The Toronto Maple Leafs finally did the thing! Congrats to the 2019 Hockey Hall of Fame Class and taking a look at who might join them in 2020.
Wednesday afternoon, the Toronto Maple Leafs fired their now former head coach, Mike Babcock, and promoted Sheldon Keefe as the new head coach of the Leafs from his previous head coaching duties with the Toronto Marlies (AHL).
It’s a move that everyone likely saw coming, but this soon? That’s impressive.
Babcock was adamant in his coaching abilities and in his belief in himself as “the greatest coach who ever lived” (paraphrasing, obviously), but could not salvage his hubris when it mattered most– right now.
Toronto is currently 9-10-4 (22 points) on the season, 5th place in the Atlantic Division and outside of a wild card spot in the Eastern Conference.
Luckily for the Leafs, the Pittsburgh Penguins (11-7-3, 25 points), Philadelphia Flyers (10-7-4, 24 points) and Buffalo Sabres (10-8-3, 23 points) aren’t that far ahead of them in the standings for now.
It’s the perfect time to be bold and make a move if you’re looking to provide a short-term spark that will hopefully re-ignite some cooling embers and launch the Maple Leafs back into playoff contention at the very least– if not Stanley Cup contention, as many have expected for a few years now before Toronto’s General Manager, Kyle Dubas, was forced to spend about $40.489 million on William Nylander, Auston Matthews, John Tavares and Mitch Marner while somehow forgetting the importance of a defense and a backup goaltender in the process.
For a team that used to employ a coach that notoriously bet on himself and his process for better or worse, well, they’re betting heavily on the salary cap ceiling to make a significant jump by the time a new national TV rights distribution package in the United States is negotiated in 2022.
But that’s a separate discussion entirely.
For now, we’re left in the wake of a post-Babcock Leafs Era and what it means for the Boston Bruins– Toronto’s biggest rival most recently.
The 56-year-old former head coach in Toronto was in his 5th year of an eight-year, $50.000 million contract with the Maple Leafs.
Toronto went 29-42-11 in the 2015-16 season, which led them to drafting Matthews with the 1st overall pick in the 2016 Draft.
The following year, Babcock and the Maple Leafs improved to 40-27-15, qualifying for the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2013, before losing in six games to the Washington Capitals in the 2017 First Round.
Then history repeated itself as the Leafs went 49-26-7 in the 2017-18 regular season before losing in seven games to Boston in the 2018 First Round.
From there it was a broken record for Toronto– a 46-28-9 effort in 2018-19 led to another First Round matchup with Boston and another Game 7 loss on the road to the Bruins in the 2019 First Round.
This season, through 23 games, the Leafs have six wins in regulation. They have nine total.
Babcock hasn’t won a playoff series since he was still with the Detroit Red Wings in 2013. He hasn’t led a team back to the Stanley Cup Final since losing in 2009 with Detroit in the Red Wings-Penguins rematch from 2008.
He may be “Canada’s Coach”, but he isn’t “Canada’s favorite team’s head coach” anymore.
Enter Keefe, a 39-year-old, from Brampton, Ontario– a short drive from Toronto– emerging as “The Chosen One”.
Hired by Toronto to lead the Marlies on June 8, 2015, Keefe had a respectable first season with Toronto’s AHL affiliate in 2015-16, notching a 54-16-5-1 record (wins-losses-overtime losses-shootout losses, for those of you who aren’t AHL savvy).
Keefe pushed his team all the way to the Eastern Conference Final in the 2016 Calder Cup Playoffs (his rookie season as an AHL coach, mind you) before the Marlies succumbed to the Hershey Bears in five games.
In 2016-17, Keefe coached his team to a 42-29-4-1 record and a North Division Final appearance in the 2017 Calder Cup Playoffs that resulted in a Game 7 loss to the Syracuse Crunch.
That loss didn’t set the Marlies back, but instead motivated Keefe and his team as they marched to a 54-18-2-2 record in 2017-18 and a 2018 Calder Cup Final appearance.
They defeated the Texas Stars in seven games and captured Toronto’s first championship in ice hockey since the NHL’s Maple Leafs raised the Stanley Cup in 1967.
Though it was only the AHL, it proved that something was in the works.
