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.

Avalanche-Golden Knights stream: NHL Return to Play round-robin game

Avalanche-Golden Knights stream
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NBC’s coverage of the NHL’s Return to Play continues with Saturday’s round-robin matchup between the Avalanche and Golden Knights. Coverage begins at 3 p.m. ET on NBC. Watch the Avalanche-Golden Knights stream on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Two of the hottest teams so far in these playoffs will face off for a chance to earn the top spot in the West. The winner of this matchup will earn the West’s #1 seed; the loser will be 2.

Through two games, Vegas has scored 11 goals (by eight different players) while Colorado has allowed just one goal. The Golden Knights, even without their regular season leading scorer Max Pacioretty (undisclosed), has scored 11 goals in two round robin games. Seven have come in the third period.

Marc-Andre Fleury is playing in his 14th consecutive postseason, the longest active streak among the top four major professional sports leagues. New Orleans Pelicans guard J.J. Redick has played in 13 straight postseasons; the Pelicans are currently attempting to reach the NBA Playoffs, which begin on August 17.

In Jared Bednar’s first season in charge just over three years ago, Colorado finished last in the NHL with just 48 points. Now they boast Hart Trophy finalist Nathan MacKinnon, Calder Trophy finalist Cale Makar and an enviable goalie tandem in Pavel Francouz and Philipp Grubauer.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

WHAT: Colorado Avalanche vs. Vegas Golden Knights
WHERE: Rogers Place – Edmonton
WHEN: Saturday, August 8, 3 p.m. ET
TV: NBC
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Avalanche-Golden Knights stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

Standings (tiebreaker is regular-season points percentage)

Colorado Avalanche (2-0-0, 4 points)
Vegas Golden Knights (2-0-0, 4 points)
St. Louis Blues (0-2-0, 0 points)
Dallas Stars (0-2-0, 0 points)

Western Conference round-robin schedule

Sunday, Aug. 2: Avalanche 2, Blues 1 (recap)
Monday, Aug. 3: Golden Knights 4, Stars 3 (recap)
Wednesday, Aug. 5: Avalanche 4, Stars 0
Thursday, Aug. 6: Golden Knights 6, Blues 4 (recap)
Saturday, Aug. 8: Golden Knights vs. Avalanche, 3 p.m. ET – NBC (livestream)
Sunday, Aug. 9: Stars vs. Blues, 3 p.m. ET – NBC

MORE:
2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers schedule

Lightning-Flyers, Avalanche-Golden Knights play for top seeds

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Jon Cooper wants to stop the conversation now: Steven Stamkos isn’t fit to play until he says so.

The coach of the Tampa Bay Lightning ruled out Stamkos for his team’s final round-robin game Saturday against the Philadelphia Flyers (8 p.m. EDT, NBC) that will determine the top seed in the Eastern Conference. Philadelphia won’t have top-line right winger Jakub Voracek, so neither team is at full strength.

”Injuries are unpredictable,” Cooper said of Stamkos. ”As of right now, he’s out indefinitely until he’s not. And I’ll be the person to let you know when that is. But you should know that he’s working his tail off and he’s eager to come back.”

The Lightning beat Washington and Boston without Stamkos and will again turn to Vezina Trophy finalist Andrei Vasilevskiy as their starting goaltender. Carter Hart starts for Philadelphia, which is also 2-0-0 in round-robin play and will have rookie Joel Farabee on the first line in place of Voracek.

Coach Alain Vigneault would only say Voracek isn’t available to play against Tampa Bay.

”Jake’s got a unique skillset: a veteran guy that’s been around and has played in some big games,” Flyers defenseman Matt Niskanen said. ”We’ll welcome him when he comes back and in the meantime keep chugging forward with the guys we have.”

Cooper said the Lightning have been focusing on peaking for Game 1 of their first best-of-seven series, which will be next week. Vigneault’s Flyers have been attempting to balance between winning and tuning up for when their season is on the line.

Tampa Bay-Philadelphia will decide which team faces Montreal after the Canadiens knocked off the Pittsburgh Penguins in the qualifying round.

”We know they got some top players that have a lot of skill and they got a really good power play,” Hart said of the Lightning

In the Western Conference, the Vegas Golden Knights set the goal of earning the No. 1 seed from the first day of training camp last month. That will be on the line Saturday when they face off against Colorado (3 p.m., NBC). The Golden Knights are going hard for home ice in the West even though there are no fans and all games are being played in Edmonton.

”The higher the seed, the easier path you get,” Vegas coach Peter DeBoer said. ”When I say easy path, you get the lowest-ranked opponent, you get last (line) change, you get the benefit sometimes of a home dressing room over a visitor dressing room. There’s small benefits to it. I like the fact that our group thinks it’s important and we’ve played that way and prepared that way.”

