Jason Spezza

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The Buzzer: Jarry shines for Penguins; Carlson continues ridiculous start

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Three Stars

1. John Carlson, Washington Capitals. His incredible season just keeps getting better. He scored two goals (including the 100th goal of his NHL career) in the Capitals’ 3-1 win over the Los Angeles Kings on Wednesday night, giving him 11 goals and 42 total points in his first 30 games this season. He is the sixth-leading scorer in the entire league and one of only three defensemen in the top-25 (Carolina Hurricanes defender Dougie Hamilton is 20th and Colorado Avalanche rookie Cale Makar is 25th in the league). He is currently on pace for 114 points this season. Only five defensemen in NHL history (Bobby Orr six times, Paul Coffey five times, Denis Potvin, Al MacInnis, and Brian Leetch once each) have ever hit the 100-point mark in a season and it has not been done since Leetch during the 1991-92 season for the New York Rangers.

2. Tristan Jarry, Pittsburgh Penguins. Jarry was sensational on Wednesday night and continued to earn himself more playing time with a 28-save shutout as an undermanned Penguins team, playing without seven regulars, shut out the defending Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues. Read more about the Penguins’ impressive win here.

3. Tyler Ennis, Ottawa Senators. The Senators snapped an ugly five-game losing streak by going into Edmonton and picking up a 5-2 win. They had scored just six goals during their skid entering Wednesday. Ennis was the big star for the Senators with a goal and two assists

Honorable mention: Colorado’s Valeri Nichushkin played 57 games a year ago without scoring a goal (and recording just seven assists) and then opened this season by going 18 consecutive games without scoring. Thanks to his shorthanded, game-winning goal on Wednesday he now has three goals in his past five games.

Highlights of the Night

Carlson’s second goal of the night was a beauty as he danced around Kings goalie Jonathan Quick and made it look easy.

Just because it was a personal milestone goal, here is No. 100 in his career.

Nathan MacKinnon gives the Avalanche the lead in the second period with an absolute rocket of a shot just under the crossbar.

Blooper of the Night

This one belongs to Jason Spezza and the Toronto Maple Leafs for this unfortunate play in the third period.

Image of the Night

This is a pretty amazing image as the Ottawa Senators had Connor McDavid completely surrounded and he still almost managed to score.

 

Factoids

  • The Senators’ win on Wednesday was their sixth in a row in Edmonton, making them one of six teams in the league that has a current road winning streak of at least six games against a single opponent. [NHL PR]
  • Carlson is the fifth different Capitals defenseman to score at least 100 goals for the franchise. [NHL PR]
  • MacKinnon had another huge game for the Avalanche, recording multiple points for the fourth consecutive game. He is the 11th different player in the NHL this season to accomplish that. [NHL PR]

Scores

Colorado Avalanche 3, Toronto Maple Leafs 1
Pittsburgh Penguins 3, St. Louis Blues 0
Ottawa Senators 5, Edmonton Oilers 2
Washington Capitals 3, Los Angeles Kings 1

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.

Spezza’s tough luck blooper helps send Maple Leafs to another loss

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Just when it started to look like the Toronto Maple Leafs were turning things around and get back on track they had a couple of meltdowns over the past 24 hours.

After a disastrous third period sent them to a blowout loss in Philadelphia on Tuesday, they came back on Wednesday night and put together a really strong effort against the Colorado Avalanche that still turned into a tough luck 3-1 loss.

One of the reasons it turned into a loss?

This unfortunate sequence events for forward Jason Spezza early in the third period that led to a Valeri Nichushkin shorthanded goal that would end up going in the books as the game winner.

With the Maple Leafs on the power play, Spezza broke his stick on a shot attempt and then found himself in the awkward position of having the puck come right to him at the blue line.

His desperate attempt to hold the puck in the zone (without a stick) ended up turning into an unintentional pick on his teammate, defenseman Morgan Rielly, resulting in a collision and a clean breakaway for Nichushkin.

He did not miss.

The Maple Leafs have now lost two in a row and three out of their past four games to remain on the outside of the Eastern Conference playoff picture. They definitely look better under new coach Sheldon Keefe, but they are still only on an 82-point pace for the season and really need to start piling up some points.

