Tyler Ennis

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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 Toronto Maple Leafs 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 Toronto Maple Leafs.

2018-19
46-28-8, 100 points (3rd in the Atlantic Division, 5th in the Eastern Conference)
Playoffs: Eliminated in seven games in Round 1 by the Boston Bruins

IN
Tyson Barrie
Alexander Kerfoot
Jason Spezza
Pontus Aberg
Jordan Schmaltz
Cody Ceci
Kenny Agostino

OUT
Jake Gardiner
Nazem Kadri
Nakita Zaitsev
Josh Jooris
Tyler Ennis
Ron Hainsey
Patrick Marleau
Connor Brown
Garrett Sparks
Callen Rosen

RE-SIGNED
Andreas Johnsson
Kasperi Kapanen
Cody Ceci
Nick Shore
Michael Hutchinson
Martin Marincin

2018-19 Summary

Man, those expectations were so high. How could they not be?

Coming off a summer where they won the John Tavares sweepstakes, the Toronto Maple Leafs, now with one of most formidable offenses in the NHL, were supposed to compete for the Stanley Cup.

They had Matthews and Marner and Nylander and Rielly. Sure, there were questions on defense but they had Frederik Andersen to make up for any mishaps. And with all that firepower, they could just outscore their problems.

Everything looked in place, at least until it didn’t.

The first blow came when Nylander and the club came to an impasse in contract talks and he missed training camp and the first two months of the season before it got sorted out.

That defense didn’t quite hold up, sort of unsurprising since it wasn’t really addressed in the offseason. And Mike Babcock decided to be stubborn, culminating in a seemingly crazy decision not to play Matthews and Marner more when they needed them most in the playoffs.

Yes, the Leafs scrapped together a 100-point season despite their underlying issues. But when the Bruins stood in front in the playoffs, as they’d done before in the postseason, a similar result emerged: disappointment by way of underachieving.

Welcome to the throes of beings one of the NHL’s most storied teams, one that has been marred by a monumental championship drought and years upon years of coming up short.

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

Tavares alone couldn’t save them, despite a career year that saw him establish new highs in goals (47) and points (88). For the second straight year, Auston Matthews missed a considerable chunk of time due to injury.

So general manager Kyle Dubas has gone about re-tooling his team in search of the right mix.

Nazem Kadri is out, sent to Colorado for Tyson Barrie and Alex Kerfoot. The Leafs addressed one issue with the move, as Tyson Barrie is expected to add some defense to the blue line. But the team seems to have lost Jake Gardiner, although the unrestricted free agent has yet to sign with a new team as of yet.

But Dubas and the Leafs have another distraction their hands: the needed contract for Marner.

Marner, like several big-ticket free agents, has yet to sign. And while others are expected to get deals done prior to training camp, it looks more and more likely that Marner misses some time.

He’s already searching for a team to train with if a deal doesn’t get done. Posturing? Maybe. But Marner wants a lot of money and the Leafs don’t really have much wiggle room. Instead of heading into the season with a clear mind, it appears the Leafs will have a repeat of Nylander’s situation from a year ago, and we saw how they turned out for Nylander’s performance.

Deals for Andreas Johnsson and Kasperi Kapanen are completed, at least. But it’s hard to understate how big a loss it would be for Marner to miss any regular-season time. You don’t not feel the loss of your leading point-producer, no matter who else is on the team.

Still, Dubas has done well to navigate the salary cap. Moving Zaitsev’s contract out was a shrewd move, as too was shipping out the final year of Patrick Marleau’s deal, even if it cost a first-round pick.

The team will also have a fresh set of eyes from the bench with new assistants in Dave Hakstol and Paul McFarland.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule


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

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.

Crawford, Grabner, Lehner among 2019 Masterton Trophy nominees

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The 31 nominees for the 2019 Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy have been announced. The award, which is given to the players “who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to hockey,” will be handed out at the NHL awards show in June in Las Vegas.

The 31 nominees are selected by each Professional Hockey Writers Association chapter.

Anaheim Ducks: Patrick Eaves
Arizona Coyotes: Michael Grabner
Boston Bruins: Zdeno Chara
Buffalo Sabres: Jason Pominville
Calgary Flames: Mark Giordano
Carolina Hurricanes: Curtis McElhinney
Chicago Blackhawks: Corey Crawford
Colorado Avalanche: Carl Soderberg
Columbus Blue Jackets: Nick Foligno
Dallas Stars: Taylor Fedun
Detroit Red Wings: Niklas Kronwall
Edmonton Oilers: Andrej Sekera
Florida Panthers: Derek MacKenzie
Los Angeles Kings: Jack Campbell
Minnesota Wild: Ryan Suter
Montreal Canadiens: Andrew Shaw
Nashville Predators: Rocco Grimaldi
New Jersey Devils: Cory Schneider
New York Islanders: Robin Lehner
New York Rangers: Brendan Smith
Ottawa Senators: Jean-Gabriel Pageau
Philadelphia Flyers: Brian Elliott
Pittsburgh Penguins: Matt Cullen
St. Louis Blues: Jay Bouwmeester
San Jose Sharks: Joe Thornton
Tampa Bay Lightning: Ryan Callahan
Toronto Maple Leafs: Tyler Ennis
Vancouver Canucks: Jacob Markstrom
Vegas Golden Knights: Ryan Carpenter
Washington Capitals: Brooks Orpik
Winnipeg Jets: Dmitry Kulikov

Brian Boyle, then of the New Jersey Devils, won the award last season after his battle with chronic myeloid leukemia.

All very good choices, and it’ll be tough to narrow it down to three finalists. You have to believe Lehner will be one of the three considering his season and what he’s overcome. After that? Crawford, Grabner, Foligno, and Campbell could also find themselves heading to Las Vegas in late June.

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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.

The Buzzer: Ennis’ hat trick leads Leafs; Oilers rally vs. Sabres

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THREE STARS

1. Tyler Ennis, Toronto Maple Leafs

Ennis recorded his first career hat trick during the Maple Leafs’ 6-2 win over the Calgary Flames. Toronto jumped on Calgary with a 3-0 first period lead as Ennis picked up his first two of the night in a span of 7:25. His 12th goal of the season early in the third period sealed the three-goal night, much to the delight of the large number of Leafs fans inside the Saddledome. Zach Hyman got in on the scoring fun with a pair as Mitch Marner had a hand in both of his goals and later added one of his own.

2. Leon Draisaitl, Edmonton Oilers

Draisaitl extended his point streak to 11 games with a shorthanded goal and an assist during a 4-3 Oilers win over the Buffalo Sabres. Edmonton fell behind 3-1 after the first period before storming back with three goals in a 3:26 span late in the second period. Draisaitl recorded his 42nd assist of the season on Darnell Nurse‘s tying goal. He now has 17 goals in his last 19 games.

3. Mikko Koskinen, Edmonton Oilers

After a rough first period, Koskinen settled down and made 24 saves over the final 40 minutes to give him 35 saves on the night. Koskinen has now won his last three starts, two of which required him to stop at least 35 shots.

HIGHLIGHTS OF THE NIGHT

Draisaitl tallied his 41st of the season shorthanded via this pretty play with Connor McDavid:

Oh, no, Jason Pominville:

FACTOIDS OF THE NIGHT

• “Buffalo dropped to 2-7-1 in its past 10, and is 13-22-6 since a franchise-record-matching 10-game win streak in November.” (AP)

SCORES
Oilers 4, Sabres 3
Maple Leafs 6, Flames 2

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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.