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Leafs leading the race to NHL cellar and top prospect Auston Matthews

From The Globe and Mail – James Mirtle

There is an eerie symmetry to the Toronto Maple Leafs drop-offs experienced last season and again this year.

They have come at roughly the same time. And they have been almost as severe.

From early January to mid-February in 2015, the free-falling Leafs recorded just two wins in 19 games (2-15-2) to drop into the NHL’s basement. By June, they were picking fourth overall, high enough to draft London Knights star Mitch Marner.

Dion Phaneuf traded to Sens: A look at his hockey career in numbers (CP Video)

This year, after a 7-2 implosion in Chicago on Monday night, the Leafs are 4-11-2 in their past 17 games, and fading fast. If the draft lottery were held today, they would have the best chance of picking first overall (20 per cent) for the first time since taking Wendel Clark in the top spot in 1985.

The biggest difference between this year and last is that an incredible run of injuries have played a starring role. Between trading captain Dion Phaneuf away to Ottawa last week and the loss of up to eight players at a time to injuries, the Leafs have had a skeletal roster of late.

In Monday night’s game against the Chicago Blackhawks, Roman Polak had the most minutes among defencemen (24). Colin Greening, recently acquired from the Senators, had the most minutes among forwards (17), despite the fact he has spent most of the year in the American Hockey League with Binghamton.

That arrangement didn’t work out so well against the defending Stanley Cup champs.

“We weren’t in the game basically from the start,” coach Mike Babcock lamented, before later adding: “They were just better than us. Period.”

That could be the postgame tale for a while. The Maple Leafs are about to face a run of good teams, with games against the New York Rangers, Nashville Predators, Tampa Bay Lightning and first-place Washington Capitals in the next two weeks. There is also the trade deadline looming on Feb. 29, when even more talent will be traded away.

So yes, things can get worse.

This isn’t new. Other teams have pulled their rosters apart midway through the year en route to a good draft pick. Arizona Coyotes general manager Don Maloney admitted in an interview with Sports Illustrated’s Alex Prewitt the other day that he did as much last season, explaining that “if we were going to be bad, my attitude was, let’s be real bad.”

He then called Connor McDavid, the eventual No. 1 pick, “a pretty big prize for being really bad.”

What’s made the Leafs’ situation unique is the organization has steadfastly refused to recall its best players from the minors. The Marlies are currently the top team in the AHL, with only nine regulation losses in 51 games, and young players such as William Nylander, Kasperi Kapanen, Rinat Valiev, Connor Brown, Nikita Soshnikov and Stuart Percy are better than some of those playing for the Leafs.

Brendan Leipsic showed as much on Saturday against Vancouver, when he was granted his first NHL game and promptly scored his first NHL goal (the winner, no less).

He hardly looked out of place. But he was promptly demoted before their next game.

That’s because Leafs management sees little point in sacrificing development in order to prop up a makeshift NHL roster that was never going to contend this year. Most of the recalls all season have been older non-prospects – Rich Clune, Mark Arcobello and Byron Froese – to the detriment of the NHL roster, and the benefit of Toronto’s lottery chances.

Is that tanking? In the strictest sense of the word, sure. But the Leafs were also only five points out of a playoff spot on Jan. 6 after 38 games, and before all the injuries. They’re still on pace for 73 points, five better than a year ago.

If that’s tanking, it’s Tanking Lite compared with what teams such as the Buffalo Sabres and Coyotes pulled off last season in failed attempts to get McDavid.

In fact, 73 points would be the best finish ever for a last-place NHL team. So if that was Leafs management’s sole intention with the season, they went about it in a curious way.

The way that their year has gone is, in many ways, the best possible outcome. There have been obvious improvements thanks to Babcock. The work ethic is there. And the Marlies have played like world-beaters.

Finishing 30th, thanks to injuries, trades and an insistence on protecting the kids, won’t be a black eye for anyone.

But it does leave the Leafs with their biggest hurdle still to come: beating the Edmonton Oilers in the draft lottery.

Good luck with that.

Follow on Twitter: @mirtle

Source: Leafs leading the race to NHL cellar and top prospect Auston Matthews

Leafs' Cheap UFA Gambit Already Paying Off

From Pension Puppets

What the market will pay for the Leafs’ expiring free agents is tough to gauge, but they’re a win for the Leafs regardless.

For many years, we here at PPP called for the Leafs to identify undervalued UFAs and sign them to cheap, short-term deals. We reasoned that if the player rebounded, he would either be re-signed as a useful player or dealt for assets at the trade deadline. If the player failed to produce the results desired, the team wouldn’t have wasted much in the way of money or long-term cap space, and in the meantime, would have sheltered prospects.

Instead, because the Leafs fixated for so many years on more expensive “blue-collar” players such as Mike Komisarek, David Clarkson and Dave Bolland, the team wound up spending extra money on an area of market inefficiency. While the Leafs slowly figured out that they could pay 3rd and 4th line players peanuts every year, other teams noticed as well, and started to pay less and less for their own bottom-six and bottom-pairing talent.

With the market bottoming out for short-term UFA help, there has been some consternation that the Leafs’ “pump’n dump” contracts won’t yield much of anything at the deadline, which is to say that most teams have a bunch of cheap, short-term contracts they can use to plug holes in their lineup already. The fact that a number of well-known NHL veterans have hit the waiver wire recently and gone unclaimed seems to add further credence to the idea that what the Leafs currently have on offer isn’t worth beans on the trade block.

Here’s the thing though: that’s fine. The Leafs’ cheap, short-term UFA deals are already paying dividends.

