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Maple Leafs defense with Jake Muzzin out one month
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Can Maple Leafs survive on defense with Muzzin out one month?

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A season of extremes continues for the Maple Leafs, as their defense must find answers with Jake Muzzin out about one month. Muzzin broke his hand blocking a shot, souring Tuesday’s otherwise sweet win against the Lightning.

Everything about the timing fits the soap opera narrative of “As the Maple Leaf turns …”

  • Toronto lost Muzzin for a month in the first game after signing him to a contract extension.
  • It’s also the first game following a trade deadline that mixed the good with the bad. On one hand, it turns out that keeping Tyson Barrie was wise, warts and all. On the other, GM Kyle Dubas’ critics will argue that he still didn’t do enough.
  • Oh yeah, the Maple Leafs follow up this potentially devastating injury with an enormous Thursday game against the Panthers in Florida.

Woof. Dubas is a different cat, so naturally he tweeted out this very Zen approach to dealing with the Muzzin news.

(If you’re like me, you’re imagining Dubas trying to meditate after being thrown under the bus by Toronto media and fans. It’s kind of fun.)

The Maple Leafs defense has been, uh, flawed for some time now. Subtract Muzzin, and put him on an injured list that already includes Morgan Rielly and Cody Ceci, and you might feel very UnDude.

Let’s take a look at the tattered remains of a Maple Leafs defense that may resemble seven wild horses.

Looking at the Maple Leafs defense with Muzzin out

Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston and others shared the Maple Leafs’ defense pairings from practice:

Travis DermottJustin Holl
Rasmus Sandin – Tyson Barrie
Martin MarincinTimothy Liljegren
Extra: Calle Rosen

Do you look at that group as seven wild horses, or seven broken ones? (Don’t make any glue factory jokes, please.)

Long story short, this leaves the Maple Leafs with a relatively inexperienced group.

If you want a glimpse at Toronto’s confidence level in certain players, consider how Sheldon Keefe deployed Sandin on Tuesday. Through two periods, Sandin received just 5:27 time on ice. Once it was clear Muzzin wouldn’t return, Sandin’s ice time skyrocketed to 9:34 during the third period alone.

Dicey stuff, but what’s the best approach, Zen-like, or otherwise? What’s a good mantra for the Leafs going forward?

Accepting reality of the Maple Leafs defense with Muzzin out, and considering Panthers

Despite wildly different approaches and markets, the Maple Leafs and Panthers boast notably similar strengths and weaknesses. After all, they are the only teams in the NHL who’ve scored and allowed 200+ goals so far this season.

So maybe the Maple Leafs should embrace the perception of their most prominent, healthy defenseman in Tyson Barrie, and their perceived identity as a team that needs to outscore their problems, in general?

There’s also the potential silver lining of realizing that players like Sandin and Liljegren might be further along in their respective developments than Toronto realized. Interestingly, Dubas sort of touched on this during his trade deadline presser, before Muzzin was injured.

” … We need to see how our own guys develop,” Dubas said, via Pension Plan Puppets’ transcript. “In a perfect world your own guys develop and quell your concerns you have about the roster and that people on the outside may have about them as well.”

Both Sandin and Liljegren carry pedigree as first-rounders, and have produced some offense at the AHL level. Perhaps they can bring almost as much to the table as they risk taking away with mistakes?

Obstacles, and gauntlets thrown down on top Maple Leafs

When you dig deep on the Maple Leafs’ numbers, you get a more complicated look at their hit-and-miss defense. Either way, they need better goaltending going forward — even if that leads to awkward choices.

No, the Leafs don’t make life easy for Frederik Andersen, but he needs to improve on his .906 save percentage (his -4.25 Goals Saved Above Average points to some fault on his end).

Frankly, it might be just as important that the Maple Leafs show a willingness to turn to Jack Campbell instead. Through four games, Campbell’s generated an impressive .919 save percentage, going 3-0-1.

Of course, the onus is also on their big-money forwards. Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander, and John Tavares have mostly delivered in 2019-20, but the team needs them now more than ever.

