Jake Muzzin

PHT Morning Skate: Delicate line for NHL coaches; Sabres headed for collapse?

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• The Devils discuss why John Hynes was fired, and the tone is pretty close to the opposite of how people discussed coaches like Mike Babcock once he was out the door. Taylor Hall talks up Hynes’ role in Hall winning a Hart Trophy, saying “I have a pretty cool trophy at home that I think he had a part in.” (The Trentonian)

• Kings coach Todd McLellan has been around, including working with Mike Babcock in Detroit. He has some interesting insight on how “delicate” it can be to motivate players without crossing the line, and compares it to how discipline has changed at elementary schools. “Ears aren’t pulled. You don’t go to the principal’s office to see or get the strap.” (Los Angeles Times)

• John Tortorella didn’t comment, but plenty of players from his various stops discuss his methods, with the overriding message being that he doesn’t cross the line. (The Athletic [$])

• A hand injury will likely keep Wild defenseman Jared Spurgeon out at least a couple weeks. (Star-Tribune)

• In taking a deep dive regarding the Sabres’ underlying numbers, Travis Yost wonders if another collapse is looming. (Buffalo News)

• Manon Rhéaume, the first woman to play in the NHL, will be honored with a statue outside Quebec City’s Videotron Centre. [CBC]

• An in-depth breakdown of the Blues’ “Enter the Zone,” predictive gaming platform, which “offered a glimpse of the future of wagering on professional hockey.” (ESPN)

• Sonny Sachdeva wonders if Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl could actually maintain their paces at around 140 points, and compares their starts to some of the hottest stretches from the likes of Jaromir Jagr and Sidney Crosby. (Sportsnet)

• How defensemen are evolving to impact games more at 5-on-5 than on the power play. (Rotoworld)

• People might snicker at Alex Burrows making the Ring of Honour, or sneer at his agitating days, but Daniel Wagner explains that you won’t understand Burrows if you aren’t a fan of the Canucks. (Vancouver Courier/Pass it to Bulis)

• When will the Blackhawks break out of their current trend of mediocrity? (Second City Hockey)

• The second tier of pending free agents who might get big raises, from Jake Muzzin to Evgenii Dadonov. (Sporting News)

• There are some interesting photo choices in the latest edition of the Upper Deck hockey card series. [Puck Junk]

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.

Marner to play first Leafs game since Babcock drama (and Tuesday’s mini-meltdown)

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When it comes to a team’s 30th game of an 82-game regular season, you couldn’t ask for much more sizzle than what the Toronto Maple Leafs could provide against the Colorado Avalanche on Wednesday.

The Maple Leafs activated winger Mitch Marner, setting the stage for the crafty winger to play since Nov. 9, when Marner suffered a high-ankle sprain against the Philadelphia Flyers.

An eventful month

To put things mildly, a lot happened since Marner’s unpleasant-looking injury:

That 3-2 shootout loss to the Flyers began what would be a six-game losing streak for the Maple Leafs, and represented the end of the Mike Babcock era in Toronto. It wasn’t, of course, the end of Babcock-related drama, however, as reports surfaced about Babcock playing mind games with Marner during his rookie season, and all that “hardest working players list” entailed.

Since then, there have been a wave of stories about coaches exhibiting abusive behavior (either physically, verbally, or sometimes a mix of the two), with the Calgary Flames parting ways with Bill Peters, Marc Crawford placed on leave from the Blackhawks, and plenty of other reverberations.

Akim Aliu stated that he expects “big changes” around hockey (and the NHL in particular) following a meeting with the league, but time will ultimately tell.

Either way, Babcock’s firing and that rookie-year story should fix even more eyes on Marner than usual, which is saying something considering all of the attention his offseason contract negotiations received.

A fuller view of the new-look Maple Leafs

Sheldon Keefe won his first three games as coach of the Maple Leafs, but the Buds have since stumbled in their last three games, going 1-2-0. Things ended on an extremely sour note on Tuesday, as the Maple Leafs experienced a bit of meltdown late in a 6-1 loss against the Flyers.

Auston Matthews said “we can’t fold like that,” while Keefe agreed that the Maple Leafs let Frederik Andersen out to dry, stating that “hopefully it is the shakeup that we would need.”

It doesn’t figure to be easy. The Avalanche are on a three-game winning streak, boast players like Nazem Kadri who will be pumped to play against his former team in Toronto, and are rested (their last game was on Saturday) while Toronto is closing out a back-to-back. The Maple Leafs have struggled lately in such back-to-back sets, at least stemming from Babcock’s days.

