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It’s Toronto Maple Leafs day at PHT

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Toronto Maple Leafs.

2017-18
49-26-7, 105 pts. (3rd in the Atlantic Division, 4th in the Eastern Conference)
Playoffs: Lost in seven games to the Boston Bruins, first round

IN
John Tavares
Tyler Ennis
Par Lindholm
Josh Jooris
Adam Cracknell

OUT
Dominic Moore
James van Riemsdyk
Tyler Bozak
Tomas Plekanec
Leo Komarov
Matt Martin
Roman Polak

RE-SIGNED
Andreas Johnsson
Connor Carrick
Frederik Gauthier
Justin Holl

– – –

Let’s start this off by quickly recounting last season’s Toronto Maple Leafs.

– Won some games
– Made the playoffs
– Got ousted from the playoffs in the first round
– Wallowed in offseason mode for a while
Signed John Tavares
– Won the offseason

Do Toronto fans really care about last season at this point?

Call it a B.C. vs. A.D. sort of thing, only its B.J.T. and A.J.T. in this case (Before John Tavares and After John Tavares, for those not following the dating system bit).

He may not be the Messiah, nor the second coming, but signing John Tavares after a drawn out courting period instantly turned the Maple Leafs into a contender, and proved new general manager Kyle Dubas certainly has the chops for the gig he’s earned.

[Maple Leafs Day: Under Pressure | Breakthrough | Three Questions]

The Leafs were already a damn good hockey team beforehand, filled with young talent with the likes of Auston Matthews, William Nylander and Mitch Marner. Adding a veteran superstar in John Tavares only sped up Toronto’s velocity as they make their ascent to the top of the league.

In terms of the season, Toronto’s Game 7 loss to the Boston Bruins in the first round was disappointing after allowing four goals in the third period to lose 7-4. A bitter pill to swallow, surely, but also a valuable lesson for a young team on how difficult it is to close out a playoff series.

Toronto shut down in that third period, and they’ll need to learn to handle the ebbs and flows of playoff hockey, and not let the lows get as low as they did in that final frame.

Of course, last season was a giant leap forward for the Maple Leafs, at least in the regular season, where Toronto set a new franchise record with 49 wins and 105 points.

The playoffs were essentially the same story as the year before, losing in the first round, only that time to the Washington Capitals. Matthews lost his way in the series, getting just a single goal and a single assist in the series against the Bruins. And that Game  7 performance by Jake Gardiner was, well, horrible.

But it wasn’t all on Gardiner. Their defense in the series was poor all around, and depth at that position is an over-arching concern as the Leafs roll into the new season. Improving on the back end would certainly help their goaltending out, too. Frederik Anderson saw enough shots all season for two starting goaltenders, and his .896 save percentage in the first round wasn’t good enough.

The Maple Leafs have already ripped off the rear-view mirror though. They went big with Tavares and now have some of the loftiest expectations in the NHL. It should be an exciting season in The Six. Perhaps that 51-season Stanley Cup drought could be nearing an end.

Now, how are they going to fit Nylander under the cap?

Prospect Pool

Travis Dermott, D, 21, Toronto Marlies (AHL) – 2015 second-round pick

An improvement on defense is what the Maple Leafs need, and they might have it in Dermott. Smart, two-way, puck-moving defenseman that plays well at both ends of the ice. He played 37 games with the Leafs last season and also helped the Marlies win the Calder Cup, along with being named an AHL All-Star. There’s a lot of hope being placed in Dermott, who could be in line for a top-four spot this season with the Maple Leafs.

Timothy Liljegren, D, 19, Toronto Marlies (AHL) – 2017 first-round pick

Another defenseman that the Leafs are putting a lot of stock into. Liljegren decided to make the jump from Sweden to North America last year, suiting up with the Marlies. It took him some time to adjust to the professional game in the American Hockey League, but now seems he’s ready to take another step in his progression.

“If you play over here, you have to make fast plays and move the puck quick,” Liljegren told The Canadian Press. “That’s something I developed over the year. I feel comfortable now.”

Andreas Johnsson, LW/RW, 23, Toronto Marlies (AHL) – 2013 seventh-round pick

Alright, how many seventh-round draft picks have gone on to become Calder Cup MVPs? The answer is out there somewhere (by this I mean I have no idea), but Johnsson is now on that list. Taken 202nd overall in 2013, Johnsson paced the Calder Cup playoffs with 14 assists and 24 points to help the Marlies to the title.

