Auston Matthews

Bargain star MacKinnon says he’d take less money again to help Avalanche win

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If you could choose one active NHL player to build a team around, who would it be?

In a vacuum, the answer should be obvious: Connor McDavid. Yet, when you consider salary cap realities, the choice gets fuzzier thanks to the absolutely ludicrous bargain the Colorado Avalanche are enjoying with Nathan MacKinnon.

With all due respect to the steals teams like the Bruins enjoy with David Pastrnak, you can’t really beat the bang for the buck the Avalanche get for MacKinnon (unless you try to cheat with rookie contracts, which: tsk, tsk).

MacKinnon, 24, is currently in the fourth season of a contract that carries an outrageously team-friendly AAV of just $6.3M, and delightfully for Colorado, that deal won’t expire until after the 2022-23 season. That cap hit is barely more than half of the $12.5M AAV McDavid carries, and frankly, McDavid is worth every penny of the league maximum. (And MacKinnon likely deserves something in that range, too.)

You have to wonder if MacKinnon must want to fire his agent after seeing players like Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner cashing in on their second deals, but the speedy Avalanche center mostly shrugged it off — though with some humor — telling Forbes’ Jordan Horrobin that, in the grand scheme of things, MacKinnon has “no regrets” about signing his contract.

After all, MacKinnon is doing just fine, with Cap Friendly estimating his career earnings at $27.025M so far. Yes, MacKinnon deserves more, but unless Elon Musk or Bill Gates is reading this post, you’d agree that it’s a good problem to have.

Even so, fans of teams with stars on less team-friendly contracts likely feel jealous when they see MacKinnon ripping through defenses at a cut rate. Those fans may grit their teeth, then, while Avs fans may want to throw up confetti when they realize that MacKinnon indicated to Horrobin that he’d sacrifice some dollars on his next contract if it helped the Avalanche win big.

“We have guys that we wouldn’t (otherwise) be able to bring in,” MacKinnon said. “On my next deal, I’ll take less again. Because I want to win with this group.”

Now, sure, “less” is likely to be a relative term. Maybe it would mean that MacKinnon would “settle” for a bit less than whatever the maximum salary would be. The league’s salary structure and revenues could really blossom by 2022 (the first summer where MacKinnon could sign an extension) or after 2022-23, when his deal expires. Or maybe MacKinnon would follow his buddy Sidney Crosby and give the Avalanche another extreme sweetheart deal.

And, obviously, things can change fast. The Avalanche could fall off the rails compared to their current seemingly skyrocketing upward trajectory, or MacKinnon could clash with management, making the prospect of leaving even more money on the table far less palatable down the line.

But the concept of getting another value contract with MacKinnon is ultimately extremely promising for the Avs.

After all, this bursting group of young talent figures to become pretty costly down the line. Cale Makar is already flirting with superstar status, and he’ll need a second contract after 2020-21. Philipp Grubauer only has two more years on his active contract, too, and could prove he’s worth far more than his current $3.33M AAV. Gabriel Landeskog‘s contract expires during that same offseason.

You can see how the belt could really tighten for the Avalanche down the line, and while MacKinnon should command a huge raise whenever he inks his next contract, it sounds like he might be willing to compromise to try to win a Stanley Cup (or, perhaps if he parallels Crosby in more than just taking less money for the team, winning multiple Stanley Cups).

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.

Marner to play first Leafs game since Babcock drama (and Tuesday’s mini-meltdown)

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When it comes to a team’s 30th game of an 82-game regular season, you couldn’t ask for much more sizzle than what the Toronto Maple Leafs could provide against the Colorado Avalanche on Wednesday.

The Maple Leafs activated winger Mitch Marner, setting the stage for the crafty winger to play since Nov. 9, when Marner suffered a high-ankle sprain against the Philadelphia Flyers.

An eventful month

To put things mildly, a lot happened since Marner’s unpleasant-looking injury:

That 3-2 shootout loss to the Flyers began what would be a six-game losing streak for the Maple Leafs, and represented the end of the Mike Babcock era in Toronto. It wasn’t, of course, the end of Babcock-related drama, however, as reports surfaced about Babcock playing mind games with Marner during his rookie season, and all that “hardest working players list” entailed.

Since then, there have been a wave of stories about coaches exhibiting abusive behavior (either physically, verbally, or sometimes a mix of the two), with the Calgary Flames parting ways with Bill Peters, Marc Crawford placed on leave from the Blackhawks, and plenty of other reverberations.

Akim Aliu stated that he expects “big changes” around hockey (and the NHL in particular) following a meeting with the league, but time will ultimately tell.

