Toronto Maple Leafs v Vancouver Canucks

PHT’s Pressing Questions: Will Toronto finally make the playoffs?

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Every day until the season starts we’ll explore an intriguing storyline for the upcoming year.

Last April, Florida’s gain was Toronto’s pain.

When the Panthers clinched a playoff spot on Apr. 5, they snapped the NHL’s longest postseason drought — 12 years — and passed that depressing mantle onto the Leafs.

It’s been seven years since the Leafs last made the playoffs. The last time they did it, in 2003-04, the roster included the likes of Mats Sundin, Joe Nieuwendyk, Ron Francis, Ed Belfour and Brian Leetch.

All five of those guys are now in the Hockey Hall of Fame.

So yeah, long time.

Long time.

For one of the league’s most storied franchises — one recently fired GM Brian Burke called the “crown jewel” and “Vatican” of the NHL — that stretch of futility is unacceptable.

Which brings us to the question at hand:

Will the futility end this season?

If the early parts of training camp were any indication, there’s not a lot of optimism.

Toronto began the campaign in the most dysfunctional way imaginable — by firing Burke, the club’s outspoken architect.

His dismissal went down almost exactly as many figured it would, with a hailstorm of controversy, sound bites and unanswered questions as to why owners decided to turf the GM eight days prior to the start of a condensed regular season.

That hasn’t been the only distraction in Leaf land, either.

The goaltending situation — the bane of Burke’s four-year existence — is as convoluted as ever. Talks of an impending Roberto Luongo acquisition continue to swirl and, should that trade never come to fruition, there’s debate over which in-house candidate would be No. 1.

Former No. 1 James Reimer should be the starter by default, but he hasn’t played a competitive game since March 2011. He’s also looked shaky in camp and could be surpassed by Ben Scrivens, who has been playing frequently in the AHL and, according to CBC’s Glen Healy, looks like a confident goalie.

“Just looking at Scrivens’s body language, he seems to have a lot of swagger,” said Healy. “The biggest thing for goaltenders is that six inches between your ears — that belief that you can accomplish what you want to accomplish. That you can do it. That you’ve got confidence.

“His emergence into [the NHL] game could not be better timed, with the lockout ending and a lot of other players not playing.”

As for other personnel, the Leafs didn’t upgrade much from a roster that finished 13th in the Eastern Conference a year ago.

James van Riemsdyk came aboard (at the expense of losing Luke Schenn) and checking center Jay McClement was signed in free agency. Morgan Rielly, the fifth overall pick at the 2012 NHL Entry Draft, could challenge for a roster spot, but is only 18 years old.

Which means Toronto might be seeking improvement from within.

To that end, the Leafs should have some optimism. One of the biggest disappointments from last year was Nikolai Kulemin, who saw his goal production decrease from 30 in 2010-11 to seven in 2011-12.

The 30-year-old Russian was active during the lockout, playing with Magnitogorsk of the KHL, racking up 38 points in 36 games.

He’s just one of a number of Leafs that need to improve from disappointing 2011-12 campaigns (others, to name a few: Tim Connolly, Cody Franson, Mike Komisarek, John-Michael Liles.)

But really, improvement has to come across the board. The only way the Leafs are going to make the playoffs is if everything about the team gets better, something head coach Randy Carlyle acknowledges.

“I’ve left the message with the players in departing last year that we were not competitive enough in all three zones,” Carlyle explained. “We have to be prepared to go — if you want to call it war in some situations, so be it — we want to be able to compete night in, night out, for every puck, every faceoff.

“That’s the message that’s been delivered. That’s the type of style we’re expected to play.”

Related

For all the PHT Pressing Questions, click here.

Varlamov steps up with ‘phenomenal’ performance versus Red Wings

at Pepsi Center on February 9, 2016 in Denver, Colorado.
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DETROIT (AP) Semyon Varlamov lifted his team to a win on a night when the rest of the Colorado Avalanche were outplayed thoroughly.

Varlamov made 43 saves and Blake Comeau scored in both the third period and the shootout to help the Avalanche to a 3-2 victory over the Detroit Red Wings on Friday night. It was the highest save total of the season for Varlamov.

“He was phenomenal for us,” Colorado coach Patrick Roy said. “We had back-to-back games and got in late last night. Not trying to find an excuse, but they’re a good puck-possession team. Our goalie needed to be our best player for us to win and he was.”

Matt Duchene also scored for the Avalanche, who won despite being outshot 45-21. Colorado has won nine of its last 12 road games.

Jonathan Ericsson and Pavel Datsyuk scored for Detroit, which had its three-game winning streak snapped.

“I thought we played really good,” Red Wings coach Jeff Blashill said. “I thought our energy level was great, I thought we won tons of puck races and puck battles in the `O’ zone, I thought we shot the puck well, we had net presence. … What you can really control is your process and I thought our process was great.”

The Avalanche, who won at Ottawa on Thursday, improved to 6-2 on the season in the second game of back-to-backs. The shootout went four rounds, and Comeau ended it by beating Petr Mrazek with a wrist shot to the glove side.

