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Analyzing which North Division teams are contenders, pretenders – Sportsnet.ca

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We are now officially two months into the truncated 2020-21 NHL season. Most teams have played 25 to 30 games and we are starting to get a sense of which teams look real, which teams have some issues, and which teams will likely find themselves on the outside looking in when the season ends.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at the North Division to see where each team ranks so far this season.

FOR REAL

Toronto Maple Leafs

The only team in the North Division that looks like a true contender, the Toronto Maple Leafs.

This team can score, we all know that. The Leafs rank second in goals per game and power play percentage. The biggest difference from last season is they can defend as well. The Maple Leafs are sixth in goals-against, averaging 2.50 per game, a massive improvement from last season where they ranked 26th allowing 3.17 per game.

It’s not just goaltending bailing them out, either. Thanks to the addition of T.J. Brodie, the progression of Justin Holl, and an overall commitment to better team defence, Toronto has become one of the most well-rounded teams in the NHL.

Defending against opposition cycle plays has been a critical weakness of the Maple Leafs the past few seasons where they routinely ranked bottom-five in the NHL in cycle chances and goals against.

This season, they sit middle of the pack, which is just fine when you consider how dangerous is as an offensive team. The Maple Leafs have five players with at least 20 points this season. Auston Matthews leads the league in goals with 21, four more than anyone else.

Leafs fans are feeling pretty good about this team, but we all know how their season will ultimately be judged. Can Toronto win a playoff round for the first time in the salary-cap era? If so, can they knock off a top team from another division should they make it that far? For now, it looks as though the Maple Leafs are a step above everyone else in their division and that makes them a true contender.

MIGHT BE REAL

Winnipeg Jets

The Jets sit second in the North in points percentage and will finish their three-game set with the Toronto Maple Leafs tonight on Hockey Night in Canada.

Winnipeg split the first two games with the division-leading Maple Leafs thanks to incredible performances by Connor Hellebuyck, and the Jets’ top-six forward group is as good as any team in the NHL. Mark Scheifele ranks sixth in points, plus Nikolaj Ehlers and Kyle Connor are both top 20 in goals.

Ehlers doesn’t get a lot of praise outside of Winnipeg, but he is one of the most dynamic offensive players in the league. Ehlers ranks among the league leaders in several key offensive categories that highlight his puck-moving and scoring ability.

Combine the offensive firepower the Jets possess with a reigning Vezina trophy winner in net and you have a team capable of beating anyone on any given night. Hellebuyck has been dialed in this week against the Maple Leafs, making a month’s worth of highlight-reel saves in the span of two games.

As has been the case in recent years, the Jets’ inability to limit quality shots against holds them back as they rely far too often on Hellebuyck to bail them out. More often than not, he does. However, as we saw on Thursday, eventually top teams will breakthrough.

At even-strength, the Jets rank 24th in expected goals against, 25th limiting shots from the slot, 27th at limiting passes into the slot and 25th at preventing rush scoring chances. That’s a lot of weight to put on your goaltending. As good as Hellebuyck is, he can’t shut down top teams game after game.

Until the Jets can better limit the number of dangerous chances they allow, there will be question marks as to whether they are a legit contender to threaten in the post-season.

Montreal Canadiens

Inconsistency is one of the few constants with this Montreal Canadiens team.

A record of 7-1-2 in their first 10 games of the season, 2-5-3 in their next ten games and 3-1-2 since.

The Canadiens don’t have any glaring issues that would prevent them from being considered a true threat to not only make the playoffs, but to do some damage once there. Montreal is in the top 10 in goals for and against. Their power play has come around since Dominique Ducharme and Alex Burrows replaced Claude Julien and Kirk Muller behind the bench. The penalty kill hasn’t been great this season, but still ranks middle of the pack. At five-on-five, Montreal is one of the best teams in the NHL.

What prevents the Canadiens from being listed as a true contender right now is that it’s difficult to tell which team is going to show up on a given night.

