Assessing the proper level of panic for Maple Leafs

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PITTSBURGH — The Maple Leafs do not exist in a world of calm, rational thought. They exist in a world of extremes. A world where they are either an elite roster where a Stanley Cup is their inevitable destiny, or a world where everything about them is a five-alarm dumpster fire where they have to trade everyone and completely change everything about them.

They have experienced both extremes during this season.

It started with the hopelessness that ultimately ended the Mike Babcock era.

The first 20 games under new coach Sheldon Keefe brought more goals, more wins, and a rapid climb up the standings.

Now, after a completely inept 5-2 loss to the Penguins Tuesday night (against a Penguins team that was already playing without Jake Guentzel, Brian Dumoulin, and John Marino, and then found out it would not have Evgeni Malkin 25 minutes before puck drop) the inferno is not only back, it is raging.

And while the Maple Leafs are dealing with their own share of injury issues (Morgan Rielly, Andreas Johnsson) it shouldn’t have resulted in an effort like that.

That loss also came on the heels of an ugly 5-2 defeat to a hapless Sabres team, and continued a disappointing February that has seen the team win just four out of 10 games. Only one of those wins (a 4-2 win over the Senators) came in regulation. Things seemed to hit rock bottom mid-way through the second period on Tuesday when, after failing to score on an eighty-five second 5-on-3 power play, they were completely embarrassed in their own zone to fall behind 5-0. The entire sequence was the hockey equivalent of the Penguins emphatically dunking on the Maple Leafs. At that point they never seemed further away from where they should be.

Maple Leafs players were grilled on everything afterward, from the urgency they need to display, to what moves need to be made to fix this mess before Monday’s trade deadline, to just what in the hell has been going on for the past three weeks.

“When things don’t go our way, we have to find better ways to respond,” said captain John Tavares. “We just don’t respond well, getting down a goal, getting down two, even though the game wasn’t being dominated on either side. We did some decent things early, then I don’t know, we were either frustrated with the way we were playing, or feel like things aren’t going our way. That’s this time of year. Things are going to be tough. You have to overcome it.”

“It looks like the process that we want to go through is to just get embarrassed enough to the point where we just really look in the mirror and recognize what’s required for us to be able to compete at a high level at this stage of the season,” said an obviously irritated Keefe afterward, before later adding that it’s not just any one thing on any given night.

“If you had special teams on your Bingo card of things that are hurting our group then you’re happy today and got that filled. I think the common denominator is just the overall urgency and competitiveness of the group.”

Urgency and compete were words that were used often after the game, with Tavares being asked directly what “urgency” looks like to him.

“Just winning our battles, and some that you shouldn’t win,” said Tavares. “Finding a way to get outside your comfort zone. Finding another level that maybe you’re not sure you even have. It’s just part of what makes winning hard. I’ve only been so far, I’m trying to find it myself, and I think as a group that’s the way you challenge and push each other, and when thing get hard you have to embrace it.”

“Everyone’s got to take a look in the mirror and we have to be better because that’s unacceptable,” said defenseman Jake Muzzin. “We have to find the urgency, the passion, the love of the game, the love to compete for each other. All of that needs to come. I don’t know why it’s not there. Sometimes when we struggle we want the easy game, and it’s not going to be easy against good teams.”

Overall, it was about as dejected and bleak as things could seem for a team following a mid-February loss.

On one hand, it is somewhat understandable. This roster is not where anyone expected it to be in the standings at this point in the season. It has also been a tough stretch of results this month, with Tuesday’s loss being the second time in as many games this season that they have been completely dominated by Pittsburgh, a team that is supposed to be a measuring stick opponent. Where the Penguins have been — and currently are — is where the Maple Leafs are trying to reach. And when you get blown out by them twice (by a combined score of 12-3 in two games) that has to be a jolt to the system.

They also remain in a fight with the FPanthers to simply secure a playoff spot (which is far from a given at this point).

But even with these past 10 games the Maple Leafs are still 22-12-4 under Keefe.

That is a 105-point pace over 82 games and the sixth-best points percentage in the league during that stretch. Their awful start put them in a hole that was going to take a ton of digging to get out of with little margin for error the rest of the way. For the most part, they have pulled themselves out of it. But they still find themselves in a position — thanks entirely to that slow start — where every loss is going to be magnified, every flaw is going to be put under the microscope, and every game is going to be the most important game of the season.

There is not much room for the middle ground in sports analysis right now as everything tends to swing to the extremes. The Maple Leafs, because of the market they play in, the demand to end a generations long championship drought, and the talent they have on paper only adds to that for them. The reality, though, often times sits somewhere in the middle. The Maple Leafs have their flaws. They have their concerns. But they are still in a better spot than they were three months ago and probably not in as dire of a situation as it seems after an ugly loss.

