Alexander Kerfoot

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Maple Leafs get embarrassed as losing streak reaches 5 games

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The Toronto Maple Leafs opened an extremely important six-game road trip in Pittsburgh on Saturday night and turned to 26-year-old rookie goalie Kasimir Kaskisuo to try and snap their current losing streak.

It did not go well for him in his NHL debut as he gave up six goals on 38 shots.

That was the bad news for Toronto. The even worse news for Toronto was that even with those numbers he was by far — BY FAR! — their best player in an ugly 6-1 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins that extended their losing streak to five games.

With that loss the Maple Leafs are now an extremely disappointing 9-9-4 on the season, have just four wins in their past 15 games, and have allowed at least four goals in each of their past four games.

This one might have been the ugliest of the bunch as they were never competitive.

If you wanted to you could try to look for some excuses for such a lackluster effort, and you wouldn’t have to look very far.

They played the night before and had to travel from Toronto to Pittsburgh. They are without two key forwards in Mitch Marner and Alexander Kerfoot. They started a 26-year-old rookie in goal making his NHL debut.

All true. All worth noting. But it takes about a half-second to poke holes in all of them when you consider the Penguins also played on Friday night and had to travel (from New Jersey to Pittsburgh), and were playing without Sidney Crosby, Kris Letang, Nick Bjugstad, and Patric Hornqvist, and were also using their backup goalie (Tristan Jarry) in net.

They still controlled the game from the opening face-off.

When asked how to fix this current mess, coach Mike Babcock went back to the same well he always goes to when things are going poorly and talked about needing to play harder.

“The number one thing is, we have to play harder, and for longer,” said Babcock (via TSN’s Kristen Shilton). And as soon as something goes bad, we can’t stop playing. Push through it. Every one of us in our life, things go bad. Dig in.”

Forget playing harder, they need to play better.

As if the pressure wasn’t already through the roof for this team things are probably about to get a whole lot worse. This is still one of the league’s worst defensive teams and has shown no real improvement in that area. If they do not get elite, All-Star level goaltending the whole thing seems to just collapse around them. In recent years Frederik Andersen was able to give them that level of play in net and mask many of their defensive flaws. This year he has not been able to do that as often, and the unsettled backup situation behind him only makes things worse (they are now 0-5-1 when Andersen does not start).

You have to feel for Kaskisuo on Saturday. He waited years for this moment and was completely abandoned by the team in front of him as the Penguins had players skating wide open throughout the neutral and offensive zones. Odd-man rushes, uncontested forwards driving down the middle of the ice, and chance after chance after chance. The play of Kaskisuo is the only reason the Penguins did not score eight or nine in this one.

At some point the temperature under Babcock’s seat is going to start increasing dramatically, and if this thing does not get turned around soon you have to wonder how much longer management will along things to continue like this. They are now 3-6-0 on the road this season (with their only road wins coming against Columbus, Detroit, and Philadelphia) and play 11 of their next 14 outside of Toronto. Their next three are in Vegas, Arizona and Colorado so things are not going to get any easier this week.

Related: Maple Leafs, Sharks, Golden Knights entering potentially make-or-break stretches

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.

Maple Leafs, Sharks, Golden Knights entering make-or-break stretches

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Even though the NHL season is only a quarter of the way through it is not too early for teams to start worrying about playoff seeding, or more importantly, whether or not they will even be able to make the playoffs.

The St. Louis Blues showed last year it’s possible to overcome a slow start, but there’s a far larger sampling of recent history that suggest it’s not very likely. Once the calendar starts to approach the end of November not many teams that are outside of a playoff position tend to climb into one, and the ones that do aren’t more than a couple of points back. We tend to emphasize the stretch run of the regular season as being the most important games, but it’s really difficult to make up lost points from early in the season.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at three teams that should be Stanley Cup contenders that are facing some really big stretches over the next couple of weeks that could potentially make or break their season.

Toronto Maple Leafs

Honestly, it’s time for this team and this coach to do something with all of this talent they have assembled. That is not even to say a Stanley Cup should be the expectation, but they should be capable of more than nothing but third places finishes and Round 1 playoff exits.

So far this season they have done nothing to show that anything with this team will be different.

