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February 28, 2024
Quick Shifts: Which Canadian team is the best bet to win it all?


A quick mix of the things we gleaned from the week of hockey, serious and less so, and rolling four lines deep. I am pulling the monster out of me now.

1. Hockey Day in Canada arrives at a fascinating juncture for the contenders (or perceived contenders) skating above the 49th parallel.

With all due respect to the rebuilding Ottawa Senators and Montreal Canadiens, plus a scrappy but middling Calgary Flames group that is believed to sell come trade deadline, there is legitimate intrigue and debate surrounding the four Canadian teams well positioned to make the playoffs.

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Is Canada’s best team the NHL-leading Winnipeg Jets, with their refreshing buy-in, commitment to defence and checking (an NHL-best 2.28 goals allowed per game), and all-world, contract-extended goaltender?

Or is it the Edmonton Oilers, who get to dress the world’s best hockey player every night, are riding the longest win streak of their history, and have accumulated the right amount of scar tissue to harden them for a deep run?

But wait. The Vancouver Canucks are sending five players to the All-Star Game, plus their coach, Rick Tocchet, who looks every bit like a Jack Adams lock. The contender no one saw coming not only leads the NHL in offence (3.78 goals per game) but rates second only to the Jets in limiting goals against (2.51). Why can’t they catch lightning in a bottle and deal with those pesky expiring contracts another day?

Then there are the Toronto Maple Leafs, who are doubtlessly flawed but on track for an eighth consecutive playoff berth. Toronto arguably dresses the most game-breakers — the deadliest of whom is only on track for 71 goals — and is certainly the most overdue for a deep run. And there is still time to patch some holes before the trade deadline passes.

Only time will tell if any of these teams have what it takes to bust the 31-year streak of U.S.-based Stanley Cup champions.

But we can’t recall a recent season in which four Canadian clubs had such high-end talent performing in their prime, so much success at the halfway mark, and so many reasons to think, to dream: Why not us?

2. A segment of Maple Leafs fans and analysts are calling for Sheldon Keefe’s job.

And the head coach himself hasn’t exactly masked tension during this Western Canada swing — be it via his post-loss commentary, his in-game commands that one person within earshot described as “primal,” his “lengthy” and blunt meeting with players, or his testier-than-usual demeanour during some practices.

But our sense is that Keefe’s ratcheted resolve has more to do with his hatred for losing and concern over slipping in the standings than it does with saving his own skin (although, the two are intertwined, of course). We don’t think Leafs management will be trigger-happy here.

I don’t buy the argument that super-rich MLSE wouldn’t cut cheques for another fired coach. Unlike the case of Mike Babcock, Keefe’s extension doesn’t carry such hefty term or dollars, and his next employer would have to pick up a significant chunk.

That’s not it.

Consider the “fire Keefe” debate from Brad Treliving’s perspective: If the new GM cuts loose the coach he inherited, then endorsed, and the players don’t take strides under a fresh voice, then what?

Well, the criticism shifts upward to Treliving’s roster construction and president Brendan Shanahan’s keep-running-it-back mandate.

As long as Keefe is behind the bench, he’s first in line to take the bullets — and Treliving keeps one in the chamber.

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3. “Steven Stamkos is not getting traded,” Julien BriseBois announced to reporters. “So, we can put that one to bed. That is not going to change between now and the deadline, under any circumstances.”

Further, the Lightning general manager said that “yes” he can see a scenario in which his captain, a pending UFA, re-signs but that those negotiations won’t happen until after Tampa’s season concludes.

Stamkos is still very productive; he tied Wayne Gretzky on the all-time power-play goals list this week. He also holds a full no-move clause, so this decision to not be dealt is his as well.

The Lightning are in the thick of the playoff race, their post-season positioning as insecure as it’s been since this era’s gold-standard franchise shockingly missed the dance in 2017.

Smart move by BriseBois to snuff out distracting trade speculation before it can begin.

While Tampa’s depth has no doubt been taxed by the league’s hard cap, the core of this team remains in go-for-it mode. And we doubt any team could care less about whether it’s a 1-seed or an 8-seed come spring than the Bolts.

BriseBois’s strategic comments this week have as much to do with Stamkos as they do the rest of the dressing room. This is a top-down endorsement that this won’t be a wasted season, with hopes Stamkos and his teammates can focus on their playoff push and rally around this as, perhaps, their last shot together.

4. Quote of the Week.

“I’m mad, and I am pulling the monster out of me now. … I needed this win. I got it, and now I’m laughing.” —Blue Jackets goalie Elvis Merzlikins, upon defeating the mighty Canucks after 17 days between starts and getting healthy-scratched

5. A little birdie told me Zach Hyman, only having the year of his life, was extra jacked Tuesday to face his old club, Toronto. And you could see it in his dazzling non-goal and ensuing celebration.

With respect to Nazem Kadri, Mason Marchment, Trevor Moore and others, as far as these Leafs are concerned, Hyman is The One That Got Away.

“Not all free agent signings work out. But obviously Zach has been above and beyond anyone’s expectations, I would say, from the moment he got here. Not only on the ice, but off the ice, what he’s done for our room and the leader that he is, the person that he is,” Connor McDavid says.

