sports

6 thoughts on the Maple Leafs’ critical summer

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

1. The to-do list ahead of Toronto Maple Leafs GM Kyle Dubas’s latest all-in season starts with a starter. But doesn’t end there. Some rapid thoughts on the NHL’s most-scrutinized franchise ahead of the most important two weeks of the off-season.

• The goalie grab typically happens fast and furious. Dubas snatched the wrong guy last summer (injury-prone Petr Mrazek) and has not rushed to make pending UFA Jack Campbell a lavish offer.

Detroit, New Jersey, and Edmonton are three teams that could be keen on Campbell should he reach July 13. Dallas (Scott Wedgewood) and Buffalo (Craig Anderson) already re-signed their backups this week. Not that either is a viable No. 1, but the pickings will be very slim for those teams that miss out on the likes of Campbell, Darcy Kuemper, Ville Husso and Marc-Andre Fleury.

Stray thought: A bold ploy for a goalie-hungry organization would be trying to offer-sheet Dallas stud Jake Oettinger, an RFA who lacks arbitration rights.

Plenty of obstacles in doing so, however. There is no sense that Jim Nill and his No. 1 won’t find common ground. Oettinger would have to be willing to use that tactic. And Nill has cleared space to guard against an offer sheet by trading away Ben Bishop and (presumably) letting Jon Klingberg walk.

In short: There is no obvious solution to the Maple Leafs’ crease.

• As Elliotte Friedman reports, Dubas (who has just three picks in the draft) is willing to trade Ilya Mikheyev’s rights for an extra one. The GM tried to do the same with pending UFA Zach Hyman last summer, but the Oilers never reached Dubas’s asking price. They signed Hyman anyway.

Mikheyev will get rich elsewhere. Like Hyman, who had an excellent playoffs, we’re not certain Toronto can get better with this roster loss.

• It’s easy for us to say that Morgan Rielly needs a proven right-shot defence partner. It’s not so easy for Dubas to secure that guy. Ilya Lyubushkin has a lot going for him, but Toronto needs an upgrade this high up in the lineup.

• Timothy Liljegren’s nice and easy bridge deal (two years at $1.4 million per) makes for a $2.2-million third pairing. Not bad at all.

The hope on both sides is that Liljegren can develop into a second-pairing guy by Year 2 of this deal.

In my humble opinion, Rasmus Sandin has a higher ceiling than Liljegren. But with his playing fewer games and putting up fewer points than Liljegren this season, and the Leafs being deeper on the left side, it’s difficult to see Sandin getting a heftier contract than his friend.

• Buyout season is here. If a salary-dump trade cannot be made, Mrazek must be considered.

• Qualifying offers must be made soon. Pierre Engvall ($1.25 million salary) has earned one. Ondrej Kase (same) presents more risk. Love the player, hate the concussion history. We’d be wary of offering Kase seven digits.

The Stanley Cup finalists proved once again that building a reliable fourth line with impact and identity is key.

2. There is word that top prospect Matthew Savoie — he of 90 points in 65 games for the Winnipeg Ice — is at risk of dropping out of the top 10 at Thursday’s draft.

Multiple teams are concerned about his size (5-foot-9, 175 pounds). But his skill is wow, and it’s impossible to imagine Savoie interviewing poorly.

Savoie has a quick smile, is a likeable, confident kid (see: that ’70s ’stache), and he’s striving to follow in the right footsteps.

The centre is a big fan of fellow undersized, Alberta-born, WHL-groomer gamer Brayden Point.

“We both play a fast game. We’re smaller guys who like to possess the puck,” says Savoie.

“He’s one of my favourite players. My dad knows his dad a little bit because we were in the same agency.”

Savoie hasn’t met Point yet, but he has trained with Lightning forward Brandon Hagel.

“It’s my goal to play in the NHL next year. I think, physically, I can make strides and continue to improve,” says Savoie.

Hit the gym. Put on muscle. Get more explosive.

“It’s definitely a fast game out there. You need to be able to skate. You need to be able to protect the puck and play physical. So, there are a lot of aspects that come into having success at the NHL level,” Savoie says.

“I think my speed and I think my work ethic are the two biggest factors that will help me get there.”

3. Much has been made of the Colorado Avalanche’s championship offence (guilty as charged).

Yet the Avs’ defensive effort in the final frame to lock down Sunday’s Cup-clinching victory was something to behold.

A 2-1 game? That was supposed to favour Tampa.

