WATCH LIVE: Rangers host Maple Leafs on NBCSN

NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Sunday’s matchup between the Toronto Maple Leafs and New York Rangers. Coverage begins at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The Maple Leafs won a pivotal division clash Saturday with a 4-3 overtime victory in Montreal to remain in second place in the Atlantic Division. John Tavares scored his team-leading 33rd goal (also T-second in NHL) in OT with a beautiful backhand past Carey Price.

With two points yesterday (goal, assist), Tavares has three straight multi-point games and reached the 60-point mark (33G, 27A in 54 GP), two games shy of his fastest season to 60 points (52 GP in 2013-14 w/ New York Islanders).

Toronto has won four straight games and has a six-game point streak (5-0-1).

On Friday night when the 1993-94 Stanley Cup champion Rangers team was honored for the 25th anniversary of their title, the current Blueshirts fell 3-0 to the Hurricanes. It was scoreless entering the third period before Warren Foegele scored the eventual game-winner and Carolina tallied two empty- netters. Petr Mrazek made 27 saves for Carolina in the shutout, though defenseman Jaccob Slavin also rescued two would-be goals on the doorstep.

The Rangers were shut out for the 5th time this season, tied for second most in the league.

Despite being shut out on Friday, the Rangers top line of Chris Kreider, Mika Zibanejad and Mats Zuccarello has been one of the hottest trios in the league. Since January 12, they have combined for 41 points (19G, 22A) in the last 11 games.

Zibanejad has already set career highs with 53 pts and 31 assists this season. His previous career marks were 51 pts and 30 assists, both in 2015-16 with Ottawa. He is on pace for 80 pts, which would be the highest tally by a Rangers player since Marian Gaborik had 86 in 2009-10.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 6 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

What: Toronto Maple Leafs at New York Rangers
Where: Madison Square Garden
When: Sunday, Feb. 10, 6 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: You can watch the Maple Leafs-Rangers stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

MAPLE LEAFS
Zach Hyman – John Tavares – Mitch Marner
Patrick MarleauAuston MatthewsKasperi Kapanen
Connor BrownNazem KadriWilliam Nylander
Par LindholmFrederik GauthierAndreas Johnsson

Jake MuzzinMorgan Rielly
Jake GardinerNikita Zaitsev
Travis DermottRon Hainsey

Starting goalie: Garret Sparks

RANGERS
Chris Kreider – Mika Zibanejad – Mats Zuccarello
Pavel BuchnevichKevin HayesJesper Fast
Filip ChytilRyan StromeVladislav Namestnikov
Jimmy VeseyBoo Nieves – Vinni Lettieri

Brady SkjeiAdam McQuaid
Marc StaalTony DeAngelo
Brendan SmithKevin Shattenkirk

Starting goalie: Alexandar Georgiev

Kenny Albert (play-by-play) and Brian Boucher (‘Inside-the-Glass analyst) will have the call from Madison Square Garden. Pre-game coverage starts at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN with NHL Live, hosted by Kathryn Tappen alongside Patrick Sharp and Keith Jones.

Can Babcock, Maple Leafs get most out of Muzzin?

In my opinion, there’s really no question that the Toronto Maple Leafs improved by trading for defenseman Jake Muzzin. Instead, it’s a matter of: how much better does Muzzin make the Maple Leafs?

Without getting into the grittier details, it’s easy to look at this as a black-and-white thing: Muzzin’s a proven top-four defenseman (sometimes looking downright elite), and that’s the area where Toronto needed to improve the most. The fact that he’s locked up through next season, and at an affordable cap hit of just $4 million, makes the deal even sweeter. The Maple Leafs were even proactive in getting him about a month before the trade deadline, allowing Muzzin that much more time to get used to his new (and colder) surroundings.

That’s the thing, though: it might take some time to find the ideal fit.

[Kings trading Muzzin could be beginning of a teardown]

Lots of left, not much right

The Maple Leafs’ best three defensemen are all left-handed: Muzzin, Morgan Rielly, and Jake Gardiner. Some might argue that Travis Dermott – another LHD – may rank as their fourth-best option. (If not, there’s Ron Hainsey as the fourth guy, a left-handed defenseman who’s played quite a bit on the right side.)

In a perfect world, the Maple Leafs would have a balanced mix of lefties and righties on defense, but instead the right-handed options stick out like sore thumbs: Nikita Zaitsev and Igor Ozhiganov have their issues.

So something has to give. The Leafs have initially announced that Muzzin will pair up with high-scoring blueliner Rielly. That makes beautiful sense from a stylistic standpoint – Muzzin’s both a versatile and sturdy defenseman – but will it work out when handedness is taken into account? Maybe just as importantly, will Mike Babcock be able to stomach the bad that comes with the good?

Such a process may require some experimentation, and learning the right dance moves could make for some offbeat, awkward moments.