At their best, the Canadiens are a fast-paced team capable of turning the puck up ice quickly and using its speed to create offence. Montreal is aggressive in its pursuit to get the puck when they don’t have it and the Canadiens don’t allow a high number of dangerous shots against.

At their worst, they are turnover-prone and have suffered from bouts of inconsistent play from their goaltending, specifically Carey Price. That said, since the coaching change, Price has posted a 3-1-1 record with a 1.78 GAA and .935 save percentage. The Canadiens look more like the team we saw at the start of the season since Ducharme took over behind the bench and Price is looking like his old self again, so we’ll lean more towards contender than pretender, but will need to see this team play at the level it is capable of going forward before bumping them up to the same class as the division-leading Maple Leafs.

Edmonton Oilers

Any team with Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl should be respected and the Oilers are earning respect with their play so far this season. An 18-11-0 record is good for third in points percentage in the North and 13th overall.

McDavid and Draisaitl are the top-two scorers in the league and Mike Smith is having a terrific season in goal. Darnell Nurse is having a breakout year and Jesse Puljujarvi is providing secondary scoring. Putting the puck in the net isn’t a problem for the Oilers, who rank fourth in goals-per-game and seventh in power play percentage.

As mentioned, Smith has been solid in net – Mikko Koskinen has been OK. Defensively, the Oilers have been better than average this season but have struggled to limit opposition scoring chances when the other team starts whipping the puck around in their end. The Oilers allow an average of 7.3 cycle scoring chances against at even strength, which ranks 27th overall.

Thankfully for Edmonton, its goaltending has been strong enough this season to mask some of their defensive issues but if Smith’s play dips, the Oilers’ inability to prevent chances while defending in-zone could become a problem.

The good far outweighs the bad to this point of the season and the Oilers look closer to being a legitimate threat to contend for the top spot in the division than not. However, Edmonton had a chance to prove it belongs in the same conversation as the top team, but faltered in its recent three-game set against Toronto, losing all three. Not only did they lose those games, but their biggest stars were also shut down in a way we haven’t seen all season.

Some holes can still be poked in this team and for that reason, the Edmonton Oilers sit in the ‘Might be Real’ category.

Calgary Flames

The Flames got new head coach Darryl Sutter a win in his first game behind the bench Thursday night. With the win, the Flames pulled to .500 in points percentage with a record of 12-12-3.

When you look at how this team has performed offensively, defensively and in goal, you see one of the most average teams in the NHL. Not great, not terrible, but pretty close to the middle across the board. The Flames rank 23rd in goals and 17th in goals against per game. Their power play ranks 18th and the penalty kill ranks 14th.

When isolating goaltending from team defence to see if Calgary’s goalies are costing or saving the team goals, the Flames rank 18th in goaltending performance. So, the good news is that on the surface there are no glaring issues but at the same time, the Flames don’t seem to have any particular strengths they can rely on.

With the trade deadline approaching, it will be interesting to see which direction general manager Brad Treliving chooses to go. Calgary is thin on right shot forwards and with Elias Lindholm cantering the second line, the Flames currently have Dillon Dube and Brett Ritchie at right win in their top six forward group. Adding a proven scorer to play on the right side in the top six would help a team that is bottom-10 in goal scoring add balance to their line-up.

Defensively, the Flames rank 24th in expected goals against so they are benefitting in terms of actual goals-against average from the strong play of Jacob Markstrom. Calgary gives up a lot off-the-rush and does not do a particularly good job of defending the blue line against oncoming attacks.

Perhaps this will be addressed with Sutter now behind the bench. As it stands, the Flames have been a decidedly average team this season. If Calgary can get more consistent scoring and play a bit tighter defensively, especially off-the-rush, it has a decent shot at making the playoffs. If not, odds are good that the Flames will finish on the outside looking in.

