Risk Factors: Toronto Maple Leafs edition

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From the same bunch of pessimists who brought you “Why your team won’t win the Stanley Cup,” PHT presents a new series called “Risk Factors,” i.e. three reasons to be worried about each NHL team in 2014-15.

Toronto Maple Leafs

1. The culture thing. Since the salary cap era began, Toronto has been one of the worst teams in the league.

Some of the teams were simply bad and none of them were great, but it’s also true the Leafs fell apart when it mattered most. In fact, this is the third straight summer where one of the key questions surrounding the club is how it’ll respond to a monumental collapse.

As such, it’s hard to believe Phil Kessel or MLSE CEO Tim Leiweke when they promise Toronto won’t have to endure another 2-12-0 season-ending stretch. Part of that confidence stems from the belief they’ve addressed their culture problem, starting with new Leafs president Brendan Shanahan.

“I’m not sure the Leafs have [the right culture],” Maple Leafs CEO Tim Leiweke said in April, per NHL.com. “This is something these two gentlemen [Shanahan and general manager Dave Nonis] will have to work on. I definitely sense that we lack an identity and right now we’re a team that lacks direction, and we want to change that.”

The sticking point, though, is that Shanahan really just picked around the edges of the franchise’s core. Nonis and head coach Randy Carlyle kept their jobs, but each got new assistants. Shanahan also signed some complimentary players and rolled the dice on a few new veterans, but even with those additions the 2014-15 Leafs will look a lot like their predecessors.

Shanahan not only has to hope that’s enough to change the team’s culture, but that the team’s culture was what held it back in the first place. The Maple Leafs still have some significant question marks and if the issue in 2013-14 was that they simply didn’t have a playoff-caliber roster, then that’s a huge problem — because he’s done little to alter that.

2. They need to improve puck possession. Rather than claim that the Maple Leafs choked, some believe their poor play simply caught up with them.

Based on advanced statistics like Corsi and Fenwick, the Leafs overachieved last season. Toronto was one of the worst puck possession teams in the league and finished last in shots allowed (35.9 per game).

And just like with the team’s culture, Shanahan is betting on the notion Toronto’s poor performance wasn’t simply the byproduct of putting an inadequate team on the ice. He believes the squad is capable of controlling the play far more than it has in the past.

The Leafs took a unique approach in addressing this problem by bringing in Kyle Dubas as assistant general manager and to lead a new analytics department. The department includes Darryl Metcalfe, who built the once-popular advanced statistics website extraskater.com, which the Maple Leafs now own — and aren’t sharing.

“We don’t want anyone else seeing it,” Leiweke said, according to the Globe and Mail. “It’s called a monopoly. It’s good.”

Leiweke said he believes Dubas and Metcalfe will make the team smarter, but will that be reflected in future signings and trades? Will Carlyle be able to use this data to help the team now? The head coach was either unable or incapable of addressing such problems last season, so questions remain if this extra information will be impactful enough to make this existing group of Leafs at least passable in the short-term.

3. Will any of their summer gambles pay off? Let’s say hiring new assists for Carlyle isn’t going to fundamentally change the way the team is coached, and bringing in a 28-year-old assistant general manager isn’t going to revolutionize this franchise overnight.

After taking a minute to digest just how sad a time it is for Leafs fans when those are their best hopes for change, you’re left just hoping their summer signings will pay off — and this is where things get depressing.

As we’ve touched on already, Shanahan and Nonis didn’t change the team’s core. Instead, they’ve sign a lot of players that might be good, but are far from safe bets.

Stephane Robidas is a solid defenseman, but at the age of 37 might not have much left to give. David Booth limped through three seasons with Vancouver and is out to prove that he can stay healthy (he’s already off to a bad start) and still be a productive top-six forward.

Petri Kontiola, 29, hasn’t played in the NHL since 2007-08, but he’s eager to prove he belongs after several strong seasons in the NHL. He’ll have to start that journey in the minors, though, as he couldn’t even make the opening game roster.

From a cap perspective, the risk the Maple Leafs took on these players wasn’t great and therefore an argument can made that it’s okay if they don’t end up contributing much. What makes that misleading, though, is the fact that Toronto might not make the playoffs without such help. Last year, Mason Raymond was a good diamond in the rough signing, but so far it looks like the leading candidates to be this year’s version won’t pan out — which is problematic, given they lost Raymond over the summer and need to fill that void.

When it comes to their blueline, the Maple Leafs will look fairly thin if Robidas regresses or has another injury-filled campaign. If nothing else, the Maple Leafs defense was pretty healthy last season as five guys played in a minimum of 73 games each. It wouldn’t be impossible for Robidas to do the same in 2014-15, but he’s coming off of a season where he was limited to 38 contests.

Panthers hold keys to playoff fate

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Few teams have been hotter than the Florida Panthers down the stretch, something that had to be the case for the Cats to be in the spot they are currently in.

