Jake Muzzin

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.

[Related: Maple Leafs fire Babcock, name Keefe head coach]

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.

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.

Ovechkin walks the walk; Tom Wilson wreaks havoc as Caps beat Leafs

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Alex Ovechkin was the one ruffling feathers heading into Tuesday’s Capitals – Maple Leafs game, yet Tom Wilson created the most controversy.

Overall, Washington’s 4-3 overtime win against Toronto was brimming with storylines:

Alex vs. Auston (and some Carlsson)

It was quite a duel between Ovechkin and Auston Matthews. Matthews started strong by assisting on an Andreas Johnsson goal just 40 seconds into the game, and finished with a goal and two assists. Ovechkin got the last laugh, however, with the overtime winner, finishing the night with a tremendous four-point performance (2G, 2A).

John Carlsson also continued his molten-hot start to 2019-20, scoring Washington’s first two goals. Carlsson now has an absurd 23 points in 14 games.

If you dream up a Capitals – Maple Leafs game from a marketing standpoint, you want stars to deliver, and that’s exactly what Ovechkin, Carlson, Matthews, and Nicklas Backstrom (three assists) did.

More fodder for Tom Wilson debates

The league probably wouldn’t be as excited to mull over more polarizing hits by the Patron Saint of Polarizing Hits, Tom Wilson. Jake Muzzin left Tuesday’s game and did not return following this one:

The more questionable of the two hits was probably this late one on Tyson Barrie:

Wilson was only penalized for the hit on Barrie (charging and roughing), but we’ll see if there is any supplemental discipline. Whether either of those hits were truly bad or just part of the game, Wilson’s made a few more enemies after Tuesday.

TSN’s Mark Masters reports that Mike Babcock said Muzzin’s injury is a charley horse, rather than something knee related, which could end up being a relief. There’s no timeline on his issue, though, so we’ll see.

Work to do

Via The Athletic’s James Mirtle, Babcock remarked, “Holy God there was a lot of penalties.”

Washington ended up going 2-for-7 on the night, with Ovechkin’s OT-winner being one of those PP goals. Toronto ended up 1-for-8.

Babcock aims to clean up the sort of play that Ovechkin criticized, but as he told Masters and others, it’s not something that will happen overnight.

“Well, I don’t know if he’s wrong. He knows because he lived it,” Babcock said. “If you look at Steve Yzerman, he lived it. A lot of the guys live it until they’re 30. You’ve got to decide whether you wait until you’re 30 or do you want to figure it out now …”

Babcock admitted that those comments probably hurt players’ (and his) feelings, they might be part of the learning experience that gets them to where they need to go.

Of course, one can debate how much the Maple Leafs need to change, or how they should change. Would there be success by clamping down — even leaning on the “Yzerman learned to play defense”* bit that’s almost a trope at this point — or, on the other hand, finding ways to fully embrace your offensive-minded talent?

Ovechkin’s experienced that experiment first hand, although it’s easy to forget how much the Capitals went through in getting from the Bruce Boudreau era to the stage where they finally won the Stanley Cup. Washington arguably swung to too much of an extreme, particularly under Dale Hunter, before finding a better mix lately. It also didn’t hurt that they found some other nice players to help make life easier for Ovechkin, Backstrom, and others.

So … basically, the debate about finding the sweet spot between stingy defense and aggressive offense is just about as polarizing as arguments over the latest Tom Wilson hit.

What we do know for sure: Ovechkin and Matthews scored a lot on Tuesday, and the Capitals won 4-3 in OT.

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• 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.

Point shines in return as Lightning dismantle Maple Leafs: 3 takeaways

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The Tampa Bay Lightning were happy to welcome one of their most important players — Brayden Point — back to the lineup on Thursday night and he wasted no time making a huge impact in a 7-3 dismantling of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Three quick takeaways from the Lightning’s big win…

1. That Point contract is going to be a steal for the Lightning 

As soon as the terms of Brayden Point’s three-year contract with the Lightning were revealed it was obvious that it was a huge win for the team. Point is already one of the NHL’s best all-around players thanks to his elite scoring and often times overlooked defensive impact, and at age 23 he is probably still only getting better. After missing the first three games of the season following offseason hip surgery, Point was back in the lineup on Thursday and wasted no time making an impact. He opened the scoring just 2:28 into the first period before adding another goal and an assist later in the game to finish with three points. The line of Point, Steven Stamkos, and Nikita Kucherov was almost unfair with each of them recording at least three points in the win (Stamkos and Kucherov both had four points).

