Jake Gardiner

Leafs have big decisions to make this summer

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Another year, another first-round exit for the Toronto Maple Leafs in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Since 2013, the Leafs have been knocked out by the Boston Bruins in Game 7 of the first round three times. Last year, Toronto had a 3-2 lead against Boston in the deciding game, but they let it slip away. So what did they do? They added John Tavares in free agency and Jake Muzzin before the trade deadline. Still, it wasn’t enough.

So now what?

General manager Kyle Dubas will have his work cut out for him this summer. The Leafs have three key players scheduled to become restricted free agents in Mitch Marner, Kasperi Kapanen and Andreas Johnsson. They also have two important blueliners set to hit the open market in Jake Gardiner and Ron Hainsey.

Let’s start with the defense because we know that’s where the Leafs need the most work.

Leafs fans like to pin blame on Gardiner because he tends to make silly decisions with the puck at times, but nobody can deny that their defense is better with him than without him. The 28-year-old was clearly banged up in the playoffs, and that definitely affected his play. You’d have to think that his services will be in high demand on July 1st because there won’t be too many puck-moving defenders available this summer.

As for Hainsey, he played over 20 minutes per game in the regular season and playoffs. But how much longer can the Leafs continue rolling out a 38-year-old player on their top pairing? They need to upgrade on defense, which means Hainsey doesn’t come back or he gets pushed further down the lineup.

Dubas already has $75.759 million committed to the cap next season, which means that he’ll likely have less than $8 million in cap space. Marner alone will command way more than $8 million per season, so the Leafs will have to get creative when it comes to opening up dollars to re-sign players and to bring in new bodies.

Both Johnsson and Kapanen scored 20 goals and both surpassed the 40-point mark this season, but Johnsson (43 points) averaged under 14 minutes per game, while Kapanen (44 points) played over 16:30 per game. Could one of those two guys be on the move? Will it be Kapanen?

But the five players with expiring contracts mentioned above aren’t part of that $75-plus million cap hit heading into next season. Players under contract will have to move, too. 39-year-old Patrick Marleau is on the books for $6.25 million for one more year and he clearly isn’t the same player he once was. Can they find a taker for him? Dubas might have to send Kapanen to a team that’s willing to eat Marleau’s contract.

Nazem Kadri has three years left on his current contract at a very reasonable cap hit of $4.5 million. There’s no denying that his five-game suspension against the Bruins effected the outcome of the series. Has he worn out his welcome in Toronto? He’s still an effective player, but the trust between he and the organization may be fractured at this point.

Nikita Zaitsev‘s contract ($4.5 million AAV per year) forces him into a top four role that he probably isn’t suited for over an 82-game season plus playoffs. Other teams won’t be lining up to trade for that contract.

Dubas was the big winner last offseason, as he found a way to bring Tavares home. He also made a solid trade with Los Angeles for Muzzin and he was able to get Auston Matthews to sign a long-term extension, but this is the first major challenge he’ll experience as GM of the Leafs.

How will he respond?

MORE:
In a series full of questions, Mike Babcock short on answers
Bruins win yet another Game 7 versus Maple Leafs

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.

Bruins win yet another Game 7 against Maple Leafs

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You could say that history repeated itself as the Bruins once again won a Game 7 against the Maple Leafs, taking this one 5-1.

After all, Maple Leafs fans will suffer through a similar, empty feeling. Their rivals dispatched them from yet another first-round series, and with a cap crunch coming for Toronto, the heartache is real.

And, yes, Jake Gardiner‘s Game 7 nightmares continued. There his blinking, sad face was, as the Bruins stormed off to a 2-0 lead, with both goals coming while Gardiner was on the ice.

Yet, while the 2013 and 2018 Game 7 matchups featured rather epic Maple Leafs meltdown that almost felt Shakespearean, this contest carried a heavier air of inevitability. Yes, the Maple Leafs made a game of it by sanding down a 2-0 deficit to 2-1 through the second period, but Sean Kuraly‘s 3-1 goal minutes into the third really sapped much of the drama from 2019’s Game 7.

