Don’t call it a comeback: Georges Laraque wants to return to the NHL

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The last we saw of Georges Laraque in the NHL came in the 2009-10 season with the Montreal Canadiens. Since then he’s dropped the gloves in the movie “Goon” duking it out with Seann William Scott and become an activist in Canada.

Now, as Jim Matheson of the Edmonton Journal reports, Laraque wants to make his return to the league and it sounds like he’ll take just about anything anyone will give him.

“At my age I wouldn’t expect to play every game and if I went from nine minutes a game to four or five, that’s fine. I could be a veteran role player. I can’t see how a team could turn me down with those terms if they want toughness. I want to end on my own terms and I have something to prove. I’m going to be so motivated to play again,” he said.

Laraque is 35-years-old and if you haven’t noticed, enforcers are starting to fade out of the game. Laraque says he’d love to return to Edmonton because his kids are there, but with Ben Eager in place already, there might not be a place for him.

As Laraque says, he’ll take whatever someone is willing to give him and he’d play for the league minimum. Ending his career on his own terms could be inspiration from how Nicklas Lidstrom decided to hang ’em up but that’s the last time you’ll see those two mentioned in the same sentence.

How concerned should Maple Leafs be as playoffs approach?

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There is no team in the NHL under more immense pressure to win, and win big, this postseason than the Toronto Maple Leafs.

There probably is not even a team that is a close second when it comes to the expectations this team is carrying around.

Not only are they the Toronto Maple Leafs, which always brings immense pressure just because of who they are and where they play, but because this team is built to win now. Not tomorrow, not two seasons from now, not five seasons from now, but right now. This season. And then every season that comes after it. But especially this season.

This is not a team that was constructed to simply make the playoffs and give their fans a little bit of a thrill for a couple of weeks in the spring.

This is a team that is built to win championships, end a Stanley Cup drought that goes back to the Original Six days of the NHL, and take part in championship parades. Not a parade. Multiple parades.

The roster is loaded with All-Stars at the top of the lineup that are tying up a significant chunk of their salary cap situation for years to come (and that does not even include Mitch Marner‘s new deal that will be coming through this summer). It is no doubt an overstated concern, but this is the core they have tied themselves to and are locked in with for the next eight years.

So far, that core has produced nothing but two first-round exits in their only postseason appearances. They are now headed for another first-round matchup with the Boston Bruins, a potential nightmare scenario against one of the league’s best teams (that might finally be healthy come playoff time) that has given them fits over the past two years and knocked them out in the first round a year ago in a series that probably went a game or two longer than it deserved to go.

They have the highest paid head coach in the NHL in Mike Babcock who has not been out of the first-round since the 2013 season, and only once since 2010. There have been 23 different head coaches that have won at least one playoff series since Babcock last won one, including Mike Yeo, who has won a playoff series with two different franchises during that stretch. Any other coach in the NHL with that postseason track record wouldn’t be regarded as highly as Babcock still is. You can be sure that will change if they bow out in round one again. It should, anyway.

All of that adds up to a situation where anything other than a deep playoff run is going to be looked at as a spectacular failure.

What has to be concerning for Maple Leafs fans is the team doesn’t really seem to be trending in the right direction as the playoffs draw near.

Entering the week they have lost four of their past six games, three of which came against non-playoff teams, including an ugly loss to the league’s worst team, the Ottawa Senators.

One of the two games they did win during that stretch required an incredible late rally to steal two points from the Philadelphia Flyers, another team that is likely to miss the playoffs.

If you are looking for explanations, the injury situation has not been ideal.

Kasperi Kapanen has missed a handful of games and the blue line has been shorthanded without the services of Jake Gardiner and Travis Dermott, a development that resulted in this quote from Babcock on Monday.

“You’re supposed to build the best program you can, so you have as much depth so you don’t miss people. If you have enough, you don’t miss a beat and you just keep going,” Babcock said, via Sportsnet. “There’s other teams that have done a better job when different players are out than we have in keeping on going. That just tells you what state we’re at, and you just gotta keep adding better players.”

Of course, the Maple Leafs aren’t the only team that has been hit hard by injuries this season. The team they are chasing in the standings and about to play in the first round has been hammered all season when it comes to their best players, and it’s not like the Bruins were starting with the league’s greatest depth. They have simply played better.

