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Flyers add Pickard to pile of goalies

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To answer the age-old question of Philadelphia Flyers goaltending, maybe GM Ron Hextall is aiming for the “Voltron” approach: stack a bunch together to form a fearsome puckstopping bot.

Putting aside references dating back to the first Bush presidency – Flyers goaltending questions, giant mechs with gnarly swords – the Flyers’ goaltending situation really is confounding, which dulls some of the excitement with the actually-quite-wise decision to claim Calvin Pickard off of waivers.

Consider the situation Pickard, 26, has been pulled into by pondering each potential option for the Flyers and Lehigh Valley Phantoms, their AHL affiliate:

  • Pickard: walking into a crowded goalie situation is an all-too-familiar feeling for the former Avalanche netminder.

As a refresher: the Golden Knights scooped up Pickard from Colorado during the expansion draft, only to kick him to the Maple Leafs. Pickard got lost in the shuffle with Toronto, as Curtis McElhinney (also claimed off of waivers today) beat him for the backup gig at the NHL level, while Garret Sparks outplayed him with the Marlies.

That might give you the impression that Pickard isn’t any good, but instead, it seems like he’s been unlucky more than anything else.

Sure, it does seem like he buckled under the pressure of being a go-to guy considering a tough go of things in Colorado (a weak .904 save percentage in 50 games during the 2016-17 season), although it would be silly to place all the blame on Pickard. Just about every Colorado player probably wanted a mulligan there.

Generally speaking, Pickard’s easily been effective enough to be an NHL backup. Pickard generated a sparkling .932 save percentage over 16 games in 2014-15, and wasn’t much worse in 2015-16, generating a .922 save percentage in 20 appearances. With an average career save percentage of .913 in 87 games, not to mention perfectly respectable work in a tough situation with the Marlies last season, Pickard could be a sneaky-good addition for the Flyers.

The question is: where does he fit in?

  • Brian ElliottThe 33-year-old’s debut season with the Flyers was inhibited, at least in part, due to injuries that eventually required surgery. Elliott comes into 2018-19 as the starter and generally the surest thing for Philly.

At least, he is when you look in the short term.

The good news is that Elliott is affordable (2.75 million cap hit), and his contract expires after this season, so if things don’t work out, the Flyers aren’t on the hook for a problem contract.

Elliott occasionally looks like an elite goalie, and he tends to do his best work when people don’t expect it, so maybe he’ll raise Philly’s ceiling amid all of these questions? He’s not that far removed from strong work with the Blues.

  • Michal NeuvirthHextall essentially pushed goalie questions down the line by handing short, affordable contracts to Elliott and Neuvirth. The good news is that such decisions kept the Flyers from being stuck with an Ilya Bryzgalov-type albatross contract. The bad news is that the organization still answers the goalie question with “TBD.”

Neuvirth, 30, seems likely to begin the season on IR thanks to Pickard’s waiver claim. He’s limping into this season with some injury concerns, which is sadly part of the story of Neuvirth’s career.

Like Elliott, Neuvirth enters a contract year; in his case, his cap hit is $2.5M. Pickard, meanwhile, carries an $800K cap hit, and his deal also expires after this season.

  • Carter HartWhile some scouts may prefer, say, Ilya Samsonov, Hart is generally regarded as one of the most promising goalies not playing in the NHL. One couldn’t help but wonder if the Flyers might want to change that by just giving him a chance to run with a starting or backup job; instead, they seem content to keep him on this current timeline, which means he should be the AHL starter.

Hart turned 20 in August and put up dominant work in the WHL. It may, indeed, be wiser to let him go from junior to the AHL, rather than the larger leap to the NHL. Even so, some Flyers fans are probably feeling anxious, especially considering the iffy options at the top level.

  • Anthony StolarzStolarz is large (listed at 6-6) and carries decent pedigree as a second-round pick (45th overall in 2012), yet this turn of events indicates that the Flyers would rather not risk having the 24-year-old serve as Brian Elliott’s backup.

Interestingly, Stolarz most promising recent moments have come in spot duty with the big club (.928 save percentage in seven appearances), while his numbers at other levels leave a lot to be desired.

Once injuries clear up, things could get awkward between Neuvirth, Stolarz, Pickard, and …

  • Alex Lyon: Another injured Flyers goalie. Lyon, 25, put up respectable AHL numbers, yet he didn’t really wow in 11 games with the big club (.905 save percentage) last season. His most recent moments of promise came during his strong college years with Yale.

The good and the bad

To summarize: the Flyers’ goaltending situation, right now, feels like a prime example of quantity over quality.

That said, goalies are highly unpredictable, and Hextall might not be outrageous in throwing a bunch of darts at the problem. Elliott’s enjoyed strong enough moments to earn an All-Star appearance, and Pickard’s at least enjoyed some pretty nice moments as an NHL backup.

Even if none of these veterans work out in 2018-19, the Flyers aren’t locked into any problem goalie contracts. Personally, I’d take that over sweating bullets regarding Carey Price carrying a $10.5M cap hit through 2025-26.

Sooner or later, Carter Hart must emerge as a difference-maker. If not, the Flyers will need to go back to the drawing board, once again.