Either way, Babcock’s firing and that rookie-year story should fix even more eyes on Marner than usual, which is saying something considering all of the attention his offseason contract negotiations received.

A fuller view of the new-look Maple Leafs

Sheldon Keefe won his first three games as coach of the Maple Leafs, but the Buds have since stumbled in their last three games, going 1-2-0. Things ended on an extremely sour note on Tuesday, as the Maple Leafs experienced a bit of meltdown late in a 6-1 loss against the Flyers.

Auston Matthews said “we can’t fold like that,” while Keefe agreed that the Maple Leafs let Frederik Andersen out to dry, stating that “hopefully it is the shakeup that we would need.”

It doesn’t figure to be easy. The Avalanche are on a three-game winning streak, boast players like Nazem Kadri who will be pumped to play against his former team in Toronto, and are rested (their last game was on Saturday) while Toronto is closing out a back-to-back. The Maple Leafs have struggled lately in such back-to-back sets, at least stemming from Babcock’s days.

Watching Marner himself

Pension Plan Puppets points out that Marner is coming back basically as early as possible (assuming he doesn’t have any setbacks before Wednesday’s game).

Getting Marner back should be a thrill, and again, a nice opportunity to get a better picture of what GM Kyle Dubas truly envisions as his team now that he doesn’t have to clash with Babcock’s competing style.

But how close to 100 percent will Marner be? While his most treasured ability is his world-class playmaking, Marner is also known for outstanding edgework and agility, using his elusiveness to thrive as a smaller player (rather than Nathan MacKinnon-class speed). You have to wonder if recovering from a high-ankle sprain might at least hinder some of his skating strength.

That said, Marner will still have the vision and anticipation that makes him such a great passer. Jake Muzzin pointed out the way Marner processes the game, and while there could be a bit of rust there, chances are he’ll give Toronto another gear.

“His reads without the puck,” Muzzin said when asked where Marner’s hockey IQ really shines. “I feel like he’s one step ahead of the puck out there when he’s on. He’s got great vision with the puck, but picking guys and reading passes before they happen, he’s right up there with the best.”

Maybe the Maple Leafs will be a little tired on Tuesday, and maybe Marner won’t be quite there physically, but it still feels like we’ll get a better idea of what this team (and player) is capable of now that Babcock is no longer in the picture.

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 hoping ‘sour’ taste from rough loss leads to wake-up call

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PHILADELPHIA — During a pregame media availability on Tuesday, Maple Leafs forward Andreas Johnsson described the adjustment period so far under new head coach Sheldon Keefe as “a little up and down.”

“We have good periods and then we have bad periods,” Johnsson said. “Whenever you play you’re going to have bad periods because the other team is good, too. [We want to make them shorter] when it doesn’t go your way.”

The Maple Leafs had a good opening period against the Flyers Tuesday night, peppering Carter Hart with 15 shots. But they couldn’t crack the netminder, and while they managed to even the score at one midway through the third period, thanks to a fortuitous bounce, the rest of that final period? Mark that down as one of those “bad periods” Johnsson was talking about.

Eighty-eight seconds after Travis Dermott’s tying goal, Claude Giroux scored to help the Flyers regain the lead. 

That’s when the wheels fell off.

As the Maple Leafs pushed for an equalizer, poor puck containment in the offensive zone led to a two-on-one break the other way with Travis Konecny leading the charge. As Konecny’s shot was making its way through Frederik Andersen’s five hole, the goaltender knew he was beat and threw his head back in frustration.

After Joel Farabee put in an empty-netter to make it 4-1, Andersen went back in net for the final two minutes and promptly surrendered two goals in 12 seconds as the Flyers were 6-1 victors.

“We still had a couple minutes left, but we let in that empty net goal and I mean, we can’t just fold like that,” said Auston Matthews. “It’s unacceptable to do that to our starting goalie, a guy that’s stolen games for us. He’s been a brick wall for us all year. That’s just unacceptable on our part. We can’t just fold, that’s unacceptable. We just let him out to dry, breakaway, two-on-ones, odd man rushes all in the last minute and suddenly the score is 6-1, so that’s on us. That just can’t happen.”

The Maple Leafs netminder wasn’t happy with his teammates’ performance in the final five minutes. As soon as the buzzer sounded, he made a bee-line for the tunnel.

“I don’t really worry about me. I worry more about the way we played for the logo on the jersey,” Andersen said afterward. “I think we’ve got to get more pride than that. Hopefully we can respond and show what kind of character we have.”

