Published On: Sat, Jan 12th, 2019

Quick Shifts: What if the Maple Leafs don’t trade for defence?

A quick mix of the things we gleaned from the week of hockey, serious and less so, and rolling four lines deep.

1. We’ve become so accustomed to circling the Toronto Maple Leafs’ blue line as their area of need, but what if Kyle Dubas & Co. just stood pat at the trade deadline?

No manager is ever fully satisfied with his roster, of course, but the Leafs rank sixth overall in goals-against average (2.77) and the Leafs’ D recently received high praise from the NHL’s stingiest defensive club, the Nashville Predators (2.5).

“No, no. They’ve got very good defencemen. They’ve got defencemen that can play any type of way — skill game, physical, defensive, smart,” P.K. Subban asserted. “You can’t win in this league without good defence. They’ve won a lot.”

Nashville coach Peter Laviolette pointed to Toronto’s ability to drive offence from the back end, and each of the Leafs’ three pairings has a weapon on the left side who can help burn a team in transition (Morgan Rielly, Jake Gardiner, Travis Dermott).

Together, Toronto’s D has racked up 107 points.

“They have a really capable group back there,” Laviolette explains. “Your forwards always look better when your defencemen can make plays and make passes and get it out of your end and through the neutral zone without having to flip it or chip it or dump it. That requires a certain skill level. Toronto has it.

“They’re getting a lot of production from their back end. As do we. That’s how we’re build. I believe that’s how they’re built as well.”

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And yet, because their forwards and starting goaltender rate among the NHL elite, Toronto’s D is naturally the area we single out as in need of an overhaul.

“You don’t like to hear that, obviously,” says Dermott. “Our forwards have done a great job helping us out this year, which makes it way easier on us. Freddie’s been playing really well, and as a D corps, I think we’re playing well. Defence isn’t only a defenceman’s job. It’s a team job.”

The shots against don’t paint a pretty picture. Surrendering 32.3 per night, Toronto ranks in the bottom third league-wide in that category. But so does Pittsburgh, Washington, Tampa and Winnipeg. Cup threats all.

We’re not saying acquiring a proven top-four like Alex Pietrangelo or Chris Tanev wouldn’t help, or that Dubas won’t go window shopping — that’s his job — but the organization is high enough on prospects Timothy Liljegren and Rasmus Sandin that the long view might hold sway.

I asked John Tavares if the Leafs’ D was a specific concern of his when he made his decision. His answer was interesting.

“It’s staying the course. There’s a lot of talent here. When I went through the interview process at free agency, it wasn’t just the [current] roster I looked at but the depth that’s coming. The pipeline. Management has a good pulse on that. As a team, there’s a belief in this locker room and in our system that if we play together as a group, it’ll elevate guys individually. There’s a good synergy in the way we play. We’ll keep our focus there,” Tavares told me.

“Every team is always looking to improve. Every GM will say that. You have to be prepared for not just now but down the road and what the possibilities are. At the same time, there has to be some patience.”

2. From a pure asset-management perspective, the solution to the Alexander Edler situation seems easy: the 2018-19 Vancouver Canucks are a lovely story but not a true contender, so Jim Benning better rent his top-pairing defenceman and secure another first-round pick (plus a prospect or young roster player) for the draft his club is hosting.

In a perfect world, Benning could convince Edler to waive his no-trade clause for the greater good and possibly nudge-nudge-wink-wink his veteran D-man into signing back on July 1. (Sportsnet’s Nick Kypreos suggests a three-year deal in the ballpark of $ 17 million might be enough.)

But I appreciate the perspective shed by player-turned-analyst Alex Auld this week (listen below). Earning a reputation for ousting your long-serving character players the minute they become rental chips is not always a positive. It’s something future UFAs might view as a negative when considering your club.

Sportsnet’s Starting Lineup

Alex Auld on Edler’s future in Vancouver

January 09 2019

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The Canucks handled the Sedins’ conclusion with grace, and when teams came calling to rent defenceman Erik Gudbranson at this time last year, Benning re-signed instead.

