Author: Jason Brough

2015 NHL Draft - Round One

Under Pressure: Jim Benning

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For the last four months or so, it’s hard to find a Jim Benning move that wasn’t met with criticism.

It started in April when the Canucks signed Luca Sbisa and Derek Dorsett to hefty contract extensions and didn’t let up as the likes of Eddie Lack, Zack Kassian and Kevin Bieksa were traded.

Benning was even booed at an event for season ticket-holders when it was revealed that starting goalie Ryan Miller could’ve been traded instead of Lack, a fan favorite who’s not only younger and less expensive but had a higher save percentage than Miller last season.

Most recently, Benning’s claim that Brandon Sutter, acquired in a trade with Pittsburgh, would be a “foundation piece” for the Canucks was mocked by many. The five-year extension that Sutter proceeded to sign got the same treatment.

Suffice to say, the honeymoon is over for Vancouver’s general manager, who’s only been on the job since May of last year.

Benning, throughout it all, has not wavered.

“Sitting in my shoes, and when I talk to my management team, we have to make the decision that’s best for the organization going forward,” he said at the draft when asked about trading a fan favorite like Lack.

“I know if that’s the way we decide to go, I could get criticized. But that’s part of the job. There’s nothing I can do about that.”

Hired in large part for his experience as a scout, it won’t be entirely fair to judge Benning until his draft picks pan out, or don’t.

But there’s no doubt his recent moves have put him under increasing pressure. If Vancouver takes a step back next season — and many expect that to happen — that pressure will only build.

Blackhawks agree to terms with Svedberg on one-year deal

Pittsburgh Penguins v Chicago Blackhawks
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The Chicago Blackhawks have agreed to terms with towering defenseman Viktor Svedberg on a one-year contract.

From the press release:

Svedberg, 24, recorded 14 points (3G, 11A) in 49 regular-season games in his second season with Rockford. His four assists in eight postseason appearances tied for the most among Rockford defensemen. Svedberg has totaled 23 points (5G, 18A) in 84 professional games in North America, all with the IceHogs. The Gothenburg, Sweden, native was originally signed as a free agent on Oct. 19, 2013.

Svedberg is likely looking at more games in the minors next season, though it’s possible the 6-foot-9 defender could see some time with the big club.

Svedberg was a restricted free agent. No financial terms of his contract have been reported.

The Blackhawks still need to sign RFAs Marcus Kruger and Joakim Nordstrom.

Maple Leafs’ biggest question: Who will follow Kessel out the door?

2012 Molson Canadian NHL All-Star Skills Competition
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When Phil Kessel was traded, Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan called it a “recognition” that “what we’ve been doing here, and the group that we’d assembled here, wasn’t getting the job done, and it wasn’t good enough.”

But for all that Kessel was criticized during his time in Toronto, he was only one piece of the core that “wasn’t good enough.” Hence, the trade speculation that continues to surround Dion Phaneuf, Joffrey Lupul, Tyler Bozak, and many others.

Basically, if you played for the Leafs last year and your name isn’t Morgan Rielly, if you’re still on the roster, you may not be for long.

Unfortunately for the Leafs, it’s not a great time to be dumping salaries. They had to eat part of Kessel’s contract to move him to Pittsburgh. They’d likely be asked to do the same in any swap involving Phaneuf, Bozak, or Lupul, the latter of whom may be untradeable, period.

And remember that a team can only retain the salaries of three players. Kessel is on the books through 2022. Carl Gunnarsson is on there (for a paltry $200,000) through next season.

In addition to the veterans, there’s the younger guys like Nazem Kadri, Jake Gardiner, and Jonathan Bernier. They still have to show management that they can be part of the long-term solution.

To illustrate, here’s what Mike Babcock said when Kadri re-signed for one year: “I expect him to be an elite player. He gets to come in and have a heck of a year and put the screws to us.”

Gauntlet: thrown down.

