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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.

The Buzzer: Miller, Ducks win again; Josi on a tear

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Three stars

1. Ryan Miller, Anaheim Ducks

A night after becoming the winningest American-born goaltender in NHL history, Miller produced a fantastic performance in a 31-save shutout against the Minnesota Wild.

The shutout was Miller’s first of the season and 44th of his career. The Ducks have now won two straight and are three points back of the Wild for the second wildcard spot in the Western Conference.

The Wild, meanwhile, lost their fifth straight, including their second straight game being banished from the scoresheet. The Ducks are faring well without John Gibson.

2. Roman Josi, Nashville Predators 

Josi scored twice in the third period, including the game-winner, and added an assist in the game for a three-point night

The elite defenseman now has four goals and 11 points in his past eight games for the Predators, who needed a win after going 1-3-1 over their past five games.

The Preds are now just a point back of the Winnipeg Jets for first place in the Central Division although Winnipeg has three games in hand.

3. Jonathan Huberdeau, Florida Panthers

Huberdeau scored twice and added an assist in a 4-2 win for the Panthers against the struggling Buffalo Sabres.

Huberdeau hadn’t scored in eight games prior to Tuesday’s contest and had just one goal in his previous 14.

Florida is nine points back of the Columbus Blue Jackets for the second wildcard in the Eastern Conference.

Highlights of the night

Barkov with another dirty move:

Windmill:

Broke all the ankles:

Factoids

https://twitter.com/PR_NHL/status/1098065651539865601

Scores

Panthers 4, Sabres 2
Penguins 4, Devils 3
Lightning 5, Flyers 2
Rangers 2, Hurricanes 1
Canadiens 3, Blue Jackets 2
Blues 3, Maple Leafs 2 (OT)
Ducks 4, Wild 0
Predators 5, Stars 3
Coyotes 3, Oilers 2 (SO)


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=

O’Reilly scores historic overtime winner as Blues win 11th straight

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And then it was 11.

The St. Louis Blues set a new team record for consecutive wins in emphatic fashion when Ryan O'Reilly went bar down on Frederik Anderson 34 seconds into overtime to down the visiting Toronto Maple Leafs 3-2 on NBCSN on Tuesday.

Mitch Marner came rushing in just before it by Colton Parayko was able to fend him off. O’Reilly was there to intercept Marner’s attempt at a centering pass and it was off to the races for No. 90, who scored his 26th of the season to extend St. Louis’ remarkable streak.

The Blues came into the game riding a three-game shutout streak — because beating teams simply wasn’t enough anymore. They jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the first period care of goals from Jaden Schwartz and Parayko.

The game appeared to be heading toward another blank sheet after two periods, but a bad giveaway by Alex Pietrangelo led to Zach Hyman‘s weird angle shot turning into an own goal and bringing an end to the shutout streak at a 2:33:50.

The Leafs were mostly lifeless through the first two periods but Hyman’s goal seemed to be the jolt they needed.

Auston Matthews bagged his 28th of the season just 31 seconds later to tie the game. St. Louis challenged for (non-existent) goaltender interference and the call of a good goal on the ice was upheld.

Jordan Binnington entered the game already having set a Blues rookie record with eight straight wins, including shutouts in his past two outings. ‘Winnington’ could do little on the own goal and Matthews’ goal came off a rebound in front that he couldn’t get to. He managed to stop 31-of-33 shots to extend that record to nine straight.

His personal shutout streak ended at 173:50.

The Blues haven’t trailed in a game since Feb. 5. They were in last place on Jan. 3 but are now six points up on Dallas Stars for third place in the Central Division. What a turnaround.

Meanwhile, a massive open-ice hit that Vince Dunn delivered priority mail to Nazem Kadri seems to have put the latter on the shelf.

Dunn drilled Kadri at the 8:48 mark of the first period, but Kadri stayed in the game. He took another shot, this time more of a glancing blow from Brayden Schenn, who had Toronto’s No. 43 in his crosshairs before missing at the last second.

