Morgan Rielly

NHL

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.

Maple Leafs GM gives interesting take on ‘polarizing’ players

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The Toronto Maple Leafs are mired in a three-game losing streak, and generally speaking, have seemed a bit underwhelming so far in starting 2019-20 with a 9-7-4 record (22 points, currently in second wild card).

Through 20 games, you’ll see players talk about getting “swagger” back, and you probably won’t be able to scroll Hockey Twitter without stumbling upon at least a few debates about the job Mike Babcock is doing.

With as passionate a fan base as the Maple Leafs have, you’ll see people really drilling down to parse even the depth aspects of the team. Maybe that explains why we got an interesting take from GM Kyle Dubas, who almost seemed to break “the fourth wall” when he acknowledged the many takes that defensemen Cody Ceci and Tyson Barrie inspire.

Buffet of opinions

Dubas’ comments about Ceci are especially fascinating, as you can see from TSN’s Karen Shilton.

“Cody is an interesting one. I think it goes back to the war between data and subjective scouting [in that] he seems to be a very polarizing player,” Dubas said. “Even when everything underlying about him has been relatively solid, especially when you consider his usage [as a top-pairing defenceman who averages 22:19 of ice time per game], it seems to be every tiny thing that he does becomes a referendum on whether he’s good or not, which is mind-boggling to me. Every defenceman that plays that much and plays in that role is going to [make] mistakes. I think he’s been a good addition for us and has played above expectations from when we acquired him and we’re very happy with him.”

In particular, Dubas captures the tenure of some Hockey Twitter debates when he says “it seems like every tiny thing that he does becomes a referendum.”

But it’s not that hard to see where many of Ceci’s critics are coming from.

When the Maple Leafs acquired Ceci, and it became clear that he’d actually stick around for at least a while, the hope (for many) was that he wouldn’t have the same role as he did in Ottawa, where some believe the Senators promoted him to a level of incompetence. What if Ceci was in an easier role, with fewer minutes and lesser opponents? Instead, his ice time has been virtually unchanged from last season, and defensive measures like his Hockey Viz heat maps (via Micah Blake McCurdy) look as bad as ever:

But, truly, Dubas isn’t totally off base when he says that there are certain underlying numbers where Ceci comes across at least a bit more respectably.

There’s the argument, advanced by people like Jonas Siegel of The Athletic (sub required), that it’s too early to judge Ceci.

Maybe it’s too late; perhaps there’s an “eye test vs. analytics” divide that won’t be broken easily. It could be that the biggest uproar would come if the Maple Leafs brought back Ceci after his expiring deal melts away.

(Opinion: they absolutely should not bring Ceci back.)

Tyson not knocking it out of the park

In the grand scheme of things, the Ceci situation is basically going as prescribed.

The bigger disappointment might be Tyson Barrie, even if you ignore Nazem Kadri‘s promising early results in Colorado. The book on Barrie is that he can be an explosive offensive performer, although there were red flags about him negating much of that prowess with shaky defense.

Those red flags carry over to those Hockey Viz charts, as there’s a lot of the bad sort of red when you consider Barrie’s defensive impact (and arguably not enough of the good red on offense to justify that bleeding).

Keeping it as simple as it gets, Barrie barely has more points (zero goals, five assists, thus five points) than Ceci (one goal, three assists for four points). Those numbers are underwhelming even if you viewed Barrie as something of a paper tiger with superficial scoring stats coming in.

Maybe it’s telling that Dubas’ comments are more milquetoast about Barrie, stating that “we just want him to continue to work and get comfortable here.”

***

Barrie, Ceci, and the Maple Leafs face a familiar foe on Friday in the Boston Bruins. In the Bruins’ own way, they want to get back on track too, as they’ve lost four in a row.

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’ Tavares out at least two weeks with broken finger

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It has been a bit of a slow start for the Toronto Maple Leafs and they received a bit of bad news on Thursday afternoon that won’t make things any easier.

The team announced that captain John Tavares will be sidelined for at least the next two weeks due to a broken finger that he suffered during the team’s 4-3 loss to the Washington Capitals on Wednesday night.

Tavares will be re-evaluated by the team in two weeks when a more definitive timetable on his return will be known.

He was injured when he was struck by a Morgan Rielly slap shot during Wednesday’s game.

In eight games this season Tavares has three goals (including one goal on Wednesday) and four assists. He scored 47 goals for the Maple Leafs a year ago in his first season with the team.

