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Three questions facing Toronto Maple Leafs

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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 focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Three questions to ponder for the 2018-19 Toronto Maple Leafs…

[Maple Leafs Day: 2017-18 Review | Under Pressure | Breakthrough]

1. Will the defense be good enough?

We know the Maple Leafs are going to score goals. This should be the best offensive team in hockey with John Tavares joining one of the best young collections of talent in the league, giving Toronto a dynamic and downright dominant offensive lineup.

The question then becomes will they be able to stop anybody at the other end of the ice?

Defense was a problem for the Maple Leafs in 2017-18 and the front office really did not do much to address in the offseason, at least when it comes to additions from outside the organization. The Maple Leafs finished the 2017-18 season in the bottom-five in shots allowed per game and surrendered 2.79 goals per game, a number that put them around the middle of the pack. Not great … not terrible … pretty average. Had it not been for some — at times — spectacular play from Frederik Andersen in net that number probably would have been a lot lower given the number of shots they allowed. Not making significant changes to the personnel could be seen as risky, but there is definitely talent on the back end. Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner are solid top-four defenders, and Travis Dermott had an outstanding debut in the second half. Maybe a little more of them and a little less from Ron Hainsey and Nikita Zaitsev could make a big impact in improving the group.

2. Will they give Frederik Andersen a break?

One of the more baffling decisions by coach Mike Babcock down the stretch last year was not giving starting goalie Frederik Andersen more rest as the team approached the playoffs. He took on a massive workload for the second year in a row and with the team having nothing to play for down the stretch continued to run him out there on a regular basis, once again having him finish near the top of the league in games played and shots faced. That is a lot to ask of a starting goalie, and it he probably could have benefitted from some extra rest by the time the playoffs rolled around.

Over the past two seasons only one goalie in the league has appeared in more games than Andersen’s 132 (Edmonton’s Cam Talbot has played in 140) while only three other goalies have played in at least 125 (Sergei Bobrovsky, Devan Dubnyk, and Martin Jones). No goalie has faced more shots than the 4,263 that Andersen has faced, while only Talbot has faced more than 3,900 shots. Andersen, Talbot, and Bobrovsky are the only three that have faced more than 3,700 shots, making the 4,200+ that Andersen has had to stand in against seem even more incredible.

Right now Garret Sparks is the top backup on the roster and is coming off a couple of strong seasons in the American Hockey League.

His ability to step in and give Andersen some much needed rest throughout the season could be a big development for the Maple Leafs.

3. Will John Tavares be the missing piece to end Toronto’s Stanley Cup drought?

Players like John Tavares typically do not change teams.

At least not when they are still under the age of 30 and still in the prime of their careers. But not only did Tavares leave the New York Islanders this summer to join a new team, he joined his hometown team, in Toronto, joining a roster that suddenly has Stanley Cup aspirations and is looking to end a championship drought that goes back to 1967.

With all of that comes a ton of pressure.

Tavares is a world-class talent. He is probably one of the 10 or 15 best players in the world and is making huge money over the next eight years and as mentioned above is going to give the Maple Leafs a collection of offensive talent that is nearly unmatched in the league. Even with Auston Matthews, William Nylander, and Mitch Marner on the roster he is now the face of this franchise and is going to be expected to lift it to new heights and finally help bring a championship back to the city.

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.

Leafs GM job means huge challenges, opportunities for Dubas

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Earlier today, the rumblings were confirmed, as the Toronto Maple Leafs announced that 32-year-old Kyle Dubas was promoted to the level of being their new GM. By many accounts, the push for Lou Lamoriello’s successor came down to Dubas or more experienced executive Mark Hunter.

However Leafs fans feel about this bold (if expected) choice, it should be grab-your-popcorn-level fun to see how everything plays out. Well, if you’re enraptured by nerdy team-building stuff, that is.

(Raises hand emphatically.)

The good news is that Lamoriello & Co. left behind a great situation for Dubas, who’s been learning the ropes since joining the organization in July 2014. With great organizational powers come great responsibility, however, and the young executive faces an array of short and long-term decisions that will make a huge impact on the fortunes of the massively popular NHL franchise.

Let’s take a look at some the opportunities at his fingertips, the obstacles in his way, and ponder some important situations that could go well or blow up in Toronto’s face.

An outstanding young core, a fairly clean slate

The best is almost certainly yet to come for this outstanding nucleus of young players.

Auston Matthews is 20, Mitch Marner is 21, William Nylander is 22, and even Morgan Rielly is only 24. Frederik Andersen should have prime years left at 28.

