Is Babcock holding the Maple Leafs back?

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The Toronto Maple Leafs might not be a perfect team, but on paper, you wouldn’t expect them to go through many scoring droughts.

It’s not just Auston Matthews, and really, it’s not just sophomores Mitch Marner and William Nylander that makes this seem so dangerous. Toronto also has solid supporting scorers in the likes of James van Riemsdyk and Nazem Kadri. They added some veteran savvy to the mix with Patrick Marleau, too.

Even so, frustration is building. In the last six games, they’ve only managed 12 goals (not counting shootouts). The Maple Leafs have lost six of their last eight games and haven’t won in regulation since Dec. 28.

Dry spells are going to come, but the heat is starting to rise on Mike Babcock’s lineup decisions.

Not that he’s flustered by such criticisms, as TSN’s Kristen Shilton reports.

“This is how I kind of look at it: I think they hired me to decide,” Babcock said on Wednesday. “So that’s kind of how I approach it … I’m just going to keep on keeping on. In your lifetime, you get to decide what you react to.”

This video has more from Babcock, including the veteran coach calling for the Maple Leafs to shoot more rather than trying to make the perfect play. It’s a nice supplement to more granular studies, like TSN’s Travis Yost’s deep dive on the Maple Leafs and icing (the unsavory infraction, not delicious frosting).

In the grand scheme of things, Babs should be commended for how he’s embraced this team’s young core, particularly in quickly acknowledging that Auston Matthews can do heavy lifting as far as deployment goes.

Still, people are getting frustrated with certain usage situations.

ESPN’s split stats allow you an opportunity to see who’s being used most often in January, this stretch in which Toronto’s scoring is really drying up.

Maybe you’d want Babcock to lean even more on Matthews (averaging 18:54 TOI this month, 18:38 on the season), but that’s a smaller quibble. People are most bothered by the reemergence of Roman Polak (17:02 per game in January) and Leo Komarov‘s frequent use (about a shift fewer than Matthews per game at 18:24 per night in January).

Komarov is getting two more minutes per game lately than Mitch Marner (16:16) and JVR (16:01). Combine that with low scoring, and yes, people are going to get frustrated.

With these developments in mind, the irritation is rising, as you can see in Ryan Fancey of Leafs Nation’s column: “The Leafs aren’t just boring, they’re mediocre.”

Toronto has stopped scoring, and their overall attack has been neutered for weeks. And what’s worse, it seems intentional. Every Babcock quote over the last couple months seems to be about “playing tight” and being more defensive, which apparently means sitting back and being fed in your own zone before ripping the puck up ice for a stretch pass (a.k.a Carlyle hockey) or getting it to the red and going for a dump-and-chase. The Leafs can’t seem to get any flow to their play when it comes to breaking out or using the neutral zone to create offense, and it’s concerning because it seems like a step back from last year. What’s even worse is that it’s so, so boring.

It’s that “intentional” part that’s interesting.

This ultimately comes down to a fascinating conundrum. The Leafs have some nice defensemen, but could use help in that area and probably lack a truly elite one, though Morgan Rielly is coming along nicely. There are some forwards with two-way ability, but no one demanding Selke bids, either.

Babcock’s goal is to get the most out of that group, so does that mean going for a high-stakes style like that of, say, the Penguins or Devils? Maybe that was the leaning for a bit, yet the charge now is that the Maple Leafs are trying to lower the number of events in their own end, which means playing a more conservative style overall.

With a reasonably comfortable grip on third place in the Atlantic Division, maybe Babcock is merely using this window to experiment? The ideal scenario could be to find the right mix of careful play and daring offense.

At least, that’s what would happen if things fall the right way.

Can Babcock figure this out – as he’s figured out many different alignments during his impressive career – or is this a case of ego and/or stubbornness lowering a team’s ceiling? There’s still time to figure this out, but it’s an interesting story to watch.

Even if the team itself isn’t always as fun as it once was.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Ducks’ Urho Vaakanainen crashes into boards, leaves on stretcher

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ANAHEIM, Calif. — Ducks defenseman Urho Vaakanainen was taken off the Honda Center ice on a stretcher after he crashed into the end boards in the first period of Anaheim’s preseason game against the San Jose Sharks.

The Finnish defenseman was conscious and alert with full movement in his extremities at UCI Medical Center, the Ducks said.

The frightening incident occurred midway through the opening period when Vaakanainen smashed into the boards at a dangerous speed behind the Sharks’ net. Vaakanainen appeared to be concentrating on the pass he had just made to Derek Grant, who scored the Ducks’ opening goal on the assist.

Vaakanainen’s teammates came onto the ice and gathered around him as he was taken away on the stretcher.

The Ducks acquired the 23-year-old Vaakanainen from Boston last March in the deal that sent longtime Ducks defenseman Hampus Lindholm to the Bruins. After recording two assists in 14 games for the Ducks last season, Vaakanainen is attempting to win a top-six role on Anaheim’s defense this fall.

Lightning donate $2 million to Hurricane Ian relief efforts

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TAMPA, Fla. — The Tampa Bay Lightning and team owner Jeff Vinik are donating $2 million toward Hurricane Ian relief efforts.

The NHL team announced that $1 million each will be donated by the Tampa Bay Lightning Foundation and the Vinik Family Foundation.

“This is a tragic situation for many families and communities across the state of Florida, but especially so in the southwest region of the state,” Vinik said in a statement released by the team. “In times like these the most important thing we can do is support one another, and we hope this donation will help families recover and rebuild in the months to come.”