Games like Wednesday’s where they play well and still find a way to lose are not helping.

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.

Marner, Babcock respond to ‘hardest working Leafs’ list

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Now that the coaching change has finally been made, the stories about what life was like during the Mike Babcock era of the Toronto Maple Leafs are starting to surface.

The most unbelievable one so far came out over the weekend.

It was then that the Toronto Sun‘s Terry Koshan revealed that during the 2016-17 season, Babcock had asked one of the team’s rookies “to list the players on the team from hardest-working to those who, in the eyes of the rookie, didn’t have a strong work ethic.”

The rookie, not wanting to upset his coach, went through with the list only to have Babcock then tell the players at the bottom of the list where they stood.

That rookie turned out to be Mitch Marner, one of the core building blocks of the Maple Leafs’ organization.

According to Ian Tulloch of The Leafs Nation, Marner placed himself at the very bottom of the list with both sides (Marner and Babcock) agreeing he had to work harder without the puck. Forwards Tyler Bozak and Nazem Kadri were reportedly two of the more prominent names at the bottom and were later informed by Babcock of their rating in Marner’s eyes.

On Monday, Marner was asked about the situation and went on the record confirming that it actually happened.

“I’d say it was just surprising,” said Marner. “It was so long ago now, honestly I really kind of forgot about it until the report came out. It’s over with now and done with. I was lucky enough the guys that were there with me, none of them took it to heart and they knew it wasn’t up to me.”

He was also asked if he felt Babcock’s task had crossed a line.

“It was my first year, I didn’t really know what to think of it, but it’s over with now,” said Marner. “I’m looking forward to the new change and seeing how I can help this team under Sheldon.”

Babcock also responded on Monday by telling Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman: “I was trying to focus on work ethic with Mitch — focusing on role models — ended up not being a good idea. I apologized at (the) time.”

It is one thing to want a young player to have a strong work ethic and point out positive role models on the team, but there is probably a better way to go about it than the way Babcock did. And by probably, I mean definitely, and by better, I mean almost literally any other way. Putting a 19-year-old rookie on the spot like that — a player that is in a position to almost certainly do whatever the coach asks them to do — is no way to win over favor in the locker room.

This is pretty much an extension of the mind games coaches and executives play when they try to take on the role of amateur psychologist at scouting combines, asking ridiculous — or even insulting — questions to try and get a reaction to see how they respond.

Babcock probably isn’t the first coach to employ some sort of tactic like this, and he will almost certainly not be the last (not that it makes the situation any better — it’s bad no matter who does it).

It is also not unfair to say that Babcock now has a growing list of former players that are either critical of his coaching style, or just flat out do not like him.

Former Detroit Red Wings defenseman Mike Commodore has been Babcock’s most vocal critic on social media, while former Maple Leafs defender Mark Fraser offered a little more insight in the wake of Toronto’s coaching change this past week. Fraser said, among other things, that Babcock is a coach that “95 percent of his former players can’t say a good thing about.”

Fraser’s entire Twitter thread on the subject is here.

Babcock also drew harsh criticism in Toronto earlier this season when he made Jason Spezza, a Toronto native and respected veteran, a healthy scratch in what would have been his first ever game for the Maple Leafs. To outsiders it probably wasn’t that big of a deal, but when added into the context of how some of his former players feel he unjustly treats them — as well as this story regarding Marner — it certainly stands out a little bit more.

It has only been two games since the coaching change, but the Maple Leafs already seem like a looser, more energized, and most importantly better team.

MORE:
Maple Leafs fire Babcock, name Keefe head coach
Underachieving Maple Leafs needed this change
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.

The Buzzer: Pietrangelo helps Blues top Maple Leafs; Texier the OT hero

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Three Stars

1. Alex Pietrangelo, St. Louis Blues

The Blues captain picked a great time to record his 400th career point. With 12:09 left in the third period and the game tied at two, Pietrangelo wired a shot by Frederik Andersen to give the Blues the lead for good over the Toronto Maple Leafs. The goal was the 23rd game-winning tally of his career, putting him past Al MacInnis for the franchise record among defensemen. The win capped off a pretty good sports Monday for the city St. Louis.