No, they’re not in a playoff spot at the moment — as a Wednesday they sit one point back of the New Jersey Devils for the second and final wildcard spot into the Stanley Cup Playoffs. But a massive game awaits them on Thursday against one of the few teams that have been hotter than them in the Columbus Blue Jackets, who have strung together nine straight wins.

The Panthers hold two games in hand over the Devils, who squandered an opportunity to increase their slim lead in a 6-2 loss to the San Jose Sharks on Tuesday. New Jersey has struggled as of late, going 4-6-0 in their past 10, including back-to-back losses now. The Panthers, meanwhile, eviscerated the Ottawa Senators 7-2 to pull within a point of them. Florida is five points back of the Philadelphia Flyers and six points behind their opponents on Thursday in Ohio. To thicken the plot, Florida holds three games in hand on Philly and Columbus.

Since the All-Star break, the Panthers have gone 18-5-1, have scored more 5-on-5 goals than any other team with 35 and are third in expected goals percentage during that time. The Florida Sun-Sentinel also points out that the Panthers have more points since the ASG out of any Eastern Conference team and the great goal differential (plus-27).

With 11 games to go, the Panthers sit in the driver’s seat when it comes to their own playoff fate.

Panthers coach Bob Boughner slightly downplayed the Columbus game in a conference call with the media on Wednesday.

“This time of year, it’s easy for these guys to get up for games, obviously how important they are,” he said. “It’s not going to be nothing over-the-top, extra special than what we normally do to prepare for a team. Obviously, it is an important game, but we have 10 more important games coming in.”

Despite losing key pieces in Jonathan Marchesseault and Reilly Smith over the summer — both are having career years with the Vegas Golden Knights — the current crop for the Panthers appear to have bought into Boughner’s message. And with Roberto Luongo healthy after missing two-and-a-half months with a groin injury, Florida is peaking at the right time.

“I think if you ask the guys, they’re having the time of their lives, having lots of fun,” Boughner said. “Let’s face it, we’ve been playing playoff hockey here for the last couple of months, just trying to dig in and scrape for points every night.”

Coming into Tuesday’s game, Luongo had gone 8-2-1 with a 2.51 goals-against average and a .926 save percentage with two shutouts in his past 11 starts — vintage Luongo, who’s been down this road before.

“Lu means everything to our team, obviously,” Boughner said, adding that Luongo will be in the driver’s seat in Florida’s last 11 games.

“He’s going to play a lot of hockey,” he said, saying it will be in the realm of an 80/20 split between Luongo and backup James Reimer.

Boughner said Aleksander Barkov — who has eight goals and 26 points in his past 19 games — is his vote for the Selke Trophy and that Keith Yandle is the glue that helps keep the room together. Evgenii Dadonov, who has 12 goals and 13 assists in his past 19 games, shouldn’t be forgotten.

Boughner said when the team was struggling earlier this season, consistency was the most frustrating part — noting that the team couldn’t string together more than two wins in a row.

“There was too much individual work going on,” he said. “It took us a long time to sort of get the team convinced with sticking with the process and playing as a team… less selfishness and more about the team.”

That changed with a five-game winning streak in the last half of December.

“That’s probably where the light went on,” Boughner said.

It’s burned brightly ever since.

Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

WATCH LIVE: Wednesday Night Rivalry – Bruins at Blues

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[Puck drop at 8 p.m. ET, CLICK HERE TO WATCH LIVE.]


Boston Bruins

Brad Marchand / Riley Nash / David Pastrnak

Ryan Donato / David Krejci / Danton Heinen

Tim Schaller / Sean Kuraly / Tommy Wingels

Jordan Szwarz / Noel Acciari / Brian Gionta

Torey Krug / Brandon Carlo

Matt Grzelcyk / Kevan Miller

Nick Holden / Adam McQuaid

Starting goalie: Anton Khudobin

[Bruins – Blues preview]

St. Louis Blues

Jaden Schwartz / Brayden Schenn / Alexander Steen

Patrik Berglund / Kyle Brodziak / Vladimir Sobotka

Dmitrij Jaskin / Ivan Barbashev / Tage Thompson

Nikita Soshnikov / Oskar Sundqvist / Chris Thorburn

Carl Gunnarsson / Alex Pietrangelo

Vince Dunn / Colton Parayko

Joel Edmundson / Robert Bortuzzo

Starting goalie: Jake Allen

Will Coyotes give Dylan Strome a real shot?


Aside from seeing who can tank harder, it might be tough to sell the Arizona Coyotes’ game against the Buffalo Sabres tonight. There is one interesting storyline, though: will Dylan Strome finally gain some traction? And will the Coyotes give him a solid chance to actually do so?

A failure at one level

Take a look at the top 10 picks of the 2015 NHL Draft, and you’ll see that nine of those prospects have played in at least 106 regular-season games.

The lone exception is Strome, the third selection by the Arizona Coyotes, who’s only appeared in 18 games at the highest level so far during his fledgling NHL career.

