Quick Shifts: Buffalo Sabres now playing to save Granato’s job

A quick mix of the things we gleaned from the week of hockey, serious and less so, and rolling four lines deep. Merry Christmas! Free Sidney Crosby!

1. The morning before the Buffalo Sabres hit the ice and embarrassed the Toronto Maple Leafs, two of the team’s stars made it clear they felt like they were playing to save their coach’s job.

For fans had been calling for Don Granato’s head while the Sabres were getting throttled 9-4 by the lowly Columbus Blue Jackets on home ice Tuesday.

Fire Donnie?

Nah. Do it for Donnie.

The NHL’s youngest group of players rallied together, realizing if they didn’t, they might lose a coach they loved. (And, after that, perhaps the GM, Kevyn Adams, who locked up this core.)

“You use a lot of the outside noise to motivate you,” Tage Thompson told me Thursday morning. “Obviously, we don’t like what we’ve been hearing from our own fans, as far as comments towards Donnie or Kevyn or our group as a whole. Outside people may not really understand the tightness that our group has, that family feel we have.”

There was an intensity to the scorer’s tone. The camera wasn’t around; his words weren’t platitudes.

“Everyone in here wants to compete and win for each other, and that includes the staff. So, when you hear those boos and those chants, it’s obviously not a good feeling. It just makes you want to compete for each other,” Thompson continued. “Inside these doors, no one’s lost confidence or faith in Donnie or any of the staff. So, we’re going to continue to work hard for him and each guy in this room.”

Granato, you’ll recall, was the one who turned Thompson from a winger into a centre, then saw him blossom into a 94-point beast.

“He means a lot to me. He’s given me my opportunity that’s kinda gotten me to where I am at this point in my career. So, I owe a lot to him and a lot of guys. A lot of people throughout my career have gotten me to this point,” Thompson said. “But you ask any guy in this room — he truly believes in each one of us in this locker room and wants the best for us. So, it’s tough to really not stand behind a guy when he wants the best for you and wants to see you succeed.”

Rasmus Dahlin says the Sabres had a look-in-the-mirror moment after getting stomped by the Jackets: Where are we at? Where do we want to be? And how do we get there?

“Yes,” they will now put it on the line for Granato, the defenceman told me.

“I mean, he’s doing his job. It’s us in this room that have to show it on the ice — and we haven’t done it. We gotta show that we need him. He’s been our leader for three years now. And I see all these players on the team that have gotten chances and gotten so much better, and it’s thanks to him. So, now it’s up to us to step up.

“We have it so good here in this organization. How Donnie wants us to play is a very fun way to play, and we know we can run with that style.”

Both Thompson and Dahlin scored in Buffalo’s 9-3 beatdown of the superior Maple Leafs that night.

It was a statement. Time will tell if it’s a trend.

2. New Wild coach John Hynes denied 39-year-old Marc-André Fleury what may have been his final opportunity to play in Pittsburgh Monday because it didn’t fit his plan.

The plan was to start Minnesota’s hotter goalie, Filip Gustavsson, against the weaker team of the club’s back-to-back, giving them a better statistical shot at two points while throwing Fleury out behind tired skaters and against a strong Boston outfit Tuesday.

Another case of numbers trumping emotion in sport.

(Yeah, I’m a romantic, but perhaps the Wild skaters would’ve rallied around their netminder and perhaps Fleury would have delivered an inspired performance in Pitt.)

Well, Fleury didn’t sulk in Pittsburgh for a second.

He pulled a prank on ex-teammate and friend Kris Letang, switching his helmet to away white before the game, and made friends with a young Penguins fan during warmups.

Gustavsson had his worst outing of the month, a 4-3 regulation loss, as the fans hollered, “We want Fleury!”

The following night, Fleury delivered a season-best 40-save gem in Boston, supplying the Wild with the more unlikely victory, 4-3 in overtime.

“A Hall of Fame performance,” said Ryan Hartman, after Pat Maroon crowned the Flower player of the game.

The hockey gods, they find a way to speak.

3. Something awful happened this month.

Something magical happened, too.

Former NHL hopeful Paul Giallonardo — known as Pauly G — passed away at age 39 after a long battle with brain cancer.

The Unionville, Ont., native was a rugged, big-hearted defenceman with the Windsor Spitfires and developed friendships with many in the hockey community, including Jason Spezza, D.J. Smith, Joe Bowen and Steven Stamkos.

Is it a coincidence that Stamkos registered the first four-goal game of his 16-year career with a heavy heart, shortly after Giallonardo’s death?