Even if the team gets nothing for any of the players signed/acquired this summer, they will have already had the benefit of three advantages: 1) the team got to take a chance on their bouncing back at next to no cost, 2) they didn’t plug up their cap situation with bad, long-term deals that will impede the Leafs’ ability to re-sign the likes of Mitch Marner or William Nylander, and 3) they got to keep prospects in their farm system for longer, instead of leaning heavily on young players in a hopeless losing season.

But what about their trade value, though?

Within the context that these pump’n dump deals are already a success, it doesn’t make too much sense to worry about the returns that these players yield for the Leafs – anything, absolutely anything they get in return is gravy. Having said that, it’s all but guaranteed that the Leafs will be able to get a pick or two out of the mix.

Certain contracts, like those of Roman Polak or Tyler Bozak each stand a realistic chance of netting the Leafs a tidy return before the trade deadline, so it’s not as though the Leafs are unable to acquire more assets without their pump’n dump deals, but let’s look at the list of players signed/acquired in this past off-season who are on the trading block:

Player Cap hit
Michael Grabner $3,000,000
Shawn Matthias $2,300,000
Daniel Winnik $2,250,000
Nick Spaling $2,200,000
P.A. Parenteau $1,500,000
Mark Arcobello $1,100,000
Brad Boyes $700,000
Rich Clune $575,000
Matt Hunwick $1,200,000
Martin Marincin $700,000
Frank Corrado $632,500

There are a few players on the above list that don’t strictly meet the pump’n dump criteria, but I thought I would include them for the sake of discussion. Grabner, for instance, cost the Leafs 5 middling prospects to acquire (don’t trade young goaltenders!), Spaling came over in the Kessel deal, Marcin cost Brad Ross and the 107th pick (not to mention the fact that Marincin is still young), and while Corrado was a waiver wire pickup, he is still young enough to have some limited upside. Nevertheless, the Leafs would probably love to flip and and all of them (with the possible exceptions of Marincin and Corrado) for other assets, particularly draft picks.

The most likely to go are Parenteau, Arcobello, Boyes, and to a lesser extent Matthias, since all of their contracts are quite reasonable given their production. Hunwick also stands a decent chance of being moved, since his usage has quite outstripped his income, even if it has also exceeded his abilities. For any of these players, the Leafs might expect in return draft picks in the later rounds or maybe even just a body back in exchange that has a lower cap hit – the Leafs are going to have to manage their cap carefully so as not to go over and be penalized for next season.

Several of the other players look less likely to be traded, though the reasons vary. Corrado and Marincin, for example, are still young and have looked good in their limited showing with the Leafs so far, and so one would think that the Leafs would hang on to them for next season. Meanwhile, Grabner, Winnik, and Matthias all have box score numbers that make their cap hits more difficult to rationalize, especially given that they’ve played on a weak offensive team all year and have been handed plenty of opportunity to score. Clune and Spaling, on the other hand, cost virtually nothing but also add very little in the way of scoring help that most teams will be looking for at the deadline.

As for concerns about the NHL’s waiver wire setting the tone of the market, it’s true that it does, but not in the way you would think. Yes, there have been veterans let go, and it is true that they have gone unclaimed. But rather than indicate that teams don’t need help, it instead signals that teams are looking for greater cap efficiency from their bottom-six forwards and bottom-pairing defencemen, and several of the Leafs’ players mentioned above have that in spades.

Brandon Prust and Mason Raymond? They both cost too much for playoff teams to bother claiming them. Same for Sam Gagner. Scott Gomez doesn’t cost much, but then, he’s old as dust anyway. None of Parenteau, Arcobello, Boyes, or Hunwick are prohibitively expensive or old, and so it is possible that a market exists for their services. These waiver wire snubs don’t mean that playoff teams aren’t looking for rental help, it’s just that the help has to be cheaper.

With the sudden “injuries” to Nazem Kadri and Tyler Bozak and the trading of Dion Phaneuf, the Leafs have the perfect opportunity to showcase their inexpensive wares, and other teams have undoubtedly taken notice. It’s a matter of time before the Leafs begin converting them into later-round picks that will only help the rebuild.

Source: Leafs' Cheap UFA Gambit Already Paying Off

Lou Lamoriello’s experience valuable asset to rebuilding Leafs: Cox

From The Star

There will be a price at which keeping James Reimer makes sense.

The key for the Maple Leafs is to be disciplined, determine that price and stick to it.

Similarly, there will be a price at which it would make sense to part with forward Leo Komarov at the trade deadline.

The key, again, is for the Leafs to be disciplined and stick with that asking price.

The common ground between these two very different personnel decisions — and all the others the Leafs face over the next few months — is discipline.

You can give Reimer too much in salary and term just to avoid having him walk out the door, and in a different way you can accept too little in trade for Komarov just to add something in futures that goes with the rebuilding program.

Discipline. Not easy to have when emotions start running high.

Part of the reason Brendan Shanahan found Lou Lamoriello so appealing, while others found him to be a curious fit as general manager for the Toronto organization, is that Lamoriello is regarded as an executive who believes in structure and a team philosophy and never gets persuaded to do something in a moment of high emotion he wouldn’t otherwise do.

Since joining the club in August, the former New Jersey hockey czar has been almost invisible. Part of that is because Shanahan already was the front man for the organization and Mike Babcock the face of the hockey department when Lamoriello was hired. And part of it is because in a year in which there have been very few trades and transactions in the NHL, a lot of GMs have flown under the radar.

Internally, however, his presence has been very much felt, whether it’s clearing people off the team’s charter flights, bringing a cone of silence around ongoing talks over player contracts or plugging many of the leaks to the media that always made the Leafs a team around which there was oodles of juicy speculation.

