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7 storylines to watch for in Toronto Raptors’ 2020-21 season – Sportsnet.ca

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Though it’ll only have been 103 days since they fell to the Boston Celtics in Game 7 of their second-round playoff series, when the Toronto Raptors tip-off their 2020-21 campaign Wednesday with an encounter with the New Orleans Pelicans, it’ll feel a lot like the beginning of a new era for the club.

Looking holistically and practically at the Raptors this season, they aren’t that much different. Familiar faces like Kyle Lowry, Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby and Norman Powell all still remain with the team.

But the change will be felt emotionally with the club losing two big parts of its championship run in Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol. Plus, there’s a lot of new as well, from the free-agent pickups made to fill the gap at centre and add more depth at the wing, to the rookies who were taken in the draft.

So though the core of the team has remained the same, the ancillary pieces around them have changed enough that this season’s team will have a different feel to it.

Here’s a closer look at the team and what we might expect from them this season, including seven key storylines to watch.

Off-season snapshot

Re-signed: Chris Boucher, Fred VanVleet.

Additions: Aron Baynes (free agency), DeAndre’ Bembry (free agency), Malachi Flynn (No. 29 overall pick in draft), Chris Finch (new assistant coach), Jalen Harris (No. 59 overall pick in draft), Alex Len (free agency), Yuta Watanabe (free agency).

Departures: Nate Bjorkgren (took job to become head coach of Indiana Pacers), Marc Gasol (signed with Los Angeles Lakers), Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (signed with Minnesota Timberwolves, but was waived), Serge Ibaka (signed with Los Angeles Clippers).

Raptors roster
OG Anunoby
Aron Baynes
DeAndre’ Bembry
Chris Boucher
Terence Davis II
Malachi Flynn (rookie)
Jalen Harris (rookie, two-way)
Stanley Johnson
Alex Len
Kyle Lowry
Patrick McCaw
Norman Powell
Pascal Siakam
Matt Thomas
Fred VanVleet
Yuta Watanabe (two-way)
Paul Watson Jr.

Storylines to watch

Siakam’s bounceback: The single biggest factor that will determine success for the Raptors this season will hinge on Siakam finding his old form again.

Beginning the first year of his four-year, $130-million contract extension, Siakam faces extra pressure to perform to expectation and not repeat what we saw from him in the bubble. During training camp, the Raptors all-star was open about his struggles in the bubble and how he had lost some of the passion and joy for the game while in Disney World.

But it’s a new season, and he told reporters he feels a lot better. And while his pre-season was nothing to write home about, that shouldn’t be cause for concern. Siakam is a player who has always come back after every off-season improved, and the Raptors have no choice but to bank on him being the star he was once again.

The front office’s aggression level: A big reason why Toronto was unable to come to an agreement with Ibaka in the off-season appears to have been the fact the Raptors had their eyes firmly on the free-agent class in the summer of 2021. Most notably, Giannis Antetokounmpo was the likely target of Masai Ujiri, Bobby Webster and Co., but obviously he’s now off the table after signing an historic supermax contract extension to remain with the Milwaukee Bucks.

Perhaps even more problematic than that, though, is the fact the vaunted 2021 free agent class has now been stripped bare, with LeBron James, Paul George and Rudy Gobert also signing extensions.

Sure, Kawhi Leonard could still become a free agent — and he’d be a hell of a ‘Plan B’ for the Raptors — but you have to wonder if pinning all hope on landing a big fish in free agency might not be the wisest course of action anymore.

That’s why it’ll be interesting to monitor how aggressive the Raptors prove to be in the trade market this season. Keeping maximum flexibility for the coming off-season may no longer be the plan, meaning the team might be more willing to pursue players with a little more term on their contract. Should that come to pass, we’ll get a clearer picture of how Toronto might want to tackle its immediate future.

How the centres will fare: For better or worse, Baynes will be meticulously compared to the likes of Ibaka and Gasol, and, in some ways, that could actually help to endear him to Raptors faithful.

No, Baynes doesn’t have the smooth pick-and-pop game that Ibaka has, nor is he a high-post play-making savant like Gasol, but what he can do is set brick-wall screens, play strong positional defence and take charges, and even hit the occasional three.

That should be more than good enough for what the Raptors are looking for at centre as the position won’t be an offensive focal point this season.

As for Len and Boucher, there will no doubt be a dropoff in the second unit compared to last year. But, again, all the Raptors need their centres to do is screen hard, crash the glass hard and provide some assistance at the rim, and both Len and Boucher can do that in theory.

