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.

Torey Krug putting together impressive postseason

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Over the last few seasons, there’s been a lot of uncertainty surrounding Torey Krug‘s long-term future with the Boston Bruins. It appeared as though they weren’t sure whether or not to give a smaller offensive defenseman a long contract extension. But his performance this postseason may make this picture a lot clearer.

We know that Krug can move the puck and create offense from the back end. Over the last three seasons, he’s put up 51, 59 and 53 points (his points-per-game number has improved in each season). There’s not many defenders that are capable of putting up numbers like that at this level.

Krug has also had a ton of success in the playoffs throughout his career, as he’s posted 40 points in 55 career games in the postseason. Last year, he managed to be a point-per-game player in the playoffs with 12 points in 11 contests. This year his numbers are down slightly (he has 12 points in 17 games), but this year feels different (in a good way).

The Bruins are four wins away from hoisting the Stanley Cup, and Krug has been a big part of that. Not only has he contributed offensively, but his pairing, with Brandon Carlo, has acted as a shutdown duo for the Bruins. So Krug isn’t just being used in an offensive role.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

In 219 minutes of ice time with Carlo this postseason, the 28-year-old has a CF% of 53.62 percent, a HDCF% of 54.17 percent and a SF% of 52 percent. Those are some solid individual numbers for Krug. He’s also had an incredibly positive influence on his young defense partner. Carlo’s overall CF% in the postseason is 51.54 percent. With Krug, that number climbs up to 53.72 percent. When he’s not on the ice with Krug, the number drops to 45.93 percent. So as valuable as Carlo’s been during this run, it’s clear that he’s much more effective when he’s next to Krug (all numbers provided by Natural Stat Trick).

No matter what happens in the Stanley Cup Final, Krug has opened some eyes around the league. Now, can the Bruins get him signed to a long-term deal? He has one year remaining on his current deal before he becomes an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2020. If he’s making $5.25 million on this deal, you’d have to think that he’s going to get a raise on the next deal.

Both McAvoy and Carlo will need new deals this offseason (McAvoy will make more than Carlo), so it’ll be interesting to see how much money they’ll have left over for Krug.

MORE: Stanley Cup Final 2019 schedule, TV info

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.

PHT Morning Skate: How Blues turned season around; Questions for Hurricanes

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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.

• How much does sweeping your opponent in the conference final help the team heading to the Stanley Cup Final? (The Hockey News)

• Ryan Dadoun breaks down what went wrong for the Detroit Red Wings this season. (Rotoworld)

• ESPN sheds some light on who the biggest winners of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs are as of right now. (ESPN)

• The St. Louis Blues were in last place as of Jan. 2, but here’s how they were able to turn things around. (Sportsnet)

• The Bruins have to find a way to deal with this long break they have before the Stanley Cup Final. (WEEI)

• The Montreal Canadiens should try to sign Maple Leafs forward Mitch Marner to an offer sheet this summer. (Montreal Gazette)

• Should the Washington Capitals give Andre Burakovsky a qualifying offer? (Washington Post)

• Many teams should go after Golden Knights defenseman Colin Miller including the Philadelphia Flyers. (Broad Street Hockey)

• Here are five big questions surrounding the Carolina Hurricanes this offseason. (News & Observer)

J.T. Miller has emerged as an important piece of the Ryan McDonagh trade. (Tampa Times)

• The TSN Trade Bait board has plenty of potential targets for the Toronto Maple Leafs. (Leafs Nation)

• The Rangers have a lot of depth on defense, so they have to figure out how to break up that logjam. (Blue Shirt Banter)

• What can the Penguins get for Olli Maatta? (Pensburgh)

• If a team decides to offer sheet a restricted free agent, it could easily be the Colorado Avalanche. (Mile High Hockey)

• Taking a goalie in the first round of the NHL Entry Draft usually isn’t a wise move. (Sinbin.Vegas)

MORE: Stanley Cup Final 2019 schedule, TV info

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 Playoff Buzzer: Hats off (again) to Jaden Schwartz

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  • Jaden Schwartz records his second hat trick of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
  • Vladimir Tarasenko keeps producing.
  • Jordan Binnington records his first career postseason shutout to help bring the St. Louis Blues one step closer to the Stanley Cup Final.

