Jake Muzzin

Maple Leafs
Getty

Maple Leafs’ defense gets some help with Muzzin return

Leave a comment

Finally some good news for the Toronto Maple Leafs’ defense.

The team announced on Monday that it has activated defenseman Jake Muzzin from injured reserve ahead of their game against the Nashville Predators.

Muzzin, 31, has not played since Dec. 27 due to a foot injury.

He is one of the Maple Leafs’ best defensive players, and it is not a coincidence that the team struggled in his absence, winning just four of the 10 games. When combined with the recent injury to Morgan Rielly it left the Maple Leafs without two of their top-three defensemen. That is going to be a problem for any team, but especially one that is already lacking defensively even when it is fully healthy.

Muzzin is one of the 10 players we identified as being able to play a big role in the second half playoff race.

His return comes at a pretty good time for a Maple Leafs team that still has a lot of work to do in the second half if it is going to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Even with their improved play under new coach Sheldon Keefe (the league’s sixth-best record since Keefe took over) they still enter Monday’s game four points out of a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. They do have a little bit of an opportunity to make some noise over the next couple of weeks as only four of the next 11 games come against teams currently in a playoff position. One of those games is against the Florida Panthers, the team directly above them in the Atlantic Division standings.

The Maple Leafs acquired Muzzin exactly one year ago from the Los Angeles Kings. He is eligible for unrestricted free agency after this season, but said on Monday he would love to re-sign with the 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.

The 10 players that will impact NHL playoff race in second half

NHL Playoffs
Getty
Leave a comment

With the NHL All-Star break wrapping up and the second half of the 2019-20 season ready to begin, we are taking a look at some of the players, coaches, and general managers that could have the biggest impact on the Stanley Cup Playoff races and which teams end up making the postseason.

Here, we focus on 10 players that could stand out the most.

For the six coaches and general managers that could make the biggest impact, click here.

1. Elvis Merzlikins (Goalie), Columbus Blue Jackets. You don’t have to dig very deep to figure out how the Blue Jackets have exceeded all preseason expectations and played their way back into a playoff spot: It’s the goaltending. For as good as Joonas Korpisalo was to start the year, the play of Merzlikins is what has really helped turn this season around.

Since taking over in place of the injured Korpisalo, Merzlikins is 9-2-0 in his 11 starts (Matiss Kivlenieks also won a start in the middle of that stretch) with a save percentage well over .940. The Blue Jackets don’t score a lot of goals, they don’t have a ton of resources to deal from to strengthen the roster at the deadline, and while Zach Werenski and Seth Jones are both great defensemen, the team surrenders a lot of shots and doesn’t have great defensive metrics. But goaltending is the great equalizer in hockey and right now it is making all the difference for Columbus.

2. Sergei Bobrovsky (Goalie), Florida Panthers. While the Blue Jackets have found a tandem that works in net, their former goalie has made a very different impact with his new team. A bad one. There is plenty of reason for Panthers fans to finally be excited about their team, and they do enter the post-All-Star break stretch with a solid playoff footing despite the early struggles of Bobrovsky. He doesn’t have to be the Vezina Trophy goalie he was earlier in his career, but if he can bounce back in the second half the Panthers could become a very dangerous team given the strength of their offense.

3. Johnny Gaudreau (Forward), Calgary Flames. The Flames have regressed this season after finishing the 2018-19 season as the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference. At the center of that regression is an offense that has gone from being one of the league’s highest scoring, to one of its lowest scoring. With only five goals in his first 29 games Gaudreau was a big factor in that team-wide decline offensively. He is currently on pace for the worst offensive output of his career, but over the past month or two has really started to show signs of breaking out and getting back to being the offensive difference-maker he is. If that continues down the stretch it could make all the difference in the Pacific Division.

4-5. Jake Muzzin and Tyson Barrie (Defensemen), Toronto Maple Leafs. Everyone knows the Maple Leafs’ flaw. Everyone knows the issue. It is defense. With Morgan Rielly sidelined for at least two months, the Maple Leafs are going to need Muzzin and Barrie to be great. Muzzin, probably the team’s best defensive player, has been sidelined since late December and it’s not a coincidence the team has struggled since then. Barrie was a huge offseason pickup, but has not yet met expectations. A healthy Muzzin and Barrie making the impact the Maple Leafs had hoped for would go a long way toward not only solidifying the Maple Leafs’ playoff hopes, but also giving them a chance to finally make a run beyond the first round.