Compare last year, with all the peculiar incidents and rampant rumours, to this year, in which the Leafs have become a much more businesslike operation with few distractions.

That’s just the way Lamoriello likes it.

Now, it’s time for the 73-year-old native of Rhode Island to step into the spotlight. The Leafs have some big decisions to make in the coming weeks, and while Shanahan likes a group approach in which many voices are heard, he didn’t hire Lamoriello to be part of the chorus. He hired the man who drafted him to lead the way and make sure the Leafs have the discipline to stick to the rebuilding project Shanahan began last season when he fired GM Dave Nonis, dismissed a large group of scouts, traded Phil Kessel to Pittsburgh, drafted London Knight star Mitch Marner and hired Sheldon Keefe to coach the AHL’s Marlies.

Lamoriello, in turn, wasn’t ready to step back and be a senior consultant in New Jersey while new GM Ray Shero ran the team. He still wanted to be in the thick of the action, so much so he was willing to accept a position in which he reports to Shanahan, his former employee.

Now, he’s got work to do.

The decision on Reimer, for example, will be a fascinating one. The netminder is having a terrific season, and as an unrestricted free agent in July could leave the Leafs with nothing if he signs with another team. Calgary, with Brian Burke as president, looms as an interested suitor.

The easy answer is to pay Reimer whatever it takes to keep him and for as many years as he wants. But that would have major ramifications on the team’s cap picture for years to come for a goalie who has had lots of ups and downs. Lamoriello, who had his share of cap problems in New Jersey, will try to sign Reimer, but not at any cost.

With Komarov, Roman Polak, Shawn Matthias, P.A. Parenteau and other Leafs potentially available to teams prior to the Feb. 29 trade deadline, Lamoriello has to balance the value of those players as Leafs next season with their value in picks and/or prospects.

Komarov, in particular, has had a great season and has been the most consistent Leaf. You can expect the Leafs to set a high price — a first-round pick? — and to not lower that price when emotions start running high at the deadline just to make it appear like they are making things happen.

Beyond that, it’s going to take some cool heads around the Air Canada Centre in July if local lad Steven Stamkos ends up going all the way to unrestricted free agency. There is, like Reimer, a salary and a term that will make sense, even if Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment decides it is willing to pay a premium to land a marquee name at a time when television numbers are down and the ticket market has grown a little soft.

You can say the Leafs should pay anything to get Stamkos. But paying anything for one player could severely hinder their ability to grow a team that can, once it gets back into the Stanley Cup playoffs, sustain that level of competitiveness for years.

Lamoriello once signed Ilya Kovalchuk, a deal that helped his team get to a Cup final but also caused him major headaches. He knows what it’s like to have stars like Scott Niedermayer and Zach Parise and then lose them to other teams. He also had a knack for years in New Jersey of making players like Martin Brodeur understand the big picture and sometimes take a little less to allow the team to be stronger.

Dealing with Stamkos, if it comes to that, won’t make his knees buckle, and he’ll be able to say “no” if a bidding war does emerge and the numbers get too crazy, which is a massively important thing for any sports executive to be able to do.

There were those who said Lamoriello was past his prime in Jersey and needed to be replaced. You can bet he heard that, and while he’ll deny letting outside forces shape his actions, he’s a proud man who believes in certain principles and believes he can help make the Leafs a winner again.

He’s been a quiet, behind-the-scenes presence with the Leafs this season. He’s about to become much more prominent.

Damien Cox is a broadcaster with Rogers Sportsnet and a regular contributor to Hockey Night in Canada. He spent nearly 30 years covering a variety of sports for the Star, and his column appears here Saturdays. Follow him @DamoSpin.

Source: Lou Lamoriello’s experience valuable asset to rebuilding Leafs: Cox

Maple Leafs prospects recap: Timashov, Johnson have big nights.

From Pension Puppets

covering the kids from Jan 25-31st.

Let’s dive right into things, then I’ll think of something to say afterwards.

Ontario Hockey League

Mitch Marner/JJ Piccinich (F) – London Knights
January 29: Erie 6 at London 2
Marner: 0G, 2A, -2 / Piccinich: 0G, 0A, -1

January 30: London 3 at Windsor 8
Marner: 1G, 0A, -1 / Piccinich: 0G, 0A, -2
Week Totals: Marner 1G, 2A, -3 / Piccinich: 0G, 0A, -3

Travis Dermott (D) – Erie Otters
January 29: Erie 6 at London 2 0G, 0A, +1
January 31: Mississauga 1 at Erie 5 0G, 2A
Week Totals: 0G, 2A, +1

Nikita Korotselev (F) – Sarnia Sting
January 29: Flint 3 at Sarnia 4 Did Not Play
January 30: Sarnia 5 at Flint 2 Did Not Play
January 31: Sarnia 5 at Windsor 0 Did Not Play
Korostelev is still working off an injury suffered a few weeks ago.