Toronto managed to get rid of Dion Phaneuf‘s contract, while Joffrey Lupul will no longer need to shade the Leafs about using his deal as a loophole. Aside from a few exceptions (Matt Martin, Nikita Zaitsev), there isn’t the baggage you normally see amid a regime change. Chalk that up to the Shanaplan if you want, but the world is Dubas’ oyster.

A small window and some big extensions

According to Cap Friendly, the Maple Leafs have $50.1 million devoted to 15 players for 2018-19. Dubas faces some intriguing possibilities considering the fact that the cap ceiling is expected to range between $78-$82M.

Sure, some of that space will be eaten up by RFA deals, most notably that of William Nylander.

The bottom line, though, is that the Maple Leafs should be flush … for one summer. The entry-level contracts for Matthews and Marner are set to expire after 2018-19, with those two becoming eligible for proactive extensions as early as this July.

First things first, Dubas is charged with pushing the right buttons as far as signing Matthews, Nylander, and Marner to team-friendly deals. Any free agent moves would surely be made realizing that those three will make this cushion evaporate with considerable speed.

With that in mind, Dubas might opt for creative one-year contracts. If James van Riemsdyk ends up unhappy with the market, would he take a rich, one-year deal to stay with Toronto? Would the Maple Leafs be able to convince a useful player to take a one-year deal under similar circumstances in the more likely case where JVR leaves?

Tavares or another blockbuster addition?

Again, with just about any situation, a team should make it work if John Tavares is interested in signing up. Of course, the Maple Leafs join the Sharks on the short list of teams that make the most realistic sense for Tavares if he doesn’t re-sign with the Islanders. The Maple Leafs could give Tavares a real chance to win it all; on the other hand, he might not appreciate being under such a magnifying glass with Toronto.

(Personally, I think Tavares would love the challenge, but it’s tough to know for sure what he actually wants to do.)

The Maple Leafs could get some ancillary benefits from signing Tavares to what would almost certainly demand a $10M+ cap hit. Signing Tavares could conceivably help to set a ceiling of sorts for Matthews, and perhaps Marner and/or Nylander would be more willing to sacrifice a bit of cash to be a part of what could really be a contender? One wouldn’t expect these RFAs to take an extreme cut from what they might otherwise get, but even a million here or there could be huge if Toronto ends up scraping against the cap ceiling with rapid speed.

There’s also the amusing thought of Tavares signing close to the maximum for one year, although it’s difficult to picture the star player signing such a risky deal.

Interestingly, similar circumstances could arise if the Maple Leafs landed a big fish in a trade. The Senators wouldn’t trade Erik Karlsson to their bitter rivals, but maybe he’d sign there in the 2019 summer? Maybe the Maple Leafs would land another would-be 2019 free agent in Drew Doughty or Oliver Ekman-Larsson?

This flexibility in 2018-19 could help the Maple Leafs into the future, especially if Dubas gets creative.

Liked by Mike?

Mike Babcock might have his old-school tendencies, yet he’s also shown plenty of signs of being pretty progressive, especially for a coach with his impeccable resume. Chances are, he’ll be fair to Dubas.

Still, there’s a human nature element to this that should be fascinating to watch, even if the juicy stuff would likely only happen behind closed doors.

Consider this. Like Mark Hunter, Babcock is 55 years old. Lou Lamoriello is old enough to be Babs’ father at 75, while Dubas could be the grandchild at 32. As professional as everyone involved surely must be, that could make for an odd dynamic when inevitable turmoil surfaces. Granted, it certainly helps that Dubas has already been with the organization for about four years, giving him plenty of chances to build chemistry and trust.

You wonder how often Dubas will feel compelled to “throw Babcock a bone.” Like just about every NHL coach, Babcock has “his guys.” Will Dubas grudgingly sign off on some minutes for Roman Polak if the Maple Leafs otherwise embody a more modern approach?

It’s going to be a little uncomfortable at times for Babcock to take orders from a guy who’s 23 years younger than him. Here’s hoping that the situation doesn’t devolve like Art Howe grumbling about analytics in “Moneyball,” although it might be fun to banter about which Hollywood actor would play Babcock.

***

As expansive as this post is, it doesn’t cover everything facing Dubas. That tells you how complex a GM’s job can be, particularly in a high-pressure market such as Toronto.

Dubas will be charged with finding ways to improve the Maple Leafs’ defense. He’ll need to manage the cap with those sweetheart rookie deals set to expire. Eventually, it will be crucial for the Maple Leafs to find new sweetheart rookie deals by drafting well, even with less favorable draft positions.