Dubas’ masterplan was coming to fruition as the analytics guru rose to power– taking over as GM of the Maple Leafs with Lou Lamoriello’s departure in the 2018 offseason.
Keefe had followed Dubas from the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds (OHL) to the Maple Leafs organization in 2015, but Babcock stood in the way of his destiny, it seemed.
Babcock was Lamoriello’s choice and fit with Brendan Shanahan’s “Shanaplan”.
Keefe fit with Dubas in the contemporary game, “Shanaplan” be damned.
In 2018-19, Keefe led the Marlies to a 39-24-9-4 record and an Eastern Conference Final appearance for the 2nd year in a row in the Calder Cup Playoffs.
Though the Marlies lost to the Charlotte Checkers in six games, one thing was for certain– Keefe had it going in the minor league.
It’s not every day that a coach is able to make it all the way to the Eastern Conference Final in his rookie season, let alone in three of his first four full seasons as an AHL bench boss.
Up until his promotion to the NHL, Keefe amassed a 10-2-2-1 record with the Marlies this season.
They were 1st in the North Division at the time of his departure for the big league.
In 320 career AHL games with the Marlies, Keefe collected a 199-89-22-9 record and a .622 winning percentage in the process– plus one Calder Cup championship in 2018.
So, what does this mean for the Bruins?
A lot when you factor in advantages and disadvantages for each team in the promotion of Keefe from the Marlies to the Leafs.
First, for Toronto, the advantages of having Keefe for a potential playoff matchup with Boston.
The core of Toronto’s current roster (Matthews, Marner, Tavares, Nylander, Kasperi Kapanen, Zach Hyman, Morgan Rielly and even Frederik Andersen) has lost in the First Round in at least one of the last three postseasons (Tavares is the only member who hasn’t had to endure three-straight soul crushing First Round departures under Babcock’s reign).
Yes, this may seem bad, but it actually speaks volumes for their playoff experience.
This team is hungry– right from its core– and its fanbase, its front office and its backyard media wants to win sooner rather than later.
Plus, Nylander’s 2nd season in the AHL (although it was only a partial season) overlapped with Keefe’s time behind the bench of the Marlies, so there’s some familiarity between one of the four highest paid players on the Leafs and their head coach.
Additionally, Kapanen, Hyman and others have experience with Keefe and the Marlies’ system.
There’s enough familiarity there for something– potentially something dangerous.
Now for the advantages for Boston.
History is on their side. Boston’s core (Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci, Brad Marchand, David Pastrnak, Zdeno Chara and Tuukka Rask) has shown its capable of making another Cup run (even with an aging captain and 1-2 centers).
Bruins head coach, Bruce Cassidy, remains a constant and in control.
Boston missed the playoffs in 2015 and 2016, but Claude Julien was still their head coach then, so the combination of Cassidy, plus Chara, Bergeron and Krejci’s leadership made for an easier transition into getting the team back into a “top of their game” playoff performer (and eventual Cup contender in 2019).
This isn’t a luxury the Leafs have, where the team’s looking to get back into postseason contention, period, let alone win a series.
Toronto missed the playoffs in their first year with Babcock, but made it for the last three years and lost each year in the First Round.
This leads to Toronto’s disadvantages for another potential postseason meeting with the Bruins.
History is not on Toronto’s side and neither are the statistics.
Yes, Dubas’ 2nd favorite thing in the world– analytics– could get in the way of his 1st favorite thing in the world– bringing the Cup back to the Maple Leafs organization.
As things stand, the Leafs have a greater chance of missing the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs than making them currently.
Toronto– the city, the fans, the players, the front office and the media– wants to win right now. There’s no room for excuses (even if they’re legitimate, like taking one’s time to formulate a defense via prospects or trades and supplementing Andersen in the crease with a legitimate backup goaltender).
But, whereas Cassidy inherited broken pieces in Boston that were addressed and revamped as the team went from outside the playoffs two years in a row to making three consecutive postseason appearances under Cassidy in his head coaching tenure with the B’s– addressing the need for depth down the lineup in the process without the likes of a highly touted free agent acquisition– Keefe and the Leafs have the majority of this season to work on that necessary synergy with a better offense (on paper).
Cassidy was named interim head coach of the Bruins in Feb. 2017. Boston was ousted by the Ottawa Senators in six games in the 2017 First Round and lost to the Tampa Bay Lightning in five games in the 2018 Second Round prior to their 2019 Stanley Cup Final appearance.