Stephen Desrocher (D) – Kingston Frontenacs
January 29: Owen Sound 5 at Kingston 2
1G, 0A, -4
January 31: Kingston 2 at Peterborough 3 SO 0G, 1A, +1
Week Totals: 1G, 1A, -3

Jeremy Bracco (F) – Kitchener Rangers
January 29: Windsor 0 at Kitchener 2 1G, 0A, +1
January 30: Kitchener 2 at Saginaw 1 0G, 1A
January 31: Kitchener 6 at Sault Ste. Marie 6 0G, 0A, -2
Week Totals: 1G, 1A, -1

Quebec Major Junior Hockey League

Dmytro Timashov (F) – Shawinigan Cataractes
January 29: Chicoutimi 6 at Shawinigan 2
0G, 1A
January 31: Drummondville 4 at Shawinigan 5 OT 1G, 3A, +4
Week Totals: 1G, 4A, +4

Martins Dzierkals (F) – Rouyn-Noranda Huskies
January 30: Baie-Comeau 0 at  Rouyn-Noranda 4
0G, 0A, +1
January 31: Baie-Comeau 0 at  Rouyn-Noranda 4 1G, 0A
Week Totals: 1G, 0A, +1

Cody Donaghey (D) – Moncton Wildcats
January 30: Halifax 4 at Moncton 1
0G, 0A, -1
January 31: Acadie-Bathurst 2 at Moncton 0 No Points
Week Totals: 0G, 0A, -1

Western Hockey League

Andrew Nielsen (D)  – Lethbridge Hurricanes
January 29: Lethbridge 1 at Victoria 3
0G, 1A, -2
January 30: Lethbridge at Vancouver Did Not Play
Week Totals: 0G, 1A, -2

NCAA

Dominic Toninato / Tony Cameranesi (F) – U. Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs
January 29: UMD 3 at Northern Michigan 4
Toninato: 1G, 0A, +1 / Cameranesi: 0G, 1A
January 30: UMD 3 at Northern Michigan 1
Toninato: 1G, 0A, +1 / Cameranesi: 1G, 0A, +1
Week Totals: Toninato: 2G, 0A, +2 / Cameranesi: 1G, 1A, +1

Dakota Joshua (F) – Ohio State Buckeyes
January 29: Michigan State 4 at Ohio State 2
0G, 0A, -2
January 30: Michigan State 1 at Ohio State 2 0G, 1A
Week Totals: 0G, 1A, -2

Nolan Vesey (F) – U. Maine Black Bears
January 29: Maine 5 at Massachusetts 2
0G, 0A, +2
January 30: Maine 5 at Massachusetts 4 1G, 0A, -2
Week Totals: 1G, 0A

Europe

Andreas Johnson (F) – Frolunda, SHL
January 26: Frolunda 0 – HV71 2
No Points
January 28: Växjö 1 – Frolunda 3 1G, 1A
January 30: Frolunda 3 – Djurgården 2 0G, 2A, +1
Week Totals: 1G, 3A, +1

Jesper Lindgren (D) – MODO, SHL
January 26: MODO 4 – Djurgården  1
Did Not Play
January 28: Rögle 2 – MODO 1 Did Not play
January 30: Färjestad 4 – MODO 1 Did Not Play

Pierre Engvall (D) – Mora IK, Allsvenskan
January 27: Mora 4 – IK Pantern 2
No Points
January 30: IK Oskarshamn 5 – Mora 2 No Points

Fabrice Herzog (F) – Zurich Lions, Swiss A
January 26: HC Fribourg-Gottéron 2 – Zurich 3
No Points
January 30: EHC Biel 6 – Zurich 5 OT No Points

Player League GP Points PPG NHLe Points
Mitch Marner (F) OHL 36 73 2.03 53.21
Andreas Johnson (F) SHL 39 35 0.90 44.15
Dmytro Timashov (F) QMJHL 38 69 1.82 38.71
Jeremy Bracco (F) OHL 36 48 1.33 34.99
Tony Cameranesi (F) NCAA-NCHC 23 24 1.04 35.08
JJ Piccinich (F) OHL 45 52 1.16 30.32
Martins Dzierkals (F) QMJHL 40 47 1.18 25.05
Travis Dermott (D) OHL 39 36 0.92 24.22
Andrew Nielsen (D) WHL 49 52 1.06 23.50
Fabrice Herzog (F) NLA 33 20 0.61 19.88
Nikita Korostelev (F) OHL 36 26 0.72 18.95
Dakota Joshua (F) NCAA-B10 18 10 0.56 15.94
Stephen Desrocher (D) OHL 50 29 0.58 15.22
Cody Donaghey (D) QMJHL 34 22 0.65 13.80
Dominic Toninato (F) NCAA-NCHC 25 11 0.44 14.79
Pierre Engvall (F) ALK 40 15 0.38 12.30
Jesper Lindgren (D) SHL 26 3 0.12 5.68
Nolan Vesey (F) NCAA-HE 25 4 0.16 4.85

Aside from Johnson’s night there wasn’t much coming out of Europe. Lindgren is off in the wind, Engvall and Herzog were shut out.  Everyone we have in the NCAA scored a goal, which I believe is the first time they all did in the same week.

Everyone else had some slower weeks, but still put up atleast a point. I haven’t found out why Nielsen didn’t play vs Vancouver, so that makes me think it’s a rest day.

We’re nearing the playoffs, and I’m excited to see what these kids can do. All CHL players are looking to make atleast the first round, so that will be a busy few weeks.

Source: Maple Leafs prospects recap: Timashov, Johnson have big nights.

Wheeler's mid-season Top 25 Under 25 ranking update

From Pension Puppets

Christian Bonin | TSGphoto.com

The top-10 is… unchanged.

At the end of August, when our staff’s collective Top 25 Under 25 ranking began to wrap up, I chose to release my individual ranking and explain my reasoning.

With the All-Star Game come to a close, and February starting, I thought it would be prudent to update that ranking and justify the movement that has occurred.

In order to get a better understanding of how I ranked the players, here’s an updated version of the criteria I included in my August ranking:

My Criteria

There were several ways in which I approached the ranking, but due to the age and established nature of some of the players, it was a decidedly different approach than the one I take when evaluating a draft class or pool of non-NHL prospects.

