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.

NHL Bubble Wrap: Plenty of playoff action, including a double OT Game 1

NHL scores Bubble Wrap playoff double OT around the NHL
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  • Hey, the Bruins and Hurricanes got to play, and it went to (double) OT. And Rod Brind’Amour got really mad, and less rich.
  • Barry Trotz got … uh, the latest laugh(?) against his old team, the Capitals.
  • Carey Price made a righteous save, but lost.
  • Plenty of Game 1 action, so let’s get rolling.

NHL scores from 2020 Stanley Cup Playoff Game 1 action

Bruins 4, Hurricanes 3 [2 OT] (Boston leads 1-0)

After having their game postponed from Tuesday, the Bruins and Hurricanes made up for lost time by taking a lot of time in their Game 1. These two teams needed to reach a second overtime period to decide their Game 1, with Patrice Bergeron scoring the OT GWG after Petr Mrazek was just a tooooouch off of his angle.

Islanders 4, Capitals 2 (Isles lead 1-0)

T.J. Oshie scored two power-play goals to give the Capitals a 2-0 lead. Then things fell apart. The Islanders took advantage of some sloppy play from the Capitals, and Anders Lee made some Capitals enemies with a fight, a hit that may have injured Nicklas Backstrom, and a goal. Barry Trotz’s new team took this one against his old pals.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Avalanche 3, Coyotes 0 (Colorado leads 1-0)

For much of this one-sided Game 1, it seemed like Darcy Kuemper might steal (another?) win for the Coyotes. It took until fairly deep into the third period for the Avalanche to get a puck past Kuemper. But when it rained, it poured, with three goals in about a minute and a half. As great as Kuemper’s been for the Coyotes, Arizona needs to do more than sit back and only fire 14 SOG against Philipp Grubauer and the Avs.

Flyers 2, Canadiens 1 (Philadelphia leads 1-0)

The Carter Hart – Carey Price hype seemed fairly justified in Game 1. While Price made the save of that Game 1 (see: highlight of the night), Hart got the best of his idol in this one. The 2-1 score might indicate that it was a slog. Not really; the two teams played with pretty solid pace. That said, the Canadiens couldn’t get a whole lot done in the third period, when the Flyers were really clamping down.

Canucks 5, Blues 2 (Vancouver leads 1-0)

Well, then. The Canucks never trailed in Game 1, building leads of 1-0, 2-1, and then a 3-2 edge that they would not relinquish. The Canucks’ power play did a lot of damage in Game 1, and Bo Horvat was a locomotive, scoring two goals (including a beauty to really put Game 1 out of reach). Not the greatest game for Jordan Binnington, who also saw some drop-off during the regular season.

Three Stars from Wednesday in 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs

1. Patrice Bergeron, Bruins

Really, hand it to “The Perfection Line” if you’d like. Bergeron scored the overtime game-winner, and also collected an assist. David Pastrnak (1G, 1A) and Brad Marchand (2A) enjoyed two-point outputs, as well. While the Hurricanes kept that line from dominating as much as they sometimes can in Game 1, they still made the difference. (Rod Brind’Amour would argue that the refs made a big difference, as well.)

2. Josh Bailey, Islanders

Here’s another award where you could hand it to forwards who made similar impacts. Still, Bailey came up big during the Islanders’ comeback, scoring the shorthanded goal that ended up being the game-winner, and assisting on the 4-2 goal that put things out of reach. Brock Nelson and Mathew Barzal both came through with two-assist games, delivering as well for the Isles.

3. Bo Horvat, Canucks

It’s tempting to go with Carter Hart, who outdueled Carey Price (his idol) on Wednesday. Maybe there’s an urge to reward Darcy Kuemper for his 37-save performance, nearly willing the Coyotes to a win before allowing three goals late against the Avs.

But Horvat scored the first goal to set the tone for the Canucks against the Blues in Game 1, and then the 4-2 tally with a beautiful move to make a St. Louis surge less likely.

Highlight of the Night

It has to be Carey Price’s diving, Nick Suzuki-saving stop, right?

