Quick Shifts: How Ryan Reaves is changing Maple Leafs culture

A quick mix of the things we gleaned from the week of hockey, serious and less so, and rolling four lines deep. Alfie is back, baby!

1. Sometime between the day Ryan Reaves signed a three-year, $4.05-million contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs and the opening of his umpteenth training camp, the veteran fourth-liner called his shot.

“I come in pretty hot,” Reaves promised.

We didn’t doubt the man.

We also didn’t expect the new guy’s impact on the atmosphere around the group to be quite this immediate, this entertaining.

The work Reaves has put into his Maple Leafs’ tenure extends well beyond the eight minutes and three seconds of ice time he logged in the season opener.

Prior to flexing his biceps during his Scotiabank Arena introduction, throwing a couple board-rattling hits, and dropping gloves with Montreal heavyweight Arber Xhekaj on Wednesday, Reaves was busy making his teammates feel welcome, engaged, and hyped.

It was Reaves who pushed Matthew Knies to do a rookie-ish lap in warmups after Fraser Minten, convincing the NCAA product he deserved it. True, Knies appeared in the 2023 post-season, but this was his first home opener. Get out there, kid.

It was Reaves who interrupted Max Domi’s live pre-game interview with a few squirts from the BioSteel bottle.

It was Reaves who took control of the team’s pre-game pump-up playlist, a job previously belonging to the departed DJ Michael Bunting.

“Not right when I get to the locker-room, but once it’s time to get ready for the game, yeah, it’s all me,” Reaves says. “It’s all hip-hop. We had a little bit of country going before last game. That got gassed pretty quickly. Yeah, you can’t have that.” 

And it was Reaves who invited Minten over for one of the best steaks his 19-year-old teeth have ever sunk into.

“This guy is the man,” Minten says. “He’s super nice. He goes out of his way to make you feel welcome. Had me over for dinner the other night, and his steak was pretty unreal — one of the best I’ve had. Yeah, he’s a great guy, great teammate.”

How we know about the steak is because during Minten’s post-practice scrum Friday, Reaves jammed a sandal into the kid’s face, pretending it was a microphone and asked about it.

They don’t flood the room. But if they did, Reaves might be Brian Boitano.

For five years, the Maple Leafs had been sticking with the same ol’ goal song. Reaves had a say in getting it changed.

What does he like most about the new jam, Kid Cudi’s “Pursuit of Happiness (Steve Aoki Remix)“?

“It’s not the old one,” Reaves quips. “I don’t really know Hall & Oates. I just know that’s not a goal song.”

To say the more relaxed — dare we say fun? — mood around the Maple Leafs is all Reaves’ doing may be a stretch, but there is no doubt his confidence, fearlessness, and understanding that, yes, it’s OK for hockey to be a sport and an entertainment product is contagious.

Anyone else catch Auston Matthews jumping into a scrum Wednesday? That felt… new.

“He’s one of my all-time favourite guys. I think the world of Ryan,” Bill Guerin told Real Kyper & Bourne Friday. Guerin’s Minnesota Wild roll into town Saturday, and the GM has said he would’ve done two years, not three, to keep Reaves.

“We wanted him back. Brad (Treliving) backed up the Brinks truck for him and gave him everything he wanted. We couldn’t handle that.”

The concern in Toronto, of course, is can the Maple Leafs handle paying a 36-year-old fourth-liner so much dough in a cap world. What are the intangibles worth?

Yet coach Sheldon Keefe is raving about Reaves.

“His consistency in his practice habits, consistency in how he’s played on the ice, I’ve been really, really impressed,” Keefe says. “This is a true professional that knows his job, and when I say that I’m not referring to his role as a physical player and the fighting and all that kind stuff.

“He, defensively, knows his responsibility. He’s gotten it right pretty much every time and plays hard and smart. He keeps his shifts short. I’ve been really impressed with what we’ve gotten from Reavo here so far. He was excellent in the first game. I’ve been thrilled with him here and what he’s brought to our group.”

While Reaves’ bombastic approach and charismatic way with the camera makes it all look easy, he fully grasps that this is his job. All of it. The punches and soundbites and dinners and chirps and playlists. And he takes that job seriously.

Even the hockey, believe it or not.

Reaves admitted that Keefe’s training camp was hard for him, made him reflect on the state of his career and how far he’d come since he was an eager rookie himself.

“Back then I was trying to steal people’s jobs, and now people are for sure trying to steal my job. So I’m trying to hold on to it, trying to prove that I belong still, and I can still play,” Reaves says.

“As you get older, there’s always younger guys that make less than you that are coming up trying to take your job. So, it’s on me to make sure that I prove I should be here.”

2. Adam Fantilli celebrated his 19th birthday the best way imaginable: making his National Hockey League debut. (He also gathered his first big-league point.)

Increasingly, NHL clubs are trying to drum up their own original content to stand out on social media. Nothing hits quite like this video the Columbus Blue Jackets compiled for their third-overall pick ahead of Game One.