Not all voters used the organization’s status as a criterion. I did. The Leafs rebuild factors into the value each player has to the organization moving forward. The present isn’t nearly as important as the future, and that gives huge value to a Mitch Marner or a William Nylander over an established Nazem Kadri. Future star power will make or break the end result of this Leafs rebuild, and Kadri may well factor into it as a key player (he already is), but he’s not a piece that changes a franchise.

I didn’t approach the ranking as one that was strictly a meritocracy. As evidenced through my non-ranking of Byron Froese, a player’s NHL status doesn’t guarantee him value. Byron Froese is replaceable. The Marlies roster this season includes several players who could play a fourth line role in the NHL.

The lottery tickets that the players I ranked near the bottom of the T25U25 represent hold more value than a Byron Froese does. The chance that Martins Dzierkals can be more than a replacement level NHLer holds considerable value to a team like the Leafs. Nothing plagues NHL franchises more than the idea that picks are expendable. If you draft for upside, you will find real value, not Byron Froese value.

Dzierkals’ footwork and skating ability, as well as the low kick to his release and his knack for getting it off in stride is a real, identifiable stylistic trait that translates well at the next level. And there’s a very good chance he never becomes an NHL player, but the value in acquiring players like him is worth more than any value Byron Froese holds to the Leafs, at least for a rebuilding team.

The top 11 players remain unchanged. The prospects within the group have progressed as expected, Jake Gardiner has blossomed (yes, he’s 26 but for continuity’s sake I re-included him in the ranking), and after faltering out of the gate Peter Holland and Nazem Kadri have returned to form. I nearly moved Jeremy Bracco back a spot in favour of Dmytro Timashov (who has risen more than anyone except Garret Sparks) but Bracco elevated his play after being snubbed by Team USA and he’s really beginning to find his game after leaving the NCAA for the OHL.

Sparks wasn’t ranked in August in part because I regarded Chris Gibson as the Marlies starter, which would have limited Sparks’ ability to get the starter’s load he needs to really progress. Both were narrowly left off of my August list, though Gibson was ranked 25th on the overall PPP ranking.

Travis Dermott also rose substantially thanks to some impressive play as one of the OHL’s best defensemen this year, though I still worry about his skating limiting his upside when he becomes a pro.

Rinat Valiyev also moves into the top 25 — his skating has held up more than I expected it too as an AHL rookie — and is joined by two players who weren’t available to be ranked in August in AHL scorer Jeremy Morin and Frank Corrado (who should play more than he does).

Stuart Percy and Frederik Gauthier have fallen the furthest, but not because they haven’t had good seasons. Gauthier has played really well defensively — as expected — and his results are the dividends. For Percy, it’s just a matter of timing. The clock is ticking and despite up-ticks in his offensive production, Percy’s window for establishing himself in the Leafs organization will come to a close before we know it. Mostly, for both Gauthier and Percy, the dip in their ranking speaks to some strong seasons and new faces.

Despite an excellent (surprisingly so) season from Andrew Nielsen, he remained unranked. Like with Dermott, I worry about how Nielsen’s skating will translate as a pro (his shot and physicality aren’t a problem). Still, his season has been extremely impressive and he doesn’t seem to be slowing down as the WHL’s highest-scoring defensemen. There’s a good chance, if he keeps it up, that he climbs into next summer’s ranking (though the Leafs could have 5+ picks in the first three rounds this summer that will factor into that discussion).

My February Ranking

Just missed: Andrew Nielsen, Zach Hyman, Jesper Lindgren, Nikita Korostelev.

Remember: Neither of these rankings are the overall, conglomerated PPP ranking but simply my personal list. Morgan Rielly finished first on the overall list.

Source: Wheeler's mid-season Top 25 Under 25 ranking update

The Marlies kept trying to lose and finally succeeded

From Pension Puppets

The Marlies scored one less goal than the Binghamton Senators in their last game before the All-Star break, the kind of lazy good-team problems the Maple Leafs are striving to acquire.

For the Marlies, it’s tough at the top, where the challenge for the rest of the regular season is to stay there.

I feel like I’ve said that before.

A tale of two teams

The Marlies are the top team in the AHL. I could enumerate the ways they are the best: the goals for, the goal differential, this percentage, that measure, this stat, that calculation, but they all come out the same. The Marlies are an elite team that’s had a lot of luck and have won the overwhelming majority of their games so far.

So far.

They have two and a half more months to play.

Frölunda, Andreas Johnson‘s team, is also atop their league and has an amazing goal differential; they shoot the puck like crazy and have four real lines that can all play at a high level. They are elite, lucky, and they’ve won the overwhelming majority of their games. And among that elite team, Johnson, at 21, and Artturi Lehkonen at 20 are the young stars that are working every day to get to the NHL.

The rest of the team may have once dreamed of it, some of them have tried and found their home in Sweden instead, and for them the league they play in is their league; the games are a point unto themselves; the championship is the reward at the end of the season, and leaving is not the mark of success.

Frölunda are showing the signs of a sluggish desire to just get on with it, get to the playoffs, get this year over, win the cup and turn the calendar to next year so they can do it again. They’ve dropped a couple of stinkers lately—big losses, a couple of shutouts where they just skated around bored for 60 minutes. They’ve won a couple like that too.

For Johnson, this is his last year there. He is proving himself, and wants to win, but he has his eyes on a higher goal.

They have a month and a half to go before the playoffs.

The Marlies have a lot more than two guys who are yearning to escape. They have nearly a roster full. They are more than just William Nylander and Kasperi Kapanen, two guys who hope they will see the NHL this year and every year after.

There is Mark Arcobello, patiently scoring more and more and winning awards.

There is Nikita Soshnikov working on the bottom six and trying to prove what he can do, taking every chance to get on a better line and making the most of it.

There’s Connor Brown, doing a very good job of reminding everyone who he is with points in every game since he’s been back.

There is T.J. Brennan, ripping up the record books and rewriting them anew on this his fourth AHL team. On none of those has he been as dominate over three seasons as he has on the Marlies. He’s tasted the coffee in the NHL, but he’s never stuck, and it’s easy to just decide that’s it, he hasn’t got it, but if the 26-year-old defenceman leading the league in scoring isn’t up to it, are you sure all those kids are a lock?

There’s also Zach Hyman, who didn’t stick with the team that drafted him, nor did Brendan Leipsic or Scott Harrington. There’s a handful of Toronto draft picks in Josh Leivo, Viktor Loov, and Rinat Valiev. And all of them want out. They don’t want to ever again ride five hours home from Grand Rapids, Michigan.

And they’re collectively playing pretty bad hockey lately.

The Marlies roared along for the last few games, winning while being outshot and putting on a terrible power play and giving up a league-leading number of shorthanded goals. They have been winning by betting big, risking big, and outscoring their opponents with contemptuous ease.

Lately, the defence has been falling to ruins, the goalies have been working like single mothers with two jobs, and still they win.

Or they did.

An afternoon at the Ricoh Coliseum

Saturday afternoon in Toronto, on the afternoon after that ride home from Grand Rapids, they didn’t outscore their problems. Not quite.

They played the division basement-dweller Binghamton Senators, and they were each as bad as the other. They took 8 penalties each, scored five regulation goals each. They each had a short-handed goal, and the Senators won it on a goal on a breakaway in overtime after one of the Marlies blew a skate on the play in his own end and fell down. A fitting end to a game that cast no glory on anyone.

The Marlies outshot the Senators—they aren’t so far gone, they couldn’t do that—37-29, giving Garret Sparks a save percentage of .793.

They gave up so many odd man rushes, turnovers, easy giveaways, and I guess it was buy one get one free day at Ricoh?

This isn’t a one off aberration. They’ve been drifting in this direction for weeks, and some of that is injuries pulling the better guys out of the lineup, and some of it is just the difficulty you have when the team is so good they score more goals than even the good teams most of the time.

Bob McGill the Marlies colour commentator was wondering how you tell these guys to tighten it up, when they usually win even when they play so loose? A good question. Ask Alain Vigneault. Maybe he knows. Not that the Marlies are the hollow-cored New York Rangers. They usually do outshoot their opposition not just out-goal them.

Getting the Marlies back on track may be a harder task than Frölunda has with their team of slightly bored overachievers, however.

It’s not a terrible problem to have, being so good you’re struggling to execute your system well night after night, but it is a problem. And it’s a hell of a skill to bring to a team that’s never had this dilemma before if you learn the trick of it.

A cautionary tale

This is what Nate MacKinnon said about Jonathan Drouin recently:

“Our junior team, we lost five games all year, we had the puck the whole game,” MacKinnon said. “We were playing offense for two years, we didn’t really play any ‘D.’ So that’s tough. I don’t know you can really expect lockdown ‘D’ when you first come into the league. You can always work on your ‘D’ but you can’t just become an offensive force.”

And he’s not wrong. But where do you start to learn that more complete game? Something you can use when you don’t have a team of above average players every night. Something you can use to get yourself into a position to succeed when your coach hasn’t got the means to put you there. Something that will carry you when your cap-strapped team downgrades your linemates or your rebuilding team hasn’t got the horses to win much.

It’s not junior hockey, he’s right about that too.

For MacKinnon it was the NHL. He very much did it the hard way. But the New Toronto Maple Leafs don’t do things that way, they tell us. Not unless they have to, like they will with Mitch Marner.

So it had better be the AHL, the league most guys are trying to leave. And it better be now before they start leaving one way and another.

Nice problems to have

Sheldon Keefe has some things to accomplish. He’s got to bring Nylander back into the lineup; he’s got Connor Brown chomping at the bit to play—and he was as guilty as any guy out there of sloppy defensive errors. He might have Josh Leivo—who had as many shots on goal on Saturday as he had shots of any kind in 4 games for the Leafs—and who made a lot of sloppy definsive errors.

Keefe’s also got Mark Arcobello and T.J. Brennan, who need to see a carrot on the end of the stick or they might stop carrying the goal-scoring burden for the team most nights. (Between the pair of them they have 19% of the Marlies goals. Add in Nylander and Leivo, and you get to 34%. The offence isn’t quite so spread out on this team as we tell ourselves.)

Keefe’s got to get them all to tighten up and play better than they need to. And he has to convince them it’s for their own good. Because it is.

So far, he’s been very good at doing that. Let’s see if he can keep doing it once the All-Star Break is over.

Source: The Marlies kept trying to lose and finally succeeded

Leafs have hit bottom plenty of times in last 50 years

From The Star

For a team that is tied for last in the NHL, with one win in its last 10 games and likely to miss the playoffs for the 10th time in 11 seasons, things sure are quiet around the Toronto Maple Leafs.

There will be no bloodletting this year as there was last when general manager Dave Nonis, head coach Peter Horachek, the assistant coaches and a bevy of scouts lost their jobs.

The off-season hirings of head coach Mike Babcock and GM Lou Lamoriello have changed the conversation from: “How bad are the Leafs?” to “How good will they be in a year or two?”

Tyler Bozak, who has lived through the tumultuous times in an entire NHL career spent with the Leafs, has noticed.