Keefe has Tavares, Matthews and Marner (when healthy) to unleash on any given night and could very well pull a turnaround in one season a la the St. Louis Blues last season (who beat the Bruins in the Final in Game 7 at TD Garden) or the Penguins in 2009 (when Dan Bylsma replaced Michel Therrien midseason and won the Cup) and 2016 (when Mike Sullivan replaced Bylsma midseason and won the Cup).
In that sense, recent history is actually on Toronto’s side.
Boston had some growing pains to go with their dramatic improvement, but the Leafs are built to counteract that pain if Keefe can find a better way to manage it than Babcock did.
As it is, Cassidy is 130-55-27 in 212 games with Boston from 2017-present (good enough for a .613 winning percentage), but 207-128-21-24 in 380 games with the Providence Bruins (AHL) from 2011-16 (.545 winning%).
Babcock was 173-133-45 in 351 games with the Maple Leafs from 2015-19 (.493 winning%).
Keefe gets the final say and has his .622 winning% in 320 games with the Marlies going for him as he steps into the biggest role behind any bench in the National Hockey League.
Playoffs or not, the rest of this season is about to be a wild ride for the Maple Leafs and their fans.
Bruins fans be worried or not.
The salary cap isn’t going up as much as everyone hoped. Also, there were plenty of trades, buyouts and extensions handed out in the last week. Nick, Colby, Cap’n and Pete examine each move and pick 2019 NHL Awards winners.
The Edmonton Oilers fired their president of hockey operations and General Manager, Peter Chiarelli (April 2015-January 2019). The club officially made the announcement after the DTFR Duo finished recording this week’s episode.
There won’t be a 2020 World Cup of Hockey and there were a few milestones to go along with a bunch of minor trades made this week.
Don Sweeney is having his Peter Chiarelli moment.
The current Boston Bruins General Manager is at a crossroads similar in nature to that of his predecessor in Chiarelli– except this time it’s forward thinking.
No, not that forward thinking.
Sweeney’s masterplan has made up for Chiarelli’s deficits in both defense and cap management. Yet, for a team that’s tied with the Nashville Predators for allowing the fewest goals against (88), its offense is nothing spectacular– ranking 25th in goals for so far this season (94).
Through 34 games, the Bruins are 4th in the Atlantic Division with a 18-12-4 record and 40 points on the season despite numerous injuries.
At one point in time this season, five of Boston’s regular six defenders were injured.
In Chiarelli’s final years with the Bruins, defense became a problem.
The 2013-14 President’s Trophy winning Bruins team amassed 117 points on the season with a plus-84 goal differential. The 2014-15 Bruins missed the postseason and had 93 points on the season and a plus-10 goal differential.
The franchise’s second ever President’s Trophy winning roster had Johnny Boychuk in his prime to rely on. The 2014-15 team did not, thanks to a trade made by Chiarelli prior to the start of the season.
Boychuk was traded out of salary cap constraints that could have been avoided had Chiarelli a) moved other assets or b) not signed those other assets to such inflated extensions in the first place.
Chiarelli promised he’d find a fix for the opening he created, but that never came to fruition as he was later fired in the 2015 offseason.
Upon Sweeney’s hiring, it was clear the Bruins needed a revival on the blue line.
In addition to that, Sweeney was walking into an organization that was needing to negotiate with then pending-RFA Dougie Hamilton.
Hamilton was coming off his entry-level contract and emerging as a prominent two-way defender with the offensive likes of Torey Krug, in addition to that of a more traditionally framed defender.
When Hamilton wanted out of Boston, Sweeney was looked at poorly for trading the RFA defender to the Calgary Flames in the midst of a foundation collapse in defense.
The problem was that the problem didn’t start then.
It worsened as a result of Chiarelli’s dealing of Boychuk, while Dennis Seidenberg got older and more susceptible to injury without anything in the pipeline to act as an adhesive bandage in a worst case scenario (Sweeney would later use a buyout on Seidenberg’s contract on June 30, 2016).
Sweeney’s Hamilton trade was meant to address the long-term scope, as Zach Senyshyn, Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson and Jeremy Lauzon were all selected with the 1st and 2nd round picks in the 2015 Draft the Flames gave the Bruins in return for adding Hamilton.