“Oh, man. That third period felt like it was two hours long, playing with the lead. Being in the dressing room understanding you’re 20 minutes away from your dream, it would have been easy for us to just tense up and be shy and timid in the third period,” Nazem Kadri said. “But we came out, we were aggressors, we won the period, and we won the game.”

Colorado allowed one — one! — inner slot shot in Game 6, and that was Steven Stamkos’s early goal at 3:48. They shut things down from there.

Period 3, in particular, was clinical.

“Relentless hockey, and that translates well to the road. That was an incredible period of hockey. It felt like they weren’t in our zone very much. I’m sure it looked like that, too. We just kept our foot on the gas,” Darcy Kuemper told me on the chewed-up Amalie Arena ice.

“I was trying not to look at the clock. It actually caught me by surprise when the buzzer went. And then it didn’t really soak in. It kind of just felt like another game. And then you see everyone jump over (the boards). You try not to think about it all game, so that’s the hard part. But when it soaked in, that’s pretty incredible.”

More incredible than winning gold with Team Canada at the 2021 world championships? Can you compare the two?

Kuemper laughs: “No. Not even close.”

Andrew Cogliano played 1,256 games total before realizing his dream.

Clinging on in that third period, Cogliano says he resisted looking at the clock until eight seconds were left.

“Mentally, it’s a grind,” he said.

Asked to describe the feeling when it all sinks in, the warrior points to the road.

“It’s tough to describe. You know, it’s good to do it in another building, too. I feel like at home would be obviously special, but it’s a tough way to win. It’s a tough way to win. It’s a tough building to win in, and against a really good team — and it makes it feel better.”

Really? The assumption is, winning in Denver would be sweeter, in front of all those crazy fans.

Not for Cogliano. He prefers the uneasy route.

“It makes me feel better. When you’re on the road, you have to come together. I thought we did that. After Game 5, we could’ve came in here (and lost), and you can go to Game 7. And we didn’t allow that. Our third period was one of the best periods we played all playoffs. And we got the job done.”

4. You’re well familiar with Corey Perry and his unique streak of being a championship runner-up for three different teams in three consecutive seasons.

The Lightning’s Pierre-Edouard Bellmare had a rough go, too.

From the “I immediately regret my decision” department, the excellent fourth-liner said he had a chance to re-sign with the Avalanche in the summer of 2021. In fact, a few teams from the final eight wanted him to play a role.

Bellmare and his family were lured away by Tampa’s proven success and the sunny lifestyle away from the rink.

“Not that we hated it (in Colorado) at all. We loved it,” Bellmare said before the series began. “But it’s tough to compete with what we have here.”

5. The San Jose Sharks wrapped their season on April 29. Bob Boughner and his assistants were fired on July 1, 63 days after coaching that final game.

Here’s a ticket to the coaching carousel. Oh, by the way, the only empty seat is the one you just lost.

How volatile is the NHL coaching landscape?

Of the five longest-tenured bench bosses — Jon Cooper (715 games), Mike Sullivan (507), Jared Bednar (454), Rod Brind’Amour (288), Craig Berube (272) — four have won at least one Stanley Cup during his run.

The other, Brind’Amour, has never missed the playoffs, won four playoff rounds in four years, captured a Jack Adams, and accepted less than market value to remain in Carolina.

The bar for job retention is so high, 24 active head coaches have fewer than 200 games behind their current bench.

And Sheldon Keefe, for example, is now the ninth-longest-tenured coach — and he’s only steered the Maple Leafs through one 82-game season.

6. “TOO MANY MEN” is the new “$18M OVER THE CAP.”

Kinda digging these personalized championship T-shirts that fire a tongue-in-cheek statement to the naysayers.

Nazem Kadri called out Jon Cooper’s critique of his Game 4 OT winner by having these babies pressed up for him and his family at Thursday’s parade:

As for Kadri’s future in Denver, listening to his comments on Real Kyper & Bourne this week, my read is that he will sign for more money elsewhere and GM Joe Sakic will focus on the more reasonable goal of retaining UFA Valeri Nichushkin.

“I’m definitely going to take a few days to just think and enjoy. The Kroenkes have been great supporters of mine and made it clear to me that they’d like me to stay also. But we understand there’s a business aspect involved. We’re gonna try to work together,” Kadri said.

In a perfect (i.e., no cap) world, Kadri’s first choice would be to sign up for a repeat bid.

“How could it not be, with this team and this group of guys?” Kadri said. “That being said, I think I’ve shown what my worth is. I’m just looking forward to watching this all develop.”

Ditto.

7. Keep an eye on the Seattle Kraken.

I’ve beat this drum before, and I’ll do it once more.