PLAYOFFS UNLIKELY

Vancouver Canucks

The Canucks’ point total is a bit deceiving as they have played four more games than the team they are chasing for the fourth and final playoff spot in the North, the Montreal Canadiens.

Vancouver has had an up-and-down season. Four straight wins to end January and three blowout losses in the first week of February. A couple of recent wins against the high-flying Maple Leafs, followed by a split against the Canadiens.

Thatcher Demko has been outstanding this season, saving the Canucks almost 10 goals above expected which ranks amongst the top goalies in the league.

As great as it is to see Demko on this list, it’s a bit of a problem that he’s had to save his team so many goals this season. The Canucks are a nightmare defensively ranking dead last in expected goals against per game (3.43). The one area the Canucks get beat worse than any team is off the rush. Vancouver allows an average of 7.2 scoring chances off the rush per game, the most in the NHL.

Quinn Hughes has played a majority of his even-strength minutes with Jordie Benn and Travis Hamonic, two defencemen who would likely not be in a contending team’s top-four. Nate Schmidt, Alex Edler, and Tyler Myers have not provided enough stability on the back end for this team to limit chances and ease the workload on its goaltenders.

The Canucks will struggle to make the playoffs regardless of what division they play in with their current defence corps and for that reason, they are unlikely to make the playoffs.

Ottawa Senators

This season was never about making the playoffs for the Ottawa Senators so much as it was about developing their young players. The Senators’ start to the season had many wondering not whether they would finish last but by how much. Well, the Sens have been much better over the past few weeks and have pulled themselves out of last place overall.

The Senators’ top-five scorers are all under 25 years old, so the future is bright. Brady Tkachuk leads the team lead in goals with 10 and is one of the best net-front players in the NHL. Tkachuk has 45 shots from the inner slot, which ranks second in the NHL. Drake Batherson is having a breakout season and Tim Stutzle has had moments of brilliance this season as well.

The Senators would likely have a few more wins this season if their goaltending performed even at an average level. Matt Murray has been streaky at best, disappointing at worst, ranking among the worst goalies in the league this season in goals saved above expected.

Ottawa’s goaltending has allowed one goal-per-game more than expected relative to the team’s expected goals-against average – a reflection of team defence based on the quality and quantity of shots allowed. That ranks last in the NHL by far. The Sharks rank 30th at 0.54.

The Senators are a hard-working team but are still at least a couple of years away from being a serious contender.

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Boston Bruins Add Offense With Solid Taylor Hall Trade – Boston Hockey Now

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The Boston Bruins clearly understood they had serious deficiencies on their NHL roster this season and credit them for going and doing something about it.

The B’s finished off their Sunday night fireworks ahead of the NHL trade deadline by sending a second round pick and Anders Bjork to the Buffalo Sabres in exchange for top-6 winger Taylor Hall and bottom-6 forward Curtis Lazar. TSN’s Darren Dreger, Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman and ESPN’s John Buccigross were the first to report about the completed deal between the Bruins and Buffalo Sabres in the hours following the B’s getting stomped by the Washington Capitals, 8-1, at TD Garden.

The Buffalo Sabres retained half of the $8 million salary that Hall signed for prior to the start of the 2021 hockey season.

The 29-year-old Hall is having a terrible season in Buffalo with just two goals and 19 points in 37 games along with a minus-21 rating after he chose to sign a one-year deal with the Sabres during the offseason. But he brings legitimate offensive talent as a former No. 1 overall pick and Hart Trophy winner to a Boston Bruins team that’s ranked in the bottom third of the NHL offensively all season.

The Bruins were one of the suitors for Hall prior to him choosing the Sabres months ago, and now they get him for a deep discount while keeping their own first round picks after making their deadline deals.

Holding onto their own first round pick was a priority for Boston Bruins GM Don Sweeney after spending first rounders at the deadline in two of the last three deadlines in trades for damaged goods Rick Nash and Ondrej Kase.

