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Sharks’ goaltending is historically bad for Stanley Cup contender

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The San Jose Sharks have a big problem.

They are a powerhouse team in the Western Conference, and what should be a legitimate Stanley Cup contender. They are loaded at forward. Their defense, when healthy, is probably among the top two or three units in the league and boasts two Norris Trophy winners. Together, those two units are as fearsome as any other team in the league.

There is only one part of this team that is going to hold them back, and it could not be in a worse place when it comes to playoff hockey.

It is goaltending.

It is always goaltending.

After Martin Jones and Aaron Dell combined to give up six goals in a blowout loss to the Vegas Golden Knights on Monday (the seventh goal was an empty-net goal), the fourth consecutive game they have allowed at least four goals, the goaltending duo finds itself with the worst combined save percentage of any team in the NHL. Dead last. Thirty one out of 31 with less than 10 games to play.

Think of how many teams in the league have questionable or unsettled goaltending situations right now. Bad teams. Lottery teams. The Edmonton Oilers, for crying out loud. The Sharks’ goalies are below them. All of them.

Neither goalie has a save percentage over .898.

Among the 55 goalies that have appeared in at least 20 games this season, Jones and Dell rank 48th and 55th respectively in overall save percentage. They are 51st and 54th (Jones is actually the lower of two here) in even-strength save percentage. There is nothing about their performance this season that should make Sharks fans optimistic come playoff time, because if there is one position that can ultimately boost or doom a team in a best-of-seven series, it is the goalie.

The performance from their goalies this season is what makes their overall success as a team so impressive, because it is almost unheard of for a team to be this bad in net for a full season, and still be in such a good position in the standings.

Over the past 25 years there have only been 16 teams to finish in the bottom-five in save percentage and still make the playoffs in that season. That comes out to around a 12 percent chance of making the playoffs with bottom-five goaltending. Only seven of those teams finished higher than 10th in the league standings, and only one to this point has finished in the top-five (the Sharks may soon do it, too).

Only two (the 2011-12 Chicago Blackhawks and the 2014-15 New York Islanders) have made the playoffs over the past eight seasons.

Nobody else lower than 19th this season is even in a playoff position at the moment.

Let’s take a look at the aforementioned 16 teams that did end up making the playoffs, where they finished in the regular season standings, and what their postseason result ended up being.

Hide your eyes, Sharks fans, because this is not encouraging.

Ten of those teams ended up losing in the first round, and of the six teams that made it to the second round, one of them (the 2009-10 Pittsburgh Penguins) beat another of the teams (the 2009-10 Ottawa Senators) on this list.

Two teams ended up overcoming their goaltending to reach the Stanley Cup Final, both of them losing.

The 2008-09 Red Wings might actually be the best comparison to this Sharks team because the rest of the roster was so strong that it became one of the rare teams that was actually able to cover up for its issues in net.

This Sharks team is kind of similar, but probably not anywhere near as good. Keep something in mind about that Red Wings team: They were the defending the Cup champions that season and were in the middle of a two-year stretch where they were probably the most dominant team of the salary cap era. The roster was stacked.

Is this Sharks team that good? Maybe with a healthy Erik Karlsson they could get close to reaching that level, but they are probably not on that Red Wings level.

The other team made the Cup Final, the 2005-06 Oilers, was one of the teams that actually finished with the worst overall save percentage in a season and still ended up making the playoffs. But here is the thing that needs to be kept in mind about that Oilers team: They actually added a goalie, Dwayne Roloson, at the trade deadline and addressed their biggest flaw. 

It also worked.

Before Roloson arrived the Oilers were trotting out a forgettable trio of Jussi Markkanen, Mike Morrison, and Ty Conklin, who together posted a save percentage of only .880 during the regular season. That is impossibly bad, even for the 2005-06 season where goal-scoring was at its highest level since the 1980s. The league average that season .900, while no other team had a mark lower than .885.

When Roloson arrived he immediately solidified the position to close out the regular season with a .905 mark in his 19 appearances, helping the Oilers secure the eighth playoff spot in the Western Conference.