“There’s a lot of excitement with Mike and Lou here,” Bozak said. “They’ve done a lot of good things with teams before. There’s a lot of trust for them to turn the ship around here. Hopefully, we’re on the right track.”

That may not be reflected in the standings, where the Leafs (17-22-9) find themselves tied for last in points with Columbus and Edmonton.

But there’s a plan that goes beyond this season, building on recent drafts that netted them such prospects as William Nylander and Mitch Marner, and trades that brought them others like Kasperi Kapanen and Zach Hyman.

The Leafs have had terrible seasons before, each with its own set of ramifications. The franchise has been in seeming disarray for almost 50 years.

Source: Leafs have hit bottom plenty of times in last 50 years

Hanifin could develop into one Leafs let get away: Feschuk

From The Star

Mike Babcock was talking about the trials and tribulations of developing young NHL defencemen, specifically about moulding Morgan Rielly into the elite back-ender the Maple Leafs hope he can become.

The Leafs coach said it is mostly a matter of discovering the appropriate balance between risk and reward, between making a play and making a mistake. And Rielly, as much as he is making progress in mastering the fundamentals of those fine arts, also played a game in Philadelphia on Tuesday in which he made a late turnover that led to a Flyers goal and nearly cost the Leafs a win.

Still, Babcock said, it’s important not to pick apart your own players too mercilessly, even if it’s the typical coach’s tendency to over-critique one’s own players while idealizing those on other teams.

“We like ’em all on the other team, because all we see are all the good things they do. And then all their coach sees is all the turnovers they make and all the times they get caught on the wrong side and all the bad sort-outs,” Babcock said. “That’s just hockey.”

Whether or not Babcock liked ’em all on the Carolina Hurricanes on Thursday, when the Leafs dropped a 1-0 overtime loss, it’s a safe bet he liked at least one: Noah Hanifin, Carolina’s 18-year-old defenceman. It’s been widely repeated by multiple hockey-world sources that, in the lead-up to the June draft, Babcock expressed a forceful opinion in internal meetings that the Leafs should use the fourth overall pick to select the smooth-skating six-foot-three blueliner from Boston College.

The Leafs, of course, did not choose the big, puck-moving defenceman their coach coveted. They opted for the small, puck-ragging forward favoured by Mark Hunter, the director of player personnel. And so Mitch Marner is Maple Leafs property, playing for the OHL’s London Knights. And Hanifin is the only defenceman drafted in 2015 playing in the NHL.

If coaches “like ’em all on the other team,” certainly there’s a lot to like about Hanifin — especially if you’re a coach like Babcock who values defence above all and mobile defenders above almost everything else.

The Carolina player and the Leafs coach would have been a fine match. Hanifin even wears No. 5 honour of his favourite player, Nick Lidstrom, the Hall of Famer Babcock coached in Detroit and reveres to this day as the gold standard for modern blueliners.

“Growing up in that era, (Lidstrom) was the best defenceman in the league and he was someone I liked to watch,” Hanifin said. “As I got older, I liked to watch him more.”

He’s not yet playing like Lidstrom, of course — nobody has since the Swede retired in 2012 — but he’s more than holding his own, averaging about 17 minutes of ice time a game, posting positive possession numbers, compiling a goal and nine assists in 45 games played.

John-Michael Liles, the ex-Leafs defenceman now playing in Carolina, raved about Hanifin’s maturity and likened him to a young Victor Hedman, the horse of the Tampa Bay blue line.

“I know that’s a high bar to set,” Liles said. “But you think about the way (Hedman) can control the game, and I think Hanny has the potential to do that, too.”

Said Bill Peters, the Carolina coach: “He’s got a huge upside to him. We like him. We like him a lot. He is a great skater, let’s not kid ourselves . . . We’re real happy with him, his ability to skate the puck.”

The happiness hasn’t come without some hiccups. When an early-season opportunity on the power play, for instance, didn’t go well, Peters relieved him of the responsibility. But a few weeks later, Peters said he gave Hanifin another try with the man advantage and . . . well, he’s now third among Carolina defencemen in power-play ice time. On Thursday, through an otherwise uneventful opening two periods, nobody on either team, veteran or rookie, had spent more time on the ice than Hanifin, who played 15:23 of the opening 40 minutes — only slightly ahead of Rielly’s 15:20. Hanifin ended up with more than 21 minutes of ice time all told as Eddie Lack got the shutout and Jordan Staal scored the winner 2:54 into overtime.

“He’s been real good on (the power play),” Peters said. “That’s the growth in his game. Every time he’s been given something he’s either succeeded with it or we’ve taken it away, whether it be ice time or situations. And then when he gets it the second or third time, he’s good. So, a real good, exciting young player.”

The Hurricanes have their share of those on the back end. Along with Hanifin, they rolled out a couple of other rookie defencemen on Thursday — 21-year-olds Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce. Maybe it’s not an ideal developmental situation, half a defensive corps learning from scratch. But Peters was frank about the situation: The trio of rookies are simply the organization’s best options at the moment. And the Hurricanes are making sure they’re nurtured properly.

“If they make a mistake, they’re going right back out there,” Peters said. “And they’ve gotten better.”

Still, even Hanifin was a healthy scratch a few times in October and November. “And he will be again,” Peters said.

“What happens with those young guys, they hit the wall. You see it. I see it. They won’t admit it. But you see their energy levels flailing and all of a sudden we just take the guy out and freshen him up a little bit,” Peters said. “It happens. I think it’s mental. It’s everything. It’s the travel . . .”

