Jason Brough


Babcock thinks Matthews can be ‘a dominant, dominant center’ very soon

When Mike Babcock won the Stanley Cup in 2008, two of his best forwards just so happened to be two of the best two-way forwards in the game.

Indeed, if not for Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk, the Detroit Red Wings would not have beaten the Penguins that year, or even been in the final. Those two were responsible for so much of the Wings’ success during their time together, and Babcock never pretended otherwise.

One could even argue that Babcock left Detroit in large part because the Wings’ “big-time players” — and that included defensemen Nicklas Lidstrom — had either retired or were past their primes. When Babcock took the job in Toronto, the Maple Leafs were clearly positioning themselves to draft Auston Matthews, a plan that officially came together in June.

With that, Matthews became a tremendous responsibility for the highest-paid hockey coach ever. The scouts said the 18-year-old had the potential to become the Leafs’ best center since Mats Sundin, and perhaps even the best center in franchise history. His NHL career couldn’t have started any better, with four goals in his first game.

But Matthews has struggled to produce lately, with just two assists in his last nine games. Like any other rookie, he still has things to learn defensively, though his coach is optimistic those lessons won’t take too long.

“We need him to be a dominant, dominant center for us,” Babcock said Tuesday, per NHL.com. “We think he’s going to be by Christmastime. We think he’s a very good player already, but we think he can be lights out both with and without the puck.”

That’s a pretty aggressive timeline, no doubt. But that’s how highly the Leafs think of Matthews. He’s drawn comparisons to Jonathan Toews and Anze Kopitar, a couple of the best two-way centers in the game — and also a couple of players who won Stanley Cups early in their careers.

Granted, Toews and Kopitar each had a lot of help. For starters, the Blackhawks and Kings each have No. 1 defensemen in Duncan Keith and Drew Doughty, respectively, and it remains to be seen what the Leafs have in Morgan Rielly. But that’s another story for another day.

Toronto hosts the Nashville Predators tonight. That’s another team that badly needed a franchise center, and hopes it finally has one in Ryan Johansen. Johansen was traded last season from Columbus, which hopes it has the same in Pierre-Luc Dubois, drafted two spots after Matthews.

It doesn’t always come back to the number-one center, but it sure does quite a lot. Rare is the team that wins the Stanley Cup without one, and that’s why the long-suffering Leafs need Matthews to be “a dominant, dominant center” for them.

Taylor Hall has a lower-body injury and will miss tonight’s game in Dallas


Taylor Hall will miss at least the first game of New Jersey’s four-game road trip.

The Devils announced today that Hall has a lower-body injury and will not play tonight in Dallas.

No word how Hall was hurt, or how long he may be out. He had two assists and logged 21:48 of ice time in Saturday’s 4-2 victory over Buffalo.

Against the Stars, Beau Bennett is expected to take Hall’s spot on the top line with Travis Zajac and P.A. Parenteau, while Reid Boucher is set to play his first game since Nov. 6.

The Devils are off to a surprising start, boasting an 8-3-3 record after 14 games.

“It seems like we have a team that can surprise people and that’s a good feeling to have,” Hall told NHL.com recently. “We believe in ourselves. We believe in our structure. We have a lot more skill than people think. It’s fun to play on a team like that. We might be underdogs a little bit to start the season but it’s nice to surprise some people.”

This road trip will be a tough test, especially without Hall to start it. After tonight’s game, the Devils head to California to take on the Ducks, Kings, and Sharks.

Hall and Parenteau lead New Jersey with five goals each.

Virtanen vows to bring consistency and a ‘positive attitude’ following brief AHL stint


If the plan was to get Jake Virtanen‘s confidence back — and the Vancouver Canucks said it was — then we suppose his two-game assignment to the AHL can be considered a success.

Virtanen didn’t score a goal for the Utica Comets, or even get a point, but he did register six shots in Saturday’s game against Hartford, and that’s a lot more than he’d been doing at the NHL level.

“I got my speed back and was getting in behind the defense and retrieving pucks, and I’ve got to bring that confidence level back up here,” the 20-year-old winger said Monday, per The Province. “You’ve got to be consistent every shift of every game and that even carries over to practice. I’m ready to do that and with a positive attitude.”

Just reading between the lines, it sure sounds like the Canucks have talked to Virtanen about his practice habits and attitude.

