Sheldon Keefe

Maple Leafs defense with Jake Muzzin out one month
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Can Maple Leafs survive on defense with 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.

Assessing the proper level of panic for Maple Leafs

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PITTSBURGH — The Maple Leafs do not exist in a world of calm, rational thought. They exist in a world of extremes. A world where they are either an elite roster where a Stanley Cup is their inevitable destiny, or a world where everything about them is a five-alarm dumpster fire where they have to trade everyone and completely change everything about them.

They have experienced both extremes during this season.

It started with the hopelessness that ultimately ended the Mike Babcock era.

The first 20 games under new coach Sheldon Keefe brought more goals, more wins, and a rapid climb up the standings.

Now, after a completely inept 5-2 loss to the Penguins Tuesday night (against a Penguins team that was already playing without Jake Guentzel, Brian Dumoulin, and John Marino, and then found out it would not have Evgeni Malkin 25 minutes before puck drop) the inferno is not only back, it is raging.

And while the Maple Leafs are dealing with their own share of injury issues (Morgan Rielly, Andreas Johnsson) it shouldn’t have resulted in an effort like that.

That loss also came on the heels of an ugly 5-2 defeat to a hapless Sabres team, and continued a disappointing February that has seen the team win just four out of 10 games. Only one of those wins (a 4-2 win over the Senators) came in regulation. Things seemed to hit rock bottom mid-way through the second period on Tuesday when, after failing to score on an eighty-five second 5-on-3 power play, they were completely embarrassed in their own zone to fall behind 5-0. The entire sequence was the hockey equivalent of the Penguins emphatically dunking on the Maple Leafs. At that point they never seemed further away from where they should be.

Maple Leafs players were grilled on everything afterward, from the urgency they need to display, to what moves need to be made to fix this mess before Monday’s trade deadline, to just what in the hell has been going on for the past three weeks.

“When things don’t go our way, we have to find better ways to respond,” said captain John Tavares. “We just don’t respond well, getting down a goal, getting down two, even though the game wasn’t being dominated on either side. We did some decent things early, then I don’t know, we were either frustrated with the way we were playing, or feel like things aren’t going our way. That’s this time of year. Things are going to be tough. You have to overcome it.”

“It looks like the process that we want to go through is to just get embarrassed enough to the point where we just really look in the mirror and recognize what’s required for us to be able to compete at a high level at this stage of the season,” said an obviously irritated Keefe afterward, before later adding that it’s not just any one thing on any given night.

“If you had special teams on your Bingo card of things that are hurting our group then you’re happy today and got that filled. I think the common denominator is just the overall urgency and competitiveness of the group.”

Urgency and compete were words that were used often after the game, with Tavares being asked directly what “urgency” looks like to him.

“Just winning our battles, and some that you shouldn’t win,” said Tavares. “Finding a way to get outside your comfort zone. Finding another level that maybe you’re not sure you even have. It’s just part of what makes winning hard. I’ve only been so far, I’m trying to find it myself, and I think as a group that’s the way you challenge and push each other, and when thing get hard you have to embrace it.”

“Everyone’s got to take a look in the mirror and we have to be better because that’s unacceptable,” said defenseman Jake Muzzin. “We have to find the urgency, the passion, the love of the game, the love to compete for each other. All of that needs to come. I don’t know why it’s not there. Sometimes when we struggle we want the easy game, and it’s not going to be easy against good teams.”

Overall, it was about as dejected and bleak as things could seem for a team following a mid-February loss.

On one hand, it is somewhat understandable. This roster is not where anyone expected it to be in the standings at this point in the season. It has also been a tough stretch of results this month, with Tuesday’s loss being the second time in as many games this season that they have been completely dominated by Pittsburgh, a team that is supposed to be a measuring stick opponent. Where the Penguins have been — and currently are — is where the Maple Leafs are trying to reach. And when you get blown out by them twice (by a combined score of 12-3 in two games) that has to be a jolt to the system.

They also remain in a fight with the FPanthers to simply secure a playoff spot (which is far from a given at this point).

But even with these past 10 games the Maple Leafs are still 22-12-4 under Keefe.

That is a 105-point pace over 82 games and the sixth-best points percentage in the league during that stretch. Their awful start put them in a hole that was going to take a ton of digging to get out of with little margin for error the rest of the way. For the most part, they have pulled themselves out of it. But they still find themselves in a position — thanks entirely to that slow start — where every loss is going to be magnified, every flaw is going to be put under the microscope, and every game is going to be the most important game of the season.

There is not much room for the middle ground in sports analysis right now as everything tends to swing to the extremes. The Maple Leafs, because of the market they play in, the demand to end a generations long championship drought, and the talent they have on paper only adds to that for them. The reality, though, often times sits somewhere in the middle. The Maple Leafs have their flaws. They have their concerns. But they are still in a better spot than they were three months ago and probably not in as dire of a situation as it seems after an ugly loss.

MORE: PHT’s 2020 NHL Trade Deadline Tracker

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.