The biggest concern for the Maple Leafs should still be their play defensively because it is just not at a Stanley Cup level.

They are currently one of the worst teams in the league when it comes to allowing shot attempts and scoring chances during even-strength play, currently sitting 27th in the league in total shot attempts against, 30th in shots on goal against, and 20th in scoring chances against. And that is not just because Gardiner and Dermott are out of the lineup, because their numbers were nearly identical prior to their exit from the lineup.

Just for example, here are their 5-on-5 Shot attempt and scoring chance numbers from before Gardiner’s injury (and Dermott’s, which happened two days later) and since.

(CF% = Shot Attempt differential; CA/60 = Shot attempts against per 60 minutes; SCA/60 = Scoring chances against per 60 minutes)

This is, quite simply, who and what the Maple Leafs are defensively.

The total shot attempt differential is still among the top-10 in the league, but the number of attempts and chances they give up are both among the bottom-10. It is awfully difficult, if not impossible, to go on a deep playoff run with that sort of defensive play unless you have elite shooting talent at forward that can score and/or great goaltending to cover up for your flaws.

The Maple Leafs definitely have the shooting talent to outscore their defensive deficiencies, and they have a really good goalie in Frederik Andersen.

The latter is probably the key to what this team does in the immediate future.

Ever since he arrived in Toronto to be their starting goalie Andersen has been masking all of the Maple Leafs’ flaws on defense and giving them a chance to win on most nights. He has been a workhorse in net and a player the team has leaned on extensively. There are few teams in the league that are as dependent on one goalie than the Maple Leafs are on Andersen given the workload he has faced. Since the start of the 2017-18 season no goalie in the league has faced more shots in the regular season than Andersen’s 3,918. The only two goalies that have faced more than 3,600 shots during these past two seasons are Winnipeg Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck (3,807) and New York Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist (3,602).

There is an argument to be made that the Maple Leafs ran him into the ground last season more than they needed to and that playing in 66 games (for the second year in a row) didn’t leave him as fresh and rested as he could have been for the playoffs. He will not face quite the same workload this season, but he is still on track to play at least 60 games this season and once again be one of the league leaders in games played, minutes played, shots faced.

He is probably the one player that is going to make or break their season, because that is simply the way the Maple Leafs are built and play.

There is no questioning the high-end talent on the roster. But there are still enough questions on the back end, and what might be the worst possible first-round matchup looming in a couple of weeks, to be concerned about how this spring is going to go.

The expectation is something different, and better, and franchise altering. But there are a lot of signs that it could still be more of the same.

That would not be kind to anyone in Toronto.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Hurricanes in position to end NHL’s longest active playoff drought

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The last time the Carolina Hurricanes were in the playoffs, the Black Eyed Peas were on top of the charts and The Hangover was just about to hit theaters. This year, the “bunch of jerks” from Raleigh have a legitimate chance to end the NHL’s longest active playoff drought.

Postseason hockey was last seen in Carolina in May of 2009, when the Canes were swept by the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Eastern Conference Final. Not one member of that playoff roster remains on the team, except for captain Rod Brind’Amour, who is now behind the bench. Justin Williams, the Canes’ current captain, was traded to Los Angeles in March of 2009 before the playoffs began.

Fast forward 10 years to this March, where with 11 games to play, the Canes are in the first wild card spot in the East. They’re also just three points behind the Penguins for third in the Metropolitan Division, with two games in hand. That positioning has to do with a recent surge in which Carolina has gone 11-3-1 in their past 15 games, have converted on 21.9 percent of their power plays during that stretch and also killed off 34 of 37 penalties.

Outside of Williams, who has three Stanley Cups and a Conn Smythe Trophy on his resume, Carolina is led by a slew of underrated up-and-comers. Sebastian Aho is in the middle of a career season and is on track to become just the second player in Carolina history (not including the Hartford Whalers) to record 90 points. Eric Staal did so with 100 points in 2005-06. The team’s leaders in time on ice this season are Jaccob Slavin, Justin Faulk and Brett Pesce. Goaltenders Petr Mrazek and Curtis McElhinney have combined for just 176 wins over the past 11 seasons. And yet, the Hurricanes have the seventh best defense and sixth best penalty kill in the NHL.

