Nazem Kadri

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.

NHL Power Rankings: Top storylines entering training camp

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In this week’s NHL Power Rankings we take a look at some of the biggest storylines across the league that are worth watching throughout the 31 training camps. The top issue throughout the offseason has been the ongoing RFA standstill, but that has been discussed so much and is starting to resolve itself with signings trickling in that we are going to focus on topics outside of that.

Included among them, a major goaltending competition that could impact one team’s entire season, new coaches in new places, coaches on the hot seat, and whether or not a recent league MVP will want to re-sign with his current team.

What else are we keeping an eye on this preseason? Let’s get to the rankings to find out!

1. Columbus’ goalie competition. It might be the most interesting and important competition in any camp across the league. The Blue Jackets are getting fed up with being told how bad they will be this season, and while they still have a lot of reasons for optimism on the roster the ability of either Joonas Korpisalo or Elvis Merzlikins to adequately replace Sergei Bobrovsky will determine what the team is capable of doing.

2. Joel Quenneville’s impact in Florida. It has been a long time since Panthers fans have had a reason for optimism at the start of a season. This might even be the first time since they came off a Stanley Cup Final appearance all the way back in 1996 that they have reason to believe better days are ahead. They had a huge offseason that was kicked off with the addition of a future Hall of Fame, three-time Stanley Cup winning coach.

3. Taylor Hall‘s future in New Jersey. Ray Shero was one of the NHL’s busiest general managers this summer with the additions of P.K. Subban, Wayne Simmonds, Nikita Gusev, and the drafting of Jack Hughes with No. 1 overall pick. His biggest move, though, will be convincing his best player to stay in New Jersey and sign a long-term deal. Hall missed most of the last season due to injury and the Devils were never able to recover from that. Now that he is back the pressure is on New Jersey to get back to the playoffs. If they can’t do that after all of their summer additions, what motivation is there for Hall to want to re-sign?

4. Connor McDavid‘s health. This could probably be even higher on the list, but it seems like he is going to be ready for the start of the season. Still, he is coming back from a pretty significant injury at the end of the last season and there is reason to believe he may not quite be 100 percent at the start. He is the league’s best player and if the Oilers have any hope of competing they not only need him to be healthy, they need him to put the entire franchise on his back and carry it. Tough ask.

5. Coaches on the hot seat. Bruce Boudreau has to be pretty high on this list. He has already done the impossible for an NHL head coach and outlasted two GMs in Minnesota, but how long of a leash will he get under new GM Bill Guerin? Winnipeg’s Paul Maurice also has to be near the top of this list. The Jets badly regressed a year ago and have a ton of question marks entering the season and a slow start could lead to a change behind the bench.

6. The Colorado hype. They have what might be the best young core in the NHL, addressed their biggest depth needs at forward with the additions of Andre Burakovsky, Joonas Donskoi, and Nazem Kadri, and have a couple of young stars on defense in Cale Makar, Sam Girard, and 2019 No. 4 overall pick Bowen Byram. They already took a huge step a year ago by reaching Round 2 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs and with the roster they have entering this season (as well as the salary cap space at their disposal) there is going to be plenty of pressure to take the next step.

7. First-round picks competing for roster spots. Jack Hughes (New Jersey) and Kaapo Kakko (New York Rangers), the top two picks in the 2019 NHL draft, seem to be locks to make their respective rosters, but are there any other 2019 first-round picks that can find their way onto a roster this season? Kirby Dach with the Blackhawks? Byram in Colorado? Maybe Dylan Cozens in Buffalo?

8. Craig Berube and Jordan Binnington in St. Louis. The hiring of Berube and call-up of Binnington were the two turning points for the Blues on their way to a Stanley Cup. What will the duo be capable of for an encore when expectations will undoubtedly be higher than they were when they made their Blues debuts? The biggest question probably rests with Binnington’s ability to duplicate his 2018-19 performance over a full season.

