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.

Against the odds: Team Europe provides Team Canada’s most difficult challenge in World Cup

TORONTO, ON - SEPTEMBER 29: Team Europe looks on after their defeat to Team Canada for the World Cup of Hockey Championship during Game Two of the World Cup of Hockey final series at the Air Canada Centre on September 29, 2016 in Toronto, Canada. Team Canada defeated Team Europe 2-1.  (Photo by Peter Power/Getty Images)
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The World Cup of Hockey is over. It received praise and it received criticism in its return.

In a twist from previous tournaments, organizers decided to field a Team North America, consisting of players under the age of 23 from the U.S. and Canada, and a Team Europe, consisting of players from eight different countries outside of Sweden, Finland, Czech Republic and Russia.

Both teams were called gimmicks.

Against the odds — 33/1 to win the tournament when it began — Team Europe overcame a sluggish start in the pre-tournament round to nearly force a third and decisive game in the World Cup final versus powerhouse Canada.

At the beginning, the addition of Team Europe, led by Anze Kopitar, to this competition looked to be a regrettable idea. Team North America skated them into the ground in those pre-tournament games.

Team Canada’s depth and skill was something to behold. Many of this team’s players have come together at the Olympics, and before that, the world juniors. This should give you an idea of their domination the last six years: Sidney Crosby is now 25-0 in his last 25 games for the Canadian national team dating back to the 2010 Olympics, according to the NHL.

After being by far the best team in this tournament through the round robin and semifinal, Team Canada was tested in the final. On Thursday, Team Europe played great for 57 minutes and was that close to winning the game, before Canada’s improbable comeback.

“They played their hearts out. When you see the minutes on some of the guys and you see the effort of players that reached for their potential all the way through the game, it’s extremely painful to see the final result,” Team Europe coach Ralph Krueger told reporters.

“But I feel nothing but pride of the way this group performed today, the challenge they put up against Canada. This group just continued to surprise and beat the odds and beat the thoughts of everybody that was watching.

“I think we turned this into a hell of a final, which nobody expected, and it was certainly the best game played by anybody against Canada in this tournament was today. And now we have to digest it.”

Not bad for a team considered to be a gimmick.

Video: Brad Marchand buries late short-handed winner for Team Canada

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On Monday, Brad Marchand signed a lucrative eight-year, $49 million contract extension with the Boston Bruins.

On Thursday, he scored the winning goal — on the penalty kill — for Team Canada, as it fought back to win Game 2 of the World Cup final by a score of 2-1. Patrice Bergeron and Marchand scored 2:09 apart late in the third period, as the Canadians came back to stun Team Europe, which had controlled a good portion of Thursday’s game.

While it had been the line of Bergeron, Sidney Crosby and Marchand that had caused the opposition problems in this tournament, Jonathan Toews actually set up the winner, as he rushed up the ice on the penalty kill and dropped to Marchand.

The Bruins forward then ripped a shot past Jaroslav Halak.

Not a bad few days for Marchand.

Team Canada stuns Team Europe with late comeback to claim World Cup

TORONTO, ON - SEPTEMBER 29: Patrice Bergeron #37 of Team Canada is congratulated by his teammate Steven Stamkos #91 after scoring a third period goal during the third period during Game Two of the World Cup of Hockey final series at the Air Canada Centre on September 29, 2016 in Toronto, Canada. The Team Canada defeated the Team Europe 2-1.  (Photo by Peter Power/Getty Images)
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John Tavares hit the post on a wide open net. Steven Stamkos whiffed on a one-time slap shot attempt. And Team Europe shut down every other player wearing red and white — for about 57 minutes.

Yup. It looked like it would be that kind of night for Team Canada.

After running through the World Cup competition during the round robin and semifinal portions, Canada was facing the possibility it could suddenly be forced into a third and decisive game against an underdog Team Europe.

Cue an improbable comeback.

Down 1-0 and finding it difficult to get anything going offensively, it started for Team Canada with a power play goal on a deflection from Patrice Bergeron. And then, with 44 seconds remaining in regulation time, the Canadians struck again, this time on the penalty kill, as Jonathan Toews set up Brad Marchand for what turned out to be the winning goal.

Team Canada, which has won back-to-back gold medals at the Olympics, claims the World Cup, winning Game 2 on Thursday by a final score of 2-1. Sidney Crosby was named tournament MVP.

As per David Amber of Sportsnet, Crosby joins Joe Sakic as the only two players to win the World Cup, Olympic gold, world championships, world juniors, Stanley Cup, Hart Trophy and the Conn Smythe Trophy.

Team Canada had surged by its opponents thanks to such a deep, skilled lineup and the goaltending of Carey Price. But after taking the first game of this best-of-three series, the Canadians looked completely out of sync in the second act.

They weren’t the faster team, especially in the first period.

They turned the puck over. They gave up too many odd-man rushes. Their power play didn’t capitalize — until it mattered the most.

If it weren’t for the play of Price, this one could’ve been a blowout. His best save came off Marian Hossa late in the third period.

Since the elimination of Team USA, Team North America, Team Russia and Team Sweden, it seemed like the drama would be drained from this tournament as it came to its close, the Canadians looking like a runaway champion.

The final seemed like it was only a formality.

For a long time Thursday, it looked like Team Europe could actually force a Game 3. But Canada has found another way to win.

But this time, it was far from a dominant effort.

Report: No timetable for Sharks’ Meier to return from illness

SUNRISE, FL - JUNE 26:  Timo Meier poses for a portrait after being selected ninth overall by the San Jose Sharks during the 2015 NHL Draft at BB&T Center on June 26, 2015 in Sunrise, Florida.  (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
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Timo Meier and the San Jose Sharks aren’t taking any chances.

An illness, reported to initially be strep throat, has kept the prospect forward off the ice for five straight days, as per Kevin Kurz of CSN Bay Area. There is no timetable for his return, the report adds, and that could have an impact on whether Meier makes the Sharks roster out of training camp.

From CSN Bay Area:

The illness has likely diminished Meier’s chances to make the opening night roster, as he’ll miss the Sharks’ second preseason game on Friday and will probably not be in any condition to play on Sunday in Vancouver, either. It was thought before camp that the ninth overall pick from the 2015 draft was ready to seriously challenge for a spot on the Sharks, perhaps even as a replacement for Tomas Hertl on the top line if Hertl becomes third line center.

Meier spent last season in the QMJHL, where he scored 34 goals and 87 points in 52 games split between the Halifax Mooseheads and Rouyn-Noranda Huskies.

It was around this time last year the Sharks sent Meier back to junior, after he left quite an impression on the Sharks coaching staff during the preseason.