Factoids

  • Shea Weber became the second defenseman in Canadiens history with a goal streak of three consecutive games or more (Weber’s now at four goals, one assist in three games). Guy Lapointe ranks as the other Canadiens defender to do so, meeting that mark in 1973. [NHL PR]
  • The Islanders are developing a knack for coming back against the Capitals in playoff games:

THURSDAY’S NHL PLAYOFF SCHEDULE

Game 2: Blue Jackets vs. Lightning (TB leads 1-0), 3 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Game 2: Blackhawks vs. Golden Knights (VGK leads 1-0) , 5:30 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Game 2: Hurricanes vs. Bruins, 8 p.m ET – NBCSN
Game 2: Flames vs. Stars, 10:30 p.m ET (CGY leads 1-0) – NBCSN

PHT’s 2020 Stanley Cup playoff previews
Flyers vs. Canadiens
Lightning vs. Blue Jackets
Bruins vs. Hurricanes
Stars vs. Flames
Blackhawks vs. Golden Knights

First Round predictions
Power Rankings: Best First Round matchups
Conn Smythe Watch: Korpisalo, Aho leading entering First Round
Roundtable: NHL playoff surprises; vulnerable top seeds

MORE:
• Stanley Cup Playoffs First Round schedule

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.

Canucks never trail, beat Blues 5-2 in Game 1

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The young Canucks didn’t look like they feared the defending-champion Blues, at least not in Game 1. The Canucks never trailed in Game 1, breaking a tied third period to win 5-2, taking a 1-0 series lead against the Blues.

Blues found themselves chasing Canucks in Game 1

When we look back at this First Round 2020 Stanley Cup Playoff series, we may say that the Blues eventually neutralized the explosive but inexperienced (and not particularly deep) Canucks. That was not the story of Game 1.

During the first period, both teams scored fairly similar power-play goals, with Bo Horvat and David Perron finding the net with quick shots from the “bumper” position. Vancouver’s power play continued to cause problems, as Elias Pettersson also briefly gave the Canucks a 2-1 lead during the second period. Jaden Schwartz quickly answered with a 2-2 goal as the last tally of that period, yet this would not be the last time the Blues found themselves trailing in Game 1.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

In a moment Jordan Binnington would like to have back, Troy Stecher boomed a shot by the Blues goalie 5:37 into the third. About two-and-a-half minutes later, Horvat bamboozled Vince Dunn with a splendid move to score his second goal of Game 1, and make it 4-2.

While the Blues managed some pushes late in Game 1, they couldn’t come back against the Canucks. After St. Louis got whistled for a late penalty, J.T. Miller scored the 5-2 goal on a power play at first focused on clock-killing.

Vancouver managed one of the bigger Game 1 upsets of the First Round of the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs, leaving the Blues with some serious work to do.

There was some nastiness in Game 1, including this ugly spear by Troy Brouwer on Antoine Roussel:

Will this series get nastier? Perhaps. Considering the makeup of this Blues team, the finesse-heavy portion of the top of the Canucks lineup would be wise to mostly avoid the fray. So far, Horvat, Pettersson, and Quinn Hughes didn’t seem overwhelmed by the moment in facing the defending champs.

One other side note: should the Blues keep an eye on Binnington? As great as Binnington was during that 2019 Stanley Cup run, his NHL sample size isn’t enormous. And, quietly or not, Jake Allen enjoyed a much better 2019-20 season than Binnington did.

Consider this comparison, via Hockey Reference:

Game 1 Canucks Blues Binnington Allen comparison

Just food for thought, particularly if the Blues struggle as the First Round progresses.

No. 4 St. Louis Blues vs. No. 5 Vancouver Canucks (VAN leads series 1-0)

Wednesday, Aug. 12: Vancouver 5, St. Louis 2
Friday, Aug. 14: Vancouver at St. Louis, 6:30 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Sunday, Aug. 16: St. Louis at Vancouver, 10:30 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Monday, Aug. 17: St. Louis at Vancouver, 10:30 p.m. ET – NBCSN
*Wednesday, Aug. 19: Vancouver at St. Louis – TBD
*Friday, Aug. 21: St. Louis at Vancouver – TBD
*Sunday, Aug. 23: Vancouver at St. Louis – TBD

*if necessary

MORE:
• Stanley Cup Playoffs First Round schedule

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.

