Auston Matthews

Underachieving Maple Leafs needed this change

3 Comments

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.

[Related: Maple Leafs fire Babcock, name Keefe head coach]

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.

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 fire Babcock, name Keefe new head coach

20 Comments

The Toronto Maple Leafs actually did it. The Maple Leafs announced Mike Babcock’s firing on Wednesday, and wasted no time naming Sheldon Keefe as his replacement as head coach.

After another frustrating Game 7 loss to the Boston Bruins in 2018-19, the Maple Leafs went through a strenuous offseason. It all built up expectations (and angst) quite high, and the 9-10-4 Maple Leafs haven’t lived up to them so far in 2019-20.

An already tense situation really hit a new low lately, as the Maple Leafs have looked miserable on their way to a six-game losing streak. Despite Babcock’s significant name recognition (and his $6.25M price tag), the Maple Leafs decided it was time to move on.

Problems go from festering to boiling

If you’ve spent any time on Hockey Twitter during the last couple of seasons, you’ve likely seen people question a wide variety of Babcock’s decisions. Sometimes the nitpicking feels extreme, but other times, it’s easy to see where people are coming from. (“Why isn’t Auston Matthews on the ice more often?” is a talking point most would agree with.)

The grumbling turned to rumbling as the Maple Leafs simply haven’t been playing well lately. To pin everything on Babcock is obviously unfair, yet you wonder if Keefe might be able to play to strengths better. The Maple Leafs seemed to march to the beat of the wrong drum at times under Babcock, and that seemed glaringly true during the lowest moments so far in 2019-20.

Better synergy?

Maple Leafs GM Kyle Dubas is 33. Keefe (once drafted 47th overall by the Lightning in 1999) is 39. Babcock? He’s 56, and some of his “old school” tendencies would shine through. Will Keefe lean toward the Roman Polak and Cody Ceci-types as much as Babcock? Is it possible that more offensive-minded defensemen such as Morgan Rielly and Tyson Barrie might flourish under Keefe after struggling with Babcock, particularly this season?

We’ll have to see, but you can understand why some might expect Dubas and Keefe to see eye-to-eye where Babs and Dubas might have butted heads.

[MORE: Underachieving Maple Leafs needed this change]

One can only speculate about how Dubas and Keefe will get along, and only guess about deployment choices and strategic tweaks.

What we do know is that Keefe had a strong run coaching the Toronto Marlies, the team’s AHL affiliate. The Marlies made the playoffs every year since Keefe became head coach in 2015-16, winning at least one round each time, and taking home the 2018 Calder Cup.

Obviously, Keefe’s resume doesn’t compare to what Babcock brought to the table, but while experience will be a question, one would think that Keefe might be less prone to stubbornness than Babcock, whose resume allowed him to hold some serious sway over Toronto’s decisions.

***

As shocking as this move is, it feels like it had to happen. There are a wide variety of outlooks regarding Toronto’s chances to make the playoffs (from decent to downright lousy), but the bottom line is that this team seemed rudderless for some time.

Keefe gets his first chance to steer the ship in Arizona against the Coyotes on Thursday, the third game of what turned out to be a franchise-altering six-game road trip.

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.

Surging Vrana might be capable of even bigger things for Capitals

Getty Images
Leave a comment

NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the Washington Capitals and New York Rangers. Coverage begins at 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

From Alex Ovechkin for Washington to Artemi Panarin for New York, you’ll see plenty of firepower during Wednesday Night Hockey’s bout between the Capitals and Rangers. Even with Nicklas Backstrom sidelined for the game, I’m here to argue that you still might not see enough of one potential rising star: Jakub Vrana.

When you give Vrana’s 2019-20 stats a quick glance, they’re already impressive.

Not only does Vrana already have 10 goals scored in 23 games, but all 10 of them have come at even-strength, tying him for third in the NHL in that category alongside players like Auston Matthews, Jonathan Huberdeau, and Vrana’s former Capitals teammate Andre Burakovsky. His eight assists rounds out his numbers to 18 points in 23 games; over an 82-game pace, Vrana would author a 37-goal, 66-point season.

While he’s been riding some hot puck luck since 2018-19 with a 15.1 shooting percentage, the overwhelming message one gets from diving deeper into Vrana’s stats is that the Capitals should strongly consider finding more ways to get him on the ice.

