Sidney Crosby

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.

Lightning still the team to beat in NHL’s Eastern Conference

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Getting swept in the first round wasn’t enough to knock the Tampa Bay Lightning off the mountaintop.

After finishing 21 points ahead of everyone else during the 2018-19 regular season, the Lightning are again Stanley Cup favorites and the team to beat in an ever-improving Eastern Conference. With a stacked roster that includes goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy, defenseman Victor Hedman and forwards Steven Stamkos and Brayden Point, the road to the final goes through Tampa Bay.

”They got a young goaltender who’s getting better and better every year (and) their D corps is pretty solid,” Carolina defenseman Jaccob Slavin said. ”Their forward group is so skilled and solid that I would still say it’s Tampa.”

That’s no knock on the Boston Bruins, who lost Game 7 of the Cup Final to St. Louis. Or the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins, who have plenty of Cup-winning experience. The Lightning performed some salary cap gymnastics, kept their core intact and aren’t shying away from the well-deserved hype.

”Expectations are high: Of course for everyone the main goal is to win the Cup,” Vasilevskiy said. ”We’re more mature now. We have more experience. … I think the last few seasons people (say), ‘Tampa will win the Cup 100 percent’ every time. That’s the expectation, but the reality is every team can win the Cup. We’re playing in the best league in the world, so anything can happen.”

With Tampa Bay, Boston, Toronto and Florida, the Atlantic Division looks like murderer’s row. The Bruins got through only after coming back from a 3-2, first-round deficit against Toronto and aren’t feeling cocky.

”Our division’s been great the past couple years and there’s no end in sight there,” Boston goaltender Tuukka Rask said. ”We feel that we have to go through Toronto, we have to go through Tampa, we have to go through Florida and everybody.”

The Panthers signed two-time Vezina Trophy winning goalie Sergei Bobrovsky and hired three-time Cup-winning coach Joel Quenneville to take the next step. Across the East in the Metropolitan Division, the improved New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils are rejuvenated with some big additions.

”The Rangers signed elite winger Artemi Panarin, traded for top defender Jacob Trouba and drafted Finnish sensation Kaapo Kakko, while the Devils got Norris Trophy winner P.K. Subban and selected center Jack Hughes first overall.

OLD GUARD

Pittsburgh still has Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, Washington still has Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, and yet each team has undergone a transformation since last lifting the Cup. The Penguins look closer to falling down the East standings at this point, and Crosby acknowledged there are some question marks.

”We’re a little bit younger, and in some ways we’re maybe a little bit older, too,” Pittsburgh’s captain said. ”We’re younger, so I think we’re going to be probably a quicker team, probably an energized team and we’ll have some guys that are pretty excited to be in the positions they’re in. We’ll have to see what we can do with that.”

The Capitals believe their championship window is still open.

”We expect to be amongst the league leaders in terms of wins and points,” coach Todd Reirden said. ”That’s the culture that we’ve established now and now we need to continue to build it.”

CHIP ON SHOULDER

Columbus will undoubtedly take a step back after losing Panarin and Bobrovsky and letting trade deadline pickups Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel walk in free agency. Much like the New York Islanders a year ago after losing John Tavares to Toronto in free agency, the Blue Jackets plan to use their personnel defections as a rallying point.

”There’s no secret losing those guys probably hurts a little bit, but we’re bringing back a lot of our core guys,” leading goal scorer Cam Atkinson said. ”We have to come in with a chip on our shoulder and prove a lot of people wrong, but I think that it should fuel your fire to prove people wrong.”

Columbus will rely heavily on goalies Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins.

”The biggest question is goaltending,” Atkinson said. ”That’s going to be the biggest thing. The St. Louis Blues won with a rookie goaltender coming in in the middle of the season and look what happens to that team.”

The Islanders let starting goalie Robin Lehner depart in free agency and replaced him with Semyon Varlamov. Coach Barry Trotz’s structure remains, but no one’s going to underestimate them this time around.

LETDOWN BRUIN?

