Kyle Dubas

PHT Morning Skate: Hockey community rallies for Nashville tornado relief

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.

• People are stepping up to help those affected by the Nashville tornadoes. That includes the Predators’ Alumni Association donating $20K, but not just that team. Both the Wild and current Wild owner/former Predators owner Craig Leipold are donating $25K apiece in tornado relief efforts. The NHL announced that it is matching that $50K for tornado relief as well. Fantastic stuff stemming from that terrifying natural disaster. (The Tennessean)

• How did the Lightning turn their season around? Can this season’s team compare to the 2018-19 version that stomped through the regular season, and what about the playoffs? (ESPN)

• Some of the Lightning’s turnaround boils down to Andrei Vasilevskiy getting on track. This post looks at a similar trajectory for Mike Smith, who is heating up while Mikko Koskinen stays steady. Between the two, the Oilers have enjoyed reliable goaltending lately. (Oilers Nation)

Bryan Rust‘s breakout season boils down to combining his talent with the Penguins giving him a better opportunity to succeed. (Pensburgh)

• The Maple Leafs look better by a lot of metrics since Sheldon Keefe took over, but goaltending hasn’t been panning out. How much might it help to lighten Frederik Andersen‘s burden? (Rotoworld)

• Speaking of underlying numbers, these smile upon the chances for both the Wild and Hurricanes making late-season playoff pushes. (NHL.com)

[HURRICANES FACE FLYERS ON NBCSN ON THURSDAY; WATCH IT LIVE]

• Now, while goaltending has been letting the Leafs down lately, GM Kyle Dubas views defense as a “long-term need.” (TSN)

• Are the Flames on the verge of a goalie controversy? (Sportsnet)

• In standing firmly behind Claude Julien going forward, Habs GM Marc Bergevin is also gambling on himself. (Habs Eyes on the Prize)

• No, Valeri Nichushkin hasn’t generated the kind of offense that was expected of him as the 10th pick of the 2013 NHL Draft. Nichushkin has, however, become a useful play-driving forward as he settles into a still-fairly-new niche as an Avalanche supporting cast member. (The Hockey News)

I mean, look at these almost-off-the-charts Evolving Hockey RAPM charts for Nichushkin:

Kevin Fiala continues to be a catalyst for the Wild’s surge. (Pioneer-Press)

• Breaking down the Flyers’ elite penalty kill. (Broad Street Hockey)

• What’s been different about Cory Schneider during his latest return back with the Devils? (NJ.com)

• Hm, it’s been a while since the Senators experienced some drama … (The Score)

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.

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

Maple Leafs defense with Jake 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.

Muzzin injury puts damper on Maple Leafs avenging loss to ‘Zamboni driver’

Nylander scores Maple Leafs win Muzzin injury
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(UPDATE: The Maple Leafs announced on Wednesday that Muzzin will miss the next month with a broken hand.)

The Maple Leafs heard about it endlessly: they lost to David Ayers, their AHL Zamboni driver. Ayers received celebrity treatment, even appearing on “The Today Show,” while Maple Leafs fans gritted their teeth. (Then the Maple Leafs grimaced about Jake Muzzin.)

Tuesday set the stage for a trying situation following all of that. With desperation and overreactions in the air, Maple Leafs GM Kyle Dubas decided to stand pat during the trade deadline. If all of that wasn’t enough, Toronto traveled to Tampa Bay to face a Lightning team that might just be rounding back into shape as the scariest team in the NHL.

Yeah, it sure seemed like things were going to get uglier.

One thing that adds to the soap opera drama of the Maple Leafs is that they often surprise you, though. Instead of folding following that agonizing loss to Carolina, the Buds persevered, beating the Lightning 4-3 on the road.

Go-to scapegoat William Nylander continues to quietly have a strong season, and this goal was nicer than his summer hair was loud:

John Tavares ended up with two goals, while not-traded Tyson Barrie collected two assists. Auston Matthews set a new career-high with his 74th point of 2019-20.

“We did a lot of good things tonight, in terms of the way we want to play the game, to our identity,” Tavares said, via TSN’s Kristen Shilton. “Just staying with it and understanding that it’s not always pretty but just digging in, playing hard, playing as a group, sticking with it.”

Muzzin injury puts damper on Maple Leafs win

Pretty impressive all around, right?

Well, maybe … but we’re talking about the Maple Leafs, here. It can never be totally easy.

While the Maple Leafs grabbed a highly valuable win, there was some troubling news. Recently extended defenseman Jake Muzzin left the game and didn’t return after blocking a shot. Sheldon Keefe couldn’t provide a detailed update about how long this might sideline Muzzin:

Sounds ominous.

But, hey, the Maple Leafs won. They can carry something from that, even if the roller coaster readies more dramatic highs and lows.

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.

Limping Maple Leafs lose Andreas Johnsson for two months

Maple Leafs lose Andreas Johnsson for eight weeks knee surgery
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Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe announced that Andreas Johnsson will need knee surgery. Johnsson is expected to miss at least two months, canceling him out for the Leafs’ playoff push. That recovery window would bleed into at least a part of the postseason, too.

Johnsson the latest to leave Leafs limping

It’s jarring news for a Maple Leafs team that’s in tough to defend its spot in the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs, and has already dealt with significant injuries this season.

