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.

Report: Rangers goalie Hellberg to sign with Chinese KHL team

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Magnus Hellberg, the once-touted netminder that came to New York from Nashville two years ago, has reportedly left North America to join the KHL’s Chinese club, Red Star Kunlun.

The deal, per Russian news outlet R-Sport, is of the one-year variety and it comes after Hellberg appeared in a pair of games for the Rangers last season, spending most of his time in AHL Hartford.

Hellberg did fare well in his limited action with the Blueshirts, posting a .929 save percentage and 1.53 GAA.

As mentioned above, Hellberg came into the NHL with some fanfare. Selected in the second round (38th overall) by Nashville at the 2011 draft, Hellberg was first goalie off the board, taken one spot ahead of Anaheim’s John Gibson. There was some thought he would be Pekka Rinne‘s eventual successor in goal, but never panned out and was later surpassed by Juuse Saros as the team’s goalie of the future.

In New York, Hellberg was stuck at No. 3 on the depth chart behind Henrik Lundqvist and Antti Raanta.

Pekka Rinne’s been the Predators’ backbone during run to final

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) Knocking the smile off Pekka Rinne‘s face right now is nearly impossible.

The longest-tenured player with the Nashville Predators, the 34-year-old goaltender finally will play in his first Stanley Cup Final in his ninth full NHL season.

“As a player, I feel like I’ve had a fairly long career and never had this opportunity,” Rinne said. “So very fortunate and really appreciate this opportunity. I guess as a player you just enjoy being in this position. Enjoy the chance that you get, and you put your body on the line every night and give everything you have.”

Teammates call the 6-foot-5 Finn the backbone of the Predators, and he’s probably the best goalie in the world at the moment. He handles the puck like an extra defenseman. He foils the dump-and-chase efforts of opponents. And, oh, is he good in front of the net, aggressive with forwards in the crease, seeing seemingly everything and occasionally making saves with a Dominik Hasek-like contortion.

Not only is Rinne a playoff-best 12-4, his .945 save percentage ranks third all-time for a single postseason behind a pair of Conn Smythe Trophy winners in Jean-Sebastien Giguere for Anaheim in 2003 and Jonathan Quick for Los Angeles in 2012, according to HockeyReference.com. Rinne’s 1.70 goals-against average is 10th all-time for one postseason.

“What he does every night, you can’t put into words,” Nashville defenseman P.K. Subban said.

The 19-year-old franchise has reached its first Stanley Cup Final behind Rinne’s standout performances.

After Nashville ousted Anaheim in six games Monday night , Rinne now is even stingier on home ice with a 7-1 record, 1.54 GAA and .947 save percentage. He made 38 saves on a night where Nashville took only 18 shots.

“Anytime you need to close a series out, you know that as a goalie you got to be good and as a team you got to be good,” Rinne said.

The native of Kampele, Finland, has been better than good. He also has the skill to skate out to play the puck. With coach Peter Laviolette’s team clogging the neutral zone to slow opponents, Rinne is an extra (tall) layer of frustration waiting at the end of the ice for opponents who dump the puck in – even those high on the glass.

Anaheim defenseman Kevin Bieksa said Rinne will throw his body against the glass to knock the puck down so he can pass it out to a teammate essentially turning the goalie into another defender.

“You don’t see many goalies that aggressive,” Bieksa said. “And he’s gone out, he’s played a lot of pucks. And he’s good at it. One of their strengths, for sure.”

Anaheim coach Randy Carlyle noted Rinne had eight plays on the puck alone in the first period of Game 5, a 3-1 Nashville win that put the Predators up 3-2 in the Western Conference finals.

“You can’t give him that type of opportunity,” Carlyle said.

Laviolette calls goaltender the most important position on the ice and he said Rinne’s confidence is a huge benefit for the team.

“And it gives you opportunities,” he said.

Rinne now has 34 playoff victories and is no longer at the top of a list no goalie likes. Washington’s Braden Holtby (29) is now the active goalie with the most postseason wins who hasn’t reached the final.

The only surprise was that it took Rinne this long. He’s a three-time finalist for the Vezina Trophy, finishing second in 2011 and 2015. He led the league with 43 wins in 2011-12 and was MVP of the 2014 world championships.

Rinne bounced back from a hip injury that required arthroscopic surgery and later an E. coli infection that limited him to 24 games in the 2013-14 season. With him out of the lineup, Nashville just missed the postseason, leading general manager David Poile to replace coach Barry Trotz with Laviolette.

“I think David and the owners have done a really good job providing Peter more tools and maybe higher quality players and more talent,” Rinne said.

Defenseman Mattias Ekholm says Rinne’s competitive streak comes out on the ice.

“He will put his foot down, and say, `Hey, this is my crease. This is where I am,”‘ Ekholm said. “So I wouldn’t say he’s as polite on the ice vs. our opponents. He’s always a competitor, and he always wants to win.”

The next chance for a win comes Monday night in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final.

 

2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs schedule for Thursday, May 25

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Well, here we are.

Game 7 between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Ottawa Senators. The loser will go home, while the winner will take on the Nashville Predators in the 2017 Stanley Cup Final.

It doesn’t get much better than this.

Here’s what you need to know:

Ottawa Senators vs. Pittsburgh Penguins (series tied 3-3)

Time: 8:00 p.m. ET

Network: NBCSN (Stream live here)

Check out the highlights from Ottawa’s 2-1 win in Game 6

Related:

Pretty or not, Sens aim to play their game vs. Pens in Game 7

Penguins prepare for another Game 7, this time as favorites

Modern-day Senators have never won a Game 7

It’s “reasonable” to expect Schultz and Hornqvist will play Game 7

PHT Morning Skate: Top 5 Game 7s in Conference Final history

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–We’re getting closer to the opening of the buyout window, which means that certain teams are getting ready to pay players to stay away from their organization. Sportsnet looks at the top 12 buyout candidates of the summer. A pair of Rangers defensemen are at the top of the list. (Sportsnet)

–The Sens and Pens will do battle in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final tonight, so Sean McIndoe listed the top 5 memorable Game 7s in Conference Final history. One of the classic moments in hockey history occurred between the Boston Bruins and Montreal Canadiens in 1979. (The Hockey News)

–The Washington Capitals underachieved again this spring, and that’s led to some people believing they’ll trade Alex Ovechkin. CSN Mid-Atlantic breaks down the five reasons the Caps won’t be dealing Ovechkin. (CSN Mid-Atlantic)

–Almost 14 years ago, the Calgary Flames landed Miikka Kiprusoff from the San Jose Sharks for a second-round pick. The deal proved to be incredible for the Flames, as they were one win away from a Stanley Cup title. The team’s website looks back at the big deal. (NHL.com/Flames)

–The Edmonton Oilers have some interesting decisions to make in the coming years. Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl will need to get paid in the near future, which means there might not be room for Jordan Eberle and his $6 million salary. Oilers insider Drew Remenda thinks it’s time to move on from the winger. “People can say what they want about me, but I’ll be honest with you in what I think about hockey, and what I think is happening is on the ice. To me I don’t think Jordan Eberle gave you enough or showed you enough to deserve to get another chance.” (Edmonton Journal)

–Congratulations to Maple Leafs forward Brian Boyle and his wife on the birth of their little girl: