Underachieving Maple Leafs needed this change

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It was probably overdue.

It probably should have happened over the summer in the wake of another postseason disappointment, and before the 2019-20 season was allowed to turn into the bitter disappointment it has been.

But when the Toronto Maple Leafs fired head coach Mike Babcock on Wednesday, replacing him with Sheldon Keefe, they finally made the biggest change they needed to allow the organization to take the next step in its development the city — and NHL as a whole — has been waiting for it to take.

This isn’t to say that Babcock is a bad coach (he is probably not), or that he will not find a new team in the coming months or years and find success (he might).

But it was becoming increasingly clear that he was the wrong coach for this particular team and roster, and that it was never going to get where it should be without some kind of a drastic change.

When Babcock joined the Maple Leafs for the start of the 2015-16 season it was at a time when they were at one of their lowest points in franchise history. There had been just one playoff appearance in 10 years, the NHL roster was completely devoid of talent, and they didn’t yet know who their long-term impact players would be. Babcock’s hiring was one of the cornerstones of the rebuild, and by signing him to a massive 8-year, $50 million contract it was a clear sign the Maple Leafs were willing to flex their financial muscle and spare no expense in the areas where the league could not limit their spending.

It was also at a time when Babcock’s reputation as a coach still placed him not only among the league’s elite, but probably at the very top of the mountain.

It seemed to be the right move at the right time.

But a lot has changed in the years since.

For one, Babcock’s reputation isn’t as pristine as it once was. It has been 10 years since he has finished higher than third place in his division (2010-11 season). It has been eight years since he has advanced beyond Round 1 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs (2012-13). In that time there have been 28 different coaches that have won a playoff series in the league, including two (Mike Yeo and Barry Trotz) that have won playoff series’ with multiple teams.

If you wanted, you could try and find reasons for that lack of success. His team’s in Detroit at the end were getting older and losing their core players to an inevitable decline and retirement. His first years in Toronto were taking over the aforementioned mess left behind by the previous regime, and if anything those early Maple Leafs teams may have even overachieved.

All of that is true. It is also true to say that almost any other coach with that recent resume of third-place finishes and first round exits probably wouldn’t have had the leash that Babcock had. They would have been fired two years ago.

As the talent level dramatically increased in Toronto, the expectations should have changed as well. This is no longer a young team going through a rebuild where just making the playoffs is an accomplishment. This is a team of established NHL Players — All-Star level players — that should be capable of more than what they have accomplished. Not only has that not happened, but all indications were that the team was going in the wrong direction.

Last year’s Maple Leafs team won fewer games and collected fewer points than the previous year’s team despite gaining John Tavares and Jake Muzzin and getting a breakout year from Mitch Marner.

This year’s Maple Leafs team has one of the worst records in the league at the one quarter mark and has seen the once dynamic offense turn ordinary, relying on harmless point shots from defensemen.

And that doesn’t even get into the biggest issue, which was the apparent disconnect between his style and the style of the front office and roster. The Maple Leafs are built for offense, and speed, and skill, and defending by attacking and playing with the puck. Everything that came out of Babcock was always about grinding down, and defending, and you can’t score your way to a championship.

There is not any one way to win in the NHL. Some teams win with speed and skill, others win with defense. The most important thing is to play to your strength and do what you do well. The Maple Leafs are not doing that. Talk about the makeup of their defense or the way they defend all you want, but it still comes down to whether they are playing to their strengths. You can’t take a team built around John Tavares, Marner, Auston Matthews, and William Nylander and ask it to win 2-1 every night. You are wasting them by doing that and you will fail. You have to turn them loose and let them do what they do best. Babcock never seemed able or willing to trust them to do that.

Whether or not this sparks the Maple Leafs to turn their season around and go on a championship run like Pittsburgh in 2009 and 2016, or Los Angeles in 2012, or St. Louis in 2019 remains to be seen. But Keefe has coached many of the players in Toronto before, he has coached them to play a certain way, and he has won with them.

Now he gets a chance to do it on the biggest stage.

Maybe it works. Maybe it doesn’t. But the worst thing that happens is they fall short and underachieve, something they were already doing anyway. At least now they get to go down taking their best swings.

MORE:
Maple Leafs fire Babcock, name Keefe head coach
Where will Mike Babcock end up after Maple Leafs?

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.