2. Alexandre Texier, Columbus Blue Jackets

Monday’s win over the Buffalo Sabres was a wild one. The Blue Jackets went up 2-0 in the first, then proceeded to blow that lead in the second period. In the third, the teams exchanged power play goals, which included Victor Olofsson‘s third of the season with 1:14 to play. Overtime was all Columbus, with the young forward netting the winner after 128 seconds.

3. Nick Foligno, Columbus Blue Jackets

The Blue Jackets captain scored his first of the season and later assisted on Texier’s overtime winner. He was also 67% in the face-off circle

Highlights of the Night

• It may been a losing effort, but this was a pretty sequence by the Maple Leafs that ended in a William Nylander goal, their second in 24 seconds:

• Neat assist here from Jason Spezza:

Jeff Skinner had this robbery of Ryan Murray:

Factoids

Scores
Blues 3, Maple Leafs 2
Blue Jackets 4, Sabres 3 (OT)

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

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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.

NHL teams seeking free agent bargains should shop for ‘antiques’

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With Jake Gardiner needing a contract, RFAs like Mitch Marner not yet signed, and at least a vague possibility of Rasmus Ristolainen-type players potentially being traded, there are still plenty of things to watch for this summer. It just so happens that, beyond Gardiner and very few others, the UFA market looks about as well-stocked as the bread aisle right before a big storm.

Interestingly, some of the best items in the bargain bins are those dented cans nearing their expiration dates.

During July 1, you generally want to avoid messing with Father Time. Yet, as the dog days of summer go along, there’s actually some logic to considering potentially cheap players with long resumes.

Interestingly, one July 1 signing is an example of the sort of bargain I’d pursue between today and when PTOs start to flow close to training camps in September. The Toronto Maple Leafs signed veteran Jason Spezza on the first day of the frenzy, convincing the 36-year-old to go from $7.5 million in AAV in 2018-19 to $700K in 2019-20.

Spezza might not seem like the sexiest choice in his current form, but that’s almost the point. Now that he’s no longer making superstar money, his positives can shine most brightly, and I’d expect him to be a nice bargain for Toronto.

While Spezza might be the best of the types of bets I’d consider making if I were running a team, there are still some intriguing veterans to consider. To make things clear, here are a few key qualifiers before we roll into some names: this list assumes that the contracts would be short, the dollars would be low, and the players would understand that they might have to swallow some pride with a smaller role than in the past.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

The lower level of commitment is important to remember. If a cheap, one-year deal doesn’t work out, it’s easier to walk away from a mistake. That’s certainly an easier pill to swallow than to stare at an awkward situation where, say, Milan Lucic is languishing on your roster at $6M, and stands to be an anchor for years.

With expectations sufficiently lowered and contextualized, let’s consider a few veterans.

Cream of the limited crop

Jason Pominville: Fittingly, the best comparison to Jason Spezza is another Jason with a right-handed shot, and some great memories related to the Senators. (In Pominville’s case, it was scoring against Ottawa, much to the confusion and dismay of Daniel Alfredsson.)

Like Spezza, Pominville’s sneaky-solid production was downplayed because of his bloated salary; in Pominville’s case, his 2018-19 cap hit was $5.6M. At a sub-$1M rate, Pominville could be an economical fit for a team that wants a veteran who can still bring some value to the table, and would probably be willing to move around the lineup to make things work.

Actually, I’d argue he’s probably more versatile than Spezza, and thus might fit into a wider array of situations.

Even with all of their improvements, I’d strongly consider bringing Pominville back at a huge discount if I were the Sabres (and if Pominville would accept it). It sure seemed like he was a decent passenger for Jack Eichel and Jeff Skinner at times in 2018-19, as The Athletic’s Jonathan Willis also pointed out (sub required):

Pominville was lucky last year to spend a significant chunk of time with Jack Eichel and/or Jeff Skinner, but he was an upgrade on Buffalo’s other right wing options on that line, which only really caught fire when he joined it (climbing from 3.1 to 5.3 goals per hour, and from a 52 percent to 55 percent shot share).