No team since Pittsburgh in 2009 has won the Cup after losing in the final the previous year. Bruins defenseman Torey Krug said the ”taste is still there” from the Game 7 defeat at home.

”It will probably always be there,” Krug said. ”It’s how you manage it individually to use it as motivation.”

MAYBE NEXT YEAR

It could be neck and neck between the Blue Jackets, Rangers, Devils, Carolina Hurricanes and Philadelphia Flyers for the final playoff spot. Carolina will need stable goaltending to duplicate a surprise run that ended in the East final. Philadelphia added coach Alain Vigneault, center Kevin Hayes and defensemen Matt Niskanen and Justin Braun, but remains a bit of a mystery amid inconsistent play.

The Buffalo Sabres will get a boost from new coach Ralph Krueger but more rebuilding is likely. Defenseman Rasmus Dahlin wants the Sabres to ”trust the process,” which is ongoing not just in Buffalo but also Montreal and Detroit before those teams can target a postseason run. Ottawa’s long-term rebuild should set them up for a top draft pick.

Blues’ O’Reilly has ‘another gear’ after being playoff MVP

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Ryan O’Reilly stockpiled quite the hardware to show off at his Stanley Cup day.

On display next to the Cup he helped the St. Louis Blues win in June were the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP and the Selke Trophy as the NHL’s best defensive forward. Any player would gladly celebrate with those shiny centerpieces, though O’Reilly — at 28 and on his third team — is only now showing he is this kind of elite player.

“I still think I have another gear to get to, and that’s my plan,” O’Reilly said. “There’s still many things to improve on. There are areas to be better. One thing, too, is I think power-play production for myself could’ve been a lot better, and that’s an area I need to grow. There’s some stuff I’ve been working on to try to improve that.”

O’Reilly had nine points in the Cup Final against Boston playing through a cracked rib. He was nearly a point-a-game player during the regular season. Yet, somehow he still seemed underappreciated outside his peers.

“People didn’t realize how good of a player Ryan O’Reilly was until this year,” Vancouver forward Bo Horvat said. “All the players knew how good he was and how big of a part of that team he was and how special of a player — just his two-way game, his faceoffs. Obviously his point production this year was outstanding. His play in the playoffs, winning MVP and obviously the Stanley Cup, it was a great year for him and I think he opened up a lot of eyes.”

O’Reilly said he figured something out during the playoffs: how to clear out some “garbage” in his brain to focus on what matters. The challenge now is trying to duplicate that during an 82-game regular season.

“Just go out there and completely be in the moment and go from there,” O’Reilly said. “That’s a big lesson for myself, trying to establish that more. Be clear and find a way to take all the noise and all the stuff that you don’t need in your head and just throw it out. It just seems like when I did that, I tend to get more bounces and things went my way.”

Winning the Selke was evidence enough of O’Reilly’s strong regular season. He ranked eighth in the league in faceoffs, which is part of what makes him so tough to play against.

“He’s just so competitive on draws,” Chicago captain Jonathan Toews said. “I’m one of those guys I want to start every shift with the puck and if we’re going up against a guy like that that could catch fire, and we might be chasing it down for a whole period. He’s obviously not one of the fastest guys out there, but he’s so good positionally and just aware of where guys are and what to do with the puck. I think he’s just an all-around super intelligent player.”

Nathan MacKinnon

Already considered one of the fastest hockey players on earth, MacKinnon carried the Colorado Avalanche to within one victory of the Western Conference final and is the biggest reason they’re a fashionable Cup contender this season. Fellow Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia, native Sidney Crosby said MacKinnon is in the category of Pittsburgh teammate Evgeni Malkin and Edmonton star Connor McDavid as players who can take over games.

“We saw a pretty good glimpse of that in the playoffs,” Crosby said. “He did it consistently. … I’d expect him to take another big step.”

Rookie Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar said it’s electrifying to watch MacKinnon on the ice. And the 24-year-old center is an example to his younger teammates and those around the league.

