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Pressures of being Maple Leafs GM go beyond Marner

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Toronto Maple Leafs.

It’s easy to get lost in all of the distractions and lose sight of the fact that the Maple Leafs have, in a lot of ways, built something special in Toronto. And GM Kyle Dubas played a huge role in bringing in some of those special elements.

A mixture of contract/cap struggles and playoff letdowns obscure that notion, and it’s difficult to blame people when they’ve felt disappointed, if not downright anxious, about this Maple Leafs team. After all, despite splashy signings from John Tavares to Mike Babcock, this team still hasn’t won a playoff series since 2003-04.

Credit fans and media for being relatively calm and patient with the Maple Leafs’ rebuild over the years, but desperation is bubbling up, and Dubas is under pressure to hold everything together long enough for this team to finally deliver on all of that promise.

Consider the challenges Dubas faces and you’ll understand some of the pressure.

[MORE: 2018-19 Review | Three Questions | X-factor]

Signing Mitch Marner: The most obvious challenge is also the most daunting one. It feels less like the elephant in the room and more like the room itself. (We haven’t gotten to the point where we’re spouting out “Oh Hi Mitch” yet, so at least it isn’t “The Room.”)

The Marner situation remains a mystery, as it’s unclear when he’ll sign, for what dollar amount, and for how long. We’re close to September, and the Maple Leafs’ cap situation is convoluted enough where you wonder if this could stretch out to Nylanderian lengths, maybe eating up regular season games.

Either way, it’s on Dubas to win this game of chicken, and you can argue that he’s had mixed results so far.

Nylander’s near-$7 million cap hit figures to be pretty team-friendly if he can get back on track, yet that protracted holdout almost certainly hampered his ability to keep his game in tidy rows. The Maple Leafs didn’t seem to get much of a discount on Auston Matthews, either, as he’s at $11.634M for just five seasons, not eating up much in the way of UFA years.

The Maple Leafs were bound to face cap issues, but they haven’t enjoyed the sort of sweetheart deals in the same way that their divisional foes in Boston and Tampa Bay have. If the ship has sailed on Marner drawing a Nikita Kucherov-type discount, Toronto at least needs to get something done there, so the pressure remains on Dubas.

Managing Mike Babcock: After another Game 7 exit at the hands of the Bruins, many wondered about the dynamic between Dubas and Babcock. Dubas said all the right things in bringing Babcock back for 2019-20, yet it seems like the two don’t always see the game the same way.

Frankly, for all of the impressive bullet points on Babcock’s resume, it sure feels like this talented Toronto team hasn’t always been “optimized” under Babcock lately. Matthews’ minutes could be more robust, and they’d ideally take time away from lesser players.

People will look for signs of this relationship cratering, particularly if moves like the trade to bring in Tyson Barrie and Alexander Kerfoot end up looking a little rocky.

Beyond the core: As tricky as it is to retain that nucleus of Marner, Matthews, Tavares, and Nylander, the toughest challenge is to find the right electrons at the right price. (Thus concludes any shaky scientific analogies I can make.)

So far, Dubas has done a pretty splendid job of maneuvering around the obvious guys, whether that involved getting rid of problem deals (Patrick Marleau, Nikita Zaitsev), retaining mid-level support (Andreas Johnsson, Kasperi Kapanen), or identifying bargains (Tyler Ennis, and then maybe Jason Spezza).

But, like with any contender once star rookie contracts have all expired, the work will basically never be done. Dubas will need to eventually find replacements or new deals for Jake Muzzin and Tyson Barrie, who are both entering contract years. Frederik Andersen is in line for a raise once his $5M cap hit expires after 2020-21.

Ideally, the cap ceiling will rise more significantly in future offseasons than it did this year. Even if that happens, Dubas will be under pressure to find creative ways to make this all work.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Petr Cech marks hockey debut with winning shootout save

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Legendary soccer goalkeeper Petr Cech traded in soccer cleats for ice skates this week after joining up with the Guildford Phoenix of the United Kingdom’s National Ice Hockey League.

The 37-year-old made his debut on Sunday, leading the Phoenix to a 3-2 win over the Swindon Wildcats after a shootout. Sporting a mask designed by the great Dave Gunnarsson which featured a tribute to fellow Czech Dominik Hasek and the logos of Arsenal and Chelsea, the two Premier League soccer teams he played for (and in Chelsea’s case, his current employer).

With the score tied at two, the Phoenix and Wildcats entered the shootout and Cech made two stops, including the final one of the game.

For his part, Cech was named man of the match.