There’s going to be a lot of hand-wringing about the position at the start of the season, but things should settle down as we find out just what kind of team this is in the weeks and months to come.

Possibly Lowry’s last hurrah with Raptors: Sad as it may be to think about, but this could be Lowry’s last season in a Raptors uniform.

On an expiring contract that isn’t extension eligible, it’s impossible to rule out the possibility that this will be the greatest player in Raptors history’s last ride with the franchise.

He’ll be turning 35 in late March, and while it looks like he hasn’t missed a beat you have to wonder whether Toronto’s goals and his will align come the off-season.

Big year for OG: There’s big expectation for Anunoby to have a breakout season, and for good reason.

After three seasons that saw him deal with one complication after the next that held him back, it looks like the runway is finally clear for Anunoby to fulfill the promise of his enormous potential.

During training camp and pre-season, Raptors head coach Nick Nurse has talked about greater offensive opportunity for Anunoby, so the touches and shots will be there for him this season, plus he’s looked to come back from the off-season with a tighter handle and stronger decision-making skills than before.

Everyone already knows what he can do on defence — a rare player who actually can guard all five positions on the floor — and if his offence can catch up even a little to what he’s doing on the other end of the floor, the Raptors have yet another rising star on their hands.

Small ball: Looking at the Raptors’ roster you see a lot of guards and wing players, but not much in the way of bigs.

This likely means we’ll be seeing a lot of small ball from the Raptors this season, especially because Nurse has talked about possibly utilizing Anunoby at the five a little more.

There’s obvious pacing and shooting advantages to playing small, and Toronto does have the personnel to make sure it doesn’t give up too much on defence. But only one team — the almighty Golden State Warriors at their height between 2014-2019 — had effectively made small ball work as the team’s primary look.

We’ll have to see if the Raptors can find similar success this season.

Flynnsanity: It was only three pre-season games, but first-round pick Flynn looks like he could be pretty special for the Raptors — if we let him get there.

While it’s well and good to be excited for Flynn, it’s probably best to temper expectations for him for the time being. He’s bound to have his ups and downs as all first-year players do, and putting undue pressure on the young man when he’s just trying to find his way will do nothing to help the situation.

He looks like he has a chance, and he needs to be given one.

Reasonable expectations for the Raptors this season

Are the Raptors title favourites? No. But they’re hardly a bunch of scrubs, either.

Boring as it may be to say, Toronto looks every bit the part of a team that’s still good, but maybe not great.

This is a core group that knows how to win and will likely safely secure its eighth straight playoff appearance — probably with the No. 3 or 4 seed in the Eastern Conference.

How the Raptors perform in the playoffs from there will likely depend on how the bracket plays out. But this is a team that should see the second round, and anything beyond that is anyone’s guess.

In other words, expect yet another successful season for a team that’s become one of the most consistent, well-run machines in all of pro sports.

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Montreal Canadiens recall Corey Perry from taxi squad – Habs Eyes on the Prize

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The Montreal Canadiens have announced the recall of Corey Perry from the taxi squad, making the winger available for Saturday night’s game against the Vancouver Canucks.

Perry’s recall was necessary because of the concussion that Joel Armia suffered on Thursday night. Perry will likely slot into Armia’s position on the third line with Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Tyler Toffoli.

This will be Perry’s NHL debut with the Montreal Canadiens. The veteran winger signed a 1-year $750,000 contract during the offseason after tallying 21 points in 56 games with the Dallas Stars the previous season.

The absence of additional recalls likely means that Paul Byron will be in the lineup or — at the very least — that the team is comfortable placing Victor Mete in the lineup. This move allows the team to evaluate the cap situation and their injury situation during the upcoming four-day break prior to their home opener on Thursday.

Perry can stay on the NHL roster for 30 days or play 10 games without requiring waivers to return to the taxi squad.

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Player grades: McDavid's brilliance not quite enough as Edmonton Oilers drop a tight one in T.O. – Edmonton Journal

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Article content continued

#56 Kailer Yamamoto, 7. Robbed by Andersen in the early going off a great Draisaitl feed, though if he could have found the upper half of the net it likely would have been a different story. Was all over the puck again, winning an important shorthanded puck battle against Morgan Rielly to feed the disc into Draisaitl’s territory and earn his fifth point of the young season. Had a few other chances of his own but failed to hit the target. Blocked 4 shots at the other end, which is to say 3 more than all the other forwards combined. Has been like a dog on a bone around the puck all season.