Beyond their collective lack of experience, a glance at the roster would probably place goaltending as Carolina’s biggest concern entering the final few weeks of the season, though their netminders have been sensational of late. McElhinney is 11-3-1 dating back to New Year’s Eve with a 2.66 goals against average, a .910 save percentage and two shutouts. While he struggled in his latest start against Columbus, Mrazek has been terrific over the past month, going 6-1-0 over his last seven starts with a 1.71 goals against average, a .943 save percentage and two shutouts of his own. Still, performing that well in the playoffs is something new entirely. McElhinney has never made a postseason start. Mrazek took the Detroit Red Wings to Game 7 of the opening round against the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2015, but has never won a playoff series. His latest postseason appearance came last year with the Philadelphia Flyers, when he allowed two goals on 14 shots in relief during a game that the Penguins won 7-0.

If they can hang on to a playoff spot and snap their nine-season drought, the Canes will most certainly be underdogs in the first round, no matter their opponent. But there is no reason not to enjoy what Carolina has already accomplished this season in their push toward the playoffs.

When he signed with the Hurricanes before the 2017-18 season, Williams made it clear he wanted the team’s culture to change.

“You have to go through trying years and failure before you get to your goal,” Williams said. “We’re done losing. It’s time to climb the ladder and get relevant.”

It took a year longer than Williams might have liked, but between making a playoff push and enjoying their viral post-game celebrations, the Hurricanes are relevant once more.

PHT Power Rankings: NHL’s best coaching jobs this season

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There is not a single aspect of the NHL that is more difficult to evaluate and analyze than coaching.

Want to know how difficult it is and how bad we tend to be at it?

Just look at the past, oh let’s say, 10 Jack Adams Award winners and see how many of them are still with the team they won it with, or how many of them were fired within a year or two of winning it. It is stunning how many of them are gone within two years.

Either they forgot how to coach in that time since winning, or we picked the wrong winners.

The coach of the year usually goes to a coach whose team exceeded expectations and snuck into the playoffs, likely on the back of a superhuman performance by a goalie that carried the team. Pick a Coach of the Year winner and then take a look at how the starting goalie performed throughout the season. There is going to be a fairly strong correlation.

This season the coach of the year award has seemingly been a one-horse race involving New York Islanders coach Barry Trotz, only lately getting a little bit of pressure from Rick Tocchet in Arizona.

Given the circumstances around those two teams it is understandable.

But have those two coaches actually been the best coaches in the league this year and done the best job? Maybe, but maybe not.

In this week’s PHT Power Rankings we take a look at the eight best coaching jobs in the NHL this season, and there are a couple of names at the top you might not be thinking of at the moment. We are not looking for the coach that has benefitted the most from a goalie, or a coach whose teams marginally exceeded expectations.

We are looking for the coaches that have done the best job in the NHL.

You probably will not like it, but hear us out.

1. Craig Berube, St. Louis Blues. When the Blues fired Mike Yeo in mid-November they looked like a team that was going nowhere. They had been shutout in three of their previous four games, had only won seven of their first 19, and just had absolutely nothing going for them. They were completely mediocre across the board, and in some cases, completely stunk. Offensively, defensively, goaltending. All of it. It was a dreadful looking team that seemed doomed to a forgettable, wasted season.

Enter Berube and new starting goalie Jordan Binnington.

The easy thing here is to assume that Binnington’s play is key factor driving the Blues’ turnaround, and to a point, he is. He has helped fix what was a black hole in net and is putting together an incredible rookie season. But it’s not just him, and this can not be emphasized enough.

There is real improvement within the rest of the team since the coaching change.

First, some numbers looking at Mike Yeo’s final 53 games behind the Blues’ bench and Berube’s first 53 games.

The overall possession numbers are better. The shot attempt numbers dropped significantly. Their ability to control scoring chances improved. All of that together, plus a solidified goaltending position, has dramatically improved the record.

If you look at the numbers in the context of this season alone the numbers are even more striking.

That is real, team-wide improvement that isn’t just related to the goaltending change.