“After 20 years of professional football this is going to be a wonderful experience for me to play the game I loved to watch and play as a kid,” Cech said in a statement last week after signing with the Phoenix.

Now, it’s back to work for Cech at Chelsea as the club’s technical and performance advisor until his next appearance in net for the Phoenix.

MORE: Petr Cech trades soccer goal for hockey net, signs with Guildford Phoenix

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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.

The Buzzer: Namestnikov’s revenge game; Crosby keeps dominating

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Three Stars

1. Vladislav Namestnikov, Ottawa Senators. Two years ago Namestnikov was skating on the Tampa Bay Lightning’s top line alongside Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos. After boosting his value, he was then used as a trade chip for the team to land defender Ryan McDonagh from the New York Rangers before the 2017-18 trade deadline. After a mostly disappointing stay on Broadway, he was traded to Ottawa this past week for another fresh start. So far, so good, and it came at the Lightning’s expense. Namestnikov scored two goals — including the game-winner — for the Senators on Saturday to help his new team get its first win of the season. On paper, this game should have been a mismatch, but the Senators drastically outplayed the Lightning in what was probably the biggest surprise of the day.

2. Leon Draisaitl, Edmonton Oilers. After scoring 50 goals and 100 points a year ago and finishing in the top-four of the league in both categories, Draisaitl is picking up where he left and is once again looking like a superstar. He finished with three points on Saturday afternoon — including two goals — to help the Oilers improve to 5-0 on the season. He and Connor McDavid (two more points on Saturday) are carrying the offense again.

3. Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins. With the Penguins’ forward lineup dealing with a ton of injuries they are going to need their captain and his line to dominate for them to have a chance to win. Right now, they are dominating. Crosby was great once again on Saturday night, picking up two more points in a 7-4 win over the Minnesota Wild, including a highlight reel backhand goal off the rush. He has recorded at least one point in every game this season and already has eight in the Penguins’ first five games. The Penguins also received some surprising production from their recent call-ups with Adam Johnson and Sam Lafferty both recording their first NHL goals.

Other notable performances on Saturday

  • Brendan Gallagher finished with three points for the Montreal Canadiens as they handed the St. Louis Blues their first regulation loss of the season.
  • Rookie goalie Ilya Samsonov was amazing again for the Washington Capitals as they defeated the Dallas Stars. In his first two NHL starts Samsonov has allowed a total of two goals. He is the future of the position in The District.
  • Ilya Kovalchuk continued his strong start with another goal in the Kings’ 7-4 win over the Nashville Predators.
  • The Winnipeg Jets overcame an early 2-0 deficit against the Chicago Blackhawks to win in overtime on Mark Scheifele‘s second goal of the season. The Blackhawks remain winless.
  • Mark Stone, Will Carrier, and Max Pacioretty all had two points for the Vegas Golden Knights in their big 6-2 win over the Calgary Flames.
  • Semyon Varlamov picked up his first win as a member of the New York Islanders by stopping all three shootout shots against the Florida Panthers. He also made 35 saves through regulation and overtime.
  • Tanner Pearson scored a goal in regulation and then added the game-winning goal in the shootout for the Vancouver Canucks in their win over the Philadelphia Flyers.
  • The Boston Bruins’ top line was once again dominant as Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron both scored goals in a 3-0 win over the New Jersey Devils to keep them winless. Tuukka Rask was also brilliant again and has stopped 90 of the first 94 shots he has faced this season.

Highlights of the Night

It may have come in a losing effort but Kaapo Kakko‘s first NHL goal for the New York Rangers was a beautiful play.

Jacob De La Rose had one of the few highlights of the night for the Detroit Red Wings with this nice looking goal.

The Columbus Blue Jackets handed the Carolina Hurricanes their first loss of the season thanks to this great effort from Pierre-Luc Dubois.

The Colorado Avalanche improved to 4-0-0 on the season and it was new addition Andre Burakovsky scoring the game-winning goal for the second game in a row.