Watching Marner himself

Pension Plan Puppets points out that Marner is coming back basically as early as possible (assuming he doesn’t have any setbacks before Wednesday’s game).

Getting Marner back should be a thrill, and again, a nice opportunity to get a better picture of what GM Kyle Dubas truly envisions as his team now that he doesn’t have to clash with Babcock’s competing style.

But how close to 100 percent will Marner be? While his most treasured ability is his world-class playmaking, Marner is also known for outstanding edgework and agility, using his elusiveness to thrive as a smaller player (rather than Nathan MacKinnon-class speed). You have to wonder if recovering from a high-ankle sprain might at least hinder some of his skating strength.

That said, Marner will still have the vision and anticipation that makes him such a great passer. Jake Muzzin pointed out the way Marner processes the game, and while there could be a bit of rust there, chances are he’ll give Toronto another gear.

“His reads without the puck,” Muzzin said when asked where Marner’s hockey IQ really shines. “I feel like he’s one step ahead of the puck out there when he’s on. He’s got great vision with the puck, but picking guys and reading passes before they happen, he’s right up there with the best.”

Maybe the Maple Leafs will be a little tired on Tuesday, and maybe Marner won’t be quite there physically, but it still feels like we’ll get a better idea of what this team (and player) is capable of now that Babcock is no longer in the picture.

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.

Underachieving Maple Leafs needed this change

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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.

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.

MORE:
Maple Leafs fire Babcock, name Keefe head coach
Where will Mike Babcock end up after Maple Leafs?

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.

Toffoli trade could be a win for all involved, including the Kings

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The best type of trade may also be the rarest: one where everyone – each team, and all of the players involved – end up “winning.”

It’s possible that such a situation could play out between Tyler Toffoli, the Los Angeles Kings, and a savvy team that might determine that now is as good a time as any to try to “buy low” on the 27-year-old forward. Let’s consider those perspectives.

“Whatever happens, happens”

Toffoli was a healthy scratch during the Kings’ 5-3 loss to the Vancouver Canucks last Wednesday, and inspired a frank review from Kings head coach Todd McLellan, as Jack Harris of the Los Angeles Times reported.

“Tyler was a really good player for a good period this season, then things kind of fell off for him,” McLellan said. “He’s got so much to give this team and to give himself, that maybe an opportunity to get a little angry – whether he’s angry at the coach or whoever – and then come and give us what he has, that’s what we’re looking for.”

As much as McLellan framed the situation as not much more than tough love, the healthy scratch ignited trade rumors, and Toffoli responded to such questions from Sportsnet’s Luke Fox by giving an “it is what it is”-style response of “whatever happens, happens.”

Toffoli is on the last year of a contract that carries a $4.6 million AAV, and the 2019-20 season figures to have an enormous impact on whether or not Toffoli gets much of a raise and/or receives the term that most players yearn for in a dangerous league.

Even if the healthy scratch is just a one-time thing, Toffoli must feel concerned. There’s the possibility of him yo-yoing in and out of the lineup, and on a team that isn’t expected to be a big contender to boot.

Although Toffoli may in fact prefer to stay in Los Angeles, it wouldn’t be that hard to sell him on a change of scenery if whatever happens does … uh, happen.

Depreciated asset

It’s easy to forget just how dangerous “That ’70s Line” was with Toffoli, Jeff Carter, and Tanner Pearson.

Toffoli’s bad luck (particularly in 2018-19, when a 5.8 shooting percentage translated to a disappointing 13 goals) makes it even easier to forget that, in the grand scheme of things, he can help a team win.

The offense may come and go, but Toffoli brings value as an all-around player. His possession stats are consistently strong, this season included, and he looks better and better as you dig deeper (and, ideally, not get too preoccupied with one night where he has a -4 rating).

If you’re more of a visual learner, glance at Evolving Hockey’s multi-season RAPM chart for Toffoli and you’ll see that Toffoli can bring value even when he isn’t scoring:

A smart team could either a) extend Toffoli after trading him, maybe before his true value is clear or b) mitigate risks of him not fitting in by going through a trial run in the form of a “rental.” With Toffoli’s value being arguably artificially low, a contender could get a steal.

Royal reality

Considering their still-quite-recent two Stanley Cup victories, and the combined $21M AAV of Drew Doughty and Anze Kopitar, it’s understandable if the Kings still don’t want to embrace the reality of a rebuild.