It’s been ages since the Maple Leafs boasted such potential at just about every level, not to mention a coach who can get the most out of those players. Toronto fans have been patient with the process so far, but that honeymoon stage probably won’t last longer than Matthews’ ELC.

Fair or not, Dubas will be judged as a failure if he can’t mold this potential into a contender, if not a flat-out champion.

He’s been handed the keys to a great situation, but Dubas must avoid some serious pot holes. Either way, it will be fascinating to observe, and considering his age and preferences, it might just change how NHL teams conduct business.

No pressure, barely-not-a-kid.

MORE:
Conference Finals schedule, TV info
PHT 2018 Conference Finals Roundtable
PHT predicts NHL’s Conference Finals
NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

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.

Bruins push Leafs to brink

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The Boston Bruins found themselves on the wrong end of plenty of stats in Game 4, but even with Patrice Bergeron on the shelf, they won 3-1 to push the Toronto Maple Leafs to the brink of elimination.

Boston took a 3-1 series lead with tonight’s win despite Toronto generating a 32-21 shots on goal advantage, hogging the puck, and holding home-ice advantage.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Goaltending was one big area of advantage for the Bruins. Tuukka Rask was forced to make some tough saves as Mitch Marner and other Leafs players created plenty of chances. One cannot help but wonder if fatigue is a bit of a factor for workhorse Maple Leafs goalie Frederik Andersen, meanwhile, as he’d likely love to have this Torey Krug goal back:

That early 1-0 lead provided a cushion for the Bruins to adjust to life without Bergeron (again), although Tomas Plekanec did tie things up. Ultimately, the Bruins were able to cash in on two 2-on-1 rushes, with Brad Marchand burying a tremendous setup by David Pastrnak for the game-winner and Jake DeBrusk finding the net after a great feed by David Krejci (who has absorbed some criticism for his play lately).

The two goals were remarkably similar in exhibiting the Bruins’ smarts and finish, along with the Maple Leafs lacking in a few areas on defense, as Nikita Zaitsev and Roman Polak were exposed (among others). Here’s that Marchang GWG:

Game 5 shifts back to Boston on Saturday. You can watch that game on CNBC, with puck drop slated for 8 p.m. ET.

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.

WATCH LIVE: Toronto Maple Leafs at Buffalo Sabres

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CLICK HERE TO WATCH LIVE

PROJECTED LINES

Toronto Maple Leafs

Zach HymanWilliam NylanderConnor Brown

Patrick MarleauNazem KadriMitch Marner

James van RiemsdykTyler BozakLeo Komarov

Matt MartinTomas PlekanecKasperi Kapanen

Morgan RiellyRon Hainsey

Jake GardinerNikita Zaitsev

Travis DermottConnor Carrick

Starting Goalie: Frederik Andersen

[Maple Leafs – Sabres preview.]

Buffalo Sabres

Zemgus GirgensonsRyan O'ReillySam Reinhart

Scott WilsonJohan LarssonJason Pominville

Jordan NolanJacob JosefsonKyle Okposo

Benoit Pouliot — Kyle Criscuolo — Nicholas Baptiste

Marco ScandellaRasmus Ristolainen

Brendan Guhle — Casey Nelson

Nathan BeaulieuVictor Antipin

Starting Goalie: Chad Johnson

WATCH LIVE: NHL Stadium Series 2018 – Capitals vs. Leafs

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NBC’s coverage of the 2017-18 season continues on Saturday night as the Toronto Maple Leafs and Washington Capitals face off in a 2018 Stadium Series game at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland at 8 p.m. ET. You can catch all of the action on NBC or our live stream by clicking here.

PROJECTED LINES

Toronto Maple Leafs
Patrick MarleauNazem KadriMitch Marner
Zach HymanTomas PlekanecWilliam Nylander
James van RiemsdykTyler BozakConnor Brown
Leo KomarovDominic MooreKasperi Kapanen

Morgan RiellyRon Hainsey
Jake GardinerNikita Zaitsev
Travis DermottRoman Polak

Starting goalie: Frederik Andersen

[NHL On NBC: Maple Leafs, Capitals meet outside in Stadium Series]

[WATCH LIVE]

Washington Capitals
Alex OvechkinNicklas BackstromTom Wilson
Jakub VranaEvgeny KuznetsovT.J. Oshie
Brett ConnollyLars EllerAndre Burakovsky
Chandler StephensonJay BeagleDevante Smith-Pelly

Michal KempnyJohn Carlson
Dmitry OrlovMatt Niskanen
Brooks OrpikChristian Djoos

Starting goalie: Braden Holtby

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.