Cody Ceci

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Point shines in return as Lightning dismantle Maple Leafs: 3 takeaways

The Tampa Bay Lightning were happy to welcome one of their most important players — Brayden Point — back to the lineup on Thursday night and he wasted no time making a huge impact in a 7-3 dismantling of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Three quick takeaways from the Lightning’s big win…

1. That Point contract is going to be a steal for the Lightning 

As soon as the terms of Brayden Point’s three-year contract with the Lightning were revealed it was obvious that it was a huge win for the team. Point is already one of the NHL’s best all-around players thanks to his elite scoring and often times overlooked defensive impact, and at age 23 he is probably still only getting better. After missing the first three games of the season following offseason hip surgery, Point was back in the lineup on Thursday and wasted no time making an impact. He opened the scoring just 2:28 into the first period before adding another goal and an assist later in the game to finish with three points. The line of Point, Steven Stamkos, and Nikita Kucherov was almost unfair with each of them recording at least three points in the win (Stamkos and Kucherov both had four points).

2. The Maple Leafs haven’t exactly erased their defensive concerns just yet

The Maple Leafs have done a lot of work to try and fix their blue line — probably the one Achilles Heel the team had the past few years — by adding a bunch of new faces over the past few months. Jake Muzzin came over from the Los Angeles Kings at the trade deadline, while Tyson Barrie, Cody Ceci, and Rasmus Sandin were all new additions at the start of the season. So far, the early results are not promising. They have now allowed 19 goals through the first five games, including at least three goals in every single home game. We know they can score, and we know the top of their lineup is great, but until they prove otherwise their ability to prevent their opponents from scoring is going to be a significant concern. The common trend with this team over the past few years is that when Frederik Andersen is on his game in net they can look like an unbeatable team. When he is not — as he has yet to be this season — things can quickly start to unravel for them.

3. Pay close attention to Anthony Cirelli this season

Not that the Lightning need another outstanding young player, but they may have one in Cirelli, a second-year forward that chipped in three assists in Thursday’s rout of Toronto. Playing on a 62-win team that had a league MVP and a number of other award winners it was easy for his rookie season to kind of get overlooked. But with 19 goals, 39 totals points, and quite a few Selke Trophy votes (one second place, five third place, 12 fourth place, and 23 fifth place) he has already shown he can be a force all over the ice. Just another impact player for a team that is already full of them.

MORE:
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV 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.

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.

How potential Marner deals might affect Maple Leafs’ salary cap

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Even during the dullest moments of the hockey offseason, you could probably find at least two people arguing about Mitch Marner.

The debates really revved up this week, however, with reports surfacing from Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman, along with Bob McKenzie and Darren Dreger from TSN (among others).

Reports indicate a wide variety of possibilities, from shorter “bridge” deals to long-term contracts, basically all of them with eye-popping numbers.

Let’s consider the many ins and outs of the Maple Leafs’ cap situation, and how different Marner deals might fit in, by looking at things on a year-by-year basis. Cap Friendly was a major resource for this post.

2019-20, year one: Don’t bet on a one-year pact, but this is a good spot to discuss the most immediate squeeze.

Toronto must wait to put Nathan Horton ($5.35M) and David Clarkson ($5.25M) on LTIR and … that really gums up the works. To keep the details from making brains pop like corn, it figures to be tight, especially if Marner gets “in the universe” of $11M.

The Maple Leafs’ defense figures to be different after this season with Cody Ceci ($4.5M), Jake Muzzin ($4M), and Tyson Barrie ($2.75M after retention) entering contract years. GM Kyle Dubas is full of enough surprises, so who knows what lies ahead on defense?

2020-21, year two: In Tuesday’s “31 Thoughts,” Elliotte Friedman reports that a two-year deal was pondered, “a few sources threw cold water on that.”

Regardless, a big change could come after two years, as Frederik Andersen figures to get a big raise from $5M after 2019-20. Maybe a “bridge” deal would make it slightly easier to keep Andersen?

2021-22, year three: A variety of reporters point to a three-year “bridge” deal as one of the most likely possibilities at this time.

