Cody Ceci

Maple Leafs fire Babcock, name Keefe new head coach

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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.

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.

MORE:
Where will Mike Babcock end up after Maple Leafs?
Underachieving Maple Leafs needed this change]

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 GM gives interesting take on ‘polarizing’ players

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The Toronto Maple Leafs are mired in a three-game losing streak, and generally speaking, have seemed a bit underwhelming so far in starting 2019-20 with a 9-7-4 record (22 points, currently in second wild card).

Through 20 games, you’ll see players talk about getting “swagger” back, and you probably won’t be able to scroll Hockey Twitter without stumbling upon at least a few debates about the job Mike Babcock is doing.

With as passionate a fan base as the Maple Leafs have, you’ll see people really drilling down to parse even the depth aspects of the team. Maybe that explains why we got an interesting take from GM Kyle Dubas, who almost seemed to break “the fourth wall” when he acknowledged the many takes that defensemen Cody Ceci and Tyson Barrie inspire.

Buffet of opinions

Dubas’ comments about Ceci are especially fascinating, as you can see from TSN’s Karen Shilton.

“Cody is an interesting one. I think it goes back to the war between data and subjective scouting [in that] he seems to be a very polarizing player,” Dubas said. “Even when everything underlying about him has been relatively solid, especially when you consider his usage [as a top-pairing defenceman who averages 22:19 of ice time per game], it seems to be every tiny thing that he does becomes a referendum on whether he’s good or not, which is mind-boggling to me. Every defenceman that plays that much and plays in that role is going to [make] mistakes. I think he’s been a good addition for us and has played above expectations from when we acquired him and we’re very happy with him.”

In particular, Dubas captures the tenure of some Hockey Twitter debates when he says “it seems like every tiny thing that he does becomes a referendum.”

But it’s not that hard to see where many of Ceci’s critics are coming from.

When the Maple Leafs acquired Ceci, and it became clear that he’d actually stick around for at least a while, the hope (for many) was that he wouldn’t have the same role as he did in Ottawa, where some believe the Senators promoted him to a level of incompetence. What if Ceci was in an easier role, with fewer minutes and lesser opponents? Instead, his ice time has been virtually unchanged from last season, and defensive measures like his Hockey Viz heat maps (via Micah Blake McCurdy) look as bad as ever:

But, truly, Dubas isn’t totally off base when he says that there are certain underlying numbers where Ceci comes across at least a bit more respectably.

There’s the argument, advanced by people like Jonas Siegel of The Athletic (sub required), that it’s too early to judge Ceci.

Maybe it’s too late; perhaps there’s an “eye test vs. analytics” divide that won’t be broken easily. It could be that the biggest uproar would come if the Maple Leafs brought back Ceci after his expiring deal melts away.

(Opinion: they absolutely should not bring Ceci back.)

Tyson not knocking it out of the park

In the grand scheme of things, the Ceci situation is basically going as prescribed.

The bigger disappointment might be Tyson Barrie, even if you ignore Nazem Kadri‘s promising early results in Colorado. The book on Barrie is that he can be an explosive offensive performer, although there were red flags about him negating much of that prowess with shaky defense.

Those red flags carry over to those Hockey Viz charts, as there’s a lot of the bad sort of red when you consider Barrie’s defensive impact (and arguably not enough of the good red on offense to justify that bleeding).

Keeping it as simple as it gets, Barrie barely has more points (zero goals, five assists, thus five points) than Ceci (one goal, three assists for four points). Those numbers are underwhelming even if you viewed Barrie as something of a paper tiger with superficial scoring stats coming in.

Maybe it’s telling that Dubas’ comments are more milquetoast about Barrie, stating that “we just want him to continue to work and get comfortable here.”

***

Barrie, Ceci, and the Maple Leafs face a familiar foe on Friday in the Boston Bruins. In the Bruins’ own way, they want to get back on track too, as they’ve lost four in a row.

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.

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

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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.