(Andersen also sounded off on the lackluster effort of his teammates two years following a loss to the Flyers. )

Keefe had some things to say to his players afterward as he went into the dressing room and spoke to the team following the game, something he hasn’t done since taking over for Mike Babcock two weeks ago.

“Normally I would not go in after a loss or a game like this but I felt like it was important to address that situation,” Keefe said. “We want to be a team of high character and that cares for one another and I thought we just left our goaltender completely out to dry there and stopped playing, so that’s not a good sign for our group, but hopefully it is the shakeup that we would need. 

“I think as I look back on the game as that third period is unfolding, I think we saw two different teams. One that has kind of figured out how to win and know what their recipe is and another on our side that’s trying to find its way. I think that’s the difference in the game.”

The Maple Leafs are still learning Keefe’s system and Keefe is still learning his players’ tendencies and the strengths and weaknesses of their games. There’s plenty to clean up defensively, and that’s the goal in the coming weeks. They’re now 4-2-0 since the coaching change and now isn’t the time to lose the early momentum gained from firing Babcock.

“I think over time I’m starting to learn that a little bit of where we’re at and we’ll continue to make strides, but we don’t have a whole lot of time here,” Keefe said. “We’re going to get right back at it with a very good team [Colorado] waiting for us in Toronto. 

“We’ve got to regroup here really quickly and hopefully the way this game finished will leave a sour enough taste in our mouth that we’ll be coming out [Wednesday] and show we’re a different group.”

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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.

Can anyone catch David Pastrnak in goal scoring race?

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For the past 12 years the NHL’s goal scoring crown has been dominated by the same small group of players.

  • Washington Capitals forward Alex Ovechkin has won it outright eight different times, including six of the past seven years. One day the award might even be named after him.
  • Sidney Crosby and Steven Stamkos have won it outright one team each, and then shared it one other time (the 2009-10 season when they both scored 51 goals).
  • Corey Perry won it once during the 2010-11 season.

And that has been it for 12 years.

But this season there seems to be a new player getting ready to break that cycle of dominance as Boston Bruins forward David Pastrnak has raced out to a massive lead on the goal leaderboard. After his hat trick on Tuesday night in a rout of the Montreal Canadiens, Pastrnak has already scored 23 goals in his first 24 games this season. As of Wednesday he has a five-goal lead on the next closest player (Edmonton Oilers forward Connor McDavid), even though he has played in two fewer games. That is already a gigantic edge and leads to this question: Assuming Pastrnak stays reasonably healthy this season, is there anyone in the league that can catch him?

It would take quite an effort.

First, just look at the current goal-pace for each of the top-10 goal-per-game players in the league so far this season (minimum 20 games played):

  • David Pastrnak, Boston Bruins: 78 goals
  • Brad Marchand, Boston Bruins: 58 goals
  • Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers: 56 goals
  • Auston Matthews, Toronto Maple Leafs: 52 goals
  • Leon Draisiatl, Edmonton Oilers: 50 goals
  • Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche: 50 goals
  • Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals: 49 goals
  • Jack Eichel, Buffalo Sabres: 47 goals
  • Evander Kane, San Jose Sharks: 45 goals
  • Artemi Panarin, New York Rangers: 45 goals

At their current projections Pastrnak would score 20 more goals than any other player in the NHL this season over 82 games, which would be a completely insane lead. Having said that, you probably should not expect Pastrnak to maintain that pace or score more than 70 goals this season. It is just not realistic, and at some point he is going to slow down. Only eight players in NHL history have scored more than 70 goals in a season and it hasn’t happened since the 1992-93 season, while the majority of those efforts came during the 1980s when nearly every team had somebody scoring 50 goals every year.

You also have to consider that Pastrnak has scored on more than 23 percent of his shots this season, and for as great as he is that number is probably going to regress as the season goes on and he hits the sort of inevitable drought that no player is immune to.

Along with that spike in shooting percentage he is also averaging a career-best four shots on goal per game, and when you put those two numbers factors together you get the current run he is on.

Over the previous three seasons he was a 15 percent shooter and averaged around 3.5 shots per game. So let’s say he regressed a bit from his current numbers and averaged the 3.5/15% for the remaining 58 games of the Bruins’ season. That would give him an additional 30 goals on top of what he has already scored this season, for a total of 53 goals — still higher than all but two projections on the list above (Marchand and McDavid).

If he is able to maintain that four shots per game average and maintains a 15 percent average that would still put him at 57 goals for the season, ahead of every above projection except Marchand (and even Marchand, currently scoring on 27 percent of his shots, is due for a second have regression).

