Kyle Clifford

Maple Leafs long-term outlook Tavares Marner Matthews Nylander Hyman
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Long-term outlook for Toronto Maple Leafs

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With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to review where each NHL team stands at this moment until the season resumes. Here we take a look at the long-term outlook for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Pending Free Agents

The Core

Confession time. When I first started scrolling through the Maple Leafs’ forwards at Cap Friendly, I cringed.

Maybe it’s only natural. When you realize that Auston Matthews, John Tavares, Mitch Marner, and William Nylander combine for more than $40M per year, it’s reasonable to feel bewildered for a second or two. That’s basically half of their salary cap.

Yet, if you’re going to invest a ton of money in any hockey area, go with star forwards. And while John Tavares awaits the aging curve at 29, Marner and Matthews are only 22, and Nylander’s merely 23.

While GM Kyle Dubas & Co. didn’t leave unscathed, you could say the Maple Leafs are out of the woods. Or … out of the most treacherous woods?

For a team that is so heavily invested in a few forwards, it’s interesting to see quite a bit of medium-term deals for supporting cast players.

You can’t pin that on Lou Lamoriello, either. Dubas retained Andreas Johnsson and Kasperi Kapanen before hashing things out with Marner. He traded for a goalie with some term in Jack Campbell. Time will tell if it was wise to invest in an extension for Jake Muzzin, who’s already 31. Pierre Engvall and Justin Holl also received some interesting term.

Some significant “Who else will be a part of the core?” questions remain. Things could also change thanks to the cap uncertainty, not to mention the Seattle expansion draft. Still, a lot of the core is in place, and while it isn’t cheap, it’s quite impressive.

Long-term needs for Maple Leafs

Chalk it up to luck or coincidence, but the Maple Leafs don’t face too many big calls during an upcoming offseason thrown out of balance by COVID-19 fallout.

Further down the line, there are some key calls, though. Frederik Andersen, 30, needs a new contract after 2020-21, while Morgan Rielly, 26, awaits a big raise following 2021-22. The Maple Leafs need to find answers to those long-term (mid-term?) questions down the line.

Speaking of down the line, the Maple Leafs must hope that Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren develop into useful defensemen for them. Defense is a big problem for the Maple Leafs, and while (likely departing) Tyson Barrie disappointed, he also did so at a cheap clip of $2.75M. The Maple Leafs want to improve on defense, yet they don’t have a ton of cash to make such improvements, so it would be crucial to get the most out of two blueliners on entry-level contracts. Their respective developments seem pivotal.

Overall, the Maple Leafs need to squeeze every bit of value out of their robust analytics department.

That means finding useful, cheap players, like they did with Jason Spezza. They’ve burned significant draft capital in trades involving Muzzin and Patrick Marleau over the years, so they’ll need to unearth prospects through a mixture of luck and deft scouting.

Considering monetary limitations, they might also need to get used to saying goodbye to players they like, but don’t need. Would it really be wise to bring back Kyle Clifford, for instance?

Long-term strengths for Maple Leafs

Again, the Maple Leafs boast a formidable foundation of young talent thanks to their big three forwards (plus Tavares).

Frankly, their front office now appears to be a long-term strength, in my eyes. Rather than the mixed messages of old-school (Mike Babcock and Lamoriello) battling with Dubas, there’s now a unified viewpoint. Dubas has his analytics team, and he has his coach in Sheldon Keefe.

A more rigid team might panic with, say, Frederik Andersen. Maybe Dubas will make the right moves there, even if it comes down to going with Campbell and someone else instead?

It’s that kind of thinking that could really help Toronto sustain itself even with pricey top-end players. There’s already some promise, also, in seeing solid scouting. While placing 21st on Scott Wheeler’s Prospect Rankings (sub required) isn’t world-beating stuff, it’s not bad considering how many picks the Buds shipped off in trying to rise to that next level.

Of course, for Dubas & Co. to be a long-term strength, they need to remain in place for some time, and that might hinge on the Maple Leafs making short-term gains. Considering the teams in front of them in the Atlantic, that won’t be easy.

There’s a lot to like for Toronto … but is there enough? We’ll find out — eventually.

MORE ON THE MAPLE LEAFS:

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.

Los Angeles Kings: This season’s biggest surprises and disappointments

With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to review where each NHL team stands at this moment until the season resumes. Here we take a look at the surprises and disappointments for the Los Angeles Kings.

Even-strength improvement, winning streak rank as biggest surprises for Kings

For a significant chunk of the season, the Kings lingered as sneaky-competent based on their respectable-to-strong underlying stats.

Making that argument in April ended up being a lot easier than advancing it in, say, February. The Kings ended the season/entered the halt on a seven-game winning streak, the longest remaining active one in the NHL.