6. Carter Hart (Goalie), Philadelphia Flyers. His first full season has had some inconsistencies to it, and he is currently sidelined with an injury, but Hart has the upside and ability to impact the Flyers’ playoff chances more than any other individual player on the roster. He and Brian Elliott both have league average numbers this season, but Hart showed last year as a rookie (and has at times this season) that he is capable of far more than that. If he can get to that level on a regular basis there is no reason this can not be a playoff team, even in the wildly competitive Metropolitan Division.

7. Taylor Hall (Forward), Arizona Coyotes. The Coyotes made their big trade deadline acquisition months before the actual deadline, and Hall gives them the exact type of difference-maker they have needed up front. If Antti Raanta and Darcy Kuemper are healthy, the Coyotes have the goaltending to win with a very good defense in front of them. They can shut teams down. The one thing they lacked was a top-line scorer. Hall provides that and seems to be settling in with 12 points in his past nine games. He carried the Devils to a playoff spot two years ago in his most recent fully healthy season, and he has a much better supporting cast on this team.

8. Jaccob Slavin (Defenseman), Carolina Hurricanes. Dougie Hamilton is most likely done for the season, and you simply can not replace what he has done this season, especially offensively. He has been arguably the best all around defenseman in the league so far. There is no trade to be made to add that back. There is no player sitting in the press box or player in the AHL that can step in and do it. Slavin is the Hurricanes’ best defensive player (and one of the best in the NHL), and without Hamilton in the lineup he becomes their biggest offensive presence on the blue line as well. That is a big role, but he should be capable of filling it.

9. Jean-Gabriel Pageau (Forward), Ottawa Senators — for now. He does not play for a playoff team just yet, but he will. With Hall already traded and the Rangers not necessarily guaranteed to trade Chris Kreider, Pageau might be the biggest name available on the trade market and he would be a significant add to any contender given his two-way play. He provides a shutdown defensive game as a second-or third-line center while also being on pace for more than 30 goals this season. Every playoff team in the league could find a use for a player like that, and he could be the type of secondary player that changes a game or two in the playoffs.

10. Dustin Byfuglien (Defenseman), Winnipeg Jets. On one hand, if he was going to play this season it seems like there would be more progress toward that right now. So maybe this is a long shot. But, if he did return it would be quite an add to a Jets defense that needs all the help it can get. They have managed to stay in the race for more than half of the season with a makeshift defense. They have the forwards, they have the goalie, they just need help on the blue line and there remains the possibility for a top-pairing player to walk through the door at some point. It would help.

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.

PHT Morning Skate: 20 trade candidates; Can Josi win Norris?

Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• The Leafs are about to face a stiff test without Jake Muzzin and Morgan Rielly. (The Hockey News)

• To overcome those injuries, the Leafs will have to rally together. (TSN)

• Sportsnet has 20 trade deadline candidates that you’ll hear about between now and the end of February. (Sportsnet)

• The department of player safety couldn’t have handled the Kassian – Tkachuk situation much worse. (Vancourier)

P.K. Subban isn’t planning on asking for a trade out of New Jersey. (NHL.com)

• Canadiens rookie Nick Suzuki is adapting to life as an NHLer. (Montreal Gazette)

• Mile High Hockey provides us with a 2020 Mock Draft. No surprises at the top of this list. (Mile High Hockey)

• With Tuukka Rask injured, who will the Bruins call up in his place? (Stanley Cup of Chowder)

• The Leafs can and should acquire Alexandar Georgiev from the Rangers. (Leafs Nation)

• Can Roman Josi win the Norris Trophy this season? (On the Forecheck)

• It looks like the Sharks are starting to turn things around. (NBC Sports Bay Area)

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Maple Leafs’ Morgan Rielly out 8 weeks with fractured foot

Maple Leafs Rielly
Getty
2 Comments

The Toronto Maple Leafs’ 8-4 loss to the Florida Panthers on Sunday evening ended up being a lot worse than just an ugly final score.

It also cost them their top defenseman for the next two months.

The Maple Leafs announced on Monday that Morgan Rielly is going to be sidelined for at least the next eight weeks after fracturing his foot in Sunday’s game.

He will immediately be placed on injured reserve and re-evaluated in eight weeks.

The team also announced that Rasmus Sandin, their first-round pick in 2018, has been recalled from the Toronto Marlies of the American Hockey League.

A questionable defense gets even worse

There is no way to sugarcoat this for the Maple Leafs, it is a significant loss.

They are already thin on the blue line and were probably going to need add another player before the trade deadline even when they were healthy. Now they are going to have to find a way to replace their best defenseman for two months in the middle of a playoff push. Adding to their problems is that Jake Muzzin, one of their other top defensemen, is also currently sidelined on a week-to-week basis due to a foot injury of his own.

