How concerned should Maple Leafs be as playoffs approach?

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There is no team in the NHL under more immense pressure to win, and win big, this postseason than the Toronto Maple Leafs.

There probably is not even a team that is a close second when it comes to the expectations this team is carrying around.

Not only are they the Toronto Maple Leafs, which always brings immense pressure just because of who they are and where they play, but because this team is built to win now. Not tomorrow, not two seasons from now, not five seasons from now, but right now. This season. And then every season that comes after it. But especially this season.

This is not a team that was constructed to simply make the playoffs and give their fans a little bit of a thrill for a couple of weeks in the spring.

This is a team that is built to win championships, end a Stanley Cup drought that goes back to the Original Six days of the NHL, and take part in championship parades. Not a parade. Multiple parades.

The roster is loaded with All-Stars at the top of the lineup that are tying up a significant chunk of their salary cap situation for years to come (and that does not even include Mitch Marner‘s new deal that will be coming through this summer). It is no doubt an overstated concern, but this is the core they have tied themselves to and are locked in with for the next eight years.

So far, that core has produced nothing but two first-round exits in their only postseason appearances. They are now headed for another first-round matchup with the Boston Bruins, a potential nightmare scenario against one of the league’s best teams (that might finally be healthy come playoff time) that has given them fits over the past two years and knocked them out in the first round a year ago in a series that probably went a game or two longer than it deserved to go.

They have the highest paid head coach in the NHL in Mike Babcock who has not been out of the first-round since the 2013 season, and only once since 2010. There have been 23 different head coaches that have won at least one playoff series since Babcock last won one, including Mike Yeo, who has won a playoff series with two different franchises during that stretch. Any other coach in the NHL with that postseason track record wouldn’t be regarded as highly as Babcock still is. You can be sure that will change if they bow out in round one again. It should, anyway.

All of that adds up to a situation where anything other than a deep playoff run is going to be looked at as a spectacular failure.

What has to be concerning for Maple Leafs fans is the team doesn’t really seem to be trending in the right direction as the playoffs draw near.

Entering the week they have lost four of their past six games, three of which came against non-playoff teams, including an ugly loss to the league’s worst team, the Ottawa Senators.

One of the two games they did win during that stretch required an incredible late rally to steal two points from the Philadelphia Flyers, another team that is likely to miss the playoffs.

If you are looking for explanations, the injury situation has not been ideal.

Kasperi Kapanen has missed a handful of games and the blue line has been shorthanded without the services of Jake Gardiner and Travis Dermott, a development that resulted in this quote from Babcock on Monday.

“You’re supposed to build the best program you can, so you have as much depth so you don’t miss people. If you have enough, you don’t miss a beat and you just keep going,” Babcock said, via Sportsnet. “There’s other teams that have done a better job when different players are out than we have in keeping on going. That just tells you what state we’re at, and you just gotta keep adding better players.”

Of course, the Maple Leafs aren’t the only team that has been hit hard by injuries this season. The team they are chasing in the standings and about to play in the first round has been hammered all season when it comes to their best players, and it’s not like the Bruins were starting with the league’s greatest depth. They have simply played better.

The biggest concern for the Maple Leafs should still be their play defensively because it is just not at a Stanley Cup level.

They are currently one of the worst teams in the league when it comes to allowing shot attempts and scoring chances during even-strength play, currently sitting 27th in the league in total shot attempts against, 30th in shots on goal against, and 20th in scoring chances against. And that is not just because Gardiner and Dermott are out of the lineup, because their numbers were nearly identical prior to their exit from the lineup.

Just for example, here are their 5-on-5 Shot attempt and scoring chance numbers from before Gardiner’s injury (and Dermott’s, which happened two days later) and since.

(CF% = Shot Attempt differential; CA/60 = Shot attempts against per 60 minutes; SCA/60 = Scoring chances against per 60 minutes)

This is, quite simply, who and what the Maple Leafs are defensively.

The total shot attempt differential is still among the top-10 in the league, but the number of attempts and chances they give up are both among the bottom-10. It is awfully difficult, if not impossible, to go on a deep playoff run with that sort of defensive play unless you have elite shooting talent at forward that can score and/or great goaltending to cover up for your flaws.

The Maple Leafs definitely have the shooting talent to outscore their defensive deficiencies, and they have a really good goalie in Frederik Andersen.

The latter is probably the key to what this team does in the immediate future.

Ever since he arrived in Toronto to be their starting goalie Andersen has been masking all of the Maple Leafs’ flaws on defense and giving them a chance to win on most nights. He has been a workhorse in net and a player the team has leaned on extensively. There are few teams in the league that are as dependent on one goalie than the Maple Leafs are on Andersen given the workload he has faced. Since the start of the 2017-18 season no goalie in the league has faced more shots in the regular season than Andersen’s 3,918. The only two goalies that have faced more than 3,600 shots during these past two seasons are Winnipeg Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck (3,807) and New York Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist (3,602).

