Nazem Kadri

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.

Top-line injuries to Blues and Avalanche shake up Central

Not long after the St. Louis Blues raised their Stanley Cup banner and the Colorado Avalanche got rolling on a season of high expectations each team has a significant obstacle to overcome.

The Blues will be without sniper Vladimir Tarasenko for five months, basically the rest of the regular season. The Avalanche – already missing injured winger Mikko Rantanen – ruled out captain Gabriel Landeskog indefinitely with a lower-body injury. Those injuries to top-line players on two Central Division powerhouses could shift the balance of power in the Western Conference for months.

”It shakes things up big time,” said retired forward Patrick Sharp, who spent 12+ of his 15 NHL seasons playing in the Central. ”It’s going to test the depth of these two teams.”

Tarasenko underwent right shoulder surgery Tuesday. The Russian winger scored 11 goals and added 15 assists on the Blues’ Cup run and is difficult to replace.

St. Louis will try to compensate but not by leaning too hard on playoff MVP Ryan O'Reilly and fellow stars Brayden Schenn and Jaden Schwartz. The onus is on the likes of Zach Sanford, Sammy Blais, Robert Thomas and Robby Fabbri to step up.

”Our team is built as the sum of all the parts,” general manager Doug Armstrong said. ”We’re going to have to have a strength in numbers (approach), and I believe that we can get it done.”

Sharp, who played 65 games against the Blues and watched their Cup triumph as an NBC Sports analyst, doesn’t doubt that. Because of Tarasenko’s production 5-on-5 and on the power play, he said losing him will test their offensive depth. He is looking specifically to Thomas to fill the void.

”The numbers didn’t really reflect the kind of playoffs that he had, but it seemed like every big game that the Blues had, Robert Thomas was one of the best forwards on the team,” Sharp said. ”If he can kind of recapture that playoff magic and show it in the next five, six months of the regular season, the Blues will be in good shape.”

Colorado opened the season 8-2-1 but will need to tread water until Rantanen and Landeskog return. First-line center Nathan MacKinnon is a one-man playmaker who no doubt benefits from having Rantanen and Landeskog and will have to be at his best – and try to stay healthy.

Much like the Blues, though, the Avalanche can’t put the pressure on one player.

”We have a significant amount of players that want more and feel like they’re playing real well,” Avalanche coach Jared Bednar said. ”I’m hoping they strive in situations like this and prove that they can take on a bigger role. … Having everyone dig in and try to step up their game, and make up for the guys that are out of the lineup is an important piece to winning especially if you’re going to try and sustain it over the course of the season.”

Knowing Colorado couldn’t be a one-line team and contend for the Cup, GM Joe Sakic traded for Nazem Kadri and Andre Burakovsky and signed Joonas Donskoi and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare to bolster his forward depth.

”These injuries to top players, that’s not necessarily a bad thing when you’re talking about the landscape of an eight-month season for Colorado,” Sharp said. ”If they have aspirations of going deep in the playoffs, they’re going to need big contributions from everybody. So a little adversity at the start of the year doesn’t hurt anybody.”

It might help the Nashville Predators, Winnipeg Jets and Dallas Stars in the stacked Central Division. Predators center Matt Duchene on Tuesday night returned from a brief absence with a lower-body injury.

LANDESKOG X2

Colorado’s captain isn’t the only injured Landeskog. The horse by the same name was scratched from the upcoming $2 million Breeders’ Cup Sprint.

”Horse always comes first,” Avalanche defenseman and racehorse part-owner Erik Johnson tweeted. ”Bad day for Landeskog human and equine.”

Told of Landeskog’s human namesake also being hurt, trainer Doug O’Neill said, ”Maybe it’s twin pain.”

JOSI DOMINOES

Roman Josi‘s eight-year extension with the Predators worth $9.1 million a season will have a ripple effect on other top pending free agent defensemen like Blues captain Alex Pietrangelo and Boston’s Torey Krug.

