Risk Factors: Toronto Maple Leafs edition

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From the same bunch of pessimists who brought you “Why your team won’t win the Stanley Cup,” PHT presents a new series called “Risk Factors,” i.e. three reasons to be worried about each NHL team in 2014-15.

Toronto Maple Leafs

1. The culture thing. Since the salary cap era began, Toronto has been one of the worst teams in the league.

Some of the teams were simply bad and none of them were great, but it’s also true the Leafs fell apart when it mattered most. In fact, this is the third straight summer where one of the key questions surrounding the club is how it’ll respond to a monumental collapse.

As such, it’s hard to believe Phil Kessel or MLSE CEO Tim Leiweke when they promise Toronto won’t have to endure another 2-12-0 season-ending stretch. Part of that confidence stems from the belief they’ve addressed their culture problem, starting with new Leafs president Brendan Shanahan.

“I’m not sure the Leafs have [the right culture],” Maple Leafs CEO Tim Leiweke said in April, per NHL.com. “This is something these two gentlemen [Shanahan and general manager Dave Nonis] will have to work on. I definitely sense that we lack an identity and right now we’re a team that lacks direction, and we want to change that.”

The sticking point, though, is that Shanahan really just picked around the edges of the franchise’s core. Nonis and head coach Randy Carlyle kept their jobs, but each got new assistants. Shanahan also signed some complimentary players and rolled the dice on a few new veterans, but even with those additions the 2014-15 Leafs will look a lot like their predecessors.

Shanahan not only has to hope that’s enough to change the team’s culture, but that the team’s culture was what held it back in the first place. The Maple Leafs still have some significant question marks and if the issue in 2013-14 was that they simply didn’t have a playoff-caliber roster, then that’s a huge problem — because he’s done little to alter that.

2. They need to improve puck possession. Rather than claim that the Maple Leafs choked, some believe their poor play simply caught up with them.

Based on advanced statistics like Corsi and Fenwick, the Leafs overachieved last season. Toronto was one of the worst puck possession teams in the league and finished last in shots allowed (35.9 per game).

And just like with the team’s culture, Shanahan is betting on the notion Toronto’s poor performance wasn’t simply the byproduct of putting an inadequate team on the ice. He believes the squad is capable of controlling the play far more than it has in the past.

The Leafs took a unique approach in addressing this problem by bringing in Kyle Dubas as assistant general manager and to lead a new analytics department. The department includes Darryl Metcalfe, who built the once-popular advanced statistics website extraskater.com, which the Maple Leafs now own — and aren’t sharing.

“We don’t want anyone else seeing it,” Leiweke said, according to the Globe and Mail. “It’s called a monopoly. It’s good.”

Leiweke said he believes Dubas and Metcalfe will make the team smarter, but will that be reflected in future signings and trades? Will Carlyle be able to use this data to help the team now? The head coach was either unable or incapable of addressing such problems last season, so questions remain if this extra information will be impactful enough to make this existing group of Leafs at least passable in the short-term.

3. Will any of their summer gambles pay off? Let’s say hiring new assists for Carlyle isn’t going to fundamentally change the way the team is coached, and bringing in a 28-year-old assistant general manager isn’t going to revolutionize this franchise overnight.

After taking a minute to digest just how sad a time it is for Leafs fans when those are their best hopes for change, you’re left just hoping their summer signings will pay off — and this is where things get depressing.

As we’ve touched on already, Shanahan and Nonis didn’t change the team’s core. Instead, they’ve sign a lot of players that might be good, but are far from safe bets.

Stephane Robidas is a solid defenseman, but at the age of 37 might not have much left to give. David Booth limped through three seasons with Vancouver and is out to prove that he can stay healthy (he’s already off to a bad start) and still be a productive top-six forward.

Petri Kontiola, 29, hasn’t played in the NHL since 2007-08, but he’s eager to prove he belongs after several strong seasons in the NHL. He’ll have to start that journey in the minors, though, as he couldn’t even make the opening game roster.

From a cap perspective, the risk the Maple Leafs took on these players wasn’t great and therefore an argument can made that it’s okay if they don’t end up contributing much. What makes that misleading, though, is the fact that Toronto might not make the playoffs without such help. Last year, Mason Raymond was a good diamond in the rough signing, but so far it looks like the leading candidates to be this year’s version won’t pan out — which is problematic, given they lost Raymond over the summer and need to fill that void.