Kraken add some size, acquire Jaycob Megna from San Jose

Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports
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SEATTLE — The Seattle Kraken acquired defenseman Jaycob Megna from the San Jose Sharks in exchange for a 2023 fourth-round draft pick.

Megna is in the midst of his best season with 12 points in 48 games for the Sharks while averaging more than 19 minutes per game.

“Jaycob has shown with his play this season that he is a responsible defenseman that can be relied on in all situations,” Seattle general manager Ron Francis said. “He provides welcome depth to our defensive group and we are happy to have him join our organization.”

The 6-foot-6, 220-pound Megna will add some size and bulk to Seattle’s lineup. Megna ranked fifth for San Jose in both blocked shots and hits.

Megna previously played for Anaheim for parts of three seasons between 2016-19. The 48 games played this season is a career-high for the 30-year-old.

Seattle is tied for the lead in the Pacific Division and will return from the All-Star break beginning against the New York Islanders.

Islanders sign Bo Horvat to 8-year deal after trading for him

Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports
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The New York Islanders signed center Bo Horvat to an eight-year contract less than a week after acquiring him in a trade with the Vancouver Canucks.

The team announced the contract after their first practice following the All-Star break. Horvat’s deal is worth $68 million and carries a $8.5 million salary cap hit through the 2030-31 season.

General manager Lou Lamoriello joked to reporters at practice on Long Island that Horvat’s contract was “too long and it’s too much money.”

The Islanders sent forward Anthony Beauvillier, prospect Aatu Raty and a protected first-round pick to the Canucks for Horvat . He was set to be an unrestricted free agent after the season, and the trade was a result of Vancouver and Horvat’s camp being unable to reach a deal last summer.

Lamoriello and Horvat expressed confidence about getting a deal done after the trade. The 27-year-old has scored more than 30 goals for a second consecutive season.

Horvat was chosen as an All-Star and played for the Pacific Division despite the trade. He played with longtime Canucks teammate Elias Pettersson and combined on one last goal together before parting ways.

“I want to get going,” Horvat said after the All-Star 3-on-3 tournament. “That’s enough. Let’s start playing some games and getting to know the guys. I just want to start playing hockey again.”

Horvat was on vacation with his family in Orlando when he was traded. He said coach Lane Lambert wanted him to enjoy All-Star festivities before getting rolling with the Islanders, who play at the Philadelphia Flyers.

“Obviously getting my legs under me is going to be No. 1 and getting systems down and obviously chemistry with the new linemates and stuff like that,” Horvat said.

After facing the Flyers and Seattle, Horvat will play against his former team when Vancouver visits UBS Arena.

Bruins rolling, rest of NHL making final push for playoffs

John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports
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SUNRISE, Fla. — Bruce Cassidy’s Vegas Golden Knights lost eight of 10 games going into the All-Star break after leading the Pacific Division at the midway point of the NHL season.

They’re still safely in a playoff spot in the Western Conference, but they can’t keep it up.

“We’re still in a good position – that’s the way we look at it,” Cassidy said. “There’s not too many teams that can cruise home the last 30 games in this league, and we’re certainly not one of them.”

Cassidy’s old team, the Boston Bruins, probably could. They’re atop the NHL and running away with the Atlantic Division.

With 39 wins and 83 points through 51 games, Boston is on pace to break the record for the best regular season in NHL history. The Carolina Hurricanes, who beat Boston in seven games in the first round last year, are next in the standings at 76 points.

“Top to bottom, there’s no weaknesses,” Carolina coach Rod Brind’Amour said.

The Bruins are in a class of their own, but the playoff races behind them in the East and West should be hot down the stretch with roughly 30 games to go before the chase for the Stanley Cup begins.

METROPOLITAN DIVISION

The Hurricanes rode a seven-game winning streak into the break, putting some fear into the Bruins in the race for the Presidents’ Trophy and home-ice advantage through the postseason. Winger Max Pacioretty re-tearing his right Achilles tendon five games into his return didn’t slow them down, and if their goaltending holds up, Carolina stands a good chance of reaching the East final.

“This team, it’s a special group of guys,” said Brind’Amour, who captained Carolina to the Cup in 2006 and is in his fifth year as coach. “We kind of show that nightly. It’s just very consistent, and they take their job real serious. They do it right.”

The second-place New Jersey Devils are contending for the first time since 2018. Bottoming out the next season helped them win the lottery for No. 1 pick Jack Hughes, a two-time All-Star who has them winning ahead of schedule.