Since all three were full-time NHL players beginning in 2013, Josi has 327 points and averaged 25:30 of ice time, Pietrangelo has 284 points and averaged 25:19 and Krug has 294 points and averaged 25:30.

”Every contract is relative when you’re talking about comparable players,” said agent Mark Guy, who represents Pietrangelo. ”Obviously whenever you go through and you sit down and negotiate with a team, players and teams have comparables that they shoot towards, and Josi and Alex are obviously in most people’s minds comparable players.”

NHL injury roundup: Landeskog out indefinitely; Zibanejad out for Rangers

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The Colorado Avalanche’s forward depth is about to be put to the test.

Already playing without Mikko Rantanen, the Avalanche announced on Tuesday that another key part of their feared top-line is going to be sidelined indefinitely. Gabriel Landeskog will not play in Tuesday’s game against the Florida Panthers and will be out “indefinitely” according to the team as he recovers from an undisclosed lower-body injury. 

He played 20 minutes in the Avalanche’s 5-2 loss to the Anaheim Ducks on Saturday, recording four shots on goal and finishing as a minus-2.

For the past two years the trio of Nathan MacKinnon, Rantanen, and Landeskog has been one of the most dominant lines in the league and has at times single-handedly carried the Avalanche. Since the start of the 2017-18 season they have played more than 1,600 minutes of 5-on-5 hockey together as a trio, outscoring teams by a 97-61 margin during those minutes and completely dictating the pace of the game.

In recent years being without two of them would have probably been enough to sink the Avalanche’s chances due to their lack of depth, but thanks to the offseason additions of Nazem Kadri, Joonas Donskoi, and Andre Burakovsky they actually have some solid secondary scoring options and are not quite as dependent on their big three.

They also still have MacKinnon — their best player — and he should still be able to make an impact, even without his two regular wingers.

The Avalanche entered the season as one of the top favorites in the Western Conference and have been one of the league’s best teams.

Landeskog’s injury is not the only significant one around the NHL on Tuesday.

Mika Zibanejad will not play for Rangers on Tuesday

Offense has been a struggle for the New York Rangers so far this season and this is not going to help things.

They are expected to be without No. 1 center Mika Zibanejad on Tuesday night against the Tampa Bay Lightning. He played just six minutes against the Boston Bruins in the Rangers’ most recent game and is considered day-to-day with an upper-body injury.

He is the Rangers’ top point-producer this season with 11 points in nine games, though he has cooled off considerably after a fast start in the team’s first two games.

The team has recalled Filip Chytil from the American Hockey League and he is expected to play alongside Chris Kreider and Pavel Buchnevich.

On the other side of that game, Lightning coach Jon Cooper said forwards Brayden Point and Anthony Cirelli are both game-time decisions but that he does not expect either issue to be long-term (via Lightning analyst Caley Chelios).

Sidney Crosby will play for Penguins

The Pittsburgh Penguins had a little bit of a scare on Saturday night when captain Sidney Crosby was hit in the side of the face by a slap shot, briefly leaving the game before returning.

Crosby is expected to play for the Penguins on Tuesday night against the Flyers but may wear a protective shield over his jaw. He skated with it in practice but is unsure if he wants to wear it during the game due to limited vision. The Penguins are finally starting to get healthy and could get defenseman Brian Dumoulin and winger Alex Galchenyuk back in the lineup for Tuesday against the Flyers.

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: Pastrnak feeling dangerous; Will Fleury ever get a break?

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Every Monday during the regular season, the PHT Face-Off breaks down five of the top trends/storylines in the NHL. Last week, we looked at John Carlson’s incredible offensive start and the number of tight games across the league to start the year. This week, we’ll break down David Pastrnak‘s incredible run, Marc-Andre Fleury‘s workload, and much, much more.

• David Pastrnak is en fuego:

The Dallas Stars and Arizona Coyotes managed to keep Pastrnak off the scoresheet in the first two games of the 2019-20 regular season. What has the Bruins forward done since then? Well, let’s a look.

