2010-2011 NHL season preview: Toronto Maple Leafs

philkessel4.jpgLast season: (30-38-14, 74 points, 5th in Northeast Division, 15th in Eastern Conference) It was another tough season for the Leafs, this time finishing with the second-worst record in the NHL. They weren’t able to reap the rewards of that thanks to trading their first-round pick to Boston in the Phil Kessel trade. Don’t know if you’d heard about that whole thing. Conversely, Leafs fans were tops in the league with gallows humor. Kudos to all who contributed there.

Head coach: Ron Wilson enters his third season with the Leafs and to say he’s hoping things get better might be an understatement. The Leafs have finished last in the Northeast Division in both of his seasons, maxing out at 34 wins and 81 points two years ago. Suffice to say, if there’s no improvement this year, Wilson might want to start sending his résumé and headshot around.

Key departures: F Viktor Stalberg, F Rickard Wallin, D Garnet Exelby, D Jonas Frogren, F Wayne Primeau, F Jamie Lundmark. Losing a pile of players from a team that struggled as badly as Toronto did isn’t a big loss. Stalberg will be missed, but parting ways with him was made necessary to acquire Kris Versteeg.

Key arrivals: F Versteeg, F Colby Armstrong, D Brett Lebda, F Mike Brown, F Clarke MacArthur. Versteeg is an instant improvement along the wing while Armstrong provides a dose of physical play and goal-scoring touch. Brett Lebda, while a depth signing, was a head-scratching addition considering that he got a huge raise to essentially be the team’s sixth or seventh defenseman.

Under pressure: This one is a combo deal. GM Brian Burke and Wilson will share the heat this year. After all, they’re the architects of the team and another season mired at the bottom of the division will only make the fans go insane. They’re tired of the Leafs being the joke of the league. While we can see what Burke wants to do with the team, spending the last three years in last place and not having made the playoffs since 2003-2004 will make any fan base go insane with rage, especially one that pays out the nose for tickets the way Leafs fans do.

Protecting the house: The Leafs do have strengths and they come in goal and along the defense. In goal, Jean-Sebastian Giguere and Jonas Gustavsson make up the two-headed monster. Giguere is the starter and Gustavsson, after a rookie season fraught with injury problems, will learn from him and goalie coach Francois Allaire. Getting consistent play from these two will be huge. After all, Vesa Toskala was so bad last season in Toronto that the record for number of ways a player could be thrown under the bus was broken by November.

Along the blue line, the Leafs are deep and talented. Dion Phaneuf, Tomas Kaberle (yes, he’s still there), Francois Beauchemin, Mike Komisarek, Luke Schenn, Carl Gunnarsson, Jeff Finger, and Brett Lebda make up a nice gaggle of blue liners for Wilson to make some sense out of. While some guys are a bit overpaid (Finger, Lebda) the collection is solid and, ideally, should be one of the better defensive units in the league. Getting to see what the Leafs can do with a full year of Phaneuf leading the charge should prove to be interesting if not talked about ad nauseum.

Top line we’d like to see: Versteeg-Tyler Bozak-Kessel. This isn’t quite the line we’ll see this season in Toronto as Nikolai Kulemin will likely run with Bozak and Kessel, but this would truly be the ‘all eggs in one basket’ line for the Leafs. This would be a line teeming with youth and potential for greatness. As it is, Kessel is already one of the best goal scorers in the league and Bozak is shaping up to be a good play maker. Add in Versteeg and his knack for finding the net as well as his killer rapping skills and you’d have the most fun line in the NHL on and off the ice.

Oh captain, my captain: Dion Phaneuf wears the Leafs ‘C’ now and if you thought him dealing with Sean Avery was tough, just wait til he bears the brunt of the Toronto media if/when things start to get tough. The pressure will be on Phaneuf from the get-go to make sure things stay strong in the Leafs locker room and whether or not he can be an effective leader will certainly put under the microscope. Here’s to hoping he’s ready for the bright spotlight in hockey’s capital city.

coltonorr1.jpgStreet fighting man: We don’t suppose you’ve heard about how ‘truculence’ rules the day in Toronto, have you? Well let us introduce you to the ring leaders in the truculence movement in Colton Orr and newly acquired Mike Brown. Orr lead the Leafs with 23 fighting majors last year while Brown had 14 with  Anaheim. Safe to say that if anyone in Toronto is wronged, someone will be there to answer for them. Keep an eye on possible occasional call-up Jay Rosehill who fights like a cornered animal with a rage complex.

Best-case scenario: The Leafs get a rejuvenated season out of Giguere and the defense plays as strong as it looks on paper. Meanwhile, Kessel scores 40 goals, Versteeg adds 30, and Bozak emerges as the play maker they dreamed of. Mikhail Grabovski puts it all together to become a two-way force, Luca Caputi and Armstrong have above-average seasons and Nikolai Kulemin rides a hot year by Bozak and Kessel to jump up the scoring ranks. Orr and Brown freak out of opponents the second they jump on the ice and lead the Leafs to the eighth seed in the playoffs and give any one of Pittsburgh, Washington or New Jersey the scare of a lifetime in the first round.

