2010-2011 NHL season preview: Toronto Maple Leafs

philkessel4.jpgLast season: (30-38-14, 74 points, 5th in Northeast Division, 15th in Eastern Conference) It was another tough season for the Leafs, this time finishing with the second-worst record in the NHL. They weren’t able to reap the rewards of that thanks to trading their first-round pick to Boston in the Phil Kessel trade. Don’t know if you’d heard about that whole thing. Conversely, Leafs fans were tops in the league with gallows humor. Kudos to all who contributed there.

Head coach: Ron Wilson enters his third season with the Leafs and to say he’s hoping things get better might be an understatement. The Leafs have finished last in the Northeast Division in both of his seasons, maxing out at 34 wins and 81 points two years ago. Suffice to say, if there’s no improvement this year, Wilson might want to start sending his résumé and headshot around.

Key departures: F Viktor Stalberg, F Rickard Wallin, D Garnet Exelby, D Jonas Frogren, F Wayne Primeau, F Jamie Lundmark. Losing a pile of players from a team that struggled as badly as Toronto did isn’t a big loss. Stalberg will be missed, but parting ways with him was made necessary to acquire Kris Versteeg.

Key arrivals: F Versteeg, F Colby Armstrong, D Brett Lebda, F Mike Brown, F Clarke MacArthur. Versteeg is an instant improvement along the wing while Armstrong provides a dose of physical play and goal-scoring touch. Brett Lebda, while a depth signing, was a head-scratching addition considering that he got a huge raise to essentially be the team’s sixth or seventh defenseman.

Under pressure: This one is a combo deal. GM Brian Burke and Wilson will share the heat this year. After all, they’re the architects of the team and another season mired at the bottom of the division will only make the fans go insane. They’re tired of the Leafs being the joke of the league. While we can see what Burke wants to do with the team, spending the last three years in last place and not having made the playoffs since 2003-2004 will make any fan base go insane with rage, especially one that pays out the nose for tickets the way Leafs fans do.

Protecting the house: The Leafs do have strengths and they come in goal and along the defense. In goal, Jean-Sebastian Giguere and Jonas Gustavsson make up the two-headed monster. Giguere is the starter and Gustavsson, after a rookie season fraught with injury problems, will learn from him and goalie coach Francois Allaire. Getting consistent play from these two will be huge. After all, Vesa Toskala was so bad last season in Toronto that the record for number of ways a player could be thrown under the bus was broken by November.

Along the blue line, the Leafs are deep and talented. Dion Phaneuf, Tomas Kaberle (yes, he’s still there), Francois Beauchemin, Mike Komisarek, Luke Schenn, Carl Gunnarsson, Jeff Finger, and Brett Lebda make up a nice gaggle of blue liners for Wilson to make some sense out of. While some guys are a bit overpaid (Finger, Lebda) the collection is solid and, ideally, should be one of the better defensive units in the league. Getting to see what the Leafs can do with a full year of Phaneuf leading the charge should prove to be interesting if not talked about ad nauseum.

Top line we’d like to see: Versteeg-Tyler Bozak-Kessel. This isn’t quite the line we’ll see this season in Toronto as Nikolai Kulemin will likely run with Bozak and Kessel, but this would truly be the ‘all eggs in one basket’ line for the Leafs. This would be a line teeming with youth and potential for greatness. As it is, Kessel is already one of the best goal scorers in the league and Bozak is shaping up to be a good play maker. Add in Versteeg and his knack for finding the net as well as his killer rapping skills and you’d have the most fun line in the NHL on and off the ice.

