Jason Spezza’s Maple Leafs teammates call him Vintage for a reason.
He’s old school. Likes they way things were. At 36, he still takes the morning skate, even if it’s optional and the guys he’s skating with are on the bubble of playing or sitting, or working their way back from injury.
So when it comes to this business of a week off in the middle of the season — eight days between games for the Leafs — Spezza isn’t sure it’s the best idea. Especially for a team that has played as many back-to-back games (and played so poorly) as the Maple Leafs have.
“I’m probably in the minority, but I don’t love it,” Spezza said before the Leafs’ bye week. “I’d prefer to sprinkle the off days throughout the season and have some longer gaps. Get to practise a little bit. But guys seem to like it. It seems to be a popular thing.
“So I will take it and use the rest but I’d prefer not to have it.”
About half the teams are on break already, with all the teams getting their bye either just before or just after the all-star break.
It turns out Spezza is not alone in his thinking, and it has nothing to do with age.
“I like to keep playing and obviously stay involved,” said Flames centre Sean Monahan, who is 11 years younger than Spezza. “The break is obviously good for the guys that are injured and stuff like that. But at the same time, I like staying on the ice.”
Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews is another who would prefer to keep playing. “I feel like these last few years we’ve been playing really good hockey going into (the bye week) and then it’s a little bit difficult to find your groove coming out of it. It doesn’t matter what you do or how hard you train, you’ve still got to find your legs and your timing a little bit.”
The NHL has done a better job in the past few years of pitting two rested teams against each other after their breaks. When the bye week was introduced in the 2016-17 season, that wasn’t the case. The bye was spread out over two months and rested teams were pummelled upon their return by active teams. The record for the first game back for the first 20 teams coming off their bye was 4-12-4.
Now, with the bye attached to the all-star break, it’s easier to pit rested team against rested team. This year, the Leafs and the Predators will have had the same length of time off when they lace up against each other Jan. 27 in Nashville.
The break isn’t only for the players. Coaches get it too.
When he was coach of the Marlies, this time of year would have been particularly tough on Sheldon Keefe. The AHL team essentially is on a three-week road trip with the Coca-Cola Coliseum leased out to the boat show. This year, Keefe is coaching the Leafs. And he will definitely take advantage of the bye.
“I’m going to spend some time with my family and get away a little bit,” Keefe said. “That’s been one of the greatest challenges of this new role … to find those windows of time to be with my wife and kids. So that’s what I’ll be doing.”
The Leafs are on the leading edge of having players work out less and skate less so that they are at peak efficiency for the game. So this kind of break fits well with the team’s formula.
“Off days are great, it gives you that day to recharge,” Keefe said. “But I find that multiple days actually do really help refresh in a lot of ways, not just for the body to heal but for the mind to be restored and to see different faces or not see the same faces all the time. They hear the same voices … In terms of how it affects the game and the players when they have to come back and try to get up and running again that, for me, remains to be seen. But I generally do like the concept of multiple days off.
“In fact, even when we were (with) the Marlies, when we had gaps in our schedule, we tried to kind of create our own sort of bye week. A few different times we took three, four days off in the middle of the season when the schedule allowed us to, just because I do think it’s important.”
Leafs make their mark: The NHL’s public relations department, through NHL.com, has been announcing all-decade lists this week. The Leafs made two of them, and the first mention seemed like a troll job. Their Game 7 meltdown in Boston in 2013 — the Leafs blew a 4-1 lead late in the third period to lose the game and the series in overtime — was named game of the decade. The 2014 Winter Classic between the Leafs and Red Wings, which drew 105,491 fans in Ann Arbor, Mich., was named event of the decade. The Leafs won that game 3-2, with Tyler Bozak scoring the shootout winner. “To be honest, I was probably a lot more excited than I was nervous,” the centre told NHL.com.
Just say Ovie: With two hat tricks and eight goals over three games, it was no surprise that Alex Ovechkin was named the NHL’s first star of the week. Ovechkin moved into the top 10 in career goals, passing Mario Lemieux and tying Steve Yzerman for ninth with 692. Columbus goaltender Elvis Merzlikins (3-0-0, two shutouts) and Chicago centre Jonathan Toews (three goals, six assists) were the other weekly stars.
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Shoring up: The Leafs have essentially had a healthy lineup for one day this year, and that’s the day they placed Nick Shore on waivers. He was claimed by the Winnipeg Jets. “That’s part of the sport, right?” Shore said. “You don’t really count on that. At the same time, no one wants anyone to get hurt. That happens. I had a good two months here, really liked everyone within the organization.”
Moving up: Former Kalamazoo Wings’ goaltender Matiss Kivlenieks became the 673rd ECHL graduate to reach the NHL when he debuted with the Blue Jackets on Sunday. Kivlenieks is the 11th former ECHL player to play his first NHL game this season. He appeared in eight games with the K-Wings during the 2018-19 season going, 5-3-0 with a 2.71 goals-against average and a .923 save percentage.
Having a Lark: While the Detroit Red Wings have scored two or fewer goals in 12 of the last 16 games, one of those goals was the 100th of Dylan Larkin’s career. He’s not on pace to match his career-best 32 last season, but that doesn’t worry coach Jeff Blashill. “I don’t know what Larks is going to be,” Blashill told the Detroit Free Press. “Is he going to be a 40-goal scorer? A 20-goal scorer? I don’t know. I’m more worried about his total game and so is he. He wants to win. For us to win long-term here, he’s got to be one of the best two-way centres in the league.”