Simple idea, beautiful execution, pass the Kleenex:

Sticking with the theme of debuts, Florida Panthers coach and hockey lifer Paul Maurice tells his rookies that he doesn’t want them to manage their emotions during their first night in the show.

Maurice has crafted a standard speech he delivers to young players ahead of a debut:

“You can win five Stanley Cups, five Hart trophies. You could be in the Hall of Fame. But you only get one first game in the NHL. And that’s not your game, actually. It’s mom and dad’s game, and all the volunteer coaches that helped. The teachers, everybody. So, when they come to the rink, I tell them I really don’t care how you play tonight. I want you to be nervous for the national anthem. Be overwhelmed. Take it all in. But do it with a smile on your face and have some fun, because you only ever get one of these days.”

I don’t have goosebumps. You have goosebumps.

3. Kevyn Adams was thrown into the fire when he first took the reins in Buffalo, forced quickly to salvage solutions from the Jack Eichel surgery stalemate and his ill-fated Taylor Hall signing.

It took a minute, but the first-time general manager has found a groove. Slowly but surely, he has implemented a clear plan, a philosophy that has aggressively plotted the franchise’s future.

With this week’s extensions of fellow first-overalls and pending-RFA defence studs Rasmus Dahlin ($88 million for eight years) and Owen Power ($58.45 million for seven years), Adams now has established cost certainly for a five-man core locked in through their prime until 2029-30: Dahlin ($11 million cap hit), Power ($8.35 million), Tage Thompson ($7.14 million cap hit), Dylan Cozens ($7.1 million), and Mattias Samuelsson ($4.29 million).

Each one opted for an early payday and long-term security over prove-it bridge deals and the possibility of double-dipping as the salary cap rises.

Gone are the distractions and uncertainty. Now it’s on the talent to deliver results.

For Adams, the work is far from over.

Peyton Krebs, Casey Mittelstadt, Henri Jokiharju and Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen will all be looking for raises by the summer. But at least the executive has taken care of his big dogs and has a clearer financial picture when it comes time to fill out the roster.

Fun fact: Since signing veteran Erik Johnson, the Sabres now dress three No. 1–overall picks on their blueline nightly.

4. Viewed through the lens of age curves, it’s reasonable to raise an eyebrow at Kevin Cheveldayoff’s surprise signing of pending UFA Mark Scheifele through his age-38 season.

As one of the best centres possibly available for trade, the Winnipeg Jets might have been able to reap a nice haul of picks and prospects for his services.

But we need to step back and understand the market and the mandate from Cheveldayoff’s boss, owner Mark Chipman, to remain competitive and not slip into a rebuild.

First, it’s difficult for Winnipeg — a no-trade list favourite — to attract free agents, and stories of talented players wanting out (Patrik Laine, Pierre-Luc Dubois, Jacob Trouba) are well told.

Second, attendance at Canada Life Centre has been in steady decline, and there was concern that had the hockey team lost its No. 1 pivot and its Vezina-winning goalie, Connor Hellebuyck, more fans might stay home.

Here are the attendance ranks of Jets home games in the five years since the club went to the 2018 Western Conference Final: 24th, 25th, 25th, 26th, 28th (partly hindered by Manitoba’s COVID restrictions), 30th.

Yes, the Jets made the playoffs in 2022-23, yet only the tanking San Jose Sharks and Arizona Coyotes (who played in Mullett freaking Arena!) put fewer butts in the seats. (Winnipeg averaged 14,045 per home game, playing in a smaller arena than most other teams, aside from Phoenix)

While more secure markets like Chicago, Toronto and Montreal can sustain a scorched-earth rebuild for a few years, the Jets literally can’t afford to be a bad hockey team.

A ripple effect of the Scheifele extension: Calgary’s Elias Lindholm becomes the most valuable pure centre of the 2024 UFA class.

And with Hellebuyck off the board, there is only one pending-UFA goalie under the age of 30 who posted a winning record last season (minimum 20 appearances): Toronto’s Ilya Samsonov.

5. Hellebuyck’s least favourite player to face?

Matthew Tkachuk, whose Florida Panthers roll into the ‘Peg on Saturday night.

“He’s hard around that net. He’s always in my face. I mean, that’s a skill. So, I mean, I hate someone that’s trying to get me off my game. He’s around there all the time. He knows what he’s doing,” says Hellebuyck, who knows Chucky’s menace well from the Canadian Division but now only gets him twice a year.

“No one can throw me off my game. But they can try.”

Tkachuk enters October with a fully healed sternum, but doctors were unable to remove the chip on his shoulder.

“We obviously are not happy,” Tkachuk told reporters. “You can’t write a worse ending for us. But that’s how it goes — one team wins it, and one is going to lose.

“We gained a lot of good things from the whole year last season, and we’ve got to bring it into this year.”

6. The Edmonton Oilers should be thrilled to get their shot at vengeance against the Vancouver Canucks on Saturday, so soon after Wednesday’s 8-1 embarrassment.