Oh captain, my captain: Dion Phaneuf wears the Leafs ‘C’ now and if you thought him dealing with Sean Avery was tough, just wait til he bears the brunt of the Toronto media if/when things start to get tough. The pressure will be on Phaneuf from the get-go to make sure things stay strong in the Leafs locker room and whether or not he can be an effective leader will certainly put under the microscope. Here’s to hoping he’s ready for the bright spotlight in hockey’s capital city.

coltonorr1.jpgStreet fighting man: We don’t suppose you’ve heard about how ‘truculence’ rules the day in Toronto, have you? Well let us introduce you to the ring leaders in the truculence movement in Colton Orr and newly acquired Mike Brown. Orr lead the Leafs with 23 fighting majors last year while Brown had 14 with  Anaheim. Safe to say that if anyone in Toronto is wronged, someone will be there to answer for them. Keep an eye on possible occasional call-up Jay Rosehill who fights like a cornered animal with a rage complex.

Best-case scenario: The Leafs get a rejuvenated season out of Giguere and the defense plays as strong as it looks on paper. Meanwhile, Kessel scores 40 goals, Versteeg adds 30, and Bozak emerges as the play maker they dreamed of. Mikhail Grabovski puts it all together to become a two-way force, Luca Caputi and Armstrong have above-average seasons and Nikolai Kulemin rides a hot year by Bozak and Kessel to jump up the scoring ranks. Orr and Brown freak out of opponents the second they jump on the ice and lead the Leafs to the eighth seed in the playoffs and give any one of Pittsburgh, Washington or New Jersey the scare of a lifetime in the first round.

Worst-case scenario: Giguere plays as old as he is, the offense continues to sputter and the defense looks shaky and turnover-prone. In other words, the Leafs get a repeat of how things broke down last season. The Leafs end up giving the Bruins yet another high draft choice (yes, they gave up their 2011 first-round pick as well) while Wilson is run out of town as the Leafs finish near the bottom of the Eastern Conference.

Keeping it real: I know things seem dire but it could be helped out immensely by even semi-competent goaltending. The Leafs had the second-most goals scored against them (only the Oilers were worse) and as long as Giguere and Gustavsson don’t pull a Toskala this season, they should be instantly improved. Of course, the Leafs bottom-five offense from last year isn’t totally improved so scoring will be tough going again. Adding Versteeg helps and getting a full season out of Kessel will make things better, but there’s still a lot of questions surrounding the team’s offense. They’ll miss the playoffs, but the signs of life fans are hoping to see will be there and hope becomes the rallying cry next offseason.

Stanley Cup chances: On a scale of 1-5, with one being the worst and five being the best, the Leafs are a 1 with personal regret. I dig the Leafs, I dig their fans, and I know they should have a better team than this but this team needs everything to work out right for them this year to get to the playoffs. Should they prove me wrong, I’ll happily eat a plate of crow and accept all chiding sent my way.

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    Stanley Cup Final Preview: Who has better goaltending?

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    Leading up to Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final (Monday, 8 p.m. ET, NBC), Pro Hockey Talk will be looking at every aspect of the matchup between the Washington Capitals and the Vegas Golden Knights. 

    WASHINGTON CAPITALS

    If there was ever a time to string together back-to-back shutouts, Braden Holtby doing so in Game 6 and then again in Game 7 to clinch a berth in the Stanley Cup Final was as near to perfect as it gets.

    If the playoffs change the National Hockey League to the National Goaltending League (as Winnipeg Jets head coach Paul Maurice suggested earlier this postseason), then a goalie getting hot right before the Cup Final can’t be a bad thing. But aside from a three-game stretch against the Lightning in the Eastern Conference Final, Holtby has been relatively solid and showed up in games where Washington needs him most.

    Holtby seems to have benefitted from that late-season rest — and even losing his starting job at one point — and bounced back to put up a .938 save percentage in 5-on-5 situations in the playoffs.

    Holtby’s GSAA (goals save above average) — an important analytic that will crop up later in this post — is second highest at 6.1.

    It’s crucial that Holtby’s confidence needs to carry through to the Cup Final.

    VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS

    To win the Stanley Cup, the Capitals will have to do something no other team has done in these playoffs: solve Marc-Andre Fleury.