Sandin is a fine prospect and has been having a great season in the AHL, but the Maple Leafs’ defense is in shambles right now.

Their current list of healthy defensemen: Tyson Barrie, Travis Dermott, Justin Holl, Martin Marincin, Cody Ceci, and Sandin.

That is, quite simply, not a very good NHL defense. Especially for a team that is supposed to be a Stanley Cup contender. They are going to need a huge push from Frederik Andersen in goal to mask that.

The Maple Leafs have been one of the hottest teams in the league under new coach Sheldon Keefe, but because of their slow start they still have just a two-point cushion in the playoff race.

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 Fantasy Hockey: Killorn, Schwartz highlight this week’s best adds

Welcome to our weekly Adds/Drops column, where I focus on highlighting players you should consider grabbing or be concerned about in fantasy leagues. As always, the goal here isn’t to recommend 10 players you must add and five players that need to be dropped. Context is everything and the context of each league is different. What this is instead is a guideline so that if you’re looking to make a change, you have potential players to target and if you see players I’ve suggested to drop, you can evaluate your potential alternates.

Players Worth Adding

Jaden Schwartz, Blues – LW: The 2018-19 campaign was a rough one for Schwartz, but he’s he’s more than making it for it this season. After being limited to 11 goals and 36 points in 69 contests last season, he already has 13 goals and 34 points in 40 games this time around. Part of that is thanks to his current hot streak though. He has four goals and 11 points in his last six games. He’ll certainly need to be re-evaluated after he cools down, but as long as he’s this hot he’s an easy pickup for those who can make the space.

Jake Virtanen, Canucks – RW: Virtanen is red hot right now with five goals and eight points in eight games. That makes him worthy of consideration at the moment, but I do caution that you should regard only as a short-term option. He averages just 12:19 minutes with Vancouver and has never been a major offensive contributor, so the odds of him being a significant fantasy asset in standard leagues for the rest of the season is low. All that said, I still like him as a short-term gamble. I recommend waiting until Wednesday before picking him up given that the Canucks are off until Thursday anyways. Then Vancouver will play against Chicago on Jan. 2nd, the Rangers on Jan. 4th, and Tampa Bay on Jan. 7th, which are all teams in the bottom half of the league in terms of goals allowed per game.

Alex Killorn, Lightning – LW/RW: Killorn had just two assists in his first six games, but he’s been great since then with 13 goals and 29 points in his last 29 contests. Over that 29-game span, he’s never gone more than two games in a row without recording a point. It’s true that Killorn was limited to 40 points last season, but his playing time has jumped from an average of 14:52 minutes in 2018-19 to 18:22 minutes this season. He’s still only owned in 48% of Yahoo leagues, so if he’s available for you then you should seriously consider grabbing him.

Tony DeAngelo, Rangers – D: DeAngelo is just someone to consider in general right now. He’s only owned in half of all Yahoo leagues despite having a very healthy eight goals and 28 points in 38 games. He’s been regularly chipping in throughout the season, never going more than two games in a row without getting a point. DeAngelo had 30 points in 61 games last season and with the strides he’s taken in 2019-20, he looks like he might be a great offensive defenseman for many years to come.

Tanner Pearson, Canucks – LW: Pearson has two goals and five points in his last three games, so he’s pretty hot right now, but beyond that he should be regarded as a good injury replacement, should you need one. Pearson isn’t going to turn heads for any prolonged period of time, but he’s a solid secondary scorer with 11 goals and 27 points in 40 games. If you’re hurting for a left winger at any point during the season, he’s a good fallback option until either you get healthy or you find an alternate solution, say on the trade market.

Sami Vatanen, Devils – D: I wouldn’t own Vatanen all the time, especially given how hot-and-cold he’s been so far, but he’s worth picking up during his hot streaks. He’s on one such run right now with a goal and seven points in his last six contests. It doesn’t hurt that the Devils also won’t be lacking for games in the short-term with them set to play eight times from Dec. 31-Jan. 14.

Ryan Strome, Rangers – C/RW: For years Strome has had potential, but hasn’t been able to live up to it. After struggles with the Islanders and Oilers though, it seems like he’s found his way with the Rangers. He has 10 goals and 35 points in 38 contests this season. Of course, it helps a great deal that he’s averaging 19:34 minutes in 2019-20, which is by far a career-high for him. That increased ice time makes the notion of him surpassing the 60-point milestone this season seem feasible and with him still available in slightly over half of all Yahoo leagues, you should give serious consideration towards adding him if you have the option.