“He’s a special, special kid,” Marlies head coach Sheldon Keefe said after the team won the Calder Cup.“He’s taken the long road to road to get here. He’s another example that it doesn’t matter when you’re drafted or even if you’re drafted, you just keep working and the cream rises to the top eventually.”

Time for a shot in the Show.

Related: Maple Leafs should be NHL’s best offensive team


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

Russ Conway, writer who brought down hockey union boss, dies

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LAWRENCE, Mass. — Russ Conway, a hockey writer who was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 1992 for his stories about corruption in the NHL Players Association that helped bring down union head Alan Eagleson, has died. He was 70.

His death was reported by the Eagle-Tribune of Lawrence, Massachusetts, where he had started at the age of 18 and later served as sports editor.

A longtime Boston Bruins beat writer, Conway published a series of articles that exposed Eagleson’s lucrative conflicts of interest as the union boss, player agent and organizer of international tournaments. Conway’s reporting spawned investigations in both the United States and Canada that resulted in Eagleson serving six months in prison and forfeiting his Order of Canada.

The Hockey Hall of Fame kicked Eagleson out and gave Conway its Elmer Ferguson Memorial Award in 1999 for bringing honor to journalism and hockey.

Can Henrik Lundqvist bounce back for Rangers?

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the New York Rangers.

Let’s tackle three questions for the Rangers in 2019-20 …

1. How will the new guys fit in (and how many new guys will fit in)?

Don’t blame head coach David Quinn if he uses phrases like “learning process” a lot next season, as there are a ton of new faces in New York, including players who figure to be top scorers and minute-eaters.

It’s not just about getting the most from Artemi Panarin and Jacob Trouba. Really, it’s not even about integrating likely rookie impact-makers like Kaapo Kakko and Adam Fox.

The Rangers must also decide if prospects like Vitali Kravtsov will make the team out of training camp, and if they’ll stay long enough to eat up a year of their rookie contracts. Quinn must decide if players like Lias Andersson are ready to take another step forward.

From a forwards and defense level, this is a very different-looking team, something that was cemented by the Kevin Shattenkirk buyout. As far as chemistry experiments go, the Rangers are basically mad science.

[MORE: 2018-19 Review | Under Pressure | X-factor]

2. Is Henrik Lundqvist washed up?

If you had to choose one Ranger to forget all about last season, it would be Lundqvist.

The Rangers’ defense was abysmal in 2018-19, and Lundqvist buckled under the pressure of trying to carry that sorry bunch, suffering through a season where he had a very un-Hank-like .907 save percentage.

When you look a little deeper at the numbers, you’ll see that his 2018-19 season wasn’t that far from normal, or maybe a “new normal.” Via Hockey Reference, you can see that his even-strength save percentage has been nearly identical for the last three seasons, as it was .919 in both 2018-19 and 2017-18 and .918 in 2016-17.

Before that, prime Lundqvist was regularly beyond .930 at even-strength, and so frequently above .920 overall that you almost set your watch to his elite play.

Considering that he’s 37, maybe the window for his elite play has finally closed, but maybe Lundqvist can squeeze out one or two more great years? Let’s not forget that Lundqvist wasn’t exactly protected in Alain Vigneault’s latter years with the Rangers, as those teams were often horrendous from a possession standpoint.

If Quinn can create more of cocoon for Lundqvist (and Alexandar Georgiev), might the Rangers improve at keeping pucks out of their own net? Even with Panarin leading a big boost in offensive punch, you’d think they’d need a lot more than they got from their goalies last season, Swiss cheese defense and all.

3. Will the playoff picture be an open road or treacherous path?

The Rangers aren’t the only team in their division that should be tough to gauge once prediction time rolls around, making it difficult to tell if the Metro will compare to what was a mighty Atlantic Division last season.

The Devils are just about as wildly different as the Rangers, and the Flyers made bold moves in their own right.

It’s easiest to imagine the Rangers falling in the wild-card range, so a lot may hinge on how other teams perform, both in the Metro and Atlantic Divisions. If the Panthers and Sabres take big strides — as they’re paying to do — then the Atlantic teams could gobble up as many as five playoff spots, forcing the Rangers to break into the top three of the Metro. That might be asking too much, so the Rangers have to hope for a little bit of a buffer when it comes to the playoff bubble.