He’s picked up at least one point in nine consecutive games and he’s had a multi-point effort in seven of those outings. After posting five assists against the Rangers on Sunday, Pastrnak now leads the NHL in scoring, with 23 points. Oh by the way, he’s also first in goals scored, with 11.

In fact, the Bruins’ top line, which is made up of Pastrnak, Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand, has picked up 23 goals and 54 points combined in 11 games.

“He does it all right now, and he’s so confident,” Marchand said of Pastrnak, per the Boston Globe. “You never know what he’s going to do with the puck. Even we don’t know.

“He feels like he can do anything. When he feels like that, he’s dangerous. He’s fun to watch . . . He has so many different ways he can beat you.”

• Devils need goals:

Speaking of Pastrnak, he’s scored half as many goals as the entire New Jersey Devils roster this season. Fine, he’s played two more games than the Devils, but that’s still pretty impressive if you’re a Bruins fan and not so much if you’re cheering for the Devils.

New Jersey has had 13 different goal scorers this year, but here’s the issue: If you combine the goals by Taylor Hall (one), Kyle Palmieri (three), Jack Hughes (two), Nico Hischier (zero), P.K. Subban (one), and Nikita Gusev (three) you still only get to 10 (one less than Pastrnak).

The Devils were supposed to be one of the bounce-back teams in the NHL this year and that simply hasn’t been the case. It’s no coincidence that they’ve picked up just six points in nine games. They’re currently in the basement of the NHL standings.

If you look at the way their scoring is distributed, you may be a little surprised. The Devils scored four goals in a shootout loss to Winnipeg, three goals in a shootout loss to Edmonton, four goals in a loss to Florida, five goals in a win over the Rangers, and three goals in a loss to Arizona. Those are pretty good offensive outputs. So what’s the issue? You can only imagine what the rest of their games look like.

Heading into this week’s action, they had already been shut out twice in nine games and they won a 1-0 decision over the Vancouver Canucks last weekend.

Offense seems to be up across the board except in New Jersey.

As you’d imagine, the Devils fell into the “dull/bad” parts of Sean Tierney’s latest charts:

Tyson Barrie struggling with Maple Leafs:

The Toronto Maple Leafs sacrificed Nazem Kadri to get themselves some added depth on defense. At the start of the season, it looked like Tyson Barrie would be a terrific fit with his new team. He picked up two assists in his first game and two more helpers in his third game. Good, right? Well, since then he hasn’t picked up a single point.

Barrie’s possession numbers are actually pretty good, as he has a CF% 54.26 percent and a FF% of 51.39 percent, but when he’s on the ice, the Leafs are giving up 60 percent of the high-danger chances. That’s less than ideal (all stats via Natural Stat Trick)

This is a big year for the 28-year-old defender. Not only is it the first time he plays for a team other than the one that drafted him, the Colorado Avalanche, he’s also in the middle of a contract season. Quality right-handed defensemen don’t usually hit the open market, so Barrie will get paid either way, but having a big statistical year under his belt could bump his salary up by a few more million.

• Is there blood in the water in San Jose?

If it had to be done all over again, do you think Joe Pavelski and the San Jose Sharks would work harder to get a deal done before free agency on July 1st? Well, Pavelski is in Dallas and he has three points in 12 games and the Sharks look like a hot mess.

They’ve accumulated just nine points in 12 games and this East-Coast road trip hasn’t been kind to them, as they’re 1-2-1 in four games. They still have to face the Bruins in Boston before they return home for a six-game home stand. Are the Sharks done? No way. It’s still too early to say that, but are they in trouble? Oh, yeah. If this home stand doesn’t go much better than the road trip, they’ll be in a lot of trouble.

“We’re 12 games in and there’s a handful of key guys for us that haven’t played well yet,” San Jose coach Peter DeBoer said after last night’s loss to Ottawa, per NHL.com. “So that’s on me to get them back to the level they need to be at.

