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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

Leafs’ fill-ins fill Vancouver net: Feschuk

From The Star

VANCOUVER—In the handful of days since the Maple Leafs traded captain Dion Phaneuf, head coach Mike Babcock has been putting a positive spin on a less-than-optimal situation.

For an intensely competitive coach who likes nothing more than to celebrate a nightly victory, Toronto’s roster is nightmarishly short on established difference makers. But Babcock has used the state of affairs as motivational fodder.

“It’s an opportunity for everybody,” Babcock has said.

And in Saturday’s 5-2 win over the Canucks, he wasn’t kidding. In the first period alone the Maple Leafs’ pair of power-play opportunities were handed over to a list of names a fan wouldn’t automatically associate with man-advantage situations. Brendan Leipsic, 21, was making his NHL debut as an emergency call-up — he got nearly two minutes of power-play run. Colin Greening and Mark Arcobello have spent most of the season in the AHL; they were both featured prominently.

Babcock was effectively saying, “Here’s your NHL moment — seize it.”

Leipsic certainly did. Along with logging those power-play minutes, he scored his first NHL goal, batting what turned out to be the third-period winner into the net with a waist-high swat from the slot.

Arcobello seized the opportunity, too, potting a pair of second-period goals in a span of 17 seconds to help the Maple Leafs snap a three-game losing streak. On a night when the visitors put on a possession-game clinic, doubling the shots-on-goal total of the playoff-hopeful Canucks, 38-19, Leafs veterans Leo Komarov and Brad Boyes scored empty-netters to pad the total.

“That’s a case study in what we’re capable of,” said Rich Clune, another Leaf better known for his work with the Marlies this year, who assisted on Leipsic’s goal. “Getting a win on the road against a highly skilled team like Vancouver — I think we frustrated them, especially early on. I think our work ethic is our key.”

Indeed, for all the minor-leaguers on their bench on Saturday, the Maple Leafs roundly outplayed the Canucks for most of the evening. On the Canucks’ three cracks on the power play, the diligent work of the visitors limited the home team to a combined two shots. Daniel Sedin and Sven Baertschi scored for the Canucks. But Leipsic’s goal turned out to be the difference.

“Lucky to get a stick on it,” said Leipsic, a 21-year-old Winnipegger acquired a year ago in the trade that sent Cody Franson and Mike Santorelli to Nashville.

Clune, who played on Leipsic’s line on Saturday, gave it more credit.

“The hand-eye coordination, you can’t fake that,” Clune said. “That’s a legit goal. I’m so proud of him.”

Babcock described the five-foot-nine Leipsic as “a greasy little guy who’s got real good skill level, tenacity about him.” Clune, who played with Leipsic last season in Milwaukee, said Leipsic has been largely overlooked by Leafs Nation because he plays on a team with higher-profile assets like William Nylander and Connor Brown.

“William Nylander’s the number one guy, rightfully so. But (Leipsic) is a legit prospect behind him,” Clune said. “Maybe it’s even been better for him to fly under the radar. Maybe some people don’t see him coming.”

Leipsic, who didn’t get the benefit of a Friday practice given the emergency call-up that saw him arrive in Vancouver Friday night, became the first Leaf to score in his NHL debut since Nikolai Kulemin did it in the 2008-09 season opener in Detroit.

While the Maple Leafs are in full rebuilding mode, the Canucks, still led by the 35-year-old Sedin twins, are firmly entrenched in a playoff race, coming into Saturday’s game three points out of a Western wild-card spot and likely Canada’s best hope for a representative in the Stanley Cup tournament. So Saturday was an untimely moment for a flat performance, to be sure.

But the Leafs, though they came into the contest in sole possession of the NHL basement and hobbled by injuries that kept the likes of Nazem Kadri, Tyler Bozak, Joffrey Lupul and James van Riemsdyk out of the lineup, deserved the win. If they played what looked like desperate hockey, perhaps it was because Babcock has acknowledged that, for most of the roster, Toronto-based employment is a tenuous thing with the Feb. 29 trade deadline looming.

With plenty of uncertainty in the air, perhaps Arcobello was in his element. The 27-year-old alumnus of Yale University is a burgeoning journeyman; he has played for five different NHL franchises in his most recent two seasons.

“This is a hard league to play in,” Arcobello said. “When you get an open door, you’ve got to take advantage of it . . . You never know when you’re going to get a chance again.”

