Maple Leafs fire Babcock, name Keefe new head coach

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The Toronto Maple Leafs actually did it. The Maple Leafs announced Mike Babcock’s firing on Wednesday, and wasted no time naming Sheldon Keefe as his replacement as head coach.

After another frustrating Game 7 loss to the Boston Bruins in 2018-19, the Maple Leafs went through a strenuous offseason. It all built up expectations (and angst) quite high, and the 9-10-4 Maple Leafs haven’t lived up to them so far in 2019-20.

An already tense situation really hit a new low lately, as the Maple Leafs have looked miserable on their way to a six-game losing streak. Despite Babcock’s significant name recognition (and his $6.25M price tag), the Maple Leafs decided it was time to move on.

Problems go from festering to boiling

If you’ve spent any time on Hockey Twitter during the last couple of seasons, you’ve likely seen people question a wide variety of Babcock’s decisions. Sometimes the nitpicking feels extreme, but other times, it’s easy to see where people are coming from. (“Why isn’t Auston Matthews on the ice more often?” is a talking point most would agree with.)

The grumbling turned to rumbling as the Maple Leafs simply haven’t been playing well lately. To pin everything on Babcock is obviously unfair, yet you wonder if Keefe might be able to play to strengths better. The Maple Leafs seemed to march to the beat of the wrong drum at times under Babcock, and that seemed glaringly true during the lowest moments so far in 2019-20.

Better synergy?

Maple Leafs GM Kyle Dubas is 33. Keefe (once drafted 47th overall by the Lightning in 1999) is 39. Babcock? He’s 56, and some of his “old school” tendencies would shine through. Will Keefe lean toward the Roman Polak and Cody Ceci-types as much as Babcock? Is it possible that more offensive-minded defensemen such as Morgan Rielly and Tyson Barrie might flourish under Keefe after struggling with Babcock, particularly this season?

We’ll have to see, but you can understand why some might expect Dubas and Keefe to see eye-to-eye where Babs and Dubas might have butted heads.

One can only speculate about how Dubas and Keefe will get along, and only guess about deployment choices and strategic tweaks.

What we do know is that Keefe had a strong run coaching the Toronto Marlies, the team’s AHL affiliate. The Marlies made the playoffs every year since Keefe became head coach in 2015-16, winning at least one round each time, and taking home the 2018 Calder Cup.

Obviously, Keefe’s resume doesn’t compare to what Babcock brought to the table, but while experience will be a question, one would think that Keefe might be less prone to stubbornness than Babcock, whose resume allowed him to hold some serious sway over Toronto’s decisions.

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As shocking as this move is, it feels like it had to happen. There are a wide variety of outlooks regarding Toronto’s chances to make the playoffs (from decent to downright lousy), but the bottom line is that this team seemed rudderless for some time.

Keefe gets his first chance to steer the ship in Arizona against the Coyotes on Thursday, the third game of what turned out to be a franchise-altering six-game road trip.

MORE:
Where will Mike Babcock end up after Maple Leafs?
Underachieving Maple Leafs needed this change]

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.

P.K. Subban, NHL make $100K donation to fund for George Floyd’s daughter

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P.K. Subban has announced a $50,000 donation to the GoFundMe page for George Floyd’s daughter and added that the NHL is matching that amount.

The Devils defenseman took to social media to add to the voices around hockey speaking up about Floyd’s death last week.

“What does ‘change the game’ mean? ‘Change the game’ means change the narrative,” Subban said. “The narrative has been the same — no justice. There needs to be justice. Justice has to happen; change needs to come, but we need everyone. We need everyone and all people to look at our lives and see where we can help that change and do our part. I’m committed to that. I’m committed to that through and through.”

As of Wednesday afternoon, the fund for six-year-old Gianna Floyd is nearing $900,000 from over 26,000 donors.

[NHLers speak out on death of George Floyd, U.S. protests]

In 2015, Subban, while a member of the Canadiens, made a $10 million pledge to the Montreal Children’s Hospital.