Experience on the right

Former Kings coach Darryl Sutter told the Toronto Sun’s Steve Simmons that Muzzin has “never” played the right side.

“Anybody who says he’s played the right side isn’t watching the games,” Sutter said. “He’s played zero times on the right side in L.A. I know they’re looking for the perfect guy to pair with (Morgan) Rielly. He might be that guy, but maybe Rielly has to switch to the other side.

“Some guys are better rushing on their off-side. You see a lot of left guys playing the right side but you don’t see a lot of right (shooters) playing their off side. It’s just the way it is.”

One common critique of Muzzin is that he’s been propped up by right-hander Drew Doughty (although others would argue the opposite), yet Muzzin’s actually skated most frequently with fellow LHD Alec Martinez, as you can see from Natural Stat Trick. Martinez had been the one who had played on the right side, and it sounds like Rielly will at least start off that way.

In a breakdown of Muzzin’s fit, The Athletic’s James Mirtle also notes (sub required) that Gardiner never really became comfortable playing on his off-side, so it’s possible that Babcock will be best off seeing which defenseman (Muzzin or Rielly) ends up most comfortable in such a situation.

There’s the risk that Rielly’s red-hot season might cool if he’s placed in a less-than-ideal scenario.

Babcock’s certainly familiar with these questions, even beyond his time with the Maple Leafs. Such questions undoubtedly came up during his Red Wings days, and also during international competition:

Give and take

In case you’re wondering, there is some data to back up coaches’ misgivings about pairing up two lefties (or in less frequent cases, two righties), rather than the typical, Adam Oates-friendly scenario. Back in 2014, Matt Cane did a deep dive to find such a drop-off, although he also noted at Puck Plus Plus that defensemen on their off-side also tend to see a jump in shooting percentage.

It’s all logical enough: it might be tougher to make breakout passes/exit your zone with two lefties, yet there are certain one-timer opportunities that could also sprout up for the defenseman on that off-side.

Some of this stuff might make your brain hurt a bit, but the bottom line is that the Maple Leafs look stronger in their top four with Muzzin replacing one of Hainsey or Zaitsev, and they probably look a lot stronger.

Interestingly, the Maple Leafs’ situation really isn’t that much different from their rivals in Tampa Bay, either.

If you look at the Lightning’s top defensemen, most of them are LHD: Victor Hedman, Ryan McDonagh, and as he progresses and earns Jon Cooper’s trust, Mikhail Sergachev. That’s especially true if Anton Stralman‘s lost a few steps, and since Dan Girardi‘s not really the sort of defenseman you want playing big minutes against the Marners and Matthews of the world.

For all we know, Maple Leafs GM Kyle Dubas might even have another trick up his sleeve, such as landing potential RHD and trade target Dougie Hamilton, although that would be quite the trick considering Toronto’s limited cap space.

Either way, having “too many” strong, left-handed defensemen sure beats not having enough.

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.

Maple Leafs bolster back end, trade for Muzzin

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They needed a defenseman, and they wasted little time in getting their man.

The Toronto Maple Leafs made a move to bolster their defensive core, acquiring Jake Muzzin from the Los Angeles Kings on Monday.

The move sent prospect left wing Carl Grundstrom, the rights to defenseman Sean Durzi and Toronto’s first-round draft pick in the 2019 NHL Draft out to the west coast.

The trade immediately makes Toronto’s defense better, for the rest of this season and next, too, as Muzzin has one year left on a deal that’s paying him an annual average value of $4 million.

Toronto has all the offense in the world and a goaltender in Frederik Andersen who will be in the Vezina conversation this year. Muzzin brings with him a wealth of playoff experience — 50 games — including a Stanley Cup win in 2014 and a player that can play big minutes in every situation on the ice.

And he will fit right in alongside Morgan Rielly, which in turn will allow the Leafs to move Ron Hainsey down to the third pairing to work with young d-man Travis Dermott in a mentor role while still providing a solid third pairing (where Hainsey belongs).

TSN’s Darren Dreger said both Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas and Kings GM Rob Blake had been discussing the deal for a couple weeks.

“I just thought it was a great fit for us,” Dubas said. “When he joined Los Angeles coming out of junior [in 2010], they were kind of at the same stage we’re in now, so he has that experience of seeing a team mature from being a team that wanted to contend to contending and ultimately winning, and he was a big part of their championship team in 2014.

“He’s going to be here for at least the next year and a half and two runs at the spring.”

Muzzin shared in the excitement.

“I was a little shocked to get the phone call,” he said. “You hear rumblings and rumors and stuff like that, and you just continue on your way until it actually happens.

“I was just thinking about it. Just playing them, how we got beat [4-1 and 5-1 this season], I was like, ‘Damn.’ And now I’m part of that team, so I’m real excited for the opportunity.”

For Los Angeles, they receive two top prospects in Grundstrom and Durzi, shed salary and, most importantly, get younger. The days of the Kings being Stanley Cup contenders are over with and the view ahead now has to be on the future and dismantling Jurassic Park.