No doubt, the Kings dug themselves far too big of a hole to make that streak anything more than a curiosity. Still, seeing that snakebitten team rattle off that run ranked as one of their biggest surprises. Well, among the pleasant ones at least.

(Kings fans likely found it a pleasant surprise to see the Sharks and Ducks also far out of the playoff picture this season, by the way.)

Not much help for Kopitar

Credit Anze Kopitar with scoring more points (62) during this paused season than he did in leading the Kings last year (60). It becomes more impressive when you realize that Kopitar scored 19 more points than the team’s second-leading scorer (Alex Iafallo, 43), and that IaFallo was the only other King to reach 40+ points.

(Dustin Brown and Drew Doughty tied for third with 35 points, while Tyler Toffoli had 34 before being traded to Vancouver.)

Any hope that Ilya Kovalchuk might enjoy a clean slate in 2019-20 quickly evaporated. Seeing Kovalchuk seem semi-revitalized in other locales pointed to a possible scoring malaise for Los Angeles, if the stats didn’t already make that obvious.

The Kings needed to work harder than other teams to score. One could often see that effort in those formidable fancy stats, but the standings argued that this rebuild remains justified.

For Kopitar’s sake, here’s hoping he still has some gas left in the tank for whenever that rebuild accelerates.

Quick failing to rebound among biggest disappointments for Kings

Jonathan Quick suffered through a disastrous 2018-19 season. That said, so did almost all of his Kings teammates.

In 2019-20, Quick couldn’t blame his fellow Kings so easily. After suffering through a horrendous .888 save percentage in 2018-19, Quick lifted his numbers … to basically the level of a backup. His stats don’t look much better when you try to correct for context, such as Evolving Hockey’s Goals Saved Above Expectation, as visualized by Charting Hockey:

You can wedge a pleasant surprise under the subheading of Kings goaltending, though.

Jack Campbell didn’t enjoy much better luck than Quick this season. Despite that, the Kings managed to extract a decent trade package from the Maple Leafs for Campbell (and Kyle Clifford).

I’m not sure you’d consider the Kings committing reasonably well to a rebuild a surprise. If so, consider that one of their biggest positive surprises of 2019-20, though. There’s some hope for what the Kings are (re)building.

Getting a strong trade return for Quick seems less and less likely to be a part of said rebuilding efforts, though.

MORE ON THE KINGS:

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.

Looking at the 2019-20 Los Angeles Kings

With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to take a look at where each NHL team stands at this moment with a series of posts examining their season. Have they met expectations? Exceeded expectations? Who has been the surprise? All of that and more. Today we look at the 2019-20 Los Angeles Kings.

2019-20 Los Angeles Kings

Record: 29-35-6 (64 points in 70 games), seventh in the Pacific Division, second-worst in West
Leading Scorer: Anze Kopitar – 62 points (21 goals and 41 assists)

In-Season Roster Moves

Season Overview

After exceeding expectations in 2017-18, the Kings crashed to earth in 2018-19. Jarringly so, to many of us.

If you look at the Kings’ place in the standings alone, you’d probably assume that 2019-20 represents the team settling into the new normal. To some extent, that’s true. In the grand scheme of things, every time the Kings make an overture toward rebuilding, they’re likely being smart.

But unlike a lot of other cellar dwellers, the Kings actually held their own by many measures. The Kings ranked somewhere between respectable to downright impressive in analytics terms. Take, for instance, how solid Los Angeles looks in Charting Hockey’s Shot Shares chart, which uses data from Evolving Hockey:

Not bad for a team that sits second-worst in the Western Conference, right?

Through their Stanley Cup-contending years, the Kings hogged the puck but sometimes struggled to finish. Such a formula worked well during their postseason runs.

This version of the Kings is a weakened form of that, but if you squint, you could see glimpses of those former glories. Not enough to win a meaningful number of games. And, no, certainly not to the point that you’d want to sabotage their rebuild.

Yet it’s amusing that the bounces finally started to go the Kings’ way as 2019-20 came to a halt.

Highlight of the Season

How could it be anything other than rattling off a baffling seven-game winning streak to “end” their season?

Indeed, as 2019-20 ended, the Kings’ winning streak was far and away the longest active streak in the NHL.

The Kings authored a decent larger stretch, too, going 10-2-1 in 13 games from Feb. 12 – March 11.

That home-heavy stretch cemented that, if nothing else, they were pesky at home. The Kings ended up 19-13-2 in Los Angeles this season, versus 10-22-4 on the road.

Upsetting the Avalanche in their 2020 Stadium Series game ranks as a highlight for the 2019-20 Kings, too.

MORE ON THE KINGS:

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.