Babcock clears air about ‘depth’ comments, talks relationship with Dubas

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When Mike Babcock entered the NHL head coaching ranks with the Anaheim Ducks his general manager was Bryan Murray. The late GM imparted some wise words with his rookie head coach that have stuck with him 17 years later.

“As a coach and a general manager, never let anyone get in between you and if you do you’re going to be in trouble,” recalled Babcock after Friday’s practice. “That relationship is so important.”

Babcock was bringing up Murray’s advice on the heels of a week where speculation was rife that there was some brewing tension between him and Toronto Maple Leafs GM Kyle Dubas. The head coach’s comments earlier this week about a lack of depth on an injury-tested roster raised some eyebrows.

“All good players, let’s not kid yourself, you’re way better when you have all guys on deck,” Babcock said on Monday. “The thing about a team is you have 23 spots on it and you have a minor-league team, you’re supposed to build the best program you can to have as much depth so you don’t miss people. If you have enough, you don’t miss a beat and you just keep on going. There are 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 you’re at and you have to keep adding better players.”

That came two months after he said, “There’s no question about it: It’s not perfect, it’s what we got. It’s what was available and we’re going to make it work,” following the Maple Leafs’ acquisition of Jake Muzzin, adding another left-hand shot to their blue line.

The Maple Leafs are in a little rough patch having gone 8-7-2 in their last 17 games as they prepare for an inevitable Round 1 matchup against the Boston Bruins again. So when a team with such high-end talent and sky-high expectations falters, especially at this point in the season, the vultures are going to circle.

“Whatever people speculate or think, I don’t believe that’s the case,” said Babcock. “I know Dubie and I talk all the time, we’ve talked about this since this happened. If any of my comments in any way… I don’t read it [as others did], but if any of my comments in anyway hurt anybody… if anyone’s wife is reading it the next day, and they feel hurt, then you’ve done the wrong thing. That’s not my intent.

“One of the comments was about depth. Depth in the organization, we’ve got keep improving our depth, everybody knows it. … [W]e’re all trying to do it so that we can get to be like these teams. Tampa, to me, is just a model of what depth is. It doesn’t matter if you get guys hurt, not hurt… so if there was any slap at anyone, it sure wasn’t intended, that’s not what I meant to say.

“I go to the media, what, twice a day. Sometimes three times a day it seems like. There’s gonna be a s—-storm once in a while. There just is. You’d like to say everything perfect, and sometimes maybe you don’t.”

Babcock added that his relationship isn’t as good with Dubas “as it’s going to be four years from now,” noting that it was the same with Murray and in Detroit with Ken Holland and with Lou Lamoriello when he was hired by the Maple Leafs. This is the first season for the two in the GM/head coach relationship, so it’s going to be bumpy, especially in Toronto and especially where the team is in regards to Stanley Cup contender status.

The Maple Leafs have eight games remaining to try and catch the Bruins for home ice in Round 1. They have a relatively soft schedule over the next week and building off of Wednesday’s win over Buffalo will go a long way in pushing the distractions aside.

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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.

Penguins give Marcus Pettersson a 5-year, $20.1 million contract extension

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The Pittsburgh Penguins locked up a key piece of their defense on Tuesday by signing Marcus Pettersson to a five-year contract extension. The deal runs through the end of 2024-25 season and is worth a total of $20.1 million. That comes out to a salary cap hit of just a little more than $4 million per season.

This deal was a long-time coming for the Penguins after they wanted to sign him to a long-term deal this past summer when he was still a restricted free agent. But the team’s salary cap situation at the time prohibited that from happening, resulting in the one-year contract he is playing on this season.

As of Tuesday he has one goal and 15 total points in his first 50 games this season, while also posting strong possession numbers. It is a pretty fair deal for both sides and falls right in line with what a solid, second-pairing defenseman is worth. That is exactly what Pettersson has become for the Penguins.

The Penguins acquired him in the middle of the 2018-19 season in the trade that sent Daniel Sprong to the Anaheim Ducks.

Pettersson and standout rookie John Marino have helped bring mobility and puck-moving ability back to the Penguins’ blue line. That improvement has turned what was a pretty significant weakness a year ago into a real strength.

The Penguins now have a significant part of their defense signed to long-term deals, while Marino still has one more full season remaining on his entry-level contract. That would seem to make it increasingly unlikely that Justin Schultz, a pending unrestricted free agent this summer, will get re-signed.