2. The Maple Leafs haven’t exactly erased their defensive concerns just yet

The Maple Leafs have done a lot of work to try and fix their blue line — probably the one Achilles Heel the team had the past few years — by adding a bunch of new faces over the past few months. Jake Muzzin came over from the Los Angeles Kings at the trade deadline, while Tyson Barrie, Cody Ceci, and Rasmus Sandin were all new additions at the start of the season. So far, the early results are not promising. They have now allowed 19 goals through the first five games, including at least three goals in every single home game. We know they can score, and we know the top of their lineup is great, but until they prove otherwise their ability to prevent their opponents from scoring is going to be a significant concern. The common trend with this team over the past few years is that when Frederik Andersen is on his game in net they can look like an unbeatable team. When he is not — as he has yet to be this season — things can quickly start to unravel for them.

3. Pay close attention to Anthony Cirelli this season

Not that the Lightning need another outstanding young player, but they may have one in Cirelli, a second-year forward that chipped in three assists in Thursday’s rout of Toronto. Playing on a 62-win team that had a league MVP and a number of other award winners it was easy for his rookie season to kind of get overlooked. But with 19 goals, 39 totals points, and quite a few Selke Trophy votes (one second place, five third place, 12 fourth place, and 23 fifth place) he has already shown he can be a force all over the ice. Just another impact player for a team that is already full of them.

MORE:
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Tyson Barrie is big x-factor for Maple Leafs

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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.

The Tyson Barrie trade wasn’t just jaw-dropping and an inventive way to steal Free Agency Day headlines; it was also a catalyst for some fascinating debates about how valuable Barrie really is.

Some of the more intriguing Toronto Maple Leafs X-factors boil down to Barrie: how good is he really, and will Mike Babcock manufacture ways to get the most out of him?

If you’re the type to keep things really simple, you’ll note just how prolific a scorer Barrie has been from the blueline, and think that he’s grossly underrated. Barrie managed 59 points in 78 games last season, and had almost as many (57) despite being limited to 68 regular-season contests in 2017-18. Toronto Maple Leafs fans could be forgiven for drooling while imagining how the speedy defenseman’s numbers might translate to an already talented team.

Yet, for those who delve into deeper numbers, Barrie may actually be overrated, and open up a discussion about whether or not he’s much of a net positive for his team. By just about every shot-counting defensive metric, Barrie can at times be a disaster in his own end.

Really, assessing Barrie may come down to questions of taste and priorities. Barrie might be a right-handed shooting version of Roman Josi: a “roving” defenseman who controls the puck a lot, generates results on offense, but who’s overall positive impact can be questioned when you ponder puck possession stats, along with the conundrum: would his team be better off with a forward having the puck on his stick more than Barrie/Josi?

Like Josi, Barrie has shown positive traits when it comes to the transition game. Barrie’s particularly deft at exiting the defensive zone with puck control, as you can see in this All Three Zones chart (by CJ Turtoro with data from Corey Sznajder):

It’s useful to include a comparison to Jake Gardiner for a number of reasons, as Barrie essentially replaces Gardiner in 2019-20.

Barrie might even be a replacement as a go-to scapegoat, honestly. They’re both very useful defensemen who have their flaws, and those flaws get magnified in a harsh market like Toronto. It wouldn’t be one bit shocking if cameras fixated on Barrie during low moments in the same way they seemed glued to Gardiner after Game 7 gaffes.

Yet it’s their one fundamental difference that makes things especially intriguing, and Barrie an X-factor: Gardiner’s a left-handed defenseman, while Barrie shoots with his right.

[MORE: 2018-19 Review | Three Questions | Under Pressure]

Toronto was wise to add Jake Muzzin to a defensive group that saw a huge drop-off after Gardiner and Morgan Rielly, but ultimately, Muzzin was also a tad bit redundant, as all three shoot (and crucially, pass) left-handed.

Even if Barrie might end up being a downgrade from Gardiner, this boost in versatility could be big. It also presents Mike Babcock with a chance to prove that he’s worth the megabucks he’s been receiving from the Maple Leafs.