Other NHLers helping out

Subban wasn’t the only NHLer going good on Wednesday. Patrice Bergeron of the Bruins announced a $25,000 donation to the Boston branch of the NAACP as well as $25,000 to Centre Multiethnique de Quebec.

Capitals forward Tom Wilson Tweeted that he’ll be donating to East Of The River Mutual Aid Fund as well as to the Fort Dupont Cannons Hockey Program.

Finally, Andrei Svechnikov lent a hand to the Wake County Boys and Girls club. The Hurricanes forward donated 2,500 disposable masks and 25 5.25-gallon containers of hand sanitizers for COVID-19 relief efforts.

For more on the George Floyd protests around the U.S., follow the NBC News live blog.

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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.

Will 2020 Stanley Cup be the toughest ever to win?

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During the latest episode of “Our Line Starts,” Keith Jones and Patrick Sharp argued that the 2020 Stanley Cup might just be the toughest to ever win.

However you feel about that, others argued similarly. Back in mid-April, Golden Knights forward Max Pacioretty also argued that the 2020 Stanley Cup might require the most from players.

“I think this will be the hardest Stanley Cup to win out of all of them,” Pacioretty told Gary Lawless of the Golden Knights’ website. “Look at all the obstacles. Who knows when we’re going to play, where, fans or no fans, everything is up in the air …”

Again, Pacioretty made that observation in April, before the NHL announced its return-to-play plans. Jones and Sharp argued their point with more information about the process. The larger arguments remain pretty similar, though.

Of course, as Jones and others also note, there are still a lot of hurdles to clear. Laying out a play to hand out the 2020 Stanley Cup doesn’t mean you’ll reach that destination.

But Pacioretty and others provide some room for debate. Could a run for the 2020 Stanley Cup prove to be the toughest of them all?

How a run to the 2020 Stanley Cup could be especially difficult

While the sheer uncertainty of the situation provides the best fodder, you could also lean on the nitty gritty details. Consider how difficult the path could be for a Qualifying Round team trying to win the 2020 Stanley Cup.

Said team would jump into a high-stakes, best-of-five series with a potentially dangerous opponent. Only then would they make the typical “Round of 16” you’d associate with the postseason.

The NHL hasn’t announced how long each (traditionally best-of-seven) First Round and Second Round series would be. However, we do know that the league aims for best-of-seven series during the Eastern and Western Conference Finals, along with the 2020 Stanley Cup Final.

So … yeah, that could present a treacherous path. Especially for teams in that Qualifying Round, but Round Robin teams like Pacioretty’s Golden Knights wouldn’t have it easy, either. And that’s before we get into the logistics of living in a hub city, potentially away from family, friends, and other comforts.

NHL seasons have faced other extraordinary/unusual challenges

Yes, these are strange times — in some ways, unprecedented — but the NHL’s seen other serious challenges.

As you may know, the league faced serious disruption from another epidemic. The 1919 Stanley Cup was not awarded thanks to “The Spanish Flu.” (Gare Joyce recently looked back at that, and how it may illuminate the league’s struggles with COVID-19, for Sportsnet.)

If the NHL manages to award the 2020 Stanley Cup, it won’t be alone in the league forging on during tough moments. Back in 2017, Stan Fischler looked back at the NHL operating during World War II, and all of the challenges that ensued.

Each team had many players who were on active service during the war. In hockey’s “Victory Lineup” at the start of the 1942-43 season, the Boston Bruins had 16 players, the Canadiens 11, the Chicago Black Hawks seven, the Brooklyn Americans eight, the Detroit Red Wings eight, the New York Rangers 19 and the Maple Leafs 14.

Pacioretty himself weighed the significant challenges of going for the 2020 Stanley Cup with some unusual advantages. Most obviously, players will be as healthy as they’ve ever been this late in a season.

Considering how people often complain of rigorous travel, one perk of the “hub city” system would involve far more limited movement. (From a quality of life standpoint, that’s probably mostly negative. Players would prefer to see friends and family, and the comforts of home. But still, it’s worth at least mentioning in passing.)