Following Wednesday’s loss the Maple Leafs are 4-3-1 through their first eight games and are still struggling defensively, showing all of the flaws that have slowed them down in recent years. Now they will be without one of their best offensive players for what will probably at least the next six games, if not more. During this upcoming stretch the Maple Leafs play Boston two times, including their next game on Saturday night, and will also play Columbus, San Jose, Washington, Montreal, Philadelphia twice, Los Angeles, and Vegas. Not the most daunting schedule, but not exactly the easiest, either.

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: Amazing Mrazek; Red-hot Rielly

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Three Stars

1. Petr Mrazek, Carolina Hurricanes

The Hurricanes headed into 2019-20 as the Hurricanes analytics darlings, a team that hogged the puck with considerable greed for the vulcanized rubber. Before them, the Kings were in a similar boat as a team that would often horde the Corsi and Fenwick, even while not always dominating the standings in the same way.

Maybe Tuesday was fitting, then, for how these two teams are moving in different directions. When Jonathan Quick isn’t in the net facing an existential crisis and Jack Campbell is looking like a first-rounder about a decade late, the Kings are proving to be a tougher-than-expected out.

That was the case against Carolina, as Los Angeles managed a 31-23 shots on goal advantage against a Hurricanes team that recently kept the dangerous Lightning without a SOG during a full period.

Despite that edge, the Kings couldn’t beat Mrazek, who pitched a 31-save shutout.

Mrazek’s off to a 4-0-0 start despite being mostly mediocre before Tuesday, and in a way, that’s scarier for the Hurricanes’ opponents. If they can win most nights just by denying possession to opponents, but occasionally get a gem from Mrazek, how scary can Carolina become?

2. Morgan Rielly, Toronto Maple Leafs

Yes, Morgan “Typo” Rielly plays for a fast-paced, talented team like the Maple Leafs. He certainly gets to baste his stats in secondary helpers, and generally get access to opportunities that a comparable defenseman might not on a more tortoise-speed-like team would not.

Still, it’s hard not to shake your head in awe at Rielly’s 72 points from last season. That’s the sort of year that could make forwards unaffordable for their current team.

While his production has been streaky – Rielly failed to score in his previous three games before Tuesday – the talented blueliner had himself a night, collecting an assist on all four of the Maple Leafs’ goals in a 4-2 win against the Wild. That boosts him to nine points – all assists – in seven games so far this season, giving Rielly more fuel for a Norris argument — or at least a really big raise once his $5M cap hit expires after 2021-22.

The only thing that keeps him from being Tuesday’s top star is that all four of his assists were (wait for it) secondary ones.

3. Alexander Edler, Vancouver Canucks

The Canucks had some nice contestants in their 5-1 win against the Red Wings, including Brock Boeser (three assists) and J.T. Miller (two goals).

Edler gets the edge via his one-goal, two-assist night. For one thing, his goal was a game-winner. For another, Boeser piled up three secondary assists, while Edler had one primary and two secondary. Edler also fired three SOG, delivered three hits, and blocked four shots in an consummate 25 minutes of ice time on Tuesday night.

Highlight of the Night

The move Viktor Arvidsson made to set up Calle Jarnkrok‘s goal was really something else, and a reminder that Arvidsson is more than just a very nice (and remarkably underpaid) sniper.

If that’s not enough, enjoy some howitzers from Jeff Petry and Steven Stamkos in Tampa Bay’s 3-1 win against Montreal (more on that here).

The latest Marc-Andre Fleury oopsie

MAF is good for, what, four of these per season?

Factoids

  • Via NHL PR, Reilly’s four assists – all in the second period – match the franchise record for most in a single period, tying Rick Vaive, who managed the feat in 1984. Sportsnet notes that Brock Boeser’s three assists in the second period is the most since Henrik Sedin managed as many Feb. 18, 2012.
  • The Hurricanes’ 6-1-0 record marks the best start in franchise history, according to NHL PR.
  • One more from NHL PR: Filip Forsberg extended his season-opening point streak to six games, sharing the Predators’ franchise record held by Marek Zidlicky.

Scores

TOR 4 – MIN 2
TBL 3 – MTL 1
ARI 4 – WPG 2
CGY 3 – PHI 1
NSH 5 – VGK 2
VAN 5 – DET 1
CAR 2 – LAK 0

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.

How potential Marner deals might affect Maple Leafs’ salary cap

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Even during the dullest moments of the hockey offseason, you could probably find at least two people arguing about Mitch Marner.

