Nazem Kadri

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Check, mates: NHL top lines are expected to do it all

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By Stephen Whyno (AP Hockey Writer)

Tyler Seguin doesn’t consider it a challenge. He sees it as an opportunity.

Every time Dallas Stars coach Ken Hitchcock sends Seguin and his linemates over the boards against an opponent’s top line, he knows he has a job to do.

”Out-check the other line and let the skill kind of take over,” Seguin said. ”It’s fun.”

Fun? Sure. It’s also increasingly common in the NHL as coaches seek to put their top lines on the ice against the other team’s best forwards to create matchup problems that often lead to goals.

Goodbye to the likes of Bob Gainey and hello to Boston’s Patrice Bergeron, Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby and Washington’s Nicklas Backstrom. All can help keep the puck out of the net almost as well as they can put it in.

”We’re seeing less of the old Don Luce, Craig Ramsey, Brent Peterson lines,” said Capitals coach Barry Trotz, referring to defensive-minded forwards of yesteryear. ”We have guys like Bergeron; Sid goes up against top guys. So I think you’re seeing more of the power against power than we have in the past.”

Power against power is the name of the game in hockey today as players such as Bergeron, Crosby, Backstrom and Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews embody the kind of top-line stars who can double as shutdown centers. Crosby was so good in that dual role at the 2014 Sochi Olympics that Canada won a gold medal – and he was so dominant offensively the past two seasons that the Penguins won consecutive Stanley Cup championships.

Crosby is well aware of the modern duties of a top-flight center.

”You have more responsibility defensively,” he said. ”You’re covering a lot of space, so it’s just something you’ve got to be aware of.”

Before the season, reigning MVP Connor McDavid of Edmonton cited defense and faceoffs as areas he wanted to improve. He already has the dynamic offensive capabilities and sees that as the next step in his evolution.

”It’s more rounding out your game,” McDavid said. ”Being a defensive guy, being able to be put out there in the last two minutes to defend a lead, just to be able to be trusted by your coach out there.”

Coaches have to be able to trust their top players in all situations, particularly since the days of strict shutdown lines are dwindling.

”The systems are about defense, and everyone needs to play it,” Backstrom said. ”That’s what the mindset is – to be good defensively and offensively.”

The best defense is good puck possession because often the most productive players aren’t as sound in their own end. Columbus Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella considers it essential to make elite offensive players spend time in their defensive zone, figuring they’re more apt to try to do too much in the neutral zone and turn the puck over.

Good two-way players also have that mindset when they’re matched up against top skill guys.

”They’re so good offensively that sometimes they can forget about their defense, and that’s when you can take advantage of them,” Philadelphia Flyers No. 1 center Sean Couturier said. ”They’re thinking so much offense that once they turn the puck over they’re going to try plays to get turnovers. That’s when you can take advantage of them most of the time.”

That’s the danger of going skill on skill. Few see Calgary Flames stars Johnny Gaudreauand Sean Monahan as defensive stalwarts, but coach Glen Gulutzan continues to put them on the ice against other top lines.

Gaudreau said ”sometimes the best offense comes from playing against other top lines.” And the strategy has multiple benefits.

”It makes sure that your top guys, they’re aware that they’re out there against the other sharks, so to speak, in the league,” Gulutzan said. ”Now they’re a little more conscious defensively. And what you hope is that, through a course of a season, you’re making your guys more defensively aware and come playoff time those things will come in handy.”

Seguin said he thinks the playoffs lead to concerted defensive efforts to shut down certain players, though that largely comes from coaches leaning on their top defensemen. Hitchcock and other coaches said putting their best defensemen against opponents’ top forwards is the most important matchup no matter the situation.

Of course, it helps to have forwards who thrive on tough matchups and understand balancing priorities.

”A lot of times you’re getting matched up with better players, so I think playing offense the whole game isn’t realistic,” Toronto Maple Leafs center Nazem Kadri said. ”Most of the time it’s just being in the right places and knowing where you are on the ice as opposed to chasing everybody around and that whole ‘shadow’ thing. You’ve just got to be in right areas and right zones.”

Playing responsible defense is one piece of the transition to offense, whether it’s winning board battles or faceoffs or taking the puck away. But top players are counted on and paid to score, so keeping others off the board simply isn’t good enough.

”If it’s 0-0, we’re still kind of mad as a line,” Backstrom said. ”We want to win that match. It would be nice if we could score against them.”

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

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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

Under Pressure: 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.

With Lamoriello hire, Leafs hammer home their culture change

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If it wasn’t abundantly clear before, it is now.

In introducing Lou Lamoriello as the 16th general manager of the Maple Leafs on Thursday, both team president Brendan Shanahan and Lamoriello himself said this is all about a major offseason theme:

Changing the culture in Toronto.

