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.
The Tim Stutzle era has officially begun pic.twitter.com/nj76cJnS2J
— Jordie (@jordiebarstool) January 17, 2021
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.
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