Blooper of the Night

There is really no other choice here, it has to be Jimmy Howard‘s gamble in Detroit that turned into a rather easy goal for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Rest in Peace

Factoids

  • The Capitals’ win against the Stars was their first regulation win in Dallas since the 1995 season. [NHL PR]
  • Phil Kessel played in his 1,000th NHL game on Saturday night, making him the third youngest active player to play in 1,000 games. [NHL PR]
  • Penguins goalie Matt Murray recorded his 100th career win on Saturday night, making him just the eight goalie since the 1966-67 season record 100 wins in 166 games or less. [NHL PR]
  • The Los Angeles Kings set a franchise record for fasted three goals, scoring three goals in 30 seconds during their win over the Nashville Predators. [NHL PR]
  • The Oilers are the first team in NHL history to come-from-behind to win each of their first five games of the season. [NHL PR]

Scores
Edmonton Oilers 4, New York Rangers 1
Ottawa Senators 4, Tampa Bay Lightning 2
Los Angeles Kings 7, Nashville Predators 4
Winnipeg Jets 3, Chicago Blackhawks 2 (OT)
Boston Bruins 3, New Jersey Devils 0
Montreal Canadiens 6, St. Louis Blues 3
Toronto Maple Leafs 5, Detroit Red Wings 2
New York Islanders 3, Florida Panthers 2 (SO)
Columbus Blue Jackets 3, Carolina Hurricanes 2
Washington Capitals 4, Dallas Stars 1
Pittsburgh Penguins 7, Minnesota Wild 4
Colorado Avalanche 3, Arizona Coyotes 2 (OT)
Vegas Golden Knights 6, Calgary Flames 2
Vancouver Canucks 3, Philadelphia Flyers 2 (SO)

MORE:
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Jimmy Howard’s gamble goes poorly, results in easy Maple Leafs goal (Video)

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Detroit Red Wings goalie Jimmy Howard had a great start to Saturday’s game against the Toronto Maple Leafs.

He was giving his team a chance to hang around against one of the best offensive teams in the league and keeping them in it when they were not at their best. But with 30 seconds to play in the second period of what was a tie game, he decided to gamble and charged out of his net to try and win a race to a loose puck so he could knock it away from Maple Leafs forward Ilya Mikheyev.

His gamble did not work.

That is unfortunate.

It was all downhill for Howard and the Red Wings from there as they surrendered three more goals to the Maple Leafs in the third period to drop a 5-2 decision.

MORE:
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Devils lose again, remain winless: 3 takeaways on slow start

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The New Jersey Devils were one of the biggest stories of the offseason thanks to some aggressive roster moves by general manager Ray Shero.

Along with the return of a healthy Taylor Hall, the Devils won the NHL’s draft lottery and selected Jack Hughes No. 1 overall to add to a young core that already included the No. 1 overall pick from the 2017 class (Nico Hischier). They surrounded their newly formed core with the big summer acquisitions of P.K. Subban, Nikita Gusev, and Wayne Simmonds.

Expectations immediately skyrocketed and there was a ton of optimism around the team.

That optimism might be starting to quickly disappear.

Following Saturday’s 3-0 loss to the Boston Bruins, the Devils remain winless (0-3-2) through the first five games of the season and you have to wonder how much longer it is going to be until head coach John Hynes’ seat starts to get a little warmer.

What has gone wrong for the Devils so far? Here are three key factors.

1. It has been a slow start for the new faces

Out of all the big offseason acquisitions, Gusev is the only that has found the back of the net through the first five games (he has two goals). Other than that, it has been a giant goose egg for everyone else that was expected to make a difference.  Simmonds and Subban have combined for just two assists, while Hughes is going through some early growing pains with zero points and only 10 shots on goal through the first five games.

When it comes to Hughes you had to expect some struggles at times. He is 18 years old and making a massive jump to the NHL. Not everyone is going to step in and immediately be Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, or Connor McDavid. And while Subban is off to a slow start and might be starting to slow down a little, he has enough of a track record and is still good enough that you have to think he is going to shake off this slow start.

Adding to the problems offensively is that Hall, Hischier, and Kyle Palmieri have combined for just two goals so far (both belonging to Palmieri). If you wanted to put a positive spin on this for the Devils it’s that their best players haven’t yet played anything close to their best hockey. They are not going to struggle this much forever.

But as long as they do, goals — and wins — are going to be few and far between.

2. The power play has been awful

Calling it awful might actually be an understatement. After their 0-for-4 performance against Boston on Saturday night the Devils are now 0-for-15 on the season. That is zero goals in 30 minutes of power play time, and it is not like they have been unlucky. Entering play on Sunday their power play unit was one of the worst in the league when it comes to generating shot attempts and getting shots on goal.

3. Goaltending is still an issue 

It is not the biggest issue, but it is still an issue and it was the single biggest question mark the team had entering the season. Through five games the Devils have allowed at least three goals in every game, with Saturday’s game in Boston being the first one where they did not allow at least four. While the team in front of them has not been particularly good on any given night, the duo of Cory Schneider and Mackenzie Blackwood has an .863 save percentage after Saturday. No matter what is happening around them, your team has no chance with that sort of production from your goalies.

MORE:
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.