There is an argument to be made that the Maple Leafs ran him into the ground last season more than they needed to and that playing in 66 games (for the second year in a row) didn’t leave him as fresh and rested as he could have been for the playoffs. He will not face quite the same workload this season, but he is still on track to play at least 60 games this season and once again be one of the league leaders in games played, minutes played, shots faced.

He is probably the one player that is going to make or break their season, because that is simply the way the Maple Leafs are built and play.

There is no questioning the high-end talent on the roster. But there are still enough questions on the back end, and what might be the worst possible first-round matchup looming in a couple of weeks, to be concerned about how this spring is going to go.

The expectation is something different, and better, and franchise altering. But there are a lot of signs that it could still be more of the same.

That would not be kind to anyone in Toronto.

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.

KHL hopes to start 2020-21 season on Sept. 2

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The Kontinental Hockey League says it plans to return on Sept. 2 to open the 2020-21 season.

The last KHL game was played on March 12. The season was then suspended because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The KHL is widely considered to be the strongest hockey league outside the NHL. It ended its 2019-20 season partway through the playoffs without declaring a champion.

The league says Sept. 2 is a preliminary date that could be subject to “necessary corrections” depending on how the coronavirus situation develops.

International travel restrictions became a problem for KHL teams. The league has teams in six countries but most are in Russia.

The projected Sept. 2 start date is broadly in line with other recent KHL seasons.

Sharks look for rebound following rough 2019-20 season

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The San Jose Sharks had started planning for next season long before the news became official Tuesday that they would be one of the seven teams left home if the NHL resumes its season.

A slow start, a rough December and an injury-plagued final stretch of the season left last season’s Western Conference runners up at the bottom of the conference standings.

”We didn’t get off to a good start. We were chasing our tail,” general manager Doug Wilson said Tuesday. ”October we were awful, November we were one of the best teams in the league record wise anyhow and December we were awful. That’s where the frustration really got elevated. We are capable of playing some good hockey. Were we a great team? No, we probably weren’t a complete team. But we knew we were better than we were playing, and that frustration, that’s OK. It’s now how we channel that, what our focus is, what we do this offseason.”

This marks just the second time in the past 16 seasons that the Sharks failed to make the postseason. They responded the last time by making the only run to the Stanley Cup Final in franchise history in 2015-16 before losing to Pittsburgh in six games.

Wilson is hopeful for a repeat even though this season’s team struggled as top players like Erik Karlsson and Brent Burns had down seasons, goalie Martin Jones struggled and young players like Kevin Labanc failed to develop as anticipated.

”We did not meet our expectations this year,” Wilson said. ”But I do know this, we’ve got some really good players that care a lot. That’s how I look at it. Every year is a different year, a different team. We do not take missing the playoffs lightly. We’re not a team that’s going to go into this long protracted rebuild.”

COACH THEM UP

The poor start led to the firing of coach Peter DeBoer in December. Assistant Bob Boughner took over on interim basis and the team showed signs of playing with better structure under his leadership. Wilson said he hasn’t made a decision on Boughner’s status but praised the work he did.

”It’s a process that’s ongoing,” Wilson said. ”Very difficult to come in and coach a team halfway through the year. You don’t necessarily have all the ingredients and your staff that you want around you.”

GETTING HEALTHY

The Sharks dealt with some bad injury look during the season with Karlsson, captain Logan Couture and star forward Tomas Hertl all missing significant time. Wilson said all three are healing well and should be able to be in top shape whenever next season starts. That will be especially helpful for Karlsson, who spent last summer recovering from a groin injury, contributing to the slow start this season.

”This is the one benefit that he’s going to have,” Wilson said. ”He’s going to have all the time now to get healthy and to get that elite level of fitness the great players have and that he’s been able to have in the past. This extra time for him will be very beneficial.”

JUMBO’S STATUS

One question for the Sharks before next season starts will be the status of Joe Thornton. The Sharks brought Thornton back this season on a one-year deal and he finished with seven goals and 24 assists in 70 games. His production increased as the season went on as he had 11 points in his final 17 games after just 20 in his first 53. Thornton has expressed interest in returning at age 41 for his 23rd year. Wilson said he is in frequent contact with Thornton and knows he cant wait to get back on the ice.