Kadri did not emerge after the first intermission and was ruled out with a concussion not long after.


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

‘Puddy’ bobblehead night includes Puddy face-plant into Devils bench

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Everything was going great for David Puddy at his Bobblehead Night in New Jersey on Tuesday.

‘Puddy’ (actor Patrick Warburton), the legendary face-painted Devils fan from the hit TV show Seinfeld, known for such lines as, ‘We’re the Devils… The Devils’ and ‘Don’t mess with the Devils. We can beat anybody,’ was back inside Prudential Center to rile up the crowd once again.

He dropped the puck during the pre-game ceremony and then proceeded to take his jersey off to rile up the Devils faithful.

And then the Puddy Plant happened:

Puddy handled it like a champ, getting up with an embarrassed smile on his face before a quick bow.

The first 9,000 fans into the arena got their hands on one of these bad boys.

As far as bobbleheads go, this one was pretty cool.

Last April, Puddy made an unexpected visit to New Jersey to cheer on the Devils in their playoff series against the Tampa Bay Lightning.


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

Matt Duchene era likely over in Ottawa, but what of Mark Stone?

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It appears Matt Duchene‘s days as an Ottawa Senator are numbered.

The dynamic forward will be held out of Thursday’s game against the New Jersey Devils as the Feb. 25 NHL trade deadline looms in the close horizon, a report from TSN’s Darren Dreger suggested on Tuesday.

Duchene was brought to the club just last season in a blockbuster three-team deal that saw the Senators ship out Kyle Turris to Nashville and send their first-round pick in the coming 2019 NHL Draft to Colorado, among other pieces.

Duchene struggled out of the gate but regained his form toward the end of the year, the only problem is Ottawa didn’t turn out to be the winner that Duchene wanted to go to. The Senators missed the playoffs a year after reaching the Eastern Conference Final. They then dealt Erik Karlsson in September, and this season has been a horror show ever since — sometimes with Duchene front and center.

Now the Senators, the worst team in the NHL, are poised to not only not have Duchene, but also not have what could very likely be the first-overall pick in June. The Avalanche, meanwhile, could theoretically have two picks in the top 10 (and even top five if they continue to free fall).

It’s been some year in Ottawa, and it’s not over yet.

With Duchene seemingly out of the picture, the Senators have gone full bore at trying to re-sign Mark Stone. Losing one is bad enough. Losing both? It’s doubtful that ‘Senators’ and ‘contender’ will reach the lofty goal set out by owner Eugene Melnyk earlier this month.

And Ryan Dzingel‘s name has been floated around, too.

The 22-goal, 44-point man sits fourth in team scoring this year, with Stone (62 points) and Duchene (58 points) holding down the 1-2 spots. In a worst-case scenario, the team could be without three of its fourth top scorers and its three top-scoring forwards by 3 p.m. ET on Monday.

Bruce Garrioch from the Ottawa Citizen said the team’s most recent offer is thought to be “serious and comprehensive,” leading to Stone’s camp asking for time to ponder it. Garrioch said it’s likely Stone would be the team’s next captain and it’s centerpiece to build around.

Stone is reportedly wanted by several teams, including the Winnipeg Jets in Stone’s hometown.

If Stone, 26, signs a long-term deal in Ottawa, then he’s going to have to buy into Melnyk’s plan and the plans of general manager Pierre Doiron. The Senators have some decent prospects in their system. If they can find a stud goalie down in short order, perhaps them being in the playoff conversation isn’t all that far off.

But the temptation to have his pick of the litter come July 1st has to be haunting Stone at the moment. The thought of signing long-term in Winnipeg and winning a Stanley Cup for the city he grew up has to be playing heavily on his mind. But really, insert any contender here will to fork out the money, and there’s certainly a few of them.

Stone not being held out of the lineup, like Duchene, may be a good sign at the moment, but there are still 48 hours between now and Ottawa’s game. Things could change in an instant.

We’re down to days and hours until the trade deadline, so the first shoe dropping can’t be all that far off.


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