Nazem Kadri

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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.

Joe Thornton and his beard thankful to Nazem Kadri for ‘a little trim’

The fact that he’s now missing a chunk of his big, bushy beard is no trouble for Joe Thornton of the San Jose Sharks. As he and Nazem Kadri tussled early in Thursday’s game, the Toronto Maple Leafs forward ended up with a hairy piece of memorabilia after things broke up.

There clearly was no intent by Kadri to purposefully tug at Thornton’s beard and the Sharks forward had no ill feelings about the unique ending to their fight. In fact, he felt the Leafs forward did him a bit of a favor.

“It’s just so big. He was probably trying to grab for the collar of my shirt and, obviously, there’s a lot there,” Thornton told Paul Gackle of the Mercury News. “I needed a little trim, so it saved me some money. I needed to thin it out a little bit.”

[Joe Thornton’s beard biggest loser vs. Nazem Kadri]

The clump of beard ended up first in backup goalie Aaron Dell‘s glove and then in a Ziploc bag inside the Sharks’ dressing room after the game.

“I thought I was a hockey player, not a barber,” Kadri said. “I had no idea how I ended up with beard … I felt I pulled him in the middle of his jersey, and I came down with a hand full of hair.”

“When I was on the ice, I looked down and I saw his hand, and I thought, that’s my hair,” Thornton told Gackle. “I remember thinking, okay, that’s interesting.”

It’s unclear what will happen to that unique piece of sports memorabilia, but if Andrew Shaw can auction off stitches for charity, then surely Jumbo Joe could bring in a boatload of money for good cause by putting a clump of his legendary beard up for bid.

As for how long until the beard is back to 100 percent, Thornton said to give it four or five days. “No big deal.”

————

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.

The Buzzer: Nino storms, Price channels Hasek

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Player of the Night: Nino Niederreiter, Minnesota Wild.

There were some strong contenders around the league. Quite a few players enjoyed impressive one-goal, two-assist nights: Ivan Provorov for the successful Flyers, Nino’s teammate Mikko Koivu (who was also bloodied), Taylor Hall, and Alex Radulov among them. Sebastian Aho‘s really close, too, with two goals and an assist.

Still, it’s worth noting that Niederreiter generated his hat trick about four minutes into the second period, and only logged 12 minutes of ice time in this game. It’s also the second time he’s generated a hat trick against the Sabres, as he also did so in November.

With all the headlines about a “bomb cyclone” getting weather on the brain, it only makes sense for “El Nino” to gust through the Sabres’ defense.

Highlights of the Night:

Carey Price pulled out a Dominik Hasek/Tim Thomas-style barrel roll trick here:

Actually, speaking of Aho, let’s give him the highlight of the night for this sweet goal. Teuvo Teravainen also scored a pretty one as the Hurricanes were too much for the Penguins to handle.

Blooper of the Night: Ouch, Frederik Andersen. Ouch.

(This was also a tough break.)

Beard pull of the Night: Nazem Kadri on Joe Thornton. If you somehow missed it, check here.

Factoids:

Auston Matthews, American hero.

In case you’re wondering, the Canadiens’ struggles aren’t really on Carey Price.

The Golden Knights’ run came to an end. More on that here.

Scores

Maple Leafs 3, Sharks 2 (SO)
Flyers 6, Islanders 4
Hurricanes 4, Penguins 0
Canadiens 2, Lightning 1 (SO)
Blues 2, Golden Knights 1
Wild 6, Sabres 2
Stars 4, Devils 3
Avalanche 2, Blue Jackets 0
Flames 4, Kings 3
Oilers 2, Ducks 1 (SO)
Coyotes 3, Predators 2 (OT)
Panthers – Bruins, postponed

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.

Couturier fights Bailey, Flyers add to Islanders’ frustrations

Nazem Kadri vs. Joe Thornton (winner: the fans, loser: Thornton’s beard) wasn’t the only unexpected fight from Thursday. Sean Couturier and Josh Bailey are rising stars for their respective teams, but tonight, tempers rose too high after a hit on Anders Lee, so the two prominent players dropped the gloves.

Maybe part of the tension comes from the stakes, and the frustrations for the Isles, even if the hit really made it happen?

Either way, each team needed this, so the Flyers have to be happy to beat their division foes in regulation by a score of 6-4.

Tensions boiled over a bit later in the game, too.

Both teams really wanted this. The Flyers were coming off a frustrating loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins, and with this home-heavy stretch in action, a strong push could go a long way in legitimizing their playoff hopes. On the other hand, Islanders coach Doug Weight worried about his team’s “frailty” and acknowledged that the next span is huge for this team, so losing a fourth straight game really rains on the Belmont Park honeymoon.

Such a slump leaves more than a few Islanders fans feeling pretty glum.

Tonight’s results adds confusion to the logjam that is the Metropolitan Division, as positioning looks to be up for grabs. With that in mind, every regulation loss has to hurt much more than even a well-placed haymaker.

Then again, maybe it’s all about shaking off those body blows, as the Islanders and Penguins turn around for another important game on Friday.

Hey, at least someone has to win that one, right? (Eyes weather forecast.)

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.

Fight: Joe Thornton’s beard biggest loser vs. Nazem Kadri

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Joe Thornton doesn’t rack up penalty minutes like he once did with the Bruins, but “Jumbo Joe” isn’t shy about fighting, particularly against some of the NHL’s more abrasive young players.

Earlier this season, he didn’t really have much of a choice; after a questionable hit on Washington Capitals forward T.J. Oshie, Tom Wilson made Thornton pay the price, much to the chagrin of San Jose Sharks head coach Peter DeBoer.

His latest fight was far more, well, voluntary. After both players were kicked out of the opening faceoff circle, Thornton briefly dropped the gloves with Nazem Kadri of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Apparently Joe Thornton lost some of his luminous beard in the scuffle, and Aaron Dell … got his glove on it? Made the glove save? This is weird-great in the utmost hockey way.

The keepsake has since been preserved in the Sharks’ locker room in case some museum out there wants this artifact:

“I thought I was a hockey player, not a barber,” Kadri said afterward. “I had no idea how I ended up with beard . . . I felt I pulled him in the middle of his jersey, and I came down with a hand full of hair.”

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.