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.

Blue Jackets defeat Coyotes in shootout, but only after Mike Smith made franchise-record 58 saves

GLENDALE, AZ - OCTOBER 07:  Goaltender Mike Smith #41 of the Arizona Coyotes during the preseason NHL game against San Jose Sharks at Gila River Arena on October 7, 2016 in Glendale, Arizona. The Coyotes defeated the Sharks 3-1  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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PHOENIX (AP) Columbus pummeled Mike Smith with a franchise-record 60 shots, Alexander Wennberg scored with 2:16 left in the third period and the Blue Jackets beat the Arizona Coyotes 3-2 in a shootout Saturday night.

Smith set a franchise record with 58 saves, but the Coyotes still lost their third straight.

Cam Atkinson and Sam Gagner scored on Smith in the shootout while Curtis McElhinney stopped both Arizona shooters. Boone Jenner also scored for Columbus, which has won three straight.

Shane Doan got his 399th career goal and Radim Vrbata also scored for Arizona, which was playing its eighth overtime game in 23 contests.

Doan put Arizona ahead 2-1 at 11:04 of the second when he redirected Michael Stone‘s lobbed shot from just inside the blue line along the right boards.

Wennberg tied it at 2 by backhanding the puck between Smith’s pads off a pass from Brandon Saad.

The Blue Jackets needed only 13 seconds to take the lead in the first period. Jenner took a pass from Jack Johnson between the hashes and fired over Smith’s glove.

Smith made 47 saves between the two Columbus goals and 21 in the third period alone.

After failing to take advantage of a two-man advantage late in the first, the Coyotes evened the score on Vrbata’s rising shot off McElhinney’s blocker from the left faceoff circle for a power-play goal 63 seconds into the second period.

Smith helped preserve the lead with 5:30 left in the second, stopping Saad’s breakaway attempt with a sprawling pad save.

McElhinney finished with 32 saves.

Related:

Why the Blue Jackets are the NHL’s biggest surprise

Panthers lament slow start versus Sens, as debate over controversial Gallant firing continues

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 20:  Keith Yandle #3 of the Florida Panthers skates against the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden on November 20, 2016 in New York City. The Panthers defeated the Rangers 3-2 in the shootout.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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It’s been one week since the shocking and controversial firing of Gerard Gallant. The decision made by the Florida Panthers continues to be a hot topic of debate.

Don Cherry weighed in on it Saturday. As you might expect, he wasn’t in favor of the decision. Meanwhile, the Panthers lost 2-0 to the Ottawa Senators in a game that completely swung in favor of the hosts in the span of just 19 seconds.

Erik Karlsson and Derick Brassard scored early in the first period, giving Ottawa a two-goal lead and that was the only scoring of the evening.

On taking over from Gallant, interim coach Tom Rowe said, per the Sun Sentinel: “This isn’t a knock on Gerard, because he did a great job.

“I just thought some guys weren’t bringing it the way they’re capable of bringing it every single night. A little too much inconsistency. They’d come out one period and play great. Another period they just sit back a little bit too tentative.”

That second paragraph is interesting.

Against the Senators, the Panthers had a slow start, illustrated by their 19-second lapse leading to the Ottawa goals. The Panthers found their game in the second period but tested Mike Condon with only 24 shots on goal by the end of the night.

They also couldn’t capitalize on a five-on-three power play in the second period.

“It’s a tough one to swallow,” said Keith Yandle, per the Miami Herald. “They had a good start, and sometimes you have to weather the storm throughout courses of games, and they did a good job in the first 10 or 12 minutes. If you look at the second period we were better.”

There were anxious moments for the Panthers, as defenseman Aaron Ekblad took a puck to the face in the second period. He missed about two minutes of game time, but did require stitches, according to Rowe.

Avs’ D-man Johnson suffers broken fibula, out six to eight weeks

DENVER, CO - NOVEMBER 11:  Erik Johnson #6 of the Colorado Avalanche in action against the Winnipeg Jets at Pepsi Center on November 11, 2016 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images)
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Another loss for the Colorado Avalanche, but the news following this latest defeat is much worse.

Avalanche defenseman Erik Johnson has suffered a broken fibula and is out six to eight weeks, the team announced following Saturday’s 3-0 loss to the Dallas Stars.

Johnson left the game because of the injury and didn’t return.

This development occurred later in the same day the team’s captain Gabriel Landeskog skated briefly with his teammates, leading to the possibility that he may travel with the Avs on their upcoming road trip.

It’s obviously devastating news for Colorado, which recently had its effort ripped by coach Jared Bednar. Issues with consistency and work ethic have been around since Patrick Roy was in charge.

The Avalanche have struggled since the beginning of the season after a late-summer coaching change, but they now occupy last place in the Western Conference with five straight losses.

Johnson has 11 points, which ties him with Tyson Barrie for the team lead among defenseman in that category.

In addition to playing 22 minutes a night, which is a substantial loss because he plays on both the penalty kill and power play, he’s also one of only two blue liners with the Avalanche to have even-strength puck possession numbers greater than 50 per cent.

The difficult times for the Avalanche continue.

Video: Caggiula (finally) scores his first NHL goal

EDMONTON, AB - SEPTEMBER 26:  Drake Caggiula #36 of the Edmonton Oilers skates against the Calgary Flames on September 26, 2016 at Rogers Place in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. (Photo by Codie McLachlan/Getty Images)
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Drake Caggiula had to wait to make his NHL debut because of a hip injury suffered in pre-season. He had to wait even longer for his first NHL goal.

On Saturday, the wait for the latter ended.

Playing in just his eighth career NHL game, the North Dakota product and NCAA Frozen Four MOP — pursued by at least half a dozen teams as a college free agent — ripped home a wrist shot from the slot on the power play for career goal No. 1 in the big league.

That goal gave Edmonton a 1-0 lead over the visiting Anaheim Ducks.