But, hey, maybe they just stumbled upon a pretty good backup?

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.

Keefe: Toronto has enough talent for quick progress

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GLENDALE, Ariz. (AP) — New Toronto Maple Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe spent a decent chunk of a 30-minute morning skate on Thursday teaching instead of running drills.

There’s a lot for his new team to learn and not much time to do it.

The 39-year-old Keefe is now in charge of the Maple Leafs after veteran coach Mike Babcock was fired Wednesday with the team mired in a six-game losing streak.

Keefe was officially introduced Thursday morning as the 31st head coach in Maple Leafs history. He’s got a long history with general manager Kyle Dubas, who hopes Keefe is the right choice to help Toronto bounce back from a disappointing 9-10-4 start.

Keefe believes it can be done.

”We’ve got a lot of talent and the ability to make life hard on the other team in a lot of ways,” he said. ”Focusing on that, we believe, will produce positive results. Because the players are good enough for that to happen.”

Keefe inherits a roster that includes talented forwards like Auston Matthews, John Tavares, Mitch Marner and William Nylander.

Tavares said there were ”many mixed emotions” because Babcock was so dedicated and committed to the team. He said the team feels a burden because it hasn’t played up to expectations but is ”turning the page” and moving forward.

”Sheldon’s got a great mind for the game,” Tavares said. ”We’re excited about the energy and the things he’s bringing and trying to improve from where we’re at.”

Keefe will make his coaching debut during Toronto’s game against the Arizona Coyotes on Thursday night.

Dubas said the franchise must show patience as Keefe, a first-time NHL coach, embarks on the difficult task of taking over a team midseason and trying to quickly turn things around.

He’s confident the players understand there will be ups and down.

He’s also aware that outside perception might be a little less forgiving.

”It’s all part of what makes working and playing in Toronto great,” Dubas said. ”You can’t go anywhere in Toronto without people caring deeply about the team. I read the greatest quote this morning on the way here: ‘You can look at it as a burden or look at it as a trampoline.”’

Toronto is a team that needs quite a bounce.

The 56-year-old Babcock went 173-133-45 in his four-plus seasons with Toronto and made the playoffs the past three years, though the Maple Leafs lost in the first round each time. When the team started slowly this season, Dubas and team President Brendan Shanahan knew it was time for a change.

Shanahan flew to Arizona on Wednesday to break the news to Babcock, whom he hired in 2015.

He acknowledged it was a hard day. Some more hard days may follow as Keefe tries to quickly implement his system, though the franchise is confident it’s headed in the right direction.

Keefe was in his fifth season as head coach of the American Hockey League’s Toronto Marlies. He was 199-89-31 with the Marlies and helped the franchise win its first Calder Cup championship in 2018.

Several of the Leafs’ current players were coached by Keefe when he was with the Marlies, which is the franchise’s top minor-league affiliate.

PHT Morning Skate: Challenging Byfuglien’s suspension; Where is Sharks’ offense?

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• Should the Montreal Canadiens hire Mike Babcock? (Montreal Gazette)

• The Devils have been struggling badly on special teams. (All About the Jersey)

• Lightning forward Yanni Gourde is even better than you think. (Raw Charge)

• How easy will it be to fix the Toronto Maple Leafs? (Pension Plan Puppets)

Brett Connolly has been a very useful asset for the Florida Panthers. (Rat Trick)

• The Coyotes goalie tandem has been terrific this season. (Five For Howling)

• The NHLPA is challenging the Dustin Byfuglien suspension. (Winnipeg Free Press)

• The Bolts can benefit from this difficult start. (NHL.com)

• Where is the San Jose Sharks’ offense? (Rotoworld)

• The Ducks are satisfied with Garnet Hathaway‘s three-game suspension. (OC Register)

• Sheldon Keefe has a quiet confidence about him that should help him guide the Leafs. (TSN)

Zack Kassian has found a spot on the Oilers’ top line. (Sportsnet)

• There’s a lot of questions facing Keefe and his level of success will depend on how many he can answer. (Editor in Leaf)

Patrice Bergeron is starting to get healthier. (NBC Sports Boston)

• The Blue Jackets have added Paul MacLean to their staff (NHL.com/BlueJackets)

Brendan Perlini talks about his fresh start in Detroit and his English upbringing. (Sporting News)

• Isles goalie prospect Ilya Sorokin wants to be in the NHL next season. (The Sports Daily)

• Kris Versteeg left the Rockford Ice Hogs on Sunday and the team isn’t in a rush to name a new captain. (Second City Hockey)

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

The Buzzer: Streaks good and bad around NHL; Leafs turn the page

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Turning over new Maple Leafs

One streak did end, although Sheldon Keefe has to hope that his NHL head coaching career will begin with a streak that goes beyond a debut win. The Maple Leafs ended their losing streak at six games by beating the Coyotes 3-1 in their first game after Mike Babcock fired. Read up on that win here.