(A failed power play by Toronto minutes after Kuraly’s goal really hammered that point home.)

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Unlike in the previous Game 7 contests with Toronto, the Bruins never trailed this time around. You’d think that the Bruins’ lethal top line of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and David Pastrnak would have been doing the heavy lifting, but instead it was Boston’s supporting cast members. (Tuukka Rask played a big role in the lack of drama, by the way, as the Finnish goalie made 32 out of 33 saves.)

  • Marcus Johansson took advantage of sloppy defensive work to score what has to be one of the biggest goals of his career.
  • John Tavares gave the Maple Leafs some life with his goal, but generally Toronto couldn’t really get its top guns going, particularly once the Bruins were able to get in cruise control defensively. (Bold prediction: New York Islanders fans will make a few jokes about their team making it further than Tavares this year.)
  • That Sean Kuraly goal came on what seemed like an innocuous play, and you could practically feel the shock and dismay when the Maple Leafs bench was shown reacting to it. Two empty-net goals added a couple extra pinches of salt in the wounds for Toronto.

With another gutting loss against the Bruins in mind, the Maple Leafs have a lot of soul-searching to do.

Andersen was mostly pretty strong in Round 1, but this hurts — really, really, badly. Again, top stars like Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner couldn’t make a mark in Game 7 after gaining some traction midway through Round 1.

And, honestly? It’s fair to wonder how much blame Mike Babcock should carry. Was he too stubborn in not experimenting with different combinations, whether it was trying out Matthews with Marner more often, or giving the higher lines an injection of higher-end talent by moving William Nylander higher up the order? And did the Maple Leafs lack adjustments in the finer points of the game, such as sticking to their tendency to look for stretch passes too often?

[More on Babcock’s coaching job, and the decisions he made.]

Of course, while many – particularly those in the Toronto media – will focus negative attention on the Maple Leafs, you don’t really struggle unless your opponent is playing at a high level.

The Bruins posed a mighty threat to the Maple Leafs all along, so it’s not really that surprising that Boston came through. They’re a very, very good team, particularly when they’re getting offense from players other than that big three of Bergeron, Marchand, and Pastrnak.

Boston moves on to an intriguing Round 2 matchup against the Columbus Blue Jackets. It will be a series of many storylines, including rest versus rust, as the Bruins just went the distance against the Maple Leafs while Columbus kicked back and relaxed following that shocking sweep of the Tampa Bay Lightning. It’s not the series many were expecting, yet both the Bruins and Blue Jackets have been playing at a high level, so it should be a fascinating time.

Maybe John Tortorella will even give us a few more golden quotes?

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.

The time is now for Maple Leafs, Babcock

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Pressure is dolled out in droves in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Teams such as the Tampa Bay Lightning shoulder quite the brunt of it given how their regular season played out. Teams such as the Winnipeg Jets put it together a year prior and the expectation is to push the needle further this time around.

And then there’s the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Toronto is a hockey market like no other. Essentially, the team could be in the same position at the Ottawa Senators and they’d be expected to hold a parade in late June. Yeah, that’s probably a little extreme but it paints a good enough picture of the pressure cooker that exists in southern Ontario.

And when you have the names of Tavares, Matthews and Marner on the backs of those iconic jerseys, expectations are firmly (and rightly so) place in the lofty stratosphere. Losing to the Boston Bruins in the Round 1 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, then, would be nothing short of a disappointment (and Boston is, in many people’s eyes, the better team).

Toronto has fallen to the Bruins twice now in spectacular, Game 7 fashion since 2013. In 2013, the Maple Leafs held a 4-1 lead in the third period before the Bruins came back to tie the game in regulation and then win through Patrice Bergeron in overtime.