    Fleury’s numbers are simply incredible to look at:

    • Save percentage: .947
    • 5-on-5 save percentage: .960
    • High-danger save percentage. .929
    • GSAA: 13.89

    That GSAA number is more than double that of Holtby’s and over four times higher than anyone else. That’s astounding, and a testament to how good Fleury has been compared to any other goalie in the playoffs.

    Beyond this season, Fleury is putting up historic numbers.

    Fleury faced a tall task in the Western Conference Final, going up against the second-highest goal-scoring team in the NHL this season in the Jets. There would be no buckling under the pressure of Winnipeg’s shooters though as he limited the Jets to just 10 goals in the five-game series.

    The Jets tried a lot of things, including throwing people in front of Fleury. It was all futile. He was simply too good.

    And even when all seemed to be lost, he did this:

    Advantage: Golden Knights

    The edge here has to favor the Golden Knights.

    Fleury has Holtby beat by nearly every metric that matters. He’s been the better goalie and seems just a half-second quicker than anyone else. His anticipation of shots has been on-point and he’s seeing everything, even with traffic in front of him.

    If Fleury keeps his .950 save percentage going, Washington has a snowball’s chance in hell of winning the Stanley Cup. This is a simple truth. But can he? He’s doing things no one before has, including himself. There’s always a risk of fall off here with any numbers that are abnormally high.

    Washington needs to emulate what Winnipeg did in Game 1 of the WCF if they want success. Get to Fleury, get to him quick and try and fluster him. It’s a tall task, but one that must be done.

    Fleury frustrated Patrik Laine in the last round and could end up doing the same against Alex Ovechkin in the Final.

    If you’re looking for more on this matchup, there’s a very good, in-depth breakdown here.

    2018 STANLEY CUP FINAL PREVIEW:

    • Who has the better forwards?
    Who has better defense?
    • Who has better special teams?
    Who has better coaching?

    MORE:
    • NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub
    • Stanley Cup Final Schedule


    Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

    Defenders as important to Fleury, as he is to Golden Knights

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    LAS VEGAS (AP) Marc-Andre Fleury has been the foundation for the Vegas Golden Knights’ run to the Stanley Cup Final.

    Yet while he has a 1.68 goals-against average and .947 save percentage, he’ll be the first one in the locker room to credit the defensemen in front of him.

    “It’s a team game – win as a team, lose as a team,” said Fleury, who looks to become the 11th goaltender in NHL history to have his name on the Cup at least four times – and the fourth of that group to win with multiple teams.

    “These guys are a big part of our success. We’re well balanced, we got some veteran guys, some younger guys, got some offensive guys, some defensive guys playing together. Those guys have been rallying all playoffs, trying to help me out, blocking shots and letting me see the puck, so it’s been a lot of fun.”

    The pairings of Nate Schmidt and Brayden McNabb, Shea Theodore and Deryk Engelland, and Colin Miller with Luca Sbisa or Jon Merrill, have helped the Golden Knights become a very tight defensive team during the playoffs, something that will have to carry into Game 1 at T-Mobile Arena, on Monday against the Washington Capitals.

    Schmidt has developed into the team’s top defenseman after struggling to find consistent ice time in Washington last season, when he averaged 15:29 on the ice. The fifth-year pro leads the Golden Knights with an average 22:14 on the ice and brings a familiarity to the Final, having played with Washington’s top scorers Evgeny Kuznetsov (24 points) and Alex Ovechkin (22), who rank first and second, respectively, in overall playoff scoring.

    “I know a lot of those guys, I know what they like to do,” said Schmidt, who has six points (2 goals, 4 assists) in the postseason. “For what I want to do on the ice, it helps me and I think it helps our group as well that we’ve had success against them. But it’s a whole other type of animal this time of year.”

    The Golden Knights swept the regular-season series against Washington, winning 3-0 on Dec. 23 in Vegas and 4-3 on Feb. 4 in D.C.

