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Canada hammered, Alexis Lafreniere hurt in nightmare loss to Russians – TSN



OSTRAVA, Czech Republic — Team Canada’s road to gold at the World Junior Championship took a dark turn on Saturday night.

Canada’s brightest young star, Alexis Lafreniere, left the game in the second period with a left knee injury, adding injury to insult in a 6-0 shellacking at the hands of Team Russia.

The lopsided defeat, coupled with the feared significant injury to June’s projected No. 1 overall NHL pick, made this one among the worst losses in Team Canada’s 43-year history at the World Junior Championship. It was the first time Canada lost by six or more goals at the World Juniors and it was the first time Canada was shutout since tying Slovakia 0-0 on Dec. 27, 1998. 

It may not have had the same game significance as Canada’s blown third period lead to Russia in the 2011 gold medal game in Buffalo, or the 6-3 loss to Kazahkstan in 1998 when Canada was gunning for a sixth straight gold medal – but it was at least in the conversation.

On this night, Team Canada’s sixth loss to Russia in the last nine World Junior games, Canada was simply run over by a Big Red Machine desperate to avoid a 0-2 start to the tournament. Canada’s loss blew the doors wide open in Group B, putting all five teams back on level footing with equal 1-1 records.

The onslaught was fast and furious with six different Russians filling the net over the first 36 minutes. Russia’s first strike came less than two minutes into the contest, a shot that bounced up into air off Nico Daws, over him and into the net – setting the tone for an ugly evening.

Daws barely lasted two minutes into the second period before coach Dale Hunter replaced him with Joel Hofer. 

Daws allowed four goals on 18 shots – giving him just an .840 save percentage over his first five periods and change of the tournament – leaving a significant question for Hunter to answer in net with Canada’s Game 3 starter on Monday against Germany (8:30 a.m. ET on TSN 1/4/5).

Nonetheless, Lafreniere’s injury was the talk of the tournament post-game in Ostrava, casting a pall on a seemingly perpetually grey Czech Republic city.​

Lafreniere left Saturday’s contest early in the second period after a collision with goaltender Amir Miftakhov on a take to the net.

Lafreniere, 18, writhed on the ice in considerable pain while clutching his left knee. He needed to be helped to the dressing room by teammates and did not appear to put any weight on his left leg on the way off.

An update on Lafreniere’s status was not immediately available from Team Canada. A source confirmed to TSN that Lafreniere indeed injured his left knee and that he was still undergoing testing to determine the severity.

It wouldn’t be a stretch to say Hockey Canada was holding its collective breath waiting for the news.

Lafreniere was the star of Team Canada’s thrilling 6-4 win over Team USA to start the tournament, collecting one goal and three assists, including a game-saving response seven seconds after Canada blew a two-goal lead in the third period.

Lafreniere netted an impressive 70 points (and 23 goals) in just 32 games for the Rimouski Oceanic in the QMJHL before leaving to join Team Canada in early December. He even spent time with fellow Oceanic star and his boyhood idol Sidney Crosby at the start of the season, as his journey to June’s Draft in Montreal began.

Now, depending on the severity of Lafreniere’s injury, not only may Team Canada’s hopes to break an 11-year medal drought in Europe take a significant hit – but so could his stranglehold as the consensus No. 1 pick.

Contact Frank Seravalli on Twitter: @frank_seravalli

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Pacers hire Raps assistant Bjorkgren – TSN



INDIANAPOLIS — Indiana wanted its next coach to take the franchise in a new direction.

The Pacers were seeking someone who could communicate with today’s players, who was open to a new offensive philosophy and who could win some post-season games.

On Tuesday, president of basketball operations Kevin Pritchard found his man in Toronto assistant Nate Bjorkgren.

“Nate is the right coach for us at the right time,” Pritchard said in a statement released by the team. “He comes from a winning background, has experienced championship success, is innovative and his communication skills along with his positivity are tremendous.”

Terms were not immediately available though several reports said the 45-year-old Bjorkgren agreed to a multi-year deal.

He comes to Indiana after spending two seasons as an assistant on Nick Nurse’s staff in Toronto. There, Bjorkgren helped the Raptors capture their first NBA championship in 2018-19 and was part of a team that earned the Eastern Conference’s No. 2 seed each of the past two seasons.