“Excuse me if I get a little emotional here, but I had a good friend pass away recently, Paul Giallonardo,” Stamkos told Sportsnet’s Gene Principe in his walk-off interview. “That was my first four-goal game in my career, and I’d like to think he had something to do with that.

“To the Giallonardo family, I love you guys. Pauly was looking down on me tonight.”

Pauly was a close family friend of Stamkos. A player and person who inspired him as a local star a few years older.

“Just a quality person, an unbelievable family that supported me through my career. Just want to send them my love,” Stamkos said.

One year ago, Stamkos had inscribed the initials “P.G.” on the stick he used to score his 1,000th point — an assist to a hockey player with PAUL on his nameplate.

Who knows? Maybe Pauly will find his way into the Hockey Hall of Fame one day.

4. League-wide power-play effectiveness has dipped for the first time in three seasons (to 20.4 per cent) — but don’t blame the New York Rangers.

The NHL’s deadliest 5-on-4 is humming along at a blistering 31.3 per cent rate. If they can maintain that pace, they’ll have the best power play in franchise history and the fourth-best since the NHL began tracking the stat.

“They have different elements, from shooters and passers and net-front presence, and great intelligence with how they go about it. (Point man Adam) Fox seems to make the right decisions at the right time and executes the plays — and it doesn’t really stop from there,” Maple Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe explained.

“You make one mistake with your stick positioning, or you fail to get a puck clear, and they make you pay for it. They spend as much time as anybody in the actual zone. It’s tough once they get the puck to get it back from them. So, faceoffs are important, clears and exits are important, how you manage your blue line coming back in your zone — those are the types of things that you focus on when you’re playing against them. If you’re having to defend too much in your zone, you’re in trouble.”

New York coach Peter Laviolette points to the continuity of a high-skill top unit — Fox, Mika Zibanejad, Artemi Panarin, Chris Kreider and Vincent Trochek — that has been playing together for years now. So comfortable are they reading off each other’s tendencies, they can improvise in the moment.

The opposition can’t simply rely on scouting or set plays when imagination comes into play.

“They feed off each other and read off each other. It becomes more challenging to defend that when there’s unpredictability to it,” Laviolette said.

One Eastern Conference goalie emphasizes Kreider’s crease presence as a pain and the Rangers’ deceptive cross-seam movement as a challenge. Unlike, say, Washington teeing up Alex Ovechkin, there is no obvious point of attack.

“They all have the strengths and their abilities that complement each other in a pretty solid way,” said captain Jacob Trouba, who has to kill against the five-headed monster in practice. “They’ve been great for us all year, and our power play is a big reason why we’ve been successful so far.”

5. At the conclusion of the Rangers’ morning skate in Toronto on Tuesday, the skaters formed a wide circle at centre ice for their post-practice stretch — the common NHL routine.

But then the entire team got up, coaches and goalies included, and drifted to the dot forming a claustrophobic knot. Quiet words, too quiet to hear from the bleachers, were said.

Eventually, they broke.

I’d never seen that before. Rangers winger Will Cuylle says they’ve been doing it all season long.

“We’re a really tight group,” he said, smiling.

Why did the tradition start? What’s the message inside the football-like huddle?

No one is saying.

“Reveal locker-room secrets? I’ll probably pass on that,” Laviolette said. “It’s just a good way to end the skate.”

Trouba explained how internal accountability has increasingly become part of his dressing room’s culture. A couple poor efforts will spark the veterans to speak candidly. There’s no more tiptoeing around issues.

Bolt the doors. Hash it out.

“We’ve probably spent a lot of time around each other the past couple of years and got to know each other,” Trouba said. “What we expect of each other is, we can talk about it, make it known that these are the expectations. And if we’re in a tough spot, we can count on each other to pull ourselves out of it and get back on track.”

Only once all season has New York lost consecutive games, and the players swiftly had a meeting afterward. They won the next one.

New York Rangers huddle.

6. Vegas’s Jack Eichel revealed on the Empty Netters podcast that the Calgary Flames were the runner-up for his trade out of Buffalo.

Equally interesting: Colorado was in the mix.

Eichel and Nathan MacKinnon had been keeping in touch since their days as Team North America teammates at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey, and they trained together over the summer with Andy O’Brien in Halifax.

Further, Eichel was consulting with a surgeon in Denver who had a relationship with the Avalanche. Colorado was on board with his preferred spinal surgery.

Cap space and Buffalo’s return package made a potential deal too complicated.

“There was a lot of things that worked there,” Eichel said. “There probably would’ve had to be another team in the trade to facilitate it, and it obviously ended up not working out.”

