hope, is to give some credit to the Maple Leafs and strive to play the kind of team game they have thrown at Edmonton here.
It reminds me of a quote Nurse gave me in a feature story back in February.
“You always think you’re working hard,” he said. “Coming into the league I always thought I was one of the hardest workers. But over the course of the quarantine and last summer, I showed myself that there is a whole other level of hard work to get to.”
A whole other level to get to.
Are there seven words that more aptly describe the Edmonton Oilers right now?
Three first-period goals pace Canucks to victory over Jets – TSN
WINNIPEG — When the Vancouver Canucks discovered that screened point shots were getting results, they kept doing it.
By the time the Winnipeg Jets figured things out, it was too late.
Vancouver scored three first-period goals in similar fashion Monday night in a 4-0 victory at Bell MTS Place. Nate Schmidt, J.T. Miller and Nils Hoglander staked the Canucks to an early lead and Thatcher Demko did the rest, making 27 saves for his first shutout of the season.
All three goals came from shots inside the blue line that were tipped, redirected or knuckled past Winnipeg goaltender Connor Hellebuyck.
“When you know you can get yourself into those areas, that’s where the goals are scored,” said Schmidt. “I was proud of our guys for how we got to those areas tonight.”
Elias Pettersson sealed it with an empty-net goal as the Canucks (9-14-2) won for the first time in five games and ended Winnipeg’s four-game winning streak.
“I think top to bottom we had some good efforts tonight,” said Canucks head coach Travis Green.
After being held to one shot on goal over the first eight-plus minutes, Schmidt sent a fluttering shot from the high slot past a screened Hellebuyck at 8:28.
A similar play just 18 seconds later doubled Vancouver’s lead. This time Schmidt’s point shot was redirected by Miller at 8:46.
Vancouver’s second power-play unit used the same formula to extend the lead at 14:50. Tyler Myers sent a wrist shot from inside the blue line that Hoglander tipped to make it 3-0.
Demko, meanwhile, was steady when needed in the Vancouver net. He gave up few rebounds and delivered when the Jets pressed late in the game.
“I think over the last handful of games, our defensive side of things is coming along really nicely,” Demko said. “Tonight was kind of the pinnacle of building up to this point.”
After a sluggish first period, the Jets (13-7-1) seemed more inspired in the second period but had difficulty delivering any sustained pressure.
Mark Scheifele had two decent chances midway through the third period and Blake Wheeler was denied after a crafty deflection on a Sami Niku shot.
The Jets pulled Hellebuyck with over five minutes left in regulation. Winnipeg hit the post on a deflected shot before Pettersson put the game away at 16:26.
The teams will face off again Tuesday night in the finale of the Jets’ four-game homestand.
“You’ve got to have a short memory in this league,” Scheifele said. “You can’t dwell on things too long. You’ve got to get a good sleep tonight and get ready for tomorrow.”
The Canucks had 19 shots on goal and improved to 4-8-0 on the road.
After Tuesday’s game, the Jets will take to the road for 12 of their next 14 games.
The Canucks will return home to kick off a five-game homestand Thursday against the Toronto Maple Leafs at Rogers Arena.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 1, 2021.
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