Here’s the situation they are facing: They have lost three games in a row entering Friday’s game against a Boston team that has ended their season two years in a row, they are in fourth place in the Atlantic Division (sixth place by points percentage), and after playing the Bruins will be heading on a six-game road trip that begins Saturday night in Pittsburgh where they will be starting a backup goalie making his NHL debut. That road trip will also take them through Vegas, Arizona, and Colorado and be the start of a 15-game stretch where they will play 12 games outside of Toronto.

They have struggled on the road this season, still have not solved their defensive issues and do not have the goaltending to mask it. Even worse, they will now be without two key forwards (Mitch Marner and now Alexander Kerfoot) for the next few weeks. That is a pretty big challenge they are facing and if they don’t come out of it successfully things are going to get even more tense in Toronto than they already are.

Vegas Golden Knights

There was reason to believe at the start that this could be the best team in the Western Conference with a talented group of forwards, a solid defense, and a really good starting goalie. But so far pretty much everything about the team has been very ordinary. Their possession and scoring chance numbers paint the picture of a team that has maybe been a little unlucky so far, but they still have their share of issues, especially when it comes to finding another goalie that will not force them to run Marc-Andre Fleury into the ground, an issue that does not seem likely to go away anytime soon.

With only 21 points in 20 games they are on an 86-point pace for the season (that probably would not be anywhere near good enough for the playoffs) and have lost eight of their past 11 games entering the weekend. Some of the teams around them in the Pacific Division have been better than expected so far (specifically Edmonton and Arizona), while it is reasonable to conclude that San Jose and Calgary are going to improve as the season goes on.

If you assume 95 points is the “safe” number to secure a playoff spot, that would require Vegas to earn at least 60 percent of the possible points available to them the rest of the way. It’s a not impossible for this team, but it’s still a big number.

Saturday would be a good time to start making up that ground when they visit the Los Angeles Kings. Seven of their next eight games are either against Pacific Division opponents, or teams they are competing directly with for playoff spots in the Western Conference (Dallas, Nashville).

San Jose Sharks

Unlike the other two teams here the Sharks have already started to get their disappointing season back on track, winning five in a row entering the weekend. They are in the middle of a 16-game stretch where 12 games will be played at the Shark tank, and that home cooking has helped them stack some wins together. The offense has been ignited, the goaltending has at least been passable, and they are starting to get some production from their big defense duo of Erik Karlsson and Brent Burns.

Of all the contenders that stumbled out of the gate this always seemed to be the one that had the best chance of righting the ship because of the talent they have and the fact a lot of their problems could easily be solved with only one change (goaltending). They are not there yet, but they are on their way and with six of their next nine games on home ice they have a nice opportunity to keep digging out of that early hole.

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.

Avs a trendy pick for deep playoff run after busy offseason

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DENVER — New arrival Nazem Kadri wasn’t with his Colorado Avalanche teammates very long before making a quick observation.

Definitely contenders.

”I’ve been around some good teams and this is certainly one that I think could compete to go the distance,” Kadri said. ”We’ve got a good mix of veteran leadership and youth and I think that’s a lethal combination.”

That lineup should be even more potent once forward Mikko Rantanen returns. The restricted free agent is away from the team as he tries to work out a new deal.

”We’re excited to have him here soon,” linemate Nathan MacKinnon said.

Following a second straight playoff appearance, general manager Joe Sakic decided to reshape his roster. Kadri was acquired in the deal that sent defenseman Tyson Barrie and forward Alexander Kerfoot to Toronto. In other trades, Sakic acquired defenseman Kevin Connauton from Arizona and left wing Andre Burakovsky from Washington.

Sakic also added veteran center Pierre-Edouard Bellemare as a free agent and right wing Joonas Donskoi. They also selected defenseman Bowen Byram with the No. 4 overall pick in the draft.

”Joe said it fairly early on in the offseason process that we’re going to be smart but aggressive,” captain Gabriel Landeskog said. ”That’s what we were. We went out and got some really good pieces.”

That’s in addition to already having one of the top lines in hockey with Landeskog, MacKinnon and Rantanen. Not only that, but a talented blue line buoyed by youngsters Cale Makar and Samuel Girard.

No wonder the Avalanche are on everyone’s radar as a team to watch.

”It’s nice to have some pressure,” MacKinnon said. ”We’re not just the bad Avs or whatever anymore. We’re a contender and that’s fun. We all want pressure. It’s no fun coming in as an underdog. The best teams have pressure on them.”

