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Marner to play first Leafs game since Babcock drama (and Tuesday’s mini-meltdown)

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When it comes to a team’s 30th game of an 82-game regular season, you couldn’t ask for much more sizzle than what the Toronto Maple Leafs could provide against the Colorado Avalanche on Wednesday.

The Maple Leafs activated winger Mitch Marner, setting the stage for the crafty winger to play since Nov. 9, when Marner suffered a high-ankle sprain against the Philadelphia Flyers.

An eventful month

To put things mildly, a lot happened since Marner’s unpleasant-looking injury:

That 3-2 shootout loss to the Flyers began what would be a six-game losing streak for the Maple Leafs, and represented the end of the Mike Babcock era in Toronto. It wasn’t, of course, the end of Babcock-related drama, however, as reports surfaced about Babcock playing mind games with Marner during his rookie season, and all that “hardest working players list” entailed.

Since then, there have been a wave of stories about coaches exhibiting abusive behavior (either physically, verbally, or sometimes a mix of the two), with the Calgary Flames parting ways with Bill Peters, Marc Crawford placed on leave from the Blackhawks, and plenty of other reverberations.

Akim Aliu stated that he expects “big changes” around hockey (and the NHL in particular) following a meeting with the league, but time will ultimately tell.

Either way, Babcock’s firing and that rookie-year story should fix even more eyes on Marner than usual, which is saying something considering all of the attention his offseason contract negotiations received.

A fuller view of the new-look Maple Leafs

Sheldon Keefe won his first three games as coach of the Maple Leafs, but the Buds have since stumbled in their last three games, going 1-2-0. Things ended on an extremely sour note on Tuesday, as the Maple Leafs experienced a bit of meltdown late in a 6-1 loss against the Flyers.

Auston Matthews said “we can’t fold like that,” while Keefe agreed that the Maple Leafs let Frederik Andersen out to dry, stating that “hopefully it is the shakeup that we would need.”

It doesn’t figure to be easy. The Avalanche are on a three-game winning streak, boast players like Nazem Kadri who will be pumped to play against his former team in Toronto, and are rested (their last game was on Saturday) while Toronto is closing out a back-to-back. The Maple Leafs have struggled lately in such back-to-back sets, at least stemming from Babcock’s days.

Watching Marner himself

Pension Plan Puppets points out that Marner is coming back basically as early as possible (assuming he doesn’t have any setbacks before Wednesday’s game).

Getting Marner back should be a thrill, and again, a nice opportunity to get a better picture of what GM Kyle Dubas truly envisions as his team now that he doesn’t have to clash with Babcock’s competing style.

But how close to 100 percent will Marner be? While his most treasured ability is his world-class playmaking, Marner is also known for outstanding edgework and agility, using his elusiveness to thrive as a smaller player (rather than Nathan MacKinnon-class speed). You have to wonder if recovering from a high-ankle sprain might at least hinder some of his skating strength.

That said, Marner will still have the vision and anticipation that makes him such a great passer. Jake Muzzin pointed out the way Marner processes the game, and while there could be a bit of rust there, chances are he’ll give Toronto another gear.

“His reads without the puck,” Muzzin said when asked where Marner’s hockey IQ really shines. “I feel like he’s one step ahead of the puck out there when he’s on. He’s got great vision with the puck, but picking guys and reading passes before they happen, he’s right up there with the best.”

Maybe the Maple Leafs will be a little tired on Tuesday, and maybe Marner won’t be quite there physically, but it still feels like we’ll get a better idea of what this team (and player) is capable of now that Babcock is no longer in the picture.

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.

‘Wild’ NHL playoffs move into next stage with final 16 teams

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Derek Stepan gave some words of advice to his Arizona Coyotes teammates not used to the bright lights of playoff hockey.

”It’s the best time of the year to be playing,” he said.

The time of year is different than usual, but the NHL’s Stanley Cup playoffs haven’t lost any of their luster or penchant for surprises.

After a qualifying round full of upsets, overtime heroics and comebacks, the traditional first round that starts Tuesday with 16 teams left is primed to feature even more entertainment and unpredictability.

”It’s wild,” said Barry Trotz, whose New York Islanders will next face the Washington Capitals he coached to the title in 2018.

”It’s made for TV, really. We didn’t know what was going to happen. We knew that there was going to be some strange things happen in this strange, unusual time and format. But it’s captivating.”

The Chicago Blackhawks that ranked 23rd out of 31 teams in the regular season are still playing, along with the Montreal Canadiens, who were 24th and not given much hope of moving on.

Chicago has a tough task against the Western Conference No. 1 seed Vegas, and Carey Price‘s Canadiens face the Philadelphia Flyers that earned top billing in the East by going 3-0 against Boston, Tampa Bay and Washington.

”It was a tall task to get that No. 1 seed and we did it,” Flyers defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere said. ”We came in here and have been strictly business. I think for us to go out there and get three big wins in a row and get that No. 1 seed is huge for us.”

In a very 2020 turn of events, the Bruins that won the Presidents’ Trophy as the top regular-season team went winless since the restart and now must take on the Carolina Hurricanes that swept their way to this point. It’s a rematch of the 2019 East final but with Carolina looking more prepared for this showdown.

”They swept us last year, which definitely is going to be good opportunity for us to kind of give back what they gave us last year,” Hurricanes forward Nino Niederreiter said.

The Hurricanes, Islanders and Golden Knights look scary, the Lightning could be without top players Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman for at least the start of their series, and the Bruins and Blues that met in last year’s Cup Final haven’t recaptured the dominance they showed until the season was halted in March and combined to go 0-6.

