John Tavares

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.

[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.

PHT Face-Off: Hungry Sharks; Caps are road warriors

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Before the start of the regular season, most expected the top three spots in the Atlantic Division to go to the Tampa Bay Lightning, Boston Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs. The order of the three teams was up for debate, but those three were pretty much locked in as the favorites to earn those spots.

As of today, not only do the Atlantic Division standings look nothing like what we expected, but two of the three teams aren’t even in the top three. Credit to Boston, who could’ve had a Stanley Cup Final hangover. Instead, they’ve come out and they’ve been flat-out dominant for the most part this season. Tampa and Toronto are very different stories.

The big difference between the two, is that the Bolts are showing signs of life. The Maple Leafs aren’t.

Here are five storylines to keep an eye on going forward:

• Schedule sets up nicely for Bolts:

The Lightning won their two games against Buffalo in Stockholm, Sweden and they managed to annihilate the Rangers, 9-3, in their return to North America. They dropped a 4-3 decision to the Jets this weekend, but their schedule should allow them to continue having success. They’ll play back-to-back road games in St. Louis and Chicago this week, but 14 of their final 21 games of 2019 will be played at Amalie Arena.

What also helps is the fact that Nikita Kucherov is also starting to come around. Kucherov, who led the league in scoring last year, had three multi-point performances in the first eight games of the season, but he was kept off the scoresheet the other five games. Now, he’s riding a four-game point streak and he’s picked up at least one point in seven of his last nine outings.

The Lightning just need Brayden Point to find his footing, which is a little silly to say considering he has a respectable 12 points in 14 games. The 23-year-old has just two assists in his last five contests.

This offensive machine is starting to get going. 17 games into the season, they lead the league in goals-per-game (3.71). The issue is also that they need to start keeping the puck out of their own net, as they’ve allowed 3.47 goals-against-per-game which is seventh-worst in the league.

• Falling Leafs: 

Earlier this month, Leafs head coach Mike Babcock made some interesting comments re: his team’s identity.

“When we changed our lineup as much as we did we knew it wasn’t going to be Day 1…you plan every day to be successful – that’s just what you plan for – and when it’s not as good as you want you have to work towards it and you gotta keep trying getting better,” Babcock told the Ray and Dregs Podcast. “I think that’s the mode we’ve been in. When you come into the year, you want to get out of the first 20 (games) with an identity. And it’s not last year’s identity because that doesn’t happen. It’s reinventing yourself so you know what you are. You say to the players, let’s do what we do and they know what that is…so I would say after 14 games, we don’t know what that is yet…”

Not much has changed since those comments were made. The Maple Leafs have dropped five games in a row (four in regulation) and they’re coming off a 6-1 shellacking at the hands of the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Yes, the team has had to deal with injuries to John Tavares and now Mitch Marner, but something just doesn’t look right. Scoring goals isn’t a problem. Through 22 games, they’ve managed to score the sixth-highest amount of goals of anybody in the league, but they can’t keep the puck out of their own net. They currently rank 30th in the NHL in goals against, with 77. Only the Detroit Red Wings have conceded more goals.

Their defensive zone coverage and their commitment to defense in general is a disaster right now. Babcock needs to find an identity for his team. Will they give him enough time to find it?

Sharks can win:

After an ugly start, the Sharks have rattled off six wins in a row. It probably helps that they haven’t had to leave the state of California since the beginning of the month, but you can’t take anything away from their way they’ve accumulated the results.

The Sharks have been better in a lot of aspects, but two players in particular have stepped up their game offensively in a big way. Logan Couture and Tomas Hertl have been particularly impressive during this recent run. Couture had just one goal in his first 16 games of the season. He’s now scored twice in his last five games. During the streak, he’s racked up 11 points and he’s put together four multi-point efforts.

As for Hertl, he saw his point streak snapped at five games on Saturday night, but you can’t deny that he’s been a huge offensive catalyst for San Jose. In the first five games of this streak, he piled up nine points.