9. Ralph Krueger in Buffalo. The Sabres’ head coaching position has been a revolving door of mediocrity over the past eight years. Can Krueger be the one break the cycle that has seen them make a change every two years? Or will his tenure be more of the same for an organization that has given its loyal fans nothing but grief for nearly a decade now?

10. Will it be another lost season for the Southern California teams? The Kings were terrible from the start a year ago, while the Ducks eventually cratered in the second half after goaltending carried them as far as it could early in the year. Is there any reason to expect anything different this season? The Ducks already lost veterans Corey Perry (buyout), Ryan Kesler and Patrick Eaves (injury) and did not really add much to their roster over the summer. The Kings still seem stuck in limbo in what direction they want to take as an organization and will be relying heavily on bounce-back years from veterans. Instead of fighting for a Stanley Cup, this intense rivalry might be about draft lottery odds.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• 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 Colorado Avalanche

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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, looking at whether teams are better or worse this season and more!)

For more 2019-20 PHT season previews, click here.

Better or Worse: The Avs were one of the best young teams in the entire NHL last season and that should continue into this year. They found a way to add veteran center Nazem Kadri from the Toronto Maple Leafs while also landing Joonas Donskoi, Andre Burakovsky, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and Valeri Nichushkin. Outside of Kadri, the rest are nothing more than depth additions, but on a roster lacking firepower behind their first line, those moves may prove to be significant. Whether or not the Avalanche are a better team this year than they were last year will likely depend on when restricted free agent Mikko Rantanen signs his next contract. For now, let’s call the Avs better.

Strengths: Again, let’s assume for a moment that Rantanen will be signed by the start of the regular season. With Rantanen, Nathan MacKinnon and Gabriel Landeskog in the fold, the Avs arguably have the best line in hockey. When those three are on, they’re incredibly difficult to stop. MacKinnon is coming off 97 and 99-point seasons, Landeskog had 75 points in 73 games and Rantanen had a career-high 87 points in 74 contests. They’re nearly impossible to stop on their worst day.

The Avs also have some of the top young defensemen in the game in Cale Makar, Samuel Girard and Bowen Byram. Makar made a significant impact in the playoffs last year and he should be able to pick up where he left off. Girard just inked a significant contract extension with the club this summer and Byram, who was drafted fourth overall in the 2019 NHL Draft, is likely a year or two away from the NHL, but he offers immense upside, too.

[MORE: 3 QuestionsUnder Pressure I X-factor: Makar]

Weaknesses: We’ve talked about the outstanding top line, but can the rest of the squad score enough to give them a more balanced attack? After the “big three,” no other forward on the roster put up more than 49 points last season. After MacKinnon, Rantanen and Landeskog, their top score point-getters were Tyson Barrie, Carl Soderberg and Alex Kerfoot. All three of those players are no longer with the organization. Of course, Kadri should be able to pick up some of the slack offensively, but for the Avalanche to get more out of their roster, they’ll need more balance up front.

Coach Hot Seat Rating (1-10, 10 being red hot): The seat isn’t even warm for Jared Bednar, so we’ll go with a 2 out of 10. If the Avalanche take a step back in 2019-20, anything is possible. But Bednar showed that he’s able to get the most out of his guys during the regular season and the playoffs. Again, unless something drastic happens with Rantanen, this team should be better than they were a year ago.

Three Most Fascinating Players: Makar, Tyson Jost and Philipp Grubauer are three players to keep an eye on this season. Makar didn’t suit up in a regular season game for the Avs because he was finishing up his college season with UMass-Amherst, but he made quite the impression during the postseason, as he had a goal and six points in just 10 games. He has the potential to be a number one defenseman for this organization for a long time. How quickly can he get there?

Jost is still just 21 years old, but the Avalanche need him to up his production sooner or later. The 21-year-old was drafted 10th overall in 2016. Since then, he’s picked up 49 points in 141 games which is fine for a young player, but someone with that draft pedigree has to explode offensively sooner or later. Is this the year?

