A quick mix of the things we gleaned from the week of hockey, serious and less so, and rolling four lines deep. We’re rooting for Rodion Amirov.
1. On the day John Tavares dialled his goal drought to 11 games, he organized all his teammates and coaches to send their video well-wishes to prospect Rodion Amirov, recently diagnosed with a brain tumour.
He then pulled on a “Celebrating Black Excellence” T-shirt and stood at the podium for 11 minutes.
Tavares fielded questions on Amirov’s battle and good friend Jake Muzzin’s concussion. He was asked to speak on the trade deadline and the Minnesota Wild’s offence. He addressed hockey’s issues with racial inequality and Ondej Kase’s forechecking. He explained why he slammed his stick in frustration during Monday’s loss in Columbus and granted comment on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Such is life as captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Tavares was first to the microphone when his Leafs got embarrassed 7-1 by the Wilkes Barre–Scranton Penguins in October and again, on Monday, when they got slapped around 5-2 by the last-place Montreal Canadiens.
I’m of the mind that’s what captains should do: Face the music. Take the bullets. But, trust me, not all do.
Something Detroit’s Sam Gagner, a longtime friend of Tavares’s, said on Spittin’ Chiclets this week provides a window into his approach.
Gagner was discussing the summertime skates Tavares helps run in Muskoka with a growing crew of NHLers: Connor McDavid, Bo Horvat, Erik Gudbranson, Kyle Clifford …
“Cliffy’s a little old-school, so he’ll come on a few times in late August and snap it around a bit,” Gagner said, chuckling.
“But then you got the opposite end of that with J.T., who’s wanting to be on the ice all day, every day in the summer and working on his game nonstop.”
I have a theory as to why Tavares’s production has dipped.
Knowing his career has rounded the turn, Tavares wanted desperately to represent Team Canada this season. He came out of the gates on fire, plowing through any hesitancy that might infect a man who was stretchered off the ice in his final game of the previous season. (Heck, Tavares even modelled the Olympic casual gear.)
Maybe the deflation of that dream, temporarily, sucked a little magic from his winter.
Whatever the reason, the captain is mired in an unusual funk, his deepest goal slump since he went stretches of 13 and 11 games without lighting the lamp way back in 2011-12.
His previous longest dry spells as a Leaf lasted six games, one last season and one the year prior. He’s in danger of doubling that Saturday in Detroit.
“I want to be a difference-maker,” Tavares stated. “I have high standards for myself and expect a lot. It’s about managing my emotion.”
Those emotions got the better of him Tuesday, when he thwacked his stick in frustration after another missed shot.
“Sometimes it can be good to let it out, but obviously other times you don’t want to let it get in your way,” Tavares said. “Important to manage that correctly, and I still think I can do a better job putting [my] focus on that next shift and next opportunity, knowing there’s a lot of game to be played and lots of time to make a difference – and not just offensively.”
Coach Sheldon Keefe spoke with Tavares about his game, about his drought, about team objectives over personal stats. But Tavares already understood.
“Frustration is a useless emotion,” Keefe said. “It’s pretty prevalent in all our lives at different times, but it is a pretty useless emotion when we sit down and think about it. I talked with John, and he’s experienced enough to know that that’s not helping.”
For Tavares, the key to climbing out of this rut is trusting his instincts and the Leafs’ structure, focusing on disciplined play in all three zones and not solely what happens around the paint.
“Set the mindset in the right spot,” Tavares said, “and eventually good things will happen.”
2. Former Arizona Coyotes Rick Tocchet provided a nice rundown of Ilya Lyubushkin’s game on The FAN Morning Show: Great teammate. Can squash the opponents’ cycle. Tough guy in the corners. Will box out net-front. Eats pucks. Play is suited to matching up against a grinding bottom-six line like Tampa’s pesky Patrick Maroon–Pierre-Eduard Bellemare–Corey Perry unit.
Tocchet said he’d offer “Boosh” one bit of advice about fitting in with the Maple Leafs, who are blessed with more skill and burdened with higher expectations than Arizona.
“You gotta make some little quicker decisions with the puck. Get that puck up to the big boys,” Tocchet said. “He likes to massage the puck every once in a while. That’s a bit of KHL in him. They like to hold on to the puck in those bigger rinks.
“If he can get that in his game, I think he’ll be fine for the Leafs.”
3. Few are as qualified to speak on the evolution of how NHL hockey is played like Rod Brind’Amour.
His playing career stretched from 1989 to 2010, his Carolina Hurricanes coaching career from 2011 to now.
Brind’Amour sees two major reasons the quality of hockey is better today than when he was lacing ’em up.
First and foremost, the athletes are simply more talented, more focused.
Second? The attitude around driving for offence is veering toward entertainment compared to Brind’Amour’s clutch-and-grab era.
