Sheldon Keefe

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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.

Maple Leafs hoping ‘sour’ taste from rough loss leads to wake-up call

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PHILADELPHIA — During a pregame media availability on Tuesday, Maple Leafs forward Andreas Johnsson described the adjustment period so far under new head coach Sheldon Keefe as “a little up and down.”

“We have good periods and then we have bad periods,” Johnsson said. “Whenever you play you’re going to have bad periods because the other team is good, too. [We want to make them shorter] when it doesn’t go your way.”

The Maple Leafs had a good opening period against the Flyers Tuesday night, peppering Carter Hart with 15 shots. But they couldn’t crack the netminder, and while they managed to even the score at one midway through the third period, thanks to a fortuitous bounce, the rest of that final period? Mark that down as one of those “bad periods” Johnsson was talking about.

Eighty-eight seconds after Travis Dermott’s tying goal, Claude Giroux scored to help the Flyers regain the lead. 

That’s when the wheels fell off.

As the Maple Leafs pushed for an equalizer, poor puck containment in the offensive zone led to a two-on-one break the other way with Travis Konecny leading the charge. As Konecny’s shot was making its way through Frederik Andersen’s five hole, the goaltender knew he was beat and threw his head back in frustration.

After Joel Farabee put in an empty-netter to make it 4-1, Andersen went back in net for the final two minutes and promptly surrendered two goals in 12 seconds as the Flyers were 6-1 victors.

“We still had a couple minutes left, but we let in that empty net goal and I mean, we can’t just fold like that,” said Auston Matthews. “It’s unacceptable to do that to our starting goalie, a guy that’s stolen games for us. He’s been a brick wall for us all year. That’s just unacceptable on our part. We can’t just fold, that’s unacceptable. We just let him out to dry, breakaway, two-on-ones, odd man rushes all in the last minute and suddenly the score is 6-1, so that’s on us. That just can��t happen.”

The Maple Leafs netminder wasn’t happy with his teammates’ performance in the final five minutes. As soon as the buzzer sounded, he made a bee-line for the tunnel.

“I don’t really worry about me. I worry more about the way we played for the logo on the jersey,” Andersen said afterward. “I think we’ve got to get more pride than that. Hopefully we can respond and show what kind of character we have.”

(Andersen also sounded off on the lackluster effort of his teammates two years following a loss to the Flyers. )

Keefe had some things to say to his players afterward as he went into the dressing room and spoke to the team following the game, something he hasn’t done since taking over for Mike Babcock two weeks ago.

“Normally I would not go in after a loss or a game like this but I felt like it was important to address that situation,” Keefe said. “We want to be a team of high character and that cares for one another and I thought we just left our goaltender completely out to dry there and stopped playing, so that’s not a good sign for our group, but hopefully it is the shakeup that we would need. 

“I think as I look back on the game as that third period is unfolding, I think we saw two different teams. One that has kind of figured out how to win and know what their recipe is and another on our side that’s trying to find its way. I think that’s the difference in the game.”

The Maple Leafs are still learning Keefe’s system and Keefe is still learning his players’ tendencies and the strengths and weaknesses of their games. There’s plenty to clean up defensively, and that’s the goal in the coming weeks. They’re now 4-2-0 since the coaching change and now isn’t the time to lose the early momentum gained from firing Babcock.

“I think over time I’m starting to learn that a little bit of where we’re at and we’ll continue to make strides, but we don’t have a whole lot of time here,” Keefe said. “We’re going to get right back at it with a very good team [Colorado] waiting for us in Toronto. 

“We’ve got to regroup here really quickly and hopefully the way this game finished will leave a sour enough taste in our mouth that we’ll be coming out [Wednesday] and show we’re a different group.”

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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.

The Buzzer: Rantanen dominates in return; Driedger gets shutout in first start

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Three Stars

1. Mikko Rantanen, Colorado Avalanche. After being sidelined for more than a month Rantanen returned to the Avalanche lineup on Saturday and picked right up where he left off, recording four points in a complete destruction of the Chicago Blackhawks. He is now up to 16 points in 10 games this season, and with him back in the lineup the Avalanche dominant duo of Rantanen and Nathan MacKinnon is going to start taking over games again. They are still without Gabriel Landeskog but have managed to keep piling up points thanks to the brilliance of MacKinnon and the improved depth throughout the roster. Given all of the salary cap space they still have they are going to have a chance to add a major piece before the trade deadline and be a force in the Western Conference playoffs. Joonas Donskoi also had four points for the Avalanche on Saturday, while MacKinnon added three. This game also featured one of the most random and unexpected fights of the season when Chicago’s Alex DeBrincat squared off against Colorado defenseman Samuel Girard.

2. Chris Driedger, Florida Panthers. With big-money free agent Sergei Bobrovsky off to a terrible start this season, the Panthers turned to the 25-year-old Driedger for his first career start on Saturday against the Nashville Predators. He made quite an impact turning aside all 27 shots he faced as the Panthers began a nine-game homestand. Before Saturday Driedger had only made three relief appearances (all with the Ottawa Senators) in his very brief NHL career.

3. Tanner Pearson, Vancouver Canucks. The Canucks have been waiting for some of their depth players to make an impact offensively this season, and it has finally started to happen over the past couple of games. Pearson had a huge game in their 5-2 win over the Edmonton Oilers, scoring two goals and adding two assists. Unlike Wednesday’s game in Pittsburgh, they were able to hold on to this three-goal third period lead to snap what had been a brief two-game losing streak.