The 26-year-old Lazar has five goals and 11 points in 33 games as a bottom-6 forward for the Sabres this season and is signed for $800,000 for next season. It seemed clear that something was going on with the 24-year-old Anders Bjork over the last couple of weeks as he was a healthy scratch for five straight games, including Sunday night against Washington, and heads to Buffalo hoping to further develop a game built on speed and skill level that hasn’t translated into offense as of yet.

Hall should fit right into the top-6 with the Bruins as a skilled winger for playmaking center David Krejci, but it remains to be seen how he’s going to fit as another left winger on a team with Nick Ritchie and Jake DeBrusk.

Either Ritchie or DeBrusk is going to have to play the off wing with a Krejci/Hall combo, but that’s a problem that Boston Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy will gladly figure out after being forced to piece together lineups all season due to injuries and offensive inconsistency. With the acquisition of Hall, Lazar and left-handed defenseman Mike Reilly on Sunday night, it would appear the Boston Bruins are largely done with deals ahead of Monday’s NHL trade deadline.

Interestingly enough, the Boston Bruins are set to play the Buffalo Sabres on Tuesday night at TD Garden.

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Drouin must return to mentality that’s led to success this season – Sportsnet.ca

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It was something Dominique Ducharme said after his Montreal Canadiens played an abysmal game against the Ottawa Senators last week, something that only truly resonated after they lost 3-2 to the Toronto Maple Leafs on Wednesday — a game that emboldened the struggle Jonathan Drouin’s currently enduring.

“Ninety per cent of the mistakes we made were mental, and the rest of it was above our shoulders.” the coach said after the 6-3 loss to Ottawa last Saturday, somewhat channelling New York Yankees legend Yogi Berra with this bit of wit and wisdom.

It was hard not to think of those words watching Drouin play the way he did on Wednesday. For much of this season, the talented left winger has played a primary role in Montreal’s success. He’s led them with 19 assists, been tenacious on the forecheck, physically engaged all over the ice, cerebral as always in his execution and, as he’s said on several occasions, relatively unconcerned by whether or not his name has been featured on the scoresheet.

But it seemed clear, after watching Drouin dump a breakaway into Jack Campbell’s chest with one of 32 shots the Maple Leafs goaltender turned aside to set a franchise record with his 10th consecutive win, he had diverted from that. And that affected the way he played the rest of the game.

It was Drouin’s fifth in a row without a point, his 18th without a goal, and he’d have to be a robot not to be suffering the mental wear of not seeing the puck go in more than twice since the season started, the torment of seeing only three per cent of his shots hit the back of the net through 36 games after 10 per cent of them resulted in goals through the first 348 games of his career.

“It is weighing on me where, when I have a chance and miss the goal, I might be trying to score too much,” Drouin said. “It’s something I obviously think about — every player would — and I’ve just gotta put it past me and just keep shooting pucks.”

Ideally, the 26-year-old wouldn’t be thinking about any of this. These are thoughts that weigh a player down and right now the Canadiens are in tough without Brendan Gallagher for the rest of the season and Drouin needs to be light and free to help account for that loss. And in order for him to do that, he needs to focus on what he does best.

Because the reality is that even though Drouin can score more, scoring isn’t what he needs to do in order to be at his best and really help this team.

“When his feet are moving and he’s making plays, Drou’s a pass-first guy,” explained Jake Allen, who made 29 saves in Carey Price’s absence. “When his feet are moving, his head’s always in it. When his feet are moving, he’s controlling the play, controlling the puck. He’s a guy who really can control the play for a whole line. You want the puck on that guy’s stick and let the other guys do the dirty work and he’ll find them.”

But when Drouin’s feet aren’t moving, there just isn’t enough of that other stuff happening.

When Drouin’s feet weren’t moving, he lost a battle for the puck in the offensive zone and allowed the NHL’s leading goal scorer to start the rush that resulted in the winning play of Wednesday’s game.

