Under Pressure: Randy Carlyle

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“If you’re worried about optics in this market, it’s going to be a disaster. I think you have to make a decision based on what you think is the best decision for the organization, and this in our minds was clearly the best option.

“He was a guy we believe can get the job done for us. Whether optics are that it’s the wrong thing to do or not doesn’t really matter to us. If you’re looking at trying to please people, you’re probably going to make some poor decisions.”

That was Toronto GM Dave Nonis this past May, talking about the decision to extend head coach Randy Carlyle. The move came under heavy fire as the optics of retaining Carlyle, who presided over a Leafs team that went 2-12-0 down the stretch and collapsed out of playoff contention, left many scratching their heads. Several other coaches that whiffed on the playoffs met their demise — John Tortorella, Adam Oates and Barry Trotz, to name a few — and Nonis made it clear there was some issue at the coaching level by turfing all three of Toronto’s assistants.

Yet when the dust settled, Carlyle remained. One of the few constants in an offseason filled with change.

The Leafs really shifted course this summer. They hired a new president, Brendan Shanahan, then emerged as progressive club on the advanced analytics front — first, with the hiring of 28-year-old assistant GM Kyle Dubas, known as a fancy stat advocate with OHL Sault Ste. Marie; then, with the creation of an advanced numbers department, spearheaded by the guy that used to run Extra Skater.

Change happened on the ice, too.

Gone, it seems, are the day of trotting out truculent bottom-six forwards like Colton Orr and Frazer McLaren. Toronto had itself a Moneyball-esque summer, signing (slightly) flawed veterans on the cheap in the hope of striking gold — guys like former 30-goal scorer David Booth (signed for $1.1M after getting bought out of a disastrous situation in Vancouver), skilled center Mike Santorelli (inked for $1.5M after last season was cut short by season-ending shoulder surgery) and power forward Daniel Winnik (who fell out of favor in Anaheim, remained unsigned ’til August, then came to Toronto for $1.3M). These additions, along with Finnish forwards Petri Kontiola and Leo Komarov, should give Toronto the most depth it’s had up front in the Carlyle era.

As such, the pressure is on.

By keeping Carlyle after last year’s collapse, the message was loud and clear — this was on the players, not the coach. But from that point forward, the challenge was put on everybody to achieve more, coaches included. Expectations have been heightened and there is a demand for improvement — for example, Toronto could have a wildly competitive training camp, as there are 15 forwards on NHL contracts fighting for 12 spots.

All of this, of course, comes back to Carlyle, who has now been given tools to succeed: new players, new assistants and a new, fresh look at the managerial level. If that pressure wasn’t obvious enough, Nonis ensured it in May by saying his coach needs to get through to this group.

“If you’ve seen it being done before with most of the same players, or a lot of the same players, and with that coach leading that group, I know it can happen,” said Nonis. “I know it has happened with this group before. I know that (Carlyle) has reached them before, reached them at times this year.

“For me it’s not that we’re guessing whether or not he can have success or he can get through to them. We’ve seen it. I know that it’s there and we feel he is the guy that can get through to this group.”

Michal Neuvirth gets Game 5 start for Flyers; Couturier returns to lineup

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With their season on the line on Friday night the Philadelphia Flyers are making a change in goal.

Michal Neuvirth, who has played just 59 minutes of NHL hockey since Feb. 18, will get the Game 5 start in goal when they take on the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Neuvirth replaced Brian Elliott in Philadelphia’s Game 4 loss on Wednesday night after Elliott gave up three goals on 17 shots, the second time he was benched in the first four games. The Flyers have already used three goalies in this series with Elliott, Neuvirth, and Petr Mrazek all getting playing time. None of them have played well.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

When healthy Neuvirth had the best numbers out of the group during the regular season, but health has been a constant battle for him the past few years.

The other big lineup news for the Flyers on Friday will be the fact that center Sean Couturier will be returning after sitting out Game 4 with a lower body injury. He may not be 100 percent, however, given that he took pregame line rushes on the team’s third line between Scott Laughton and Wayne Simmonds. Valtteri Filppula was skating on the first line alongside Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek.

Among the other changes for the Flyers: Robert Hagg will replace Travis Sanheim on defense, while Dale Weise will play on the fourth-line instead of Oskar Lindblom.

Related: Penguins will not have Patric Hornqvist in Game 5

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Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Barkov, Karlsson, O’Reilly are 2018 Lady Byng Trophy finalists

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Aleksander Barkov of the Florida Panthers, William Karlsson of the Vegas Golden Knights, and Ryan O’Reilly of the Buffalo Sabres have been named as the three finalists for the 2018 Lady Byng Memorial Trophy, the NHL announced on Friday. The award, voted on by the Professional Hockey Writers Association, is given “to the player adjudged to have exhibited the best type of sportsmanship and gentlemanly conduct combined with a high standard of playing ability.”

The winner will be announced during the NHL Awards show in Las Vegas on June 20.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

The Case for Aleksander Barkov: The Panthers center certainly has the “high standard of playing ability” part down with a season that saw him lead the team with 78 points and finish tied for third in goals with 27. Barkov played the fifth-most minutes (1,743:32) among NHL forwards and only picked up seven minor penalties. This is the second time he’s been named a finalist in the last three seasons.