Nikita Gusev, Devils – LW/RW: Gusev was an elite player in the KHL, but he’s been slow to getting going in his first North American season. He had five goals and 14 points in his first 29 games while averaging a modest 13:25 minutes. He’s managed to hit his stride recently though with two goals and eight points in his last six contests. He only averaged 14:12 minutes over that six-game span, so his ice time remains unimpressive, but there’s a real chance that he’ll have a strong second half as he gets used to North American hockey. If nothing else he’s an interesting short-term pickup, but this is one player you might end up holding onto for the remainder of the campaign.

Alex Iafallo, Kings – LW: Iafallo had 25 points as a rookie and 33 points in his sophomore campaign. With six goals and 21 points in 41 games this season, he’s well on his way to taking another step forward, but he’s still not a great option in standard fantasy leagues. In the short-term though, he’s not a bad gamble given that he’ll be going into Tuesday’s contest against Philadelphia on a four-game point streak. I wouldn’t recommend keeping him much beyond this point streak though so be prepared to swap him with a different option once he cools down.

Lucas Wallmark, Hurricanes – C: As is the case with Iafallo, Wallmark is a player who typically isn’t worth having on your squad, but is of temporary use given how hot he is. In the case of Wallmark, he has four goals and eight points in his last six games. If you have a slot open for a short-term pick and are debating between Wallmark and Iafallo, it really does just come down to positioning. Which forward position do you more need to fill over the next week or so? 

Players You May Want To Drop

Jake Muzzin, Maple Leafs – D: Muzzin has been okay, but not great offensively this season with three goals and 13 points in 38 games. I’d could still see the benefit of holding onto him under normal circumstances, but he hasn’t done enough to just hanging onto him while he’s recovering from the broken foot he sustained on Friday. Circle back to him once he’s healthy and if he’s still available at that time, consider picking him back up, but for now I’d drop him if the alternative on my team was him occupying a bench slot.

Jeff Skinner, Sabres – C/LW: Similar to Muzzin, Skinner is a recently injured player that I don’t think it’s worth holding onto for the duration of the injury. I feel stronger about Skinner than Muzzin though because I’d lean towards parting ways with him regardless. In fact, I recommended dropping Skinner two weeks ago while he was still healthy. Skinner scored 40 goals last season, but he’s fallen back to Earth in 2019-20 with 11 goals and 19 points in 39 games. Now that he’s set to miss the next three-to-four weeks with an upper-body injury, the chances of him bouncing back in any significant way this season have been further diminished.

James Neal, Oilers – LW/RW: Neal got off to an amazing start with nine goals and 10 points in his first eight games, but since then he’s been nothing special. Over his last 10 contests, he has two goals and three points and overall he has 16 goals and 23 points in 41 games even with that stunning start accounted for. If you picked up Neal early on hoping that the switch from Calgary to Edmonton would lead to sustained success, you should cut your losses at this point.

Andre Burakovsky, Avalanche – LW/RW: Burakovsky has enjoyed some big hot streaks this season. From Oct. 10-18 he had four goals and seven points in five games and from Nov. 14-23 he scored six goals and nine points in five contests. The problem is that he’s been very inconsistent with lows that have matched those highs. He has a goal and no assists over his last nine games. Keep an eye out for him for his next hot streak, but don’t bother holding onto him in the meantime.

Antti Raanta, Coyotes – G: Darcy Kuemper suffered a lower-body injury on Dec. 19th and was regarded as week-to-week as a result. It was a blow to the Coyotes, but it was also an opportunity for Raanta, who had been relegated to the backup role.  Unfortunately Raanta hasn’t taken advantage of the opportunity thus far. He’s 0-3-0 with a 4.37 GAA and .877 save percentage in his last three starts. It made sense to give Raanta a try, but it might be best at this point to look elsewhere for goaltending help.

If you’re looking for fantasy hockey information, Rotoworld is a great resource. You can check the player news for the latest information on any player and insight into their fantasy outlook.

Every week Michael Finewax looks ahead at the schedule and offers team-by-team notes in The Week Ahead. I have a weekly Fantasy Nuggets column where I basically talk about whatever’s captured my attention that week. Gus Katsaros does an Analytics columns if you want to get into detailed statistical analysis. If you’re interested in rookies and prospects, there’s a weekly column on that written by McKeen’s Hockey.

For everything fantasy hockey, check out Rotoworld’s Player News, and follow @Rotoworld_ HK and @RyanDadoun on Twitter.