Once the playoffs started, Roloson played the best hockey of his career, leading the Oilers to the Cup Final. They also might have won that series had Roloson not been injured in Game 1, suffering an MCL sprain that sidelined him for the remainder of it. Almost immediately after he exited the game this happened to Conklin.

Markkanen ended up playing the next six games of the series, and while he played well, he never came close to matching what Roloson did before that.

Still, they had a clear weakness, they addressed it, and it worked.

The Sharks, facing a similar situation this season, did no such thing. How it plays out for them remains to be seen.

So what does this all mean for them right now?

First, they have to win the division.

Finishing ahead of the Calgary Flames would get them the top spot in the West and a likely first-round matchup against one of Dallas, Minnesota, Arizona, or maybe even Colorado or Chicago if some kind of miracle happens for the Blackhawks or Avalanche over the next couple of weeks.

Dallas would probably be the most concerning of those potential matchups simply because the Stars have one of the best goaltending situations in the league with the way Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin are playing (goaltending is important!), but you would have to like their chances against one of Minnesota or Arizona.

Assuming they get through that, they get the winner of what would be a Calgary and Vegas series. If it’s the Flames, they have their own question marks in net with David Rittich being an unknown still and Mike Smith having not worked out as they hoped he would. Vegas would be a brutal matchup in either round, not only because of the way their offense is starting to roll after the addition of Mark Stone, but because Marc-Andre Fleury, for as hit and miss as he has been at this this season, is perfectly capable of getting hot at any time and carrying his team.

The Sharks are a great team, one of the best in the league. But every team has a flaw somewhere on its roster, and the Sharks’ flaw is the one place you do not want it to be at this time of year if you have any hopes of winning the Stanley Cup.

There is still a path there for them to go far, and maybe win it it all even with that flaw, but history is not kind to their chances.

If it ends up playing out the way it did for so many teams with bad goaltending before them, there should be a lot of questions asked after the season as to why they did not address it when they had the chance.

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.

NHL on NBCSN: Alex Ovechkin is as dominant as ever

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Tuesday night’s matchup between the Washington Capitals and New Jersey Devils. 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.

Alex Ovechkin appears to be well on his way to leading the league in goals for the eighth time in his career, an accomplishment that would be unprecedented in the history of the sport. As it stands, Bobby Hull as the only other player that has done it at least seven times, while Phil Esposito is the only other player that accomplished it more than five times. Ovechkin’s dominance over his peers is just one of the many things that makes him arguably the greatest goal-scorer to ever play in the NHL.

For as great as he has been, and for as consistently as he has done it, his 2018-19 season might be his best performance yet.

In terms of the overall numbers, it is not going to be his highest goal total, because he has virtually no chance of matching the 65 goals he scored during the 2007-08 season. But it is not the raw numbers that make this season so incredible. It is the fact that he is defying every aging curve that we know that exists for a player in the NHL.

He enters Tuesday’s game against the Devils just two goals shy of reaching the 50-mark for the eighth time in his career (which would be second most in league history, behind only Wayne Gretzky and Mike Bossy), a mark that he is almost certain to hit sooner rather than later this season.

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

When he does it, he will be just the fourth player in league history to do so in their age 33 season (or later), joining a list that includes only Jaromir Jagr (54 at age 33 in 2005-06), John Bucyk (51 at age 35 in 1970-71), and Bobby Hull (50 at age 33 in 1971-72).

At his current pace, Ovechkin is on track to score 54 goals this season, which would be tied for the sixth highest total for any player over the age of 30 in NHL history. He is already just one of 13 different players to ever score 50 goals over the age of 30, and is closing in on being just the fifth player to do it twice.

Let us just assume for a minute that he is able to maintain his current pace (because there is nothing over his first 71 games of the season to suggest he will not) and reaches that 54 number. It would be the third-highest total of his career, trailing only the 65 he scored in 2007-08 and the 56 he scored one year later in 2008-09.

There are two things that, arguably, make this performance so much more impressive.

First, obviously, is the age.

He was 22 and 23 years old in 2008 and 2009 and at his peak level of performance as an NHL player. At that point it was expected that he was going to dominate the league from a goal-scoring perspective. Today, he is closing in on his mid-30s, a time in his career where he should be starting to slow down just like every player that came before him did. The great ones like Gretzky, Lemieux, Richard, Esposito, and so on never maintained this type of goal-scoring pace at this age. They all slowed down dramatically by the time they were hitting their mid-30s.