When it comes to their blueline, the Maple Leafs will look fairly thin if Robidas regresses or has another injury-filled campaign. If nothing else, the Maple Leafs defense was pretty healthy last season as five guys played in a minimum of 73 games each. It wouldn’t be impossible for Robidas to do the same in 2014-15, but he’s coming off of a season where he was limited to 38 contests.

Wednesday Night Hockey: What happens if Preds don’t turn season around?

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the Nashville Predators and Washington Capitals. Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

It’s no secret that Predators general manager David Poile felt like his team needed a signficant change or two heading into this season. During the summer, he went out and unloaded some big money and he spent some on the free-agent market, too. But now that we’re four months into the season, we can say that those changes haven’t really worked.

The first significant move the Preds made was unloading P.K. Subban to the New Jersey Devils. The trade didn’t net Nashville a big return, but it was clear that they were just looking to offload his $9 million cap charge and that’s exactly what they did.

Poile then turned around and used that money to sign free-agent center Matt Duchene to a seven-year, $56 million deal. Duchene was one of the top players to hit the open market and the Predators clearly needed an upgrade up front and down the middle. No one questioned the fit because it filled a need.

Trading Subban proved to be a wise decision. His play in New Jersey has left a lot to be desired and you have to wonder whether or not a previous injury has slowed him down for good. But giving Duchene $8 million per year hasn’t exactly paid off yet either. Through 45 games, the 29-year-old has 10 goals and 32 points.

It’s not just on Duchene though.

Poile has already fired head coach Peter Laviolette and his replacement, John Hynes, is 3-4-0 with his new team through seven games. Sure, that’s a small sample size, but coaching changes are supposed to give teams new life. Sometimes that burst lasts a short while, sometimes it goes on longer, but the Preds haven’t really seen a change in their results.

“Every year and every team you go through different challenges, and there’s different things that present teams positively and negatively,” Hynes said, per the Nashville Post. “Right now our biggest task from the coaches to the players is finding a way [to] put multiple games together, [to] put full games together.

“So, it’s on everybody — the coaches and the players. The good thing is we know what the challenge is. It’s not like you’re at a dartboard. I think we know exactly what we have to take care of, and that’s part of what our challenge is as a group and that’s what we have to overcome.”

Heading into tonight’s non-conference game, they find themselves six points back of Vegas for the final Wild Card spot. The good news is that they have four games in hand on the Golden Knights. The bad news is that they have to leap over four teams to get into a playoff spot.

So, what happens if they don’t turn the season around?

On a somewhat positive note, the Predators have most of their own picks in the upcoming NHL Draft. Unlike San Jose, they didn’t sacrifice their first-round pick in any trade. On the contrary, they added a second-round draft pick from New Jersey in the Subban deal.

Still, this is a team that had long playoff aspirations this season.

Would Poile get the boot? It’s possible, but unlikely. This is the first time the Preds would miss the playoffs in a while and you’d have to think that the long-time GM would get the benefit of the doubt.

Whether they keep him or not, they’ll have some interesting roster decisions to make.

Is Ryan Johansen working out? How can they unload Kyle Turris? How much do they pay free-agent to be Mikael Granlund? Can they address their bottom pairing on defense? Is the Pekka Rinne, Juuse Saros duo good enough?

These are all legitimate questions that will need answering this summer if these players don’t get things turned around.

Johansen is arguably the most intriguing case.

He has five years remaining on his contract at a cap hit of $8 million. He’s still just 27 years old and if they wanted to move him, they could probably do that. But that still leaves them lacking a productive centerman.

What they really need to determine is whether or not their Stanley Cup window is closed. That will impact how they answer all the other questions on our list. With the way the roster is built and the age of some their players, it’s hard to envision the Predators thinking they don’t have a chance to turn things around quickly. Blowing this up after this year is a little premature. But if they don’t make the playoffs, something has to give. They’re going to have to fix the blemishes on the roster and that won’t be easy.

Liam McHugh will host Wednesday’s coverage on NHL Live alongside analysts Anson Carter and Keith Jones and NHL insider Bob McKenzie. Mike Tirico will handle play-by-play duties for Caps-Preds on Wednesday Night Hockey alongside analyst Mike Milbury and ‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst Brian Boucher from Capital One Arena in Washington D.C.

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.

Our Line Starts podcast: All-Star reactions, handicapping the Pacific Divison

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Liam McHugh, Anson Carter, and Keith Jones give their impressions of All-Star Weekend, including rave reviews on St. Louis as a host city. Pierre McGuire interviews Dallas GM Jim Nill, and Anson tells you what Rodney Dangerfield and Ben Bishop have in common. Plus, the guys handicap the uber-tight Pacific Division entering the stretch run.

