Nikita Zaitsev

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.

Senators ink Chabot to massive eight-year, $64 million deal

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Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk has a reputation of being a little tight with his wallet, but on Thursday morning he handed out a massive extension to one of his better young players.

The Senators announced that they’ve signed Thomas Chabot to an eight-year, $64 million contract extension. The 22-year-old put up 14 goals and 55 points in 70 contests last season. He also averaged over 24 minutes of ice time per game in his second NHL season.

“Thomas is an exceptional talent and an outstanding teammate, who is impactful both on and off the ice. He is the type of player that can develop into a core member of a championship-level team in the National Hockey League,” said Senators general manager Pierre Dorion. “He is an NHL all-star; an elite skater and puck-mover who plays with pace and determination. We are convinced Thomas will have a significant impact on the Ottawa Senators as we develop and grow into a highly competitive team over the coming seasons and we are extremely proud that Thomas will continue to be a key part of our team’s future success moving forward. Today is a great day for the Ottawa Senators franchise.”

Chabot still has one year remaining on his entry-level contract, so this extension will only kick in at the start of the 2020-21 season.

Per Cap Friendly, Chabot has a modified no-trade (10-team no-trade) clause in the final four years of the extension.

This is a major signing for the Sens. Not only does it keep their best player under team control for the next nine years, it also shows a commitment to keeping and paying their high-end talent. Also, the fact that Chabot is willing to commit to Ottawa and the Senators franchise for a long time.

After the Erik Karlsson and Mark Stone fiascos, the Sens couldn’t afford more bad press with their star players. So the fact that Melnyk was willing to open the vault to lock up a young player is a good sign. They already locked up Colin White to a six-year extension this summer and they will have to do the same thing with Brady Tkachuk in the next two years.

Ottawa has some good pieces on their roster, but the young talent isn’t surrounded with enough quality. After Chabot, their blue line is made up of Nikita Zaitsev, Ron Hainsey, Mark Borowiecki, Dylan DeMelo, Christian Wolanin and Christian Jaros. None of those guys is worthy of being on a top pairing right now.

As good as the Chabot news is, it’s still going to be a while before the Sens become contenders again.

MORE:
Previewing the 2019-20 Ottawa Senators

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.

Previewing the 2019-20 Ottawa Senators

(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: The Senators made quite a few moves during the off-season, but it’s hard to argue that they’re a better team than they were last year. They were also the worst team in the NHL last season, so it’s hard to argue that they’re worse. The organization is stuck in the middle of a rebuild. Expectations in Ottawa aren’t very high coming into the season and it’s easy to see why. Erik Karlsson is no longer on the team, Mark Stone is also not on the roster anymore. They added Artem Anisimov, Connor Brown and Tyler Ennis up front and Ron Hainsey and Nikita Zaitsev. There’s so much parity in the NHL that many teams will compete for playoff spots, but Ottawa won’t be one of them.

Strengths: There’s no denying that the Senators have some good young talent on this roster. Brady Tkachuk should take another step forward after impressing in his rookie year, Colin White just earned a six-year extension this summer and Thomas Chabot, who signed an eight-year extension on Thursday, is already starting to emerge as a stand out on the blue line. Unfortunately, those players aren’t well surrounded right now when it comes to talent. It’ll take some time, but the Senators will be good again at some point.

Weaknesses: Outside of Chabot, the defense really isn’t that good. It’s made up of Zaitsev, Hainsey, Mark Borowiecki, Dylan DeMelo, Christian Wolanin, and Christian Jaros. You can argue that each of those players should be on a bottom-pairing. So you can see why many aren’t expecting much from this team this year. They may play hard for new head coach D.J. Smith, but winning won’t come easy to this group.