The second is that he is going to end up playing close to 250 fewer minutes this season than he did a decade ago.

He was a 23-minute per night player during the 2007-08 and 2008-09 seasons when he had his two highest goal-scoring performances. This season he is *only* playing just a little more than 20 minutes per game. It may not seem like a big deal, but at his current scoring pace an extra 250 minutes could add up to as many as an additional eight goals for the season. An additional eight goals at his current pace would put him on pace for 62 goals.

Again, he is 33 years old.

Now, nobody should reasonably expect him to log that many minutes at this age, and it would probably be lunacy for someone even as freakish as Ovechkin is to try it. Having your minutes limited because you are older is just one of the many reasons players see their production decline. But the overall point here is to simply put his performance this season into perspective, because it is amazing.

Given that he is once again leading the league in goals, for the defending Stanley Cup Champions, on a team that is once again fighting for a division title, it is kind of surprising he is not getting more play in the MVP debate. Not that he should win it, but maybe just that he should be in the discussion as a potential finalist.

He is still that great.

John Walton (play-by-play) and AJ Mleczko (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will have the call from Prudential Center in Newark, N.J. Pre-game coverage starts at 6:30 p.m. ET with NHL Live, hosted by Paul Burmeister alongside Jeremy Roenick and Anson Carter.

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.

Push for the Playoffs: Flyers, Canadiens looking to keep playoff hopes alive

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Push for the Playoffs will run every morning through the end of the 2018-19 NHL season. We’ll highlight the current playoff picture in both conferences, take a look at what the first-round matchups might look like, see who’s leading the race for the best odds in the draft lottery and more.

The Philadelphia Flyers kept their slim playoff hopes alive on Sunday night when they stormed back against the Pittsburgh Penguins, stealing two points with two stunning late goals. It was a game they absolutely had to have if they are going to make up this ground in the Eastern Conference, and they have another game just like that on Tuesday night when they host the Montreal Canadiens.

This one might really be a win-or-be-done type of game for them when it comes to their playoff chances.

They do not just need a win, either.

They need to win in regulation.

The Flyers open the day still six points back of a playoff spot, and trail the Canadiens (who are the first team on the outside of the Eastern Conference playoff picture) by three points. A regulation win would at least bring them back to within a point of the Canadiens, and depending on what happens with the Columbus Blue Jackets in their game against the Calgary Flames, could close the playoff gap to as little as four points.

A loss could be devastating for what is left of their chances, especially if Columbus manages to win in Calgary.

The Canadiens can pull to within a point of the Blue Jackets with a win and a Columbus loss, while it would also pretty much leave the Flyers in their rear-view mirror the rest of the way.

Elsewhere in the Eastern Conference on Tuesday, the Penguins and Hurricanes meet in a pivotal game in the Metropolitan Division race as they both look to stay out of a wild card spot and what could be a potential first-round matchup against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

The Islanders (vs. the Bruins) and Capitals (vs. the Devils) are also both in action as they continue to fight for the top spot in the Division.

In the Western Conference, the Minnesota Wild have a chance to jump back over the Arizona Coyotes for the second Wild Card spot, while the Calgary Flames can extend their lead in the Pacific Division over the San Jose Sharks after they were blown out on Monday night.

IF THE PLAYOFFS STARTED TODAY
Lightning vs. Blue Jackets
Islanders vs. Hurricanes
Capitals vs. Penguins
Bruins vs. Maple Leafs

Flames vs. Coyotes
Jets vs. Stars
Sharks vs. Golden Knights
Predators vs. Blues

TODAY’S GAMES WITH PLAYOFF CONTENDERS
Bruins vs. Islanders (7 p.m. ET)
Canadiens vs. Flyers (7 p.m. ET)
Penguins vs. Hurricanes (7 p.m. ET)
Capitals vs. Devils (7:30 p.m. ET – NBCSN- livestream link)
Oilers vs. Blues (8 p.m. ET)
Maple Leafs vs. Predators (8 p.m. ET)
Avalanche vs. Wild (8 p.m. ET)
Panthers vs. Stars (8:30 p.m. ET)
Blue Jackets vs. Flames (9 p.m. ET)

TODAY’S CLINCHING SCENARIO
• The Sharks can clinch a playoff berth should the Wild lose to Colorado in any fashion.

