Roman Polak

Maple Leafs fire Babcock, name Keefe new head coach

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The Toronto Maple Leafs actually did it. The Maple Leafs announced Mike Babcock’s firing on Wednesday, and wasted no time naming Sheldon Keefe as his replacement as head coach.

After another frustrating Game 7 loss to the Boston Bruins in 2018-19, the Maple Leafs went through a strenuous offseason. It all built up expectations (and angst) quite high, and the 9-10-4 Maple Leafs haven’t lived up to them so far in 2019-20.

An already tense situation really hit a new low lately, as the Maple Leafs have looked miserable on their way to a six-game losing streak. Despite Babcock’s significant name recognition (and his $6.25M price tag), the Maple Leafs decided it was time to move on.

Problems go from festering to boiling

If you’ve spent any time on Hockey Twitter during the last couple of seasons, you’ve likely seen people question a wide variety of Babcock’s decisions. Sometimes the nitpicking feels extreme, but other times, it’s easy to see where people are coming from. (“Why isn’t Auston Matthews on the ice more often?” is a talking point most would agree with.)

The grumbling turned to rumbling as the Maple Leafs simply haven’t been playing well lately. To pin everything on Babcock is obviously unfair, yet you wonder if Keefe might be able to play to strengths better. The Maple Leafs seemed to march to the beat of the wrong drum at times under Babcock, and that seemed glaringly true during the lowest moments so far in 2019-20.

Better synergy?

Maple Leafs GM Kyle Dubas is 33. Keefe (once drafted 47th overall by the Lightning in 1999) is 39. Babcock? He’s 56, and some of his “old school” tendencies would shine through. Will Keefe lean toward the Roman Polak and Cody Ceci-types as much as Babcock? Is it possible that more offensive-minded defensemen such as Morgan Rielly and Tyson Barrie might flourish under Keefe after struggling with Babcock, particularly this season?

We’ll have to see, but you can understand why some might expect Dubas and Keefe to see eye-to-eye where Babs and Dubas might have butted heads.

One can only speculate about how Dubas and Keefe will get along, and only guess about deployment choices and strategic tweaks.

What we do know is that Keefe had a strong run coaching the Toronto Marlies, the team’s AHL affiliate. The Marlies made the playoffs every year since Keefe became head coach in 2015-16, winning at least one round each time, and taking home the 2018 Calder Cup.

Obviously, Keefe’s resume doesn’t compare to what Babcock brought to the table, but while experience will be a question, one would think that Keefe might be less prone to stubbornness than Babcock, whose resume allowed him to hold some serious sway over Toronto’s decisions.

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As shocking as this move is, it feels like it had to happen. There are a wide variety of outlooks regarding Toronto’s chances to make the playoffs (from decent to downright lousy), but the bottom line is that this team seemed rudderless for some time.

Keefe gets his first chance to steer the ship in Arizona against the Coyotes on Thursday, the third game of what turned out to be a franchise-altering six-game road trip.

MORE:
Where will Mike Babcock end up after Maple Leafs?
Underachieving Maple Leafs needed this change]

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.

Q&A: Ben Bishop on Stars’ summer, lessons from 2019 playoffs

Ben Bishop grew up in St. Louis and has a family filled with Blues fans. So imagine how awkward it was during the Dallas Stars’ Round 2 seven-game series defeat at the hands of the eventual Stanley Cup champions.

“I think it was a little different,” Bishop told NBC Sports. “My poor family, they’ve been Blues fans their whole lives. Obviously, when they win it they have to go through their brother or son, so I think it was a little bit different for the family, but I know they were happy for the Blues. Just a little different feeling having gone through the Stars to get there.”

The Stars took a big step last season and have reason for higher expectations in 2019-20. The rising Miro Heiskanen, the emergence of Roope Hintz, the addition of Joe Pavelski, and banking on another strong performance by Bishop should make Dallas a tough out in the NHL’s most difficult division.