Grubauer has shown that he’s capable of winning big games during the regular season and the playoffs, but this will be the first time in his career that he’s the undisputed number one goalie on a team at the NHL level. He’s never played more than 37 games during an NHL regular season and you have to imagine that he’ll have to surpass that number this year. He’ll need to show that he can handle a heavy workload now that Semyon Varlamov is no longer in Colorado. He should be fine, but it’s something to monitor.

Playoffs or Lottery: Playoffs. This is a team that managed to earn the final Wild Card spot in the West last year and it wouldn’t be surprising to see them finish there again this year. They also have enough talent that they might be able to sneak into the top three spots in the Central Division though.

MORE:
How good can Avs be next season?
ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Avs forward Mikko Rantanen in Finland with no deal imminent

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DENVER — Gabriel Landeskog and Nathan MacKinnon have a spot open on their top line.

For the moment, anyway, until things are resolved with their third dimension, Mikko Rantanen.

The Colorado Avalanche are about to open training camp and Rantanen remains in Finland as the restricted free agent tries to work out a new deal.

”It’s going to get sorted out,” Landeskog said Thursday as the team reported to the Pepsi Center for pre-camp physicals. ”Obviously, you miss him. But we’re not too worried about it.”

As far as headway toward a deal, Rantanen’s agent, Michael Liut, said in an email: ”Optimistic, but nothing imminent.” Liut added that there is ”always progress in a negotiation, sometimes slower than both sides would prefer.”

The 22-year-old Rantanen formed a potent combination with MacKinnon and Landeskog last season to help the Avalanche make the playoffs for a second straight year. The All-Star trio accounted for 41% of Colorado’s goals in the regular season. What’s more, the team was 24-6-5 when they each collected a point in a game – and 6-0 when they all scored a goal in the same contest.

Rantanen is coming off a season in which he finished with 31 goals and 56 assists. His 87 points were a career high.

”Certainly he’s a great player for us and we’d love to have him in camp,” coach Jared Bednar said. ”He’s obviously not here, so the focus for me and our team shifts to the guys who are here and in our locker room.”

That means Bednar will tinker with Rantanen’s spot on the top line.

First up, the new guys – Andre Burakovsky, who was acquired in a June trade with Washington, and Joonas Donskoi, a forward the Avalanche picked up in free agency after he spent the last few seasons with San Jose.

After that, maybe some in-house candidates – J.T. Compher and Tyson Jost.

”We have a job to do to get ready for the season, and that’s the way I look at it,” said Bednar, whose team was eliminated last season by the Sharks in Game 7 of the second round. ”Hopefully we can get Mikko in and bring him up to speed quickly and get him joining us for the regular season. That’d be a nice goal for us.”

The Avalanche are a trendy pick to make some noise this season after general manager Joe Sakic gave the team an offseason makeover. Colorado brought in free agents such as Donskoi and center Pierre-Edouard Bellemare. They also drafted defenseman Bowen Byram with the No. 4 overall pick.

Colorado also made several trades, including one with Arizona to land defenseman Kevin Connauton. The Avs sent defenseman Tyson Barrie and forward Alex Kerfoot to Toronto in exchange for defenseman Calle Rosen and forward Nazem Kadri.

So far, MacKinnon likes what he’s seen in Kadri, who joined the speedy forward for pre-camp workouts in the higher elevation of Vail, Colorado.

”He’s a lot better than I thought he was. I knew he was a really good player. But up in Vail, there was a lot to be seen,” MacKinnon said. ”I think in Toronto, he was held back a little bit. He’s a great shutdown player. He’s got a lot of offensive upside that I don’t think the league has seen yet. We’re definitely going to see it this year.”

MacKinnon has been in talks with Rantanen – not about contracts, though, just as a friend.

”I know Mikko wants to be here,” MacKinnon said. ”We’re excited to have him here soon.”

