Can Babcock, Maple Leafs get most out of Muzzin?

In my opinion, there’s really no question that the Toronto Maple Leafs improved by trading for defenseman Jake Muzzin. Instead, it’s a matter of: how much better does Muzzin make the Maple Leafs?

Without getting into the grittier details, it’s easy to look at this as a black-and-white thing: Muzzin’s a proven top-four defenseman (sometimes looking downright elite), and that’s the area where Toronto needed to improve the most. The fact that he’s locked up through next season, and at an affordable cap hit of just $4 million, makes the deal even sweeter. The Maple Leafs were even proactive in getting him about a month before the trade deadline, allowing Muzzin that much more time to get used to his new (and colder) surroundings.

That’s the thing, though: it might take some time to find the ideal fit.

[Kings trading Muzzin could be beginning of a teardown]

Lots of left, not much right

The Maple Leafs’ best three defensemen are all left-handed: Muzzin, Morgan Rielly, and Jake Gardiner. Some might argue that Travis Dermott – another LHD – may rank as their fourth-best option. (If not, there’s Ron Hainsey as the fourth guy, a left-handed defenseman who’s played quite a bit on the right side.)

In a perfect world, the Maple Leafs would have a balanced mix of lefties and righties on defense, but instead the right-handed options stick out like sore thumbs: Nikita Zaitsev and Igor Ozhiganov have their issues.

So something has to give. The Leafs have initially announced that Muzzin will pair up with high-scoring blueliner Rielly. That makes beautiful sense from a stylistic standpoint – Muzzin’s both a versatile and sturdy defenseman – but will it work out when handedness is taken into account? Maybe just as importantly, will Mike Babcock be able to stomach the bad that comes with the good?

Such a process may require some experimentation, and learning the right dance moves could make for some offbeat, awkward moments.

Experience on the right

Former Kings coach Darryl Sutter told the Toronto Sun’s Steve Simmons that Muzzin has “never” played the right side.

“Anybody who says he’s played the right side isn’t watching the games,” Sutter said. “He’s played zero times on the right side in L.A. I know they’re looking for the perfect guy to pair with (Morgan) Rielly. He might be that guy, but maybe Rielly has to switch to the other side.

“Some guys are better rushing on their off-side. You see a lot of left guys playing the right side but you don’t see a lot of right (shooters) playing their off side. It’s just the way it is.”

One common critique of Muzzin is that he’s been propped up by right-hander Drew Doughty (although others would argue the opposite), yet Muzzin’s actually skated most frequently with fellow LHD Alec Martinez, as you can see from Natural Stat Trick. Martinez had been the one who had played on the right side, and it sounds like Rielly will at least start off that way.

In a breakdown of Muzzin’s fit, The Athletic’s James Mirtle also notes (sub required) that Gardiner never really became comfortable playing on his off-side, so it’s possible that Babcock will be best off seeing which defenseman (Muzzin or Rielly) ends up most comfortable in such a situation.

There’s the risk that Rielly’s red-hot season might cool if he’s placed in a less-than-ideal scenario.

Babcock’s certainly familiar with these questions, even beyond his time with the Maple Leafs. Such questions undoubtedly came up during his Red Wings days, and also during international competition:

Give and take

In case you’re wondering, there is some data to back up coaches’ misgivings about pairing up two lefties (or in less frequent cases, two righties), rather than the typical, Adam Oates-friendly scenario. Back in 2014, Matt Cane did a deep dive to find such a drop-off, although he also noted at Puck Plus Plus that defensemen on their off-side also tend to see a jump in shooting percentage.

It’s all logical enough: it might be tougher to make breakout passes/exit your zone with two lefties, yet there are certain one-timer opportunities that could also sprout up for the defenseman on that off-side.

Some of this stuff might make your brain hurt a bit, but the bottom line is that the Maple Leafs look stronger in their top four with Muzzin replacing one of Hainsey or Zaitsev, and they probably look a lot stronger.