Grundstrom, 21, was a second-round pick in 2016 and played with Frolunda of the Swedish Elite League last season. In 42 games with the Toronto Marlies of the American Hockey League this season, Grundstrom has 13 goals and 29 points.

Durzi, 20, was taken in the second round in 2018 after not being selected in 2017. He is unsigned. Durzi has split time with the Owen Sound Attack and the Guelph Storm in the Ontario hockey league this season. He has eight goals and 28 points in 26 games.

The immediate reaction is that the Leafs won this trade. It’s a fair point, given they bolstered their blue line with a quality player. But don’t write off the Kings, who grabbed two quality prospects, including one in Grundstrom who could turn into a legit NHL player. These are two teams going in opposite directions, As far as the Kings adding to their stable of prospects and grabbing a first-round pick, they did what they set out to do (even if they didn’t get the roster player they wanted).

“We feel this trade was necessary for the future of the organization,” Blake said in a statement from the team. “Moving Jake was not easy as he has been a key player for us and a significant part of our most historic and memorable achievements. We are grateful for his contributions to the Kings and we wish him the best of luck in the future.”

The Kings are still right up against the cap, with $77.5 million devoted to their current lineup. This only appears to be the start for Los Angeles, however. Dropping cap space, trading some of the older pieces and snatching up prospects and draft picks is on the only direction the Kings need to head in.

Credit to Dubas, too, for getting in before the rest of the pack. Muzzin was reportedly on several teams’ shopping lists, including fellow Cup contenders in the Winnipeg Jets. The plucky, young GM isn’t afraid to throw his weight around.

Figuring out how to get all these contract’s under next year’s cap should be fun.


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

WATCH LIVE: Capitals – Maple Leafs on NBCSN

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the Washington Capitals and Toronto Maple Leafs. Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Yes, every team hopes to enter the All-Star break on a high note, but the Capitals rank among those with the most incentive to churn out another win.

They’ve lost six consecutive games, and since it looks like Alex Ovechkin‘s playing on Wednesday (thus meaning he’s suspended for a game on Feb. 1), falling to the Maple Leafs would really make for a dour way to begin a little hockey vacation.

With the Bruins and Canadiens not all that far behind the Maple Leafs for second place in the Atlantic, don’t expect Toronto to take it easy on Wednesday. Considering all of these factors, it should be fascinating to watch these two teams duke it out.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 6:30 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

What: Washington Capitals at Toronto Maple Leafs
Where: Scotiabank Arena
When: Wednesday, Jan. 23, 6:30 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: You can watch the Capitals – Maple Leafs stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

CAPITALS

Alex Ovechkin — Nicklas BackstromT.J. Oshie
Jakub VranaEvgeny KuznetsovTom Wilson
Dmitrij JaskinLars EllerBrett Connolly
Chandler StephensonTravis BoydAndre Burakovsky

Dmitry OrlovJohn Carlson
Michal KempnyMatt Niskanen
Brooks OrpikJonas Siegenthaler

Starting goalie: Braden Holtby

MAPLE LEAFS

Patrick MarleauAuston MatthewsMitch Marner
Zach HymanJohn TavaresKasperi Kapanen
Connor BrownNazem KadriWilliam Nylander
Par LindholmFrederik Gauthier — Trevor Moore

Morgan RiellyRon Hainsey
Travis DermottNikita Zaitsev
Martin MarincinIgor Ozhiganov

Starting goalie: Frederik Andersen

Gord Miller (play-by-play), Brian Boucher (analyst) and Ray Ferraro (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will have the call.

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.

Maple Leafs’ Hyman ejected after late hit on Bruins’ McAvoy

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Update: Hyman will have a discipline hearing with the NHL’s Department of Player Safety on Sunday for this hit

We’ve already had one questionable hit on Saturday, and now we have a second.

This one comes at the mid-way point of the third period in the game between the Boston Bruins and the Toronto Maple Leafs.

With the Bruins leading 6-2, Charlie McAvoy gets the puck from Jaroslav Halak behind his own net and makes the pass to his defense partner. Hyman comes in at an angle where McAvoy can’t see him and drills him with a blindside hit well after the puck had made its way to the other side of the ice.

It appears that McAvoy hits his head on the boards the way down.

You can see the hit here:

The hit is made all the worse given that McAvoy just returned to the lineup on Thursday after missing 20 games with a concussion.

Hyman got a five-minute major for interference on the McAvoy hit, five minutes for fighting Bruins’ Matt Grzelcyk and a game misconduct. Grzelcyk was tossed, too.

The fisticuffs didn’t end there. A minute later, Chris Wagner got a penalty for charging Morgan Rielly which prompted Ron Hainsey to step in and fight Wagner.

McAvoy returned to the bench just prior to the game ending but did not take another shift.


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