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.

Stars can’t afford to be without Heiskanen for too long

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Thursday night wasn’t good for the Dallas Stars. Not only did they lose to the Buffalo Sabres, they also watched as defenseman Miro Heiskanen suffered an upper-body injury during the game.

He’s considered day-to-day for now.

The 20-year-old was hurt after Sabres forward Rasmus Asplund made contact with his head as Heiskanen was falling down to the ice. He then went to the Stars locker room and never returned to the game.

“We all know what he does for us,” Stars interim head coach Rick Bowness said, per the Dallas News. “Our breakouts are a lot better, he joins the rush and he’s a danger on that offensive blue line. Take him out of there, and that’s a big hole. There’s just no getting around that. Injuries happen, and got to keep playing. Got to overcome them.”

Here’s how he got hurt:

It’s easy to see why Heiskanen wouldn’t be pleased with Asplund in the moment, but the contact with the head only occurs because Heiskanen falls forward right before his opponent gets to the corner. But Sweden on Finland crime will never go over well.

The Stars don’t know how long their young defender will be out, but, as Bowness mentioned, it’s clear that they need him back in their lineup quickly. He’s up to seven goals and 24 points in 47 games this season and he averages just over 24 minutes of ice time per game.

The fancy stats also show that when Heiskanen is on the ice the Stars control 55.31 percent of the XGF and 54.19% of the high-danger chances (stats via Natural Stat Trick).

He’s formed a nice duo with Jamie Oleksiak, as they’ve played 384 minutes together at five-on-five this season. If he’s out for an extended period of time, finding someone to slide into that spot won’t be easy.

“He’s an elite player on this team, so anytime you lose one of those guys, it doesn’t matter who it is, it’s going to hurt,” teammate Ben Bishop said after the loss to Buffalo. “Obviously, we’re down a goal there, we rely on those guys.”

On a more positive note, it sounds like they’ll be getting Stephen Johns back after he missed 22 months with post-traumatic headaches. He’ll have to be eased back into the lineup, but he could help fill the void left by Heiskanen. But they’ll likely have to do that as a committee.

The Stars currently find themselves in third place in the Central Division with a record of 27-16-4. They’re tied for second with Colorado, but the Avs hold the tie-breaker (they have more regulation/overtime victories). The Winnipeg Jets, who are currently fourth in the division and just outside the playoff picture, are four points behind Dallas.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Stars’ Stephen Johns nears return after 22-month absence

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DALLAS (AP) — Star defenseman Stephen Johns appears on track to return to Dallas’ lineup for the first time in 22 months on Saturday.

Johns, who returned from a conditioning assignment with Texas of the AHL, was not active for Thursday’s game but will travel with the Stars for their game at Minnesota.

He has not played in an NHL game since March 29, 2018, because of post-traumatic headaches.

”There’s a good chance he’ll play Saturday,” interim coach Rick Bowness said, ”so we’ll evaluate that (Friday) and Saturday morning.”

In two games for Texas, Johns had a goal and three assists.

The Stars could be in need of a defenseman after Miro Heiskanen didn’t play the second half of Thursday’s 4-1 loss to the Buffalo Sabres because of an upper-body injury. Bowness said Heiskanen’s availability is considered day to day.

PHT Morning Skate: Under-the-radar rookies; Ovechkin’s suspension

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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.

• Find out a little bit more about Nicklas Backstrom‘s new contract extension with Washington. (Nova Caps)

• Here’s a list of five-under-the-radar rookies that could compete for the Calder Trophy. (The Hockey News)

• Three-on-three hockey is awesome, but don’t expect to see much more of it going forward. (TSN)

• Martin Brodeur is hoping to get a bigger role with the Devils going forward. (NHL.com)

• Check out Elliott Friedman’s latest 31 thoughts blog. (Sportsnet)

• Even though hockey has changed a lot, there’s still a need for “muscle”. (National Post)

• Have you ever wondered what it takes to be an effective pest in the NHL? (ESPN)

• Sabres top prospect Dylan Cozens is inspiring a lot of young athletes in Yukon. (New York Times)

Alex Ovechkin has decided which game he’ll miss as part of his suspension for skipping the All-Star game. (Washington Post)

• NBC Sports Boston breaks down the 10 best left wingers in hockey. Do you agree with this list? (NBC Sports Boston)

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

The Buzzer: Golden Knights win DeBoer’s debut; Hats off to Ovechkin

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Three Stars

1. Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals. Another milestone for the greatest goal scorer to ever play in the NHL. He recorded his 25th career hat trick on Thursday night and reached the 30-goal mark for the 15th consecutive season to start his career, a feat accomplished only by him and Mike Gartner. Read more about it here.

