Can Matthews, Maple Leafs finally make a big playoff run?

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In an ESPN interview partially promoting his NHL 22 cover role, Auston Matthews touched on recent Maple Leafs’ playoff torment. While Matthews admitted the Maple Leafs’ playoff disappointments keep hitting “harder,” he pictures the joy of getting over that hurdle.

“The only way is forward,” Matthews told Greg Wyshynski. “[The playoff loss] sucked. There’s no other way to put it. Extremely disappointing. But it’ll just feel that much better when we eventually get to the top.”

Following that up, Matthews seemed pleased to point out that, for the most part, Maple Leafs GM Kyle Dubas stuck with the core.

From a volume standpoint, the Maple Leafs will look different. The electrons changed instead of the neutrons, though.

A lot can change between Saturday, Aug. 21 and when the Maple Leafs hope to begin a run in the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs. There are even nightmare scenarios where the Maple Leafs miss the playoffs altogether.

But let’s (dangerously) assume that the Maple Leafs make it to the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Which factors are most likely to make-or-break a playoff run? Which external factors changed? Where do the Maple Leafs need to improve from within?

Let’s break down a number of factors. What needs to go right/could go wrong as the Maple Leafs hope to finally wake up from their long playoff nightmare?

Maple Leafs must shake off losses of Hyman, Andersen

Again, accounting for every Maple Leafs offseason addition and subtraction might feel dizzying.

It’s most likely to boil down to two factors: a key change in net, and ripple effects revolving around losing Zach Hyman.

Goalie change: Andersen out, Mrazek in

Considering how last season ended, it’s not surprising that Frederik Andersen is no longer with the Maple Leafs.

For years, Andersen was a remarkable workhorse for the Maple Leafs. Maybe that workload took its toll? From 2016-17 through 2018-19, Andersen tied Devan Dubnyk for the most games played (192), faced easily the most shots in the NHL (6,221), and delivered impressive results (107 wins [third overall] and a sturdy .918 save percentage).

Things slipped in 2019-20 (.909 save percentage, -0.4 Goals Saved Above Average), then the bottom really fell out last season (.895 save percentage, -8.5 GSAA, just 24 games played).

 

While Andersen went from reliable-and-sturdy to perhaps a steady decline, Mrazek’s trajectory is even harder to trace.

[2021 NHL Free Agency Tracker]

For years, it wasn’t even clear that Mrazek would truly find a steady NHL job. (At least as anything more than a backup.)

Mrazek flourished this past season with the Hurricanes, generating a .923 save percentage … albeit in just 12 regular-season games. The “book” on Mrazek is that he’s a goalie of extremes: his highs are high, yet his lows can be quite low. That might explain his career turbulence, and meshes reasonably with a solid-but-unspectacular career save percentage of .911 in 275 games.

Strangely, the Hurricanes and Maple Leafs essentially “traded” Mrazek and Andersen.

While it’s easy to understand Toronto moving on from Andersen, Mrazek’s contract (especially a three-year gamble) opens up more debate.

Neither Mrazek nor Jack Campbell have ever really put up No. 1 goalie numbers, at least when it comes to workload. The Maple Leafs’ goaltending hopes rest on a tandem with flashes of brilliance, but bumpy paths through the NHL. Toronto’s netminding duo is tough to forecast, even by the cloudy standards of NHL goalies.

Maple Leafs may struggle to replace Hyman

Did Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner boost Zach Hyman’s counting stats? Almost definitely, but Hyman also almost certainly made life easier for that dynamic (waits for “until the playoffs”) duo.

 

Between Nick Ritchie, Ondrej Kase, Michael Bunting, and maybe some other wild card (Josh Ho-Sang? Nicholas Robertson?), the Maple Leafs boast a lot of options, post-Hyman. None of them seem like seamless replacements, though.

Perhaps it would be best to accept a drop-off on that top line, while hoping for better things elsewhere?

Being that they’re all 25 years old, the Maple Leafs mostly went young with supporting cast tweaks in Ritchie, Kase, and Bunting. (Ho-Sang, intriguing despite a long stint in hockey purgatory, is also somehow just 25.)

That translates to a younger group, and with the addition of David Kampf, the Maple Leafs might be more versatile. As Jonas Siegel explained in great detail at The Athletic (sub required), the Maple Leafs may feel less-forced to wedge Alexander Kerfoot into a center spot. Players like Kase and Ritchie could fall into any number of alignments. Kase and Ritchie even often played on the same line during their Ducks days.

So, the Maple Leafs could weather the storm of losing Hyman, possibly by committee. Hyman will likely be missed, but Toronto hopes to limit that damage.

Could a Maple Leafs playoff push boil down to luck?

It’s human nature to want to control things. Enough talk of “random luck” might drive someone to existentialism and/or nihilism.