The Case for William Karlsson: Karlsson had a monster of a season with 43 goals and 78 points during the Golden Knights’ historic first year. In playing 1,534:47, the 25-year-old forward racked up only 12 PIMs. Should Karlsson win, he would become the first player to win an end-of-season trophy for a team in its inaugural season since Wayne Gretzky of the Edmonton Oilers won the Byng and Hart Trophy and in 1979-80.

The Case for Ryan O'Reilly: O’Reilly missed one game this season and logged 1,686:10 of ice time for the Sabres. He recorded only one penalty all season, way back on Oct. 24 versus Detroit, a slashing call. His one penalty is the fewest among NHL players who suited up for at least 41 games this season. He’s a previous winner having taken home the trophy in 2014 while a member of the Colorado Avalanche.

2018 NHL Award finalists
Bill Masterton Trophy (Saturday)
Norris Trophy
Selke Trophy
Vezina Trophy

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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.

WATCH LIVE: Penguins, Jets, Predators look to advance

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Game 5: Philadelphia Flyers at Pittsburgh Penguins, 7 p.m. ET (Penguins lead 3-1)
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Call: John Forslund, Pierre McGuire
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Game 5: Minnesota Wild at Winnipeg Jets, 7:30 p.m. ET (Jets lead 3-1)
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Call: Dave Randorf, Louis Debrusk
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Stream here

Game 5: Colorado Avalanche at Nashville Predators, 9:30 p.m. ET (Predators lead 3-1)
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Call: Kenny Albert, AJ Mleczko, Brian Boucher
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[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Leafs ‘under the gun,’ especially Matthews and Kadri

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Nazem Kadri told reporters that he didn’t apologize to his teammates about the three-game suspension he received for a hit on Tommy Wingels, explaining that he was sticking up for Mitch Marner.

An apology might not be necessary, but the bottom line is that Toronto Maple Leafs fans likely expect a lot from Kadri – not to mention star center Auston Matthews – as this team tries to fight back from down 3-1 in their series against the Boston Bruins.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Letdowns

The Maple Leafs dropped two of three games with Kadri out of the lineup, prompting plenty of “What if?” questions, even if people merely wondered how different things would be if it was just a one-game suspension.

Regardless, when it came to last night’s 3-1 loss in Game 4, Mike Babcock didn’t mince words about Toronto failing to exploit the Bruins’ absence in the form of Patrice Bergeron.

“I’m assuming that he thought he was going to come tonight and dominate the game. That’s what I thought,” Babcock said of Matthews. “That didn’t happen …”

Auston not scoring often

Ultimately, Matthews has been limited to one point (the game-winner in Game 3) through the first four games of this series. That’s a disappointment for the NHL’s biggest jersey seller, especially since he showed nicely during his first playoff series, collecting five points during that memorable first-round bout with the Washington Capitals during the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

It’s easy to throw Matthews under the bus, and Babcock essentially admits that not enough was there last night.

Still, quite a bit of this comes down to bounces. Matthews has generated more than four shots on goal per game (17 overall) so far in this series, suffering with a Rick Nash-like 5.9 shooting percentage during this postseason. Such numbers tend to balance out over time; note that Matthews scored four goals in six games during that Capitals series on 16 SOG, good for a 25-percent shooting rate that would be unsustainable during an 82-game regular season.

There’s also at least some reason to wonder if Matthews is at least somewhat limited by the injury that cost him 10 games from Feb. 22 until his return to the lineup on March 22. As brilliant as he was (six goals, seven assists for 13 points in nine games), maybe he’s missing a few mph on his fastball against unforgiving competition like Zdeno Chara?

Either way, Matthews (and William Nylander) have struggled while the Bruins’ top-line forwards Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak find ways to feast upon the Maple Leafs’ mistakes.

Kadri has plenty to prove

Expectations will be high for Kadri, too, and his offensive numbers have been modest over a small sample size of playoff appearances.

So far, Kadri has generated two goals and six assists in 14 career playoff games, piling up 35 penalty minutes. At minimum, Toronto would like to see his finishing touch pay off a bit more in the postseason after the agitating center generated 32 goals in each of the past two regular seasons.

Much of that can be filed under “easier said than done,” particularly when Tuukka Rask is on his game.

Under the gun

That said, Babcock believes that players like Matthews and Kadri should “embrace and enjoy” the pressure.

” … No pressure means you have no chance. Go to the Olympic games, if you’ve got no chance for a medal there’s no pressure,” Babcock said during Friday’s press conference.

“Do you want to be that person or the person under the gun? I want to be under the gun. We want to build our program so big that we’re under the gun, we’re supposed to win. Like I said, I talked about those fans, we’ve got an unbelievable fan group. They expect us to be good. We want to be good. Let’s be good.”

Kadri, Matthews, and the Maple Leafs will get their chance to “be good” enough to keep this series alive in Game 5 on Saturday. You can tune in on NBC, with puck drop scheduled for 8 p.m. ET. Click here for the livestream link.

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.