2. David Rittich, Calgary Flames. Huge night for the All-Star goalie as he stopped 35 shots during regulation and overtime and all three shots he faced in a shootout to help lift the Flames to a 2-1 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Flames have now won six of their past seven games. Thanks to the Arizona Coyotes’ loss to the Vancouver Canucks, the Flames are now tied for first place in the Pacific Division.

3. Mark Stone, Vegas Golden Knights. The Golden Knights won Peter DeBoer’s coaching debut on Thursday night, 4-2, over the Ottawa Senators thanks to a big game from Stone. He scored a goal and recorded an assist in his first game back in Ottawa as a visiting player. Stone played the first six-and-a-half years of his career with the Senators and was one of the team’s best players during his time there. He was a key part of their 2016-17 run to the Eastern Conference Final and became one of the league’s best two-way players. The Senators traded him to Vegas at the trade deadline a year ago. He received a lengthy ovation from the Ottawa crowd on Thursday.

Other notable performances from Thursday

  • Jaroslav Halak gave up a goal to Sidney Crosby just 24 seconds into the game against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Thursday, then slammed the door shut the right of the night to help the Boston Bruins to a 4-1 win.
  • John Tortorella recorded his 200th win as head coach of the Columbus Blue Jackets in their 3-2 win over the Carolina Hurricanes. It is a huge win for the Blue Jackets and a costly game for the Hurricanes as defenseman Dougie Hamilton exited the game with a nasty looking leg injury. Read about it here.
  • The Minnesota Wild snapped their four-game losing streak with an impressive win over the Tampa Bay Lightning. Read about it here.
  • Sam Montembeault replaced an injured Chris Driedger in the Florida Panthers’ net and helped them get a big win over the Los Angeles Kings.
  • Ilya Kovalchuk continued his great play with the Montreal Canadiens by scoring two goals in a 4-1 win over the Philadelphia Flyers. He now has three goals and seven total points in seven games since joining the Canadiens.
  • Rasmus Dahlin scored his third goal of the season to help the Buffalo Sabres beat the Dallas Stars.
  • John Gibson stopped 33 shots for the Anaheim Ducks as they hand the Nashville Predators their seventh defeat in their past 10 games.
  • Philipp Grubauer stops all 27 shots he faces in a shutout win for the Colorado Avalanche over the San Jose Sharks.
  • Jake Virtanen avoids a suspension earlier in the day and then scores the game-winning goal for the Vancouver Canucks in a big win over the Arizona Coyotes.

Highlights of the Night

This might have been Rittich’s biggest and best save of the night.

Cam Atkinson wasted no time making an impact in his return to the Blue Jackets’ lineup with this assist early in the first period.

Chris Kreider scores a game-winning power play with 30 seconds to play in regulation to help give the New York Rangers a 3-2 win over the New York Islanders.

Blooper of the Night

After whiffing on a shootout attempt earlier this week, Brad Marchand had some more problems on a breakaway.

Auston Matthews tried the lacrosse move and it did not work.

Factoids

  • Cale Makar scored his 10th goal of the season for the Colorado Avalanche, tying him for the most in franchise history for a rookie defenseman. [NHL PR]
  • Patrice Bergeron reached the 20-goal mark for the 11th time in his career, the second most in Bruins franchise history behind only John Buyck. [NHL PR]
  • Capitals goalie Ilya Samsonov is the 10th rookie goalie to ever win nine consecutive decisions during the regular season. [NHL PR]

Scores

Boston Bruins 4, Pittsburgh Penguins 1
Calgary Flames 2, Toronto Maple Leafs 1 (SO)
Florida Panthers 4, Los Angeles Kings 3
New York Rangers 3, New York Islanders 2
Montreal Canadiens 4, Philadelphia Flyers 1
Washington Capitals 5, New Jersey Devils 2
Columbus Blue Jackets 3, Carolina Hurricanes 2
Vegas Golden Knights 4, Ottawa Senators 2
Anaheim Ducks 4, Nashville Predators 2
Minnesota Wild 3, Tampa Bay Lightning 2
Buffalo Sabres 4, Dallas Stars 1
Colorado Avalanche 4, San Jose Sharks 0
Vancouver Canucks 3, Arizona Coyotes 1

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.