#63 Tyler Ennis, 6. His standout moment was a great stretch pass to send Puljujarvi in on a breakaway. A couple of shots of his own. Drew a penalty.

#74 Ethan Bear, 6. A solid night on the back end, though his ice time was down a tad at 18:12. Earned an assist, firing a point shot that McDavid was able to deflect home from the slot. 3 hits and some decent puck movement.

#93 Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, 7. A key part of the dominant McDavid unit, which had the puck on a string for much of the night. Earned an assist with a good puck recovery and pass that led to the McDavid tally early in the third. Involved in 5 Oilers Grade A chances and was clean at the other end, unless you want to consider a lost battle at centre ice that led to Marner’s empty netter with under a second on the clock. Played 22:39 but an unusual 0:00 on the penalty kill, which in retrospect may have been a mistake.

#97 Connor McDavid, 8.Best player on the ice for either team. Had one early issue when he was caught puckwatching as Wayne Simmonds swooped in for an early chance, but more than made up for that by later contributing to 11 (eleven) of Edmonton’s 17 chances on the night, with 7 of those Grade A shots coming off his own stick. Indeed his 7 shots were 3 more than any other player on either team. Burst around the defence for one close in jam shot and a behind-the-back rebound. Robbed by a superb Andersen glove grab when he pounced on Koekkoek’s rebound that had the Oilers’ ace smiling in disbelief. Hammered a one-timer from centre slot that the  Leafs netminder rejected, Oilers’ best powerplay chance of the night. Scored the 2-2 goal on a superb mid-air deflection. 9/17=53% on the dot. Edmonton dominated the shot clock to the tune of 16-4 during his 19 minutes at 5v5.

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Follow me on Twitter @BruceMcCurdy

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Jets trading Laine, Roslovic to Blue Jackets for Dubois in blockbuster – Sportsnet.ca

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Two teams with disgruntled superstars have completed one of the more significant blockbusters in recent NHL history.

On Saturday morning, the Winnipeg Jets traded star winger Patrik Laine and centre Jack Roslovic to the Columbus Blue Jackets for star centre Pierre-Luc Dubois and a third-round pick in 2022. Laine, Roslovic and Dubois had all requested a trade in recent months.

“Pierre-Luc has been an important part of our team the past four seasons, but this was the right time for both parties to move in a different direction,” said Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen in a statement. “Strengthening our lineup offensively has been a priority for us and the additions of Patrik Laine and Jack Roslovic accomplish just that.”

It’s no exaggeration to say this trade will define these franchises for years to come. In Laine, the Blue Jackets get a perennial 40-goal scorer still coming into his prime while Dubois gives the Jets one of the best one-two punches down the middle behind Mark Scheifele.

The 22-year-old Dubois requested a trade shortly after signing a two-year, $10-million bridge contract just days before the season started and teams have been aggressive in their pursuit of him. Trade negotiations hit a fever pitch on Friday after Blue Jackets head coach John Tortorella benched Dubois in Thursday’s overtime loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning.

According to Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman, the Calgary Flames and Montreal Canadiens were some of the other teams who pitched trade offers to Blue Jackets GM Kekalainen.

In Dubois, the Jets get a six-foot-three centre with smooth hands and a nose for the net. Originally drafted third overall in 2016, Dubois has yet to hit his prime but still managed to score at least 48 points in each of his first three NHL seasons. His best season came in 2018-19, when he had 27 goals and 61 points.

Laine, also 22, had a long contract negotiation before the 2019-20 season and then found himself playing much of the season on the second line. Entering this season, the final year on his current contract, Laine’s representatives floated the idea that a change of scenery might be mutually beneficial.

When a trade didn’t come together during the off-season, Laine reported to the Jets and had a massive performance in the season opener, scoring twice – including the overtime winner – and adding an assist. Since breaking into the league in 2016-17, only eight players have more than Laine’s 140 goals.

Laine and Dubois were the second and third picks, respectively, in the 2016 NHL Draft. The Jets will retain 26 per cent of Laine’s contract to balance the money with Dubois’s salary.

Roslovic, 23, was a restricted free agent who agreed to a two-year contract with the Blue Jackets on Saturday. A native of Columbus, Roslovic returns home seeking a bigger opportunity after not being able to crack the top-two lines in Winnipeg over the past two-and-a-half seasons.

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