It was back in the Brian Burke era that the Maple Leafs’ farm team adopted a marketing slogan: “Every Game is a Tryout.” Such is the state of Leafland that the catchphrase suddenly applies on the NHL team, too.

Source: Leafs’ fill-ins fill Vancouver net: Feschuk

Leafs pull off the impossible, send Dion Phaneuf and his contract to Senators

From The Globe and Mail – James Mirtle

When rumours swirled early Tuesday morning that the Toronto Maple Leafs were working to trade captain Dion Phaneuf, executives from other NHL teams were skeptical.

Phaneuf had been offered around the league going back nearly a year. Working against the Maple Leafs were his age (31 in April), his level of play and his contract, which has more than five years remaining at $7-million a season (all figures U.S.).

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

He also has a no-trade clause, which stipulated only 12 teams to which he could be traded.

One of those was the Ottawa Senators.

Leafs general manager Lou Lamoriello pulled off what many in hockey believed impossible later Tuesday morning. He traded Phaneuf to Ottawa without having to retain any of his salary, meaning Toronto will be free and clear of the burden of his deal in the near future.

Lamoriello also received something of value for Phaneuf: 20-year-old Swedish prospect Tobias Lindberg, along with a second-round draft pick in 2017.

It was, like all things with the rebuilding Maple Leafs, a deal made with an eye on success two or three years down the line.

“This was a transaction we had no choice with,” Lamoriello said, alluding to Phaneuf’s albatross-like contract, the sixth-highest for a defenceman in the NHL this season. “This was in the best interest of what we’re trying to do here.”

“The problem for us with Dion is Dion is ready now to win, and we’re not ready to win,” Leafs coach Mike Babcock added. “It’s a good decision for our club, following the plan that we’ve had in place since [the season] started.”

The Leafs’ plan is substantially different from the Senators’ plan, which was what facilitated the deal. Ottawa was only four points out of a playoff spot when the trade was made, and had a glaring need for an experienced defenceman.

Toronto, meanwhile, is in the NHL’s basement and has been working the past 12 months to clear out the many terrible contracts signed by the former management regime.

To date, the Leafs have shuffled out three key veterans – David Clarkson, Phil Kessel and Phaneuf – to create eventual salary-cap savings of more than $19-million a season.

The savings are “eventual” because of what Toronto took back from the Senators on Tuesday. In addition to Lindberg and the draft pick, the Leafs received Milan Michalek, Jared Cowen and Colin Greening, three struggling players who collectively earn $8.8-million a season.

Their deals, however, all expire after next season – four years before Phaneuf’s.

What that means is that for 2017-18, when the Maple Leafs ought to be a young team on the upswing, they have only $23-million in salaries committed, giving them significant freedom to add talent via free agency or trades.

Perhaps even enough to sign a player such as Steven Stamkos, the Tampa Bay captain who is headed for free agency in the summer if he’s unable to sign a new deal with the Lightning.

The Leafs, fittingly, have vacancy both at the No. 1 centre spot and, after Tuesday, the captain’s role.

“This gives us the opportunity to do things,” Lamoriello said, cryptic as ever. “But it also gives us an opportunity when some of our younger players [such as Morgan Rielly and William Nylander] are coming [up for their next contracts] to be able to sign them.”

The trade is a good example of the complex economic and strategic concerns that now go into every transaction in the NHL these days. Teams have realized that salary-cap flexibility is as big a weapon as any when in a negotiation, and with Clarkson, Kessel and Phaneuf on the books, the Leafs would have had almost none for the foreseeable future.

While the league was getting younger and faster, the Leafs were anchored to aging, declining players, which was the biggest challenge facing president Brendan Shanahan when he was hired nearly two years ago to clean up the Leafs’ mess.

Getting out of onerous commitments and focusing on the franchise’s pool of draft picks and prospects were the organization’s top priorities this season, and this deal managed to accomplish both. (Ottawa also acquired depth players Matt Frattin, Cody Donaghey, Casey Bailey and Ryan Rupert in the trade, but none are expected to contribute at the NHL level.)

In the near term, moving Phaneuf leaves a hole in the Leafs lineup and in the leadership department, and Lamoriello said the team will not name a new captain in the final two months of the season. Phaneuf was popular with teammates, coaches and managers in Toronto – several of them lamented his abrupt exit on Tuesday as he headed for the airport – but his mobility was diminishing and his contract didn’t fit with what is coming next.