Last season, a similar fate awaited Toronto. The Maple Leafs led 4-3 after two periods in Game 7, only to cough up another three third-period markers to lose 7-4. At its very core, this series is about Toronto showing they can exorcize these Game 7 demons, in the same way that the Washington Capitals finally beat the Pittsburgh Penguins last season.

“Everyone on this team is going into it very hungry,” Maple Leafs forward Auston Matthews said Monday. “We want to make up for last year where we felt it could have gone either way in that last game. To not move [on] was really frustrating and left a bitter taste in a lot of our mouths.”

[RELATED: Bruins vs. Maple Leafs Preview]

Not moving on might cost Mike Babcock his job. Toronto oozes talent, and Babcock needs it to seep into the later rounds of the playoffs.

“The biggest thing is there is going to be no room, no space, no time and the better a player you are, the less there is going to be,” Babcock said. “You have to understand what the playoffs are about and what it’s going to take to be successful and our whole team has to.”

Moving on from last year will also be top of the order for defenseman Jake Gardiner.

Plus-minus is going the way of the dinosaurs, but a minus-5 in Game 7 will always look ugly. Gardiner had that minus-5 in last year’s most important game.

Gardiner was, unsurprisingly, harsh on himself after that game.

“It’s the most important game of the season, and I didn’t show up,” he said. “It’s going to be a tough one to swallow, that’s for sure. I let a lot of people down. But you know what, hopefully, I can come back better from it.”

Gardiner became the team’s goat, and not the good goat. But Toronto got a taste of what life was without him this season and, well, they’re much better with him with a record 37-20-5 and 2.85 goals allowed per game compared to the 9-8-3 record with 3.6 goals allowed per game without.

MORE:
Power Rankings: Why your team won’t win the Stanley Cup
• 
Roundtable: Goaltending issues, challenging the Lightning
NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs: Round 1 schedule, TV info

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

Bruins vs. Maple Leafs: PHT 2019 Stanley Cup Playoff Preview

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Let’s do it all over again.

The Toronto Maple Leafs will battle the Boston Bruins in the opening round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the second year in a row. Last year, the series was decided over seven games, with the Bruins eventually winning on home ice in the seventh contest, 7-4.

The biggest difference between the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs and 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, is that the Leafs now have John Tavares in their lineup. The 28-year-old added 47 goals and 88 points in 82 games with his hometown team. Will that be enough to push the Leafs over the top this time around? Probably not.

Getting some added production from Auston Matthews would also help. Matthews posted just one goal and one assist in the seven-game series. He has to take his game to another level in the postseason if the Leafs are going to get by this talented Bruins team.

“It’s going to be a challenge but I think everybody in the locker room is hungry,” Matthews said. “We want to go in and be ready from the very first game and definitely send a message early.”

Sending a message early is probably a good idea. The Leafs dropped the first two games of the series in Boston last year. Toronto was able to win the first game at home to cut their series deficit to 2-1, but they ended up going back to Boston down 3-1. They were able to fend off elimination twice before eventually losing the series.

As Matthews mentioned, the Leafs have to get off to a better start if they’re going to cause an upset.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

SCHEDULE
Thursday, April 11, 7 p.m.: Maple Leafs @ Bruins | NBCSN, SN, CBC, TVA Sports
Saturday, April 13, 8 p.m.: Maple Leafs @ Bruins | NBC, CBC, TVA Sports
Monday, April 15, 7 p.m.: Bruins @ Maple Leafs | CBC, TVA Sports, NBCSN
Wednesday, April 17, 7 p.m.: Bruins @ Maple Leafs | CBC, TVA Sports, NBCSN
*Friday, April 19, TBD: Maple Leafs @ Bruins | TBD
*Sunday, April 21, TBD: Bruins @ Maple Leafs | TBD
*Tuesday, April 23, TBD: Maple Leafs @ Bruins | TBD

FORWARDS

MAPLE LEAFS: The Leafs are blessed with some of the best firepower in the league. Matthews, Tavares, Mitch Marner, Nazem Kadri, Kasperi Kapanen, William Nylander, Andreas Johansson and Patrick Marleau have all the ability to create offense. If Toronto is going to go on a run, they’ll need their offense to click from the get-go. It’s the only way they could make up for the defensive lapses in their own end. Of all the teams in the league, only Tampa Bay, Calgary and San Jose scored more goals than Toronto (286). Stopping this talented group of forwards isn’t going to be easy for the Bruins.