The debates really revved up this week, however, with reports surfacing from Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman, along with Bob McKenzie and Darren Dreger from TSN (among others).

Reports indicate a wide variety of possibilities, from shorter “bridge” deals to long-term contracts, basically all of them with eye-popping numbers.

Let’s consider the many ins and outs of the Maple Leafs’ cap situation, and how different Marner deals might fit in, by looking at things on a year-by-year basis. Cap Friendly was a major resource for this post.

2019-20, year one: Don’t bet on a one-year pact, but this is a good spot to discuss the most immediate squeeze.

Toronto must wait to put Nathan Horton ($5.35M) and David Clarkson ($5.25M) on LTIR and … that really gums up the works. To keep the details from making brains pop like corn, it figures to be tight, especially if Marner gets “in the universe” of $11M.

The Maple Leafs’ defense figures to be different after this season with Cody Ceci ($4.5M), Jake Muzzin ($4M), and Tyson Barrie ($2.75M after retention) entering contract years. GM Kyle Dubas is full of enough surprises, so who knows what lies ahead on defense?

2020-21, year two: In Tuesday’s “31 Thoughts,” Elliotte Friedman reports that a two-year deal was pondered, “a few sources threw cold water on that.”

Regardless, a big change could come after two years, as Frederik Andersen figures to get a big raise from $5M after 2019-20. Maybe a “bridge” deal would make it slightly easier to keep Andersen?

2021-22, year three: A variety of reporters point to a three-year “bridge” deal as one of the most likely possibilities at this time.

It’s also maybe the trickiest scenario for the Maple Leafs, something mentioned by the likes of TSN’s Bob McKenzie:

Marner and other RFAs might follow a path where a three-year deal is, functionally, a four-year deal to get to unrestricted free agency. Essentially, Marner would sign for X over three years, with a salary hitting a peak at year three, so that would set the stage for a qualifying offer in year four. Years five and beyond would then be open to UFA. TSN’s Darren Dreger illustrates this as well:

If it’s three years, Marner would need a new contract (technically or not) during the same offseason as Morgan Rielly. Reilly is just 25 and carries a cheap $5M cap hit, so the price could really grow. One would think Kasperi Kapanen ($3.2M) might get squeezed out.

We could also start to see Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren needing new deals around 2023 or shortly after, depending upon when Toronto starts burning those entry-level years.

2022-23, year four: If the above bridge deal with a high third-year salary happened, this is where Marner’s cost would balloon. It’s also possible – though improbable – that the two sides would simply sign a four-year deal, sending Marner to UFA status in the summer of 2023 without the gymnastics.

Following that fourth season, Alexander Kerfoot ($3.5M) and Andreas Johnsson ($3.4M) would need new deals.

Any small and medium-sized decisions would need to be weighed by how much room they leave for bigger ones, and not just potentially Marner …

2023-24, year five: Two whoppers expire in five years: Auston Matthews ($11.64M) and William Nylander ($6.96M).

It’s tough to imagine the Maple Leafs set the stage for Marner to have the opportunity to hit the UFA market during the same summer as Matthews and Nylander, which is why you don’t hear about a five-year solution very often.

Let’s be honest: that scenario could break Hockey Twitter, the Internet, or even humanity’s collective, slipping grip on something resembling sanity.

2024-25, year six: The six-year possibility doesn’t get mentioned much, but Tavares’ $11M expires after 2024-25. What if Marner figured that much of that Tavares money could transfer to his third contract? Could six years be a sweet spot for Toronto’s cost certainty, Marner getting paid, and present something of a compromise on UFA years?

(Unlikely, but just saying.)

2025-26, year seven, and 2026-27, year eight: McKenzie reports that there have been offers “in the universe” of $11M for seven or eight-year terms, but Marner reportedly isn’t satisfied because he’d get less than Matthews’ $11.64M while also signing for more than Matthews’ five-year term.

We can debate whether Marner would be worth $11M all day (motions to increasingly volatile Hockey Twitter), but Marner’s reluctance to go long-term is understandable, as for all we know, the cap ceiling could be much higher in 2025-26 and beyond.

***

Unfortunately for anxious Maple Leafs fans, Friedman, Dreger, MacKenzie, and others point to considerable divides behind Marner’s camp and the Maple Leafs.

As the above timeline shows, Toronto faces a host of complicated decisions, and plenty of tough questions even beyond Marner. Make no mistake about it, though: this Marner contract situation is absolutely pivotal, and it’s a tough nut to crack.

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.