“We are trying to create [an environment] where the players are willing to give up their own identity for that logo on the front,” Lamoriello explained. “Never mixing what’s on the back of the jersey with what’s on the front — that has to be transmitted to each and every player, no matter what their abilities are.

“Success doesn’t come unless each and every one of these individuals are committed to each other.”

Those are telling words in the wake of Toronto’s disastrous campaign. From Phil Kessel’s ongoing feud with the media to Nazem Kadri’s suspension to Dion Phaneuf and Joffrey Lupul threatening to sue TSN to accusations the team quit playing for interim bench boss Peter Horachek, the Leafs were considered one of the league’s most toxic teams.

So, enter the hazmat team. Shanahan cleaned house in the front office. Kessel, the team’s leading scorer, was traded.

At the draft, new head coach Mike Babcock laid down the law for those that remained, saying “anything that’s been going on is going to get cleaned up.”

“The number-one characteristic of a Toronto Maple Leaf is a good human being. Period.” Babcock said. “So if you don’t fit that, you’re not going to be here. 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.”

So the culture change started with Shanahan, continued with Babcock and will now be cemented by Lamoriello.

Few GMs are more adept at establishing culture, and no team in NHL history was defined more by an individual than the Devils were with LouLam. He oversaw nearly every aspect of the organization, right down to the little things — some say petty things — like banning facial hair outside of the playoffs, and not issuing the No. 13.

Lamoriello explained his logic in a February Q&A with the Star-Ledger.

“The word is called tradition,” he said. “That’s the identity of the Devils organization. Those are part of the systemic points that have given us our identity, like our home and away jerseys. Whether you look at the Yankees or the old Montreal Canadiens and their identity, this is the identity of the Devils.

“I look at it as something the players, and hopefully the fans, take pride in.”

As for working with Shanahan and Babcock, well, Lamoriello doesn’t figure to have many problems. The head coach has already praised the hire — “a home run for all of us,” is how he described it to NHL.com — and Shanahan, whose personal relationship with Lamoriello dates back to 1987, sees the 72-year-old as the ideal architect.

“There should be an appreciation and showing of enthusiasm that you’re enjoying being a Toronto Maple Leaf,” he explained. “We want to have enthusiasm, we want to have good people.

“Lou is a great fit for that.”

He’s baaaaaack: Leafs pull a stunner, hire Lamoriello as GM (Updated)

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In a surprising move that few saw coming, the Toronto Maple Leafs filled their vacant general manager position by hiring longtime Devils GM Lou Lamoriello.

More, from the club:

Lamoriello has been named the 16th General Manager in the Club’s history. Lamoriello joins the Leafs after previously spending the last 28 years in the New Jersey Devils organization.

On May 4, 2015, Ray Shero was introduced as the Devils’ new General Manager while Lamoriello remained in his role as President of Hockey Operations. He finished as the longest serving General Manager of any one team in the history of the NHL at 28 years (1987-2015).

In conjunction with this announcement, the Devils announced that Lamoriello had stepped down as president, a role he retained after shifting GM duties to Shero.

UPDATE: Despite Lamoriello’s resignation, the Leafs will still be required to compensate New Jersey for the hire, per Sportsnet. According to NorthJersey.com, it’s a third-round pick.

Is it fair to say this hire came out of left field?

Yes. But it’s not hard to see the connection between Lamoriello and the Leafs organization.

Lamoriello was Toronto team president Brendan Shanahan’s first boss upon breaking into the NHL in 1987. In fact, Shanahan referenced Lamoriello this season while suspending Nazem Kadri for behavioral issues; Shanahan said he never forgot getting parked for three games during his rookie season with the Devils, and referenced it while discussing Kadri’s punishment.

A known disciplinarian, Lamoriello’s strict, no-nonsense approach fits with Toronto’s organizational overhaul. At the NHL draft in June, new head coach Mike Babcock explained exactly what that overhaul would look like.

“The number-one characteristic of a Toronto Maple Leaf is a good human being. Period.” Babcock said. “So if you don’t fit that, you’re not going to be here. Anything that’s been going on is going to get cleaned up.

“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.”

As for the long term ramifications of this big hire — at 72, it’s fair to speculate that Lamoriello might not be long for the Toronto job. He could be in a similar “caretaker” position to the one ex-‘Canes GM Jim Rutherford took in Pittsburgh; Rutherford is mentoring assistant GMs Jason Botterill, Tom Fitzgerald and Bill Gueirn, and it’s likely that Lamoriello will do the same for Kyle Dubas and Mark Hunter.

The Leafs have scheduled a press conference with Shanahan and Lamoriello for 2 p.m. ET today. More to follow.