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.

Report: Sabres’ Bogosian requests trade

Zach Bogosian Trade Request
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With the Buffalo Sabres dealing with a logjam of defenseman, the team has been active in NHL trade rumors as general Jason Botterill tries to make a move to help address the team’s depth at forward.

It is not hard to connect the dots and assume a defenseman could be the player eventually on the move. And it seems veteran Zach Bogosian might be making the decision on which one to trade a little easier. According to TSN’s Darren Dreger, Bogosian has reportedly requested a trade out of Buffalo.

He is also not in the lineup for their game against the Nashville Predators and will be a healthy scratch as the team dresses seven defenseman, including second-year standout Rasmus Dahlin.

Dahlin will be making his return to the lineup after missing the past eight games due to a concussion.

As for Bogosian, he has been limited to just 10 games this season while injuries have been a constant issue for him throughout his career. That has been especially true during his Sabres tenure where he has never played more than 65 games in a season. He is in the final year of his current contract and will be an unrestricted free agent after this season.

The Sabres have 12 defensemen in the organization with NHL experience and are currently carrying eight on the roster.

As far as a potential return is concerned, expectations should be kept within reason given his contract status and inability to stay in the lineup over the past few years. It might be worth noting the Sabres have been rumored to be one of the teams interested in Pittsburgh Penguins forward Alex Galchenyuk as he continues to struggle to fit in with his new team.

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.

Sharks on fixing issues under Boughner: ‘It’s on all of us in this room’

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As with many coaches, after some time, the effect your voice has on your players wears off and new blood is needed. That’s been Peter DeBoer’s experience since becoming an NHL head coach in 2008.

Three seasons with the Panthers was followed by three-and-a-half yeah with the Devils, which brings us to his four-and-a-half season tenure with the Sharks, which ended Wednesday night with his firing. Each stop of his coaching journey has seen improvement, with his most successful job done in San Jose where the team made the Stanley Cup Final in his first season and reached the playoffs in his four full seasons in the Bay Area.

This 15-16-2 Sharks team should have been in the “Cup Contender” category nearly halfway through this season, but has turned out to be nothing but a disappointment. A five-game losing streak was the last straw for general manager Doug Wilson and it was time for a change.

“Probably, yeah,” said Joe Thornton when asked if a new voice was needed. “I love Pete. Pete’s a fantastic coach. He took this team to where it’s never been before. Nothing but heavy respect for Pete. But it might have been time for a new voice.”

The Sharks’ goaltending has been a huge issue since last season with a league-worst .892 even strength save percentage since the start of the 2018-19, per Natural Stat Trick. There’s also an issue of team defense. San Jose is tied with the Maple Leafs with 46 high-danger goals allowed, most in the NHL. It’s a baffling statistic given they also own the league’s best penalty kill at 88.3%. Systemically, there’s something wrong.

“We’ve talked about this since the beginning of the season,” Wilson said Thursday, “whether it’s focus, whether it’s attitude. Bob [Boughner] talked about when you’re killing penalties, it’s to prevent the other team from scoring, so you come back with urgency, even though you’re a man less. It’s positioning, sticks in the right lanes. I don’t like to use the word cheating, but you’re not hoping to go the other way. If you can apply that approach 5-on-5, you’d think you’d be very strong at it.

“If you can take the idea that it’s not just to prevent the other team from scoring, but now we want to get the puck back so we can attack offensively, that’s really the mindset you have to have. When we do that well, we’re a really good hockey team.”

Making a move to shake up this roster seems like a long-shot given the Sharks’ salary cap situation. The only notable move so far came in the way of bringing back Patrick Marleau, who has six goals and 11 points in 29 games.

The only change coming will be Bob Boughner moving from assistant to head coach and a new staff featuring San Jose’s AHL head coach Roy Sommer, and former Sharks Mike Ricci and Evgeni Nabokov.

“The players trust and believe in [Boughner],” Wilson said. “And I think he’ll bring that energy, juice and joy to the game I think our team is missing right now.”