Datsyuk scored Detroit’s only goal of the shootout. Varlamov denied Dylan Larkin, Brad Richards and Gustav Nyquist.

Nathan MacKinnon had Colorado’s first goal of the shootout on the third attempt by the Avalanche – Detroit would have won if Mrazek had stopped him.

“We play a team game. A goalie can’t win a game by himself,” Varlamov said. “We scored two nice goals, and then in the shootout a nice goal by Nate saved us and then Blake scored on a nice shot.”

Duchene opened the scoring in the first period after the Red Wings were sloppy with the puck in their own zone. Colorado’s Mikhail Grigorenko backhanded a pass to Duchene, who scored from around the edge of the crease.

Detroit evened it up in the second when Ericsson’s wrist shot from the point deflected off Duchene and then skipped off the ice surface and past Varlamov.

Comeau put Colorado ahead in the third with a shot from the slot, but the Red Wings answered on a power play when Datsyuk backhanded the puck past Varlamov from in close with 10:09 remaining in regulation.

The Avalanche had 25 blocked shots to Detroit’s four, underscoring just how much of the game was played in Colorado’s zone, but the Red Wings came away with just the one point for the shootout loss. Nyquist had a great chance in overtime when he swooped in alone on Varlamov, but his backhander was stopped.

Detroit’s Darren Helm had a career-high nine shots on goal.

“He’s shooting from everywhere,” Detroit’s Luke Glendening said. “I was hoping one would go in for him, but I think it’s a good sign that he’s getting a lot of chances.”

NOTE: Detroit D Mike Green returned after missing two games with a sore groin, and D Danny DeKeyser played after leaving Detroit’s win over Ottawa on Wednesday during the third period because of a bruised right leg. … The Red Wings were short-handed for the final 92 seconds of overtime, but managed to kill the penalty.

 

Doan makes Jets/Coyotes franchise history

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The Arizona Coyotes/Winnipeg Jets franchise has a new leader in career points.

Shane Doan set the new mark at 931 points, taking over the franchise lead from Dale Hawerchuk thanks to a three-point night in a 4-1 Coyotes win over the Calgary Flames on Friday.

He scored twice — his first goal of the night tied Hawerchuk’s record — and added an assist. At 39 years of age, Doan has 21 goals this season and is on pace for his best season in that department since he scored 31 in 2008-09.

In fact, at his age and this stage in his NHL career, he could set a new personal best for goals in a single season.

Despite all the off-ice turmoil the Coyotes have gone through, and the speculation of that franchise possibly uprooting from the desert, Doan has hung in there.

That’s not to say he hasn’t spoken out at times about the constant controversies that have come up between the organization, the city of Glendale and the NHL.

In September of 2012, prior to the lockout, he had the choice to sign elsewhere. He narrowed his options down to Vancouver and Phoenix, eventually deciding to stick with the Coyotes.

No regrets.

Kopitar dominates with a hat trick to help Kings defeat Rangers in OT

St Louis Blues v Los Angeles Kings
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Anze Kopitar received high praise from L.A. Kings coach Darryl Sutter following Friday’s win over the New York Rangers.

All Kopitar did was score three goals on four shots on goal. He was also credited with five hits while winning 65 per cent of his faceoffs. His third goal of the evening with 30 seconds remaining in regulation pushed this game into overtime, where Tanner Pearson scored the winner for L.A. in a 5-4 victory.

“It was Kopi’s best game of the season, that’s for sure,” said Sutter, as per LA Kings Insider.

“Not just because he scored three goals, but it was his best game all around in terms of using his whole package. I mean, he was a pretty dominant player.”

L.A. maintains an eight-point lead on the San Jose Sharks for the Pacific Division lead.

The Kings’ victory came at a cost. Marian Gaborik left the game in the first period after being involved in an awkward collision. He did not return, and Sutter didn’t have an update on the veteran forward when the game ended.

Video: P.K. Subban tossed after on-ice outburst toward officials

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P.K. Subban was given a game misconduct on Friday after an outburst directed at officials in the final minute against the Buffalo Sabres.

Subban was furious after the puck got caught up in the skates of the linesman in the neutral zone before Evander Kane then picked it up and scored into the open net. That put the Sabres up by two goals with 55 seconds remaining in regulation and ended any hopes of a Montreal comeback.

Subban had some choice words for officials but his argument ultimately landed him with an early exit from this game. The Habs lost by a final score of 6-4.

“I looked around to see if he was going to blow [the whistle,]” said Subban, as per Sportsnet. “The puck is coming out of the zone. It hits the linesman. He’s standing there and sees the puck coming. It goes back to the player and he puts it in the open net. It just doesn’t make any sense to me.

“Are we supposed to smile and be happy after that and say, ‘Thank you’ to the linesman? I don’t think so. I’m a little bit disappointed about that, because I felt there was a minute left in the game [and] we still had a chance to score.”

The Sabres scored four straight goals between the first and second periods, chasing Ben Scrivens from the net 1:28 into the second period.