I spoke with two pillars of the Canucks’ bright-looking rebuild about Edler, and they were effusive about what their top minutes-muncher, a plus-3 defender on a minus-15 team, does that arguably might be more valuable than the assets he could retrieve.

“Oh, he’s awesome. He was hurt for a while, but ever since he’s come back, he’s been tremendous. He’s producing points. He plays the most ice time back there, and he drives the D core,” Brock Boeser says.

“Seeing the little things he does so well drives our team. Blocking shots. He blocks a ton of shots [a team-high 90]. Even his hits [2.2 per game]. We’ve been talking about how many hits he’s been getting lately. Those are up, too.”

Noting Edler’s lead-by-example ripple effect, Bo Horvat is all for an extension.

“It would be great for our team, great for our young guys, to see how he works and acts every single day at his game. He’s a huge part of this group, huge part of this organization,” Horvat says.

“Hopefully we get the job done and re-sign him again.”

3. In his first four games back in the Predators’ lineup after missing a month and a half of action, Subban was a dash-2 and failed to get on the score sheet. He registered at least a point in each of the next four and went plus-4.

“I still don’t feel like I’ve got my timing. It takes a while sometimes,” Subban said Monday.

“It’s tough, but that’s a part of it. That’s being a pro. I don’t know how many players are 100 per cent for every game throughout their pro career, so you have to learn how to play smart within your game and do that within a team concept.

“To win hockey games now, it’s not just about one player; you need all 22 guys playing well. Even if some of our best players are not at their best, we still have to win games.”

While he was nursing his injury, Subban filmed The P.K. Project for NBC Sports. Coach Peter Laviolette takes no issue with one of his stars dabbling in extra-curricular fun in-season.

“Players get away from the rink. Their time is their own time. He’s not the first person to do something like this,” Laviolette said. “As long as the focus stays at the rink, that’s what we want.”

Subban frames the show, debuting later this month, as a way to rep the Preds and show off the beauties of Nashville — not a distraction.

“Sometimes getting your mind off the game and doing other things can make me even better. Everybody’s different. You have to find what works for you,” Subban explains. “What works for me might not work for the next guy. You have to work within yourself and provide you with enough energy to do your job. That’s it.”

As the posterboy for the “Hey, hockey players can be three-dimensional humans!” movement, Subban acknowledges a shift. His peers are flexing more of their individuality, and he attributes that to the decreasing age of NHL superstardom.

“When the young players come into the league, they see how pop culture has affected the other sports, like the NBA and NFL. They come in with more of an open mind. The NHL now is so diverse. We have Auston Matthews being from Arizona. The NHL’s never really seen stuff like that,” Subban says.

“To have players like that come in can change things a little. Because he’s a player who has influence, and he’s showing personality. I think it’s great.”

4. On the topic of Mr. Matthews’ personality, I loved how strongly the centreman defended running mate William Nylander this week. Nylander, as you might have heard, hasn’t exactly set the hockey world on fire since his return, scoring once with a pair of helpers, a minus-2 rating and 12 penalty minutes through 15 games.

Understandably, the skilled winger is taking flak for his sluggish return and doing his best to earmuff the noise.

“There’s no doubt in my mind he’s going to get back to the way he can play,” said Matthews, checking the Nylander haters. “Lots of times it’s just somebody behind their computer. Other times it’s analysts and media people; they’re doing their job, but at the same time you gotta do yours.

“It’s keeping yourself levelheaded and not getting too high or low. It helps when you’ve got guys around you, like he does, to bring you up. He’s a big part of this team no matter what anybody says or how he’s playing or what anybody thinks. He’s obviously a special player.”

Wonderful to hear such a firm stance from a 21-year-old.

As for Nylander’s coach, who dropped him (again) off Matthews’ line after a soft effort Monday, he spots a solution.

“It’s simple: work,” says Mike Babcock, acknowledging the Toronto microscope.

“The reason we’re so fortunate here is we have all that. We have all you people covering [us] and we have the fan base we have. That’s the greatest thing about being here, and it makes it the best hockey market in the world.