Though Forsbacka Karlsson has only emerged as far as the third line center in Boston for now, his chemistry alongside Ryan Donato and Danton Heinen is to be lauded with pleasure as those three forwards remain central to the core in a not-so-distant post-Patrice Bergeron era (Forsbacka Karlsson may end up centering the first or second line someday).
Senyshyn’s been seasoning in Providence as Sweeney brought in the Washington Capitals’ approach to “over-cooking” their prospects in the AHL before calling them up for a seamless transition to the NHL (though, in fairness, it remains to be seen where Senyshyn fits into the long-term plan, if he even makes it).
And Lauzon is near the top of the depth chart in defensive prospects within the organization alongside Urho Vaakanainen and Connor Clifton– if not number one.
Though the blue line is not of concern for Boston, when healthy, the depth of the team in the top-six forwards, as well as run-of-the-mill finds to play on the fourth line has come into question.
Sweeney must take an action to address the need for a winger to play alongside David Krejci and Jake DeBrusk on the second line– something Sweeney aimed to bring in since he began his tenure with the Bruins as General Manager.
Again, scoring fell from the 2013-14 dominant team to Chiarelli’s missteps in 2014-15, so Sweeney dealt a struggling Milan Lucic to the Los Angeles Kings at the 2015 Draft for a 1st round pick (Jakub Zboril), Colin Miller and Martin Jones.
Jones was flipped later that summer to the San Jose Sharks for a 2016 1st round pick (Trent Frederic) and Sean Kuraly. More recently, Miller was claimed by the Vegas Golden Knights at the 2017 Expansion Draft.
In the aftermath of the Lucic trade– and with a spot on the second line to fill– Sweeney signed 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs star, Matt Beleskey to a five-year deal worth $3.800 million per season.
Beleskey set career-highs in assists (22) and points (37) in 80 games played in his first season in Boston (2015-16), then injuries cut his sophomore season with the Bruins to just eight points in 49 games.
In 2016-17, Beleskey had yet to score a point in 14 games with the B’s prior to being assigned to the Providence Bruins (AHL). He was added as an afterthought turned salary cap balancing equation in the Rick Nash trade last season with the New York Rangers.
When Beleskey’s first season with Boston didn’t yield as much of a breakout as Sweeney expected, he signed David Backes to a five-year, $6.000 million AAV contract on July 1, 2016, expecting the forward to shift from center to right wing alongside Krejci.
In his first season with Boston, Backes had 17 goals and 21 assists (38 points) in 74 games played. He followed that up with 33 points (14 goals, 19 assists) last season in 57 games while battling injury.
Though he has been plagued by injury the last two seasons, Backes (3-5–8 totals in 29 games) has been relegated to the fourth line when DeBrusk is in the lineup.
Sweeney’s plan to let the kids takeover led to exceeded expectations last season, but with that comes an even higher benchmark for success set for this season. Anything less is a disappointment.
Add to that the expectation for a Cup in three years time from when Sweeney was hired. At least, that’s what Boston’s internal operations was calculating when the front office sat down with Sweeney to interview for his current job.
For a GM that was active in his first month on the job and laid out a plan to take the organization up to where it is now– what’s next?
Sweeney’s not in the hot seat from the standpoint about imminent job security, but rather, he’s being put to the test.
This season, of all seasons, matters that much more.
His track record at the trade deadline hasn’t had any staying power, save for an extra year of John-Michael Liles as a depth defender for 2016-17.
He doesn’t have to hit it out of the park with a trade if he truly believes in the youth movement, which is why the Bruins probably aren’t going to be in the market for acquiring the services of Artemi Panarin.
Then again, if DeBrusk is going to be out long term and head coach Bruce Cassidy can’t split up Donato, Forsbacka Karlsson and Heinen, then it’s going to be worth acquiring a top-six forward that’s a legitimate top-six forward.
Adding Jeff Carter from the Los Angeles Kings would be like adding Rick Nash last season, except for the fact that the 33-year-old Carter is signed through the 2021-22 season at about $5.273 million per season.
If you even want to have a chance to potentially sit down with a guy like Panarin or pending-UFA Jeff Skinner in July, you can’t afford to chip away at your available spending money.
Unless Krejci or Backes is involved, that is.