BRUINS: Even though the Leafs may be deeper up front, the Bruins have one of the best lines in hockey with Patrice Bergeron, David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand. All three players averaged better than one point per game this season, and Marchand hit the 100-point mark for the first time in his career. The key for Boston will be for them to continue to get secondary scoring from the likes of David Krejci, Jake DeBrusk and a few others. The Bruins ranked 11th in goals scored this year, with 259.

ADVANTAGE: Maple Leafs. I’ll give the Leafs the slight advantage here only because they’re deeper group of front, but we’re splitting hairs here. Both groups have high-end forwards that can break a game wide open.

DEFENSE

MAPLE LEAFS: This is where the Leafs will have to find answers immediately. From an offensive perspective, the Leafs had one of the top point-producing defenders in the league in Morgan Rielly, who had 72 points in 82 games. Acquiring Jake Muzzin from the Los Angeles Kings was a significant move, but it still didn’t fix the defensive zone issues that have plagued the Maple Leafs all season. Veteran Ron Hainsey has seen better days, but head coach Mike Babcock still likes to use the 38-year-old quite regularly (he averaged over 20 minutes per game). The good news for Toronto, is that Jake Gardiner and Travis Dermott are back from injury.

BRUINS: Zdeno Chara isn’t as dominating as he was years ago, but the 42-year-old still averages 21:05 of ice time. Charlie McAvoy has become one of the young leaders on that blue line, while Torey Krug and Brandon Carlo round out the top four. Kevan Miller will miss the opening round of the playoffs because of a lower-body injury he suffered in the final week of the regular season. Miller brings a level of physicality that the Bruins will miss against Toronto.

ADVANTAGE: Bruins. The Bruins don’t have anyone that can post individual offensive numbers like Rielly, but there’s no denying that they’re way deeper on the back end than the Maple Leafs are. This is as clear of an advantage as you’ll get at any position between this two teams.

GOALTENDING

MAPLE LEAFS: Frederik Andersen has had his share of struggles down the stretch. In order for him to be sharp for the playoffs, Babcock decided that Andersen would start the final two games of the regular season. The 29-year-old finished the regular season with a 36-16-7 record with a 2.77 goals-against-average and a .917 save percentage this season. He ended the season with 6-5 shootout loss to the Montreal Canadiens, which isn’t an ideal way to go in the playoffs. The Leafs struggle with in-zone coverage, which means they’ll need their goalie to stand on his head at times if they’re going to advantage to the second round.

BRUINS: Like Andersen, Rask has struggled down the stretch, too. The 32-year-old won just one of his last four games and he allowed at least three goals or more in all three of those defeats. The Bruins have a capable backup goalie in Jaroslav Halak, but they need Rask to take his game to another level at this crucial moment. Rask finished the year with a 27-13-5 record with a 2.48 goals-against-average and a .912 save percentage this season.

ADVANTAGE: Bruins. Both goalies are struggling heading into the playoffs, so whichever one can find their game the quickest will give their team the best chance to win. But heading into the series, it’s hard not give the advantage to Rask. He has more experience and playoff success than Andersen. But this should be an even battle.

ONE BIG QUESTION FOR EACH TEAM

Will the Maple Leafs’ in-zone coverage hold up?