Playoff Percentages (via Hockey Reference)
Lightning — Clinched
Bruins — 100 percent
Maple Leafs — 100 percent
Islanders — 100 percent
Capitals — 99.8 percent
Penguins — 98.2 percent
Hurricanes — 93.5 percent
Canadiens — 20.5 percent
Flyers — 4 percent
Panthers — 0.9 percent
Sabres — Out
Rangers — Out
Devils — Eliminated
Red Wings — Eliminated
Senators — Eliminated

Playoff Percentages (via Hockey Reference)
Flames — Clinched
Sharks — 100 percent
Jets — 100 percent
Predators — 100 percent
Golden Knights — 100 percent
Blues — 98.2 percent
Stars — 91.3 percent
Coyotes 48.6 percent
Wild — 29.4 percent
Avalanche — 17.6 percent
Blackhawks — 12.3 percent
Canucks — 1.2 percent
Oilers — 1.4 percent
Ducks — Out
Kings — Eliminated

JACK OR KAAPO? THE DRAFT LOTTERY PICTURE
Senators — 18.5 percent*
Kings — 13.5 percent
Red Wings — 11.5 percent
Devils — 9.5 percent
Ducks — 8.5 percent
Rangers — 7.5 percent
Sabres — 6.5 percent
Oilers — 6 percent
Canucks — 5 percent
Blackhawks — 3.5 percent
Avalanche — 3 percent
Panthers — 2.5 percent
Wild — 2 percent
Flyers — 1.5 percent
Canadiens — 1 percent
(*COL owns OTT’s 2019 first-round pick)

ART ROSS RACE
Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay Lightning — 117 points
Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers — 105 points
Patrick Kane, Chicago Blackhawks — 101 points
Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins — 92 points
Leon Draisaitl, Edmonton Oilers — 91 points

ROCKET RICHARD RACE
Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals — 48 goals
Leon Draisaitl, Edmonton Oilers — 43 goals
Patrick Kane, Chicago Blackhawks — 41 goals
John Tavares, Toronto Maple Leafs — 40 goals
Brayden Point, Tampa Bay Lightning — 38 goals
Alex DeBrincat, Chicago Blackhawks — 38 goals
Cam Atkinson, Columbus Blue Jackets — 38 goals

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.

Stone’s arrival has given Golden Knights new top scoring line

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It has taken George McPhee and the Vegas Golden Knights front office less than two years to assemble a roster that looks like it is going to be a legitimate Stanley Cup contender for the foreseeable future.

In year one they rode some stunning play from their top line of Jonathan Marchessault, William Karlsson, and Reilly Smith all the way to the Stanley Cup Final in what was one of the most improbable seasons (individually and on a team level) in league history.

For as good as that trio was, it was also inevitable that their production was going to regress significantly this season (and it has). They are still very good, but their regression, combined with the free agency departures of James Neal and David Perron, meant that the Golden Knights were going to have to make up for that drop in production elsewhere on the roster.

Enter their three big acquisitions from the past year of Paul Stastny, Max Pacioretty, and recent trade deadline addition Mark Stone.

Together that trio has formed what is supposed to be the Golden Knights’ second scoring line, but they have been so dominant as a group that we should probably be starting to look at them as their new top line.

In the nine games since the trade deadline the Golden Knights have put together an 8-1-0 record, with their only loss coming against the Calgary Flames in the second half of a back-to-back.

During that stretch the trio of Pacioretty, Stastny, and Stone has spent more than 116 minutes of 5-on-5 ice-time together as a line and been the biggest driving force behind their late season surge. In those 5-on-5 minutes they have outscored teams by a 6-3 margin, are controlling more than 65 percent of the total shot attempts and scoring chances that take place when they are on the ice, and more than 75 percent of the high-danger chances.

You would be hard pressed to find a better trio anywhere in the league since the end of February when taking their all around play into account.