As Peters pointed out, two years ago, Hanifin was playing high school hockey in the Boston area. This season the Hurricanes have already been to the Western Conference on three separate multi-game road trips.

“I don’t think they had any (high school) games out in the Pacific time zone,” Peters said. “They might have. I don’t know.”

Hanifin, for his part, said he was “aware” the Leafs had expressed interest in him before the draft. Then again, so had every other team with a remote chance of landing him.

“I knew it was a possibility I could be taken (by Toronto),” Hanifin said. “It’s a hard decision for teams. I’m sure the guy they got will be a great player, too.”

Don’t get it wrong: It’s too early to say whether the Leafs made the wrong decision on draft day. But what we can say is this: In the race to NHL stardom, where few reach the finish line, Hanifin has carved out a healthy head start on the guy the Leafs got.

Still, it’s worth reminding Toronto’s hockey fans what Babcock was saying on Thursday: It’s important not to over-critique one’s own assets while idealizing the other team’s.

Source: Hanifin could develop into one Leafs let get away: Feschuk

PPP Midseason Roundtable, Part 3: The Future

From Pension Puppets

We’ve looked at the 2015-16 team, and the 2015-16 players. What about what lies ahead?

See Part 1 here.
See Part 2 here.

Today on the PPP roundtable, we talk about what to expect of this team’s future here and beyond.

(10) Saturday was Game 43, which means the clock on William Nylander losing his UFA eligibility finally stops ticking. Obviously, he suffered a setback with a concussion at the World Juniors, but once healthy, he will be the subject of questions as to whether he will play for the big club this year.

Do you see Nylander joining the Leafs this season? Why or why not?

KATYA: Yes.  They should get a look at him in the NHL when he’s 100%.

ELSELDO: I’m for sure repeating myself from the start of the year, but I would only bring up Nylander if the Marlies are locked into the playoffs.

SCOTT: Had he not suffered the concussion, I would have said yes. If he rejoins the Marlies quickly and continues his strong play for 10 more games, I’d still say yes. But if his health keeps him off for an extended period of time, then they’re not going to throw him into the NHL and there’s a good chance he finishes what little of the season he has left on a Calder Cup run.

FIDDY; If hes back to 100%, I see no reason not to get him in some games, especially if roster spots begin opening up after the trade deadline.

ACHA; Nylander needs to take his time with the concussion protocol, finish out the season with the Marlies, and join them for their playoff run.

JP: Let him recover from his injury at a level of play he is already prepared to handle. The mood around the Leafs’ dressing room is bound to get darker as players get traded. He’ll have the rest of his career to play for the Leafs and the team doesn’t need any hot streaks screwing up their draft pick.

11) Fill in the blanks, RFA Edition!

Nazem Kadri should get ________________.

SCOTT: Nazem Kadri should get between 4 and 5 million per year, and term.

ELSELDO; Kadri should get 4 years, $22 million.

FIDDY: 5 years, $5.25M AAV.

JP: I have no idea. $5M over four years? Five years? Would that get it done? Maybe $5.5M.

Morgan Rielly should get ________________.

FIDDY; 6 years, $5.75M AAV.

JP: The Jake Gardiner deal. Rielly has had moments of brilliance this year, but I’m less and less certain that he’s going to be the top-pair defender that we hoped for.

ELSELDO: 3 years, $12 million. A bridge type deal that still under pays him because we haven’t bought out UFA years. He’s 24 when it’s over and can cash in on a 6-7 year deal then.

SCOTT: Morgan Rielly should get whatever Morgan Rielly’s little heart desires (within the confines of his first non-ELC contract and the CBA).

(12) How many rookies will be on the Leafs’ 2016-17 Opening Night roster? Who?

FIDDY: There will be at least two, but it could be as many as five.

ELSELDO: Four – Marner, Nylander, Brown, Johnson.

ACHA: agree with El Seldo: Marner, Nylander, Brown, Johnson, with the hopes that Marner is not the Leafs’ Jonathan Drouin.

SCOTT: Locks: William Nylander and Mitch Marner.

FIDDY: William Nylander and Mitch Marner are almost certain locks to make the team next fall.

JP: Nylander and Marner, for sure.

JP: Connor Brown if he can get healthy and do some damage in the end of the season, and maybe one defender. Kapanen is likely to get a few games next season, but he hasn’t done enough so far to show that he’ll be ready to make the roster out of the gate.

FIDDY: It wouldnt surprise me if Connor Brown could make this team out of camp, and I think Brendan Leipsic may get a look in a depth role.

KATYA: Nylander, Kapanen, Marner, Patrik Laine.

ELSELDO: Whether Marner stays after 9 games is the question. I can see them dragging his 9 games out to the World juniors, then sending him down afterwards.

(13) (EDITOR’S NOTE: in honour of Mats Sundin, this question has been left blank. Please do not write an answer here)

ELSELDO: OKAY

ACHA: OKAY

KATYA: Du är inte chefen över mig.

(EDITOR”S NOTE: you’re all jerks.)

(14) Finally, the big one: will Steven Stamkos be a Toronto Maple Leaf in 2016-17?

KATYA: Nope.

SCOTT: Nope.

ELSELDO: Nope.

ACHA: Eyes dot gif.

JP: The odds are against it, I think.

FIDDY: I think it’s possible at this point. If he doesn’t stay in Tampa, I think playing in his hometown for MIke Babcock and a ton of money is a big sell.

JP: There are just too many other good options for Stamkos, though the Leafs probably have the best chance of any team other than Tampa to have him on the roster come October of next year.

ELSELDO: He either stays in Tampa or somehow ends up a Hab.

Source: PPP Midseason Roundtable, Part 3: The Future