The Leafs’ attention will now turn to the trade deadline on Feb. 29, and exchanging more veterans for picks and prospects is part of the rebuild. They still have several bad contracts (such as Joffrey Lupul’s $5.25-million a year through 2017-18) to unload; it will take considerable magic to convince another team to absorb that money.

But this trade was the big one, given the term and the role Phaneuf had. It’s not only turning the page – it’s giving Lamoriello and company a blank one to work with.

“Dion is our leader and a real, real good man,” Babcock said. “Someone has to step up now. Someone has to step up in the room and provide the leadership he provided.”

“It certainly wasn’t easy,” Lamoriello said. “Unfortunately, this is part of business.”

Follow us on Twitter: @eduhatschek, @mirtle

Source: Leafs pull off the impossible, send Dion Phaneuf and his contract to Senators

From the Branches: What time is the Super Bowl?

From Pension Puppets

There’s a big football game today. It should be a great distraction after last night’s disaster in Ottawa.

Last night sucked. The Leafs looked horrific the whole game. I don’t even know what to say. They were so bad they made James Reimer literally cry on the bench!

Sens 6, Leafs 1: So, About That… – PPP
An unfortunate day as Air Canada makes sure the Leafs’ luggage made it to Ottawa, but lost the team.

Ottawa Senators Trounce Toronto Maple Leafs 6-1 – Silver Seven
Ottawa put in a performance for the ages, trouncing their intra-provincial rivals.

Here’s the game in one GIF.

Here’s what else we wrote about yesterday.

Kasperi Kapanen asks William Nylander 20 questions, both are adorable – PPP
I’m loathe to use the word “bromance”, but…

The NHL launched an upgraded GameCentre Live, and I found it surprisingly good – PPP
The new Rogers GameCentre Live apps feature improved performance and viewing options, though the modernized interface needs a bit more work. Here’s my review after using them for the past four days.

Don Cherry: NHL concussion spotters are “dumb dumbs” – PPP
Don Cherry says he thinks that the NHL’s concussion spotters don’t know what they are doing, and he would never send a player off the ice, unless it would circumvent league discipline protocol.

There is actual hockey on TV today! Since there is no way in hell the NHL would dare go up against the Super Bowl, the games are all matinees, which is actually nice. The main NBC network itself will host the Capitals vs. Flyer, starting early, at noon. If Pierre McGuire’s obscure facts aren’t your thing, there are another two games starting at 2:30PM EST.

Last Night’s Other Games

Yesterday’s Flyers vs. Rangers game featured a controversial incident involving Wayne Simmonds and Ryan McDonagh. McDonagh cross-checked Simmonds in the back of the head. Simmonds turned around and punched him in the face, knocking him to the ice. The officials came down hard on Simmonds, slapping him with both a Game Misconduct, and the rarely used nuclear option, a Match Penalty. This meant Simmonds was immediately ejected from the game, and there will be an automatic further review of his conduct by the league. McDonagh took two minors for high-sticking and slashing.

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In a much lighter incident, there was a major zamboni foul-up in Detroit that caused a 40 minute delay of the game!

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It’s funny, but FFS keep your helmets on properly, players!

Visor saves the day.

Obligatory for Species FTBs

Watch Brad Marchand score on a penalty shot in overtime and win the game! – Stanley Cup of Chowder
Tonight’s game against Buffalo went to overtime. It’s the third game in a row that they’ve gone to overtime. Here’s the clip of him drawing the overtime penalty shot, burying it.

SB Nation Game Recaps

The Flames take it to Vancouver 4-1 – Matchsticks and Gasoline
Calgary gets two late empty net goals and sink Vancouver and earn a much needed 2 points.

Avalanche lose to Jets – Mile High Hockey
I’m going to go find some bourbon. Go Broncos or whatever.

Anisimov, Crawford lead Chicago to 5-1 victory in Dallas – Second City Hockey
Artem Anisimov stepped up with four points for Chicago.

Predators 6, Sharks 2: Hallå Sverige! – On the Forecheck
When the final score ends up 6-2, you know it was your kind of night.

Powerplay runs Wild – St. Louis Game Time
Three! Three powerplay goals, ah, ah, ah.

Crosby and Letang fuel big comeback, Pens win – PensBurgh
Sidney Crosby takes over in the third period and helps the Penguins out against the Panthers, with Kris Letang scoring the overtime winner.

Wings offense surges in 5-1 victory of Islanders – Winging It In Motown
Before today, everything was bad. It was getting colder in Detroit, and it wasn’t because of the weather. It was because of Red Wings hockey.