    With five more Capitals have double-digit points – Nicklas Backstrom (16), John Carlson (16), T.J. Oshie (15), Lars Eller (13) and Tom Wilson (11) – Vegas will need one last big effort from a defensive group that has helped allow the second-least number of goals among playoff teams that have played 10 games.

    Washington coach Barry Trotz said he knows the Golden Knights have three dynamic duos that each feature one offensive guy who can skate and move the puck – that being Miller, Theodore, and Schmidt – paired with more of a traditional stay-at-home defenseman who isn’t afraid to get physical, block shots and slow the opposing team’s pace – such as Sbisa, Engelland, Merrill and McNabb.

    “But they still bring some offense, too,” Trotz said. “They play 5-5-5 all three zones just as we talk about with the Capitals. Watch the TV, you see five guys in the picture, then you’re doing good.”

    Schmidt said using speed against them worked during the regular season, by moving their feet more than Washington did, and helping to develop plays in transition. But again, this is the Stanley Cup Final, and Schmidt said he knows Washington can skate well and will be a challenge.

    “I think another thing is just making sure you’re really disciplined against this team,” Schmidt said. “You’ve got to make sure you stay out of the penalty box, keep Ovechkin off the power play and keep that unit off the power play.”

    To Vegas’ credit, however, it does have the fourth-best penalty kill in the playoffs, stopping 82.5 percent of the power plays it has seen. And, as Sbisa said, that circles back to Fleury and the chemistry that’s been built with the defensive pairings.

    “That bond is definitely there,” Sbisa said. “You don’t have to worry about anything else, play it loose, play to your strengths and that’s what we’ve been doing as a group. The six Ds that are playing that night, they’re tight; we play as a three-man group (with Fleury). Flower’s a guy that doesn’t take too much credit for himself, even though he should, because he’s been that good and it’s obviously nice to hear stuff like that coming out of his mouth. But he definitely deserves all the credit here.

    “As a D-man, knowing that you have the best goalie in the world behind you, saving you when something happens, it makes a huge difference because it allows you to play your game. Praise has to go both ways.”

    MORE:
    • NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub
    • Stanley Cup Final Schedule

    Ovechkin slays demons on first trip to Stanley Cup Final

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    ARLINGTON, Va. (AP) Raw emotion came from Alex Ovechkin as he wore an “Eastern Conference champions” hat for the first time.

    “Oh my God,” he said. “It’s unbelievable. I can’t explain my emotions. I’m just happy for my boys, for organizations, for fans. Finally.”

    Finally.

    Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals will play for the Stanley Cup. It’s a journey 14 years in the making from Ovechkin being the first overall draft pick to the greatest goal scorer of this generation – and a player who until this year hasn’t made it out of the second round of the playoffs through little fault of his own. Yet he’s gotten an uneven proportion of the blame.

    Ovechkin essentially willed the Capitals to the Cup Final with 12 goals, 10 assists and the best postseason of his career. In one spring, the 32-year-old Russian superstar has ended Washington’s 20-year final drought, slayed demons and destroyed the old narrative that he can’t get the job done when it matters most.

    “The special thing is because we’re winning,” Ovechkin said before the Capitals left for Las Vegas. “That’s the whole thing. That’s all I can say. We win and we move forward. We’ve never been in this position before. All my career, I played for this team, and we never get the success like that.”

    Ovechkin bore the brunt of nine playoff appearances ending after the first or second round despite being a point-a-game player. With time running out on chasing the trophy he knew all about as a kid, this season has featured a different-looking player.

    General manager Brian MacLellan sees a new level of maturity on and off the ice that he believes comes from Ovechkin getting married. A different offseason training regimen allowed Ovechkin to produce more at even strength, and the result was an NHL-leading 49 goals.

    “I think the way he plays this year is more within the team structure,” MacLellan said. “This is the most systematic he’s played throughout his career, in my mind.”