“Much better than being out of the mix,” Hughes said. “We’re really excited because it’s going to be a lot of important hockey, and it’s going to be really competitive and we’re really pumped to be where we are.”

They’re followed by the New York Rangers, Washington Capitals, Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Islanders. All three New York-area teams could make it, which was the expectation for the Rangers after reaching the East final last year.

“I think the run last year really taught us a few things and stuff that we obviously could build on for the rest of this year,” 2021 Norris-Trophy winning defenseman Adam Fox said.

ATLANTIC

The Rangers lost to the Lightning in six games last spring, when two-time champion Tampa Bay reached the Stanley Cup Final for the third consecutive season before getting beat by the Colorado Avalanche.

The Lightning are almost certain to face the Toronto Maple Leafs – who haven’t won a playoff series since the NHL salary cap era began in 2005 – in the first round and remain a threat to the Bruins.

But Boston has separated itself despite starting the season without top left winger Brad Marchand and No. 1 defenseman Charlie McAvoy. The Bruins have lost only 12 games under new coach Jim Montgomery.

“You just keep winning,” said All-Star right winger David Pastrnak, who’s tied for third in the league in scoring. “Every single line and every single guy is going and it obviously builds our confidence. It’s funny sometimes what confidence can do in hockey.”

The Islanders should have some more confidence after acquiring 30-goal scorer Bo Horvat from Vancouver, but still need to make up ground to get in.

CENTRAL

Defending champion Colorado climbed in the standings – winning seven of eight going into the break despite an injury-riddled first half of the season. Captain Gabriel Landeskog still has not made his season debut since undergoing knee surgery. It would be foolish to bet against the Avs coming out of the West again.

“It’s up to us: We control our own fate,” All-Star center Nathan MacKinnon said. “We need to definitely keep playing the way we were before the break. No matter who’s in the lineup we were playing well, playing hard, so it would definitely help with healthy bodies.”

They still trail the Dallas Stars, Winnipeg Jets and Minnesota Wild in the Central, and the Nashville Predators are on their heels. Only the Stars and Jets are essentially guaranteed a spot.

“Every point, you grind for it,” Stars leading scorer Jason Robertson said. “Every point’s going to be a dog fight, so it’s going to be a fun 30 games down the stretch.”

PACIFIC

Undisputed MVP favorite Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers, who were swept by Colorado in the West final, have a little bit of catching up to do in the Pacific Division.

The top spot is held by the Seattle Kraken, who surprisingly are on pace to make the playoffs in their second season but still need to fend off the Los Angeles Kings and the Vegas Golden Knights.

Edmonton – and the Battle of Alberta rival Calgary Flames – have the talent to not only get in but make a run. McDavid leads the league with 41 goals and 92 points, 16 more than No. 2 scorer and teammate Leon Draisaitl, and is producing unlike anyone since Hall of Famer Mario Lemieux in the mid-1990s.

Now he’ll try to carry the Oilers into the playoffs and beyond.

“It hasn’t been easy at all for our group. We’ve kind of had to battle for everything that we’ve got,” McDavid said. “We’ve always been a second-half team for whatever reason. Even since my first year, we’ve always been better in the second half, so we’ll definitely look to continue that. That being said, we’re not going to hang our hat on that and expect that to carry us to the playoffs. There’s a lot of work to be done.”

Capitals sign Sonny Milano to 3-year, $5.7 million extension

Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports
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ARLINGTON, Va. — The Washington Capitals signed winger Sonny Milano to a three-year extension worth $5.7 million.

General manager Brian MacLellan announced the contract, adding to an already busy All-Star break for taking care of future business. The Capitals extended forward Dylan Strome for five years, $25 million.

Like Strome, Milano has fit in as a new addition for Washington. He’s now set to count $1.9 million against the salary cap through the 2025-26 season.

The 26-year-old Milano has been a near-perfect bargain signing for the Capitals after joining them on an NHL veteran one-year deal after this season got underway. He has eight goals and 14 assists for 22 points in 40 games since getting called up from Hershey of the American Hockey League.

Originally drafted by the Columbus Blue Jackets 16th in 2014, Milano split his first eight seasons in the league with them and the Anaheim Ducks. He went unsigned as an unrestricted free agent last summer despite putting up 34 points in 66 games with Anaheim.