Start-1:50 Intros
1:50-8:00 Reaction to All-Star Weekend
8:00-14:45 Battle of Alberta heats up again
14:45-26:30 Pierre interviews Jim Nill
26:30-32:35 How far can Stars go?
32:35-end Handicapping the Pacific Division

Our Line Starts is part of NBC Sports’ growing roster of podcasts spanning the NFL, Premier League, NASCAR, and much more. The new weekly podcast, which will publish Wednesdays, will highlight the top stories of the league, including behind-the-scenes content and interviews conducted by NBC Sports’ NHL commentators.

Where you can listen:

Apple: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/id1482681517

Stitcher: https://www.stitcher.com/podcast/nbc-sports/our-line-starts

Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/show/7cDMHBg6NJkQDGe4KHu4iO?si=9BmcLtutTFmhRrNNcMqfgQ

NBC Sports on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/nbcsports

PHT Morning Skate: Weber’s comeback year; Where should Bolts upgrade?

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• If the Predators continue struggling, they’ll have to ask themselves some tough questions. (The Hockey News)

• There’s several reasons why there should be concern in Winnipeg, according to Travis Yost. (TSN.ca)

• The Jets have an issue on defense and there’s no easy way to address it. (Arctic Hockey)

Chris Tanev has helped Quinn Hughes settle into the NHL. (Sportsnet)

Shea Weber is having a great comeback season and people around the NHL are noticing. (The Score)

• Dave Andreychuk answered five questions from NHL.com. (NHL)

Boone Jenner is playing big defensive minutes for Columbus, but is that working out? (The Cannon)

• How have the Bruins done in their own end this season? (Stanley Cup of Chowder)

• It’s officially time to call the Canadiens sellers. (Habs Eyes on the Prize)

• Which position should Lightning GM Julien BriseBois consider upgrading before the trade deadline? (Raw Charge)

• The Coyotes added Taylor Hall via trade in December. Is it time for them to keep buying? (Five For Howling)

• On the Forecheck breaks down the untouchables and the tradable players on the Preds roster. (On the Forecheck)

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.

The Buzzer: Blues edge Flames in shootout; Eichel sets new career high

The St. Louis Blues celebrate their 5-4 shootout win over the Calgary Flames
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Three Stars

1) David Perron, St. Louis Blues

After making the All-Star Game for the first time in his NHL career, Perron started the second half of the season with a two-game point streak. He added a goal, an assist and a shootout tally as the Blues defeated the Flames 5-4 in a back-and-forth battle that ended in the skills competition. The 31-year-old forward notched his 22nd of the season when he hammered home a loose puck in front to knot the game at 2-2 late in the first period. Perron also made a nifty pass to help St. Louis exit the zone before Zach Sanford tied the game early in the final frame. Additionally, the Blues snapped a three-game losing streak.

2) Sean Monahan, Calgary Flames

The Flames alternate captain is still a bit behind his 82-point total pace from last year after surpassing his previous career-high by 18 points set the season before. Monahan remains a critical piece in the Flames’ lineup as they prepare for a playoff push in the tightly contested Pacific Division. The 25-year-old recorded his 400th career point when he snapped off a wrist shot from the slot at 15:43 of the first period to give Calgary a 2-1 lead at the time. He would go on to record his second of the game, another wrister from the slot, early in the middle frame to even the score at 3-3.

3) Mark Borowiecki, Ottawa Senators

It’s not often an empty-net goal helps an NHL player land on this list, but Borowiecki’s game-sealing tally late in the third period was quite the play in the Senators’ 5-2 win against the Sabres. Ottawa’s alternate captain willingly went down on one knee in order to block a one-timer from Marcus Johansson to help preserve a one-goal lead at the time. After the block, Borowiecki quickly gathered himself, collected a loose puck and fired it off the boards into the empty cage. The Senators lead the NHL with 11 shorthanded goals.

Highlights of the Night

Blues forward Robert Thomas feathered a beautiful cross-ice pass between a couple of Calgary Flames to set up Alexander Steen to open the scoring.

In his 500th NHL game, Jaden Schwartz recorded his 17th of the season when he redirected a pretty pass from Brayden Schenn.

[RELATED: Predators facing difficult road in playoff push | How the Canucks climbed to top of Pacific Division]

Blooper of the Night

Who should get credit for this empty-net goal?

Stat of the Night

Scores

Ottawa Senators 5, Buffalo Sabres 2

St. Louis Blues 5, Calgary Flames 4 (SO)

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