TSN’s Kristen Shilton ranked among those passing along the bad news, also noting that Morgan Rielly is targeting late March for a possible return. Between those two, John Tavares, Mitch Marner, Frederik Andersen, and others, it’s already been a trying season for Toronto.

Johnsson hasn’t enjoyed the same bounces in 2019-20 as he did last season. After managing 20 goals and 43 points on a 15.4 shooting percentage, Johnsson settled down to eight goals and 21 points (43 GP) on a 10.3 shooting percentage. Bill Comeau’s nifty-looking SKATR charts provide a snapshot of some of the areas where things slipped.

Maple Leafs Johnsson 2018-19 vs. 2019-20

The Maple Leafs currently sit in playoff position. More and more, it looks like it might come down to either the Panthers or Maple Leafs grabbing the Atlantic third seed, while Metro teams seem most likely to nab both East wild-card spots.

Maple Leafs Johnsson Atlantic standings

(The Blue Jackets and Flyers both have 71 points in the same 58 games played as Toronto. Carolina poses a similar threat with 67 points in 56 GP.)

Potential (small) silver lining for Leafs without Johnsson

There’s only so much sugar-coating one can provide for this situation. That said, at least Toronto lost Johnsson now, instead of after the Feb. 24 trade deadline. Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston explains that the Maple Leafs would get $3.4M in cap space to work with if Johnsson goes on LTIR, while Rielly likely wouldn’t provide the same breathing room because he may return before the season ends.

In other words, the Maple Leafs have more room to trade for talent — whether that means finding a replacement for Johnsson, or addressing other needs, such as defense.

So, if the Maple Leafs do hold off the Panthers (or carve out a wild-card spot), they could have [insert hypothetical replacement] and Johnsson for the playoffs. Of course, that’s assuming Johnsson heals up somewhere in that eight-week-window.

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.

Marner to play first Leafs game since Babcock drama (and Tuesday’s mini-meltdown)

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When it comes to a team’s 30th game of an 82-game regular season, you couldn’t ask for much more sizzle than what the Toronto Maple Leafs could provide against the Colorado Avalanche on Wednesday.

The Maple Leafs activated winger Mitch Marner, setting the stage for the crafty winger to play since Nov. 9, when Marner suffered a high-ankle sprain against the Philadelphia Flyers.

An eventful month

To put things mildly, a lot happened since Marner’s unpleasant-looking injury:

That 3-2 shootout loss to the Flyers began what would be a six-game losing streak for the Maple Leafs, and represented the end of the Mike Babcock era in Toronto. It wasn’t, of course, the end of Babcock-related drama, however, as reports surfaced about Babcock playing mind games with Marner during his rookie season, and all that “hardest working players list” entailed.

Since then, there have been a wave of stories about coaches exhibiting abusive behavior (either physically, verbally, or sometimes a mix of the two), with the Calgary Flames parting ways with Bill Peters, Marc Crawford placed on leave from the Blackhawks, and plenty of other reverberations.

Akim Aliu stated that he expects “big changes” around hockey (and the NHL in particular) following a meeting with the league, but time will ultimately tell.

Either way, Babcock’s firing and that rookie-year story should fix even more eyes on Marner than usual, which is saying something considering all of the attention his offseason contract negotiations received.

A fuller view of the new-look Maple Leafs

Sheldon Keefe won his first three games as coach of the Maple Leafs, but the Buds have since stumbled in their last three games, going 1-2-0. Things ended on an extremely sour note on Tuesday, as the Maple Leafs experienced a bit of meltdown late in a 6-1 loss against the Flyers.

Auston Matthews said “we can’t fold like that,” while Keefe agreed that the Maple Leafs let Frederik Andersen out to dry, stating that “hopefully it is the shakeup that we would need.”

It doesn’t figure to be easy. The Avalanche are on a three-game winning streak, boast players like Nazem Kadri who will be pumped to play against his former team in Toronto, and are rested (their last game was on Saturday) while Toronto is closing out a back-to-back. The Maple Leafs have struggled lately in such back-to-back sets, at least stemming from Babcock’s days.

Watching Marner himself

Pension Plan Puppets points out that Marner is coming back basically as early as possible (assuming he doesn’t have any setbacks before Wednesday’s game).

Getting Marner back should be a thrill, and again, a nice opportunity to get a better picture of what GM Kyle Dubas truly envisions as his team now that he doesn’t have to clash with Babcock’s competing style.

But how close to 100 percent will Marner be? While his most treasured ability is his world-class playmaking, Marner is also known for outstanding edgework and agility, using his elusiveness to thrive as a smaller player (rather than Nathan MacKinnon-class speed). You have to wonder if recovering from a high-ankle sprain might at least hinder some of his skating strength.

That said, Marner will still have the vision and anticipation that makes him such a great passer. Jake Muzzin pointed out the way Marner processes the game, and while there could be a bit of rust there, chances are he’ll give Toronto another gear.

“His reads without the puck,” Muzzin said when asked where Marner’s hockey IQ really shines. “I feel like he’s one step ahead of the puck out there when he’s on. He’s got great vision with the puck, but picking guys and reading passes before they happen, he’s right up there with the best.”

Maybe the Maple Leafs will be a little tired on Tuesday, and maybe Marner won’t be quite there physically, but it still feels like we’ll get a better idea of what this team (and player) is capable of now that Babcock is no longer in the picture.

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.