Other notable performances from Saturday

  • Alex Ovechkin became just the fifth player in NHL history to record 15 consecutive 20-goal seasons to begin a career. He also moved into 10th place all-time with his 24th career hat trick. Read all about it here.
  • Thomas Greiss and Semyon Varlamov teamed up for a shutout for the New York Islanders as they beat the Columbus Blue Jackets. The Blue Jackets were one of four teams to lose a defenseman to injury on Saturday.
  • The Toronto Maple Leafs won for the fourth time in five games under new coach Sheldon Keefe thanks to a John Tavares overtime winner against the Buffalo Sabres.
  • Alexandar Georgiev stopped all 33 shots he faced for the New York Rangers in a 4-0 win over their arch-rivals, the New Jersey Devils.
  • Big night for Calgary Flames forward Elias Lindholm as he scored two goals, giving him 14 on the season, in a 3-1 win over the Ottawa Senators.
  • Defenseman Justin Faulk scored his first goal as a member of the St. Louis Blues in a 5-2 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins.
  • Logan Couture scored two goals for the San Jose Sharks as they erased an early two-goal deficit to beat the Arizona Coyotes by a 4-2 margin.
  • Jack Campbell was outstanding for the Los Angeles Kings, stopping 32 out of 33 shots in a 2-1 win over the Winnipeg Jets.

Highlights of the Night

Ivan Provorov lifted the Philadelphia Flyers to a 4-3 overtime win against the Montreal Canadiens on Saturday with this incredible goal in the extra period.

There’s plenty to be thankful for in hockey in 2019

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It’s Thanksgiving Day in the U.S. and it’s a quiet slate with only one game tonight. That leaves plenty of time for turkey, sides and lots and lots of dessert.

With it being a day to give thanks, some of the the NBCSports.com NHL staff wanted to say what we’re thankful for in 2019.

Please do let us know what you’re thankful for in the comments.

Sean Leahy, PHT Writer

Jaromir Jagr. He’s still playing hockey at age 47 and hopefully is able to fulfill his promise of playing beyond 50. His second tenure in the NHL ended abruptly thanks to injury, but No. 68 continues to give us a tiny slimmer of hope he may want to make another comeback before he hits 60.

Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. It’s must-watch TV when those two are on the ice, especially in overtime when you know Dave Tippett is playing them for its entirety.

Offside reviews. Because they continue to suck the life out of games and bring people over to the side of hoping one day a “no offside” policy is installed, helping bump up offense around the league.

• NHL teams going retro. Whenever a team brings back a retro jersey design that everyone loves, they’re basically saying, “Sorry for all those crappy ones we put out since we originally debuted these beauties years ago!”

• The spreading out of outdoor hockey. Who would have thought a decade ago we’d see an outdoor game in Texas? Maybe there’s one coming to Carolina in the year or two. Vegas? Florida? The league is expanding the list of areas that may host an outdoor game, which is a good thing. It’s a different vibe in person, a fun one, and more fans around the NHL should be able to experience that.

James O’Brien, PHT Writer

I’m thankful for the Maple Leafs under Sheldon Keefe. They feel a lot like a wild turkey allowed to roam free after being caged for far too long. Will they eventually prove that they can fly? We’ll see, but it will be fun to watch them try.

The sheer speed of Connor McDavid and Nathan MacKinnon, and how even micromanaging coaches can’t really slow them down. They basically warp everything on the ice like Sauron on a battlefield.

Scott Charles, PHT Writer

• Dave Tippett. Connor McDavid is a generational talent and deserves to be playing in the Stanley Cup Playoffs year in and year out. For too long, the Edmonton Oilers would miss the postseason preventing the most talented player from reaching his full potential. Every NHL fan does not have to root for the Oilers, but seeing the brightest star have the opportunity to play in the most critical moments is good for spectators of the NHL. Hopefully Leon Draisaitl and McDavid have the chance to add to Edmonton’s rich history.

• New Video Review Rules. I am especially grateful that coaches cannot challenge plays without weighing the risk of a penalty. In the past, anyone could challenge a play without any consequence and often requested reviews if the play was close and a call might go their way if the stars were aligned. However, now a coach must believe he is right before forcing a delay in the action.

Adam Gretz, PHT Writer

I am thankful for Mikko Koskinen and Mike Smith playing so good in the Edmonton net that we might finally get to see Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl play in the playoffs again and shine on the NHL’s biggest stage.

Also for David Pastrnak leading the league in goals and actually allowing one of my bold predictions to finally come true.

Michael Finewax, Rotoworld Hockey Editor

That the NHL and NHLPA decided in September not to reopen the CBA, allowing for NHL hockey to be uninterrupted through the 2021-22 season.

That the person drafting first picked Nikita Kucherov this season in one of my leagues, allowing me to take Connor McDavid.

NBC Sports presents the 2019 NHL Thanksgiving Showdown this Black Friday at 1 p.m. ET on NBC, when league-leading goal scorer David Pastrnak and the Atlantic Division-leading Boston Bruins host Artemi Panarin and the New York Rangers, marking the first of 12 NHL games that will air on NBC during the 2019-20 regular season.

Mike Emrick, Eddie Olczyk and Brian Boucher will call the 2019 NHL Thanksgiving Showdown. NBC Sports brings NHL Live on the road for Friday’s game, with Kathryn Tappen hosting studio coverage on-site from TD Garden alongside analysts Keith Jones and Mike Milbury.

You can watch a livestream of the game here.

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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.

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.