So, a lot of people won’t want to hear about luck, especially when it comes to the Maple Leafs’ playoff woes. But hockey is still a very fluke-friendly sport. Just look at the Lightning, who were shocked by a first-round sweep (including an unlikely Nikita Kucherov suspension, and an injured Victor Hedman) only to become repeat Stanley Cup champions.

Credit the Lightning for blocking out calls to panic. We’ve discussed Maple Leafs’ changes, but the big picture remains similar.

To some extent, they simply need more from Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner in a potential playoff push. Some luck wouldn’t hurt, either, though.

  • For a top-heavy team, losing John Tavares was indeed pretty rough.

Yes, that exposes major flaws of the Maple Leafs’ structure. They weren’t able to dynamically change that during the offseason. That plan could look a lot better if Tavares’ line could take some of the heat off of Marner and Matthews, however.

  • Jake Muzzin‘s quietly been one of the Maple Leafs’ best defensemen since joining. Losing him during both playoff runs seems like extra-bad luck.

(That said, as an aging player, Muzzin isn’t immune to more injuries. Health isn’t always fair.)

One big factor: competition

When you can’t even win a playoff series, excuses only mean so much. The Maple Leafs’ playoff hopes might boil down to who they face, though.

  • After losing Yanni Gourde, Blake Coleman, Tyler Johnson, and others, will the Lightning take a step back? (Their ability to endlessly unearth gems makes that a dangerous thing to count on.)
  • Yes, the Bruins brought back Taylor Hall. They lost David Krejci and will at least begin the season without Tuukka Rask, so they could be vulnerable.
  • Are the Canadiens and/or Panthers for real, or did one or both teams ride a wave of flukes?
  • It’s probably too early to expect big growth from other Atlantic Division teams … right?

On paper, the Atlantic Division looks daunting, at least at the top level. There’s a scenario where the Maple Leafs do a lot right, yet they fall to a strong team in a 2/3 seed first-round series, anyway. That scenario is as cruel as it is feasible.

Yet, there’s some room for luck to go Toronto’s way. The Lightning have piled up a lot of wear-and-tear, and much of their core is getting older. One can only imagine the groans of agony if the Maple Leafs draw the Bruins again … but slippage is possible for Boston.

[Bruins won’t have Krejci this season]

Even a tough scenario could be a blessing in disguise. What if the Maple Leafs fall to a wild-card spot, but one outside of the Atlantic bracket?

If that happened, they could test their offseason of changes in an especially dramatic way: maybe facing their pal Frederik Andersen and the Hurricanes?

Nothing about this Maple Leafs offseason is likely to drastically change how people feel about their playoff chances. There are plenty of reasons why things might work out, and just about as many counterpoints for continued agony.

It’s the sort of things that might make Maple Leafs fans prefer simulating it all in NHL 22 instead.

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.

Golden Knights captain Mark Stone undergoes back surgery

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LAS VEGAS — Vegas Golden Knights captain Mark Stone is out indefinitely after undergoing back surgery in Denver, the club announced.

The Knights termed the procedure as successful and that Stone “is expected to make a full recovery.”

This is the second time in less than a year that Stone has had back surgery. He also had a procedure May 19, 2022, and Stone said in December this was the best he had felt in some time.

But he was injured Jan. 12 against the Florida Panthers, and his absence has had a noticeable effect on the Knights. They have gone 1-5-2 without Stone, dropping out of first place in the Pacific Division into third.

Stone is second on the team in goals with 17 and in points with 38.

Devils associate coach Andrew Brunette charged with DUI

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DEERFIELD BEACH, Fla. — New Jersey Devils associate coach and former Florida Panthers head coach Andrew Brunette was arrested in South Florida while driving home from a bar in his golf cart, authorities said.

Brunette, 49, was pulled over just blocks from the ocean in the Deerfield Beach area, north of Fort Lauderdale, according to a Broward Sheriff’s Office arrest report. He was charged with one count of driving under the influence and two counts of disobeying a stop or yield sign. Brunette was released on $500 bond.

The Devils said in a statement that the team was aware of Brunette’s arrest and gathering additional information.

According to the arrest report, a deputy was in the process of giving Brunette’s illegally parked golf cart a ticket around midnight when Brunette walked out of a nearby bar and told the deputy he was about to leave. The deputy said Brunette seemed unsteady on his feet and slurred his speech, and when he was joined by his wife, the deputy said he overheard the wife tell Brunette not to drive while the deputy was there.

The deputy remained in the area and reported watching the couple drive away about 17 minutes later, according to the report. The deputy said he watched the golf cart run two stop signs before pulling Brunette over on a residential street about a mile away from his home. According to the report, Brunette had difficulty following instructions during a field sobriety test before eventually quitting and asking for an attorney. He also declined to take a breathe test to measure his blood-alcohol level, officials said.

Online jail and court records didn’t list an attorney for Brunette.