Stick taps all around – Eyes On The Prize
The Canadiens rolled over the Oilers in decisive fashion on Saturday afternoon.

Capitals Shoot Their Way Out of New Jersey, 3-2  – Japers’ Rink
The Caps scored late to tie the game and drag the New Jersey Devils to overtime, and the clubs could not decide things there. It was in the shootout that the Caps’ skill shined through for the win.

Rangers Tie Game Late, Defeat Flyers 3-2 In Shootout – Blueshirt Banter
The New York Rangers rallied late with a tying goal from Keith Yandle and defeated the Philadelphia Flyers 3-2 in the shootout.

Amazing Dylan Larkin Video

It has been deleted.

If you didn’t see it you missed out on a young teen “D-Boz”, draped in an American flag, telling you “It’s about to get hot”, as he fires “snips” in someone’s basement.

I swear it wasn’t my basement!

Watch a young Larkin (D-Boz) shoot pucks at a net in friend’s basement – Winging It In Motown
You’re not ready for this.

The 2017 Winter Classic

Apparently the league is concerned that having the Winter Classic in Toronto to coincide with the Maple Leafs centennial year celebrations is too risky because of all the other high profile hockey events taking place around the same time; namely the World Cup of Hockey and the World Junior Championships.

Where it will be is hotly debated. Two separate stories yesterday claimed different locations will host.

Blues could host Blackhawks in 2017 Winter Classic : Sports
The deal is not done yet, but Busch Stadium is anticipating an outdoor game on Jan. 2

Source: Flyers, Penguins will play outside in 2017 – ESPN
The Maple Leafs would love to have a Winter Classic as part of their centennial celebration — an obvious hook for awarding the event to Toronto — but there is fear having so many events in the city would hurt ticket sales, and the NHL’s priority is ensuring the World Cup is a financial success.

Other News

Malcolm Subban transported to hospital after taking puck to throat – Stanley Cup of Chowder
No update yet on his injury, but he spent the night in the hospital for observation. The Providence Bruins did however make the night for one lucky men’s league player by signing him as the EBUG.

Not so fast on Gartner being not so fast: Larkin’s All-Star Fastest Skater record intrigue – Winging It In Motown
For the Gartner truthers out there we have used gifcam to count frames in tenths of a second.

No quick remedy for what ails the Montreal Canadiens – The Globe and Mail
From relying on Carey Price too much to lousy acquisitions and extensions, a turnaround for the Habs won’t begin without big changes

Lawsuit, possible dementia are both waiting games for former NHL players – The Globe and Mail
Class-action suit slowly wends its way through U.S. courts as retired NHLers chart the effects of repeated head trauma

An Expectations Reset – The Cannon
The Blue Jackets once again find themselves at the bottom of the standings. How will fans readjust their expectations for the team they once thought of as a potential playoff darkhorse?

Don’t Worry, Be Happy – The Cannon
As someone who has been incredibly critical of the franchise this season, let’s take a look at some positives that the team (and the fans) can build on going forward into the future.

11 thoughts on Amanda Kessel returning to college hockey – SB Nation College Hockey
The good, the bad, and some stream of conscious blogging on the number 8 sweater making her long-awaited return to Minnesota.

A Slice of Greatness: Brodeur’s Standout Performances – All About The Jersey
For our continuing coverage of the man, the myth, the legend Martin Brodeur on this website, today I want to highlight some of #30’s standout performances during his 20 year tenure with the New Jersey Devils. Let’s relive them together.

Scrivens talks about the end of his tenure in Edmonton – Eyes On The Prize
The Canadiens netminder had a few things to say about the end of his time with the Oilers, and whether there is any bitterness since the trade to Montreal.

A Hockey City: The Void – Eyes On The Prize
I get an empty feeling when the Habs are this bad. Let’s explore… the void.

Interview With Madison Packer of the New York Riveters: Playoffs, Pasta, and Grinding it Out – Blueshirt Banter
Before the NWHL, Madison Packer thought her career was over: “I wasn’t ready to be done … but I really had no choice.”

TSN1050 Shuffles the Deck – Toronto Sports Media Blog
On February 22nd TSN will reveal several new and revamped radio shows in an attempt to establish some market share against local behemoth the FAN590.

All eyes on Jets’ Byfuglien – TSN
Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff and Byfuglien’s agent, Ben Hankinson, are working on reaching a contract extension that would keep the defenceman in Winnipeg for several years going forward.

