Maple Leafs Team News: Spezza, Babcock, Mikheyev, Kadri

After a first-game win, the Toronto Maple Leafs look strong on offense. Will that continue when they visit the Columbus Blue Jackets on Friday, Oct. 4t? As the team prepares for that contest, let’s review the news about the team.

Item One: Spezza Will Play vs. Blue Jackets

Many Maple Leafs fans were upset when Jason Spezza was elevatored to the press box against his old Ottawa Senators team in Wednesday’s first regular-season game. For many, it simply seemed like the wrong time to bench him. On Friday, Spezza gets a chance against the Columbus Blue Jackets in game two of the regular season.

Toronto Maple Leafs Jason Spezza
Toronto Maple Leafs forward Jason Spezza (THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Jeffrey T. Barnes)

He’s only one of a number of changes to the team’s roster. Against the Blue Jackets, Spezza will play instead of Nick Shore on the fourth line and Nic Petan has been called-up to take rookie Dmytro Timashov’s spot on the right side. On defense, Justin Holl takes Martin Marincin’s place in the third pairing with rookie Rasmus Sandin.

Related: Maple Leafs News & Rumors: Matthews, Spezza, Domi & Harpur

Spezza commented that it was all part of a “pre-discussed” rotation. Head coach Mike Babcock added: “We start four in six (nights). You’re not a fan of that, but on the other hand, I’ll know a lot more in six days than I would if we played four (in 10).”

Item Two: Babcock Blames Coaching for Spezza’s Not Playing

As noted, Spezza was a healthy scratch against Ottawa, but he’ll make his Maple Leafs debut against the Blue Jackets on Friday. Babcock chose to play Shore instead of Spezza as the fourth-line centre because, as he noted, he saw deficiencies in Spezza’s penalty killing. Although the team didn’t actually work on the penalty kill at Thursday’s practice, Spezza worked directly with assistant coach Dave Hakstol after practice; and, Hakstol’s in charge of the penalty kill units.

Although Spezza is putting in the extra time to catch up, Babcock (in part) blamed coaching for not having the 36-year-old Spezza ready to do his job. Babcock told the press, “Our plan coming in was to penalty kill him all the time, and at training camp though we wanted him on the power play too [so it split up his reps]. We probably didn’t do a good enough job of that, so he wasn’t ready to kill on a regular basis. The last game he played, we didn’t have him up to speed. That’s not on him, that’s on us.”

Toronto Maple Leafs Jason Spezza
Toronto Maple Leafs’ Jason Spezza (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Christopher Katsarov)

Although Spezza didn’t blink at that explanation, the Toronto native, who signed a team-friendly contract ($700,000) to play at home, said that missing the home opener was difficult but he specifically noted, “I moved on the minute I knew I wasn’t playing. You just get yourself ready. This league is about constant preparation, whether you had a good game or a bad game, and for me, I didn’t even play. So you move forward.”

Related: Maple Leafs Scratch Spezza for Season Opener

Here’s wishing Spezza a strong game. As a fan, I’m hoping he adds value to the Maple Leafs roster.

Item Three: Mikheyev Wonders Why Canadians Don’t Eat Soup

Obviously, it’s tough to come to a new culture and country where things are different from home. That might be especially true for the Maple Leafs exciting new young Russian, Ilya Mikheyev. However, one of his biggest wonders is about the culinary habits of Canadians he’s met. Specifically, why don’t they eat more soup?

That might be an odd topic of conversation with a young hockey player who just had a hugely successful NHL debut, but the comment emerged when the third-line winger was interviewed about the greatest challenges he’s faced moving to the big city (Omsk is just over a million people) and small rinks (Europeans play on larger ice surfaces) of Toronto.

Toronto Maple Leafs Ilya Mikheyev Tyson Barrie Trevor Moore
Toronto Maple Leafs right wing Ilya Mikheyev celebrates his first NHL career goal with teammates Tyson Barrie and Trevor Moore (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette)

His first challenge, he noted, was speaking a new language. That makes sense. But, he added a second challenge:  “What’s important for me, I don’t know why – I like soup. Yes. I like soup. I don’t know why you don’t eat soup.”

Mikheyev added, “My girlfriend is cooking, and I’m very happy when I eat.”

So there it is: Mikheyev’s girlfriend makes soup to make him happy and remind him of Omsk. And, no wonder soup is a staple. Omsk is a city in Siberia, with an average low January temperature of -21 C. Ergo, soup for Mikheyev.

The soup Mikheyev loves best is made with care – as he tells it, one needs to stew the beef slowly (at least four hours) before you add beets, cabbage, and other veggies.

Related: Panthers’ First 10 Games & Predictions

How did people react to Mikheyev’s comment about culinary differences between his old homeland and his new home? Well, these comments went viral, with fans photo-shopping Mikheyev’s face on Campbell soup cans. Of course, teammates couldn’t resist teasing him about his soupy diet at Thursday’s practice.

Item Four: Kadri Bummed About Leaving Toronto, Happy in Colorado

Although Nazem Kadri is happier now, he admits he tried like crazy to stay in Toronto with the Maple Leafs – even refusing a trade to the Calgary Flames in a last-ditch effort to remain on the team. He finally allowed himself to be traded to the Colorado Avalanche in a deal that brought Tyson Barrie and Alex Kerfoot back to the Maple Leafs.

Now Kadri plays as the Avalanche’s second–line centre behind perhaps the NHL’s most best line – Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog, and Mikko Rantanen.

When he was asked if he’d miss the pressure and media intensity of Toronto, he admitted he was “going to miss the city of Toronto.” However, he’s found Denver a “nice change of pace.” Specifically, he pointed to what he called “the white nose” he thought was normal, but that doesn’t exist with the Avalanche.

He noted, “Here (in Denver) it’s a lot different in terms of just a little more laid back and a few less distractions, so you can really focus on what you do on the ice.”

Nazem Kadri Colorado Avalanche
Nazem Kadri, Colorado Avalanche (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

He also liked his new teammates: “There’s a bunch of studs in this locker room. Definitely a recipe for success. If we all meld it together and we match our work ethic with our skill-set, the sky is the limit.”

Related: NHL Trophy Talk: 31 Calder Candidates

He got a chance to watch his old team play on Wednesday night and admitted they “looked pretty good.” But he quickly moved on to say, “I’m part of something special here, so I’m excited about it.”

What’s Next?

Friday evening, the Maple Leafs play game two of their regular-season schedule. The Blue Jackets are a tough team to predict this season. They went all in to win last season but then lost both Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky. The jury is out on how the team will perform, so it should be interesting to watch the game.