Strome’s development has been a frustrating process, as the book on Strome seems to be that he can dominate at lower levels, yet his strength and especially foot speed just isn’t there. This season backs up that even with Strome slowing down a bit at times in the AHL, as Strome generated 50 points in 47 games for the Tucson Roadrunners.

No doubt, it’s distressing to see Strome struggle, especially with Mitch Marner (fourth overall), Noah Hanifin (fifth), Ivan Provorov (seventh), Zach Werenski (eighth), and Mikko Rantanen (10th) all looking like studs who were selected behind him.

Sink or swim

No doubt about it, that stings. Allow some advice, then: the Coyotes should give him a better chance to prove himself than Strome has been afforded thus far.

Look, there’s no denying that his scant production (one goal, one assist in 18 games spread between last season and this one) is troubling. A can’t-miss prospect would probably be able to make every moment count, and you can’t really make that argument for Strome.

Still, with very little to lose – in fact, with plenty of incentive to lose – why not really set the table for him? That hasn’t exactly been the case at the NHL level; Strome averaged a measly 12:26 TOI per game during that 11-game span this season, and that was slightly down from his seven games in 2016-17. Strome averaged 1:23 power-play time on ice per night.

To Arizona’s credit, they’ve given him quality linemates during his brief window of action this season. According to Natural Stat Trick, his most frequent forward linemates have been Clayton Keller and Christian Fischer. Not too shabby, especially by the standards of Coyotes forwards.

It’s unclear who the Coyotes will line Strome up with during tonight’s game, but it could be very helpful for them to get a better read on him by really rolling him out. Ideally, they’ll give him more reps on the man advantage, strong linemates, and more opportunities in general.

Ten games won’t answer every question or solve any riddle.

For a team that’s shown signs of growing impatience with a slow rebuild, it sure would be nice to find out if Strome has a better chance of helping them out in 2018-19. What better time to find out than now?

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.

Sounds like Auston Matthews will finally return for Leafs

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All things considered, the Toronto Maple Leafs have weathered the storm when it comes to Auston Matthews‘ injuries.

Granted, there are likely “What if?” games, with Tuesday’s disappointing loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning standing as an example. Would the Maple Leafs have coughed up a 3-0 lead to lose to the Bolts in regulation with two-way star Matthews in the lineup? It’s a moot point, but Buds fans likely wonder as much.

Either way, the Maple Leafs are comfortably resting as a dangerous third seed in the Atlantic Division, waiting to see if the Lightning slip to second place or if they’ll take on the Boston Bruins (who likely feel little sympathy for Toronto’s injury issues considering their own).

[The 2018 NHL Stanley Cup playoffs begin April 11 on the networks of NBC]

The Maple Leafs deserve credit for resisting the urge to rush Matthews back in the lineup, yet with the regular season winding down, they have to weigh risking re-injuries against the American star being too rusty. It sounds like Matthews will finally get back into the lineup for Thursday’s game against the red-hot Predators in Nashville.

At least, that’s what Matthews says, via TSN’s Mark Masters:

Matthews’ latest malady has sidelined him since Feb. 22. During his absence, the Maple Leafs went 5-3-2, scoring four more goals than they allowed.

There have been some bright sides to Matthews missing 20 games, including 10 most recently.

For one thing, other players have been able to run with opportunities that might have been muted with him in the lineup. Mitch Marner generated an impressive 14 points in the latest 10 games with Matthews on the shelf, while James van Riemsdyk has been sniping at a ridiculous pace (eight of his 10 points have been goals). Morgan Reilly’s also been on fire, collecting nine points during that 10-game span.

From Left Wing Lock’s listings, it looks like Matthews will see some familiar linemates in William Nylander and Zach Hyman, while Marner and JVR aim to flesh out the second and third lines respectively.

Ideally, such alignments would allow the Maple Leafs to deploy waves of offense much like some of their most dangerous peers, including the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Matthews missing all this time has that silver lining, and as The Athletic’s James Mirtle notes (sub required), the American center’s loss could be the Leafs’ long-term gain. Depending upon how bonuses pan out, Matthews likely missing some marks could save Toronto quite a bit in cap space in 2018-19 and 2019-20, which is ideal considering that Matthews, Marner, and Nylander will see their rookie deals expire in the near future.

“The injury probably cost him the $2-million, as he would have been top 10 in goals,” Mirtle’s anonymous source said. “Technically, he could still make it in points per game but highly unlikely.”

If Matthews can get up to speed and in a good rhythm by the time the playoffs begin, the situation would present a lot to like for the Maple Leafs.

That said, much of that optimism ignores the plain reality that the Maple Leafs face a significant hurdle to even escape the first round. The Bruins and Lightning both pose serious challenges, so it won’t be an easy draw early on for Toronto.

Then again, the Maple Leafs are a tougher out than they seem, too, being that they’ve been without their best player for 20 games. A Maple Leafs team with Matthews at or near full-strength could set the stage for one of the best series of the first round.

Barring setbacks, that drive begins in earnest on Thursday.

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.