Brunette is in his first season as associate coach of the Devils. He was interim coach of the Florida Panthers last season after taking over when Joel Quenneville resigned for his connection to a 2010 Chicago Blackhawks sexual abuse scandal.

The Panthers fired Brunette after they lost in the second round of the playoffs last spring despite him leading them to the Presidents’ Trophy as the league’s top team during the regular season.

The Sudbury, Ontario, native played 1,159 NHL games for Washington, Nashville, Atlanta, Minnesota, Colorado and Chicago from 1995-2012. He was a Wild assistant in 2015-16 and worked on Florida’s staff from 2019-2022.

Stars aligned with new coach DeBoer, Nill-constructed roster

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DALLAS — General manager Jim Nill sensed things were coming together for the Dallas Stars even before the season started with new coach Pete DeBoer and a roster mixed with proven veterans, up-and-coming young players, and even a teenaged center.

At the NHL’s All-Star break, after 51 games together, these Stars are leading the Western Conference.

“Every year you start, you put a team together, and there’s always going to be question marks,” said Nill, in his 10th season as the Stars GM. “You have ideas how you think you’re going to come together, but there’s always the unknown. . This year has been one of those years where right from the start, you could just see everything was kind of jelling.”

The Stars (28-13-10, 66 points) have their trio of 2017 draft picks that just keep getting better: All-Star winger Jason Robertson, goaltender Jake Oettinger and defenseman Miro Heiskanen. The seemingly ageless Joe Pavelski, at 38 and already re-signed for next season, is on the high-scoring top line with Robertson and point-a-game winger Roope Hintz. Wyatt Johnston, their first-round pick in 2021 and half Pavelski’s age, has 13 goals.

There is also the resurgence of six-time All-Star forward Tyler Seguin two years after hip surgery and 33-year-old captain Jamie Benn, who already has more goals (19) than he did playing all 82 games last season.

The Stars have a plus-40 goal differential, which is second-best in the NHL. They are averaging 3.37 goals per game, more than a half-goal better than last season when they were the only team to make the playoffs after being outscored in the regular season. They are also allowing fewer goals, and have improved on power plays and penalty kills.

“Where we sit at this break, I think guys are happy with that,” Seguin said, before being asked the keys to the Stars leading the West and on pace for a 100-point season with their new coach.

“Our style, our team speed, our puck speed, being predictable. All the clichés, knowing where the puck’s going. Really how we play the five-man unit,” he said. “Our pace this year, it’s been a lot quicker. There’s been some solid depth scoring this year while we’ve got one of the best lines in hockey.”

The Stars went into the break on their only three-game losing streak of the season, all 3-2 overtime losses at home.

“Those aren’t real losses,” said DeBoer, who twice has gone to the Stanley Cup Final in his first season with a new team. “I’m happy where we’re at. I like how we’re playing.”

Plus, Dallas won’t have to worry in the playoffs about 3-on-3 hockey, which has been the only real stain on their season so far. Only one team has more than its 10 losses after regulation.

“We’ve played a lot of good hockey. We’ve made a lot of good strides in our game,” DeBoer said. “We still have another level we have to get to when we get back, but there are a lot of good things that have happened. They’ve worked to have us where we are right now in the standings. Good spot to be in.”

The Stars have 31 games left in the regular season. The first four after the break at home, like the last four before their week-long hiatus.

Robertson’s 33 goals rank sixth in the NHL, and the 23-year-old has the same number of assists while averaging 1.29 points a game even after he missed most of training camp before signing a four-year, $31 million contract. Pavelski has 48 points (14 goals, 34 assists) while playing every game, and Hintz 46 points (20 goals, 26 assists) in only 43 games.

Oettinger, who is 21-7 in regulation, has a .923 save percentage and 2.26 goals against average since signing his three-year, $12 million contract. That deal came after 223 saves in a seven-game playoff series against Calgary last May, capped by 64 in the series finale that went to overtime.

Nill said Robertson’s production has improved even with the league adjusting to the high-scoring forward, and that Oettinger is proving to be one of the league’s best goalies. But they are just part of what has been a tremendous team effort.

“They kind of had that mojo right from the start, and it was kind of this team’s got the right mix,” Nill said. “It’s come together well, and it’s shown in the standings. It’s been good to watch.”

Canucks’ Ilya Mikheyev to have season-ending knee surgery

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VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Vancouver Canucks right wing Ilya Mikheyev is set to have season-ending surgery on his left knee.

Canucks general manager Patrik Allvin said Friday night the 28-year-old Russian forward tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in the team’s first preseason game Sept. 25. Mikheyev will undergo surgery next week and is expected to be ready for training camp in the fall.

Mikheyev was originally listed as week-to-week with the injury and played 45 regular-season games, finishing with 13 goals and 15 assists. He scored in his final appearance Friday night, a 5-2 home victory over Columbus.

Mikheyev signed a four-year, $19 million contract as a free agent last summer.