St. Louis Blues 5, San Jose Sharks 0 (Blues lead series 3-2)

This game was every bit as lopsided as the 5-0 final score would have you believe. The St. Louis Blues were simply the better team in every single phase of the game and put together what might have been their best performance of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs to this point. They now return home on Tuesday night with a chance to clinch their first Stanley Cup Final appearance since 1970 and have to be confident given how well they have played over the past two games. Jaden Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko both had multi-point games in the win (Schwartz recorded his second hat trick of the postseason), while Oskar Sundqvist started things off early in the first period to continue his strong playoff run. The Sharks were not only on the wrong end of the score, but they also now have some major injury questions heading into Game 6, especially regarding top defender Erik Karlsson who played just 10 minutes on Sunday as he continues to deal with his lingering injury. Blues goalie Jordan Binnington recorded his first shutout of the playoffs in net.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Three Stars

1. Jaden Schwartz, St. Louis Blues. His incredible postseason continues. After a disappointing regular season performance that saw him score just 11 goals in 69 games, one of the worst offensive outputs of his career, Schwartz has been a constant force in these playoffs and recorded his second hat trick on Sunday. He is now up to 12 goals for the playoffs, exceeding his regular season total, and is now just one goal away from tying Brett Hull’s franchise record for a single postseason.

2. Vladimir Tarasenko, St. Louis Blues. After a fairly quiet (by his standards, anyway) start to the playoffs the Blues needed their best player to shine in the Western Conference Final. He has. He extended his current point streak to five games on Sunday with a goal and two assists. He now has two goals and five assists in the series, and is up to seven goals and 12 total points in the playoffs. He has always been a big-time performer for the Blues in the playoffs, and he is shining just when they need him most.

3. Jordan Binnington, St. Louis Blues. He did not need to be great on Sunday, especially over the second and third periods when the Blues completely took over the game and dominated, but a shutout in a Western Conference Final game is still a big deal. It his first career shutout in the playoffs.

Highlights of the Day

Sundqvist got things started for the Blues when he capitalized on a bad turnover by Karlsson. It is his fourth goal of the playoffs.

This was just a terrible play by Sharks goalie Martin Jones and it resulted in an easy goal for Schwartz, his first of the game.

Tarasenko’s penalty shot goal in the second period was the first playoff penalty shot goal in Blues franchise history, and it came on a shot that looked to be pretty unstoppable.

Factoids

  • Schwartz became just the third player in Blues franchise history to score at least 10 goals in a single playoff run and the first since Brett Hull during the 1991 playoffs. [NHL PR]
  • The St. Louis Blues have won more games this postseason than in any other postseason in franchise history. [NHL PR]
  • Vladimir Tarasenko scored the first postseason penalty shot goal in St. Louis Blues history in the second period of Sunday’s game. It was only the second postseason penalty shot the team has ever had. [NHL PR]
  • The Blues have won seven of their first nine road games this postseason, something only 17 other teams have accomplished. [NHL PR]
  • Schwartz is the first player in Blues history to have two hat tricks in a single postseason and the first player for any team since Johan Franzen did it for the 2008 Detroit Red Wings. [NHL PR]

MORE: Stanley Cup Final 2019 schedule, TV info

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.

GM Armstrong’s roster overhaul has Blues on verge of Stanley Cup Final

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After blowing out the San Jose Sharks on Sunday afternoon in Game 5 of the Western Conference Final, the St. Louis Blues moved one step closer to their first Stanley Cup Final appearance in nearly 50 years. Given where this team was just a few months ago (when it was at the bottom of the Western Conference standings) it is one of the more stunning stories in what has already been a wild and unpredictable postseason.

But don’t be fooled by where this Blues team was in mid-January. They are good, and they absolutely deserve to be in the position they are in.

They were always better than their first half record would have had you believe, and once they solidified the goaltending position with the arrival — and ensuing emergence —  of Jordan Binnington, as well as the improved defensive play after the coaching change from Mike Yeo to Craig Berube, they have played and looked like a Stanley Cup contender.

While it’s easy to point to the hiring of Berube and the call-up of Binnington as the turning points, general manager Doug Armstrong also deserves a ton of credit for the moves he has made over the past two years for getting this team to where it is.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Since the summer of 2017, Armstrong has completely overhauled the forward depth of his roster, adding Ryan O'Reilly, Brayden Schenn, Patrick Maroon, David Perron, Tyler Bozak, and Oskar Sundqvist from outside the organization, while also using one of his two 2017 first-round draft picks on Robert Thomas, who has shown flashes of brilliance during these playoffs as a 19-year-old rookie.

That group of forwards represented four of the Blues’ top-six scorers this season (and four of the top-five among the forwards) and have all made their presence felt in the playoffs at one time or another.

The key for the Blues is not just that they added them, but how they were able to get them many of them.

Let’s start with the trades.

Going back to the summer of 2017, Armstrong made four significant trades that involved all of this.

  • Trading two-first round draft picks (the Blues’ own 2018 first-round pick, as well as a 2017 first-round pick they had previously acquired from the Washington Capitals in the Kevin Shattenkirk trade) and Jori Lehtera to the Philadelphia Flyers for Schenn.
  • Trading Ryan Reaves and a 2017 second-round pick to the Pittsburgh Penguins for Sundqvist and a 2017 first-round pick.
  • Trading Paul Stastny‘s expiring contract to the Winnipeg Jets for a package that included a 2018 first-round pick.
  • Trading Vladimir Sobotka, Patrik Berglund, Tage Thompson, a 2019 first-round pick and a 2021 second-round pick to the Buffalo Sabres for O’Reilly.

What have the Blues gained from all of that? Well let’s just take a look at what each player involved has done from the time of their trade through the end of the 2018-19 regular season.

Look at the difference in production. While Armstrong gave up more assets, he got significantly more production back in return and did so for a cheaper price against the salary cap (even if you subtract the Stastny cap hit out of that since he was leaving as a free agent anyway).

He shed a bunch of contracts he probably didn’t want (Lehtera, Sobotka, Berglund) and some draft picks to get top-line players (O’Reilly and Schenn) and a good young forward (Sundqvist) that has emerged as an effective bottom-six player.

[Blues rout Sharks in Game 5]

Even though he gave up three first-round picks and two second-round picks, he still managed to get two first-round picks back in return. Even if you look at that as a net-loss in terms of assets, the success rate of mid-to-late first-and second-round picks is more than worth it when you look at just how much the Blues were able to get back in their lineup.

Especially if it ends up resulting in a trip to the Stanley Cup Final, and especially since the NHL assets he sent away aren’t really anything special (Stastny being the exception — and even he wasn’t guaranteed to be back had he not been traded).

His free agent acquisitions this summer have also, for the most part, panned out.

Perron returned for his third different stint with the Blues and finished with 23 goals and 46 total points even though he played in only 56 regular season games.

Maroon signed a bargain-basement contract and gave the Blues a solid, two-way, possession-driving forward that also happened to score one of their biggest postseason goals when he scored in double overtime of Game 7 of their Round 2 series against the Dallas Stars.

The addition that has probably given them the least bang for their buck is probably Bozak ($5 million per year for three years), but even he has been a solid secondary producer.

Overall, pretty much every roster move Armstrong has put his fingerprints on over the past two years has worked out about as well as he and the Blues could have hoped. He is a deserving finalist for the NHL’s general manager of the year award, and is a big reason his team is on the verge of what could be a historic season for the franchise.

MORE: Stanley Cup Final 2019 schedule, TV info

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.