Vegas isn’t 100% healthy yet with winger Max Pacioretty still not ready to play. DeBoer continues to say Pacioretty is close, though he’ll have to quarantine in Edmonton and produce four negative coronavirus test results before being eligible to practice or play.

The Golden Knights came back from deficits to beat Dallas and St. Louis, and look like a buzzsaw no matter who’s in goal between Marc-Andre Fleury and Robin Lehner. The Avalanche similarly have a two-headed goaltending monster in Phillip Grubauer and Pavel Francouz, and coach Jared Bednar isn’t eager to tip his hand on which one he’ll go with in the next round.

The Avalanche are also healthy. Grubauer, Francouz, captain Gabriel Landeskog, winger Mikko Rantanen and star rookie defenseman Cale Makar all missed time with injuries during the season.

With the whole crew together, Colorado is undefeated in two round-robin games and living up to the expectations set internally to get the top seed.

”We want to try and get home ice,” Bednar said. ”It’s been a goal of ours and we want it and our guys are playing like they want it. I like the focus and the intensity from our group at this point. Hopefully it takes even another step here for Vegas so we know that we’re good to go coming out of it.”

Kraken hire Everett Fitzhugh as club’s first broadcaster

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SEATTLE — The Seattle Kraken have hired Everett Fitzhugh as the club’s first broadcaster, the team announced Friday.

Fitzhugh is believed to be the first Black team broadcaster hired by an NHL franchise. He has spent the past five seasons as the director of media relations and broadcasting for the Cincinnati Cyclones of the ECHL. Fitzhugh served as the play-by-play broadcaster for the club.

”As someone who’s worked in hockey for over a decade and who has a long-held passion for broadcasting hockey, to be named a part of the broadcast and content team for a brand-new NHL franchise – particularly one with an organization as strong as the Kraken – is a dream come true,” Fitzhugh said in a statement. ”Getting to the NHL has always been my goal.”

Seattle CEO Tod Leiweke said Fitzhugh came highly recommended by those the team consulted with in making the hire. Fitzhugh’s exact role will be determined at a later date.

Fitzhugh was one of three front-office hires announced by the team. Seattle also hired Jonny Greco as the senior vice president of live entertainment and game presentation, and Lamont Buford will serve as vice president of game presentation.

The Wraparound: First Round seeding up for grabs Saturday

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The Wraparound is your daily look at the 2020 NHL Return to Play. We’ll break down the NHL playoff games today with the all-important television and live streaming information included.

• The NHL Bubble Wrap has your roundup of Friday’s wild postseason action.

• Friday was Elimination Day as the Oilers, Penguins, Predators, Panthers, and Wild all exited the postseason.

NHL GAMES TODAY

Round-robin: Avalanche vs. Golden Knights, 3 p.m. ET, NBC; livestream: Two of the hottest teams so far in these playoffs will face off for a chance to earn the top spot in the West. The winner of this matchup will earn the West’s #1 seed; the loser will be #2. Through two games, Vegas has scored 11 goals (by eight different players) while Colorado has allowed just one goal. Even without their regular season leading scorer Max Pacioretty (undisclosed), the Golden Knights have scored 11 goals in two round robin games. Seven have come in the third period. The Avs have been spreading the love on offense. Through two round robin games, each of Colorado’s six goals have been scored by a different player – two from defensemen (Cale Makar and Ryan Graves) and four from players in their first season with the Avalanche.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Round-robin: Flyers vs. Lightning, 8 p.m. ET, NBC; livestreamThe winner of this game will become the #1 seed in the East; the loser will be the second seed. Tampa, owner of the league’s best regular season offense (3.47 goals/game) has scored five goals in its first two games… and they’re without Steven Stamkos, who will not play against the Flyers after missing Tampa’s first two round robin games with a lower-body injury. He has been ruled out indefinitely. Carter Hart, who will turn 22 on Thursday, is expected to start after Brian Elliott got the nod in Philly’s last game vs Washington. Hart stopped 34 of 35 shots in their 4-1 win vs Boston last Sunday in his postseason debut, becoming the youngest Flyers goalie to win a playoff game.

Round-robin standings (ties broken by regular-season points percentage)

EAST
Lightning (2-0-0, 4 points)
Flyers (2-0-0, 4 points)
Capitals (0-1-1, 1 point)
Bruins (0-2-0, 0 points)

WEST
Avalanche (2-0-0, 4 points)
Golden Knights (2-0-0, 4 points)
Blues (0-2-0, 0 points)
Stars (0-2-0, 0 points)

SUNDAY‘S NHL PLAYOFF SCHEDULE

Round-robin: Bruins vs. Capitals, 12 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Round-robin: Stars vs. Blues, 3 p.m. ET – NBC
Game 5: Blue Jackets vs. Maple Leafs, 8 p.m. ET – NBCSN