We spoke with Bishop about lessons learned from last season, the Stars’ summer, and more.

Enjoy.

Q. The success the first year with Jim Montgomery, is that a product of what he brought or a product of what you guys brought?

BISHOP: “A little bit of both. I think you look at Jim’s resume, he’s won everywhere he’s been — in the USHL, in college he won as well at the University of Denver, he won a championship. So, he’s got that winning pedigree that comes with him, so, I think coming into this year everyone was excited and we have some talented players and the combination it equaled a pretty good year.”

Q. How did that feel being back in that situation where you’re “Ok now we are there?”

BISHOP: “It was great, I mean that is what you train all summer for, the preseason games the regular season games, to get a chance to you know give yourself that opportunity to win a Stanley Cup. You know you have to get into the playoffs first so, I think being in the playoffs there is not a better experience or feeling. A seven-game series, there really isn’t much better as you play the games, kind of get a little monotonous and then when you get into the postseason and every game is all or nothing. So, every game is a lot of fun to be a part of it.”

Q. What do you take from the first round victory? Is that something you guys can build on?

BISHOP: “Absolutely. I think we had a lot of young guys [last] year kind of getting their first taste of playoff hockey and when you get in the playoffs to win a round and to have that feeling what it is like to go onto the next one, it’s contagious and you want to strive for it, to get that feeling again, so when we get there guys know what it takes to get to the next round. I think also the hurt of losing will stick with you knowing you don’t want to go through that again.”

Q. What have you done to ensure that you’re available to play more games perhaps than you have in the past?

BISHOP: “I think as you get a little bit older you have to kind of learn your body and know what has made you successful and unsuccessful in the past. I think I did a pretty good job looking back and seeing what happened last year and where I can improve as far as the nutrition reset and working out and what not, so hopefully we have taken care of all of that and looking forward to a long healthy season.”

Q. Jim Nill went out and added some veteran leadership in Joe Pavelski and Corey Perry.

BISHOP: “Well, I think anytime those guys are available I am pretty sure all of the teams out there wanted those guys. I think it just speaks a lot of Jim Nill and then the organization to be able to go out and get these guys and giving us the best opportunity to win. It’s really exciting and I think anybody would love to have those guys on their team.”

Q. With the additions, and the playoff success last year, what are the expectations for Dallas this season?

BISHOP: “Well, I think there is going to be the high expectations, but at the same time I think for myself you always set the same goal it is to win the first game of the season. You can’t talk about the playoffs without going through the regular season and you can’t talk about where you want to finish in the regular season without going through the games, so it is a pretty easy goal. You have to win the first game and then after that win the second game and then you kind of go from there because when you start looking too far ahead you kind of forget about what is going on right in front of your face. I think you have to take care of business and on a day to day basis and get to that first goal, which is making the playoffs.”

(The Stars are 0-3-0 and face the Capitals Tuesday night.)

MORE:
Roman Polak suffered ‘small fracture’ of sternum
Stars seek playoff repeat after ouster by Cup champion Blues

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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.

Stars’ Roman Polak suffered ‘small fracture’ of sternum

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The Dallas Stars announced that defenseman Roman Polak suffered a “small fracture” of his sternum during Thursday’s 2-1 loss to the Boston Bruins. Polak, 33, will be evaluated again in about one week, according to the Stars’ release.

Considering that Polak was hospitalized after being taken off the ice on a stretcher, you could argue that the news could have been far worse.

That doesn’t mean it isn’t a serious situation, and it certainly sounds like Polak is likely dealing with serious pain.

Via a breakdown from Healthline, this injury is often associated with high-impact sports, but also “falling from a large height” and “vehicle-to-pedestrian collisions.” A normal timeline for a recovery could mean a few months, with one window being for 10-and-a-half weeks. That process can also take longer if surgery is required.

So, while it seems like a fairly optimistic update, it still seems like a pretty significant injury for Polak, especially since he’s the rugged type of player who would almost certainly be involved in high-impact collisions whenever he returns to action (assuming he does).