Here are things to know before the Avalanche open the season Oct. 3 against Calgary:

WHO’S HERE: Connauton, RW Valeri Nichushkin, Bellemare, Byram, D Calle Rosen, Kadri, Donskoi and Burakovsky.

WHO’S NOT: Barrie, Kerfoot, F Carl Soderberg, F Derick Brassard, G Semyon Varlamov, F Sven Andrighetto, F Gabriel Bourque.

KEY PLAYERS: Landeskog, MacKinnon and Rantanen combined for 106 goals and 155 assists a season ago. The team was 24-6-5 when they each collected a point in a game. Philipp Grubauer enters the season as the primary goaltender after going 7-0-2 in his final nine starts of the regular season to get the Avalanche into the postseason. He was 7-5 in Colorado’s playoff run.

OUTLOOK: Colorado is a pick by some pundits to make it to the final of the Western Conference. Kadri already sees something building. ”I love the expectation and love the standard these guys hold themselves to,” he said. The Avalanche stunned the top-seeded Flames last season, winning the series 4-1, before falling in Game 7 to San Jose. ”It’s like every new season, you look back in the rearview mirror and learn from things, but you can’t dwell on them,” Landeskog said. ”You have to move forward. It’s a new year. It’s a new group. We’re super-excited what we have here.”

PREDICTION: The Avalanche stressed consistency as an important ingredient in taking the next step. Colorado was tied for the most points in the Western Conference after games on Dec. 7 and then went through a rough stretch that nearly cost the Avs a playoff spot before bouncing back. ”The guys that were here last year, we definitely learned from that,” Landeskog said. ”Because from Dec. 1 through whatever, we weren’t playing good enough. I don’t know how many games we managed to win, but it wasn’t enough. It nearly ended up costing us a playoff berth.”

Previewing the 2019-20 Toronto Maple Leafs

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(The 2019-20 NHL season is almost here so it’s time to look at all 31 teams. We’ll be breaking down strengths and weaknesses, whether teams are better or worse this season and more!)

For more 2019-20 PHT season previews, click here.

Better or Worse: Worse, but things could have been much worse considering their cap crunch — and also the rather obvious need for Nazem Kadri to get a change of scenery.

Ultimately, it’s still a step back to replace Kadri, Patrick Marleau, Jake Gardiner, Connor Brown, Ron Hainsey, Nikita Zaitsev, etc. with Alexander Kerfoot, Tyson Barrie, Cody Ceci, Jason Spezza, and so on. That doesn’t mean that the end result has to be a step backward, but it’s a minor stumble on paper.

Strengths: Yes, the Maple Leafs are paying top dollar for Auston Matthews, John Tavares, and now Mitch Marner. It just so happens that they’re more or less worth that money; fans of NHL teams have just become conditioned to see these types of guys making less than they should, thanks to the likes of Nathan MacKinnon, Johnny Gaudreau, and Sidney Crosby.

With Morgan Rielly and now Barrie, the Maple Leafs have some pretty potent options as far defensive scoring goes, although things get sketchy once you reach beyond the best options.

Frederik Andersen is also one of the best goalies in the NHL, and can sometimes will the Maple Leafs into games when their defense is cratering and their offense is cold.

Weaknesses: If Andersen gets hurt or struggles, the Maple Leafs’ backup options sure seem pretty dicey. Such a thought might prompt the team to wear Andersen out even if he plays well and stays healthy.

Depth on defense is a bit of a challenge, too.

Frankly, it’s tough to ignore Mike Babcock as someone who might be holding the Maple Leafs back. It’s not always huge decisions, but the conservative leaning can be a death by a thousand cuts. Not giving Auston Matthews enough minutes. Falling in love with old-school defensemen who, frankly, aren’t very good. It all adds up to a Maple Leafs setup that sometimes doesn’t feel fully optimized. I’m not convinced Babcock is a “bad” coach, yet like a lot of others, he has some bad habits.

[MORE: X-factor | Three Questions | Under Pressure]

Coach Hot Seat Rating (1-10, 10 being red hot): It’s usually not the best sign when you end a season needing a vote of confidence from your GM. Babcock came to Toronto with a big reputation and an even bigger contract, making it slightly awkward to fire him, but despite all of the personnel improvements the Maple Leafs have made, they still haven’t won a playoff series since 2003-04. Some of that comes down to facing tough opponents, including being tormented by the Boston Bruins, but patience is wearing thin. Put Babcock at a 9.