“It’s coached with a little more risk in the game. Let’s put a little more high-octane in the game. So, we give up a chance, maybe — but let’s put the gas on. A let’s-go-for-it mentality. I think most of the coaches in today’s game coach that way,” Brind’Amour said.
“You don’t need to have five power plays for teams to trade off chances. Before (the focus was): We got to take care of our own end. Of course, we still take care of our own end, but we want the emphasis on, how are we going to put the puck in the back of the net? Almost all coaches do that now.”
Brind’Amour was handed the Stanley Cup after a tight 2002 final that featured the scores 3-2, 3-1, 3-2, 3-0, and 3-1. The man understands lockdown, defend-the-house hockey.
“But I always wanted to play another way,” Brind’Amour said. “There’s always another way to do it.
“It’s proven that you can do it this (riskier) way too. And now I think you almost have to (play offensively) to be successful. If you’re coaching like the old days, you’re not going to go too long.”
A major byproduct of this style shift is the thriving of the quick-footed, undersized defenceman.
“If you got skill, you can fit in,” Brind’Amour said, matter-of-factly.
“The days where you had to be big and strong, those are so far gone — for the better. You know, it’s a skill game. If you like hitting, it’s gotten less. They’ve taken a little bit of that out of the game. But for the better. To allow these guys to fly around and create plays and have fun. Now, there’s guys to watch on the back end.”
4. The Athletic’s Sean McIndoe came up with the idea. Jay Gudsson turned it into reality.
We’re talking about Gordle, one of the many fun spinoffs from the daily word-guessing phenomenon Wordle.
But unlike Taylordle (for the Swifties), Hogwartle (for the muggles) or Lewdle (don’t ask), Gordle is strictly for hockey nerds.
Players try to pluck out a five-letter surname of whichever NHL player, past or present, Gudsson chooses today.
Gordle is difficult. It’s frustrating. It’s a hockey-nerd hoot.
“It gets between 10,000 and 12,000 unique visitors on a typical day. I nearly fell out of my chair laughing when EvolvingWild tweeted out the letter frequencies and people started coming up with ideal starting names,” Gudsson says.
“From what I see on Twitter, people seem to enjoy it. People generally only reach out to me when there are bugs. I was just trying to make a small app to add to my personal portfolio, so the sheer scale of the response is hilarious to me. I couldn’t even get people I knew to play it at first. I just wish I had more foresight and made it more robust. Hopefully, the worst of the bugs are behind us.”
As with Wordle aficionados, conversation always begins with: “What’s your starting word?”
McIndoe, who suggested the game on his Puck Soup podcast, half-jokes that the stats nerds ruined Gordle by encouraging everyone to start with ROSEN.
“I usually play CORSI first when I’m testing things,” Gudsson said. “Picking the name would be more fun if I was comfortable going further back in time. One of the first names I used was LUPUL, and I quickly realized you knock out a lot of people by choosing someone who hasn’t played in over five years.
“There’s only so many names to choose from, so any time I turn back the clock even a little bit I do kind of just cross my fingers and hope for the best.”
McIndoe knew his idea couldn’t work in podcast format.
“But that was all I knew how to do, so it was very cool to see somebody smarter step in and turn it into something people could enjoy. I do play. Currently 37-for-37, but now that I’ve said that out loud, I’m probably screwed,” McIndoe says.
“Also, I don’t pick the answers. So, everybody stop yelling at me about David Ayres.”
5. As difficult as I personally found it to get engaged in the 2022 Winter Games men’s hockey tournament, you love to see this turnout.
Here is Slovakia’s thousands-deep welcome celebration for an Olympic bronze medal, its first in the sport.
Námestie SNP a tisícky hokejových fanušikov oslávilo spolu s hráčmi bronzové olympíjske hry 2022. pic.twitter.com/XgwDATqDKo
— Miroslav Šatan (@miro81s) February 23, 2022
6. Sheldon Keefe clearly remembers a 5-foot-8 guy at his first Tampa Bay Lightning training camp in 2000. Both he and Martin St. Louis were youngsters trying to establish themselves in the NHL. Immediately, Keefe noticed how good his teammate was and believed St. Louis deserved more opportunity.
“From a talent and work-ethic perspective, he was on another level. The size factor seemed to be really holding him back,” Keefe said. It seemed a tad unjust to Keefe, but as soon as St. Louis got his ice time, he seized it. The undrafted kid from Laval scored 18 goals his first year in Tampa.
“I took a lot out of that personally in terms of the lesson of letting the process play out,” Keefe said.
Did Keefe see a potential NHL head coach in the making?
“Oh, yeah,” Keefe replied. “Great personality, very positive guy, very upbeat, very passionate about the game, and obviously following his journey as an elite player and all that he accomplished. Now, with his kids being very good and competitive players, the passion he has for the game was certainly there.”