To be fair, McLellan’s seemingly restored some of the Kings’ former luster as puck hogs, even if the standings don’t make that clear. The Kings rank at or near the top five in a wide variety of underlying stats at Natural Stat Trick from expected goals to Corsi to controlling high-danger scoring chances, yet mediocre shooting luck and terrible goaltending doom Los Angeles. You can see how an organization might simple wonder what might happen if some of those bounces balance out, and if so, maybe Toffoli could be part of a playoff run.

If you zoom out, it’s more and more difficult to deny that a soft reboot is in order. By the time the Kings sort everything out, Toffoli may start to leave his prime. Los Angeles should be willing to make tough decisions to move on from good players, and such tough decisions might mean saying goodbye to Toffoli, along with Alec Martinez. It was the right — if again, painful — choice with Jake Muzzin, and likely would be the same with Toffoli.

***

A Toffoli trade wouldn’t necessarily be simple, but it’s still easy to see why the winger, the Kings, and a prospective buyer would all benefit from such a move.

MORE:
• Toffoli interview from back in Nov. 2017
• 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.

Ovechkin walks the walk; Tom Wilson wreaks havoc as Caps beat Leafs

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Alex Ovechkin was the one ruffling feathers heading into Tuesday’s Capitals – Maple Leafs game, yet Tom Wilson created the most controversy.

Overall, Washington’s 4-3 overtime win against Toronto was brimming with storylines:

Alex vs. Auston (and some Carlsson)

It was quite a duel between Ovechkin and Auston Matthews. Matthews started strong by assisting on an Andreas Johnsson goal just 40 seconds into the game, and finished with a goal and two assists. Ovechkin got the last laugh, however, with the overtime winner, finishing the night with a tremendous four-point performance (2G, 2A).

John Carlsson also continued his molten-hot start to 2019-20, scoring Washington’s first two goals. Carlsson now has an absurd 23 points in 14 games.

If you dream up a Capitals – Maple Leafs game from a marketing standpoint, you want stars to deliver, and that’s exactly what Ovechkin, Carlson, Matthews, and Nicklas Backstrom (three assists) did.

More fodder for Tom Wilson debates

The league probably wouldn’t be as excited to mull over more polarizing hits by the Patron Saint of Polarizing Hits, Tom Wilson. Jake Muzzin left Tuesday’s game and did not return following this one:

The more questionable of the two hits was probably this late one on Tyson Barrie:

Wilson was only penalized for the hit on Barrie (charging and roughing), but we’ll see if there is any supplemental discipline. Whether either of those hits were truly bad or just part of the game, Wilson’s made a few more enemies after Tuesday.

TSN’s Mark Masters reports that Mike Babcock said Muzzin’s injury is a charley horse, rather than something knee related, which could end up being a relief. There’s no timeline on his issue, though, so we’ll see.

Work to do

Via The Athletic’s James Mirtle, Babcock remarked, “Holy God there was a lot of penalties.”

Washington ended up going 2-for-7 on the night, with Ovechkin’s OT-winner being one of those PP goals. Toronto ended up 1-for-8.

Babcock aims to clean up the sort of play that Ovechkin criticized, but as he told Masters and others, it’s not something that will happen overnight.

“Well, I don’t know if he’s wrong. He knows because he lived it,” Babcock said. “If you look at Steve Yzerman, he lived it. A lot of the guys live it until they’re 30. You’ve got to decide whether you wait until you’re 30 or do you want to figure it out now …”

Babcock admitted that those comments probably hurt players’ (and his) feelings, they might be part of the learning experience that gets them to where they need to go.

Of course, one can debate how much the Maple Leafs need to change, or how they should change. Would there be success by clamping down — even leaning on the “Yzerman learned to play defense”* bit that’s almost a trope at this point — or, on the other hand, finding ways to fully embrace your offensive-minded talent?

Ovechkin’s experienced that experiment first hand, although it’s easy to forget how much the Capitals went through in getting from the Bruce Boudreau era to the stage where they finally won the Stanley Cup. Washington arguably swung to too much of an extreme, particularly under Dale Hunter, before finding a better mix lately. It also didn’t hurt that they found some other nice players to help make life easier for Ovechkin, Backstrom, and others.

So … basically, the debate about finding the sweet spot between stingy defense and aggressive offense is just about as polarizing as arguments over the latest Tom Wilson hit.

What we do know for sure: Ovechkin and Matthews scored a lot on Tuesday, and the Capitals won 4-3 in OT.

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.