Nikita Zaitsev

Nasty hits, fights, and a blowout in Maple Leafs vs. Canadiens

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First, the Edmonton Oilers fell 6-3 to the Dallas Stars. Next: the Toronto Maple Leafs absolutely throttled the fledgling Montreal Canadiens in a game that was ugly even beyond the 6-0 score.

It’s been a bad day for embattled GMs of teams who’ve made polarizing moves in hopes of solidifying Stanley Cup contenders. The Oilers (7-11-2) and Canadiens (8-11-2) even finish the night with nearly identical records, just to really hammer home their parallel pains.

You almost wonder if something is in the air this week (spoilers: not love), as nastiness has really ratcheted up since the Calgary Flames – Detroit Red Wings line brawl. The Canadiens and Maple Leafs boast one of the NHL’s richest and bitterest rivalries, and it showed on Saturday.

As you can see from the video above this post’s headline, Nazem Kadri played a major role in one of the most explosive moments, taking his frustrations out on Shea Weber. Weber and Jordie Benn wasted no time in going after Kadri.

(Criticisms of the hit are totally fair, but it seems strange to go too heavy on “turtling.” Who would be able to stand up to both Weber and Benn? In the heat of the moment, I’d wager most people would go with flight over fight.)

That was the most bombastic moment, but there was also this seemingly unlikely bout between Nikita Zaitsev and Paul Byron:

This absolute dismantling comes after Claude Julien was steaming mad from a 5-4 loss to the Arizona Coyotes. It’s tough not to read all of this as an indictment of the moves Marc Bergevin has made, especially considering the fact that their rivals dominated them for their sixth win in a row. If you’re the type to draw big conclusions from about a month of a season, you’d look at it as how to build a contender vs. how to waste Carey Price‘s prime.

That’s a little harsh … but either way, these are tough times for Bergevin.

ESPN’s Greg Wyshynski passed along an interesting take from Julien, who wishes he could bag skate his bumbling players. OK, then.

Auston Matthews was definitely part of the fun for Toronto in his return from injury, including scoring this goal:

(You almost wonder if Mike Babcock was rolling the dice even having his star players out there amid all that carnage, but that goal was a sweet reward.)

[MORE: Why Toronto needs Matthews back for a tough stretch]

Yes, this is an 82-game season, and we’re only at about the first-quarter-mark. Still, teams like the Oilers and Canadiens came into 2017-18 with big expectations and big questions, and so far fans and management can’t like the answers.

By the way, asking for a well-dressed GM: what’s the opposite of, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it?”

Yikes.

PHT Morning Skate: Jets give homeless man an incredible opportunity

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

–Check out the highlights from last night’s game between the Blackhawks and Rangers. Artem Anisimov came through with a hat trick in the third period for the ‘Hawks. (Top)

–Speaking of last night’s action, Sportsnet looks at three things we learned in the NHL on Wednesday night. (Sportsnet)

–A homeless man in Winnipeg wrote a letter to the Jets in an attempt to get help for his mental illness. Not only did the organization read his letter, they gave him a job. (NHL.com)

Lukas Sedlak isn’t a popular name in NHL circles, but the Blue Jackets have missed him way more than people realize since he was injured. (jacketscannon.com)

–The New Jersey Devils have surprised the hockey world with their incredible start to 2017-18, but they need to find a way to make their defense better as soon as possible because the offense is bound to drop off at a certain point. (njdab.com)

–Dallas has had a hard time finding secondary scoring throughout their lineup. That’s something they’ll need to change if they hope to make a return to the postseason. (defendingbigd.com)

–The Boston Bruins’ season has been less than stellar. Part of the problem, is that they’ve dealt with a lot of injuries. Still, there’s no point in them making a desperation trade at this point of the season. (WEEI.com)

–The Philadelphia Flyers let Steve Mason walk in free agency last summer, and he opted to sign with Winnipeg. It’s the best thing they could have done, according to NBC Sports Philadelphia’s John Boruk, who says some players informed him that Mason rubbed them the wrong way. (NBC Sports Philadelphia)

–Flames Nation had an interesting one-on-one interview with Doug Gilmour. They touched on his experience in management, his experience in Calgary, and Sam Bennett‘s struggles. (flamesnation.ca)

Nikita Zaitsev and Jake Gardiner have struggled this season, but outside of trading for Darnell Nurse, how can the Leafs fix the pairings struggles? (pensionplanpuppets.com)

–Reports have surfaced about the Blues being interested in acquiring Buffalo’s Evander Kane. Even though they need a little more scoring, bleedinblue.com doesn’t think that overpaying for a player like Kane makes sense for the team. (bleedingblue.com)

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.

Maple Leafs may look to Russia to improve defense (again)

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Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston reports that the Toronto Maple Leafs confirmed that Mike Babcock and Lou Lamoriello recently made a visit to Russia, but they didn’t admit why they went.

It turns out that they were scoping out KHL defenseman Igor Ozhiganov, who plays for CSKA, according to Johnston and others.

