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.”

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For all the PHT Pressing Questions, click here.

Rangers, Sabres show personality in ‘Road to Winter Classic’ debut

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All apologies to Epix, but “The Road to the Winter Classic” series just feels right heading to NBCSN.

The documentary series that gave us memorable moments like Bruce Boudreau avowing his love for ice cream, Boudreau unleashing a fugue state of locker-room profanities, and also great moments not featuring Boudreau is set to debut at 11:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN tonight, spotlighting the New York Rangers and Buffalo Sabres as they approach the outdoor extravaganza.

[2018 Winter Classic: Sabres vs. Rangers]

For fans who want to see more personality from hockey players, this is manna from heaven. The good stuff goes beyond that, really, as sports documentaries are almost always fun to watch, but it only gets better when the NHL is involved.

To whet your appetite for well-filmed and well-scored peeks behind the curtain, enjoy some teasers for the first episode.

In the video above this post’s headline, you’ll note Alain Vigneault and the Rangers discussing things getting back on track as the team adjusts to a different core, including the addition of Kevin Shattenkirk.

The best stuff, for me at least, comes when there’s humor, and that’s where the next couple of videos shine.

First, we have some nice self-effacing fun from Zach Bogosian, who provides much of the banter for the Sabres’ charity bowling event:

Next, here’s some fun-goofy footage of Rangers players taking the subway to practice:

Note: the NHL should mandate that players wear their uniforms in more inorganic situations, as that’s always fun. Plus it really would align with the advertising practice of having hockey players in their sweaters, even when they’re at restaurants or making toast.

Anyway, “Road to the Winter Classic” should be a good time, and should find a fitting home on NBCSN. It should pair well with tonight’s Bruins – Red Wings game, which you can read more about here.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Hall among injured Devils, but it could be much worse

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When people see a hard knee-to-knee collision, the general reaction is to a) wince at the possibility for something serious and b) debate the dirtiness of said check, if you’re into that sort of discussion.

New Jersey Devils fans must have grimaced last night, as Taylor Hall had a real scare in a collision with Kurtis MacDermid of the Los Angeles Kings, which you can witness in the video above this post’s headline.

There may have been extra grunts as this was arguably garbage time in the game, as the Devils were up 4-0 in a game they would eventually win 5-1, and Hall put on a show, including scoring this goal:

Well, Hall and the Devils didn’t go totally unscathed, but most N.J. fans will breathe sighs of relief at today’s update. Head coach John Hynes labels Hall day-to-day, with Thursday’s game at Montreal being ruled out, but there’s no structural damage to the prolific forward’s knee. The injury is considered a contusion.

So, a mostly dodged bullet there, and while the Devils are a little damaged, the injury news is generally heartening.

Like Hall, Kyle Palmieri has been ruled out for Thursday’s contest against the Habs. The Bergen Record’s Andrew Gross reports that Palmieri is in a walking boot and will probably miss a week of action. With Marcus Johansson also a little banged-up, the Devils must show some resiliency, yet the bounces go their way to some extent even here, as other teams are missing key players for longer spans of time.

This injury update seems like a worthwhile excuse to exalt Hall’s fantastic 2017-18 season, so let’s take a quick look at how special he’s been.

Hall of a time

The 26-year-old (yes, he’s still that young, and his birthday came on Nov. 14) had a perfectly fine first season with New Jersey, scoring 20 goals and 53 points in 72 games. It was the third straight season in which Hall scored on fewer than 10 percent of his shots on goal, connecting on 8.4 percent. He was an impressive possession factor, as he’s been for much of his career.

In 2017-18, he’s producing some of the best work of his woefully underrated career.

Hall has 11 goals and 20 assists for 31 points in 30 contests, leading the Devils by 11 points. With a 1.03 points-per-game average, he’s on one of the best paces of his career, and if this knee issue is truly minor, he could set some career-highs. Sadly, inopportune injuries have been almost as much of an unfortunate theme for Hall as has been “lottery luck.”