[COVERAGE OF RANGERS-CAPITALS BEGINS AT 7 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

Despite Vrana’s 18 points in 23 games, he’s only averaging 14:15 TOI per game, which is a career-high and slight uptick from last season’s average of 14:02. Beyond getting some bounces, Vrana’s breakthrough in simple counting stats can probably be chalked up to an increasingly itchy trigger finger. After peaking with 1.96 shots on goal per game last season, Vrana’s getting almost one extra puck on net per evening, averaging 2.78 SOG per game (64 SOG in 23 GP).

It’s unclear if you can derive that from playing a more confident game, getting decent reps with a tremendous playmaker like Evgeny Kuznetsov, or if perhaps someone in the Capitals organization gave Vrana a directive to shoot more. Either way, it’s working out quite nicely, as he’s a significant part of the Capitals’ early work as the NHL’s most dangerous offense at even-strength.

Again, though, I must ask for more.

Just about every number seems to point a neon flashing arrow at “More Vrana.” His heat map at Micah Blake McCurdy’s Hockey Viz is, well, almost off the charts:

Wow.

Admittedly, it would be tough for Vrana to crack the Capitals’ top power play unit, and he’s getting some reps on the second unit (1:35 per game), but his all-around game makes me wonder if more PK work would be warranted.

It’s not as though Vrana is getting totally buried in the Capitals’ lineup, yet with Washington in a strong position (few teams enjoy the luxury of “Can we win the division again?” being one of their burning questions in November), I’d be tempted to see if Vrana would thrive in an even larger role.

And, hey, if all of that is boring … the skill is pretty obvious, too. Not everyone can pull off a Datsyukian shootout move, right?

Just saying.

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.

Disorderly conduct charge against Auston Matthews dismissed

8 Comments

The disorderly conduct and disruptive behaviour charges against Toronto Maple Leafs forward Auston Matthews have been dismissed.

Those charges were made against Matthews after an incident in Scottsdale, Arizona last May, when a female security guard at Matthews’ condo complex, Fayola Dozithee, filed a complaint against the 22-year-old for trying to break into her car while she was in it doing paperwork at 2 a.m.

According to the police report, Dozithee added that she was terrified by the actions of Matthews and the friends he was with at the time. Matthews was also accused of pulling down his pants and grabbing his buttocks (with his underwear on) sometime after the initial incident took place.

The two sides have now come to an agreement on a financial settlement that would simply dismiss the charges against Matthews.

“On Nov. 13 the matter was settled between the parties and the criminal matter was dismissed,” a spokesperson from the City of Scottsdale’s communications department said, per the Toronto Star.

Despite the fact that the incident occurred in May, it only came to light during Maple Leafs training in late September.

“It’s not something that I think any of us really wish we were talking about today. Unfortunately, it’s the situation we’re in,” Matthews told reporters during camp. “I regret any of my actions that would ever put a distraction on the team or distress any individual.

“I take a lot of pride in preparing myself for the season and representing the Toronto Maple Leafs as well as I can. Unfortunately due to the situation, I’m afraid I can’t really make any other comments.”

According to TSN’s Rick Westhead, Arizona prosecutors and Matthews’ lawyers were scheduled to meet at a trial readiness conference on Nov. 27. That will no longer be necessary.

UPDATE: Matthews apologized on Friday saying, “I just want to reiterate again just how sorry I am for my actions, my behaviour. I never meant to cause any distress to this woman. I can assure you I’ve learned from my mistakes and my actions, and its something for myself to just strive every day to be better in every aspect of my life.”

Leafs president Brendan Shanahan released this statement:

“The Toronto Maple Leafs are committed to developing and promoting the qualities of good character, respect and equality in our organization, including our players, and we recognize and embrace the role we serve in the community. While Auston has been an exceptional ambassador for the Leafs in representing those values, his conduct in this incident last May failed to meet expectations.

“We appreciate that Auston has publicly reiterated today that he is truly sorry for his conduct and has recognized the impact his actions caused. We have no doubt that he has learned a valuable lesson and will grow from this experience.”