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

Coach Hot Seat Rating (1-10, 10 being red hot): Hopefully it’s a one on 10, right now. Smith was just hired this off-season and management can’t be expecting him to get many positive results this season. The former Toronto Maple Leafs assistant has nothing to lose heading into this year. The team is expected to be bad, so if he can get anything out of them, people will be lining the streets to give him his due. But even a dysfunctional Senators organization can’t put this new head coach on the hot seat just yet.

Three Most Fascinating Players: Keep an eye on White, Tkachuk and Chabot. Anyone who has seen them play knows what they’re capable of doing on the ice, but watching them perform during what should be a difficult season should be interesting. These are young players that will have ups and downs. They’re talented, but how will they deal with all the losing? Will they be able to put up impressive numbers despite not being surrounded with the best talent. Can they drive the play? Again, all three players have a very bright future, but tough times are ahead for them.

Playoffs or Lottery: If you haven’t figured it out yet in the first five paragraphs of this article, the Senators will very likely be a lottery team. There simply isn’t enough talent on the roster to compete with the other teams in the conference that will be competing for a Wild Card spot. Is Ottawa better than Montreal, Florida, the Rangers, the Devils or the Flyers? They’re not. All of those teams stayed the same or got better and none of them made the playoffs last season. There’s been so much chaos around the organization that they’re almost starting from scratch.

MORE:
• Senators ink Chabot to massive eight-year, $64 million deal

• 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.

Pressures of being Maple Leafs GM go beyond Marner

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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.

It’s easy to get lost in all of the distractions and lose sight of the fact that the Maple Leafs have, in a lot of ways, built something special in Toronto. And GM Kyle Dubas played a huge role in bringing in some of those special elements.

A mixture of contract/cap struggles and playoff letdowns obscure that notion, and it’s difficult to blame people when they’ve felt disappointed, if not downright anxious, about this Maple Leafs team. After all, despite splashy signings from John Tavares to Mike Babcock, this team still hasn’t won a playoff series since 2003-04.

Credit fans and media for being relatively calm and patient with the Maple Leafs’ rebuild over the years, but desperation is bubbling up, and Dubas is under pressure to hold everything together long enough for this team to finally deliver on all of that promise.

Consider the challenges Dubas faces and you’ll understand some of the pressure.

[MORE: 2018-19 Review | Three Questions | X-factor]

Signing Mitch Marner: The most obvious challenge is also the most daunting one. It feels less like the elephant in the room and more like the room itself. (We haven’t gotten to the point where we’re spouting out “Oh Hi Mitch” yet, so at least it isn’t “The Room.”)

The Marner situation remains a mystery, as it’s unclear when he’ll sign, for what dollar amount, and for how long. We’re close to September, and the Maple Leafs’ cap situation is convoluted enough where you wonder if this could stretch out to Nylanderian lengths, maybe eating up regular season games.

Either way, it’s on Dubas to win this game of chicken, and you can argue that he’s had mixed results so far.

Nylander’s near-$7 million cap hit figures to be pretty team-friendly if he can get back on track, yet that protracted holdout almost certainly hampered his ability to keep his game in tidy rows. The Maple Leafs didn’t seem to get much of a discount on Auston Matthews, either, as he’s at $11.634M for just five seasons, not eating up much in the way of UFA years.

The Maple Leafs were bound to face cap issues, but they haven’t enjoyed the sort of sweetheart deals in the same way that their divisional foes in Boston and Tampa Bay have. If the ship has sailed on Marner drawing a Nikita Kucherov-type discount, Toronto at least needs to get something done there, so the pressure remains on Dubas.

Managing Mike Babcock: After another Game 7 exit at the hands of the Bruins, many wondered about the dynamic between Dubas and Babcock. Dubas said all the right things in bringing Babcock back for 2019-20, yet it seems like the two don’t always see the game the same way.

Frankly, for all of the impressive bullet points on Babcock’s resume, it sure feels like this talented Toronto team hasn’t always been “optimized” under Babcock lately. Matthews’ minutes could be more robust, and they’d ideally take time away from lesser players.