2020 Stanley Cup not the only unusual circumstance

Thanks to lockouts and/or lockout-shortened seasons, we’ve also seen players enter postseasons in less typical circumstances. Sure, some will worry that the 2020 Stanley Cup winner might get the “asterisk treatment.” There are people who probably still discredit, say, the 2005-06 Hurricanes for winning it all during an unusual season.

Overall, Jones, Sharp, and Pacioretty all have decent larger points. The sheer uncertainty of this situation should make it difficult. That’s especially true for the NHL players who are most aptly “creatures of habit.”

Panthers defenseman Anton Stralman candidly spoke about the many obstacles the NHL faces in determining a 2020 Stanley Cup winner while managing risks. It won’t be easy to win it all, but then again, it rarely is, right?

Check out the full episode of “Our Line Starts” below:

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.

Decision on NHL Return to Play hub cities weeks away

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As the NHL moves towards resuming play this summer, the league must first narrow down the list of hub cities.

When Commissioner Gary Bettman announced the NHL’s Return to Play plan last week, he noted 10 cities in the U.S. and Canada are under consideration. Two will be chosen with the strong likelihood one will also host the conference finals and Stanley Cup Final.

First, here are the 10 cities in the running:

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

[MORE: NHL announces return-to-play plans]

Appearing on the Ray & Dregs podcast, Bettman gave an update on the process.

“I’m going to probably have to make a decision collectively on this probably in three weeks,” he said on the May 28th episode. “I think in two weeks we’ll start narrowing down further. Somewhere around three weeks we’re going to have to pull the trigger and finalize the arrangements and make the deposits.”

Standing out

In order to play host, a hub city will need secure hotels, facilities for games and practices, and good transportation. Most importantly, there will need to be low COVID-19 case rates, cooperation from local government, and the availability for mass testing.

The three Canadian cities face the biggest challenges. The government has a mandatory 14-day quarantine period for anyone entering the country. On Tuesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said discussions are “on-going” between public health officials and the NHL.

How badly does Edmonton want in? Alberta premier Jason Kenney sent a request to Trudeau asking that NHL personnel be exempt from travel and quarantine restrictions to improve their chances.

Vegas, baby, Vegas

Meanwhile, Las Vegas has emerged as a favorite. Nevada is about to enter Phase Two this week, with businesses and casinos set to reopen. That’s a huge boost for the city’s chances given the amount of available hotels. The lack of ice sheets compared to other cities could be helped by the installation of additional surfaces, reported The Athletic last week. The total package is a reason why the conference finals and Cup Final could also take place there.

Host cities with a team involved, however, may not get to root them on. The league may put them in the other hub city or, if they do stay home, the players would have to follow the NHL’s guidelines. “[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.

The NHL is expected to move into Phase 2 this week with players in small groups doing voluntary non-contact skating and off-ice training. The next step would be training camps opening up no earlier than July 10 and a possible resumption of the season by early August.

MORE RETURN TO PLAY:
Breaking down the Eastern Conference series

A look at the Western Conference matchups
Which play-in playoff series would be the most exciting?
Qualifying Round storylines

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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.

Our Line Starts podcast: Previewing key NHL Return to Play matchups

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In the latest edition of Our Line Starts, Liam McHugh, Patrick Sharp and Keith Jones break down the NHL Return to Play plan and take a look at a few potential hub cities. Plus, they preview some of the more exciting playoff matchups, including Penguins vs. Canadiens, Hurricanes vs. Rangers, Oilers vs. Blackhawks and Predators vs. Coyotes.

3:55-5:40 Is the Return to Play format fair?
6:45-8:05 Hub city discussion
8:05-10:50 Can Montreal upset Pittsburgh?
10:50-13:40 Intriguing Hurricanes-Rangers matchup
13:40- 15:50 Bracket vs Re-seed debate
16:30-18:45 What to make of Oilers vs Blackhawks
18:45-21:05 Coin flip between Coyotes and Predators

Where else you can listen:

Apple: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/id1482681517

Stitcher: https://www.stitcher.com/podcast/nbc-sports/our-line-starts

Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/show/7cDMHBg6NJkQDGe4KHu4iO?si=9BmcLtutTFmhRrNNcMqfgQ

NBC Sports on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/nbcsports