“He’s just a super committed guy,” Makar said. “He loves hockey, and that’s the way he plays. It shows on the ice. Just the way he handles his routine is very specific and you just learn from star players like that.”

Henrik Lundqvist

“The King” is 37, yet could be the difference between the New York Rangers missing the playoffs for a third consecutive season or contending ahead of schedule. The longtime starting goaltender isn’t fazed by young backup Alexandar Georgiev and top prospect Igor Shesterkin looming in the not-too-distant future.

“My approach will not change,” Lundqvist said. “I need to reach my top level no matter what, no matter who’s next to me or where the team is at.”

Lundqvist said the start of last season was the best he had felt in a while. He posted a 2.68 goals-against average and .919 save percentage in his first 22 starts last season, which would be great for an improved Rangers team with a better blue line and more firepower up front.

“That’s the level I just need to reach and sustain throughout the year, and then I know I can make a difference,” Lundqvist said.

Alex Ovechkin

The release of “Ovi O’s” cereal marked his 34th birthday. If anyone has shown age is just a number, it’s Ovechkin, who is now the Washington Capitals’ oldest player and still could score 50 goals. Even though Ovechkin said he’s “not a grandpa” and trained differently this summer, don’t expect him to alter his style too much.

“I’m still young, you know,” Ovechkin said. “I still want to play my game. … We’re here for 25 minutes or whatever it is — I just want to be here to win, whatever it takes.”

Ovechkin preceded O’Reilly as playoff MVP when he led the Capitals to the first title in franchise history in 2018. After a full summer off, he is refreshed to try to do it again.

“He’s obviously a different talent,” Washington winger Carl Hagelin said. “A guy like that doesn’t come around very often. He’s one of those energetic guys even though he’s 33, 34 years old. He comes to the rink with a smile every day. He does what he has to do.”

Mark Stone

There may not be a more complete winger in the NHL than Stone, who put up 12 points in the Vegas Golden Knights’ seven-game first-round series against San Jose. Stone is free of Ottawa’s long-term rebuild and starting a $76 million, eight-year contract with big expectations to help Vegas make another long playoff run.

“You get a No. 1 forward,” Golden Knights forward Jonathan Marchessault said. “He’s an unbelievable player. He does everything well on the ice. He puts up great numbers every year, and he’s a successful player.”

Vegas is one of several NHL teams without a captain. That might not last long with Stone in the fold.

“He’s not a guy that’s trying to be a leader,” Marchessault said. “He’s just a born leader, so it’s just natural for him.”

Rasmus Dahlin

The 2018 No. 1 pick had 44 points to lead all rookie defenseman. It was just the floor for where Dahlin wants to start.

“Of course I want to score more goals, have more assists and stuff like that,” Dahlin said. “Last season, I had more points than I expected, but this year, I always want more. That’s why I play.”

The Buffalo Sabres are counting on that in their first season under coach Ralph Krueger. Captain Jack Eichel has big expectations for Dahlin, who he believes “lived up to all the hype.”

“You look at how good he was last year in year one and how much more he knows now,” Eichel said. “I think he’s primed to have a monster season.”

PHT Morning Skate: Laine off to Switzerland; Who will play with Crosby?

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• Jets restricted free agent Patrik Laine will practice with SC Bern of the Swiss League. (Swiss Hockey News)

• With Laine and Kyle Connor still not signed, the Jets are relying on Mason Appleton and Gabriel Bourque. (Winnipeg Free Press)

• The re-signing of Mitch Marner is a clear message from Maple Leafs management. (Leafs Nation)

• Pension Plan Puppets argues that Marner’s contract is set up for him to fail. (Pension Plan Puppets)

• The Flyers are incredibly disappointed that Travis Konecny isn’t in training camp. (NBC Sports Philadelphia)

• The Matthew Tkachuk situation in Calgary could make things ugly for the Flames cap situation. (Flames Nation)

David Backes is hoping to have a great camp so that he can make an impact on the Bruins roster. (NBC Sports Boston)

• Is the Provorov extension a good deal for the Philadelphia Flyers? (NBC Sports Philadelphia)

Adam Fox is looking to carve out an important role on the Rangers this year. (Blue Seat Blogs)

• The Canucks need more than just two lines to score if they’re going to make the playoffs. (Vancourier)

• Ever wonder what happy to Robby Fabbri‘s tooth? (NHL.com/Blues)

• Who will play with Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel this year? (Pensburgh)

• What’s new on the latest NHL 20 video game? (Game Spot)

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.