Interestingly, the Maple Leafs’ situation really isn’t that much different from their rivals in Tampa Bay, either.

If you look at the Lightning’s top defensemen, most of them are LHD: Victor Hedman, Ryan McDonagh, and as he progresses and earns Jon Cooper’s trust, Mikhail Sergachev. That’s especially true if Anton Stralman‘s lost a few steps, and since Dan Girardi‘s not really the sort of defenseman you want playing big minutes against the Marners and Matthews of the world.

For all we know, Maple Leafs GM Kyle Dubas might even have another trick up his sleeve, such as landing potential RHD and trade target Dougie Hamilton, although that would be quite the trick considering Toronto’s limited cap space.

Either way, having “too many” strong, left-handed defensemen sure beats not having enough.

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 Kenan Thompson’s fantastic NHL Awards monologue

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While the Adam Sandlers, Steve Martins, and Chris Rocks of the world are the most famous people to come from “SNL,” the performers who were “lifers” land among the most talented. Kenan Thompson is one of those performers who stood the test of time, much like Darrell Hammond and Tim Meadows.

So, maybe it shouldn’t be surprising just how great Thompson was as a host of the 2019 NHL Awards, but either way, he knocked it out of the park on Wednesday.

It says a lot about the quality of the show that, even deep into the telecast – award shows are long, basically always – people were still laughing and smiling. From the emotions of Carey Price surprising a young fan, to Robin Lehner‘s speech about mental health, to the bonkers segments with “Tony Babcock,” the show had a little bit of everything.

And Thompson’s fantastic monologue really set a fun tone with legitimately great jokes.

Considering that the NHL wouldn’t want Thompson to go scorched earth like Norm MacDonald did during that unforgettable ESPYS appearance, this was a great mix of funny and wholesome.

Though, that’s not to say that there weren’t any spicy zingers.

  • Watch as the Tampa Bay Lightning go stone-faced when Thompson makes a great barb about the Bolts getting swept.

Actually, it was mainly Andrei Vasilevskiy looking displeased. Also, notice Nick Foligno grinning widely in the background. Hmm, I wonder why he might enjoy that joke?

  • Enjoy the juxtaposition of many hockey people generally not reacting to jokes while their significant others laugh like the rest of us.
  • Enjoy some great deep cuts, from jokes you’d be more likely to expect, to a really creative bit about The Pope Mobile being a penalty box on wheels, and the Pope getting five minutes for “cross-checking.” (Thompson deserved cheers, not boos, for that one.)
  • Also, Thompson has a point about the Blues using “Gloria” instead of the actual Blues.

Overall, the 2019 NHL Awards are going to be a tough act to follow. Here’s hoping Thompson gets to try it in 2020, because he (and basically everyone else involved, Jillian Fisher was a great addition, too) did a truly fantastic job.

While it’s not quite at the same level as Thompson’s monologue, the cold open included John Krasinski, Jenna Fischer, and Laila Anderson (!), so you might enjoy it, too:

More: Rounding up the NHL Awards.

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.

2019 NHL Awards: All the winners, video, more

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A lot naturally happened during the 2019 NHL Awards and there are still some winners left to highlight. Before we do that though, let’s recap some of tonight’s big winners:

Calder Trophy: Elias Pettersson

Lady Byng: Aleksander Barkov

GM of the Year: Don Sweeney

Norris Trophy: Mark Giordano

Masterton Trophy: Robin Lehner

Selke Trophy: Ryan O’Reilly

Jack Adams: Barry Trotz

Vezina Trophy: Andrei Vasilevskiy

Hart Trophy and Ted Lindsay: Nikita Kucherov

Now let’s tackle the other winners.

King Clancy Trophy: Jason Zucker,

Zucker and his wife Carly began the Zucker Family Suite and Broadcast Studio with a $160,000 donation and have raised over $1.2 million in under a year. The project allows kids and their families at the University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital to watch Minnesota Wild games in a space that mimics the experience of being at the game.