    In the playoffs, Ovechkin has raised his game even further. His vintage physicality and his willingness to get his body in front of shots and hustle down ice on the backcheck have been noticeable.

    “When you see him blocking shots, you see him coming back hard, you see him playing physical, he’s getting more and more excited,” linemate Tom Wilson said. “It seems like every round you win, he’s playing even harder. And that’s what you need out of your top guys. When he’s going, you’re aware he’s on the ice. Everyone in the building knows he’s on the ice.”

    During the third round, Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper said Ovechkin has “taken 14 years of frustration out in one playoffs.” Ovechkin is reluctant to talk about previous playoff disappointments, but they’ve been tied to him.

    Even though this is a team sport, someone has to be the greatest player to never win the Cup. Until now, arguably that’s Ovechkin, a label he has the chance to shed beginning in Game 1 of the final Monday at the expansion Vegas Golden Knights.

    “He’s an elite player that shoulders the responsibility of how our team performs, whether that is fair or unfair, and I think that happens to all those elite players in the league,” MacLellan said. “They get built up when they win and they get torn down a little bit when they lose. It is not always fair, because it is a team game. And for him, he has shouldered a lot of the burden that has gone on here for the last 11 years or whatever the time period has been, and hopefully this is a time when he gets payback and enjoys it this year.”

    Ovechkin is enjoying hockey seemingly like never before. Coach Barry Trotz wondered if being the face of the franchise and carrying the burden weighed on Ovechkin all those years.

    Getting past the Pittsburgh Penguins and the second round made Ovechkin look “freer” in Trotz’s eyes.

    “You want your top guys to be on a mission, and I think that has freed him to carry on the mission rather than have to explain why he didn’t go farther and have to do it every spring,” Trotz said. “He’s having fun. He’s producing. He’s all in. If you’re going to have success, you have to have all-in contribution, and he has. I think he’s enjoying the run, the playoffs, maybe for the first time in a long time.”

    Since returning home to Washington after advancing to the Final, Ovechkin said fans have come up to him to say thank you, good job, and to express pride. But he doesn’t want to celebrate too much because he knows how difficult every step of the playoffs is to conquer.

    “It’s hard. It’s not easy,” Ovechkin said. “This organization, it’s been too long to be in this position, and I’ve never been in this position. Only Brooks Orpik has won the Stanley Cup and been in the final. Now this group is excited and we’re ready to go.”

    More Stanley Cup coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/StanleyCupFinals

    Follow Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SWhyno

    MORE:
    • NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub
    • Stanley Cup Final Schedule

    Full Schedule: 2018 Stanley Cup Final

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    The 2018 Stanley Cup Final matchup is set and it will be the Washington Capitals against the Vegas Golden Knights.

    So many different storylines to consider. George McPhee vs. his old team. Alex Ovechkin going for his first ever Cup ring. Former Penguin Marc-Andre Fleury against the Capitals. And the obvious one with the Golden Knights and their inaugural season success. It should be a fun one.

    Here’s the full schedule:

    Game 1 Monday, May 28 – Capitals at Golden Knights, 8 p.m. ET (NBC)
    Game 2 Wednesday, May 30 – Capitals at Golden Knights, 8 p.m. ET (NBCSN)
    Game 3 Saturday, June 2 – Golden Knights at Capitals, 8 p.m. ET (NBCSN)
    Game 4 Monday, June 4 – Golden Knights at Capitals, 8 p.m. ET (NBC)
    Game 5* Thursday, June 7 – Capitals at Golden Knights, 8 p.m. ET (NBC)
    Game 6* Sunday, June 10 – Golden Knights at Capitals, 8 p.m. ET (NBC)
    Game 7* Wednesday, June 13 – Capitals at Golden Knights, 8 p.m. ET (NBC)
    * = If necessary

    MORE:
    NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

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    Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line atphtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.