NOTES: D Ian Cole remains on schedule after hip surgery, but he won’t be skating with the group to start training camp. ”He’s still not there yet,” Bednar said. … F Colin Wilson and D Erik Johnson are both recovering from shoulder surgeries. ”They’ve both been progressing really well,” Bednar said.

It’s Toronto Maple Leafs Day at PHT

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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.

2018-19
46-28-8, 100 points (3rd in the Atlantic Division, 5th in the Eastern Conference)
Playoffs: Eliminated in seven games in Round 1 by the Boston Bruins

IN
Tyson Barrie
Alexander Kerfoot
Jason Spezza
Pontus Aberg
Jordan Schmaltz
Cody Ceci
Kenny Agostino

OUT
Jake Gardiner
Nazem Kadri
Nakita Zaitsev
Josh Jooris
Tyler Ennis
Ron Hainsey
Patrick Marleau
Connor Brown
Garrett Sparks
Callen Rosen

RE-SIGNED
Andreas Johnsson
Kasperi Kapanen
Cody Ceci
Nick Shore
Michael Hutchinson
Martin Marincin

2018-19 Summary

Man, those expectations were so high. How could they not be?

Coming off a summer where they won the John Tavares sweepstakes, the Toronto Maple Leafs, now with one of most formidable offenses in the NHL, were supposed to compete for the Stanley Cup.

They had Matthews and Marner and Nylander and Rielly. Sure, there were questions on defense but they had Frederik Andersen to make up for any mishaps. And with all that firepower, they could just outscore their problems.

Everything looked in place, at least until it didn’t.

The first blow came when Nylander and the club came to an impasse in contract talks and he missed training camp and the first two months of the season before it got sorted out.

That defense didn’t quite hold up, sort of unsurprising since it wasn’t really addressed in the offseason. And Mike Babcock decided to be stubborn, culminating in a seemingly crazy decision not to play Matthews and Marner more when they needed them most in the playoffs.

Yes, the Leafs scrapped together a 100-point season despite their underlying issues. But when the Bruins stood in front in the playoffs, as they’d done before in the postseason, a similar result emerged: disappointment by way of underachieving.

Welcome to the throes of beings one of the NHL’s most storied teams, one that has been marred by a monumental championship drought and years upon years of coming up short.

[MORE: X-factor | Three Questions | Under Pressure]

Tavares alone couldn’t save them, despite a career year that saw him establish new highs in goals (47) and points (88). For the second straight year, Auston Matthews missed a considerable chunk of time due to injury.

So general manager Kyle Dubas has gone about re-tooling his team in search of the right mix.

Nazem Kadri is out, sent to Colorado for Tyson Barrie and Alex Kerfoot. The Leafs addressed one issue with the move, as Tyson Barrie is expected to add some defense to the blue line. But the team seems to have lost Jake Gardiner, although the unrestricted free agent has yet to sign with a new team as of yet.

But Dubas and the Leafs have another distraction their hands: the needed contract for Marner.

Marner, like several big-ticket free agents, has yet to sign. And while others are expected to get deals done prior to training camp, it looks more and more likely that Marner misses some time.

He’s already searching for a team to train with if a deal doesn’t get done. Posturing? Maybe. But Marner wants a lot of money and the Leafs don’t really have much wiggle room. Instead of heading into the season with a clear mind, it appears the Leafs will have a repeat of Nylander’s situation from a year ago, and we saw how they turned out for Nylander’s performance.

Deals for Andreas Johnsson and Kasperi Kapanen are completed, at least. But it’s hard to understate how big a loss it would be for Marner to miss any regular-season time. You don’t not feel the loss of your leading point-producer, no matter who else is on the team.

Still, Dubas has done well to navigate the salary cap. Moving Zaitsev’s contract out was a shrewd move, as too was shipping out the final year of Patrick Marleau’s deal, even if it cost a first-round pick.

The team will also have a fresh set of eyes from the bench with new assistants in Dave Hakstol and Paul McFarland.

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