Leo Komarov

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Is Babcock holding the Maple Leafs back?

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The Toronto Maple Leafs might not be a perfect team, but on paper, you wouldn’t expect them to go through many scoring droughts.

It’s not just Auston Matthews, and really, it’s not just sophomores Mitch Marner and William Nylander that makes this seem so dangerous. Toronto also has solid supporting scorers in the likes of James van Riemsdyk and Nazem Kadri. They added some veteran savvy to the mix with Patrick Marleau, too.

Even so, frustration is building. In the last six games, they’ve only managed 12 goals (not counting shootouts). The Maple Leafs have lost six of their last eight games and haven’t won in regulation since Dec. 28.

Dry spells are going to come, but the heat is starting to rise on Mike Babcock’s lineup decisions.

Not that he’s flustered by such criticisms, as TSN’s Kristen Shilton reports.

“This is how I kind of look at it: I think they hired me to decide,” Babcock said on Wednesday. “So that’s kind of how I approach it … I’m just going to keep on keeping on. In your lifetime, you get to decide what you react to.”

This video has more from Babcock, including the veteran coach calling for the Maple Leafs to shoot more rather than trying to make the perfect play. It’s a nice supplement to more granular studies, like TSN’s Travis Yost’s deep dive on the Maple Leafs and icing (the unsavory infraction, not delicious frosting).

In the grand scheme of things, Babs should be commended for how he’s embraced this team’s young core, particularly in quickly acknowledging that Auston Matthews can do heavy lifting as far as deployment goes.

Still, people are getting frustrated with certain usage situations.

ESPN’s split stats allow you an opportunity to see who’s being used most often in January, this stretch in which Toronto’s scoring is really drying up.

Maybe you’d want Babcock to lean even more on Matthews (averaging 18:54 TOI this month, 18:38 on the season), but that’s a smaller quibble. People are most bothered by the reemergence of Roman Polak (17:02 per game in January) and Leo Komarov‘s frequent use (about a shift fewer than Matthews per game at 18:24 per night in January).

Komarov is getting two more minutes per game lately than Mitch Marner (16:16) and JVR (16:01). Combine that with low scoring, and yes, people are going to get frustrated.

With these developments in mind, the irritation is rising, as you can see in Ryan Fancey of Leafs Nation’s column: “The Leafs aren’t just boring, they’re mediocre.”

Toronto has stopped scoring, and their overall attack has been neutered for weeks. And what’s worse, it seems intentional. Every Babcock quote over the last couple months seems to be about “playing tight” and being more defensive, which apparently means sitting back and being fed in your own zone before ripping the puck up ice for a stretch pass (a.k.a Carlyle hockey) or getting it to the red and going for a dump-and-chase. The Leafs can’t seem to get any flow to their play when it comes to breaking out or using the neutral zone to create offense, and it’s concerning because it seems like a step back from last year. What’s even worse is that it’s so, so boring.

It’s that “intentional” part that’s interesting.

This ultimately comes down to a fascinating conundrum. The Leafs have some nice defensemen, but could use help in that area and probably lack a truly elite one, though Morgan Rielly is coming along nicely. There are some forwards with two-way ability, but no one demanding Selke bids, either.

Babcock’s goal is to get the most out of that group, so does that mean going for a high-stakes style like that of, say, the Penguins or Devils? Maybe that was the leaning for a bit, yet the charge now is that the Maple Leafs are trying to lower the number of events in their own end, which means playing a more conservative style overall.

With a reasonably comfortable grip on third place in the Atlantic Division, maybe Babcock is merely using this window to experiment? The ideal scenario could be to find the right mix of careful play and daring offense.

At least, that’s what would happen if things fall the right way.

Can Babcock figure this out – as he’s figured out many different alignments during his impressive career – or is this a case of ego and/or stubbornness lowering a team’s ceiling? There’s still time to figure this out, but it’s an interesting story to watch.

Even if the team itself isn’t always as fun as it once was.

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.

Report: No fine or suspension for hit that injured Flyers’ Gostisbehere

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It looks like nothing but an injury will come from the hit that Toronto Maple Leafs forward Leo Komarov delivered on Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere during Saturday’s 4-2 Philly win.

There was no penalty on the play during the contest itself, and David Isaac of the Courier Post reports that the hit will not result in a fine or a suspension.

(Watch the check in question in the video above this post’s headline.)

The Flyers haven’t provided an additional update on Sunday after announcing that he wouldn’t return to last night’s game because of an upper-body injury. Gostisbehere joins Nolan Patrick as Flyers with upper-body issues, while fellow defenseman Andrew MacDonald is sidelined as well.

Such injury issues could open the door for Samuel Morin.

This is that much more unfortunate because things looked to be up in a big way for “Ghost Bear” (or is it “Ghostbear?”). His possession stats have been positive, and he’s already scored a whopping 13 points in just 11 regular-season games.

Gostisbehere has been an integral part of the Flyers’ well-oiled machine of a power play, collecting eight of his 13 points on the man advantage. Flyers coach Dave Hakstol wasn’t happy with the hit, as Isaac reported last night:

“It’s a tough hit. It’s one that’s got to be looked at,” Hakstol said. “It’s a hit in the numbers and it’s a tough hit for our player.”

Plenty of others believed that it should have at least drawn a penalty.