MORE: PHT’s 2020 NHL Trade Deadline Tracker

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.

Seven hockey players suspended in Belarus match-fixing case

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ZURICH — Seven ice hockey players have been suspended during an investigation into match-fixing in the Belarus league.

The players — five from Belarus and two from Russia — told a domestic investigation they were paid to help arrange the outcome of a game in November, the International Ice Hockey Federation said on Friday.

“During the investigation, each of the players also admitted that they had agreed to exert an unlawful influence on the outcome of the game in exchange for illegal remuneration,” the governing body said in a statement.

The IIHF said its disciplinary board had taken over the case “for further review and sanctioning.”

The case involves Dynamo Molodechno’ losing to Mogilyov 6-5 in a Belarus Extraliga game.

The players have been suspended from taking part in any competition organized by the IIHF or its member federations.

PHT Morning Skate: NHL vs. viruses; Flat salary cap pain = Avs’ gain?

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from the NHL and around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit for the PHT Morning Skate? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

Lafreniere, COVID-19 hockey concerns, and how Avs may benefit from a flat salary cap

• Rank Maple Leafs goalie Frederik Andersen among those expressing some misgivings about playing amid the COVID-19 pandemic. [TSN]

• Breaking: Alexis Lafreniere is not a defenseman. In all seriousness, a look at some Maple Leafs possibilities … which might be complicated at No. 1 because of that positional point. Maybe? [Pension Plan Puppets]

• Speaking of those Maple Leafs, Buds fans are not pleased about the idea of a possible flat, $81.5M salary cap. There are teams who might take advantage of this situation, though. Here’s why the Avalanche could be one of those teams. [Mile High Hockey]

• A look back at the NHL’s “rivalries” with viruses. Does the history of the NHL’s dealing with such issues — even the Mumps — be a cause for concern amid COVID-19 outbreaks? [Arctic Ice Hockey]

• Earlier this week, PHT selected the best landing spots for Alexis Lafreniere. What about getting even more specific? Andrew Berkshire shared his picks for some of the lines that would benefit most from adding the consensus No. 1 pick to their left side. [Sportsnet]

Other hockey links

• Sean Gentille put together an oral history for the Jean Claude Van Damme masterpiece “Sudden Death.” If you haven’t heard of the candidate for “so-bad-it’s-good” designation, how about the elevator pitch: “Die Hard at a hockey game.” [The Athletic (sub required)]

• On face value, this article focuses most on Rudy Gobert and Novak Djokovic and athletes feeling invulnerable to COVID-19. But it’s a really good read for hockey fans, players, and executives as cautionary tales with a return-to-play picking up steam. [The Score]

• Joe Pelletier of Greatest Hockey Legends wonders why the bar is set so high for goalies to get into the Hockey Hall of Fame. Not an awful point when you consider that they play the most important position in the sport, and all. I wouldn’t mind Ron Hextall making a future cut, to name just one worthy goalie. [Greatest Hockey Legends]

• Five crossovers between hockey and Todd McFarlane. Yes, the “Spawn” guy. [PuckJunk]

• Taking a run at putting together the Sabres’ roster during the upcoming offseason. It gets elaborate, including potential trades. Yes, this scenario includes trading away Rasmus Ristolainen. Don’t they all? [Die by the Blade]

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.

Our Line Starts podcast: NHL, NHLPA nearing agreement; hub cities, Olympics, CBA

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Liam McHugh, Keith Jones, and Patrick Sharp react to the reports that the NHL and NHLPA are nearing the completion of a massive agreement that would not only cover this year’s Return to Play protocols, but also serve as an extension to the Collective Bargaining Agreement. The guys discuss Edmonton and Toronto emerging as hub city favorites, as well as what it would mean for the NHL to return to the Olympics. Plus, a breakdown of the Qualifying Round series in both conferences.

Start-4:45 Edmonton, Toronto new hub city frontrunners
4:45-8:45 NHL, NHLPA nearing CBA extension, including Olympic participation
8:45-13:00 Other return to play details
14:00-23:00 Eastern Conference Qualifying Round preview
23:50-End Western Conference Qualifying Round preview

Where else you can listen:

Apple: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/id1482681517

Stitcher: https://www.stitcher.com/podcast/nbc-sports/our-line-starts

Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/show/7cDMHBg6NJkQDGe4KHu4iO?si=9BmcLtutTFmhRrNNcMqfgQ

NBC Sports on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/nbcsports

Mrazek vs. Reimer and other Hurricanes lineup questions readying for Rangers

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Beyond obvious outliers like the Penguins, the Hurricanes rank among the most legitimate of the NHL’s Qualifying Round teams. Yet as stable as the Hurricanes are compared to a field full of erratic teams, Carolina faces many of the same lineup questions as the Rangers, the team they’d face in a best-of-five series.