People will look for signs of this relationship cratering, particularly if moves like the trade to bring in Tyson Barrie and Alexander Kerfoot end up looking a little rocky.

Beyond the core: As tricky as it is to retain that nucleus of Marner, Matthews, Tavares, and Nylander, the toughest challenge is to find the right electrons at the right price. (Thus concludes any shaky scientific analogies I can make.)

So far, Dubas has done a pretty splendid job of maneuvering around the obvious guys, whether that involved getting rid of problem deals (Patrick Marleau, Nikita Zaitsev), retaining mid-level support (Andreas Johnsson, Kasperi Kapanen), or identifying bargains (Tyler Ennis, and then maybe Jason Spezza).

But, like with any contender once star rookie contracts have all expired, the work will basically never be done. Dubas will need to eventually find replacements or new deals for Jake Muzzin and Tyson Barrie, who are both entering contract years. Frederik Andersen is in line for a raise once his $5M cap hit expires after 2020-21.

Ideally, the cap ceiling will rise more significantly in future offseasons than it did this year. Even if that happens, Dubas will be under pressure to find creative ways to make this all work.

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.

It’s Ottawa Senators 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 Ottawa Senators.

2018-19
29-47-6, 64 points (eighth in the Atlantic Division, 16th in the Eastern Conference)
Playoffs: Did not qualify

IN:
Nikita Zaitsev
Connor Brown
Michael Carcone
Ron Hainsey
Tyler Ennis
Artem Anisimov
Ryan Callahan (LTIR)

OUT
Brian Gibboons
Oscar Lindberg
Zack Smith
Cody Ceci
Ben Harpur
Aaron Luchuk

RE-SIGNED:
Josh Norris
Anders Nilsson
Anthony Duclair

2018-19 Summary

Last season was an eventful one for the Senators organization. Not only did they finish last in their division, conference and the entire league, they also traded away their best forward, Mark Stone, and their franchise defenseman, Erik Karlsson. That’s rough.

Despite the fact that they traded Karlsson in September, the team got off to a decent start. They weren’t lighting the league on fire, but they had a respectable firsts two months of the season. Things turned after they dropped a pair of games to the Montreal Canadiens on Dec. 4 and 6. In the 10 games following those two losses, the Sens came away with just two victories.

Things ended up getting so bad for Ottawa that they finished in the basement of the NHL. The second-to-last team in the league was the Los Angeles Kings and they finished seven points ahead of the Senators. That’s a significant gap. The big issue, was that the Sens didn’t have their own first-round draft pick because they traded it the Colorado Avalanche for Matt Duchene.

Everyone in the NHL knows that the biggest issue right now is the owner. Eugene Melnyk doesn’t appear to be interested in spending the money to keep his star players in the fold and the fact that he’s turning off the fan base in the process isn’t helping either. Whether or not he’s capable of surrounding his team with the tools to succeed remains to be seen.

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

The Sens have a lot of good young prospects, but they’re in the middle of a rebuild that should take quite some time. Former Toronto Maple Leafs assistant coach D.J. Smith was hired to be the head coach this off-season and it’ll be up to him to get this group of youngsters ready to perform on the ice.

“Now it’s about trying to push kids to realize their potential,” Smith said, per NHL.com. “There is nothing more satisfying than to watch a guy push himself past the limit and become better than even he thought he could be. It’s in most kids; you just have to find a way to get it out of them. It’s something I really enjoy.

“We’re in a division (Atlantic) with some of the best offenses in the League — the Maple Leafs, Boston Bruins, Tampa Bay Lightning. It’s going to take time, but we’ll learn to get better together. We’re only going to get better by learning to play against teams like that.”

Cutting the goals against will be one of Smith’s biggest challenges. The Sens were the only team in the league that allowed more than 300 goals (302) last season.

Building this team from the ground up isn’t going to be easy and it’s going to take time, but Smith has to get them to take a positive step or two this season.

MORE:
• 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.