Both Hertl and Couture lead the team in scoring with 21 points in 21 games.

• Capitals are Road Warriors: 

The Washington Capitals are the only team in the league that has surpassed the 30-point mark this season (they have 34 points) and they’ve done a lot of their damage away from home. Believe it or not, the Capitals have won five of 10 games at Capitals One Arena (5-2-3), but they’ve gone 10-1-1 on the road. Yes, you read that correctly. They’ve picked up 21 of a possible 24 points in their opponent’s rinks.

They clearly won’t be able to keep this up, but the fact that they were able to do this in the first place is just crazy. And they’ve won in some difficult places. They beat the defending Stanley Cup Champion St. Louis Blues on the road on opening night. They’ve also won away from home against the Islanders, Stars, Bruins and Flyers. And let’s not forget the five game road trip against Chicago, Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver and Toronto where they picked up nine of 10 points.

The only home team that was able to beat the Capitals in regulation was the Nashville Predators, who came away with a 6-5 win back on Oct. 10. Washington actually had 1-0, 2-1, 4-2 and 5-4 leads in that game, but they couldn’t hold on.

Unfortunately for the Caps, four of their next five games will be played at home.

• Flames shooting low:

The Calgary Flames picked up 107 points last season, which tied them for second in the NHL. This year, things have been way different. If the playoffs started today, they wouldn’t be in them. Thankfully for Calgary, there’s still plenty of time left in the regular season.

After last night’s loss ugly 6-0 loss to the Vegas Golden Knights, Flames forward Matthew Tkachuk wasn’t mincing words.

“It’s disgusting,” he told reporters, per Sportsnet. “It’s bad, it’s bad right now. We need to change this around.”

You’re probably going to start seeing articles being written about how it’s time to trade Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, or some other star on the team. You might see stories about how it’s time to move on from Bill Peters. Before you make sweeping judgements on these issues, keep things in perspective.

As of right now, the Flames have the fourth-lowest shooting percentage in the NHL. You’re probably wondering who the teams below them are. Well, here you go: Detroit, Los Angeles and Columbus. We knew that those bottom-three teams were going to be bad this year. There’s no need to get into their situations. But with Calgary, it was harder to see coming because they have so much offensive talent.

The average shooting percentage in the NHL right now is 9.6 percent. The Flames, as a team, are shooting at 8.1 percent.

Check out Sean Tierney’s PDO breakdown from earlier this morning (h/t: Sean Tierney)

Let’s give it a little more time before we blow up the Flames roster.

What’s coming up this week?

• The Hockey Hall of Fame class of 2019 will be inducted Monday night in Toronto. Meet the class.

• Islanders look to tie the longest point streak in franchise history when they visit the Penguins at PPG Paints Arena Tues. Nov. 19, 7 p.m. ET.

• First-round rematch: The Sharks will take on the Golden Knights on Thu. Nov. 21, 10 p.m. ET.

Elias Pettersson vs. Alex Ovechkin on Sat. Nov 23, 12:30 p.m. ET.

• Dave Tippett returns to Arizona for the first time as Oilers head coach on Sun. Nov. 24, 8 p.m. ET.

NHL on NBCSN
• Lightning vs. Blues, Tue. Nov. 19, 8 p.m. ET
• Oilers vs. Sharks, Tue. Nov. 19, 10:30 p.m. ET

Wednesday Night Hockey on NBCSN
• Capitals vs. Rangers, Wed. Nov. 20, 8 p.m. ET

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: Islanders still hot; Oshie still a shootout wizard

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Three Stars

1. Jean-Gabriel Pageau, Ottawa Senators

What has gotten into this guy? Is he trying to make it so we can’t call him just a pest any longer, like a lower-tier Brad Marchand, or something?

Either way, Pageau’s absolutely on fire. While, yes, one of his goals did come on an empty-netter, it’s still impressive that he generated the first hat trick of his career on Wednesday, especially without any time on Ottawa’s power play. JGP (who might need some sort of J.C. Penny-inspired nickname at this point?) was responsible for the game-winner to boot.