From the moment they acquired Stastny and Pacioretty in the offseason it was expected they would be the foundation of a newly formed second line, and one that might have been even better than the one they put on the ice a year ago. But injuries to both Pacioretty and Stastny at various times put a dent in those plans, as well as the fact they were missing a stable third presence on their wing.

That is where Stone comes in.

Spending his entire career in Ottawa on what has mostly been a dysfunctional, mess of a team has made Stone one of the league’s most overlooked and underappreciated top-line scoring wingers. But he is a steady 60-point, possession driving player that has always made everyone around him better. That is an incredibly valuable asset in the NHL and is not the type of player that is always readily available.

When you have a chance to acquire one, you should be willing to jump at it. The Golden Knights did.

He is not only in the middle of what is a career year, but he has proven to be an ideal fit alongside Stastny and Pacioretty.

Just look at how their ability to drive possession and scoring chances has spiked since Stone’s arrival.

They are averaging more goals per 60 minutes (0.4 goals to be exact), allowing fewer goals per 60 minutes (2.96 down to 1.55), and have seen a drastic increase in their shot attempts, scoring chance, and high-danger scoring chance numbers.

McPhee paid a pretty substantial price to put this trio together, giving up two of the team’s top prospects (Nick Suzuki in the Pacioretty trade; Erik Brannstrom in the Stone trade) and several draft picks (not including the three draft picks he sent to Detroit to acquire Tomas Tatar, who was also sent to Montreal in the Pacioretty trade) and committed a significant amount of salary cap space to them. Immediately after acquiring Pacioretty he signed him to a four-year, $28 million contract extension, and followed a similar path with Stone by signing him to an eight-year, $76 million contract. Stastny is playing on a three-year, $19.5 million contract.

Given their ages and the long-term salary commitments there is a degree of risk there in future seasons because at some point all of them are going to decline before the end of their contracts. But as shocking as it still is to say, the Golden Knights’ championship window is pretty much wide open at this point, and whenever that is the case you owe it to yourself and your fans to go for it.

The Golden Knights did that by acquiring three of three of the most prominent scoring forwards that were available over the past eight months and assembled them into a new top line that seems to be sending their overall play in the right direction as the playoffs get close.

With the top line of Marchessault, Karlsson, and Smith still in place, and Alex Tuch helping to carry the third line, there is reason to believe that this Golden Knights team might be even better than the one we saw in year one. That does not guarantee them anything come playoff time because their likely playoff path is going to be significantly tougher this season (and their goaltending has not been quite as consistent as it was a year ago), but they have to like their chances.

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.

How concerned should Maple Leafs be as playoffs approach?

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There is no team in the NHL under more immense pressure to win, and win big, this postseason than the Toronto Maple Leafs.

There probably is not even a team that is a close second when it comes to the expectations this team is carrying around.

Not only are they the Toronto Maple Leafs, which always brings immense pressure just because of who they are and where they play, but because this team is built to win now. Not tomorrow, not two seasons from now, not five seasons from now, but right now. This season. And then every season that comes after it. But especially this season.

This is not a team that was constructed to simply make the playoffs and give their fans a little bit of a thrill for a couple of weeks in the spring.

This is a team that is built to win championships, end a Stanley Cup drought that goes back to the Original Six days of the NHL, and take part in championship parades. Not a parade. Multiple parades.

The roster is loaded with All-Stars at the top of the lineup that are tying up a significant chunk of their salary cap situation for years to come (and that does not even include Mitch Marner‘s new deal that will be coming through this summer). It is no doubt an overstated concern, but this is the core they have tied themselves to and are locked in with for the next eight years.

So far, that core has produced nothing but two first-round exits in their only postseason appearances. They are now headed for another first-round matchup with the Boston Bruins, a potential nightmare scenario against one of the league’s best teams (that might finally be healthy come playoff time) that has given them fits over the past two years and knocked them out in the first round a year ago in a series that probably went a game or two longer than it deserved to go.