A youngish player like James van Riemsdyk isn’t safe either, even after leading the Leafs with 27 goals last season. The 26-year-old has three years left before he can become an unrestricted free agent. So, do the Leafs envision him re-signing? Because the way they’re talking, he’ll be closing on 30 when the team is ready to start contending.

“We are here to build a team that is capable of winning a Stanley Cup. There are no shortcuts to go around doing that,” said Shanahan.

“We’ve got to build this thing the right way, through the draft, with prospects. Sometimes that might take a little bit longer.”

In the meantime, expect the Leafs to be active on the trade front, as it’s out with old core and in with the new.

Related: Wings reportedly no longer interested in Phaneuf

Poll: What’s the best reason for optimism in Toronto?

Toronto Maple Leaf fans
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For the last decade or so, Toronto Maple Leafs fans haven’t had much to feel good about.

Some even called last season the worst in franchise history, which is saying something if you followed this team in the ’80s.

But after all the pain and shame, there’s hope that rock bottom has finally been hit.

A new management team lead by Brendan Shanahan now features Hall of Fame GM Lou Lamoriello, who’s supported by young analytics whiz Kyle Dubas and well-regarded talent evaluator Mark Hunter.

And of course there’s a new coach in Mike Babcock. Assuming he didn’t just take the job for the money, if Babcock feels the Leafs are worth risking his reputation on, that has to be a good sign, no?

All that losing has also gifted the Leafs some blue-chip prospects. In the last four years, they’ve drafted defenseman Morgan Rielly fifth overall, forward William Nylander eighth overall, and forward Mitch Marner fourth overall. In June, Marner was one of nine Toronto selections, including five in the first three rounds.

Finally, the trading of Phil Kessel was clear-cut proof that the Leafs were serious about going in a new direction. More veterans are expected to follow Kessel out the door, as management dismantles the core that failed so famously in hopes of assembling one that can win the franchise’s first Stanley Cup since 1967.

OK, time to vote:

Under Pressure: Mike Babcock

Mike Babcock
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When you’re the highest-paid coach in the history of the league, there’s going to be pressure.

When you take over the most valuable team in the league, there’s going to be pressure.

When you go to work under the most media scrutiny in the league, well, you get the point.

Mike Babcock is fully aware that the Toronto Maple Leafs represent the biggest challenge of his career.

“Whether you believe it or not, I believe this is Canada’s team, and we need to put Canada’s team back on the map,” he said upon his much-ballyhooed hiring.

“I love to win. I have a burning desire to win.”

Smartly, he also bought himself some time to accomplish that goal.

“If you think there’s no pain coming, there’s pain coming,” he said. “This is going to be a long process. This is going to be a massive, massive challenge.”

So it’s not like the Leafs have to compete for a Stanley Cup next year. They don’t even have to make the playoffs.

But there has to be some semblance of progress, whether it’s from younger players like Morgan Rielly, Nazem Kadri and Jake Gardiner, or simply in terms of how the Leafs go about their business.

“Anything that’s been going on is going to get cleaned up,” Babcock vowed at the draft. “We’re going to be a fit, fit team. We’re going to be a team that comes to the media everyday, after a win, after a loss, after practice, and owns their own stuff. Period.”

In other words, the Leafs can’t be a big ol’ tire fire again.

And remember, even with a Stanley Cup and a pair of Olympic gold medals on his coaching resume, Babcock still has his doubters. Not that he’s a good coach — pretty much everyone agrees that he’s a good coach — but that he’s as good as advertised.

The doubters point to the Red Wings team he won with in 2008, headlined by Nicklas Lidstrom, Pavel Datsyuk, and Henrik Zetterberg. They point to the loaded 2010 and 2014 editions of Team Canada. They say those teams could’ve won with just about any half-decent coach behind the bench.

And let’s face it, they’ve kind of got a point.

But if he can win with the Leafs?

“I’d like to be the best coach in my generation,” Babcock said in a magazine profile before he took the job in Toronto.

That’s pressure.