“When you decide you want to play here, you take the good with the bad. And sometimes the bad is, they’re pointing out what you’re doing. That’s what the country music channel is for and the huntin’ channel. Wild TV, 393 — it’s dialed in. They never talk about hockey once. Honest to God, it’s unbelievable. Beautiful animals, mountains, hiking, fishin’. Thing of beauty.”

Babcock was then asked how the animals are faring on Wild TV.

“Doin’ well,” he smiled. “Working hard.”

5. Quick: Who leads all Predators defencemen in scoring?

Nope. It’s not Subban. Nor Roman Josi. Nor Ryan Ellis.

Mattias Ekholm (34 points) is already one away from tying his career-best and is nipping at Ryan Johansen’s tail for the overall team lead.

Laviolette reminds us that the 28-year-old Swede has always been fantastic; his escalated production, due in part to increased power-play use, has just made more take notice.

“Quietly one of the better defencemen [in the NHL],” Laviolette says. “He’s big, he’s tall, he plays angry when he needs to, he can skate. He’s really hard to play against defensively. He’s able to contribute offensively, as you can see by his numbers this year. Just a really solid, two-way defenceman.”

David Poile has himself one of the greatest bargains in hockey. Not only does Ekholm have three more seasons beyond this one at a modest $ 3.75 million, he’s grateful for it.

“It’s already so much money that I probably won’t spend it in my lifetime,” Ekholm told Ken Campbell of The Hockey News. “Where I’m from, you don’t need that much.”

What a gem.

6. It’s not every day you have four goalies hanging around on game day, but such was the case when the Maple Leafs’ Michael Hutchinson secured a shutout versus Vancouver last Saturday in just his second outing with his new club.

Before Hutchinson could peel off his pads, he was greeted at his locker by the injured Garret Sparks, Frederik Andersen and clipboard-holder Kasimir Kaskisuo, all offering congratulations in a corner away from the media scrum.

“That’s what they should be doing, right?” Babcock says. “That’s what good teammates do.”

Nevertheless, it was a cool scene to witness, especially when you consider that Hutchinson’s success could affect Sparks’ job security.

“It’s huge,” Hutchinson says. “Goalies tend to bond pretty quick, so it definitely meant a lot to me that they were able to stop by and congratulate me.”

7. Is there a more infuriating hockey player than Brad Marchand?

“Everyone saw what he is,” Lars Eller told reporters Thursday after the Bruins star declined to honour him with a revenge bout. “He obviously didn’t want any part of it. Everybody saw. I would’ve fought him.

“I don’t think there’s a lot of integrity in his game.”

Marchand should’ve answered the bell and gotten it over with. Instead, the only jab he threw at Eller was verbal.

“I haven’t looked at the stat sheet, but I really don’t feel like I need to prove anything,” Marchand explained. He plays maybe 10-12 minutes a night and I’m playing 20. In a 1-0 game and to go on a power play, it doesn’t make sense.”

Eller, we remind you, is an established player averaging 16:55 per night. He scored the Stanley Cup–winning goal. The Caps have now beaten the Bruins 14 times running, and Marchand’s rep took another hit.

A bad look.

8. Vancouver’s Brock Boeser was thrilled to see blue-chip goaltending prospect Thatcher Demko finally called up. With the Canucks hitting a skid of late, and the team getting a string of off-days to ease Demko into practice, we wouldn’t be surprised to see the kid make his NHL season debut soon.

“It’s huge,” Boeser says. “He’s a tremendous goalie. He’s a big goalie, but what stands out to me is how athletic he is. I’ve seen him make so many saves whether it’s in pre-season or down in Utica, so I’m glad to see him here.”

Demko is 23, a contemporary of two other AHL goalie grads whose mid-season call-ups have gone smoothly.

New Jersey’s MacKenzie Blackwood, 22, is 3-2 with a sparkling .947 save percentage.

L.A.’s Cal Petersen, 24, is 5-4-1 with a .924 save percentage.