Pageau now has eight goals in his last six games, and at least one point (eight goals, one assist) in six of his last seven contests. Overall, he has 11 goals and 15 points through 18 games this season, although it’s this recent torrid pace that’s especially impressive. More on that in the factoids …

Oh, and in case you were wondering, Pageau’s career-high for goals is 19, and points is 43, both recorded in 2015-16.

2. Derick Brassard, New York Islanders

It’s been a nightmare for Brassard basically from the moment he was part of the trade that sent Mika Zibanejad to the Rangers (and a higher draft pick to the Rangers than to the Senators, oh my). The once-useful forward couldn’t find his footing while bouncing around the NHL.

When the Islanders made a $1.2 million investment in Brassard for 2019-20, it felt like a low-risk move with the potential for a heartwarming turnaround. That seemed like a slim possibility when Brassard managed just a single assist through his first eight games for the Isles, but now he’s really picking up steam.

Brassard has 10 points in his last nine games after generating a one-goal, two-assist night as the Islanders thwarted John Tavares and the Maple Leafs on Wednesday. Avoiding the “we don’t need you” debate regarding Tavares, allow this: any team could use a resurgent player at just $1.2M in AAV.

3. Dylan Strome, Chicago Blackhawks

Speaking of inspirational stories. Strome just never could really find his footing — or true opportunities, depending upon your perspective — as the third pick of the 2015 NHL Draft by the Arizona Coyotes. He’s found a new lease on life with Chicago, and while he’s suffered through some dry spells as the bounces slowed down a bit in 2019-20 vs. his 2018-19 run, Strome is hot again.

He scored two goals and one assist for three points on Wednesday, helping Chicago stun Vegas. Strome now has eight points (one goal, seven assists) in his last four games, representing a significant chunk of his 12 points in 17 games overall in 2019-20.

Strome’s teammate Patrick Kane ranks among other players with three goals (Kane also had 1G, 2A), if you prefer other choices.

Highlight of the Night

The Devils suffered another painful loss, but it will be more difficult to ignore Wayne Simmonds‘ sneaky-strong start to the 2019-20 season after he scored a goal like this:

Also, with Carter Hart vs. Braden Holtby being the focus of the Flyers – Capitals recap, there was the risk of this runner-up getting lost in the shuffle.

Factoids

  • Remember T.J. Oshie‘s epic shootout performance for the U.S. during the 2014 Winter Olympics? It turns out he still rules at that skill. The Capitals note that Oshie has scored on 44 of his 83 attempts, giving him the highest percentage (about 53) of any player with at least 60 shootout attempts.
  • Casey Cizikas is the 11th different Islanders player to record a game-winning goal so far this season (they have 13 wins overall). NHL PR notes that such a figure (11 different players with GWGs) leads the NHL at the moment in 2019-20. It’s a nice stat that drives home how everyone is pitching in for the Isles, right?
  • The Stars congratulated Corey Perry for his 1,000th NHL regular-season game. Not sure how many goalies he’s “bumped into” or people he’s angered during that span, but I’d wager “more than a few.”
  • Both the Islanders and Capitals pushed their point streaks to 13 games on Wednesday. Via NHL PR, this is the sixth such streak in Washington’s history, while the Isles have managed it five different times.
  • Sportsnet points out that Toronto’s special teams (17.6 PP percentage; 75.3 on the PK) have been far, far worse than recent years. Could that come down to coaching, bad luck, or other factors?
  • Pageau’s nine goals ties with Leon Draisaitl for most in the NHL since Oct. 23, according to Sportsnet.

Scores

OTT 4 – NJD 2
NYI 5 – TOR 4
WSH 2 – PHI 1 (SO)
DAL 3 – CGY 1
CHI 5 – VGK 3

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.

Mitch Marner out at least four weeks for Maple Leafs

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When a 5-4 loss against the Chicago Blackhawks isn’t the worst news of the night, you know the Toronto Maple Leafs are in a bit of trouble.