Keep in mind that Berube also did not have Alex Pietrangelo for 10 games in December and spent two months without David Perron, one of the team’s leading scorers, from mid-January until mid-March. He is also coaching without Vladimir Tarasenko at the moment.

They are simply a totally different team under Berube, and not be a small amount, either.

2. Bruce Cassidy, Boston Bruins. This is not the NHL’s deepest roster, and we already know this. We already know this because we have been saying “what about their depth?” for two seasons now.

Keep that in mind and then consider how many games some of their top players — the players that have to carry the most weight for this team because they do not have a ton of depth — have missed this season.

Patrice Bergeron has missed 15 games.
David Pastrnak has missed 15 games.
Charlie McAvoy has missed 26 games.
Jake DeBrusk has missed 13 games.
Zdeno Chara is 41 years old and has missed 18 games.
Torey Krug has missed 12 games.

There are more, but these are the big ones.

It would stand to reason that a team that was already thin on depth, and playing in a division with two of the best teams in the league, might struggle a bit.

Not even close. Entering Monday the Bruins have the NHL’s third best record, are a top-five possession team, and probably already giving Toronto Maple Leafs fans nightmares about their inevitable first-round playoff matchup. Cassidy is not getting enough credit for the job he has done this season. Not by a long shot.

3. Jon Cooper, Tampa Bay Lightning. Cooper is the coach that simply can not win the coach of the year award because his team is too good, which is just plain dumb. As if it’s easy to just win 55 of your first 72 games no matter how much talent you have at your disposal.

He didn’t have his starting goalie for a month and went 12-3-0 with Louis Domingue playing every game (and not playing all that well, I might add) during that stretch. Insane.

We have tried to turn the MVP into an award that a player can’t win if their team is too good (they don’t need you!) or not good enough (they lost with you they can lose without you!) and only seems to go to the best player on a mediocre team that sneaks into the playoffs as first-round cannon fodder for a Stanley Cup contender.

The Jack Adams Award has become the exact same thing. We only give it to the coach of a team that was bad the year before and then barely made the playoffs, whether it was the coaching that got them there or not.

Here is a secret: Great teams can have great coaches, too. The Lightning are a great team with a great coach.

4. Pete DeBoer, San Jose Sharks. Like Cooper, another coach that probably won’t get enough credit because of the talent on his team.

Here is the argument for him: The Sharks have the second-worst team save percentage in the NHL at .893. That is an appallingly abysmal number. It is such a fantastically bad performance by the duo of Martin Jones and Aaron Dell that this team has no business being anywhere near the top of its division and the top of the Western Conference standings.

They are the only team in the NHL that currently occupies a playoff spot and sits lower than 20th in team save percentage.

Here is where the other teams ranked 20th or lower (in order) sit in the league-wide standings.

19th
21st
26th
29th
30th
31st
17th
23rd
22nd
28th
4th (this is the Sharks)
20th

Goaltending this bad is supposed to be impossible to win with. I know the Sharks have a lot of talent, but they’re not the only team in this tier with a talent on their roster, and goaltending has sunk all of them.

Oh, and the Sharks have also been without Erik Karlsson for a significant chunk of the season. And they are still steamrolling teams and one point back of the top spot in the Western Conference … with no goaltending to speak of.

DeBoer is like … the bizarro Jack Adams winner. Instead of being a coach whose team has climbed to the top of the standings on the back of his goalie he has climbed to the top in spite of his goalies.

5. Rick Tocchet, Arizona Coyotes. If I were a betting man I would say that if the Coyotes make the playoffs that Tocchet is going to win the coach of the year award, and probably by a wide margin. This is what Jack Adams Award votes live for. The Coyotes were the worst team in the Western Conference a year ago, have missed the playoffs six years in a row, and have been absolutely decimated by injuries all season, crippling what was already a thin roster. Heck, even losing just starting goalie Antti Raanta could have been enough to ruin their season, even without all of the others.

But here they are, holding a playoff position in mid-March and seemingly in the driver’s seat to take a Wild Card spot. Darcy Kuemper deserves the bulk of the credit for that, but the injury situation has definitely been a huge hurdle, and it would have been really easy for this team to just pack it in and self destruct. They haven’t, and the coaching staff deserves credit for that.

