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Three questions facing Toronto Maple Leafs

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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.

Three questions to ponder for the 2018-19 Toronto Maple Leafs…

[Maple Leafs Day: 2017-18 Review | Under Pressure | Breakthrough]

1. Will the defense be good enough?

We know the Maple Leafs are going to score goals. This should be the best offensive team in hockey with John Tavares joining one of the best young collections of talent in the league, giving Toronto a dynamic and downright dominant offensive lineup.

The question then becomes will they be able to stop anybody at the other end of the ice?

Defense was a problem for the Maple Leafs in 2017-18 and the front office really did not do much to address in the offseason, at least when it comes to additions from outside the organization. The Maple Leafs finished the 2017-18 season in the bottom-five in shots allowed per game and surrendered 2.79 goals per game, a number that put them around the middle of the pack. Not great … not terrible … pretty average. Had it not been for some — at times — spectacular play from Frederik Andersen in net that number probably would have been a lot lower given the number of shots they allowed. Not making significant changes to the personnel could be seen as risky, but there is definitely talent on the back end. Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner are solid top-four defenders, and Travis Dermott had an outstanding debut in the second half. Maybe a little more of them and a little less from Ron Hainsey and Nikita Zaitsev could make a big impact in improving the group.

2. Will they give Frederik Andersen a break?

One of the more baffling decisions by coach Mike Babcock down the stretch last year was not giving starting goalie Frederik Andersen more rest as the team approached the playoffs. He took on a massive workload for the second year in a row and with the team having nothing to play for down the stretch continued to run him out there on a regular basis, once again having him finish near the top of the league in games played and shots faced. That is a lot to ask of a starting goalie, and it he probably could have benefitted from some extra rest by the time the playoffs rolled around.

Over the past two seasons only one goalie in the league has appeared in more games than Andersen’s 132 (Edmonton’s Cam Talbot has played in 140) while only three other goalies have played in at least 125 (Sergei Bobrovsky, Devan Dubnyk, and Martin Jones). No goalie has faced more shots than the 4,263 that Andersen has faced, while only Talbot has faced more than 3,900 shots. Andersen, Talbot, and Bobrovsky are the only three that have faced more than 3,700 shots, making the 4,200+ that Andersen has had to stand in against seem even more incredible.

Right now Garret Sparks is the top backup on the roster and is coming off a couple of strong seasons in the American Hockey League.

His ability to step in and give Andersen some much needed rest throughout the season could be a big development for the Maple Leafs.

3. Will John Tavares be the missing piece to end Toronto’s Stanley Cup drought?

Players like John Tavares typically do not change teams.

At least not when they are still under the age of 30 and still in the prime of their careers. But not only did Tavares leave the New York Islanders this summer to join a new team, he joined his hometown team, in Toronto, joining a roster that suddenly has Stanley Cup aspirations and is looking to end a championship drought that goes back to 1967.

With all of that comes a ton of pressure.

Tavares is a world-class talent. He is probably one of the 10 or 15 best players in the world and is making huge money over the next eight years and as mentioned above is going to give the Maple Leafs a collection of offensive talent that is nearly unmatched in the league. Even with Auston Matthews, William Nylander, and Mitch Marner on the roster he is now the face of this franchise and is going to be expected to lift it to new heights and finally help bring a championship back to the city.

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 will scrimmage to stay sharp for Stanley Cup Final

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BOSTON (AP) — The Boston Bruins think they’ve found a way to stay sharp for the Stanley Cup Final while waiting a total of 10 days between games.

The Eastern Conference champions will hold a public intrasquad scrimmage on Thursday night, and coach Bruce Cassidy said he’ll try to maintain a regular game-day schedule so that the players will get back in the routine before the opener of the championship series on Monday.

”We’ve got some ideas we bandied around. We came up with this one,” Cassidy said on Tuesday, the Bruins’ fifth day off since sweeping the Carolina Hurricanes in the East finals. ”We’ve had good practices, but this will be a little bit different.”

The Bruins needed seven games to dispatch the Toronto Maple Leafs in the opening round, then had one day off before starting the second round against Columbus. They finished off the Blue Jackets in six games, and had two days to rest before Game 1 against the Hurricanes.

But that series ended Thursday, and the Bruins haven’t even had an opponent to prepare for yet. The St. Louis Blues took a 3-2 lead into Game 6 against the San Jose Sharks on Tuesday night.

”If St. Louis wins … we can start a little bit of that prep for special teams,” Cassidy said. ”If not, we’ll just go through the basics.”

Cassidy said last week he would reach out to other teams to get pointers on how to handle long layoffs. Among them: the New England Patriots, who routinely have a first-round bye, in addition to a two-week break before the Super Bowl.

The Bruins coach said on Tuesday that he touched base with all of the teams in town, as well as some of the Boston players from the 2011 and ’13 teams that went to the Final and other NHL coaches who have had long breaks. But he declined to share their advice.

”We’ll take what we thought was relevant to us and go from there,” Cassidy said, acknowledging that a seven-game series is different than preparing for a Super Bowl. ”In the first game, we want to be good. We want to be sharp. We want to be on time. We want to win. But we have a bit more luxury than say a one-and-done.”

The scrimmage will be two, 25-minute periods, with two officials on the ice. But some rules will be ignored in the interest of situational drills and keeping everyone healthy.