In a statement released during Sunday’s game, Toronto said that Mitch Marner underwent an MRI Sunday after sustaining an ankle injury in Saturday’s game against Philadelphia and is expected to be out of the lineup for a minimum of four weeks, at which point he will be reassessed.

Marner was injured after the opening faceoff of the second period when he fell on his right leg. He would return later in the contest to test his ankle but shortly after the trial went back to the locker room for good.

Toronto will get a minor boost to its lineup with Zach Hyman set to return from offseason surgery sometime next week. Prior to the Marner injury, the Leafs had a potential salary cap issue looming which forced the team to place forward Nic Petan and defenseman Martin Marincin on waivers earlier this week, but both went unclaimed. However, if Marner were to be placed on Long Term IR, the issue could resolve itself for the time being.

But that is the only minor positive to the injury. Marner had 18 points in as many games and was a key cog alongside John Tavares at the top of the lineup. Jason Spezza had the first crack next to the Leafs captain Sunday against the Blackhawks, but that position is expected to be a revolving door until the right trio presents itself.

“Really disappointed for Mitch, disappointed for our hockey team,” coach Mike Babcock told reporters after the game. “In saying that, someone else is going to get an opportunity. As coaches, we’ve got to figure it out. We have to get our lines — I mean, we had a different line for each period [against Chicago] — we have to get our lines right to maximize the group we have and get the right people in the right spots.”

With seven of the its next eight games on the road, Toronto will need significant contributions from its entire roster in order to replicate Marner’s production, and keep the Maple Leafs on the inside looking out in regard to the playoff race.

The Leafs are well aware of how vital playoff positioning is, having lost in the first round in the previous two seasons against the Boston Bruins as the road team. In the Atlantic Division, six of the eight teams are above .500, and the race to the finish will be highly competitive.

If the Maple Leafs struggle to win games with Marner sidelined, the long-term ramifications could be unfavorable playoff positioning or potentially missing the postseason altogether.

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

Maple Leafs lose Mitch Marner to ankle injury

The Toronto Maple Leafs announced that Mitch Marner will not return to Saturday’s game against the Philadelphia Flyers because of an ankle injury.

Marner seemed frustrated while trying to test the ankle, either because he wanted to play through it, or was merely irritated by the tough break … or maybe both. As you can see from the video above and the screencap, it was a very awkward-looking moment.

Here’s hoping it looked worse than it really was, as this would be a tough injury for a Maple Leafs team that’s felt a bit rudderless at times even with Marner healthy. While their 9-5-3 record heading into Saturday’s game against Philly isn’t so bad, there have been enough red flags to feel a little restless, especially for fans who bit their nails through the Marner contract drama in the summer.

The Maple Leafs have already dealt with an injury to John Tavares this summer, so this could continue a bumpy start to 2019-20.

Toronto ended up falling 3-2 to the Flyers via a shootout. Not a ton is known about the extent of Marner’s injury, although he’s been ruled out for Sunday’s game against the Blackhawks in Chicago.

This Maple Leafs team is going to need to band together if Marner misses serious time, as their upcoming schedule would be gruesome with or without the shifty playmaker. Note that the lone home game is in bold.

Nov. 10: at Chicago
Nov. 13: at NY Islanders
Nov. 15: vs. Boston
Nov. 16: at Pittsburgh
Nov. 19: at Vegas
Nov. 21: at Arizona
Nov. 23: at Colorado
Nov. 27: at Detroit
Nov. 29: at Buffalo

Yikes, eight of the Maple Leafs’ next nine games are on the road. About the only saving grace is that Toronto only faces one back-to-back set, as they’ve struggled in those situations lately.

Really, things could be bumpy for the next month-plus. From Sunday (Nov. 10) through Dec. 14, the Maple Leafs play only three games at home and 13 on the road. Not good.

Toronto has to hope this Marner issue is minor, although such a tough haul might also increase the temptation to rush him back. The Maple Leafs need to find a delicate balance, not unlike the job of an ankle.

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.