While Komarov explained to TSN’s Mark Masters that it was a “normal situation” as far as the question of “seeing the numbers” on Ghost goes, he did concede that a penalty might have been appropriate.

Back in Feb. 2016, Komarov received a three-game suspension for elbowing Ryan McDonagh of the New York Rangers. He’s been on the other side of a questionable hit, too, missing multiple games in 2014 with a concussion.

This situation will not factor into his suspension history, whether Flyers fans believe that it should or not.

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.

Gostisbehere suffers upper-body injury versus Maple Leafs

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The Philadelphia Flyers defeated the Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday, doing so without defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere for the entire third period.

The Flyers announced at the beginning of the final period that Gostisbehere would not return because of an upper-body injury, forcing an already young Philadelphia blue line down to five skaters for the duration. Still, they were able to hold off the Maple Leafs for a 4-2 victory, with 20-year-old Ivan Provorov leading the defensive group in ice time with 27:11 and Brian Elliott making 28 saves.

The injury to Gostisbehere occurred on a hard hit into the boards from Leo Komarov. There was no call on the play.

The Flyers already entered this game without Andrew MacDonald, who is expected to be out for at least four weeks after he was hurt blocking a shot versus Edmonton a week ago.

Philadelphia fell behind midway through the first period, but regrouped to score three straight goals to take the lead. The second goal was not without controversy, though, as the Maple Leafs appeared upset that there wasn’t an interference call against the Flyers in the neutral zone as the puck transitioned onto the stick of Jakub Voracek seconds before he scored on a slick move to the forehand.

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Cam Tucker is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @CamTucker_Sport.

Welcome James van Riemsdyk to the trade rumor mill

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The Toronto Maple Leafs made it to the playoffs last season, which has increased expectations around this young core group heading into the 2017-18 campaign.

That said, they could have interesting decisions ahead of them when it comes to some of their veteran forwards on expiring contracts. James van Riemsdyk would sit atop that list.

The contributions of Toronto’s youthful players — Auston Matthews, William Nylander and Mitch Marner headline that list — was a major storyline all throughout last season, as the Maple Leafs qualified for the playoffs.

It isn’t forgotten, however, that the 28-year-old van Riemsdyk scored 29 goals and a career-best 62 points last season. Though Darren Dreger of TSN pointed out that he feels van Riemsdyk can still be better, especially when it comes to consistently using his speed and size to drive the net.

Van Riemsdyk now enters the final year of a six-year, $25.5 million contract and is eligible to become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season. Per CapFriendly, that contract includes a modified no-trade clause.

From Darren Dreger of TSN:

“I’m not predicting that JVR is the likely candidate to get traded, when you look at the potential three unrestricted free agents in (Leo Komarov, Tyler Bozak) and JVR, but I think that there would be teams out there that would pay more for JVR based on exactly what we just said.

“Every coach is arrogant enough to think, and general managers fit into this as well — how many times have you seen the reclamation projects? Where a team will sign a player as a free agent and you’ll go, ‘Really? Like honestly? What do they see that we’re not seeing?’ Well, it’s exactly that. It’s the coach who thinks he can finally be the missing link to pull out something out of that player. There’s not a lot to have to do with JVR, but if you can push him up to that next level … man, you’ve got a horse. Because of that, maybe he is the obvious trade target as the season unwinds because people pay a premium for him.”

Of course, this isn’t the first time van Riemsdyk has been mentioned as a possible trade target. Even last season, there were rumors that he ultimately had to address.

He was doing the same thing before training camp earlier this month, too.

“That’s stuff you can’t worry about as a player,” van Riemsdyk told the Toronto Star. “It’s out of your control. I just want to go out there, play, and be a productive member of the team, and hopefully the rest of it figures itself out.”

‘That group can be way better’: Babcock calls out Kadri, Marleau, Komarov line

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Expectations weren’t very high for the Toronto Maple Leafs last season, but they surprised many by not only making the playoffs but also pushing the Capitals in the opening round of the postseason.

This year, the Leafs won’t catch many teams off guard, so they need to make sure they’re playing good hockey if they want to make it back to the playoffs.

This week, they collected a pair of wins over their bitter rivals, the Montreal Canadiens, but head coach Mike Babcock isn’t thrilled with the way all his forwards have been playing.

He’s had an issue with the way the line of Nazem Kadri, Patrick Marleau, and Leo Komarov have been playing lately.

“I thought early (in camp) they were going good,” said Babcock, per the Toronto Star. “But that line’s got to be better. That group can be way better, way quicker, a lot more diligent. They’ve got to upgrade. We need Kadri to be real good for us to be effective. That group has got to find some chemistry and get going.”

Having Auston Matthews, William Nylander and Mitch Marner doesn’t hurt, but Kadri, Marleau and Komarov will need to be key contributors if they want to take the next step.

Kadri had an incredible season in 2016-17, as he scored a career-high 32 goals and 61 points in 82 contests. Komarov, like Kadri, has the ability to chip in offensively while playing with a physical edge. Both players can get under the opposition’s skin, too.

Marleau was signed early on in free agency, as he surprised many by leaving the San Jose Sharks. The veteran can skate and chip in offensively (he had 27 goals with the Sharks last season), and he’ll also be expected to be one of the key leaders on the team.

The Maple Leafs have two games left in their preseason. They’ll finish things off with a home-and-home series against the Red Wings tonight and tomorrow.