The new Canadiens coach and Keefe have occasionally exchanged texts since Keefe’s promotion to the Maple Leafs gig.
“He’s the type of guy and had the career that if he wanted to get into coaching, it was going to happen,” Keefe said. “It’s great to see him get the opportunity here in Montreal.”
#Habs Martin St. Louis, the life coach: “my biggest advice to any kids out there is to just embrace the struggle & grow… it’s easy to be the best version of yourself when everything is going well…what version of yourself are you when there’s struggle?…”
— Priyanta Emrith (@HabsInHighHeels) February 22, 2022
7. Quote of the Week.
“We have a lot of nice guys on our team. We need to be more like pricks.” —Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy on his defence corps (and potentially sending a request to GM Don Sweeney?)
8. On the night a 48-year-old Chris Chelios set the old benchmark for most NHL games played by a defenceman (1,651), the Atlanta Thrashers blue-liner skated 10:24, registered one shot, threw one hit and blocked one shot in a loss.
On the night Zdeno Chara tied Chelios, Big Z logged 20:15, registered two shots and an assist, threw four hits, blocked two shots and finished plus-1 in a win.
Not only did Chara, 44, rewrite the record book Thursday in San Jose, he rang in the occasion by becoming the oldest NHLer to fight.
Jeff Viel can now say he fought Zdeno Chara on his record-breaking night. pic.twitter.com/XY9bWqSBQJ
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) February 25, 2022
Fun story: Chara and Chelios shared a conversation before his record breaking, and Big Z offered to fly Chelios out to Silicon Valley to pass the torch. (Chelios declined because he was scheduled in studio at ESPN.)
“I’m not going to sit here and say it doesn’t bother me,” a candid Chelios said on-air.
Loved seeing the tributes from the Bruins and San Jose’s away crowd for Chara’s accomplishment. The man has earned the respect of the hockey world.
“He’s obviously a big role (model), if you look back at playing defence the last 20 years,” Morgan Rielly said. “For a big man, he moves well. He’s got a good stick. He can think the game. And I hope he’s able to keep healthy and keep playing, because what he’s been able to do is pretty special.
“As a player, you start to appreciate that kind of milestone, in terms of games played, more and more. He’s a prime example of a guy who puts in lots of time, works hard and is a good teammate.”
9. Steven Stamkos said you’d understand how Andrei Vasilevskiy is able to pull off some of the extraordinary catlike saves he does after you’ve watched the goalie’s elaborate morning stretching routine.
“I see that, and I immediately think of how long I’d be on the IR if I tried some of that stuff,” Stamkos said.
This Vasilevskiy save didn’t really happen because it is physically impossible, magic isn’t real, and you are actually dreaming. pic.twitter.com/zb04JY6u6y
— InGoal Magazine (@InGoalMedia) December 14, 2018
Oh my Andrei Vasilevskiy, this has to be the save of the season. Frankly it hurts just to watch … longer clip and slo-mo replay in our Instagram feed: https://t.co/vcdD5n6PjQ pic.twitter.com/AL53lVF1nf
— InGoal Magazine (@InGoalMedia) May 25, 2019
10. The San Jose Sharks have won just two of 10 (and only one in regulation) since Erik Karlsson hit the injured reserve last month, and have been outscored 37-24 over that span.
Karlsson isn’t expected back until mid-March.
This appears to be the stretch where they slip out of the wild-card race in a weak Pacific Division.
11. Eight of the NHL’s 220 coaching spots are held by people of colour.
Underrepresentation is the impetus for NHL Bound, a mini YouTube docuseries that chronicles two black coaches, Duante’ Abercrombie and Nathaniel Brooks, as they chase their NHL dream through participation in the Coyotes’ first-ever coaching internship program.
Because these two guys are so charismatic and driven, they are easy to root for and fun to watch.
The series is tightly directed by Kwame Mason, and it’s a story well-told. We’re three episodes deep. The finale will be out next week. I highly recommend.
“I have a line before big games that I use with our players. I tell them to play loose and allow themselves to be great,” Brooks says as he begins his internship.
“Funny enough, last night I got two different messages from different players throwing my slogan right back at me.”
12. Just heartbreaking news about 20-year-old Rodion Amirov.
“We’re pretty devastated for him,” Auston Matthews said. “I mean, I can’t really put into words. … We’re all thinking about him, praying for him. And we’re obviously hoping for the best. We’re here to support him.”
I know Rodion would love to hear from #leafsnation. Hockey aside at this point, he has a road ahead of him. All good vibes are appreciated. He is a wonderful kid, with a tremendously positive attitude. We are all thinking of you my friend. https://t.co/q2ij3W5DWe
— Hayley Wickenheiser (@wick_22) February 23, 2022