From hot streaks to cold

The Islanders maintained their now-franchise-record breaking point streak of 16 games by beating the Penguins in overtime. In doing so, the Isles are also on a five-game winning streak. The Dallas Stars matched that winning streak with their fifth victory in a row, and are pretty hot in their own right, going 9-0-1 in their last 10 games. They’re also 12-1-1 in their last 14 contests.

On the other end of the spectrum, the Flames put forth a painful, pitiful effort in dropping their sixth straight loss. The Predators were more competitive in many ways on Thursday, but Nashville has also lost six in a row. Tense times for two teams that expected to be Western Conference contenders.

Three Stars

1. Claude Giroux, Philadelphia Flyers

Heading into Thursday’s game, Giroux was on a three-game pointless streak, and only had a single point (one goal) over his past six games. The veteran forward exploded with a two-goal, two-assist performance to help the Flyers beat the Hurricanes.

Giroux’s two assists were primary assists, and his second goal ended up being the game-winner. He even threw in a 17-10 mark on faceoffs for good measure.

2. Zach Sanford, St. Louis Blues

Despite a modest 13:19 in ice time on Thursday, Sanford helped lead the charge as the Blues humiliated a flustered Flames team. Sanford scored the game’s first goal (thus getting a GWG) and added three assists during a four-point performance that was almost as impressive as Giroux’s output.

If you’d prefer handing this star to Jordan Binnington for his 40-save shutout, that’s totally understandable.

3. Aaron Ekblad, Florida Panthers

Florida found itself down 4-0 with less than two minutes remaining in the second period, yet managed to enter the third period down a more palatable 4-2. From there, Ekblad took over, scoring a goal and an assist during the third period, then adding the overtime game-winner to lock up a comeback win for Florida. Like Giroux, Ekblad came into the night’s action on a cold streak, having only managed a goal over seven games.

For me, Ekblad’s little trot after the OT-GWG breaks the tie with other players who scored three points on Thursday:

Highlight of the Night

No doubt about it, that goes Tuukka Rask, whose save rivals Marc-Andre Fleury for the save of the week/month/year. This post has more.

Benn the Bulldozer

On a less busy night, Jamie Benn trucking Mark Scheifele than scoring a pretty game-winning goal would be the top dog. It’s at least worth watching:

Factoids

  • The Panthers have now overcome four-goal deficits to win games twice in 2019-20, joining the 1983-84 Oilers as the only teams to manage such wins twice in the same season, according to NHL PR.
  • Sportsnet notes that the Flames are on a streak of 362:46 without taking a lead, the longest stretch in franchise history. Um, at least they haven’t squandered any leads, then? The Maple Leafs’ run without a lead ended at 446:47 when Tyson Barrie scored the opening goal on Thursday, also according to Sportsnet.
  • Via NHL PR: Cale Makar is the first Avs/Nordiques rookie defenseman to generate at least 15 points in a single month, and sixth overall among the franchise’s defensemen.

Scores

BOS 3 – BUF 2
FLA 5 – ANA 4 (OT)
NYI 4 – PIT 3 (OT)
PHI 5 – CAR 3
CBJ 5 – DET 4
STL 5 – CGY 0
VAN 6 – NSH 3
MIN 3 – COL 2
TBL 4 – CHI 2
DAL 5 – WPG 3
TOR 3 – ARI 1
SJS 2 – VGK 1 (OT)
LAK 5 – EDM 1

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.

Maple Leafs end skid in first Babcock-less game

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If it weren’t for Vinnie Hinostroza spoiling Frederik Andersen‘s shutout with 17 seconds left, Thursday would have been just about perfect for the Toronto Maple Leafs during their first game post-Mike Babcock.

Most importantly, the Maple Leafs ended their six-game losing streak with a win. (Yes, that makes brand-new head coach Sheldon Keefe 1-0-0.)

The symmetry starts to go up a notch when you consider that, on this night, Tyson Barrie finally scored his first goal of the 2019-20 season, which is also his first with the Maple Leafs. Barrie is up there when you picture Leafs with relief of Babcock grief, so scoring here almost feels on-the-nose:

That Barrie goal gave the Maple Leafs a coveted 1-0 lead, and that’s quite a reversal from how things could have felt if Andersen didn’t make this great glove save (which would have stood out even more if Tuukka Rask didn’t give Marc-Andre Fleury competition with an absolutely ludicrous stop).

The underlying numbers are promising, too. In particular, it has to be uplifting to see that the Maple Leafs managed an impressive 18-7 advantage in high-danger chances at all strengths, according to Natural Stat Trick.

There’s a lot to like for the Leafs, but there’s also no denying that the Maple Leafs have a lot of work to do — and a hole they need to dig out of. That win merely brought them back to “.500,” as they’re now 10-10-4 for 24 standings points in 24 games. They wouldn’t make it into the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs if they began on Thursday night, and Toronto’s ninth place standing is even inflated when you realize that teams right behind them hold games in hand. (Toronto’s 24 games played ties for the most in the NHL, while teams like the Lightning [22 points in 19 GP] loom large.)

Ultimately, though, the Maple Leafs can only control what they’re doing on the ice. So far, so good then, when you consider how they’re playing with Keefe pulling the strings instead of Babs.

More on Babcock, Leafs:

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.