It’s also maybe the trickiest scenario for the Maple Leafs, something mentioned by the likes of TSN’s Bob McKenzie:

Marner and other RFAs might follow a path where a three-year deal is, functionally, a four-year deal to get to unrestricted free agency. Essentially, Marner would sign for X over three years, with a salary hitting a peak at year three, so that would set the stage for a qualifying offer in year four. Years five and beyond would then be open to UFA. TSN’s Darren Dreger illustrates this as well:

If it’s three years, Marner would need a new contract (technically or not) during the same offseason as Morgan Rielly. Reilly is just 25 and carries a cheap $5M cap hit, so the price could really grow. One would think Kasperi Kapanen ($3.2M) might get squeezed out.

We could also start to see Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren needing new deals around 2023 or shortly after, depending upon when Toronto starts burning those entry-level years.

2022-23, year four: If the above bridge deal with a high third-year salary happened, this is where Marner’s cost would balloon. It’s also possible – though improbable – that the two sides would simply sign a four-year deal, sending Marner to UFA status in the summer of 2023 without the gymnastics.

Following that fourth season, Alexander Kerfoot ($3.5M) and Andreas Johnsson ($3.4M) would need new deals.

Any small and medium-sized decisions would need to be weighed by how much room they leave for bigger ones, and not just potentially Marner …

2023-24, year five: Two whoppers expire in five years: Auston Matthews ($11.64M) and William Nylander ($6.96M).

It’s tough to imagine the Maple Leafs set the stage for Marner to have the opportunity to hit the UFA market during the same summer as Matthews and Nylander, which is why you don’t hear about a five-year solution very often.

Let’s be honest: that scenario could break Hockey Twitter, the Internet, or even humanity’s collective, slipping grip on something resembling sanity.

2024-25, year six: The six-year possibility doesn’t get mentioned much, but Tavares’ $11M expires after 2024-25. What if Marner figured that much of that Tavares money could transfer to his third contract? Could six years be a sweet spot for Toronto’s cost certainty, Marner getting paid, and present something of a compromise on UFA years?

(Unlikely, but just saying.)

2025-26, year seven, and 2026-27, year eight: McKenzie reports that there have been offers “in the universe” of $11M for seven or eight-year terms, but Marner reportedly isn’t satisfied because he’d get less than Matthews’ $11.64M while also signing for more than Matthews’ five-year term.

We can debate whether Marner would be worth $11M all day (motions to increasingly volatile Hockey Twitter), but Marner’s reluctance to go long-term is understandable, as for all we know, the cap ceiling could be much higher in 2025-26 and beyond.

***

Unfortunately for anxious Maple Leafs fans, Friedman, Dreger, MacKenzie, and others point to considerable divides behind Marner’s camp and the Maple Leafs.

As the above timeline shows, Toronto faces a host of complicated decisions, and plenty of tough questions even beyond Marner. Make no mistake about it, though: this Marner contract situation is absolutely pivotal, and it’s a tough nut to crack.

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.

Hurricanes upgrade defense with stunning Gardiner bargain

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Honestly, Jake Gardiner going into September without a contract made it feel like something fishy was going on. Were teams scared off by his back injury? Was he waiting for some contender, possibly even the Maple Leafs, to clear up some salary cap space, somehow?

Hmmm … maybe not?

In surprising news, the Carolina Hurricanes signed Gardiner on Friday, and the deal is even more surprising: a four-year pact with a paltry $4.05 million cap hit. Not only is that a stunning bargain, it’s actually the same $4.05M cap hit he carried on his last contract.

Few would have predicted that Gardiner, 29, would have signed for such a paltry sum. In fact, you could almost guarantee that the Maple Leafs were expecting him to command a higher salary, as remarkably, Gardiner is set to make less than Cody Ceci(!), who will cost $4.5M in 2019-20.

While Gardiner presents some risks if that back issue persists, this is one heck of a value on paper for Carolina, considering how much teams paid for lesser defensemen, including Tyler Myers (who carries a bloated $6M on a longer five-year contract with Vancouver). Gardiner isn’t perfect, but he doesn’t need to be on a Hurricanes defense that already ranked among the NHL’s best.

[MORE: Does Gardiner signing make Hurricanes the NHL’s best defense?]