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.

Logjam at top of Pacific makes for intense playoff push

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ST. LOUIS (AP) — The Pacific Division is proving to be the wild, wild west of the NHL this season.

Vancouver beat defending champion St. Louis on Monday night to move to 60 points in 50 games. Edmonton (57 points in 49 games), Calgary (57 points in 50 games), Arizona (57 points in 51 games) and Vegas (57 points in 52 games) all follow right behind.

”It’s pretty surreal,” Calgary defenseman Mark Giordano said. ”I’ve never seen anything like that with this amount of time left in the season. It’s going to be a great finish, we’re right there right in the mix, we’re in a good spot.”

The logjam at the top is creating a 30-plus game sprint to the finish. The stakes will get higher as the NHL’s scheduling goes heavy on inter-divisional games late in the season.

”I don’t know if I was alive when it has been this close in the division,” Vancouver goalie Jacob Markstrom said. ”It’s great. It’s great for everybody. Obviously you want a 10 or 20 point cushion at this point but that’s not the case and it’s pretty much every team is right there inside a couple of points. It’s going to be fun hockey and pretty much playoff hockey is going to start here after the break.”

The tight race places a premium on regulation wins, allowing a team to grab two points without allowing its rival to get one.

While Vancouver and Edmonton appear to have the edge in games played, there is no margin for error.

”You can go from first to last, from last to first the next night and we’re all going to play each other coming up right at the end of the year,” Vegas forward Max Pacioretty said. ”It’s going to be a fight to the end and we’re expecting these last 30 games to be really intense. But on the bright side if you’re able to get in and you’re able to get through these games, that should prepare you for the playoffs and we’re looking forward to that challenge.”

All of the teams can find inspiration from the Blues’ run last season. The Blues were last in the entire league on Jan. 3 only to catch fire and ride that momentum to the Stanley Cup.

Like those Blues, the Golden Knights made a mid-season coaching change replacing Gerard Gallant who led the team to the finals in their first season, with former Sharks coach Peter DeBoer.

Pacioretty said the All-Star break came at a good time for Vegas. He believes it will allow him and his teammates to emotionally reset and come back ready to perform for their new coach.

”That’s kind of like a fresh wound right now and you kind of take responsibility whenever a coach gets fired,” Pacioretty said. ”You look at yourself in the mirror and say what could I have done better?”

Arizona finds itself in a different position after sitting at or near the top of the division for most of the season.

”We were always the hunters,” Coyotes coach Rick Tocchet said. ”We were always, ‘Hey, how are we going to get back into this thing?’ Now teams are below us and they’re the hunters on us. The old day of playing the backup goalie against the Coyotes, they’re not doing that anymore. They’re playing their starters. That’s what guys have to understand now. You’re going to get the best.”

The race doesn’t allow Tocchet and the other coaches the luxury of managing workload. Tocchet, who isn’t a big morning skate fan, believes it’s all about consistency.

He doesn’t remember a race this tight in his 18 years as a player or in his five years as a coach.

”You have to embrace the pain and all that stuff because if you look at those standings there’s five teams right in there,” Tocchet said. ”One week you’re either in first place or fifth place. Everything the coach does now is for the players and for their psyche and to make them feel comfortable.”

Raising the stakes even higher is that not all five teams are guaranteed to make the postseason as wild cards. Winnipeg, Chicago and Nashville from the Central Division are in the mix for those two spots as well.

Giordano said it’s all about peaking at the right time.

”We have great players and it’s just about putting it together at the right time,” Giordano said. ”I feel like last year we had a great start and an unbelievable first half and sort of lost that confidence we had down the stretch and it carried over for us in the playoffs. Hopefully this year is the complete opposite.”

PHT Morning Skate: Blues looking for top-6 winger; Pacific Division race

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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.

• General manager Doug Armstrong says the St. Louis Blues could be in the market for a top-six forward. (St. Louis Post-Dispatch)

• Canucks, Oilers, Flames prime for mad dash in crowded Pacific Division. (TSN)

• Five reasons for fans to be concerned about the Toronto Maple Leafs. (Sportsnet)

• General mangers on the hot seat as the NHL trade deadline approaches. (Spector’s Hockey)

• Has Valeri Nichushkin been Joe Sakic’s best offseason addition for the Colorado Avalanche? (Mile High Hockey)

Matt Dumba‘s good deed went viral, even if he wished it did not. (Pioneer Press)

Matthew Tkachuk‘s chippy controversy is no surprise to Blues players that watched him growing up. (Sporting News)

• Commitment to team defense driving Penguins’ success. (The Point)

• Ex-Penguin Mark Johnson has made his own impact on women’s hockey. (Tribune-Review)

• What the Chicago Blackhawks have done and what they still need to do. (Daily Herald)

• The New York Rangers have officially loaned forward Lias Andersson to HV71 of the Swedish League. (Blueshirt Banter)

• Looking back at the Capitals’ history winning streak a decade later. (NOVA Caps Fans)

Jakub Vrana gives the Washington Capitals something they have not had in more than a decade. (Japers’ Rink)

• Demanding remaining schedule awaits the Nashville Predators. (On The Forecheck)

• NWHL responds to comments about league on Sportsnet. (The Ice Garden)

• The New York Rangers have been the best investment for hockey bettors. (New York Post)

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: Big milestone night for Patrick Marleau

Big night for Patrick Marleau the buzzer
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Three Stars

1. Thatcher Demko, Vancouver Canucks

All due respect to J.T. Miller‘s two goals, but Demko powered the Canucks to their ninth home win in a row.

The Blues generated a significant 37-26 shots on goal advantage on Tuesday, yet could only beat Demko once. Demko’s save against Jaden Schwartz warrants consideration for highlight of the night.

It’s unclear if the 24-year-old will pan out as the Canucks goalie of the future. Demko’s stats really have been all that impressive over the past couple seasons. Then again, as his creasemate Jacob Markstrom shows, sometimes goalies mature at unpredictable rates.

Either way, Demko looked legit on Tuesday.

2. Marcus Hogberg, Ottawa Senators

Placing Hogberg’s night ranks as challenge.

On one hand, Hogberg’s Senators lost to the Devils in a shootout. Hogberg also allowed three goals (not counting the shootout), which seems like a lot when you try to split hairs regarding best players of the night.

But Hogberg managed 50 saves against New Jersey. NHL PR notes that Hogberg established a Senators record for saves by a rookie goalie in a regular season game. That’s impressive, as was this save of the night contender.

3. Patrick Marleau (San Jose Sharks) enjoys a big night

Marleau deserves his own section, as he qualifies as the third star, provided one of the highlights of the night, and earned his own mini-factoids collection.

Marleau scored two goals on Tuesday. While his first one was the more symmetrical milestone (his 1,100 point with the Sharks), the second one was prettier.

The pass was brilliant (and lucky). The call was great. Marleau burned the Ducks defense for that goal. That also marked his 109th career game-winner.

There was a lot to like, and even without further context, Marleau reaching 10 goals at age 40 was already impressive. Especially since Marleau played his first game of 2019-20 on Oct. 10. Then add context and it’s a very pretty way to join rare company.

Marleau became just the fourth player in NHL history to score 10+ goals for at least 22 consecutive seasons. NHL PR shared the list: Gordie Howe (24), Mark Messier (22), Alex Delvecchio (22), and Marleau (22).

Just a big night overall by Marleau:

One more option for highlight of the night

Remove historical impact and Jamie Benn‘s two goals might stand taller than Marleau’s duo. Check out both of Benn’s impressive goals from the Stars’ OT win against Tampa Bay:

Factoids beyond Marleau having a big night

  • Marleau’s teammate Erik Karlsson generated the 600th point in his 730th regular-season game. NHL PR points out that Karlsson became the 11th defenseman to reach 600 points in 730 games or less.
  • Steven Stamkos reached 20 goals for the 11th season. Sportsnet Stats notes that Vincent Lecavalier owns the Lightning’s most seasons with 20+ at 12. While Stamkos looks poised to set a new franchise record, Nikita Kucherov would need to hustle, as his 22 this season “only” give him six such seasons.
  • The Capitals reached 73 standings points in their 50th game. That’s Washington’s second-best point total through 50 GP, with 2015-16 (78) standing at number one, according to NHL PR.
  • Capitals winger Jakub Vrana scored a goal and an assist to push his point streak to nine games. NHL PR notes that Vrana now holds the league’s third longest active streak.

Scores

WSH 4 – MTL 2
NJD 4 – OTT 3 (SO)
TOR 5 – NSH 2
DAL 3 – TBL 2 (OT)
VAN 3 – STL 1
SJS 4 – ANA 2

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.