[Related: Coyotes’ GM on dealing with injuries, Tocchet’s influence]

6. Barry Trotz, New York Islanders. Trotz deserves a ton of credit for taking over what looked to be a sinking ship of a franchise at the start of the season and, quite frankly, not allowing it to completely sink.

They missed the playoffs a year ago, lost their best player to free agency, entered the season with three of their top-four returning forwards in contract years, and there really wasn’t any reason for anyone to believe in this team. So far, they have proved a lot of people wrong and made a pretty stunning turn around to go from one of the worst defensive teams of the modern era to what is, currently, the best defensive team in the league when it comes to preventing goals.

That is worth a lot.

But this goes back to what we talked about up at the top. How much of that is the coaching of Trotz, and how much of that is the result of the Islanders’ two goalies producing the league’s best save percentage? And if that is the result of coaching, how much of that is Trotz and how much of it is the work of goalie coaches Piero Greco and Mitch Korn? I am not saying that Trotz hasn’t had a positive influence on the team, because he almost certainly has. He is a great coach and his resume in the league speaks to that. I just don’t know that he or the Islanders would be having this kind of season without stunning play of Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss.

They are the true difference-makers this season.

7. Bill Peters, Calgary Flames. In most years Peters would be the type of coach that would be a slam-dunk Jack Adams winner. A first-year coach, taking over a non-playoff team a year ago, and driving them to the top of the Conference standings. But with teams like the Islanders and Coyotes exceeding expectations, Berube helping to turn around the Blues, the Hurricanes becoming relevant again, he just seems like he is going to be lost in the shuffle. It is unfortunate because his team has been legitimately good, and I almost wonder if this is what the Hurricanes would have looked like the past few years with a couple of more finishers and some decent goaltending on their roster.

8. Rod Brind’Amour, Carolina Hurricanes. There is definitely a different vibe around this team, and not just because of the storm surge celebrations that are driving some people mad.

It just finally feels like everything is starting to click for a team that always had promising young talent but could never really put it together.

The thing about the Hurricanes’ climb up the standings is there’s not really much difference in their actual performance from an analytics standpoint.

They have always been one of the best possession teams in the league, and they still are.

They have always been one of the best shot suppression teams in the league, and they still are.

The two things that always sunk them were goaltending and not enough forwards that could actually finish. The big change this season is that Petr Mrazek and Curtis McElhinney came out of nowhere to give them competent goaltending they needed to actually look like the good defensive team they have always been, and they found a couple of forwards with real finishing ability in prized rookie Andrei Svechnikov and Nino Neiderreiter, who they stole from the Minnesota Wild.

Brind’Amour has done a great job, but even with all of the losing in recent years there was still a strong foundation in place. They just needed the right move or two to bring it all together.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Bruins’ Pastrnak back skating in familiar spot following injury

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It looks like the Boston Bruins are on the verge of getting one of their top players back from injury. On Monday morning, winger David Pastrnak was back on the ice with his teammates, according to NBC Sports Boston’s Joe Haggerty. He was skating on the right side of Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron, which means one of the top lines in hockey could be reunited as soon as tomorrow night.

Pastrnak has missed the last 16 games with a thumb injury he suffered after a team function in Boston. The 22-year-old was having a career year before going down, as he had 31 goals and 66 points in 56 contests with the Bruins in 2018-19.

The scary thing is that the Bruins hardly missed him while he was out of the lineup. Without Pastrnak, Boston went 12-3-1, and all three of those regulation losses came last week.

“We’re in a good stretch, but that doesn’t mean it can’t go the other way,” Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy said earlier this month, per Boston.com. “We have to work hard to get our goals and to feel that we’re consistently a threat to get a good number of goals, but we need to stick with it and make sure we don’t get away from it. Some of it has to do with Jake [DeBrusk] getting hot and hopefully we get a few other guys going and we’ll go from there.

“You know, Pasta [Pastrnak] should add offense. He’s done it consistently in the league. He did it last year in the playoffs. So you know, when he comes back we hope he finds it quickly, but again that’s not an automatic either.”

Assuming Pastrnak returns to the lineup tomorrow against the Islanders, that will give him 10 full games of action before the start of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Haggs also had an update on some of the Bruins’ other injured players:

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.