Ian made landfall Wednesday on Florida’s Gulf Coast, south of the Tampa Bay area. The Lightning postponed two home preseason games and moved the club’s training camp to Nashville, Tennessee, during the storm.

Maple Leafs sign defenseman Rasmus Sandin to 2-year deal

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TORONTO — Rasmus Sandin has signed a two-year, $2.8 million contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs, the club announced on Thursday.

The 22-year-old from Sweden was the 29th overall selection in the 2018 draft. Sandin had 16 points in 51 games with Toronto last season. He’s played in 88 career regular-season games, with six goals and 22 assists, and has one goal in five playoff games.

“Got a great set of tools,” fellow defenseman Jake Muzzin said. “With experience, I think they’re only going to get better.”

The signing comes as the Leafs’ blueliners been hit hard by injuries. Muzzin has been dealing with a back issue, and Timothy Liljegren recently had surgery for a hernia.

Toronto then lost Jamie Benn (groin) and Carl Dahlstrom (shoulder) in Wednesday’s 3-0 preseason victory over the Montreal Canadiens, pressing forwards Calle Jarnkrok and Alexander Kerfoot into defensive roles for two periods.

Back with Wild, Fleury welcomes big workload as clear No. 1

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ST. PAUL, Minn. — With his ever-present smile, tireless approach and long list of accomplishments in the net, Marc-Andre Fleury has always embraced a heavy workload.

The Minnesota Wild sure haven’t shied away from leaning hard on their new – and 37-year-old – goalie. After arriving in a deadline-day trade in March and re-signing with the Wild in July, the guy everyone calls “Flower” is still fully abloom as he begins his 19th season in the NHL.

“They say, `You play,’ I play, unless maybe I’m hurt or something,” Fleury said. “But other than that, I like playing.”

Wild general manager Bill Guerin initially planned to bring back both Fleury and Cam Talbot, who made the All-Star team and went 13-0-3 in his last 16 regular season starts before being benched in favor of Fleury for the first-round playoff series against St. Louis. The Wild lost in six games, after Talbot got the cold start in the elimination game and gave up four goals on 26 shots.

Guerin changed his mind, though, after signing Fleury to a two-year, $7 million contract. Realizing Talbot’s frustration from the lack of postseason action, he didn’t want to risk any tension or discontent. Talbot was traded to Ottawa for Filip Gustavsson, who will be the No. 2 goalie while top prospect Jesper Wallstedt gets more development in the AHL.

Gustavsson has only 23 career regular-season starts, nearly 200 fewer than Talbot, so it’s a good bet that Fleury will get the majority of the games.

“I was ready to share the load with him, but things didn’t work out and happy to be having the chance to play maybe a bit more. It’s fun to play. It’s more fun than sitting on the bench,” said Fleury, who went 28-23-5 in 56 combined starts for Chicago and Minnesota last season with a 2.90 goals against average and a .908 save percentage.

The Wild reconvened for training camp last week, beginning their quest to recapture the mojo they enjoyed last season while setting franchise records for points (113), wins (53) and goals (305). The only team that finished ahead of them in the Western Conference was Colorado, which went on to win the Stanley Cup, but they never met the Avs in the playoffs because the Blues got to them first.

There’s a strong chemistry in place, at least, to build upon.

“We still have a lot of guys here who were here last year. We’re just trying to make it even better, just trying to listen to everybody,” center Joel Eriksson Ek said. “We want to set a standard and a way for how hard this team’s going to work.”

The Wild start the regular season by hosting the New York Rangers on Oct. 13.

COMINGS AND GOINGS

The most significant roster move of the summer amongst the skaters was the inevitable salary-cap-driven trade of second-leading scorer Kevin Fiala to Los Angeles. Fiala had a career-high 33 goals and 52 assists last season. Guerin otherwise dabbled mostly in two-way contracts in free agency for depth. Former Anaheim center Sam Steel signed with Minnesota last month, one day after defenseman Dimitry Kulikov was dealt to the Ducks.

MORE POWER

The Wild were done in during the playoffs by abysmal special teams. They went just 4 for 24 on the power play against the Blues, and head coach Dean Evason had the team working on that on the first day on the ice. The penalty kill that lagged last season was a focus of the second practice.

“It has to get better, no question,” Evason said.

BLUE LINE SHUFFLE

Captain Jared Spurgeon has been placed with Jonas Brodin on the first pair on defense, and Jake Middleton has joined Matt Dumba on the second unit. Dumba and Brodin are close friends who’ve been paired together for several seasons.

“Dumbs is a shooter too,” said Middleton, who re-signed for three years and $7.35 million. “It’s pretty exciting. I can get some cookies passing him the puck. That’d be a big plus. I think it’ll work well. He loves hitting guys too. He plays a gritty game as well so I think we’ll be a good combo.”

UP FRONT

With Jordan Greenway recovering from offseason surgeries, Tyson Jost will get the first chance to skate with Eriksson Ek and Marcus Foligno. The departure of Fiala has opened at least one spot for a rookie to make the team, with 2020 first-round draft pick Marco Rossi in line for it.

ON THE SLATE

This is the first time in eight years the Wild will play their regular-season opener at home. After three more games at Xcel Energy Center, they don’t hit the road until a five-game trip that starts Oct. 22 at Boston. The Wild have a season-long nine-game homestand from Feb. 9-21.