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Under Pressure: Mike Babcock

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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.

No matter what happens this season Mike Babcock is not in any danger of losing his job.

He is not on the hot seat, he is probably not going to be on the hot seat, and barring some sort of unforeseen development his team is going to be very, very good and very, very exciting. They will be one of the top contenders in the Eastern Conference. And all of that is kind of where the pressure comes in for Babcock this season because, well, let’s be honest here … isn’t it time that a team that has him behind the bench as its head coach actually does something of significance?

Because it has been a hell of a long time since that has actually happened.

The pressure here isn’t necessarily about keeping the job, it is about reputation.

[Maple Leafs Day: 2017-18 Review | Breakthrough | Three Questions]

Babcock is universally regarded as one the best coaches in hockey.  He is the highest paid coach in hockey. He has had success in the NHL with three trips to the Stanley Cup Final (with two different teams) in his first six years.

But that championship level success was 10 years ago. In the decade since his teams have…

  • Won just one division title and finished higher than third place only one other time, and that was eight years ago (that means seven consecutive finishes of third place or lower).
  • Finished with a top-10 record in the league three times, and only once in the past eight years.
  • Made it out of the first-round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs just three times.
  • Been eliminated in the first-round in five of the past six postseason appearances, including in each of the past two years in Toronto.

I’m not trying to turn this into a “Stanley Cup or bust” sort of argument here, or demand that his teams make the Final every season. That is irrational and nonsensical. Winning a championship — or even getting to a championship series — is an incredibly difficult task in professional sports and requires a ton of variables to all fall in your favor, from health, to luck, to talent. The playoffs can be a fluky beast where small sample sizes and random hot and cold streaks can sink a team or lift another.

But when you are the highest paid coach in the league, when you are held in such a high regard for your ability as a tactician and coach to the point that you are nearly above any criticism, and possess what seems to be concrete job security, is it terribly unfair to expect more than a bunch of third place finishes and first-round exits in the playoffs every year?

At what point is it fair to ask, shouldn’t they be getting more out of this?

Coaching in professional sports is a brutal, bottom line business. There are a lot of successful coaches in the NHL that have had similar levels of success as Babcock over the past decade (or more success) only to have been fired for it. That may not always be fair, but it’s how professional sports teams operate across all the major North American sports. Heck, Bruce Boudreau as just one example has been fired twice in the past eight years for winning his division every year and consistently bowing out in the second-round of the playoffs.

The defense here is the talent level on Babcock’s teams over the past decade has dropped from what it was when he was consistently winning in Detroit, and that’s fine (though, he’s still had some pretty good rosters). There isn’t a coach in the league that is going to lift a bad roster to a championship level. But there have also been some missteps along the way. He has his blind spots for veteran players that may not always be the best option for his team. He ran starting goalie Frederik Andersen into the ground down the stretch last season instead of giving him a few nights off when the team had nothing to play for at the end of the regular season.

Here is the reality for Toronto this season. The roster, at least offensively, is loaded. One of the best young teams and one of the highest highest scoring teams in the league added one of the biggest free agents in recent NHL history in John Tavares, a true impact player still in the prime of his career. They have a pretty good goalie. The defense isn’t great, but it has talent and is definitely good enough to win.

Coaches in professional sports do not typically get this level of job security or maintain their spotless reputation over a decade where their team simply does not win anything or even come close to winning anything.

Babcock has somehow managed that.

But if this Maple Leafs team, with this roster, with this investment in talent doesn’t actually do something more than finish in third place in its division or make some kind of noise in the playoffs, how long can that continue?

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

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.

Devils, Hischier agree to seven-year, $50.75 million extension

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While the Devils don’t know yet if Taylor Hall will sign an extension to remain in New Jersey or find a new home next summer in free agency, GM Ray Shero has young locked down one of the team’s core pieces.

On Friday, Nico Hischier agreed to a seven-year, $50.75 million extension that carries a $7.25 million cap hit through the 2026-27 NHL season. The deal buys three unrestricted free agent years since the Devils forward has been playing since he was 18, per Cap Friendly.

“Nico is a special person who possess a team-first mentality combined with an inner drive to succeed,” said Shero in a statement. The entire organization is thankful to him and his family for believing in our future. We are excited that he will continue to play a prominent role with us for many years to come.”