(Flash forward to today, and in light the Avalanche’s dump of Tomas Tatar, you have to believe the team will be again looking to make a significant add up front before the deadline passes.)

7. Quote of the Week:

“We got some guys who think they’re playing well, and I think they’re kidding themselves at this point. It’s frustrating to play out there and you’ve got guys who think they’re doing well, and you have no idea what play they’re going to make or where they’re going to be on the ice.” — Devon Toews, following Colorado’s 3-2 loss to the rebuilding Chicago Blackhawks

8. Of the NHL’s 32 head coaches, only four have been with their current team for more than five years. The NHL’s top three longest-tenured bench bosses — Jon Cooper, Mike Sullivan and Jared Bednar — all won the Cup, the best way to buy time.

The fourth, Carolina’s Rod Brind’Amour, has a points percentage (.661) better than all of them and two trips to the conference finals but is on an expiring deal and will face a difficult negotiation.

Twenty-two NHL head coaches have held their post for less than two years. Five guys lost their jobs between September and Christmas.

Hired to be fired.

Instability in the job is “at an all-time high,” according to Laviolette.

“You’re talking about really good coaches and guys that have been around a long time and coached a lot of games,” the 59-year-old said. “I know coaches go in there and they do the best they can. They work hard. And not everybody can be in first place at the same time. I’ve been through it myself, so I know what those (fired) coaches are going through.”

Laviolette hung out with former Senators coach D.J. Smith at a wedding over the summer and has nothing but positive things to say about the fraternity’s most recent casualty.

Keefe, too, had a relationship with Smith.

“It’s a reality of our business, unfortunately. Specific to D.J., he’s a great coach. He’s a great person, more importantly, and someone I enjoyed competing against at the junior level, working with in the (Leafs) organization and (competing against) in Ottawa,” Keefe said. “I’ve seen him do a really good job under not always the most ideal circumstances.

“It’s tough. I’m sure he, like the others, are quality coaches that will land on their feet. And there’s opportunities for others now.”

With Smith gone, the list of coaches on the job for multiple years with a sub-.500 record is a short one: Granato and Arizona’s Andre Tourigny.

9. Flyers president Keith Jones gave a good interview on Real Kyper & Bourne, during which he offered plenty of fodder for reading between the lines.

Yes, Philadelphia (18-11-4, second in the Metro) has been the East’s most pleasant surprise and many of its players are enjoying seasons better than imagined. Jones said the Flyers’ brass has had “curveballs thrown at us with how well guys have played.”

But, the first-year executive maintains, he has no intentions of “deviating from the plan” (i.e., a Rangers-like rebuild on the fly) and has fielded plenty of calls from opponents interested in trading for his assets.

Cap-friendly defencemen Sean Walker, Nick Seeler and Marc Staal would be easy to move because they are on expiring deals and contenders always seek blueline depth.

But I also wonder about leading scorer Travis Konecny.

Would a team dangle a prized prospect to get the edgy winger for two playoff stabs? Konecny is signed through 2024-25 at a bargain $5.5 million, then he’ll need a raise. He plays the game coach John Tortorella likes.

No need for Jones to rush into anything before February, but he doesn’t consider the current group a Cup threat. Just a plucky underdog.

Also, Jones offered this on whether Carter Hart (RFA 2024, with arbitration rights) is Philly’s goalie of the future: “I’d be surprised if he’s not.”

10. Elvis Merzlikins versus Tom Wilson is the fight we didn’t know we needed.

“He was after me all game long,” Merzlikins explained in his post-game scrum (worth a watch). The goalie believes Wilson was trying to take out his knee. “He got what he deserved. I don’t care.”

11. Man, Tie Domi is everywhere you look. He’s the modern-day Forrest Gump. But replace the running with punching.

12. If you’re a young buck who hasn’t seen the 1964’s timeless Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, do yourself a favour over the holidays.

Don’t take my word for it. Take Bruce Cassidy’s.

“You guys gotta see it,” the coach told the Vegas Golden Knights‘ press corps. “It’s a fascinating cartoon.”

Cassidy made reference to the Christmas classic — comparing the Island of Misfit Toys to his own Golden Misfits — and was stunned that the reporters didn’t catch it.

“I actually left here yesterday thinking, ‘Did these guys get dropped out of a time machine from like 60 years ago right into here having never seen Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer?’ I mean, I was amazed,” Cassidy said.

“I think we have a lot of Rudolphs. I think that’s why we won the Cup, to be honest with you. That’s the way I look at it.”

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