Penguins excited for fresh start after disappointing finish

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CRANBERRY TOWNSHIP, Pa. — The Pittsburgh Penguins are excited for a fresh start.

Sidney Crosby and the Penguins became the first team in a generation to win consecutive championships a little more than two years ago. But the Penguins stumbled into an extended offseason last spring when the New York Islanders swept them from the first round of the playoffs.

That left general manager Jim Rutherford to wonder aloud after the season whether some of his players were too content because they’ve won a couple of Stanley Cups.

Crosby and the Penguins are out to prove that’s not the case.

”I think there’s a certain level of hunger and urgency and desperation you have to have if you’re getting through the playoffs,” Crosby said Friday as the Penguins opened training camp.

”Sometimes you think because you have experience that it automatically gives you an edge. It does if you use it, but if you don’t, it doesn’t do much for you.”

Coach Mike Sullivan believes his team can be a championship-caliber group again. But he stressed a daily focus and attention to detail, a brand of intelligent and responsible hockey Sullivan has tried to instill since he took over in December 2015.

”I think this team is capable of doing some real good things,” Sullivan said. ”But we have to earn it every day. It’s not inevitable. There’s a nice feeling around the team. I think everyone is excited about the opportunity and possibilities that we have.”

The Penguins traded winger Phil Kessel to Arizona for Alex Galchenyuk in the offseason.

The 31-year-old Kessel scored 27 goals and 82 points last season, his fourth with the Penguins. He was a vital part of Pittsburgh’s run to consecutive Stanley Cups, finishing second to Crosby for the 2016 Conn Smythe Trophy, while scoring 18 goals and 45 points, as the Penguins became the first team in nearly two decades to win back-to-back titles.

Rutherford spoke of a culture change in the dressing room following the season, and while Kessel is now in Arizona, the Penguins will still need to replace his production.

”Phil produced for us, it’s no secret,” Crosby said. ”Nobody has to come in here and put up the same stat lines he did. It’s pretty tough to fill those shoes. I think collectively we’re going to have to find ways to make up for that.”

Evgeni Malkin seeks a bounce-back season after the 2012 NHL MVP, and two-time scoring champion, ended a career-worst minus-25 with just 21 goals, his lowest full-season output in almost a decade. The 33-year-old spoke said Friday he wants to be a better leader this season.

”Last year, I’m not happy, for sure,” Malkin said. ”Now, it’s a new challenge this year. I want back, my highest level. I can still play at the top level. I want to show everyone I’m not done.”

Malkin skated alongside Galchenyuk and free agent pickup Brandon Tanev on Friday.

The 25-year-old Galchenyuk has put up five consecutive 40-point seasons, and can play both ends of the ice. The 27-year-old Tanev spent his first four seasons in Winnipeg, and also has a reputation as a strong penalty killer and a hard-working, two-way player. He set career highs with 18 goals and 29 points last year.

Pittsburgh also traded for forward Dominik Kahun in the offseason. The 24-year-old played in all 82 games for Chicago in his first NHL season and finished with 13 goals and 37 points. On Friday, Kahun played on a line with Crosby and 24-year-old Jake Guentzel, who scored 40 goals last season.

Crosby and the Penguins are eager to add the new faces into the mix.

”I think it’s exciting to build an identity and have a fresh start,” Crosby said. ”When we won, we didn’t sit here talking about June. Just like the fact that we got swept last year, it really doesn’t matter at this point. We’re all starting from the same spot.”