As much as the coaching staff has tried to solve this issue, they still haven’t been able to figure it out. The Leafs tend to make critical mistakes in their own end. They might be able to get away with during the season, but they can’t keep making the same errors in April. Is there any way they can straighten themselves out now? They may just have outscore the Bruins every night?

Can Rask get the job done for the Bruins?

Again, the Bruins have the luxury of having a quality backup in Jaroslav Halak (the Leafs have no such luxury), but if they’re going to go on a run they’ll need their number one goalie to help carry the load. If he struggles against a potent offense like Toronto’s, Boston could be in tough.

PREDICTION

BRUINS IN 5. The Bruins have been playing incredible well for a long time. I can’t see them dropping this series. I think they’ll finish the Maple Leafs off in five games.

MORE PREVIEWS:
Islanders vs. Penguins
• Sharks vs. Golden Knights
Flames vs. Avalanche
Jets vs. Blues
Lightning vs. Blue Jackets
Predators vs. Stars
Capitals vs Hurricanes

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.

Karlsson, Panarin, Bobrovsky can close strong and cash in

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Many NHL teams have plenty to play for down the final stretch of the regular season, trying to get in the playoffs or to improve their positioning, before 16 teams compete for the Stanley Cup.

Some players have a lot at stake, too.

Erik Karlsson, Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky are a few of the potential free agents in the league with a chance to close strong and cash in by re-signing with their teams or on the open market.

The top trio of stars and some other standouts with a lot to gain financially when the season is finished, if not sooner:

KARLSSON

The San Jose Sharks acquired the two-time Norris Trophy-winning defenseman from Ottawa before the season started, hoping they would have him for more than a year. To keep Karlsson off the market as an unrestricted free agent, San Jose may have to at least match the eight-year, $88 million deal the Los Angeles Kings gave defenseman Drew Doughty to stay last summer.

PANARIN

Dynamic scorers like the Russian winger rarely are available in free agency and a team that wants to spend a lot of money over many years may be able to land an 80-point scorer. Panarin has already said he wants to see if there are better options in the summer than staying with the Columbus Blue Jackets, who are simply hoping he helps them win at least a postseason series for the first time.

BOBROVSKY

Big-time goaltenders, like the two-time Vezina Trophy winner, usually stay with their teams and off the market. Like his teammate and fellow countryman, the 30-year-old Bobrovsky will probably want to make the most of his opportunity to make as much money as he can with his next deal while being at or near the prime or his career.

Matt Duchene

It was a good time for the center, and his bank account, to have one of the best years of his career. He’s averaging more than a point per game this season, starting with Ottawa, before being dealt to Columbus . If Panarin and Bobrovsky appear to be leaving in free agency after the season, the Blue Jackets may give the 28-year-old Duchene a lot to stay before the market opens.

Jeff Skinner

The center has a shot to surpass the 63 points he has reached twice before the team he plays for, the Buffalo Sabres, are relegated to watching the postseason for an eighth straight season. The Sabres want to re-sign Skinner, but he might be willing to take a seven-year deal – instead of the eight he can get to stay – and join a Stanley Cup contender.

Jake Gardiner

He has been out for nearly a month with a back injury, but barring it lingering into the playoffs to cast doubt on his long-term health, one of the best defensemen available will be paid well to stay in Toronto or to go play for another team.

Wayne Simmonds

The winger has not produced much offensively with Nashville, which acquired him from Philadelphia, and yet he will have a chance to make a lasting impression when it matters most in the playoffs. Simmonds has a rare combination of scoring ability, toughness and durability.

RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS

There is an excellent group of players eligible to be restricted free agents, including: forwards Mikko Rantanen, William Karlsson, Brayden Point, Mitch Marner, Sebastian Aho and Matthew Tkachuk along with defensemen Jacob Trouba and Zach Werenski. Teams, though, rarely extend offer sheets to other franchise’s restricted free agents as Philadelphia did in 2012 with a $110 million, 14-year deal for Shea Weber, only to have the Predators match it.