Flyers beat Canadiens as Hart gets edge over Price in Game 1

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Carter Hart and the Flyers stayed hot in Game 1, holding off the Canadiens by a score of 2-1 to take a 1-0 series lead.

Hart, Flyers win Game 1 against Canadiens

The Flyers never trailed against the Canadiens in Game 1.

To start the scoring, Ivan Provorov scored a power-play goal as the lone tally of the first period. While the Canadiens got a goal back when Shea Weber connected with a PPG, it was a short-lived burst. Joel Farabee connected on his own deflection rebound to score 16 seconds later, scoring a 2-1 goal in the second period that ended up being the last of Game 1.

This wasn’t a stodgy, all-defense affair despite the low 2-1 score.

Instead, Carey Price and especially Carter Hart were sharp for the Canadiens and Flyers in Game 1. While Hart stood out, Price also made what was almost certainly the save of Wednesday night:

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Montreal’s biggest push of Game 1 happened during the second period. The Habs managed a 17-7 SOG advantage in the middle frame, but couldn’t make enough of a difference.

Chalk it up to some special teams play or not, but the Flyers actually fired more SOG in the third period (13-6) even though they were managing a lead against the Habs.

Overall, the Canadiens didn’t seem totally out of place against the Flyers. Even so, the Flyers stayed hot, and mostly thwarted any comeback attempts by the Habs. If this becomes a pattern, Carter Hart will really gain some esteem compared to his idol, Carey Price.

No. 1 Philadelphia Flyers vs. No. 8 Montreal Canadiens (PHI leads series 1-0)

Wednesday, Aug. 12: Philadelphia 2, Montreal 1
Friday, Aug. 14: Montreal at Philadelphia, 3 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Sunday, Aug. 16: Philadelphia at Montreal, 8 p.m. ET – NBC
Tuesday, Aug. 18: Philadelphia at Montreal, 3 p.m. ET – NBCSN
*Wednesday, Aug. 19: Montreal at Philadelphia – TBD
*Friday, Aug. 21: Philadelphia at Montreal – TBD
*Sunday, Aug. 23: Montreal at Philadelphia – TBD

*if necessary

MORE:
• Stanley Cup Playoffs First Round schedule

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.

Canucks-Blues stream: 2020 NHL Stanley Cup First Round

Canucks-Blues stream
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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs continues with Wednesday’s First Round matchup between the Canucks and Blues. Coverage begins at 10:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. Watch the Canucks-Blues stream at 5:30 p.m. ET on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The defending champion Blues finished the regular season atop the Western Conference, becoming the first defending champ to finish the following regular season atop their conference since the 2000-01 Devils. But in Round Robin play, St. Louis  went winless (0-2-1), blowing a third period lead in all three of their losses.

The Canucks were the seventh seed in the playoffs based on regular season points percentage. After getting shut out in Game 1 in their Qualifying Round series against the 10th-seeded Wild, Vancouver won three straight to advance to the traditional First Round. The series win over the Wild was Vancouver’s first since reaching the Stanley Cup Final in 2011.

The Canucks took two of the three games against the Blues this season. Two of their matchups went past regulation, while the final game was a one-goal game until an empty-net goal.

WHAT: Vancouver Canucks vs. St. Louis Blues
WHERE: Rogers Place – Edmonton
WHEN: Wednesday, August 12, 10:30 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
ON THE CALL: Kenny Albert, Pierre McGuire
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Canucks-Blues stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

No. 4 St. Louis Blues vs. No. 5 Vancouver Canucks

Wednesday, Aug. 12: Vancouver at St. Louis, 10:30 p.m. ET – NBCSN (livestream)
Friday, Aug. 14: Vancouver at St. Louis, 6:30 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Sunday, Aug. 16: St. Louis at Vancouver, 10:30 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Monday, Aug. 17: St. Louis at Vancouver, 10:30 p.m. ET – NBCSN
*Wednesday, Aug. 19: Vancouver at St. Louis – TBD
*Friday, Aug. 21: St. Louis at Vancouver – TBD
*Sunday, Aug. 23: Vancouver at St. Louis – TBD

*if necessary

MORE:
• Stanley Cup Playoffs First Round schedule