Jason Brough

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Babcock believes this year’s Leafs are ‘way better’

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The Toronto Maple Leafs finished dead last in 2015-16, winning just 29 of their 82 games.

But while the Leafs are still young and in a rebuilding phase, their head coach, Mike Babcock, doesn’t expect a repeat of last season.

“We’re way better,” Babcock told The Associated Press. “We got kids, but we got skill. It’s a way different program than a year ago. We now have a team. We’re like a fast-climbing stock. You want to buy. Last year, you didn’t want to buy.”

The Leafs, of course, turned all of last season’s losses into the first overall draft pick, Auston Matthews. They’ve also got highly touted young forwards like William Nylander and Mitch Marner, as well as a budding star on defense, Morgan Rielly.

Toronto’s goaltending is another area that should be improved after the acquisition of Frederik Andersen, who’s expected to make his preseason debut tonight against Ottawa.

One final thing to consider is that the Leafs were actually middle of the pack in puck-possession last season, finishing with a positive Corsi at five-on-five. If they can maintain that level, their young, skilled players should be able to convert on more scoring chances than last year’s forward group did. And if they get better goaltending and special teams to boot, the Leafs could, indeed, be “way better.”

Granted, that’s a lot of ifs. These young Leafs still have much to prove, and nobody would be too shocked if 2016-17 turned out to be a tough learning experience.

Things are looking up, though. Nobody can deny that. The Leafs have a lot more skill now, a reward for all that losing.

Related: A plan comes together as the Leafs get their man

A ‘very difficult road trip’ is looming for the Ducks

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The Anaheim Ducks started last season about as poorly as one could imagine. They were 1-7-2 by the end of October, and they’d been shut out five times.

Though they recovered nicely and went on to finish first in the Pacific Division, a first-round exit cost head coach Bruce Boudreau his job.

So to say the least, it was a tumultuous year in Anaheim.

And it doesn’t get any easier to start 2016-17. With Randy Carlyle back behind the bench, the Ducks begin the regular season with five straight road games — in Dallas, Pittsburgh, Brooklyn, Newark, and Philadelphia. After that, they return home to face Vancouver, then they’re straight back on the road for a visit to San Jose.

“We have a very difficult road trip to kick the season off,” Carlyle said, per the O.C. Register. “Everybody’s well aware of it. The schedule’s been out since late July. It’s not like it’s any hidden fact. We have a tough schedule coming and we have to prepare to play at a pretty high level. We’re going to open a couple of buildings at the start that are pretty tough to win in.”

The Ducks have struggled so far in the preseason. In fact, they’re the only winless team in the league, going 0-3-1 and getting outscored by a combined margin of 12-4.

Granted, they’ve been without Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, both of whom represented Canada at the World Cup, as well as Hampus Lindholm, who doesn’t have a contract yet, and Rickard Rakell, who’s in the same boat as Lindholm.

But with that “very difficult road trip” looming, it would be nice to get a win or two in their final three preseason games, if only to build some confidence.

The Ducks play tonight in Edmonton and Wednesday in San Jose before finishing their preseason schedule Sunday at home to the Sharks.

Related: Ducks look primed to make a trade

Nolan Patrick headlines Central Scouting’s list of ‘players to watch’

Last year, it was headlined by Auston Matthews, Jesse Puljujarvi, Patrik Laine, and Matthew Tkachuk.

This year, the list of Central Scouting’s “players to watch” includes 29 prospects with an “A” rating (i.e. first-round draft candidates), led by likely first overall pick Nolan Patrick.

Patrick, 18, is a center for the Brandon Wheat Kings. He is the son of former NHL forward Steve Patrick and the nephew of former NHL defenseman James Patrick.

“Patrick is as complete an NHL package as you are going to find,” said Dan Marr, the director of Central Scouting, per NHL.com. “From his pedigree, his skills and assets, to his performance impact to date, he has everything any NHL team is looking for in a top prospect.”

Click here for the complete list of players. Among the 29 “A” prospects are two U.S. college players, defenseman Luke Martin of the Michigan Wolverines and forward Ryan Poehling of the St. Cloud State Huskies. Three more are in the USHL and one, Casey Mittelstadt, goes to Eden Prairie High School in Minnesota.

Penguins bidding for Cup repeat, with largely the same roster

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PITTSBURGH (AP) Matt Cullen is well aware of the Stanley Cup hangover. The longtime NHL forward helped the Carolina Hurricanes raise the trophy in joy in the spring of 2006 and watched from afar after signing with the New York Rangers while his former teammates missed the postseason completely the following season.

The trappings of success – and the considerable emotional and physical toll it takes to get to the top – make sustaining it all the more difficult.

Yet the 39-year-old Cullen is back for another run with the Pittsburgh Penguins anyway, returning for a 19th season in part because he still loves the game and in part because he doesn’t see the edge the team carried on its way to the franchise’s fourth Cup has dulled in the slightest. The proof came in the form of a three-on-three drill during a training camp practice that Cullen likened to a playoff atmosphere, even with the postseason still more than six months away.

“It would be easy to come in and have a bit of a lackadaisical camp and feel good about what you did last year,” Cullen said. “But I think guys have done a good job of turning the page.”

Pittsburgh’s bold-faced names included. Captain Sidney Crosby, mired in such a deep funk at the beginning of 2015-16 it seemed as if his prime had come and gone, backed up his Conn Smythe-winning performance as the playoff MVP by brilliantly leading Team Canada to victory in the World Cup of Hockey.