The challenge comes in balancing attacking with supporting embattled defensemen. Not hanging them out to dry for icing infractions would be a good place to start:

If patterns continue, there will only be more twists and turns for the Maple Leafs. Maybe they can end up better after facing all of these challenges, but either way, it doesn’t look easy, and might not always be pretty.

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 keep Tyson Barrie, re-sign Jake Muzzin

Maple Leafs
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Trade deadline day isn’t just about the trades that get made. Sometimes the trades that do not get made can just as intriguing and get as much attention. That takes us to Toronto where the pressure is mounting and the walls are seemingly closing in on the Maple Leafs as they fight just to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

In the days leading up to the trade deadline speculation and rumors were circling around defenseman Tyson Barrie and whether or not the Maple Leafs would move him on Monday. But when all was said and done after the 3 p.m. ET trade deadline, Barrie remained with the Maple Leafs on what was a mostly quiet day for the team.

The biggest move they made on Monday was officially re-signing veteran defenseman Jake Muzzin to a four-year, $22.5 million contract extension that will run through the end of the 2023-24 season.

Like Barrie, he would have been eligible for unrestricted free agent this offseason.

Barrie has been under intense scrutiny in Toronto all season after coming over from the Colorado Avalanche in the offseason blockbuster that sent Nazem Kadri the other way. He got off to a miserable start under former coach Mike Babcock, and even though his overall play has improved as the season has gone on he has still found himself in the crosshairs for criticism probably more often than he should be.

Even with his contract situation, trading him never seemed to be a realistic scenario that would improve the team in the short-term or long-term. For one, with Morgan Rielly and Cody Ceci both out of the lineup due to injury the Maple Leafs would have needed to find another defenseman coming back the other way (or in a different trade). That would have been a lot of moving parts and shuffling of deck chairs for probably a minimal upgrade. If any upgrade at all.

As for Muzzin’s deal, he will be 32 years old next season when the contract begins and will pay him through his mid-30s. There is always a risk with that but it’s not an outrageous amount of money for a top-four defenseman that should still have a few good years left in him. With Barrie’s contract expiring after this season, Muzzin and Rielly are the only two defensemen on the roster with a salary cap hit over $2 million for next season. They also figure to get contributions from recent first-round picks Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren in the coming years. Both of them will be on entry-level contracts for the next two years after this season. So there is some flexibility there.

Prior to Monday the Maple Leafs acquired goalie Jack Campbell and forwards Kyle Clifford and Denis Malgin in pre-deadline trades.

MORE: PHT’s Trade deadline live blog

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.

Trade: Kings send Alec Martinez to Golden Knights for draft picks

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The Los Angeles Kings continued to sell off veteran players on Wednesday afternoon while the Vegas Golden Knights got their defensive upgrade.

The Kings have traded veteran defenseman Alec Martinez to the Golden Knights in exchange for a 2020 second-round draft pick as well as a 2021 second-round draft pick that had originally belonged to the St. Louis Blues.

Martinez is signed for one more season at a $4 million salary cap hit, while the Kings are retaining zero salary in the move.

Let’s break this down.

For the Golden Knights

They definitely need some help on the back end. Goal prevention has been a big issue for them this season and it’s been a two-part problem. For one, the goaltending has not been great. Marc-Andre Fleury hasn’t been as consistently good as he has been the past few years, while they still have some major question marks with the depth behind him. But it’s not just on the players in the crease.

They also needed some depth on the blue line in front of them for this season and beyond. Before acquiring Martinez they only had three NHL defensemen under contract for next season (Nate Schmidt, Shea Theodore, and Brayden McNabb). At 32 years old (and with some injury issues the past two seasons) Martinez is not the same player he was a few years ago when he was a key cog in a championship team in Los Angeles, but he should still be an upgrade to a defense that needs some extra help. He is no longer a player you want to rely on to be a top-pairing player (his offense is all but gone and his defensive impact has declined), but the Golden Knights shouldn’t require that level of play from him. He should sitll be an upgrade for the second or third pair, a role that he is probably best suited for on a contending team at this stage of his career.

[MORE: PHT’s 2020 NHL Trade Deadline Tracker]

For the Kings

It is simply something that needed to be done.