(You know, unless they end up being far better or far worse than expected.)

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Rangers put Quinn under pressure to show spending was worth it

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the New York Rangers.

The Rangers are Broadway’s NHL team, so consider the 2018-19 season a “dress rehearsal” for head coach David Quinn.

Expectations were low for a team that telegraphed a rebuild to the point of sending out a press release, but you can take the training wheels off after the Rangers invested huge money and resources into the likes of Artemi Panarin, Jacob Trouba, Kaapo Kakko, and Adam Fox.

If this was a video game or fantasy hockey, you’d seamlessly improve with seemingly more skilled players without much fuss. Actually making it all work in reality isn’t always so simple, though, putting Quinn under pressure to make it all come together in 2019-20.

[MORE: 2018-19 Review | Three Questions | X-factor]

Let’s consider some of the challenges ahead.

Manufacturing a Bread Line, and managing young guns

The first question falls under “good problems to have,” as Quinn should ponder how to get the most out of Panarin.

As PHT’s Scott Billeck discussed here, one likely combination would involve Panarin lining up with top center Mika Zibanejad, and rookie Kakko. There are plenty of other ways to experiment with Panarin, though, and a lot of those possibilities hinge on which younger forwards can earn significant reps, or even spots on the roster at all.

One could imagine Panarin setting the table for someone like Filip Chytil, Lias Andersson, or Vitali Kravtsov, much like Panarin undoubtedly helped Pierre Luc-Dubois become a quick study in the NHL during Panarin’s days with the Blue Jackets. It could end up working out best if Panarin and Zibanejad power one line apiece, or it may be better to concentrate that high-end, more experienced NHL scoring talent on a first line.

Along with Kravtsov and others fighting for roster spots, there are also players with something to prove, from Chris Kreider and Pavel Buchnevich to someone coming off of a rough stretch like Vladislav Namestnikov.

It’s up to Quinn to mold this intriguing, but somewhat unshapen group into something cohesive. Unlike last season, the raw materials are there for something, even if this group isn’t necessarily primed to be explosive out of the gate.

Getting some stops

The good and bad news is that the Rangers’ defense basically had nowhere to go but up. It won’t be easy to generate the sort of gains that can help the Rangers contend, though.

Jacob Trouba’s getting his wish: he’s the man on that New York defense, no question about it; we’ll see if this is a “careful what you wish for” situation, because if this unit’s going to be any good, it will probably come down to Trouba being the minutes-eating top guy.

Adam Fox has been drawing hype for a while, but what can he be right off the bat? Considering the Rangers’ personnel, they might not be able to ease the 21-year-old into the NHL fray as much as would normally be ideal.

Even with considerable gains, the Rangers will probably continue to do what they’ve done for more than a decade: ask a whole lot from Henrik Lundqvist.

The 37-year-old is coming off of the worst year of his NHL career, as he languished with a .907 save percentage behind that lousy defense. Lundqvist can’t be asked to patch up the same mistakes as he did during his prime, but if the Rangers are going to take a big step forward, they need King Henrik to return somewhere close to form.

If not, that presents another hurdle for Quinn. Can he manage Lundqvist’s ego — and placate those around him — while getting results in net, particularly if it becomes clear that Alexandar Georgiev would be the superior option most nights? That’s a potential instance where problems become as much political as tactical, and answers rarely come easily.

***

Change can come quickly in the NHL, yet even by those standards, the Rangers have undergone a dramatic makeover. Quinn is charged with making sure that things don’t end up looking ugly.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Grade the Hurricanes’ new road uniform

Carolina Hurricanes
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On Tuesday morning Carolina Hurricanes unveiled a new road uniform for the 2019-20 NHL season, ditching their primary storm logo on the front for some diagonal lettering that spells out “Canes.”

It is a rather simplistic design, but it is clean and pretty sharp.

Along with the wording across the front, they also brought back the warning flags along the waistline of the jersey.

Have a look.

Other features as part of the new uniform: The new secondary logo (the hockey stick with the warning flags attached to it) appears on both shoulders, while the helmet will feature a raised 3-D sticker of the primary logo which you can see here.

You can check out all of the features at the Hurricanes’ website.

What do you think, hockey fans?

Is it a good look? Does the diagonal lettering work for a team that is not the New York Rangers? What is your grade for the Hurricanes’ new road uniform?

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.