Cassidy said he may create a four-on-four situation as well as a six-on-five for a potential end-of-game, pulled goalie scenario. The checking line will face off against the top line, and players might switch teams to get the matchups Cassidy wants to work on.

Individual players, including goalie Tuukka Rask, will decide how much they want to play.

The winning team will earn … something.

”They will put something on the line,” Cassidy said. ”That’s something I have to discuss with them. I think that’s important. What it is it could be something very minimal, or whatever it is they want to decide.”

Other than that, the coach said he will be happy if everyone comes out of the scrimmage healthy. He said it will be no different than practice, when players know not to check their teammates, but because of the increased stakes, he will talk to the team about it.

”This isn’t a physicality contest out there. It’s compete on pucks. It’s play with some pace,” he said. ”I think we’re smart enough. That will be the message I relay to some of the younger guys: We’re doing this for a reason. But the reason is not to injure anybody.”

Fans can attend Thursday’s scrimmage for $20, and park for $10; popcorn will be free for children. Proceeds will go to the Boston Bruins Foundation.

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Canada beats U.S. 3-0 to close preliminary round of worlds

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KOSICE, Slovakia (AP) — Pierre-Luc Dubois scored early to back the shutout goaltending of Matt Murray, sending Canada past the United States 3-0 on Tuesday at the world hockey championship. Both teams already were assured quarterfinal berths and were competing for seeding.

Canada won Group A and will next play Switzerland. The Americans, who had five won straight, will face the high-scoring and undefeated Russians on Thursday. Finland will face Sweden, while the Czech Republic plays Germany in the round of eight.

Kyle Turris also scored in the first period for Canada, beating Cory Schneider, and Turris assisted on Jared McCann‘s goal in the second period.

Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin scored for Russia, which closed out its dominant play in Group B with a 7-3 win over Sweden. Earlier Tuesday, Leon Draisaitl scored tiebreaking and go-ahead goals late in the third period to life Germany to a 4-2 win over Finland in Group A.

The Czech Republic closed the preliminary round with a 5-4 win over Switzerland in Bratislava in Group B, getting one goal and two assists each from Jakub Voracek and Dominik Simon.

In matchups of teams that won’t advance, Latvia beat Norway 4-1 in Group B, and the host Slovaks outlasted Denmark 2-1 in a shootout decided by penalty shots.

More AP sports: https://apnews.com/apf-sports and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Pavelski joins Karlsson, Hertl as Sharks missing Game 6

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It was already clear that the San Jose Sharks would face the St. Louis Blues without Erik Karlsson and Tomas Hertl. Now it’s confirmed that they’ll try to stave off elimination without their captain.

Joe Pavelski didn’t participate in warm-ups for Game 6 on Tuesday night (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN; Live Stream), so it’s clear that he’ll be out, too.

With those three out, three Sharks draw into the lineup: forwards Dylan Gambrell and Marcus Sorensen, along with defenseman Tim Heed.

Here’s how the lines look:

No doubt about it, the Sharks are in an extremely tough spot. Really, they would have been even if they had Karlsson, Hertl, and Pavelski, as they’re hoping to win Game 6 on the road against a sharp Blues team. But these circumstances make matters even worse.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

The Blues scored a 1-0 goal about 90 seconds into Game 6, so the hits keep coming for San Jose.

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.

WATCH LIVE: Blues look to clinch Stanley Cup Final berth in Game 6

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Game 6:  San Jose Sharks at St. Louis Blues, 8 p.m. ET (Blues lead series 3-2)
NBCSN
Call: Kenny Albert, Mike Milbury, Pierre McGuire
Series preview

Stream here

Pre-game coverage begins at 7 p.m. ET with NHL Live with host Liam McHugh alongside Keith Jones and Patrick Sharp. Kathryn Tappen and Jeremy Roenick will provide on-site reports throughout the game.

The Blues took a 3-2 Western Conference Final lead on Sunday with a 5-0 Game 5 blowout win over the Sharks at SAP Center in San Jose. Jordan Binnington made 21 saves for his first Stanley Cup Playoff shutout, Jaden Schwartz had a hat trick, and Vladimir Tarasenko had a goal and two assists for the Blues. St. Louis is now 7-2 on the road and have set their single-season record with 11 playoff wins. The series moves to St. Louis tonight for Game 6 as the Blues attempt to advance to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 1970.

If the Sharks win tonight’s Game 6, they will force a decisive Game 7 in San Jose on Thursday at 9 p.m. ET on NBCSN, with a trip to the Stanley Cup Final at stake.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Here is the complete schedule for the entire 2019 Stanley Cup Final series:

Game 1: Monday, May 27, 8 p.m.: San Jose/St. Louis at Bruins | NBC
Game 2: Wednesday, May 29, 8 p.m.: San Jose/St. Louis at Bruins | NBCSN
Game 3: Saturday, June 1, 8 p.m.: Bruins at San Jose/St. Louis | NBCSN
Game 4: Monday, June 3, 8 p.m.: Bruins at San Jose/St. Louis | NBC
*Game 5: Thursday, June 6, 8 p.m.: San Jose/St. Louis at Bruins | NBC
*Game 6: Sunday, June 9, 8 p.m.: Bruins at San Jose/St. Louis | NBC
*Game 7: Wednesday, June 12, 8 p.m.: San Jose/St. Louis at Bruins | NBC
*If necessary
(All times ET, subject to change)