Three Most Fascinating Players: Mitch Marner, William Nylander, and Tyson Barrie.

Marner got his wish with a contract that carries close to an $11 million cap hit; now it’s time for him to silence his doubters by showing that he’s worth that asking price. Fair or not, any cold streak will be magnified.

Nylander’s near-$7M AAV looks a whole lot better months later, but that doesn’t mean that Maple Leafs fans have totally “forgiven” him for a bumpy 2018-19 season once he actually signed. His hair choices will also be fascinating to watch.

Barrie brings a lot of skill to the table, and should have plenty of motivation in a contract year. That said, he also has his warts on defense; Maple Leafs fans and media tend to fixate on such mistakes, and it remains to be seen if Barrie will finish 2019-20 with a high standing among hockey folk.

Playoffs or Lottery: Playoffs, and another Round 1 exit won’t be acceptable. That might mean finally scaling the mountain that is the Boston Bruins. Even if Toronto draws someone like the Lightning or revamped Panthers, chances are it won’t be an easy challenge, yet people won’t be very interested in excuses — even good ones — if this season ends just like the last few.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV 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.

Maple Leafs sign Mitch Marner to big six-year deal

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Just like that, the Mitch Marner saga has been settled.

The Toronto Maple Leafs confirmed that they signed the star winger to a six-year deal that carries a $10.893 million AAV.

That $10.893M cap hit ranks lower than that of Auston Matthews ($11.634M AAV through 2023-24) and John Tavares ($11M through 2024-25).

From an immediate standpoint, this makes for a tight squeeze.

Who else will remain a part of this team’s core?

Looking back at a PHT post from earlier this week, we can see that this Marner near-$11M will make for tough decisions. Here are some of the big names who will eventually need new contracts, which Marner, Matthews, and Tavares may essentially force out:

After 2019-20: Defensemen Jake Muzzin and Tyson Barrie.

After 2020-21: Goalie Frederik Andersen.

After 2021-22: Defenseman Morgan Rielly.

After 2022-23: Forwards Andreas Johnsson and Alexander Kerfoot.

After 2023-24: Stars Auston Matthews and William Nylander.

It’s interesting, also, that Tavares and Marner will see their close-to-$22M expire after the same 2024-25 season. Things could be very different beyond those two by then, but wouldn’t it be interesting if it came down to Tavares or Marner around that faraway date?

[MORE: Could Marner signing open floodgates for Laine, other star RFAs?]

A tough question of value

Plenty of reports indicated that Marner, 22, compared himself to Matthews as much as anyone else. With that in mind, the Maple Leafs must feel some relief in signing Marner for six years, thus locking him down for an extra year — and crucially, staggering things so their contracts don’t expire during the same summer.

As far as Marner being worth $10.893M? That’s subjective, obviously. Maybe it’s more important to ask: how much of an overpay would it be, if it is an overpay? Maple Leafs fans might be somewhat pleased to hear that some answer “Not so bad.”

(Sportsnet’s Andrew Berkshire provided a fascinating look at Marner’s underlying value recently, if you want some deeper reading on the playmaking winger.)

Marner set career-highs in goals (26), assists (68), and points (94) last season while finding outstanding chemistry with Tavares. Many noted the Tavares bump while trying to argue against Marner earning a ransom with his second contract, but the bottom line is that they both made each other better in 2018-19, and are likely to continue to do so in 2019-20 and beyond.

For those still suffering through sticker shock, consider that the Maple Leafs “bought” two would-be UFA years by making this a six-year contract. If the cap ceiling rises thanks to various revenue-related forces, then $10.893M might look a lot more manageable in a few years. Consider how excessive Leon Draisaitl‘s $8.5M cap hit seemed at the time; now most would label that an all-too-rare steal for the Edmonton Oilers.

But, yes, the price is steep, and maybe Dubas hasn’t handled the Maple Leafs’ big three RFAs in the best way possible (although I’d argue Nylander will ultimately be seen as a strong value).

Make no mistake about it, though. The Maple Leafs are expensive at the top level, with Marner, Tavares, and Matthews combining for a cap hit of about $33M. Ultimately, their collective efforts will determine if it is all “worth it” — which means hurtling over obstacles they haven’t yet cleared, such as, say, beating the Boston Bruins in a Game 7, or winning a playoff series or two.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV 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.