Worst-case scenario: Giguere plays as old as he is, the offense continues to sputter and the defense looks shaky and turnover-prone. In other words, the Leafs get a repeat of how things broke down last season. The Leafs end up giving the Bruins yet another high draft choice (yes, they gave up their 2011 first-round pick as well) while Wilson is run out of town as the Leafs finish near the bottom of the Eastern Conference.

Keeping it real: I know things seem dire but it could be helped out immensely by even semi-competent goaltending. The Leafs had the second-most goals scored against them (only the Oilers were worse) and as long as Giguere and Gustavsson don’t pull a Toskala this season, they should be instantly improved. Of course, the Leafs bottom-five offense from last year isn’t totally improved so scoring will be tough going again. Adding Versteeg helps and getting a full season out of Kessel will make things better, but there’s still a lot of questions surrounding the team’s offense. They’ll miss the playoffs, but the signs of life fans are hoping to see will be there and hope becomes the rallying cry next offseason.

Stanley Cup chances: On a scale of 1-5, with one being the worst and five being the best, the Leafs are a 1 with personal regret. I dig the Leafs, I dig their fans, and I know they should have a better team than this but this team needs everything to work out right for them this year to get to the playoffs. Should they prove me wrong, I’ll happily eat a plate of crow and accept all chiding sent my way.

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    Coyotes place Max Domi on IR, out ‘week to week’

    GLENDALE, AZ - FEBRUARY 18:  Max Domi #16 of the Arizona Coyotes during the NHL game against the Dallas Stars at Gila River Arena on February 18, 2016 in Glendale, Arizona. The Coyotes defeated the Stars 6-3.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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    A tough season for the Arizona Coyotes managed to get even tougher on Saturday when the team announced it has placed forward Max Domi on injured reserve with an upper body injury.

    He is expected to be sidelined on a week-to-week basis. The earliest Domi is expected to return is next Saturday’s game against Minnesota.

    Domi, 21, is one of the team’s best young players and has been an immediate success since arriving in the NHL a year ago. After finishing second on the team in scoring with 52 points as a rookie, a performance that earned him a sixth place finish in the Calder Trophy voting, he is once again second on the team this season with 16 points through the team’s first 26 games.

    Domi played 10 minutes in the Coyotes’ most recent game against the Calgary Flames before exiting the game late in the second period following a fight with Garnet Hathaway.

    This is the fight.

    Domi is a skilled forward, but he is no stranger to dropping the gloves, with that fight already being his seventh in the NHL since the start of the 2015-16 season. Even if it is something he occasionally does it still has to be tough to lose perhaps your best player to an injury in a fight.

    The Coyotes are in Nashville on Saturday night to play the Predators. They enter the day with an 8-13-5 record that has them tied for the worst record in the NHL with the Colorado Avalanche.

    With Ryan Miller injured, Canucks recall Thatcher Demko

    MONTREAL, QC - NOVEMBER 02:  Ryan Miller #30 of the Vancouver Canucks looks on from his crease during the NHL game against the Montreal Canadiens at the Bell Centre on November 2, 2016 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada.  The Montreal Canadiens defeated the Vancouver Canucks 3-0.  (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)
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    Vancouver Canucks goalie Ryan Miller had to exit the team’s 5-1 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning on Thursday night with a suspected lower body injury after stopping 38 of the 39 shots he faced.

    The team did not seem overly concerned about it at the time, but Miller did not participate in the team’s morning skate on Saturday before their game against the Florida Panthers.

    The team also announced that goalie Thatcher Demko has been recalled from the Utica Comets of the American Hockey League.

    Demko, the team’s second-round draft pick (No. 36 overall) in 2014 is in his first year of pro hockey after a successful collegiate career at Boston College. In 14 games with Utica this season he has .909 save percentage. While the overall numbers are not anything overly impressive, he has been playing significantly better in recent weeks after a tough stretch to start his pro career.

    Miller has a .916 save percentage in 15 games for the Canucks this season. If he can not go on Saturday night look for Jacob Markstrom to get the call with Demko serving as his backup.

    There is no word at this point on how long the Canucks expect Miller to be sidelined.

    Take a look at the Flyers 2017 Stadium Series jersey

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    The Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers will be taking their long-time rivalry outside on Feb. 25 when the two teams face off at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh for the 2017 Stadium Series.

    On Saturday morning, the Flyers unveiled their uniforms for the game.

    The uniforms are primarily black, accented with orange arm bands and nameplates.

    Along with the outdoor game in February, the Flyers will also wear them a week later at home against the Penguins on March 5.