This is part of the Kings’ ongoing attempt to turn the page on this core and continue selling off veteran players for future assets. Martinez spent 11 seasons with the team and was a significant contributor to a championship team (scoring a Stanley Cup clinching goal in overtime), but he was one of the veteran players on the team that could bring a solid return. And he did.

The two draft picks now give the Kings 20 draft picks over the next two draft classes, including seven in the first two rounds and 11 over the first three rounds. They also had nine picks in the 2019 draft, including four picks among the top-50. The best way to maximize a return on draft picks for a rebuilding team is to give yourself as many chances as possible to find a player. The Kings will have done that with with three classes between 2019 and 2021, while still having a chance to add even more before Monday’s trade deadline (3 p.m. ET).

The Kings have already traded Tyler Toffoli (Vancouver), Jack Campbell, and Kyle Cliffort (both to Toronto) over the past couple of weeks.

MORE KINGS TRADE COVERAGE:
Kings send Tyler Toffoli to Canucks
Kings trade Jack Campbell, Kyle Clifford to Maple Leafs
• Kings face key stage of rebuild

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.

Kings face key stages of rebuild with trade deadline, 2020 NHL Draft

NBC’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Saturday’s Stadium Series matchup between the Colorado Avalanche and Los Angeles Kings from Falcon Stadium at the U.S. Air Force Academy. Coverage begins at 8 p.m. ET on NBC. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

While the Avalanche hope to become true Stanley Cup contenders, the Kings wonder how to reclaim that form.

The next few months are crucial for both teams, only in dramatically different ways. After looking at Colorado’s climb to contention, let’s ponder how the Kings are handling their rebuild.

Kings get off to strong start with rebuild

Experts already rave about the building blocks the Kings have amassed.

The Athletic’s Scott Wheeler (sub required) and The Hockey Writers’ Josh Bell both ranked the Kings’ farm system number one in recent articles. In fact, Wheeler ranked the Kings first with “no hesitation.”

They seem to be combining quantity with quality. Wheeler’s Athletic colleague Corey Pronman placed six Kings prospects in his top 100 rankings (sub required), with Arthur Kaliyev finishing highest at seventh. Five of those six landed in the top 50 of that list, with Samuel Fagemo barely missing at 53.

You can nitpick elements of that pool, as with just about any. But overall, it seems like the Kings are pressing many of the right buttons. So far.

Trade deadline provides opportunities as Kings rebuild

Rob Blake could accelerate this rebuild with deft trades.

To his credit, he was already aggressive in landing a nice haul for Jake Muzzin last season, and once again extracted a solid package from Toronto in the Jack Campbell trade.

Neither Tyler Toffoli nor Alec Martinez boast the same trade value as Muzzin, but maybe the Kings can seize some opportunities anyway? This year’s deadline market seems pretty shallow, so perhaps Blake may take advantage.

Who should stick around?

Looking further down the line, it’s tough to imagine the Kings shaking loose from Jeff Carter or Dustin Brown. Moving Jonathan Quick also sounds unlikely.

(That said, the Kings should pull the trigger if there are suitors, and if Carter and others would comply.)

Ultimately, your optimism may vary regarding the futures for veteran stars Kopitar (32, $10M AAV through 2023-24) and Doughty (30, $11M AAV through 2026-27). Actually, go ahead and take a moment to wince at those contracts. That’s a natural reaction.

There’s only so much the Kings can do about the aging curve, at least since they already signed the extensions. The Kings could at least take steps to be proactive, though, with hopes that Doughty and/or Kopitar can still help out once the prospects (hopefully) bloom.

Right now, Doughty is averaging almost 26 minutes of ice time per game (25:56) while Kopitar is logging almost 21 (20:46). With the Kings far out of contention, I must ask … why would you run them into the ground? Wouldn’t it be wiser to take measures to keep them fresher for 2020-21 and beyond?

That’s where Todd McLellan creates an interesting dialogue. On one hand, there’s evidence that he’s a good or even very good coach, including in Hockey Viz’s breakdowns. That data argues that McLellan positively impacts his teams on both ends, especially lately:

McLellan HockeyViz

The Kings can’t judge their coach based on structure alone, though. McLellan received some criticism for how he handled young players like Jesse Puljujarvi in Edmonton, so Los Angeles must be wary about McLellan’s development impact.