Even still, Carter’s not set on playing anywhere outside of Los Angeles and might retire if he’s shipped elsewhere. Besides that, he only has six goals and nine assists (15 points) in 35 games this season.
The only other recent rumors swirling around have been tied to Minnesota Wild forward– and Weymouth, Massachusetts native– Charlie Coyle and New York Rangers forward– and Boston native– Kevin Hayes.
Both Coyle and Hayes are 26-years-old with Coyle having a cap hit of $3.200 million through 2019-20 and Hayes as a pending-UFA this offseason at $5.175 million.
Minnesota’s in the hunt for a wild card spot currently in the Western Conference and sits 17th in the league table. The Rangers are fifth in the Metropolitan Division, 21st in the league standings and falling.
Coyle has five goals and 10 assists (15 points) in 33 games. Though he has the same offensive production as Carter has with the Kings, Coyle is younger and in the midst of his prime, leaving room for potential– especially should he be placed on a line with Krejci and DeBrusk.
But Coyle (6-foot-3, 220 pounds) has only surpassed the 20-goal plateau once in his career (21 goals in 82 games, 2015-16).
Hayes has 9-18–27 totals in 33 games with New York so far this season. At 6-foot-5, 216 pounds, he’s had the hotter hands of the three potential trade targets.
He’s also only reached the 20-goal plateau once in his career (25 goals in 76 games last season), but never had a season below 36 points.
Both the Wild and the Rangers will have enough cap room at the deadline should Boston look to flip a player like Backes to fit either player comfortably on their payroll and still have something to give pending-RFAs Charlie McAvoy, Brandon Carlo, Forsbacka Karlsson, Donato and Heinen in the offseason.
(Regardless, if there’s a team willing to take on Backes’ $6.000 million cap hit now as opposed to flipping him to the Arizona Coyotes later…)
Plus there’s the odd hold-out that the Bruins find themselves in conversation with one of the offseason’s biggest prizes like how they were finalists in the John Tavares arms race last summer.
Sweeney has a plethora of prospects to wager if– and only if– he can lop off one of the larger contracts on his books and land a legitimate top-six forward.
Can he do what Chiarelli failed to do in his final year with Boston and deliver on an as of yet unfulfilled promise?
Come to think of it, if he does acquire a top-six forward that can play with Krejci and leads to a Cup, then he does have a lot more in common with Chiarelli.
It’d just be more like when Chiarelli traded Dennis Wideman to the Florida Panthers in June 2010 for Nathan Horton and Gregory Campbell.
More on the Arizona Coyotes latest debacle with Seattle expansion looming, Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith did something never done before, the Calgary Flames rise in the Western Conference and the St. Louis Blues dismal season. Bob Murray and the Anaheim Ducks made a few moves– signing Murray to an extension, claiming Chad Johnson off waivers and a minor trade.
Plus, Nick and Connor review the last 15 years of first round picks by the Pittsburgh Penguins and do a deep dive on their future and what it might look like.
This week’s episode is chock full of coffee infused, Seattle inspired, artisanal Seattle expansion discussion in addition to William Nylander’s new deal with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Plus, waivers and trades are rampant this time of year, Tom Wilson: The Bad and the Bad Things That Happened This Week, Chuck Fletcher was hired as General Manager of the Philadelphia Flyers and a 15-year first round draft pick look back of the Los Angeles Kings.
The Board of Governors meeting gets underway next week involving the Seattle expansion vote, Bill Peters took a puck to the jaw and Rick Middleton and Vic Hadfield are having their numbers retired this week.
The Chicago Blackhawks and Arizona Coyotes made another trade with each other, Karl Alzner is being Wade Redden’ed, Ron Hextall got ousted as the Philadelphia Flyers GM, the Buffalo Sabres win streak reached double digits and the Winnipeg Jets brought back their Heritage Jerseys.
Nick and Connor also encourage all of Long Island to go to the New York Islanders game at NYCB Live (it’s the Nassau Coliseum) this week and quickly plan a hopeful trip to see Sporting KC play in Atlanta.
The 2018 Hockey Hall of Fame Class was inducted on Monday, plus we remember the NHL Guardians and celebrate Joe Thornton’s milestones. Tomas Plekanec retired– leaving us a turtleneck to pass on ceremoniously– and Milan Lucic was fined $10,000.