Thursday was a costly night for the Stars overall, as Blake Comeau and Jason Dickinson could also miss a week or more with injuries suffered during that game against the Bruins.

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.

Stars’ Roman Polak taken to hospital after scary fall

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(UPDATE: Stars say Polak suffered a ‘small fracture’ of his sternum. He’ll be evaluated in a week.)

Dallas Stars defenseman Roman Polak was taken off the ice on a stretcher, and is currently being evaluated at a hospital, after a scary fall during Thursday’s season-opener against the Boston Bruins.

You can see that awkward fall in the video above this post’s headline.

It’s been a night full of injuries for the Stars so far, as Polak joins Blake Comeau (lower-body injury) and Jason Dickinson (upper-body) will also miss the remainder of that game, and possibly more. The Stars already began the 2019-20 season without Corey Perry, who suffered an odd foot issue.

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After the Bruins’ 2-1 win, Stars coach Jim Montgomery provided good news for Polak, but bad news for Comeau and Dickinson:

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.

It’s Dallas Stars Day at PHT

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 Dallas Stars.

2018-19
43-32-7, 93 points (4th in the Central Division, 6th in the Western Conference)
Playoffs: Lost in seven games to the St. Louis Blues in Round 2

IN
Joe Pavelski
Corey Perry
Andrej Sekera

OUT
Mats Zuccarello
Jason Spezza
Valeri Nichushkin
Tyler Pitlick
Ben Lovejoy
Brett Ritchie

RE-SIGNED 
Esa Lindell
Jason Dickinson
Mattias Janmark
Roman Polak

2018-19 Season Review

By almost any measure, Jim Montgomery’s debut season as Stars head coach was a big success.

In other words, it wasn’t blanking horse-blank.

After missing the playoffs for two straight years despite GM Jim Nill’s frequent tendency to “win” offseasons, and going through a failed experiment with bringing back Ken Hitchcock, it was Montgomery who finally righted the ship.

Of course, it didn’t hurt that his goalies performed at an elite level — although you could call that a symbiotic relationship, as Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin made the saves, while Montgomery’s system made life easier for both veteran goalies.

Either way, Bishop’s work was especially remarkable in 2018-19. Bishop generated a tremendous .934 save percentage during the regular season, then nearly matched it with a .933 mark in the postseason. While the Stars fell short against the Blues in a tight Game 7 that went beyond regulation, Bishop was stellar, making 52 saves to keep Dallas in the running.

Despite CEO Jim Lites’ comments, the Stars’ dynamic duo of Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn were mostly dominant this season and into the playoffs, often with Alex Radulov. Yet, it was an injection of depth that took Dallas to another level during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Mats Zuccarello was a dangerous playmaker once he was finally healthy, and Roope Hintz‘s bulldozer style portended good things for the future.

[MORE: X-Factor | Under Pressure | Three questions]

As much of a bummer as it must be to let Zuccarello go, the Stars seem poised to make up that difference (and more) by snagging Joe Pavelski from the Sharks. If Corey Perry and Andrej Sekera work out as reclamation projects, then even better.

It will be a lot to ask Bishop and Khudobin to match last season’s brilliance, but perhaps a rising defense will prop them up if they stumble? John Klingberg continues to be a dark horse Norris candidate, who will hopefully play more than 64 games in the 2019-20 regular season, while Miro Heiskanen aims to build off of a brilliant rookie season.

Expectations are only going to rise in Dallas, and Lites can only get away with admonishing his top players so many times, so there’s always the risk that things fall. Bishop and/or Khudobin could struggle mightily, and injuries are a frequent headache for Bishop especially. New players might not jell with the Stars, as both Pavelski and Perry are playing on new teams for the first time in their lengthy careers.

Overall, though, there’s a lot to be optimistic about, especially since we’re really not that far removed from Lites ruthlessly (and foolishly) roasting his best players.

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.