FREE AGENCY

The Sharks have most of their key players other than Thornton under contract for next season. Depth forwards Melker Karlsson and Stefan Noesen are eligible to be unrestricted free agents, along with defenseman Tim Heed and backup goalie Aaron Dell. But with significant money tied up in Karlsson, Burns and Marc-Edouard Vlasic on defense, as well as forwards Couture, Evander Kane and Timo Meier, the Sharks will have little flexibility unless they trade one of those high-priced stars.

DRAFT DOINGS

The Sharks won’t have the benefit of a high draft pick following a down season because they traded their first-round pick to Ottawa before the 2018-19 season for Karlsson. San Jose did acquire Tampa Bay’s first-round pick in a deadline deal for forward Barclay Goodrow and also has two second-rounders. Those picks could be used either for prospects or packaged in deals for veterans who can contribute even quicker.

Plenty to figure out before NHL decides on hub cities

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Whenever the NHL is able to finish out the 2019-20 season, the games will be played in two “hub” cities which will host each conference.

The league is still investigating the cities they’ll use, which will be dependent on COVID-19 conditions, testing ability and government regulations.

“We’re going to go to the places that in terms of the logistics, the health issue I talked about, the testing issue I talked about, the governmental issues we talked about, we’re not hung up on east‑west,” said Commissioner Gary Bettman on a video conference call with reporters on Wednesday. “For TV scheduling it may be better if we’re in different time zones, but we’re going to go to the places that we think are the safest and make the most sense medically at the time.”

As the NHL revealed on Tuesday, 10 cities are in the mix.

• Chicago, IL
• Columbus, OH
• Dallas, TX
• Edmonton, AB
• Las Vegas, NV
• Los Angeles, CA
• Minneapolis/St. Paul, MN
• Pittsburgh, PA
• Toronto, ON
• Vancouver, BC

[NHL announces return-to-play plans]

The Canadian government currently has a mandatory 14-day quarantine for people entering the country. That could affect Edmonton, Toronto and Vancouver’s chances to host.

“The interpretation of the quarantine consistent with our players’ ability to travel in and not have to do a strict self-quarantine in a hotel room, we won’t be in a position to use any of the Canadian cities as a hub city,” said Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly. “We’re faced with having to find a solution to that. Hopefully we can.”

All of those markets, outside of LA, feature a team in the Return to Play plan. Bettman said that there is a chance a team could move to the other “hub” city if their location is one of the chosen two. For example, if Vegas and Columbus are selected, the Western Conference will play in Columbus and the Eastern Conference would play their games in Vegas.

But it’s never that easy. Logistics may require a team to play in its home city, but it won’t be as advantageous as it usually is.

“[I]f a team happens to be in its own market, the players I don’t think should be planning on going home,” Bettman said. “They’ll be staying in the same conditions that everybody else is.”

What comes next is to move into Phase 2 next week with players holding on- and off-ice training in small groups at team facilities. That could include players from different teams who live in the same city.

“This is a little bit different dynamic,” said Daly, “so we felt like it was important at the request of the NHL Players’ Association to make it available, but it will come down to the individual club specifics as to whether they can really accommodate those players on any real basis.”

If all goes well Phase 3, teams entering formal training camps, will get under way in July. That could set up the 24-team return in August, perhaps?

MORE:
A look at the Eastern Conference matchups
An overview of the Western Conference series
Which play-in playoff series would be the most exciting?
Final standings for 2019-20 NHL season, NHL draft odds

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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.

PHT Morning Skate: Return to Play reaction; DeBoer on Golden Knights

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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.

• On the NHL’s Return to Play plan: “While the NHL has a plan to resume the season, it appears to be written on a cocktail napkin soaked in beer. These are confusing times, as it is. Trying to logistically plan a season that may or may not happen only adds to the confusion.” [National Post]

• Playing a full, 82-game 2020-21 schedule? Kicking off next season with the Winter Classic? It could happen. [Ottawa Citizen]

• A Q&A with NHLPA executive Donald Fehr on the Return to Play plan: “There are still things that have to be negotiated. We haven’t done the Phase 3 or Phase 4 protocols. There are some things about the [return-to-play] format that aren’t quite finished. There’s a lot to do, but that issue will certainly be one that will be raised. And I’m fairly confident that we’ll find a way to resolve it. Nobody wants to expose someone to unreasonable risks given the circumstances.” [ESPN]

• Peter DeBoer on his Golden Knights team: “It’s the most talented team I’ve had in my coaching career. It seems like a great combination of talent and character and leadership.” [NHL.com]

• On rethinking “success” at the NHL Draft. [1st Ohio Battery]

• Legendary Michigan coach Red Berenson is joining the Big Ten as a special advisor. [Detroit News]

• Brett Riley, who served as an assistant with Colgate last season, will be the first head coach of the new Long Island University men’s hockey program. [College Hockey News]

• Finally, uh oh…

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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.