Connor McDavid took the Canucks’ pull of Thatcher Demko (word is, he felt ill) and Rick Tocchet’s late use of his top power-play unit as insults.

McDavid’s first few shifts will be must-see TV.

This scheduling hits hard.

7. Gotta hope we’ve reached the rock bottom when it comes to salary cap hell.

Four NHL teams — the Kings, Senators, Canucks, and Oilers — played opening night a man short due to cap restraints. At least Edmonton and Vancouver went 11/6 heads-up.

(Ottawa’s cap issues are self-inflicted and reflect poorly on its ledger considering the Senators have been entrenched in a rebuild and still own rights to the lone unsigned RFA, Shane Pinto.)

Eight teams began the season leaning heavily on LTIR, none more so than the Maple Leafs, whose opening cap hit totaled $94.9 million(!) including their injured players. The Golden Knights executed a perfect LTIR upper limit of $83.5 million, not wasting a single dollar.

An additional nine teams have so little cap space, they can’t take on a single minimum-wage contract.

In other words, don’t expect a flurry of trade action.

Only six clubs — Detroit, Arizona, Nashville, Anaheim, Buffalo, and Chicago — hold more than $3.5 million in cap space. They should have an opportunity to leverage that eventually if they wish.

Shoutout to CapFriendly.com and PuckPedia.com for making sense of all the madness and manoeuvring during these hectic times. Their work is invaluable to media folks and hardcore fans.

8. A couple points on the season’s opening draw.

For sure, pre-season pugulist Sidney Crosby remembered that Connor Bedard had defeated him in their Colby Armstrong–refereed faceoff contest at last month’s Player Media Tour and was out for revenge.

That was one decisive swipe.

While my old and jaded self found referee Kelly Sutherland’s pre-drop speech a little cringy, I think it’s only because he was mic’d up. As a result, it came off performative. If Sutherland’s message wasn’t mic’d, I probably would’ve loved it.

Knies was a fan of the faceoff. He imagined being in Bedard’s skates as he and landlord John Tavares stayed up to catch the first two periods of Blackhawks-Penguins. (School night and all.)

“That’s pretty exciting. I know (Crosby) was (Bedard’s) idol growing up. Pretty cool moment,” Knies says.

“The ref talk — ‘Welcome to the league’ — that gave me chills.”

Well, then mission accomplished.

9. Knies says he’s been talking frequently with Arizona resident Shane Doan since the executive moved to Toronto to take a special adviser role.

“A huge influence on mine since I was young. So, I’m going to try to use him as much as I can. Obviously, he’s a good resource to have here, and he’s got a good hockey brain, and he’s gonna be watching me closely. So, it’s nice to get some questions in and to kind of see what I can work on and see what I can do better.”

Winger to winger, Knies says Doan has been stressing to him the importance of wall play in both zones — getting clean exits, winning battles, maintaining possession.

“Just using my size to my advantage in my positioning to create chances for myself as well as my linemates,” Knies explains. “That’s kind of what he harped on, and I’m just happy that he can be here and give me that advice.”

10. Quote of the Week.

“You’ll probably see me with the Pride Tape on that night anyway…. If they want to say something, they can.” — Scott Laughton, Philadelphia Flyers ally

Bonus Quote of the Week.

“I’m not going to start kissing everybody’s ass or pumping everybody’s tires. I know I can compete with those guys, and that’s why I want to do this in the first place.” — Laine, Columbus Blue Jackets winger-turned-centre on matching up with elite centres such as McDavid and Nathan MacKinnon

11. Heading into Leafs camp, Keefe made a checklist of odd-man specialty situations he wanted his group to practise.

Toronto ran through 5-on-4 and 4-on-5 scenarios, of course.

The Leafs also checked off 6-on-5, 5-on-6, 5-on-3, 4-on-3, and ran through a shootout.

The one special-teams assignment they didn’t train for was 3-on-4, which they needed to execute — and did so perfectly — for nearly two minutes to stave off the Canadiens and survive to a shootout.

“Kinda everything showed up here tonight,” Keefe smiled, after Wednesday’s opening-night win.

Down two goals to Montreal late in regulation, Keefe yanked Samsonov early. Matthews struck twice at 6-on-5 as a desperate Keefe played the snot out of his top players.

In those dying moments, Keefe asks his big guys if they’ve caught their breath and ready to go again.

Do they ever dare say no?

“Usually not,” Keefe said. “But usually I can tell when they’re certainly not ready. You can tell by the way they’re breathing. You can just tell they’re not ready.”

Formerly, the coach would use five forwards and one defenceman, Morgan Rielly, at 6-on-5. Now he has added a second defenceman, John Klingberg, to the Core Four forwards in pulled-goalie situations.

12. Let’s check in on Denver Broncos fans as they walk out of Thursday Night Football having observed yet another loss…

Indeed, plenty of reason for Avalanche excitement, as Devon Toews — the projected most valuable defenceman on the 2024 UFA market — reupped for $7.25 million times seven years.

No doubt, Toews took less money to stick with a legitimate contender.

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