Why not bring back Pominville to occasionally be a cheap addition to the $19M combo of Eichel – Skinner, so you can then use the Marcus Johanssons and Jimmy Veseys as scorers on lower lines, getting them easier matchups? Just a thought.

Similar scenarios could make sense for other cap-strapped teams, too.

Justin Williams: Every indication is that Williams’ choices seem to boil down to retirement or returning to the Carolina Hurricanes.

But just to throw it out there: even during his age 37 season (Williams turns 38 in October), “Mr. Game 7” was more than a guy who shows up in clutch moments. Williams looked almost ridiculous from an advanced stats perspective last season, and brings the sort of intangibles that makes someone a “Storm Surge” innovator.

If I’m another team with some cap space, I’d at least try to wave some one-year money around to see if it might entice Williams to consider branching out. At minimum, Carolina should keep a spot warm for the winger.

Veteran specialists

Brian Boyle: The Predators continued their tradition of paying big premiums for huge depth centers in trading a second-rounder to rent Boyle this past season, so it’s clear that at last some teams see value in Boyle as a large defensive presence who can use that size to screen goalies during the occasional power play stint.

If Boyle costs you big assets, then meh. If he’s cheap and doesn’t command much term, then he could be appealing as the center of an all-defense third or fourth line. (At this stage, fourth would be preferable, but different teams have different situations.)

Thomas Vanek: On the absolute other end of the spectrum, you have Vanek, who would need to be sheltered with limited five-on-five minutes, but might give you some offense in a pinch.

Basically, I’d envision Vanek in the Sam Gagner role during Gagner’s brief time as a power-play specialist for the Columbus Blue Jackets. The 35-year-old managed 36 points in 64 games last season, and scored 24 goals and 56 in 80 games in 2017-18.

Sure, his all-around game makes him less of a net positive overall, but a savvy coach could yield decent returns while limiting risks.

Dented cans

  • Chad Johnson: The 33-year-old’s save percentage was below 90 for the past two seasons, so maybe he’s as done as the former Bengals receiver who shares his name. But if he’d be willing to take on a role as a third goalie – one who could easily be moved between the AHL and NHL – then he could provide some injury insulation. From 2012-13 to 2016-17, Johnson generated a solid .915 save percentage, matching Jonathan Quick and Ryan Miller during that span. Maybe he still has something to offer, even just marginally so?
  • Dan Girardi, Niklas Kronwall, Deryk Engelland: Here’s a theory: virtually all NHL coaches need that “toy.” Almost every coach has a player they love who … frankly, isn’t really worthy of those minutes and opportunities, yet the coach fawns over them nonetheless.

Consider Alain Vigneault when he searched for excuses to play Tanner Glass in New York, or Mike Babcock’s love of Roman Polak.

Personally, I’d try not to indulge such bad habits in a coach, yet what if the situation basically demands it?

If such affairs are unavoidable, maybe the key is to limit the damage by getting a cheaper option, one who hopefully wouldn’t get too much playing time, either. The hope would be that, if you give an old coach some old, beat-up player, they’d be more willing to also allow a younger player a longer leash.

Yeah … not the greatest situation, and I’d avoid the Girardis, but these GMs know their coaches better than anyone else.

***

Again, it’s crucial to realize that the above list is full of imperfect players, or ones who will only push you forward with baby steps, not giant leaps for hockey-kind. Even ones I like more (Pominville, Williams if he’d listen to offers from outside the Carolinas) aren’t going to save a GM’s job. And with that aforementioned group of veteran defensemen, some of these options would be less about improving and more about accepting lesser evils to appease the sometimes strange whims of NHL head coaches.

In some cases, veteran players might even sign PTOs, which would allow teams to see if they can find a spot in the lineup and chemistry with the team before even handing out a guaranteed contract.

This list isn’t necessarily comprehensive, either, so fire away if you have suggestions. In the case of this post, the veteran UFA options are 32 and older, if that helps.

MORE FREE AGENCY FUN:
Three signings that teams will regret
Five remaining UFAs who could bring value, the mostly young version
Looking at every team’s offseason in Power Rankings form
• The high-risk, high-reward contracts signed on July 1 frequently end in trades or buyouts.

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.