It will be tough for Hall to top his best-ever work in 2013-14, when he scored 27 goals and 80 points in 75 contests, but perhaps he’ll finish closer to 80 GP and match at least one of those marks?

Of course, Hall likely values a possible first playoff run more than any individual milestones.

You hear that sort of talk quite frequently with players, yet that cliche is virtually guaranteed to be the honest truth for Hall. If anyone deserves the sort of bounces that have been going the Devils’ way so far this season, it’s this long-suffering left winger.

So here’s hoping that his knee issue really is minor, and he can get back to reminding observers that he’s one of the best wingers in the NHL.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Another league changes its rules, thanks to David Leggio

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In what should come as no surprise, the Deutsche Eishockey Liga has changed its rule regarding when a goaltender goes and pulls a David Leggio when facing an odd-man rush.

According to Wednesday’s league announcement, should a goaltender purposely dislodge his own net to prevent a scoring chance, a goal will be awarded. The original league rule, which followed IIHF guidelines, awarded a penalty shot.

[Goaltender David Leggio knocks own net off again to avoid breakaway (Video)]

The change was in response to Leggio’s actions on Friday night while playing with EHC Red Bull München. With Ross Mauermann of the Fischtown Pinguins skating in on a breakaway, the netminder turned and knocked his net off, stopping play and eliminating the scoring chance.

Leggio, who was also fined an unspecified amount for “gross unsportsmanlike conduct,” would go on and stop the penalty shot during a 5-2 Munchen victory.

Appearing on NHL Network earlier this week, Leggio told E.J. Hradek that from where he stood he thought he was facing a 2-on-0 and not a 1-on-0 breakaway, which is why he went to the move he pulled in the AHL in 2014. (The AHL would tweak its own rule that awarded a penalty shot to also eject the goaltender.) If he would have realized it was just a simple 1-on-0 breakaway, he said he would have preferred to face that rather than a penalty shot.

“When I was at the World Championships playing for USA, I went in the game and [Russia] had a 3-on-0 with Ovechkin and Tikhonov and surprise, surprise, they scored,” he said. “That would have taken some courage to do it in that situation. So I figured out the rule [and] if this ever happens again let’s take the percentages and take the penalty shot instead.”

Leggio added that during his second year in Germany, when the league implemented 3-on-3 in overtime, he spoke with officials to clarify what the rule was in that situation. When he was informed the punishment would only be a penalty shot, he knew he could pull off his famous move at during an odd-man rush.

You can love what Leggio did or you could think it’s a cheap move, but you have to give him credit for knowing the rules and taking advantage of them. Two leagues in two different countries have now tweaked their rulebook because the Williamsville, N.Y. native found a creative way to prevent a scoring chance.

Leggio is also now 2-for-2 in stopping penalty shots following a net dislodging, so maybe he’ll move on to another country next season and keep that streak going.

Stick-tap to Christian Baumeier for the translation help

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Brandon Dubinsky out 6-8 weeks with face fracture after Kassian fight (UPDATE)

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Tuesday was just a day to forget for the Columbus Blue Jackets. Not only did they get obliterated by the Edmonton Oilers, 7-2, but they also lost center Brandon Dubinsky to injury.

Dubinsky was shaken up after taking punches from Oilers forward Zack Kassian with under two minutes remaining in the game.

As you can tell from the video above, Kassian dropped the gloves and started going after the Jackets forward, who was just ducking for cover. Dubinsky took a few good shots before skating off the ice very slowly.

After the game, John Tortorella didn’t take any questions from the media, but Aaron Portzline of The Athletic dropped an update on Dubinsky’s condition Wednesday morning, Tweeting that he suffered a “fractured cheek/orbital bone” by his left eye. Stitches were required above and below his eye and the team is unsure if surgery will be needed.

UPDATE:

“Brandon suffered an orbital bone fracture that will keep him out of the lineup for six to eight weeks,” said Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen. “At this time, the damage has not affected the function of his eye and long-term vision. He will continue to be monitored closely by our medical team.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.