Ozhiganov, 24, did not go drafted. He does, however, have some interesting NHL connections. For one thing, he suited up for the same team that Nikita Zaitsev did, so that experiment has already worked out quite well for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

As you can see from the tweet above, Ozhiganov will play in the KHL through 2017-18. That’s impressive due diligence from the Leafs’ brass, although you wonder if such maneuverings might put the defenseman higher on the radars of other teams hoping to add depth to their bluelines in the future.

Raw Charge notes that Ozhiganov is a buddy of Tampa Bay Lightning star Nikita Kucherov, who definitely sings the defenseman’s praises. Even with Mikhail Sergachev in the mix, the Bolts are a group that will probably want to bolster their mix (especially in the uncomfortably likely event that Dan Girardi disappoints).

Either way, NHL fans will need to wait at least a season to see what Ozhiganov is capable of … and where he lands.

From ‘pain’ to playoffs, young Maple Leafs face heightened expectations next season

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This post is part of Maple Leafs Day on PHT…

In the span of a year, the Maple Leafs went from the bottom of the NHL standings and front runners in the Auston Matthews Sweepstakes to a playoff spot.

Matthews was taken first overall and made an immediate impact on opening night for a Maple Leafs team — and a fan base — in dire need of hope for a better future.

There is an abundance of hope in Toronto these days.

Matthews scored 40 goals and 69 points and won the Calder Trophy as the league’s top rookie. William Nylander and Mitch Marner were excellent in their freshman campaigns and Nazem Kadri at age 26 had his best season with career highs in goals (32) and points (61). How quickly the fortunes of an organization can turn around, though, with a lottery win and a shot at a generational talent.

Two years after coach Mike Babcock predicted “pain” for the franchise as it underwent its rebuild, the Maple Leafs made the playoffs. Then they gave the Capitals everything they could handle in six games before Toronto was eliminated.

Maple Leafs fans haven’t had much to get excited about over the years. Never mind their Stanley Cup drought that dates back to 1967. They made the playoffs only once from 2005-06 to 2015-16 and that lone postseason appearance concluded with an epic third-period, Game 7 meltdown versus the Bruins.

This past season, however, had a different feel. The future looks bright, like success beyond 2016-17 can be sustainable. It’s not just with Matthews, Nylander and Marner. On defense, the Maple Leafs have Morgan Rielly, Nikita Zaitsev and Jake Gardiner, and goalie Frederik Andersen bounced back from a difficult start with his new team. He’s under contract for four more years.

Excitement brings higher expectations, for next season and beyond, as the club may be approaching a window to win a lot quicker than many would’ve predicted a year ago.

Take, for instance, today’s poll question: Will the Maple Leafs have the NHL’s best offense next season? That would be a lofty expectation. The results as of the publishing of this post were nearly 50-50.

They’ve even added notable veteran players like Dominic Moore, Ron Hainsey and, at three years and more than $18 million, Patrick Marleau to enhance their roster with more experience.

Their possible success, as is the case with every team, next season will depend on multiple factors. Will Matthews, Marner and Nylander be able to build off their impressive rookie seasons, or will there be a dreaded sophomore slump in there? It will also require their best players to stay as healthy as possible.

All three of their top young forwards were able to remain, for the most part, healthy during the regular season, with Marner playing the fewest games — at 77.

Andersen had the second most starts (66) of all NHL goalies last season, behind only Cam Talbot, and the Leafs will count on him again to provide the goaltending necessary to make the playoffs.

Pressure to win is inherent in playing hockey in Toronto.

Since the second lockout, however, the standard had been set very low. That was until last season, when Matthews and the Maple Leafs went from a painful rebuild to raising expectations.

The hockey world now waits to see if this young and talented team can handle the pressure and set the bar even higher next spring.

Orlov scores big payday — six years, $30.6 million from Caps

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Brian MacLellan hasn’t been shy about writing big checks in the aftermath of another playoff disappointment.

On Friday, the Caps GM announced the club extended d-man Dmitry Orlov to the tune of $30.6 million over the next six years. That works out to an average annual cap hit of $5.1 million — a major increase from the $2.575M he was making on his previous deal.

Orlov, 25, gets the payday after two good offensive campaigns. He scored eight goals and 29 points in ’15-16, and six goals and 33 points last year. It’s worth nothing he appeared in all 82 contests both times, and saw his TOI jump from 16:02 to 19:32.

There was also the looming specter of a possible deal coming from his native Russia. Orlov was reportedly in talks with KHL powerhouse CSKA Moscow.

The move makes Orlov Washington’s third highest-paid blueliner — behind Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik — and the only one signed beyond 2021. As mentioned above, it’s also the latest big money splash from MacLellan. Previously, he locked in T.J. Oshie with a monster eight-year, $46 million deal, one that carries a $5.75M hit.

It was understood the Russian rearguard was going to get a raise and while the AAV is a big jump, it’s in line with other contracts throughout the league. It actually comes in reasonably close to the seven-year, $31.5 million deal Toronto gave fellow Russian d-man Nikita Zaitsev, and that one came with Zaitsev having less experience at the NHL level.