Related: Virtanen complains about ice time, lack of regular linemates

It remains to be seen when Virtanen will actually play a game for the Canucks. Tonight at home to the Rangers, head coach Willie Desjardins is likely to stick with the same 12 forwards that won last week at MSG and also Sunday against Dallas.

“It’s not that this guy can’t play,” Desjardins said. “He just has to be consistent and we’re still day-to-day with him in our evaluation. … He was good today. If he practices every day like that, he’ll be fine. It’s what is going to propel him to do that every day?”

Virtanen was the sixth overall draft pick in 2014, so it’s vitally important to the Canucks that he pans out. If he doesn’t play tonight, his next opportunity to get into a game will be Thursday against the Coyotes.

Coyotes looking for ‘some form of public-private partnership’ to get arena built


Yesterday was an exciting day for the Arizona Coyotes and their fans, but make no mistake, there’s still plenty of work to be done before that $400 million arena gets built in Tempe.

The big question, as always — who’s going to pay for it?

“What I can tell you is that the Coyotes will be putting in a large amount of the capital cost, close to 50 percent will be on the Coyotes,” club president and CEO Anthony LeBlanc said Monday (audio). “We are looking for a public-private partnership with a couple of government organizations. But that is a very typical way of looking at these types of arenas is there’s always some form of public involvement.”

LeBlanc was optimistic that the club would find willing partners in the state of Arizona and city of Tempe, calling it a project that “pays for itself.”

“Call it a form of tax rebate, that is kind of the model that we’re focused upon,” he said. “But there’s no question we’re going to have to have some form of public-private partnership to make this work. But again, that is a very typical model.

“But what we are not doing is we’re not going in and asking for a government to build us an arena. We are going to be the group that takes the risk on the associated costs, and of course the operations of the facilities.”

The Coyotes’ current home was built for them by the city of Glendale. As we all know, that relationship deteriorated badly.

So no matter how the Coyotes spin this latest project, there will be skepticism. And until shovels are in the ground, that skepticism will remain.

“I think how we can alleviate that is, this is not the same ownership group,” said LeBlanc. “No disrespect to the previous ownership group, in particular the ownership group that was the National Hockey League. But the reality is we have what we feel — and again, I say this as humbly as possible — a group of people that can get this done.”

And if the politicians don’t sign off on it?

“If it doesn’t happen, we will have conversations,” said LeBlanc.



Devils among early-season surprises, thanks to great goaltending


The New Jersey Devils have won four straight and are now 8-3-3 after their first 14 games of the season.

Wait, seriously?

/checks math

Holy cow, they actually are!

We kid, we kid. But let’s face it, even the most loyal of Devils fans would admit this has been a surprising start. The overwhelming consensus heading into the season was that GM Ray Shero still had plenty of work to do, and the fan base didn’t really have a problem with a patient approach.

So, how have the Devils done it?

“When you look at the wins,” head coach John Hynes told reporters after Saturday’s 4-2 win over the Sabres, “it’s a combination of very good effort by the players, making smart decisions, making right decisions, making good plays, playing with passion, playing with purpose and having some mental toughness.”

Offensively, new additions Taylor Hall and P.A. Parenteau lead the team with five goals each. The Devils are also getting a good push from the back end, particularly from young Damon Severson (2G, 9A).

But the real key has been goaltending. Not only has Cory Schneider (6-3-2, .927) been predictably outstanding, so too has backup Keith Kinkaid (2-0-1, .944).

As we’ve said many times before on PHT, for a bubble team like New Jersey, the backup goalie can be the difference between making and missing the playoffs. Kinkaid has earned points in all three of his starts, and that’s helped the Devils into a wild-card spot.

Granted, there’s a long way to go before the playoffs. The Devils got off to a good start last year, only to finish well back of a postseason berth. And while new owner Josh Harris would like to make the playoffs this season, the big picture is still the most important picture.

“The Devils have three Stanley Cups, and we want to make it four,” Harris told NJ Advance Media recently. “”There are 29 other teams that want to (win). … We’re smart, we’re working hard, we’re well-financed, and we’re putting our all into making that happen.”

New Jersey kicks off a tough road trip Tuesday in Dallas. After that, it’s off to California to take on the Ducks, Kings, and Sharks.