Stakes high with bumps ahead
Players on the bubble claw for ice-time scraps as Hyman nears return
There is a certain comfort an NHL coach gets when there’s stiff competition for lineup spots.
But it is not joy, according to Leafs coach Mike Babcock.
“You enjoy everything except telling the guy he’s not playing,” Babcock said. “You want everyone to be their best playing, and being happy. The reality is on really good teams, though, that doesn’t happen all the time.”
The Leafs are already in that situation, with three healthy players scratched every night. Jason Spezza, Dmytro Timashov and Martin Marincin didn’t play in Tuesday’s win over Los Angeles despite performing well in Saturday’s victory over Philadelphia. The coach said they had done nothing wrong, but Nic Petan got a rare start and Trevor Moore played on the fourth line.
The stakes are likely to be even higher when Zach Hyman returns to the lineup. Unless there’s an injury or two between now and the forward’s return from knee surgery — which could happen in the next week — some players will have to be removed from the roster entirely. Three Leafs earning around $750,000 (U.S.) will have to waived and sent to the Marlies or traded to make room for Hyman’s $2.25-million cap hit.
“Nobody has said anything to me,” Spezza said. “I assume I’m here helping the group. And I don’t know if you’ve heard things that I haven’t heard, but for me, I’m trying to build and help this group out.”
Who stays? Who goes? Of the Leafs who have been healthy scratches, Petan has missed 11 games, Marincin nine, Spezza seven, Timashov has missed four, Nick Shore three, Justin Holl two. Moore hasn’t missed any, but hasn’t nailed down a line.
How does the coach choose?
“It’s all about the team, and what I mean by that (is): Do you do something that can help the team win?” Babcock said. “Do you have a skill set? In the National Hockey League your depth guys have to have skill sets that can (help). Are you a power-play guy? A penalty kill guy? A heavy guy? What do you do? So that’s what we’re trying to figure out as we get to know the group.”
Of the players who have been scratched, Shore has endeared himself to the coach the most.
He wins faceoffs and centres a fourth line that Babcock has bragged about.
“Everybody has a role on this team,” Shore said. “And when you’re out on the ice, you’ve got to do your part. There’s a lot of competition, so it keeps everybody motivated.”
Petan has had a puzzling existence as a Maple Leaf. He was sent to the AHL’s Marlies over the weekend and had five points over two games, then was recalled in time to play on the top line Tuesday. On Wednesday, he was practising as if he would be a scratch on Thursday night, when the Golden Knights visit. What does he make of it all?
“In the dark as you are,” Petan said. “It’s been like that since day one, so play where you’re told, I guess, and try and stay positive at all times.”
Spezza has the biggest cheering section, because he’s from Toronto and for all that he’s achieved in 17 years in the league. The 36-year-old scored his first goal as a Maple Leaf on Saturday.
“When the coach puts you in, you play, and you don’t let your days you don’t play affect the days that you do,” Spezza said. “You have to be strong-willed.
“Over the course of my career, if anybody’s ever asked me advice on what to do (when you’re not in the lineup) I’d tell them to go to work and to keep working on your game, and to try to stay sharp. Now I have an opportunity to practice what I preached over the year. It’s important for me to stay ready and to be sharp when I do get in.”