The Pittsburgh Penguins’ plight comes with an extension for General Manager Jim Rutherford, while the Los Angeles Kings battle the injury bug in net (we finished recording before Wednesday’s trade between the two clubs).
Meanwhile, Tom Wilson is back, a concussion lawsuit was settled, the 2019 NWHL All-Star Game was announced, Jakob Chychrun got a six-year extension and Nick and Connor discuss when they’ll eventually let their kids (if they ever have any) play contact sports.
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Week 3 of the DtFR Game of the Week series is due today, so let’s take a look at our options!
|NHL SCHEDULE: OCTOBER 22-28|
|TIME (ALL TIMES EASTERN)||VISITOR||HOST||NATIONAL BROADCAST(S)/
|Monday, October 22|
|8 p.m.||St. Louis||Winnipeg||4-5 (OT)|
|Tuesday, October 23|
|7 p.m.||Florida Panthers||New York Rangers||2-5|
|8 p.m.||San Jose||Nashville||5-4|
|8:30 p.m.||Los Angeles||Dallas||2-4|
|9 p.m.||Pittsburgh||Edmonton||6-5 (OT)|
|Wednesday, October 24|
|7 p.m.||Toronto Maple Leafs||Winnipeg Jets||NBCSN, SN1, SN360, TVAS|
|7 p.m.||Florida Panthers||New York Islanders|
|9:30 p.m.||Tampa Bay||Colorado||NBCSN|
|Thursday, October 25|
|7 p.m.||Philadelphia||Boston||SN360, TVAS|
|7 p.m.||Montréal||Buffalo||RDS, TSN2|
|7 p.m.||Nashville||New Jersey|
|8 p.m.||Columbus||St. Louis|
|8 p.m.||Los Angeles||Minnesota|
|8:30 p.m.||New York Rangers||Chicago Blackhawks|
|Friday, October 26|
|6 p.m.||Tampa Bay||Vegas||TVAS|
|7:30 p.m.||San Jose||Carolina|
|saturday, October 27|
|1 p.m.||New York Islanders||Philadelphia Flyers||SN|
|7 p.m.||Montréal Canadiens||Boston Bruins||CITY, NHLN, SN1, TVAS|
|7 p.m.||Winnipeg||Toronto||CBC, SN360|
|8 p.m.||Chicago||St. Louis|
|9 p.m.||Tampa Bay||Arizona|
|10 p.m.||Pittsburgh Penguins||Vancouver Canucks||CBC, CITY, SN1, SN360|
|SunDay, October 28|
|3:30 p.m.||New York Rangers||Los Angeles Kings|
|5 p.m.||New York Islanders||Carolina Hurricanes|
|6 p.m.||Edmonton||Chicago||NHLN, SN360|
|8 p.m.||Ottawa||Vegas||SN1, TVAS|
|8 p.m.||San Jose||Anaheim|
As usual, there’s more than a few compelling matchups this week. Just like every week, there’s the rivalries (Philadelphia at Boston, New York at Chicago, Montréal at Boston, Chicago at St. Louis and San Jose at Anaheim) and the player returns (F Matt Duchene‘s first trip back to Denver steals most of the headlines in this department, even though F Valtteri Filppula and G Louis Domingue are headed back to Philly and Arizona, respectively, on Saturday), but this week is different in a way that we could have only dreamed of during the 2016 NHL Entry Draft.
W Patrik Laine hosting C Auston Matthews was already must-see T.V. based on their individual talents alone, but now that both of their clubs are looking to the top of the league standings, this just might qualify as a Stanley Cup preview.
Toronto has exploded out to a 6-3-0 record in its first nine games and was pacing the Eastern Conference until Montréal’s victory over the Flames last night (the top three teams in the Atlantic are tied with 12 points, but the Habs own the games-played tiebreaker over Toronto while the Leafs best Boston in regulation+overtime wins).
The main reason for this early season dominance? You guessed it: Toronto’s dominant offense. The Maple Leafs are averaging 3.78 goals per game so far this season, which trails only Washington and Tampa Bay for tops in the league, in addition to boasting the second-best power play with a 37.5 percent conversion rate.