“And on the ice, his game kinda speaks for itself. He’s having an unbelievable year. I felt like he should have been an all-star. That’s just my opinion. But I just feel like he’s bringing his game to a whole other level.”

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Keefe notes Hyman’s excellent touch around the net and says it helps playing on McDavid’s line. We’d argue that Hyman helps McDavid’s game as well, though.

“He’s a relentless player,” Keefe says. “When he gets confident and all that, he’s going to be dangerous.”

Increasingly, Hyman has taken to positioning himself at the back door, right near the post — a perfect, if punishing, location for tips and rebounds.

McDavid chuckles when asked if he sometimes aims for Hyman instead of the net itself. Ha. No, he’s trying to score on every shot. He does concede that Hyman’s presence helps widen the target, though.

“He’s continuing to evolve his game,” McDavid says. “You know, when he first came into the league, he was kind of viewed as a penalty killer and third-line guy — checker, works hard. Now, he doesn’t kill penalties at all. He stays out for two minutes on the power play.

“He has changed his game a little bit. But he’s working on his game, which is always a good thing. He’s just continuing to evolve.”

Evolve into a guy on pace for 55(!) goals, not counting all those wiped away in video review.

“You see him scoring goals,” McDavid says. “And not a lot of guys can score.”

6. T.J. Brodie showed signs of taking on water in last spring’s Florida series, and the 33-year-old has struggled this season.

He’s simply logging too many minutes against too difficult forward lines for this stage in his career.

“Defensively, he’s given up more and hasn’t been as consistent as we’ve come to rely upon,” Keefe says. “I don’t know if he’s had many easy nights in terms of matchups.”

Brodie candidly conceded his recent struggles Thursday night.

“Sometimes you go through those phases. Maybe lack of confidence, not getting the bounces, and you grip the stick a little tight. Sometimes it’s just taking a breath, and things are OK,” he said.

How does he get back on track when he’s fighting the puck or negative thoughts?

“Mentally, you think about (how) there’s more to life than just hockey,” he says. “And it’s not the end of the world. If you make a mistake, it feels like it at the time. But you just move on, try to learn from it.”

7. Ten years ago this week, the Flames and Canucks engaged in their infamous line brawl.

Chris Tanev, then a Canuck, was engaged in an intermission broadcast chat he saw a blur charge down the hallway. Coach John Tortorella was racing toward the Flames’ quarters.

“I remember doing an interview in between periods and seeing Torts run past me going right down the other tunnel, trying to fight … everyone, I think,” Tanev recalls.

“It was exciting. I think it was fun. No one got hurt, thankfully. And, I mean, you guys got to talk about some stuff for a while. And you’re still talking about it now, 10 years later.”

How would Tortorella have fared if things got physical?

“He’s feisty, and he’s strong. He does those military workouts. A lot of push-ups, chin-ups. I’m sure he can hold his own.” Tanev says. “Maybe he’s Mike Tyson — get in low and see what happens.”

8. It’s for moments like this that I keep renewing my subscription to Twitter dot com:

9. Twice over the past seven days, William Nylander has made a point to mention what he perceives to be a lack of power plays flowing Toronto’s way.

“It feels like we get one a game,” Nylander said Thursday, following a win in Calgary.

The Maple Leafs rank 28th in the NHL in power-play opportunities with just 123 through 43 games — and that stat has been noticed internally. (For reference, the Colorado Avalanche lead the NHL with 173 chances with the man-advantage.)

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Any theories as to why the Leafs aren’t drawing more whistles?

“I would love to know, too,” captain John Tavares says.

“But just keep working and put the opponent under pressure and stress, where they have to defend us, and eventually you break them down. To eliminate chances, to have to take penalties.

“Coming in this year, we tried to put a lot of emphasis on not focusing on a lot of those things and just putting our energy in the right areas. Some calls go your way, some don’t. Referees got a tough job, but we’ll just keep playing. And then when those chances come, we want to be ready.”

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11. Wainwright, Alta., native Bobby McMann lights up when you ask him about playing his first two NHL games in his home province. The Maple Leafs winger had 25 family and friends show up to support him in Edmonton, and a bunch more in Calgary.

He says this experience (result notwithstanding) is something he’s been thinking about since childhood.

“My buddies were like, ‘It’s just so weird to see you out there’ — because they’re all Oilers fans. They’re more of Leafs fans now a little bit, watching me,” McMann says, smiling.

Everyone who came out to support the undrafted NHLer had the courtesy to wear blue and white.

“Except one of my younger cousins was in an Oilers jersey still,” McMann says. “I gotta get him a Leafs one.”

12. A couple unfamiliar reporters enter the Saddledome for morning skate, and a friendly security agent notices the Maple Leafs credentials and lights up.

“You’re from Toronto? Oh, we miss Gio!” she says, envious and grateful all at once.

Without prompting, she jumps into stories about how Giordano would invite schoolchildren who reached a certain reading quota to play shinny with him. And how the Flames’ former captain would drive by and wish local kids happy birthdays from his car during the pandemic.

Speaks volumes about someone’s character and impact when all of this love spills out from a glance at a credential.

“You guys are so lucky to have him,” she says.

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