“We’re playing from behind in a lot of these games, and instead of sticking with it and trusting the group and the system, everyone wants to step out and fix it themselves, but it doesn’t work that way. So eventually you have to learn that lesson.”

Learning the lesson and being good enough to apply it on the ice are two different things.

Is the Sharks’ championship window officially closed?

• Will Marc-Andre Fleury ever get another break?

Marc-Andre Fleury can’t start every game for the Vegas Golden Knights, but they might need him to do so given their clear lack of trust in their backup goalies. Last Monday, Fleury was given his first night off of the season when the Golden Knights took on the Philadelphia Flyers. Oscar Dansk ended up allowing six goals on 37 shots in the loss.

Since then, Dansk has been sent to the minors and Fleury has had to suit up in every game. A good chunk of Fleury’s breaks may come in games where he struggles. For example, he was pulled midway through Friday’s game against Colorado after he allowed four goals on 26 shots. After getting half that game off, he was right back between the pipes on Sunday night against the Anaheim Ducks. The good news, is that he really wasn’t busy on Sunday, as he only faced 15 shots from the Ducks. Those are the type of nights he’ll need every once in a while if he’s going to play at a high level all season.

As of right now, no goalie has more wins that Fleury this season and there’s a chance that no one will because he’s likely going to play a lot of games.

What’s coming up this week?
• The Battle of Pennsylvania goes on Tuesday when the Flyers visit the Penguins, Tue. Oct. 29, 7 p.m. ET.

• The best in the Atlantic (Buffalo Sabres) take on the best in the Metro (Washington Capitals), Fri. Nov. 1, 7 p.m. ET.

• McDavid vs. Crosby, Sat. Nov. 2, 1 p.m. ET

NHL on NBCSN
• Lightning vs. Rangers, Tue. Oct. 29, 7:30 p.m. ET

Wednesday Night Hockey on NBCSN
• Wild vs. Blues, Wed. Oct. 30, 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.

Avalanche crush Golden Knights in first game without Rantanen: 3 takeaways

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The Colorado Avalanche are sending a pretty strong message to the rest of the Western Conference — and the league as a whole — in the first month of the season.

That message: All of the preseason hype was accurate.

They played their first game without star forward Mikko Rantanen on Friday night and never missed a beat in a complete demolition of the Vegas Golden Knights, rolling to a 6-1 win that was as one-sided as any game in the NHL this season. It was already the third time this season Colorado has scored at least six goals in a single game, while they owned a commanding 40-26 edge on the shot chart.

What all stood out?

1. Nathan MacKinnon‘s point streak continues. With two assists on Friday, MacKinnon was able to extend his points streak to 10 consecutive games to open the season. He officially extended it with a helper on Cale Makar‘s first career regular season goal, then added another helper on Nazem Kadri‘s power play goal. MacKinnon already has 14 points in the Avalanche’s first 10 games this season and continues to be a dominant force in the middle of their lineup. Just for comparisons sake he only had five points through the first 10 games in 2017-18 (when he finished with 97 points in 74 games) and 15 points a year ago (when he finished with 99 points in 82 games.

2. The improved depth is a game changer. With MacKinnon, Rantanen, and Landeskog the Avalanche have had the most dominant top line in the league for a couple of years now, but one line can only take a team so far. They needed help around them, and the Avalanche addressed that over the summer. Their second line on Friday featured all new additions with Kadri, Andre Burakovsky, and Joonas Donskoi, and all have already made significant contributions this season. Kadri alone scored two goals on Friday. That has allowed everyone else to get pushed down into more suitable roles and created a far more balanced lineup.

3. Cale Makar already looks like a star. With Tyson Barrie now in Toronto the Avalanche have turned a lot of their blue line over to the youngsters Makar and Sam Girard. Makar has been spectacular this year and was especially dominant on Friday. He scored a goal — giving him nine points in 10 games — and helped the Avalanche control close to 70 percent of the total shot attempts when he was on the ice. He figures to be a player in the Rookie of the Year race all season and is a huge addition to an already great core.

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.