Mark Messier NHL Leadership Award: Wayne Simmonds

Before being traded to the Nashville Predators in February, Simmonds was deeply involved with the Flyers’ community efforts. Among other things, he was a board member for the Ed Snider Youth Hockey Foundation for six years. He also spent four years as an honorary chairman of their annual golf tournament, which is the foundation’s biggest fundraiser.

Willie O’Ree Community Hero Award: Rico Phillips

Of course, the Art Ross Trophy went to Nikita Kucherov, the Rocket Richard Trophy went to Alex Ovechkin, and the Jennings Trophy was shared by Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss.

First All-Star Team:
G: Andrei Vasilevskiy
D: Brent Burns
D: Mark Giordano
C: Connor McDavid
RW: Nikita Kucherov
LW: Alex Ovechkin

Second All-Star Team:
G: Ben Bishop
D: Victor Hedman
D: John Carlson
C: Sidney Crosby
RW: Patrick Kane
LW: Brad Marchand

All-Rookie Team:
G: Jordan Binnington
D: Rasmus Dahlin
D: Miro Heiskanen
F: Elias Pettersson
F: Anthony Cirelli
F: Brady Tkachuk

Ryan Dadoun is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @RyanDadoun.

Nikita Kucherov caps NHL Awards haul with Hart Trophy

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Things didn’t go as planned for Nikita Kucherov and the Tampa Bay Lightning once the postseason began, but the 2019 NHL Awards serve as a helpful reminder that they made history through the 82-game regular season.

No Lightning player enjoyed a better season than Kucherov, and he was awarded appropriately on Wednesday. Kucherov won the 2019 Hart Trophy, which joins the 2019 Ted Lindsay Award (the player-voted version of the Hart), and the scoring title, i.e. the 2019 Art Ross Trophy.

He also enjoyed a wonderfully awkward comic segment with “Tony Babcock,” aka Thomas Middleditch, so it was a big night for Kucherov.

Kucherov beat finalists Sidney Crosby (Pittsburgh Penguins) and Connor McDavid (Edmonton Oilers) for the Hart Trophy, which is the sort of sentence you lead with when you’re making a Hall of Fame argument.

Here are the voting results:

Taylor Hall won the Hart Trophy last year, McDavid captured the 2016-17 Hart Trophy, and Sidney Crosby last won it in 2013-14.

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.

Carey Price surprises young fan in NHL Awards’ most touching moment

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The 2019 NHL Awards celebrates the best players and moments in hockey, but it’s also a great reminder of how much of an impact players can make off the ice.

As you can see from this roundup, Minnesota Wild forward Jason Zucker won the King Clancy for his humanitarian work, while the Willie O’Ree Community Award went to Rico Phillips, who’s doing tremendous work in Flint, Michigan.

Those were great moments, but the most emotional moment happened when Carey Price surprised young Montreal Canadiens fan Anderson Whitehead with a jersey, hug, and what sounds like a trip to the 2020 NHL All-Star Game.

Warning: you’re very likely to cry while watching this clip. At first, it seems like Price’s video is coming from off site, as he spoke of Whitehead’s mother, who died of cancer at age 44. Price then interrupted his own message, and then surprised Whitehead on stage at the 2019 NHL Awards, and … it’s a goosebumps moment.

The look of shock and surprise on Anderson Whitehead’s face is the sort of thing that will stick with most of us far beyond who won the Hart Trophy and any awards debates, and even beats out the comedy bits, which were expertly deployed by SNL’s Kenan Thompson.

(Honestly, it might be the greatest thing I’ve ever seen at a sports awards show.)

As a reminder, Price first gave Anderson Whitehead a hug earlier this season, and the moment went viral:

Great stuff … and good luck booing Carey Price.

If you need some comic relief after experiencing all of those feelings, enjoy Thompson’s opening monologue, which was really good stuff. May I lead the charge in getting Thompson to do the 2020 NHL Awards, and maybe become as much of a fixture during these ceremonies as he’s been a lifer with SNL? Just throwing my vote (which doesn’t count for anything) out there.

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.