Some might argue that the Hurricanes face tougher questions than the Rangers. (Though, the Rangers aren’t off the hook in that regard.)

In particular, the Hurricanes may need training camp to find answers in net and on defense. For all we know, Hurricanes lineup questions could even persist beyond “Phase 3.”

Let’s glance at both the goalie and defense questions for the Hurricanes.

Who should start in Hurricanes playoff lineup: Mrazek or Reimer?

Reimer, Mrazek, Hurricanes Rangers lineup questions NHL playoffs
(Photo by Greg Thompson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

With Henrik Lundqvist jousting with two young upstarts, some might wonder if the Rangers have too much of a good thing in net. The Hurricanes don’t enjoy quite the abundance of options.

Even so, coach Rod Brind’Amour faces a decision, as they lack a clear No. 1. Should the Hurricanes go with Petr Mrazek — who helped them during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs — or James Reimer (who boasts superior numbers this season)?

If Brind’Amour knows, he’s putting on a poker face.

“It’s easy to say right now, ‘OK, I’m going to go with Petr,’ but I don’t know,” Brind’Amour said in a recent interview, via NHL.com’s Dan Rosen. “He may be in rough shape. I don’t know until I get to see them and see what they’re like.”

It’s unclear if that last playoff run explains why Mrazek would be the “easy” choice, or if that came down to Reimer entering the pandemic pause with injury issues. (The Hurricanes may also be concerned about Reimer’s rather lengthy run of injury hiccups, too.)

Because, again, Reimer performed at a higher level than Mrazek in 2019-20. Reimer boasts a better save percentage than Mrazek this season (.914 to Mrazek’s .905) and over their careers (.914 to Mrazek’s .910). Reimer takes most/all goalie “advanced stats” between the two this season, as well. Generally speaking, we’ve seen more from Reimer over the past few seasons than Mrazek, whose career was teetering on the edge here and there.

(But, to be fair, Reimer’s had his issues, too.)

Regardless, just about every team should take a long look at how their goalies are performing during training camps. Even teams with clearer No. 1 options.

Honestly, with the NHL not expected to limit the number of goalies at training camps, maybe the Hurricanes should even look at options like Anton Forsberg or Alex Nedeljkovic?

An unexpectedly crowded defense

Dougie Hamilton Hurricanes Rangers lineup decisions playoffs
(Photo by Gregg Forwerck/NHLI via Getty Images)

During the 2020 NHL Trade Deadline, the Hurricanes acquired Brady Skjei and Sami Vatanen. As you may remember, those moves hinged at least partially on injuries to Dougie Hamilton and Brett Pesce. After the twists of those bad-luck injuries, the pandemic threw off Carolina’s rhythm once more.

The best news is that it sounds like Hamilton will be available. Don’t let the museum talk fool you. If Hamilton maintained his hot pace and didn’t get injured, he would have been a go-to choice for those making arguments against John Carlson‘s Norris credentials. Either way, Hamilton provides an enormous boost to the Hurricanes lineup — one they weren’t expecting during the deadline.

On the other hand, Brind’Amour told NHL.com’s Rosen that Pesce remains unlikely to return. However …

“It’s going to be a long shot, but the longer this goes the shot gets a little shorter,” Brind’Amour said.

(Anyone else visualizing that after that rather literal description from Brind’Amour? No? OK.)

So, Hamilton stands as probable while Pesce looks unlikely. Beyond that, the Hurricanes have two still-new faces in Skjei (just seven not particularly impressive games played) and Vatanen (who was injured and didn’t even get to suit up). Let’s say that represents three defensemen for the Hurricanes. Here are the other contenders for spots in the Hurricanes defensive lineup:

  • Jaccob Slavin, a lock.
  • Jake Gardiner, who dealt with a tough season, averaging only 16:40 TOI. Still, Gardiner is experienced, played in 68 games this season, and may have benefited from the break.
  • Joel Edmundson (68 GP like Slavin and Gardiner, averaged more TOI than Gardiner with 18:27 per contest).
  • Trevor van Riemsdyk (49 GP, less than 15 minutes per night; still, Hurricanes are very familiar with TVR).
  • Haydn Fleury (45 GP, averaged fewer than 15 minutes per game).

Realistically, Brind’Amour could have eight options on defense, and possibly nine if Pesce makes unexpectedly rapid progress. Being that some of those options are quite good, there are worse problems to have.

But it still adds to the notion that training camp could be quite important for Hurricanes lineup decisions. With both goalies and defense, Brind’Amour emphasized a wait-and-see approach. So … we’ll see?

More on the Hurricanes, Rangers, return to play, and similar subjects:

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.