In short, as long as Pastrnak stays reasonably healthy and manages to score goals at a pace similar to what he did over the previous three full seasons it is going to take a herculean effort from someone else in the league to overtake him.

After more than a decade it seems like the NHL’s goal scoring crown is finally on the verge of going to a new face.

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.

Underachieving Maple Leafs needed this change

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It was probably overdue.

It probably should have happened over the summer in the wake of another postseason disappointment, and before the 2019-20 season was allowed to turn into the bitter disappointment it has been.

But when the Toronto Maple Leafs fired head coach Mike Babcock on Wednesday, replacing him with Sheldon Keefe, they finally made the biggest change they needed to allow the organization to take the next step in its development the city — and NHL as a whole — has been waiting for it to take.

This isn’t to say that Babcock is a bad coach (he is probably not), or that he will not find a new team in the coming months or years and find success (he might).

But it was becoming increasingly clear that he was the wrong coach for this particular team and roster, and that it was never going to get where it should be without some kind of a drastic change.

When Babcock joined the Maple Leafs for the start of the 2015-16 season it was at a time when they were at one of their lowest points in franchise history. There had been just one playoff appearance in 10 years, the NHL roster was completely devoid of talent, and they didn’t yet know who their long-term impact players would be. Babcock’s hiring was one of the cornerstones of the rebuild, and by signing him to a massive 8-year, $50 million contract it was a clear sign the Maple Leafs were willing to flex their financial muscle and spare no expense in the areas where the league could not limit their spending.

It was also at a time when Babcock’s reputation as a coach still placed him not only among the league’s elite, but probably at the very top of the mountain.

It seemed to be the right move at the right time.

But a lot has changed in the years since.

For one, Babcock’s reputation isn’t as pristine as it once was. It has been 10 years since he has finished higher than third place in his division (2010-11 season). It has been eight years since he has advanced beyond Round 1 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs (2012-13). In that time there have been 28 different coaches that have won a playoff series in the league, including two (Mike Yeo and Barry Trotz) that have won playoff series’ with multiple teams.

If you wanted, you could try and find reasons for that lack of success. His team’s in Detroit at the end were getting older and losing their core players to an inevitable decline and retirement. His first years in Toronto were taking over the aforementioned mess left behind by the previous regime, and if anything those early Maple Leafs teams may have even overachieved.

All of that is true. It is also true to say that almost any other coach with that recent resume of third-place finishes and first round exits probably wouldn’t have had the leash that Babcock had. They would have been fired two years ago.

As the talent level dramatically increased in Toronto, the expectations should have changed as well. This is no longer a young team going through a rebuild where just making the playoffs is an accomplishment. This is a team of established NHL Players — All-Star level players — that should be capable of more than what they have accomplished. Not only has that not happened, but all indications were that the team was going in the wrong direction.

Last year’s Maple Leafs team won fewer games and collected fewer points than the previous year’s team despite gaining John Tavares and Jake Muzzin and getting a breakout year from Mitch Marner.

This year’s Maple Leafs team has one of the worst records in the league at the one quarter mark and has seen the once dynamic offense turn ordinary, relying on harmless point shots from defensemen.

And that doesn’t even get into the biggest issue, which was the apparent disconnect between his style and the style of the front office and roster. The Maple Leafs are built for offense, and speed, and skill, and defending by attacking and playing with the puck. Everything that came out of Babcock was always about grinding down, and defending, and you can’t score your way to a championship.

There is not any one way to win in the NHL. Some teams win with speed and skill, others win with defense. The most important thing is to play to your strength and do what you do well. The Maple Leafs are not doing that. Talk about the makeup of their defense or the way they defend all you want, but it still comes down to whether they are playing to their strengths. You can’t take a team built around John Tavares, Marner, Auston Matthews, and William Nylander and ask it to win 2-1 every night. You are wasting them by doing that and you will fail. You have to turn them loose and let them do what they do best. Babcock never seemed able or willing to trust them to do that.

Whether or not this sparks the Maple Leafs to turn their season around and go on a championship run like Pittsburgh in 2009 and 2016, or Los Angeles in 2012, or St. Louis in 2019 remains to be seen. But Keefe has coached many of the players in Toronto before, he has coached them to play a certain way, and he has won with them.

Now he gets a chance to do it on the biggest stage.

Maybe it works. Maybe it doesn’t. But the worst thing that happens is they fall short and underachieve, something they were already doing anyway. At least now they get to go down taking their best swings.

MORE:
Maple Leafs fire Babcock, name Keefe head coach
Where will Mike Babcock end up after Maple Leafs?

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.