Sure, Ron Francis wasn’t trying to replicate the otherworldly insta-success of the 2017-18 Vegas Golden Knights. He chose a more patient tack.

But a 30th-place finish and the league’s fourth-worst offence doesn’t exactly thrill a new fanbase.

Francis, who passed up on Vladimir Tarasenko, needs goals — and has $22.9 million in cap space to readjust his roster for Year 2.

Grain of salt and all that, but skill players like Anthony Beauvillier (trade?), Johnny Gaudreau (UFA), and Jon Klingberg (UFA) have been linked in the rumour mill.

Further, Francis has nine draft picks in the first four rounds. He can make news. He should.

All due respect to Jared McCann and Philipp Grubauer, the Kraken needs to cling its tentacles to some star power.

8. Just how far has Steven Stamkos come as a leader, a captain?

At the NHL Awards, I asked his former GM, Steve Yzerman, about the comparisons some have made between him and Stamkos.

“I’m not sure I really deserve to be compared to him — honestly,” Yzerman replied.

“We’re very different players. Our careers kind of followed a similar pattern.”

High draft pick makes an immediate impact on scoreboard. Becomes 60-goal scorer. Gradually improves defensive effort. Captains a perennial contender. Wins multiple championships later in career. Named Steve.

“Personally, I’m honoured if you compared me to him because he’s a fantastic young man. Just a really good teammate and a really good person,” Yzerman went on. “And a wonderful example for the Lightning.”

9. Zdeno Chara, 43, will wait until September to decide if he’ll continue his NHL career.

Living legend Joe Thornton, 43, is coming off a (final?) season in which he played a career-low 34 games and was a healthy scratch for all but one playoff game.

In other words, there is a good chance goalie Craig Anderson, 41, will assume the mantle as oldest active NHLer.

Inking a one-year, $1.5-million deal to remain in Buffalo for his 20th season, Anderson deserves credit for his smooth transition from bona fide No. 1 to supportive backup.

Anderson earned this deal by posting a winning record (17-12-2) for a losing squad.

“Andy’s obviously been around a long time, and we like to rib him about it a little bit,” Sabres leader Kyle Okposo said, with a smile. “But he’s able to articulate certain points that he wants to get across very well, and he’s able to impart some wisdom on our team. And I think that’s really important at the stage that we’re in.

“He’s been awesome for us when he’s been healthy, and he just reads the game so well. He makes difficult saves look easy, and he’s got such a calming influence back there. He’s been a big piece for our team.”

Kevyn Adams should not be done signing goalies, however.

Bring in another established NHL and allow touted prospected Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, 23, to develop longer in AHL Rochester.

10. Not sure which is better: Dylan Strome being a very engaged fan at the Blue Jays game, or Strome proudly retweeting this clip and owning his fandom?

(P.S. If you’re going to buy one Jays replica jersey, power blue is the only way to go.)

11. Speaking of jerseys, the NHL re-partnered with Philadelphia-based throwback kings Mitchell & Ness, which made the flip to nostalgia sports gear in 1983 and already has licenced agreements with all the other North American majors (MLB, NBA, NFL and MLS).

“It’s exciting to continue Mitchell & Ness’ tradition of translating the greatest moments on ice through premium product,” Mitchell & Ness CEO Kevin Wulff said in a statement. “We look forward to celebrating past and present moments from the NHL’s most revered players and franchises through our digital channels, Fanatics’ vast online network, in flagship stores and at valued offline retail partners.”

As a fan of defunct teams and old-school logos, I’m curious to see what designs are on deck.

12. So often the Hockey Hall of Fame induction ceremony can feature a hodgepodge of difference-makers from different eras and countries. A bunch of loosely connected well-dressed people showing up at the Clue mansion.

Having brothers Daniel and Henrik Sedin going in with teammate Roberto Luongo and countryman Daniel Alfredsson should make for a more unified evening in November — and swarms of Canucks sweaters hunting autographs outside. Looking forward to the scene.

Alfredsson’s delayed welcome to the Hall is particularly sweet.

The first NHL Awards I covered in Las Vegas was in 2012, the year a young Erik Karlsson nabbed his first Norris. Karlsson brought Alfredsson as his date that weekend.

Alfie bumped into a small group of hockey writers at a casino bar that night. He volunteered to buy a round and happily regaled us with tales from those epic Maple Leafs playoff battles, his own late-career adjustments, and his take on his competitors and teammates alike.

A genuine beauty and class act.

The next step must be the Ottawa Senators repairing their relationship with what should be their greatest ambassador.

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