Auston Matthews to Mitch Marner, back to Matthews, off Allen and slammed into Montreal’s net by Zach Hyman with 9:39 remaining in the third period, with Drouin watching from just inside his own blue line.

“You give a 3-on-2 to the Matthews line and it’s the kind of play they’re going to make you pay on,” said Ducharme.

Was Drouin still thinking about that shot he didn’t bury in the second period?

It’s understandable if he was, but those are the kind of thoughts he needs to shake right now.

“He wants to do well, and I’m sure it’s getting a little bit in his head,” said Ducharme. “I think the best remedy for him is to be scoring that goal or making that big play, and I think he’s going to be energized by that and less thinking, more acting.

“It is a fine line. Those kind of thoughts is not something that you want to happen. But when you receive that puck and you see the opening and stuff, (the slump) comes back to (your mind). That’s why the mental part of the game is something that’s very tricky. It’s not his will to be thinking that way. Every player who’s going through a time like that will have that thought and scoring that goal will take him to a different level. At those kind of times you need to make it even simpler and being even more inside going at the net and finding a garbage (goal) right there and you put it in and sometimes you go on a little run. It might be that kind of goal that he needs to get that monkey off his back.”

It’s the kind of goal Corey Perry scored twice to give the Canadiens a chance in this game.

But Drouin isn’t Perry, who rightly pointed out after the game he’s made a career of scoring goals that way. And even if Drouin can borrow from what Perry does next time he has a chance like the one Brett Kulak set him up with for that breakaway, there are other ways he can positively impact the game.

You can appreciate that Drouin said he’s putting pressure on himself to score more and help make up for the goals the team will be missing with Gallagher sidelined, but that might not get him to where he needs to be mentally to contribute as much as he already has this season.

What would, though, is a sharp turn towards the mentality he described just days ago. The one that’s enabled him to be a much more consistent player this season than he has in seasons past.

“When I was younger, I’d stay on one game or stay on one play for too long and wouldn’t be able to let it go for a bit or a couple of days,” Drouin said. “But I think for me now it’s can I look at myself in the mirror after a game and did I give my good effort? Was I a part of this game? Was I doing something right in a lot of areas?

“That’s what I do now. I think points are there, goals are there, assists are there, but it’s just about playing that real game and playing to help your team win.”

Drouin’s done a lot of that this season and has a chance to get right back to it when the Winnipeg Jets visit the Bell Centre Thursday.

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Scioscia to lead U.S. baseball bid for spot at Tokyo Olympics

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(Reuters) – Mike Scioscia, who won World Series both as a player and manager, was named manager of the U.S. men’s national baseball team on Tuesday, as they seek a spot at the Tokyo Olympics.

After 19 seasons as manager of the Anaheim Angels, guiding them to their only World Series win in 2002, Scioscia will make his international coaching debut in June when the United States hosts the Baseball Americas Qualifier in Florida.

For the tournament the U.S. will be grouped with the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, and Nicaragua in Pool A while Canada, Colombia, Cuba, and Venezuela will make up Pool B.

The top two teams from each pool will advance to the Super Round, where the country with the best overall record will earn a spot in the Tokyo Olympic tournament.

Second and third-place finishers will advance to a final qualifier, joining Australia, China, Taiwan, and the Netherlands.

“Mike’s tenure with the Angels’ franchise was nothing short of spectacular, creating and celebrating a culture of success with six division titles, an American League pennant, and its first-ever World Series title,” said USA Baseball Executive Director/CEO Paul Seiler in a statement. “More impactfully, his leadership, integrity, and character are unparalleled in our game, making him the perfect fit for the USA Baseball family.”

The Olympic tournament will take place from July 28-Aug. 7 in Fukushima City and Yokohama.

Hosts Japan, Israel, South Korea, and Mexico have already secured a berth in the six-team field.

 

(Reporting by Steve Keating in Toronto. Editing by Toby Davis)

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