We’ll see if Boughner learned from his two playoff-less seasons with the Panthers. Whatever new system and style he wants to institute will have to be executed by the players who have played their way into this situation.

“It’s on all of us in this room,” said Sharks captain Logan Couture. “When something like that happens, pro sports is such a what have you done for me lately business. As a player, when a coach loses their job, you feel you’re part of the reason why.”

“You put hockey aside. As a human being, you’re upset you’re not going to be able to work with that group anymore and see them every day,” Couture said. “I talked to most of them and just them that I had so much fun coming to the rink and playing for you guys.”

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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.

Tim Thomas details brain damage from hockey

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Former NHL goaltender Tim Thomas said Thursday that his post-concussion syndrome symptoms were so severe that he couldn’t make basic decisions and his brain wasn’t functioning well enough to even watch hockey.

In his first public appearance since walking away from the game, Thomas said a scan taken after he retired showed that two-thirds of his brain were getting less than 5% blood flow and the other third was getting less than 50%. The 45-year-old said it took significant time and help to even be able to communicate with former teammates and others.

He’s still not close to normal.

”I wake up every day and basically I have to reorder everything in my mind for the first couple hours of the day and then make a list and try to make some choices to get some stuff done,” Thomas said before being inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame.

Thomas won the Stanley Cup in 2011 with the Boston Bruins and was named playoff MVP. He played parts of 10 NHL seasons before retiring in 2014 but said his experiences made him question if it was all worth it.

”It taught me a value for life and a value for my brain that I’ve never had before,” Thomas said. ”And I have appreciation for everything that I never had before. I don’t regret anything.”

Long considered reclusive, Thomas said he lived in the woods for a couple of years because he couldn’t handle human interaction. He got a chance to talk to some old teammates at a game Wednesday nights between the Bruins and Washington Capitals.

Losses pile up for Red Wings as Blashill’s seat gets hotter

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It’s pretty wild to think that it’s been a month since the Red Wings last won a game, a 4-3 overtime victory over the Ducks. It’s even wilder to realize that was their third straight win and that streak began by beating the Bruins and Golden Knights.

One month later and Detroit has gone 12 games without a win, five NHL teams have made coaching changes — with differing reasons, of course — and Jeff Blashill remains behind the bench.

The Red Wings are currently approaching the franchise record for consecutive losses (14) set back in 1982 and are five defeats away from tying the NHL record (17) held by the 1974-75 Capitals and 1992-92 Sharks.

“When things go bad, they’re really bad right now,” said Dylan Larkin. “We don’t have an answer for that right now. But we need to find it. It’s not even Christmas yet and this has happened too many times. It’s not acceptable.”

How bad it is? Their goal differential is currently a a league-worst minus-62. The Devils are right behind them at minus-37. They’re ranked 29th in team even strength save percentage at .896, per Natural Stat Trick, with their goaltenders allowing five or more goals in half of their 32 games. The offense is averaging a paltry 2.09 goals per game.

The expectations were low this season, so playoff hockey wasn’t a thought for the team. With a new general manager in Steve Yzerman and a young roster, it was all about development and taking steps forward. Blashill signed a two-year extension in April, but there’s been a lack of progress. There’s a natural replacement on the Red Wings’ bench in Dan Bylsma, but perhaps Yzerman has someone else in mind?

While his future remains unknown, Blashill is trying to focus on the present.

“For me, all I’m doing is what I always do and that’s be solution-based and worry about what we can control,” he said following Tuesday’s defeat. “What we can control right now is learning from this game and make sure we are helping our team get better. Find solutions. Come Thursday and worry just about that. That’s it.”

It’s hard to know Yzerman’s thinking on the situation given he hasn’t spoken publicly about Blashill since last month’s general manager meetings when he said he was “seeing good progress” with the Red Wings and there’s still a “long way to go.” But clearly something’s got to give in Hockeytown.

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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.