Theoretically, Babcock could use his experience and system to try to get the best out of Barrie. It’s probably a little much to imagine too much of a “teaching” situation for a defenseman who’s 28, but Babcock could optimize the situation with ideal zone starts, a defensive partner who is adept at denying entries to Toronto’s zone, and finding the right balance between Barrie’s aggressiveness and making safer plays.

Frankly, it’s also just as important that Babcock show patience with Barrie, who’s the type of double-edged sword who could drive a coach mad.

With Barrie entering  a contract year, this is most likely to be a short experiment. We’re very much in “win now” territory for Toronto, though, so Babcock needs to get in the lab and use Barrie as a catalyst for a long-awaited breakthrough.

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.

Kings’ rebuild: Where there’s hope, where they’re stuck

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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 Los Angeles Kings. 

One doesn’t have to strain to think of some rather dire scenarios for the Los Angeles Kings, especially when you look at a salary cap that’s just bursting with ugly contracts.

This post aims for something different by asking: where can the Kings turn things around, and where are they stuck?

Let’s break the situation down by categories.

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

Prospects waiting in the wings

Players like Alex Turcotte will be pushing for roster spots … eventually. In some cases (if Gabriel Vilardi gets unexpected health luck, maybe?), possibly soon. But for this exercise, let’s move along to the guys the Kings should phase out to open up space — roster and cap — for prospects.

The Pillars

If the Kings were ever going to move on from Anze Kopitar or Drew Doughty — dubious at best, anyway — it was going to be before they signed either player to their current deals. Kopitar, soon to be 32, carries a $10M cap hit through 2023-24. Doughty, 29, has an $11M AAV through 2026-27.

That’s scary, but there’s a chance that 2018-19 was an anomaly, and both may age more gracefully going forward.

Probably not moving away from Quick quickly

Kopitar and Doughty share something in common with Jonathan Quick beyond being faces of the franchise: all three players see big salaries in 2019-20, while their salaries at least drop off – sometimes steeply – in future seasons.

That thought leads me to believe that Quick’s most realistic window to be traded would be after this season.

As much as I’d advise the Kings to trade the 33-year-old as soon as possible, another team would find him far more palatable in 2020-21 and beyond. Consider that 2019-20 is the final season where Quick costs more in actual salary ($7M) than his $5.8M cap hit. From 2020-21, his actual salary sinks to $3.5M, then $3M in 2021-22, and finally $2.5M in 2022-23.

A two-time champion goalie whose salary is lower than his cap hit? Now that’s a decent elevator pitch for a trade.

Trade bait

Speaking of players who were once important, the Kings might be wise to move on from contracts with limited term, much like they did with Jake Muzzin.

Tyler Toffoli is entering a contract year, and considering how ice-cold he was in 2018-19, he’d likely fetch the best return during the trade deadline after his production ideally stabilizes. Alec Martinez could be quite enticing as a defenseman who costs an affordable $4M in cap space for the next two seasons. Toffoli is 27 and Martinez is 32, so if the Kings are honest with themselves, they’ll likely both be a little long in the tooth by the time Los Angeles truly sorts things out.

There are players the Kings would more readily trade, but the difference is that other teams would actually want Toffoli and Martinez.

Unlikely to move

Jeff Carter‘s plummet in skill would already make it tough to trade him at his $5M+ cap hit (which runs through 2021-22, yikes). He’s also discussed possibly retiring if he were traded, making a trade even dicier.

Ilya Kovalchuk is equally difficult to trade for anything but a bad contract for bad contract swap, and that’s making the shaky assumption that he’d even waive a no-trade clause.

The bright side with Carter (expiring after 2021-22), Kovalchuk (2020-21), and Dustin Brown (2021-22) is that their contracts are expiring … reasonably soon. Ish.

And, really, with their salaries diving below their cap hits soon, they might actually be good filler if the Kings semi-tank.

***

The Kings have a lot of bad money on the books, so here’s hoping the Dion Phaneuf buyout lingers as a reminder of how costly it can be to go with a quick-fix approach. This team needs a rebuild, and while it doesn’t have the same ammo that the Rangers did with theirs, if you squint, you can see signs of hope.

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.