“We’ve been patient with Demmer. We said it from Day 1: We want to make sure we do right by him. He’s matured as a goalie, as a person. I have a lot of confidence in Demko,” says coach Travis Green, who was guiding Utica when Demko turned pro in 2016.

“I believe in him. I think he’s going to be a good goalie in the league, and I think this is the right time to bring him up, so I’m happy we made the move.”

It helps that Demko, who played (and won) one thrilling but meaningless NHL game last March, is arriving at a time when Jacob Markstrom has found his groove. The call-up, Green stresses, is not out of necessity (see: Hart, Carter).

“You’re never going to ask a young goalie to come in and be the saviour. Those are big words; he’s played one game. The natural progression for Thatcher is to come in and start to play some more games,” Green says. “He’s a smart kid. He’ll get it.”

9. Sweet gesture by the Ottawa Senators, who are undefeated in the Beau Duchene Era.

As top centre Matt was by wife Ashley’s side, baby Beau entered the world during the Sens’ 2-1 overtime win over the Ducks Wednesday.

A puck was taped up in his honour. Awesome.

10. Regarding the racists who spewed abuse at Divyne Apollon II during the 13-year-old’s minor hockey game, we wish the incident was as shocking as it is sickening.

Kudos to Devante Smith-Pelly who, upon reading an article about the hateful incident, linked with John Carlson and invited Apollon’s entire team — the Metro Maple Leafs, a 14-and-under travel squad based in Odenton, Md., — to the Capitals’ game this Monday versus the Blues.

“It’s crazy that’s still going on in 2019, but I really like how he stood up for himself and how the team had his back too,” Smith-Pelly told NHL.com.

“For 13-year-old kids to put a foot in the sand and stand up for their teammate at 13 years old, that’s pretty remarkable. So I liked reading that part of him standing up for himself and his whole team, a team of kids, standing up for him, too.”

11. Crazy to see the divergent roads to free agency being travelled by the Columbus Blue Jackets’ Russian stars.

Artemi Panarin is leading the club in points (47) and game-wining goals (six), including his third OT clincher this week. He’s handing out sticks to kids and cheesing by photos of vodka billboards urging for a contract extension.

Meanwhile, the uncertainty is eating at two-time Vezina champ Sergei Bobrovsky, whose save percentage (.906) has fallen to a seven-year low. The goaltender was involved in an unspecified “incident” this week that meant sitting at least one game and necessitated a face-to-face meeting with GM Jarmo Kekalainen.

We don’t envy the general manager.

Goalie Bob’s backup, Joonas Korpisalo, has a worse save percentage (.891). And even if Kekalainen wanted to trade Bobrovsky, his stock couldn’t be lower.

Contenders, the usual rental targets, are contenders because they have good goalies. Unless a Cup-targeting team suffers a significant, long-term injury to their No. 1 netminder before Feb. 25, we can’t see an out.

12. Young actor Taylor Cadorin got the gig playing Babcock at the Maple Leafs’ children-centric Next Generation matinee last week — and the club got a kick out of a Mini Babs reading out the starting lineup:

“Unbelievable confidence,” Babcock chuckled. “I talked to him before. I thought he was going to be nervous. He wasn’t nervous one bit. He walked into the coaches’ office, we set him up, he was ready to go.

“I thought the kids on the ice, the referees, the skating, the people interviewing, the whole thing. I thought it was a really nice thing and a great way, I believe, to sell hockey. I think it’s important that we have the kids involved, but I also thought they had an outstanding showing of themselves. They were impressive.”

We know Babcock is obsessed with draws, but it was interesting to note in Cadorin’s video that the face-off winning percentages of each centre are right up on the opposing team’s lineup chart. (Most teams simply list surnames on the chart.)

The Leafs rank second overall in the dot at 52.4%, up from 2017-18 (sixth, 51.8%), which was up from 2016-17 (14th, 49.9%). It’s a focal point, regardless of who’s delivering the pre-game pep talk.

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Quick Shifts: What if the Maple Leafs don’t trade for defence?