“I don’t have to look too far to think about how tough it was a year ago starting out the season,” Crosby said after picking up 10 points during the tournament. “I think I appreciate this a lot.”

And the shot to do it – well, at least the Cup part – again in 2017. Pittsburgh did little to tinker with the roster that toppled San Jose in six games in the Cup final, instead doubling down on the mix of talent, speed, youth and grit that gelled so fiercely when Mike Sullivan was promoted to replace Mike Johnston as head coach in the middle of December.

The only notable departures during the offseason were oft-injured forward Beau Bennett and veteran defenseman Ben Lovejoy. Almost all of the free-agent deals they struck were of the two-way variety for players who will be asked to fill when the regulars get banged up. Regardless of who is out there, the task will be the same as it was since the day Sullivan took over: play fast, play aggressive and never stop working.

“I think we have a courageous group,” Sullivan said. “For me the best kind of toughness is the type of toughness that doesn’t allow your opponents to deter you from your game and what I’ve admired about our group was the focus of determination to play our game and not somebody else’s.”

Some things to look for as Pittsburgh tries to become the first team in nearly 20 years to repeat.

GOALTENDING QUANDRY: At some point the Penguins are going to have to decide who their No. 1 goaltender is after rookie Matt Murray played so solidly during the postseason after Marc-Andre Fleury went down with a concussion on the eve of the playoffs. Sullivan as committed to splitting the playing time fairly evenly, though Fleury will get the majority of the reps early as Murray recovers from a broken hand.

Both players insist they’re fine with whatever role they’re assigned and if they weren’t, it’s not like general manager Jim Rutherford particularly cares.

“I’m happy we have two good goalies regardless of whether they have injuries or not,” Rutherford said.

REUNION TOUR: The “HBK” line of Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino and Phil Kessel was Pittsburgh’s most dynamic during the playoffs, combining for 56 points. Kessel led the way (12 goals, 10 assists) to exorcise some of the demons from his tumultuous time in Toronto. In the smooth skating Hagelin and the savvy Bonino, Kessel found ideal running mates. While replicating that level of production will be difficult over the course of an 82-game season, it’s a pretty sweet starting point.

YOUNG D: One of the reasons the Penguins let Lovejoy walk is because of a surplus of talent along the blue line, including 22-year-old Derrick Pouliot. The former first-round pick is still trying to put it all together after spending the last two years bouncing between the NHL and the minors. Sullivan has impressed upon Pouliot the importance of making the simple play instead of the hard one, a differentiation that Pouliot has often struggled with. The Penguins have paired him with Trevor Daley at times in the preseason in hopes Daley’s intelligent approach will rub off.

 

Rangers hoping for bounce-backs from veterans, growth from youngsters

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NEW YORK (AP) After two deep playoff runs, the New York Rangers’ 2016 postseason fizzled out quickly.

Eventual champion Pittsburgh dispatched them in five games in the first round, the last two by a combined score of 11-3.

“Now, obviously, there is going to be some changes,” coach Alain Vigneault said a few days later. “There are still some very good pieces. We have to decide in which direction we’re going to take.”

The direction he and general manager Jeff Gorton wound up deciding to take was mostly to give it another go with those good pieces. The changes over the offseason came mostly around the edges of the roster.

The big move was a trade of centers, sending Derick Brassard to Ottawa for Mika Zibanejad, who is quite a bit younger – and cheaper.

Veterans Dan Girardi, Rick Nash and Marc Staal are back after disappointing seasons, and the greatest change in 2016-17 could simply come from any or all of them recapturing their previous form.

Henrik Lundqvist will turn 35 during the season. The Rangers will give their returning core at least one more chance at a title in front of the 2012 Vezina Trophy winner before the window closes.

“The hunger for the game and to compete is, I think, the same,” Lundqvist said during the World Cup of Hockey as he thought back to the start of his Rangers career.

Along with Zibanejad, New York’s most notable additions were also younger players. Some members of the Rangers’ youth movement to watch:

Jimmy Vesey: The Hobey Baker winner as college hockey’s top player, Vesey chose to pursue free agency after his senior season at Harvard instead of signing with Nashville, which drafted him 66th overall in 2012.

Vesey picked the Rangers over seven other finalists in August.

“It seemed that they really needed to have me in their lineup,” he said at the time.

The 23-year-old forward had 24 goals and 22 assists in 33 games for Harvard last season.

ZIBANEJAD: Zibanejad is also 23 and already has two 20-goal seasons in the NHL. He set career highs with 21 goals and 30 assists in 81 games for the Senators last season.

Brassard, who just turned 29, had a career-high 27 goals last season.

“I think the potential is there for more upside,” Gorton said of Zibanejad. “He is just scratching the surface at age 23. There are not a lot of guys who have done what he has done as far as scored 20 before that age.”

PAVEL AND PIRRI: Pavel Buchnevich, a 21-year-old Russian left wing who was a 2013 third-round draft pick, is looking to prove he’s ready to make an NHL roster. Brandon Pirri, a 25-year-old center, had a career-high 29 points last season but has already been traded twice in his career. The Rangers signed him to a $1.1 million, one-year deal from Anaheim.

J.T. Miller: The Rangers also kept one of their own, signing restricted free agent forward J.T. Miller to a $5.5 million, two-year deal. Another 23-year-old, Miller had 22 goals and 21 assists, both career highs, last season.

“I don’t want to be satisfied on one pretty good year,” he said.

Related: As training camp opens, the Rangers’ defense goes under the microscope