If McLellan can’t be convinced to scale down minutes for the likes of Doughty and Kopitar (at least after the deadline, in particular), then that’s a contextual problem, too.

Kings need some lottery ball luck for next phase of rebuild

Right now, the Kings rank as the worst team in the West, and second worst in the NHL. The Senators could sink below the Kings and grab the second-best lottery odds:

via NHL.com

Shrewd moves propel rebuilds forward, but luck is crucial, too. As excited as people are about their prospects, the Kings’ rebuild could swing based on getting the chance to draft Alexis Lafreniere, landing another blue-chipper like Quinton Byfield, or slipping just out of the truly elite range.

[Mock Draft for 2020; prospect rankings heading into the season]

Up to this point, the Kings are doing a good job “making their own luck.” Even so, the trade deadline and 2020 NHL Draft represent the biggest make-or-break moments of all.

Kenny Albert, Eddie Olczyk, and Brian Boucher will call the matchup. On-site studio coverage at Air Force Academy will feature Kathryn Tappen hosting alongside analyst Patrick Sharp and reporter Rutledge Wood.

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.

All eyes on Campbell with Andersen out for Maple Leafs

Maple Leafs
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So here’s the situation for the Toronto Maple Leafs this weekend:

  • Starting goalie Frederik Andersen will not play on Friday or Saturday as he continues to deal with a neck injury. He is skating, he is probably not far away from returning, but he is not going to be in the lineup for their games against Anaheim (Friday) or Montreal (Saturday).
  • After losing back-to-back games to Florida and New York to temporarily fall out of a playoff spot there’s a sense of panic oozing out of Toronto. Even more than there usually is after a loss. It is getting intense up there, folks.
  • New backup goalie Jack Campbell, acquired from the Los Angeles Kings almost immediately after the Maple Leafs’ loss in New York on Wednesday, is going to start on Friday, and potentially Saturday as well, as the team desperately tries to find a goalie other than Andersen that can make a save for them.

To say there is already a ton of pressure on Campbell is a definite understatement.

His acquisition from the Kings (along with Kyle Clifford in exchange for Trevor Moore and some draft picks) is already getting more fanfare than your typical backup goalie move because of the team and city he is going to and the situation it is in.

He is not just the new backup goalie.

He is being talked about in the context of potentially having to save their season.

It is at that point that we should point out that while Campbell is a former first-round pick, he is still 28 years old and has only played in 58 NHL games. And never in a situation where he’s been expected to contribute this much to a team with such high expectations. None of this is to say he can not contribute and help. But man, talk about getting thrown right into the deep end of the pool.

The thing is, there is not much hyperbole with anything being said about his new role with the Maple Leafs.

They desperately need him to be good.

Not only as a fill-in for Andersen while he remains out of the lineup in the short-term, but to simply give Andersen an occasional break down the stretch. The Maple Leafs have leaned heavily on Andersen in his three years with the team not only in terms of his workload, but with the way they have played in front of him defensively. They have pretty much ground him down into dust each season by playing him 60-plus games and forcing him to mask their flaws defensively.

By the time the playoffs roll around he’s faced one of the heaviest workloads in the league. Not exactly an ideal situation for a goalie.

At this point there’s little chance of the Maple Leafs dramatically changing their style of play, especially given their roster (nor should they, quite honestly — this is almost how they have to play). But they do need another goalie they can count on to at least give them a chance when Andersen is not available (or needs a night off).

The Maple Leafs have four sets of back-to-backs remaining and multiple stretches where they play as many as four games in six days. Given how tight the playoff race is and how they are pretty much a 50-50 shot to get in at that point, having two goalies they can rely on is a must. It is also something they have simply not had the past two seasons.

Going back to the start of last season the Maple Leafs are 14-23-2 when Andersen does not play, while their backup goalies have managed only an .896 save percentage. That includes Michael Hutchinson‘s performance this season that has been among the worst of any goaltender in the league.

Now it’s Campbell’s turn to try to fill that spot.

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.