Even though the big story during free agency in July was Toronto signing C John Tavares (who himself has posted imposing 6-5-11 totals so far this season), this team still belongs to the No. 1 overall pick in 2016: Matthews. Playing on the second line, Matthews has potted a whopping 10 goals already this season, not to mention his six assists.
Fans of the podcast know I predicted Matthews to win the Rocket Richard Trophy this season, due in large part to the opposition Matthews is going to be playing against as a member of the Leafs’ second line instead of on its top unit. Especially at the center position, it is usually a given team’s best offering getting the start on the first line, and that No. 1 center is usually one of the better players on the team and can exhibit a solid two-way game (after all, the Leafs are in the Atlantic Division with Boston’s C Patrice Bergeron… are any more examples necessary?).
Matthews has already proven through the first two seasons of his career that he’s capable of making any other player in the league look silly (yes, even Bergeron!) with his scoring touch, but now that he’s going up against opposing second lines and second defensive pairs, it’s bound to be open season on opposing goaltenders all year.
As for 6-2-1 Winnipeg – the third-best team in the Central Division and Western Conference as things stand right now – the 2016 NHL Entry Draft has treated it just as well as Toronto in regards to Laine. Though the Finn has managed only 3-2-5 totals so far this season, his 83-56-139 totals through 164 career games is nothing to scoff at.
Laine’s offensive struggles thus far are not limited to just him, as the entire Jets roster (save C Mark Scheifele‘s 4-5-9 totals making him the only player averaging a point-per-game) has had trouble finding the back of the net. Averaging only 3.22 goals per game, Winnipeg’s offense is tied with Carolina for only 15th best in the NHL.
So, if offense isn’t winning games for the Jets, it must be their goaltending or defense, right?
Well, it’s definitely not the defense. Allowing an an uninspiring 34.22 shots against per game (eighth-worst in the NHL) is certainly not getting it done and is putting a lot of work on Hellebuyck’s shoulders.
But hey, Hellebuyck finished second in Vezina voting last year, so he must be more than up to the challenge of keeping these Jets in the air, right?
Once again, not so much. Even with a 4-2-1 record in his first seven starts, he only boasts a .909 save percentage and 2.83 GAA (t17th and 21st, respectively, among the 35 goaltenders with at least four starts). Instead, the most inspiring goaltender in Manitoba has been backup 2-0-0 G Laurent Brossoit and his .955 save percentage and 2.01 GAA.
So, how exactly are the Jets in third place in the ultra-competitive Central Division?
The answer can be found in both of Winnipeg’s special teams, with the power play doing some serious heavy lifting with a 32 percent conversion rate that is fourth-best in the NHL.
While Laine has struggled to find the back of the net at even-strength, he has absolutely dominated the power play. Of his 3-2-5 totals so far this season, he’s earned 3-1-4 of those marks while playing with the extra man. In fact, much of the top power play unit has been solid, as Scheifele and RW Blake Wheeler have both registered four power play points in nine games played.
But the Jets’ special teams dominance doesn’t end with the power play. Winnipeg’s penalty kill has also been excellent, as its 82.3 percent kill rate is tied with Minnesota for ninth-best in the league. W Brandon Tanev in particular has been very solid while one of his teammates has been in the penalty box (his four shorthanded hits and three shorthanded blocks both pace the club), and his dominant play has made life much easier on Hellebuyck.
Though an .895 save percentage against the man-advantage doesn’t exactly sound impressive, Hellebuyck ranks (t)eighth-best in the statistic among the 35 goalies with at least four starts.
Talk about flipping a switch.
The next step, of course, is finding success on both ends of the ice at even strength. It is often these big games that brings that best play out of a team with as much potential as the Jets, so I’ll be very interested to see if Winnipeg can rise to the occasion against the Leafs.
So, it’s time for the big question: who’s winning this game?
First and foremost, it should probably be mentioned that Winnipeg boasted the best home-ice advantage in the entire NHL last season with a 32-7-2 record. Knowing that such a highly touted opponent is coming to town, there’s no way Bell MTS Place won’t be rocking tonight.
However, I have my concerns about Hellebuyck being able to stop Matthews and Toronto’s attack, especially since the Leafs join Winnipeg in dominating special team-play (Toronto’s power play and penalty kill rank second and seventh in the league, respectively). As such, I see the Maple Leafs cruising to a 5-3 victory in Manitoba.