According to the Devils, here’s the year-by-year breakdown:

2020-21: $7,000,000 (includes $3 million signing bonus)
2021-22: $7,250,000
2022-23:  $4,500,000
2023-24:  $7,750,000
2024-25:  $7,750,000
2025-26:  $8,000,000
2026-27:  $8,500,000

The extension also features a modified no-trade clause in the final three years.

In 157 NHL games, Hischier, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2017 draft, has 37 goals and 101 points while averaging over 17 minutes a night. His offense has been just fine with a 20 and 17 goals in his first two seasons, but his two-way game is what’s really boosted his talent.

The 20-year-old center joins the list of NHLers who passed on restricted free agency in 2020 to put pen to paper on a new deal, joining the likes of Alex DeBrincat, Clayton Keller, Thomas Chabot, and Sam Girard.

Mathew Barzal, Pierre-Luc Dubois, Dylan Strome, and Mikhail Sergachev are some of the other potential 2020 RFAs who will be looking for extensions before next season.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Helm fined $5K for slash on Flames’ Lindholm

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Darren Helm and Elias Lindholm had a little battle in the third period of Thursday’s 5-1 Flames win and it has resulted in a $5,000 fine for the Red Wings forward.

It all began during a face-off when Lindholm got taken down by Helm. The Flames forward took exception and skated after Helm as the puck entered the Calgary zone. The tiff continued on with Lindholm throwing an elbow at Helm, who responded by getting up off the ice and slashing Lindholm in the back of the leg.

“Their guy comes with an elbow that should have probably been called right away,” said Red Wings head coach Jeff Blashill. “Then Darren reacts to that as most guys would, you get an elbow to the face for no reason you’re going to react. We got to be more disciplined in those situations, but he slashed him. I don’t think the slash was that super-hard, but it sure looked hard the way he went down.”

The fine is the maximum amount allowable under the Collective Bargaining Agreement.

Helm was given a major for slashing and a game misconduct, while Lindholm got off with just an interference minor. Lindholm was helped to the dressing room and there’s been no update yet on his condition.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

LA Kings set Guinness World Record for ‘Largest Laser Show’

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The Los Angeles Kings may have dropped their third in a row Thursday night and fell to 2-5-0 on the season, but they set a world record during the first intermission.

The Kings’ game presentation department used 642 lasers as part of the Guinness Book of World Records “Largest Laser Show” at STAPLES Center. So, yeah, they were shutout, but they made history.

For the record, the first-period goals by Casey Mittelstadt and Conor Sheary did not, in fact, count toward the final laser total.

With Thursday being the 20th anniversary of the opening of the arena, which featured a Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band concert back in 1999, the Kings wanted to do something special, so they went and shattered the previous record of 342, per the team.

Now, if only one of those lasers could have destroyed the “cursed” Taylor Swift banner

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Kempny returns to Capitals’ blue line for first time since March

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Washington Nationals pitcher Max Scherzer doing the ceremonial puck drop honors won’t be the only thing Capitals fans can look forward to Friday night. Defenseman Michal Kempny will make his long-awaited return to the ice against the Rangers after tearing his hamstring in March.

Kempny, who was paired with Radko Gudas during Friday’s morning skate, was given a four-to-six month timeline after undergoing surgery right before the end of last season.

“Yeah, I’m playing tonight. It’s been a long time. I’m very excited,” Kempny said. “There was a lot of hard days, especially from the beginning of the rehab, small steps make me happy. I think it’s part of rehab and all the bad is behind me and I’m just focusing now [on] today’s game.”

Kempny knows he won’t be logging heavy minutes just yet and wants to focus on getting back into the normal routine of a regular player. How his ice time is managed will be something his head coach has to worry about.

“We have a range we’d like to have him in and we’ll see how the game goes,” said Todd Reirden. “Obviously he’s fresh, he’s skating really well, he’s in unbelievable condition, so now it’s just to see how it transfers into game action and how his wind is and his conditioning.”

Braden Holtby is back between the pipes are being given a one game “reset,” as Reirden put it. How he fares against the Rangers will either pause the goalie controversy talk with Ilya Samsonov for now or only add more fuel to the fire.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.