You just don’t get many cracks at a defenseman of Gardiner’s caliber, so it remains surprising that this all came together … unless he really just isn’t healthy.

Carolina parted ways with Calvin de Haan this summer, but Gardiner represents an upgrade (again, “solid first or second pairing defender” is pretty nifty at $4.05M). He joins Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce as Hurricanes defensemen with considerable term, while Dougie Hamilton and Justin Faulk are also prominent blueliners whose futures are currently unsettled.

Gardiner gets a measure of control over his future with a no-trade clause, but even then, Carolina has some flexibility:

This move makes a great defensive group even better, and may theoretically help them boost a power play that has struggled for quite a while with Faulk as its QB. (I’ve been shouting from rooftops about Hamilton being the better option than Faulk for almost a full year now, but if the team just doesn’t want Dougie to run the point, now Gardiner gives them another option).

Either way, it’s a head-shaker that other NHL teams didn’t jump at the chance to sign Gardiner to this deal. It’s a cap value, and the term is the perfect mix: covering a need for four years, while mitigating some of the risks that come with signing a 29-year-old player who might hit the aging curve soon.

Again, it’s impossible to ignore Gardiner’s back issues, but that’s about the only part of this that isn’t a huge win for Carolina.

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.

How long will contract impasse last for Marner, Maple Leafs?

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Let’s ponder three questions facing the Maple Leafs:

1. When will Mitch Marner sign? 

It’s a question that has dominated headlines around the NHL this summer and one still lacking an answer.

Marner’s contract stalemate is an all-too-familiar scenario playing out once again this summer. Last year, went through the same song and dance with William Nylander, an impasse that lasted all the way through training camp and the first two months of the season before seeing a resolution.

With Marner, there’s every possibility that lightning could strike twice and the Leafs could be without one of their stars — their leading scorer for last season no less — for a significant chunk of time.

It’s certainly not ideal, for the Leafs or for the laundry list of restricted free agents who may be waiting for the foot to drop on Marner’s contract before they sign their own. It’s one of the held beliefs this summer, that Marner’s situation has created a logjam-effect.

Marner, meanwhile, already has plans to train in Switzerland if nothing comes to pass before training camp opens up next month. He appears to be in it for the long haul.

And the truthful answer to the question is this: nobody knows.

2. Has the team done enough to improve its defense? 

The Maple Leafs have all the talent in the world on forward and Frederik Andersen is a stalwart as a last line of defense.

Toronto’s problems last season weren’t a lack of scoring or quality goaltending — they got both. What they needed was a better blue line.

And Kyle Dubas has gone out re-tooled this summer, adding Tyson Barrie and Cody Ceci to a right side that was lacking in the past. The return of Travis Dermott from injury will provide an added boost one healthy. And the team will have a healthy mix of competition vying for the bottom-pairing spots, including Ben Harpur and Justin Holl.

The Leafs have re-worked their coaching staff, too, adding former Flyers head coach Dave Hakstol along with Paul McFarland to Mike Babcock’s flanks.

Is it enough to stop the barrage of shots Andersen grew accustomed to facing on a nightly basis? Time will tell.

3. How long will the leash be on Mike Babcock’s job? 

Kyle Dubas said he was ‘all-in’ on Babcock after the team crashed out of the first round in Game 7 loss to the Boston Bruins back in April.

Babcock’s stubbornness was on full display, particularly in that final game where the Leafs were trailing and Babcock was throwing out 40-year-olds onto the ice ahead of some of his biggest stars. The move drew intense criticism and rightfully so. Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner should be together when the team needs them the most.

[MORE: 2018-19 Review | X-factor | Under Pressure]

Babcock has certainly overseen improvements in his time, but Toronto is no ordinary hockey city and 100-point regular seasons mean nothing without a follow-up deep playoff run.

Babcock has been given new coaches to work with to try and improve where the team lacks the most with its defensive structure. Dubas has also handed him the keys to Barrie and Ceci, giving the team a revamped right side on the blue line.

Another year ending in a first-round exit and the Leafs will likely have to move on from Babcock. Dubas has a job to keep as well, and his lifeline will be installing his own, hand-picked coach before the crosshairs come to rest on his job.

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


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck