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Bad goaltending remains the ultimate coach killer – TSN

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On Wednesday afternoon, the Vegas Golden Knights announced the firing of head coach Gerard Gallant. The firing was a shocker – Gallant’s team made the postseason (including a Stanley Cup appearance and his Jack Adams Trophy win in their inaugural season) in every year of his tenure, and, despite some challenges this season, the club is vying for another playoff berth.

Gallant’s firing marked the seventh coaching firing in less than two months, a continuation of one of the more unstable runs for coaching retention we have seen in recent history. Gallant’s removal certainly differed from most of the others, though – absent the firings of Bill Peters and Jim Montgomery for off-ice issues, most of the other teams who changed coaches were looking up at a bunch of teams in the standings and arguably in need of a fresh voice.

That’s not necessarily the case in Vegas. You could make the argument that the team hasn’t met expectations – we still, by and large, consider this team a Stanley Cup contender – but that’s not exactly solid footing. Despite their intermittent struggles, the Golden Knights are still in a playoff position and just a few points back of first place in the Pacific Division. 

Plus, the team’s underlying numbers have been strong for some time now. At the time of Gallant’s firing, the Golden Knights were second in expected goal and scoring chance differential, and carried one of the league’s better power-play units. Combine that with Gallant’s otherwise sterling record of producing playoff-calibre teams in Vegas (save one ugly penalty call), and it’s hard to see how Gallant blew through so much equity in such little time. 

The one thing that’s true about Gallant’s team this year though is that the goaltending has been a weak point. The backup position – primarily carried by Malcolm Subban – has been in limbo since the team came into existence, and Marc-Andre Fleury’s play has recently fallen below league averages. At the team level in all situations, the Golden Knights are tied for 19th in stop rate. Adjusting for shot quality does little to help their cause, as the Fleury/Subban tandem was 18th in Goals Above Replacement contributions over the same period.

What is noteworthy to me, as tends to be the case for just about every head coach fired for performance reasons, is that the goaltending in Vegas has collapsed very recently. You might read the above paragraph and conclude that the Golden Knights goaltenders have been mediocre this season, but that hasn’t been the case more recently. Their stop rates have cratered over the past 10 games, with the Fleury and Subban tandem stopping just 85.8 per cent of shots. That’s the type of short-term goaltending collapse that can fundamentally damage a front office’s perspective of the broader team performance.

This is actually a tried-and-true rule in NHL circles, especially recently. If you are a head coach and your goatlending is terrible for a few weeks, you are probably sitting on the proverbial hot seat. In fact, if you look at coaching terminations over the last three years, you can see just how brutal the goaltending has been right up until the point of the termination. (I used a 10-game average, but different segmentation yields similar results):

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Save percentage is not exclusively a measure of goaltending performance – it is also a reflection of how teams defend in front of their respective goaltenders. To that end, tanking stop rates like the ones you see here could be as much a reflection of bad goaltending as they could be of bad defensive play. If there are systemic or structural issues with how teams defend in front of their net, well, I would argue that’s much more a reflection of poor coaching than poor luck. 

But in most cases, those awful stop rates are just fleeting moments in time and appear to be more of a reflection of intermittently bad goaltending than anything else. Consider the Golden Knights again as a quick example – a puck-dominant team that has remained so even through an ugly losing stretch:

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If you knew nothing else about this team other than the above data, you would reasonably conclude that this team has either a shooting talent problem (possibly true) or a goaltending problem (probably true). The rest of the skating group appears to be outplaying the opposition on a routine basis – and over the last 10 games that is even more pronounced. Of course, even-strength play – while the most critical game state – isn’t the only state. Golden Knights fans know that the real problem lately has been that the team can’t get a stop on the penalty kill, where their 15.4 goals against per-60 minutes are 30th in the NHL over the last 10-games.

It’s hard to know what else may have created a rift between Gallant and the Vegas from office, and the same point can be made about a number of the fired coaches and their respective front offices. But one thing that is certain is that bad goaltending, even over brief stretches, remains the ultimate coach killer. In the post-Mike Yeo era, we are starting to see front offices even more vigilant and aggressive in making coaching changes, even if the driving factor is a bad and brief run of goaltending that always seems to favourably regress over a longer period of time. 

But one man’s loss is another man’s gain. I think it’s fair to say that if Peter DeBoer sees some bounce back from his goaltending tandem in the next few weeks the former San Jose bench boss will have assumed control of a team that, save for some shaky goaltending, still looks every bit the part of a serious contender. 

Data via Hockey Reference, Evolving Hockey, and Natural Stat Trick

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Bitterness replaces business as lockout grinds Major League Baseball to a halt – Toronto Sun

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“The shutdown is a dramatic measure, regardless of the timing,” MLBPA president Tony Clark said

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After an unprecedented spending spree by billionaire owners to millionaire players in recent weeks, the chains are on Major League Baseball.

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Who knows what awaits, but most are expecting a long, drawn-out winter of rhetoric and futile negotiations possibly putting the start of the 2022 season in peril.

As the clock struck midnight on Wednesday, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred did the expected and issued a lockout of players, triggering pro baseball’s first work stoppage since 1994.

Even as owners handed out more than $1.4 billion in future contracts this off-season, last-ditch talks between the league and the Major League Baseball Players Association created zero traction.

Given the laughable attempt at negotiations — and given all the money tossed around in recent days — it’s impossible for the average fan to pick a side in this dispute. And expect the bitterness from both parties to escalate the closer we move towards spring training.

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Choosing such a hard line in the midst of a COVID-19 pandemic and within a sport that has had multi-layered challenges over the past number of years will be difficult to stomach for fans already disillusioned with the game.

And with negotiations broken and the lockout chains in place, both the league and the players are already launched in the blame game of the opposite side.

Claiming he was “forced” to impose the lockout, Manfred said in a letter “to the fans” that from the outset the MLBPA has been unwilling to compromise or collaborate.

And thus began what we’d expect to be months of bitterness before any hope of a settlement is reached.

“Simply put, we believe that an off-season lockout is the best mechanism to protect the 2022 season,” Manfred wrote. “We hope that the lockout will jumpstart the negotiations and get us to an agreement that will allow the season to start on time.

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“This defensive lockout was necessary because the Players Association’s vision for (MLB) would threaten the ability of most teams to be competitive.”

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Manfred said that imposing the lockout now gives both sides the opportunity to reach labour peace in time for the season to begin on time in late March. Naturally, the union dismissed that narrative.

“The shutdown is a dramatic measure, regardless of the timing,” MLBPA president Tony Clark said in a statement. “It was the owners’ choice, plain and simple, specifically calculated to pressure players into relinquishing rights and benefits and abandoning good-faith bargaining proposals.”

The effects of the lockout will be felt immediately.

All dealings between teams and players — including offers to free agents and trade talks — are on hold. The annual Winter Meetings, which encompasses a wide variety of league and player business and was scheduled to be held in Orlando next week has been scrapped.

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And as of Thursday, players are forbidden to show up at team facilities for workouts.

It will affect teams across baseball in different ways, including Canada’s lone team, the Toronto Blue Jays, which had been riding the momentum of a positive off-season. Jays general manager Ross Atkins was active in free agent and trade talks and the team spent more than US$250 million in free agent deals and contract extensions since the season ended in early October.

As well, the team’s state-of-the-art training facility in Dunedin, Fla., a significant asset used by many players for off-season development, is effectively off limits.

Though both sides are talking in the tone and language of any work stoppage, the bitterness is evident. There were three reported meetings this week in Texas, the last of which lasted just seven minutes.

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Realistically, there is indeed time for a deal to get done, albeit no visible middle ground that will get a deal done. Pitchers and catchers are scheduled to report to spring training sites on Feb. 14 — which now seems highly unlikely — and the sense is the start of the season can be salvaged if agreement is reached by March 1.

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The issues are many, ranging from restrictions on free agency, to players accusations that too many teams in the league are “tanking” to accumulate better draft picks, to talks of an expanded playoff format.

The players association certainly seems determined to dig in its heels.

“These tactics are not new,” MLBPA president Clark said in his statement. “We have been here before and players have risen to the occasion time and again. We will do so again here.

“We remain determined to return to the field under the terms of a negotiated agreement that is fair to all parties.”

There’s plenty of ground to cover before that happens, clearly. And given the tenor of dealings between the league and union over the past couple of years, the unwillingness to play ball at the negotiating table is risking the prospect of playing ball in stadiums across the league.

rlongley@postmedia.com

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China opposes 'politicization of sports' after WTA suspends tournaments over Peng Shuai – The Globe and Mail

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Peng Shuai of China serves at the China Open tennis tournament in Beijing in 2017. The head of the women’s professional tennis tour announced Wednesday that all WTA tournaments would be suspended in China because of concerns about the safety of Peng Shuai.Andy Wong/The Associated Press

China declared opposition to “politicization of sports” on Thursday, after the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) suspended tournaments in the country following star player Peng Shuai’s accusations of sexual assault against a former vice premier.

Unconvinced by Peng’s public appearances since the scandal first broke a month ago, the WTA said it wants assurances of Peng’s well-being and has called for an investigation into the accusations levelled by the former world number one doubles player against former vice-premier Zhang Gaoli.

It also cited concerns over the safety of other players.

The stance taken by the WTA comes at a sensitive time for China, as Beijing is preparing to host the Winter Olympics next February, and global rights groups and others have called for a boycott in protest against China’s human rights record.

When asked about the matter at a regular briefing, foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin did not directly comment on the WTA’s move but said China “opposes the politicisation of sports.”

The International Olympic Committee said in a statement on Thursday that it had held a second video call with Peng, having held the first late last month.

“We share the same concern as many other people and organisations about the wellbeing and safety of Peng Shuai. This is why, just yesterday, an IOC team held another video call with her,” the IOC said.

Beijing has remained largely silent over the scandal and authorities have blocked discussions of the topic on China’s heavily-censored internet.

Instead, the Global Times newspaper, a nationalistic English-language tabloid, published by the ruling Communist Party’s People’s Daily, took aim at the WTA in an editorial on Thursday, accusing it of “bringing politics into women’s tennis” and of being a “lever of Western public opinion”.

The editorial, posted on the newspaper’s account on Twitter account – which is not available in China – called the WTA “betrayers of the Olympic spirit” and said that “some forces in the West are instigating a boycott against the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics.”

The U.S.-headquartered tour’s decision to walk away from one of its biggest markets was applauded by many leading figures in the tennis world but could cost the WTA hundreds of millions of dollars in broadcasting and sponsorship revenue.

Peng’s whereabouts became a matter of international concern following a nearly three-week public absence after she publically accused Zhang in a social media message posted in early November.

Neither Zhang, who retired in 2018, nor the Chinese government have commented on Peng’s allegation.

Peng did appear in mid-November at a dinner with friends and a children’s tennis tournament in Beijing, photographs and videos published by Chinese state media and by the tournament’s organisers showed.

On Nov. 21, IOC President Thomas Bach had a 30-minute video call with Peng, who competed at three Olympics, during which she told him she was safe.

But WTA chief executive Steve Simon, who said the decision to suspend tournaments in China had the full support of the WTA Board of Directors, said they were not convinced all was well with Peng.

The Global Times’ editor-in-chief Hu Xijin used his personal Twitter account on Thursday to accuse the WTA of “coercing” Peng to “support the West’s attack” on China.

Serving as de facto messengers to the outside world, Hu and other Global Times reporters were among the first to publish images and videos of Peng’s appearances earlier this month.

The Global Times also cited a statement from the Chinese Tennis Association saying that it would defend its rights, and warning that the WTA should bear the legal consequences. The CTA did not immediately respond to Reuters’ request for comment.

Calls to the organisers of the China Open tournament went unanswered.

Searches on the topic of the WTA’s suspension yielded no results on China’s Twitter-like Weibo on Thursday, and at least one post seen by Reuters that criticised the WTA’s move was later deleted.

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Maple Leafs stay hot, thump Avalanche 8-3 for 15th victory in 17 games – TSN

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TORONTO — The Maple Leafs knew there were plenty of built-in excuses.

Just back from a California road trip, the jet lag had yet to lift, bodies were tired, and it had been more than a week and a half since the luxury of a day off — all with one of the NHL’s hottest teams waiting on deck.

None of it mattered.

Auston Matthews scored three times to register the fourth hat trick of his career as the scorching Leafs thumped the Colorado Avalanche 8-3 on Wednesday night.

John Tavares added a goal and two assists for Toronto (17-6-1), while William Nylander scored and set up another. Jack Campbell made 28 saves.

“Really good effort from everybody,” Matthews said. “Playing a really good team with a lot of really dangerous players, you know that they’re gonna get their push and they’re gonna get their opportunities.

“All 20 guys out there did a really good job.”

Jason Spezza, Travis Dermott and Pierre Engvall had the other goals for the Leafs, who have won five straight and are 15-2-0 over their last 17 to take over top spot in the NHL’s overall standings. Michael Bunting added three assists, while Mitch Marner and Alexander Kerfoot chipped in with two each.

“Good preparation coming in, good mindset,” Tavares said. “Good energy, especially coming off the West Coast trip.”

Nazem Kari, with two, and Samuel Girard replied for Colorado (11-7-1). Jonas Johansson stopped 33 shots as the Avalanche lost for the second time in their last three contests after winning six in a row.

“The energy in the room was that it’d be easy to make an excuse right now,” Dermott said. “But tonight was a game that I think we could really show our character.”

Colorado star Nathan MacKinnon, who had two assists, returned after missing eight games with a lower-body injury, while Kadri suited up at Scotiabank Arena as a visitor for the second time since being traded to the Mile High City in July 2019.

The Avalanche announced shortly before the game No. 1 goalie Darcy Kuemper (upper-body injury) — named as Wednesday’s starter by head coach Jared Bednar following the morning skate — was unavailable.

“That was not the issue,” Colorado captain Gabriel Landeskog said. “The issue was we just didn’t play good enough.”

That did mean, however, University of Toronto netminder Jett Alexander dressed as Johansson’s emergency backup for warmups. But the 22-year-old from Bloomfield, Ont., remained in the locker-room area until third-stringer Justus Annunen arrived to witness the carnage up close in the second period.

“I don’t think it was an 8-3 game if we’re being honest,” said Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe, whose team built a 3-0 lead in the first. “We played against a really good team that had some adversity.

“That makes the game feel a lot different than it really was.”

Coming off a trip that saw them sweep the New York Islanders and all three California teams, the Leafs went up 1-0 at 4:31 of the opening period when Tavares delicately fed a pass ahead to Nylander, who ripped his 10th goal of the season.

Toronto went up 2-0 at 7:57 when Spezza tapped home his fifth after the Colorado netminder could only get a piece of Nick Ritchie‘s shot.

The Leafs went up by three at 14:24 when Matthews — minus his trademark moustache following a shave for charity — took a feed from Marner and went between the legs and back against the grain to roof his team-leading 11th goal, and fourth in as many games.

“He’s such a special player,” Dermott said. “When he’s hot like this, you just want to put the puck … not even on his tape.

“You put it on his backhand — he’ll make magic out of that.”

Colorado got on the board with 1.2 seconds left in the period when Girard blasted a one-timer past Campbell for his second.

The NHL’s second star in November after going 9-2-0 with a league-leading .959 save percentage, the Leafs goaltender made a number of big stops early in the second period.

But the Avalanche finally broke through to make it 3-2 at 11:57 when Kadri — the league’s third star last month thanks to 21 points in 10 games — swept his eighth past Campbell.

The Leafs got that one back just 47 seconds later when Dermott’s fluttering one-timer beat Johansson upstairs for his first.

Campbell then made terrific saves on Logan O’Connor and Alex Newhook in quick succession before Tavares slipped his own rebound through Johansson for his 11th to match Matthews and push Toronto’s lead back to three at 5-2.

But Matthews retook top spot on the Leafs’ stats page when he collected a pass from Marner in tight and outwaited Johansson for his 12th just 46 seconds into third.

The reigning Maurice (Rocket) Richard Trophy winner then fired his third of the night at 8:41 on a shot that beat the Colorado netminder shortside to continue the onslaught before Engvall and Kadri rounded out the scoring.

“Those first two goals, really good sequences by that line,” Keefe said of the Bunting-Matthews-Marner trio. “Just unbelievable passes by Mitch Marner in both cases.

“On the third one, (Matthews) gets it alone. That’s a pretty good shot … kisses the post.”

Added Campbell: “Auston being Auston. Just spectacular.”

Fans around Scotiabank Arena chanted Matthews’ name after hats rained down on the ice following his hat-trick snipe.

“It definitely gives you chills down your spine,” he said. “It’s just a really special place to play.

“It’s fun when the crowd gets going like that and you play as well we did tonight.”

Notes: The 21 goals the Leafs have scored over their last four games equals the team’s October total. … Kadri’s second goal was the 200th of his career. … Bunting stretched his point streak to five games (two goals, seven assists) to tie Detroit’s Moritz Seider for a longest by a rookie this season. … The Avalanche visit Montreal on Thursday before heading to Ottawa on Saturday. … The Leafs play in Minnesota on Saturday and Winnipeg on Sunday.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 1, 2021.

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