They have the highest paid head coach in the NHL in Mike Babcock who has not been out of the first-round since the 2013 season, and only once since 2010. There have been 23 different head coaches that have won at least one playoff series since Babcock last won one, including Mike Yeo, who has won a playoff series with two different franchises during that stretch. Any other coach in the NHL with that postseason track record wouldn’t be regarded as highly as Babcock still is. You can be sure that will change if they bow out in round one again. It should, anyway.

All of that adds up to a situation where anything other than a deep playoff run is going to be looked at as a spectacular failure.

What has to be concerning for Maple Leafs fans is the team doesn’t really seem to be trending in the right direction as the playoffs draw near.

Entering the week they have lost four of their past six games, three of which came against non-playoff teams, including an ugly loss to the league’s worst team, the Ottawa Senators.

One of the two games they did win during that stretch required an incredible late rally to steal two points from the Philadelphia Flyers, another team that is likely to miss the playoffs.

If you are looking for explanations, the injury situation has not been ideal.

Kasperi Kapanen has missed a handful of games and the blue line has been shorthanded without the services of Jake Gardiner and Travis Dermott, a development that resulted in this quote from Babcock on Monday.

“You’re supposed to build the best program you can, so you have as much depth so you don’t miss people. If you have enough, you don’t miss a beat and you just keep going,” Babcock said, via Sportsnet. “There’s other teams that have done a better job when different players are out than we have in keeping on going. That just tells you what state we’re at, and you just gotta keep adding better players.”

Of course, the Maple Leafs aren’t the only team that has been hit hard by injuries this season. The team they are chasing in the standings and about to play in the first round has been hammered all season when it comes to their best players, and it’s not like the Bruins were starting with the league’s greatest depth. They have simply played better.

The biggest concern for the Maple Leafs should still be their play defensively because it is just not at a Stanley Cup level.

They are currently one of the worst teams in the league when it comes to allowing shot attempts and scoring chances during even-strength play, currently sitting 27th in the league in total shot attempts against, 30th in shots on goal against, and 20th in scoring chances against. And that is not just because Gardiner and Dermott are out of the lineup, because their numbers were nearly identical prior to their exit from the lineup.

Just for example, here are their 5-on-5 Shot attempt and scoring chance numbers from before Gardiner’s injury (and Dermott’s, which happened two days later) and since.

(CF% = Shot Attempt differential; CA/60 = Shot attempts against per 60 minutes; SCA/60 = Scoring chances against per 60 minutes)

This is, quite simply, who and what the Maple Leafs are defensively.

The total shot attempt differential is still among the top-10 in the league, but the number of attempts and chances they give up are both among the bottom-10. It is awfully difficult, if not impossible, to go on a deep playoff run with that sort of defensive play unless you have elite shooting talent at forward that can score and/or great goaltending to cover up for your flaws.

The Maple Leafs definitely have the shooting talent to outscore their defensive deficiencies, and they have a really good goalie in Frederik Andersen.

The latter is probably the key to what this team does in the immediate future.

Ever since he arrived in Toronto to be their starting goalie Andersen has been masking all of the Maple Leafs’ flaws on defense and giving them a chance to win on most nights. He has been a workhorse in net and a player the team has leaned on extensively. There are few teams in the league that are as dependent on one goalie than the Maple Leafs are on Andersen given the workload he has faced. Since the start of the 2017-18 season no goalie in the league has faced more shots in the regular season than Andersen’s 3,918. The only two goalies that have faced more than 3,600 shots during these past two seasons are Winnipeg Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck (3,807) and New York Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist (3,602).

There is an argument to be made that the Maple Leafs ran him into the ground last season more than they needed to and that playing in 66 games (for the second year in a row) didn’t leave him as fresh and rested as he could have been for the playoffs. He will not face quite the same workload this season, but he is still on track to play at least 60 games this season and once again be one of the league leaders in games played, minutes played, shots faced.

He is probably the one player that is going to make or break their season, because that is simply the way the Maple Leafs are built and play.

There is no questioning the high-end talent on the roster. But there are still enough questions on the back end, and what might be the worst possible first-round matchup looming in a couple of weeks, to be concerned about how this spring is going to go.

The expectation is something different, and better, and franchise altering. But there are a lot of signs that it could still be more of the same.

That would not be kind to anyone in Toronto.

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.