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.

Matthews, Pastrnak set up thrilling Maurice Richard race

Matthews Pastrnak Richard race
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For quite some time, it looked like David Pastrnak (32 goals) would run away with the Maurice Richard Trophy. While Pastrnak remains atop that race, Auston Matthews is knocking on that door with 31 goals. If they keep this up, hockey fans are in for one heck of a battle.

Of course, it wouldn’t be one bit surprising if this turned into a three-horse race, or more. Alex Ovechkin demands attention as the most obvious threat, and he currently sits in a three-way tie for third place alongside Jack Eichel and Nathan MacKinnon at 26 goals.

Frankly, someone could alter the landscape with a hot month (or, for all we know, a hot weekend).

Pastrnak vs. Matthews is just too fun, and close, not to pick apart, though.

Before we burrow, consider the simplest facts:

Pastrnak: 32 goals , Bruins have 38 games remaining
Matthews: 31 goals, 37 GR

(Don’t worry, potentially aggrieved other fanbases; we’ll also discuss some of the other frontrunners to end this post.)

Matthews on fire, Pastrnak seemingly shakes slight cold streak

Chalk it up to Sheldon Keefe replacing Mike Babcock or not, the bottom line is Matthews is red-hot. After scoring an already-strong 14 goals during his last 23 games under Babcock, Matthews now has a ludicrous 17 goals in 22 games with Keefe at the helm.

Luck matters just as much as coaching. That’s worth noting considering how many bounces have been going Matthews’ way lately. Matthews has scored 15 goals on just 63 SOG over his last 17 games, a 23.8 shooting percentage since December. In November, he enjoyed a comparatively pedestrian 10.6 shooting percentage.

Pastrnak wandered through dramatic shifts of his own. The Bruins winger managed an absurd 30 percent rate in 10 October games. Pastrnak barely slowed down in November, but he seemed somewhat human in December, though he was still dominant (five goals and 18 points in 15 games, limited by an earthly 9.1 shooting percentage).

Overall, they’re both enjoying some bounces, with Pastrnak at 18.5 percent and Matthews at 18.3. Cold streaks could bring one or both of them back to the pack.

Pastrnak the power play phenom; Matthews’ interesting ice time notes

“Pasta” swiped the power play wizard torch from Ovechkin at some point, it seems. Pastrnak easily leads the NHL with 15 power-play goals, with James Neal being the only other player at double digits with 12.

Not too surprisingly, Pastrnak soaks up a lot of ice time on the power play, averaging 3:39 PP TOI. Time on ice remains an interesting topic with Matthews, actually …

During much of Babcock’s run, the veteran coach was (justifiably) chastised for using Matthews less than he should have. While Babcock did deploy Matthews more in his final season (19:50 TOI in 23 games, versus 18:33 in 2018-19), Keefe is giving Maple Leafs fans more of what they want. Matthews’ average climbed to 20:42 TOI per night under Keefe.

Interestingly, that boost is coming at even strength. After averaging 3:24 PP TOI per night during Babcock’s last run, Matthews’ power play average is actually down under Keefe to 2:38.

Overall, the response is “More Matthews, the merrier.” Matthews averages more time per game than Pastrnak since Keefe took over (20:42 vs. Pastrnak’s 19:29), while Pastrnak receives about an extra minute of power play time lately.

The two might indirectly make for some interesting quality vs. quantity debates if those trends continue. (That’s not a guarantee, mind you, as certain variables can change, but it’s a factor to watch.)

Considering the rest of the field

  • This is somewhat uncharted territory for Matthews and Pastrnak. Their youth and occasional injury issues make their ceilings unclear. Alex Ovechkin, meanwhile, delivers the goods, and lingers as a huge threat at 26 goals.

Ovechkin might be the greatest sniper ever, already boasting eight Richard trophies, including two in a row, and six of the last seven.

Ovechkin is firing the puck more than usual (210 SOG for 4.67 SOG per game, his highest rate since 2015-16), possibly because his shooting percentage is “just” at 12.4. Ovechkin’s track record and durability make him a strong pick to climb the ranks.

  • Nathan MacKinnon gives Ovechkin competition for trigger-happiness with 204 SOG. He’s right behind Ovechkin in SOG (4.64 per game), improving on what was already a career-high last season (4.45 in 2018-19, his first in the four range).

As spectacular as MacKinnon is, I wonder if his tendency to be a “volume shooter” might doom him in this race. If he maintained his current 12.7 shooting percentage, it would rank as the second-highest mark of MacKinnon’s career.

  • Jack Eichel completes that three-way tie for third, getting his 26 goals on 147 SOG (17.7 percent). Another Sabres swoon might take the wind out of his sails, although who knows?
  • Leon Draisaitl stands alone at sixth place with 25 goals. Patrick Kane and Connor McDavid have 24 apiece, while Sebastian Aho and Artemi Panarin round out the top 10 at 23. There are 16 players at 20+ goals so far in 2019-20.

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.