The Super Bowl

What time is the Super Bowl anyway? I honestly have no idea. Maybe 6:00 PM EST? That sounds about right. I don’t even know who is playing. Are the Baltimore Stallions still good? The pre-game show start at 3:00PM EST Saturday.

The Super Bowl is not as good as The Stanley Cup Finals – St. Louis Game Time
The NFL’s big game pales in comparison to a real hard fought best of seven series. No big fluffy commercial needed.

7-Layer Buffalo Chicken Dip – Serious Eats
Buffalo chicken dip gets the seven-layer treatment with refried beans, pepper jack cheese, blue cheese crumbles, crispy bacon, and more.

Source: From the Branches: What time is the Super Bowl?

Toronto Marlies on the ice for the AHL All-Star Game Skills Competition

From Pension Puppets

William Nylander keeping his head warm and crashing Josh Leivo’s interview at the AHL ASG 2016

William Nylander in a silly hat, lots of fun video, TJ Brennan as a cameraman, what’s not to love?

Today feels like those Mondays when the Americans make up a reason to have a holiday. Arbour Day or something. Everyone has gone back to work, the party is over, the hangover is almost a memory for them, but they’ve got another day off.

The NHL is getting down to the business of winning games or losing hope, making deals and trading guys, pinning hopes and dreams on new faces or giving up on old ones, but the AHL is still in Syracuse, playing for fun.

Last night was the skills competition, and tonight is the game which you can watch online for free. And it was a lot of fun. They set the right tone of competition, quick format, no awkward interviews and in the AHL, when they skate around pylons, they’re just orange cones, no specially constructed product placements.

Three Marlies were there! William Nylander, Josh Leivo and T.J. Brennan.

And they started off having fun. Hunter Shinkaruk of the Comets was next to Nylander, and whatever Nylander was saying before he was introduced had him laughing, so no worries on those rivals playing together.

Nylander got things rolling with the puck control relay, and the guy on his team that went out ahead of him, Alan Quine a last minute substitute for a Bridgeport teammate, was so fast, Nylander had all day to win it. He is very obviously a smoother skater than most of the all-stars he was on the ice with.

He did not try to blow out his opponent, Mikko Rantanen, instead he was going for a gentlemanly finish, and he almost reenacted the tortoise and the hare for us all. Rantanen is a big, fast fellow.

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Next up was Leivo and Brennan peppering some poor goalie with shots—the AHL ASG does not spare the goalies.

Brennan doing accuracy shooting:

And the grand finale was this amazing scrum of guys rolling in on breakaways one after the other, while the goalie whipped from one post to the other to try to make saves. Eric Comrie is amazing. He let in two goals all night, in all the events combined, and he’s in this event as a replacement for Winnipeg’s even better goalie prospect.

It was a fun night, and our own Bob McGill very nearly said Kristers Gudlevskis correctly at least twice.

Here’s his debut as cameraman, and a wrap on the day with Todd Crocker and Bob McGill. Stick around for some on-ice interviews with the Marlies boys and some stupid puck tricks.

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If you want to know who won what, you can read all about it. The fans and the players had fun, that was the important part.

Source: Toronto Marlies on the ice for the AHL All-Star Game Skills Competition

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

From the Branches: All-Star edition

From Pension Puppets

Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

All-Star things happened last night. All-Star things will happen tonight. Also tomorrow. Things.

Happy Sunday! The NHL All-Star game is happening today. William Nylander, T.J. Brennan, and Josh Leivo will also be appearing in the AHL All-Star game today and tomorrow. Should be boring as fun as a fake fake cheese fountain. Some very brief links for you today, because I’m phoning it in there isn’t much going on.

Front Page

NHL All-Star Skills Competition 2016 results in Leo Komarov’s “own” words
The only ASG recap you need to read, really.

LA to host 2017 NHL All Star Game, NHL likes Montreal better than Toronto
Title says it all.

Three Marlies at the 2016 AHL All-Star game
Link to the stream inside.

Other news

Philadelphia Flyers Top 25 Under 25 Midterm Update: Nos. 15 to 11 – Broad Street Hockey
The only bit of non-All-Star/game news I could find.

Finally, the skills competition happened yesterday. In lieu of a proper recap (I was watching real hockey–Les Canadiennes played the Calgary Inferno), I leave you with this picture:

Source: From the Branches: All-Star edition