    Here is a look at the uniforms, via the Flyers.

    The Penguins unveiled their jersey for the game back in November. It is solid yellow.

    Why the Clutterbuck signing is a bad gamble for the Islanders

    UNIONDALE, NY - APRIL 25: Jaroslav Halak #41 and Cal Clutterbuck #15 of the New York Islanders celebrate a 3-1 victory over the Washington Capitals in Game Six of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals during the 2015 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum on April 25, 2015 in Uniondale, New York. The Islanders defeated the Capitals 3-1.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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    The New York Islanders made a pretty significant move on Friday when they committed a long-term contract to energy guy Cal Clutterbuck, signing him to a five-year, $17.5 million contract extension.

    As far as depth players go, it was an eye-opening contract because it is a big investment in a player that is going to be 30 years old when the contract begins, has topped 30 points in a season only one time (seven years ago), and is similar to the long-term contract the team signed Casey Cizikas — a very similar player — to just a few months earlier.

    When the two contracts are added up, that means the Islanders are going to be committing nearly $7 million in cap space through the 2020-21 season to players that — at best — project to be third-liners, and most likely, fourth liners.

    That is a big chunk of change going to the bottom of your lineup.

    Not every contract is going to be perfectly fair for team and player. Sometimes teams are going to overpay. Sometimes a player is going to outperform his deal. It is a reality of professional sports.

    But where this becomes a big gamble for the Islanders is they, like all NHL teams, have a set amount of money they can spend to construct their roster under the league salary cap. Every dollar spent comes with an opportunity cost, because that is a dollar that can’t go to somebody else. In this case, the Islanders seem to be prioritizing their bottom-six over the top of their lineup. This is after all a team that already lost Kyle Okposo and Frans Nielsen over the summer, both of whom will cost less over the next five years than the Clutterbuck-Cizikas duo. By keeping the latter, you’re essentially choosing quantity over quality.

    There is also the fact that the Islanders are one year away from having to deal with the potential unrestricted free agency of John Tavares.

    His next contract is not going to be the $5.5 million steal (at least compared to other top players in the NHL) that it is now. When Tavares is eligible for free agency, the Islanders are already going to have more than $32 million committed to only eight players. And again, a significant chunk of that money ($7 million) will be going to two players that are skating in their bottom-six. That could be a problem.

    But that’s not even the biggest part of the gamble for the Islanders when it comes to the Clutterbuck deal.

    The biggest gamble is the fact that players like him do not tend to age well into their mid-30s (and Clutterbuck will be signed through his age 34 season).

    Using the Hockey-Reference database I went back over the past 20 years to find players that resembled Clutterbuck’s career to see how they did after turning 30.

    What I was looking for:

    • Players that played in at least 500 games between the ages of 20-29 (Clutterbuck has played 595)
    • Players that averaged less than 0.35 points per game during that stretch (Clutterbuck has averaged 0.31)
    • How many games, and seasons, they played after turning 30 and what their production looked like

    This is some of what I found.

    • There were 27 previous players during that time period whose careers compared to Clutterbuck
    • Only 10 of them played in more than 200 games (the equivalent of 2.5 seasons) after their 30th birthday
    • Only six of them played a single game in the NHL after their 33rd birthday
    • 11 of them were out of the NHL entirely before they turned 32
    • There are still five players, other than Clutterbuck, that are still active in the league: Chris Neil at age 37, Jay McClemment at 33, Brad Richardson at 31, Daniel Winnik at 31, and Jared Boll at 30. How far their their careers go remains to be seen.

    The defense for signing a player like Clutterbuck to a long-term deal like this is that they bring more to the team than just scoring. And that is fair. Not everybody is going to be a goal scorer or produce points. He seems like a great teammate. People like him. That is all fine.

    But forget production here, we are talking about a type of player that generally does not stick long in the NHL after they hit 30. Plus, when it comes to Clutterbuck, this is player that has spent nearly a decade in the NHL playing a grueling style of hockey that is almost certain to wear a player down physically.

    Every player in the league, no matter how good they are, starts to slide and lose a step once they get on the other side of 30 because father time is still, and will continue to be, undefeated. The players at the top of the league are still able to remain productive because they had so much skill and so much production at their peak. Even if they start to lose a step, or lose some of their production, they are still able to contribute something. But the guys at the bottom of your lineup that have spent years grinding their way through the league do not really have that step to lose. If they lose a step, they lose everything. If they lose even a little bit of their production, there is not much left.

    The reality of a salary cap league is you can not keep everybody you want.

    Every team has had to experience this at some point over the past decade. Teams like the Blackhawks and Penguins have decided to keep the players at the top of their lineup no matter the cost and sacrifice around the edges.

    The Islanders, by letting players like Okposo and Nielsen leave, and committing to their bottom-six, seem to be trying to build from the bottom up.

    It is a gamble. Let’s see how it works.