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

The Buzzer: Big night for stars like Crosby, Ovechkin (also Dallas Stars)

Getty Images
3 Comments

Three Stars

1. Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals

Ovechkin provided some potential bulletin board material for the Maple Leafs before the game, but instead he essentially called his shot.

The star sniper generated two goals (including the overtime-winner) and two assists, firing 10 shots on goal. He now has 11 goals and 18 points in 14 games to start the 2019-20 season strong. Oh yeah, he also logged a ridiculous 12:38 TOI on the power play on Tuesday, part of a wild game that included a couple controversial Tom Wilson hits.

Ovi wasn’t the only player who had a strong night in that one. John Carlson scored two goals to reach 23 points. Auston Matthews wasn’t far behind Ovechkin with two goals and one assist. Nicklas Backstrom collected three assists.

2. Alexander Radulov, Dallas Stars

Dallas came into Tuesday’s game against the Wild with a -10 goal differential in the third period of games. They brought that down to a more respectable -5 on Tuesday as part of a thunderous comeback. Late in the second, the Wild went up 3-0, only for the Stars to score six unanswered goals to stun Minnesota 6-3.

Radulov began that rally with Dallas’ first goal, and ended up generating a hat trick plus an assist. He simply wouldn’t be denied, firing 10 SOG. If this was about Minnesota sitting on a lead in any way, Dallas showed that it’s probably not the best way to put them away.

Ovechkin gets the slight nod because Radulov’s third goal came on an empty-netter. Radulov’s second was the GWG, so they had clinchers in common on Tuesday.

3. Nick Bonino, Nashville Predators

The Predators scored three goals on Tuesday, and Bonino generated all of them for a natural hat trick. No Bones about it, that’s an impressive night.

(Sorry … ish.)

Other players like Sidney Crosby deserve a mention (more on that in a moment), but a natural hatty is really something. Considering that Bonino and Crosby were teammates, and Bonino’s goals came from the “dirty areas” of the ice, so 87 probably wouldn’t be so unhappy.

Bonino wasn’t far from the other top two in SOG, either, with nine on his way to that hat trick. This continues a strong start to 2019-20 for Bonino, who now has 10 points in 12 games.

Honorable mentions

  • Crosby and the Penguins absolutely feasted on an overmatched Flyers team, and that meant filling up the scoresheet. Crosby scored a goal and two assists for three points, matched by Dominik Simon and Dominik Kahun. Bonus points to Kahun, who managed his goal and two assists in just 8:49 TOI.
  • Again, Matthews and Backstrom had three-point nights of their own.
  • Rocco Grimaldi got assists on all three of Bonino’s goal. Bones and Grimaldi sounds like it could be a buddy cop show. Just a lot to like, folks.
  • Josh Mahura of the Ducks collected three assists as the Ducks won a high-scoring game against the Jets 7-4. Mahura’s the second Ducks rookie to generate three points in a game, and notched quite a few other milestones.

Highlight of the Night

How could it be anything but Andrei Svechnikov scoring a lacrosse-style goal? More on that here.

Another Storm Surge

A Halloween-themed one. Maybe they’d be called nerds instead of jerks this time, to get a candy theme going?

Factoids

  • Cam Fowler scored his 61st goal, passing Scott Niedermayer for the most of any defenseman in Ducks history.
  • Ovechkin finished the night with 669 career regular-season goals. According to NHL PR, that puts Ovechkin ahead of Luc Robitaille for most as a player listed as a LW. He’s also now ranked 12th all-time in goals scored, in general. Depending upon how his season goes, Ovechkin could really climb the ranks in 2019-20, or soon after.

8. Mark Messier – 694
9. Steve Yzerman – 692
10. Mario Lemieux – 690
11. Teemu Selanne – 684
12. Ovechkin – 669

  • Ovechkin’s teammate Carlson scored two goals to finish the night with 23 points on the season, and in October. Only one defenseman’s had a better October in NHL history: Al MacInnis in 1990, according to NHL PR.
  • The Red Wings ended an eight-game losing streak by beating the Oilers.

Scores

BOS 5 – SJS 1
WSH 4 – TOR 3 (OT)
PIT 7 – PHI 1
CAR 2 – CGY 1
NYR 4 – TBL 1
DET 3 – EDM 1
NSH 3 – CHI 0
DAL 6 – MIN 3
ANA 7 – WPG 4

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• 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.