”It doesn’t matter what seed you’re in because you’ve got to beat every team anyways if you want to advance,” Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask said. ”It’s over now and start real hockey.”

Half of the remaining field has been playing real hockey for more than a week now. After knocking off the Nashville Predators, captain Oliver Ekman-Larsson said the Coyotes are ”up for the challenge” of taking on the Colorado Avalanche. The Canucks and Flames should also be feeling good after emotional series victories, though Vancouver must face an angry St. Louis bunch that blew leads in all three games.

”We’re not playing aggressive enough in my opinion,” Blues coach Craig Berube said. ”Getting the real thing going here will be important, for sure.”

It’s all best-of-seven until the Stanley Cup is handed out in late September or early October, though the prospect of playing in quarantined bubbles in Toronto and Edmonton could change the psychological dynamic of the playoffs.

”It’s one of those years it’s easier once you’re down to say, ‘Well, I do miss my kids, it’s not our year,”’ Boston coach Bruce Cassidy said. ”You can sort of have that in the back of your mind and certainly some players are going to go through it, and that’s why I feel that maybe some series will be closed out quicker than previous years.”

Only one qualifying round series went to a deciding Game 5: Columbus-Toronto, which also featured two shutouts and each team erasing a 3-0 deficit and winning in overtime. Over nine days, 44 games showed why the league and NHL Players’ Association worked hard to resume the season, and that was just the start of summer hockey madness.

”I’m sure it’ll continue,” Flames coach Geoff Ward said. ”Everybody’s healthy and there’s been extreme parity, but all the teams are playing extremely, extremely hard and that makes for whoever you play a very tough out and a very tough opponent. And I think as these playoffs go on, you’re just going to see more of the same.”

NHL Draft Lottery: No. 1 pick to be awarded Monday night

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The No. 1 pick in the 2020 NHL Draft will be announced Monday night during Phase 2 of the NHL Draft Lottery (6 p.m. ET, NBCSN; livestream)

All eight teams that were eliminated in the Stanley Cup Qualifying Round are eligible and each have a 12.5% chance of winning the No. 1 pick. Rimouski forward Alexis Lafreniere is expected to be chosen with the first overall selection.

Phase 1 of the draft lottery was held in June and won by a team involved in the NHL’s Return to Play. That means that one of the Rangers, Predators, Panthers, Wild, Penguins, Jets, Oilers, or Maple Leafs will pick first when the draft is held Oct. 9-10, 2020.

According to the NHL, since the 1995 draft, no team has held the No. 1 pick finishing better than 26th in the standings.

Here’s a look at the order of the first 15 picks:

ROUND 1 ORDER
1. Placeholder team
2. Los Angeles Kings
3. Ottawa Senators (via San Jose)
4. Detroit Red Wings
5. Ottawa Senators
6. Anaheim Ducks
7. New Jersey Devils
8. Buffalo Sabres
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9. Placeholder team
10. Placeholder team
11. Placeholder team
12. Placeholder team
13. Placeholder team
14. Placeholder team
15. Placeholder team

The seven losing teams from the First Round who do not win the No. 1 pick will fill out spots 9-15 by reverse order of their regular season points percentages. The remaining 16 Round 1 draft picks will be determined by the results of the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

WHAT: 2020 NHL Draft Lottery – Phase 2
WHEN: Monday, August 10, 6 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the draft lottery stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

The prospects

Lafreniere will be the No. 1 pick. That’s been settled. After that? It could go a lot of different ways. Quinton Byfield (Sudbury – C- OHL), Tim Stutzle (Adler Mannheim – C/LW – DEL), Lucas Raymond (Frolunda – LW/C – SHL), Jamie Drysdale (Erie – D – OHL), Marco Rossi (Ottawa – C – OHL), Cole Perfetti (Saginaw – C – OHL), Jake Sanderson (D – USNTDP) are among the top prospects expected to be selected early.

Check out Ryan Wagman’s midseason mock draft to further educate yourself on these players.

MORE:
Top NHL Draft Lottery memories

Hockey Hall of Fame postpones 2020 induction

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The Hockey Hall of Fame has postponed its 2020 induction because of the pandemic. The ceremony was to have taken place Nov. 16 in Toronto.

The 2020 class was announced in June and featured forward Jarome Iginla, winger Marian Hossa, defensemen Kevin Lowe and Doug Wilson, Canadian women’s goaltender Kim St. Pierre and longtime general manager Ken Holland.

The Hall said Monday it will discuss rescheduling plans on Oct. 29. Chairman Lanny McDonald said the most likely scenario is to have the ceremony in November 2021, either by waiving the 2021 election or combining the 2020 and 2021 classes. He said a virtual induction ceremony was ruled out.

NHL reports second straight week of zero positive COVID-19 tests

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For the second week in a row the NHL has announced that it had zero positive COVID-19 tests during the Phase 4 portion of its return to play.

The league resumed the 2019-20 season and playoffs in late July with 24 teams playing within two hub cities (Toronto and Edmonton).

Since the participating teams entered their respective bubbles on July 25 they have reported zero positive tests during that time.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

The league announced on Monday that it conducted 7,245 tests between August 2 and August 8. Previously the league reported 43 positive tests during the Phase 2 portion of the return (small group workouts at team facilities) and two positive tests during the first week of Phase 3 (return to training camp). But since then the league has reported zero positive tests through the remainder of training camps and, to this point, during the return to play in the hub cities.

The NHL just completed the Qualifying Round and Round-Robin portion of its return to play and will begin the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs on Tuesday afternoon in Toronto and Edmonton.

MORE:
• Stanley Cup Playoffs First Round schedule

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.