He also won a G-League title while working for Nurse in 2010-11 with the Iowa Energy.

And though this will be Bjorkgren’s first head coaching job in the NBA, he went 126-74 in four seasons as a G-League head coach with the Dakota Wizards, Santa Cruz Warriors, Energy and Bakersfield Jam.

Bjorkgren is expected to be introduced Wednesday on a Zoom call.

“This is something I have prepared for during my career,” Bjorkgren said in a statement, thanking those involved in the selection process. “I also want to thank Nick Nurse for giving me my first professional coaching job 14 years ago. I’m looking forward to working with this great team to achieve our goal as NBA champions.”

Just winning some post-season games would be a start.

Despite making five straight playoff appearances, the Pacers haven’t won a series since defeating Washington 4-2 in the 2014 Eastern Conference semifinals. Since then, Indy is 8-20 in the playoffs and has endured three first-round sweeps the past four seasons — the franchise’s only four-game sweeps since joining the NBA in 1976.

Post-season losses aren’t the only potential obstacle facing Indiana.

Two-time All-Star Victor Oladipo returned in January after missing 12 months while rehabbing from a torn quad tendon in his right knee. Following the season’s stoppage and restart, Oladipo — worried about re-injuring his knee — announced he wouldn’t return to the court in Florida before changing his mind.

Since the Pacers’ elimination in August, speculation has centred on Oladipo’s future and whether he would remain in Indianapolis if he becomes a free agent after next season. If not, some believe he could be dealt, potentially leading to a major roster overhaul.

Bjorkgren replaces Nate McMillan, who was fired Aug. 26 just two weeks after agreeing to a contract extension through the 2021-22 season. In four seasons with Indiana, McMillan went 183-136, producing the fourth-highest victory total in franchise history. But he was just 3-16 in the post-season.

Bjorkgren, an Iowa native who played college basketball at South Dakota, left the G-League in 2015 to join the Phoenix as player development co-ordinator. He spent two seasons on the Suns staff before rejoining Nurse in Toronto.

“We all look forward to a long, successful partnership in helping the Pacers move forward,” Pritchard said,.

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How will Joe Thornton fit on the 2020–21 Toronto Maple Leafs? –



I wonder if, in the history of the NHL, more has ever been said about the signing of a player to a league minimum contract than has been said about Joe Thornton signing with the Toronto Maple Leafs. If an occasion has surpassed this, it can’t have been by much. Granted, it’s only natural given what the team and player have created in terms of potential storylines.

Take a sec to lay it out: An Ontario kid, a first-overall pick, plays 23 seasons and some 1,700 total games between two U.S. cities without ever winning a Cup. He’s a star, he’s famous. He makes all-star teams, and wins Olympic gold, the World Cup and the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s best player. He gets older, he gets grey, he grows increasingly desperate for that Stanley Cup championship.

He goes home. He goes home for (likely) one last kick at the can, right as a talented young team sees its prized core hit its prime age. It’s all so Disney.

You’ll often hear media say they don’t root for players or teams but rather for stories, and if that’s true, there’s gotta be some journalistic types out there right now picking up blue and white pom-poms at their nearest dollar store.

All that’s been written and said about the potential storybook narrative brings me to two important questions that fans will actually want to kick around, which are: Where does Thornton practically fit in the Leafs’ lineup, and (sacrilegious though this is to question) was his signing actually a good use of that bottom-six roster spot? There’s also the question of if it’s even possible to divorce Thornton of All That Is Joe Thornton and just consider his value as a player, so we’ll touch on that, too.


Where does Joe Thornton best fit on this Toronto Maple Leafs team?

The Leafs had a few issues against Columbus in the play-in round, but one was really glaring. Their top two lines were stacked, and therefore supposed to draw the opposing team’s best players, meaning their third line could feast against weaker competition. In reality, they didn’t feast — not at all.

While Kasperi Kapanen and Alex Kerfoot were busy not feasting – fitting for those two to say they were fasting? – they also weren’t providing much else. And because of the type of players they are and what their job was supposed to be (depth scoring), they couldn’t even be used for heavy D-zone starts to prop up the other lines. They had to be protected to do their non-scoring, which is an overall drag on a team given the positions it puts other lines in.

That led to much speculation that this next version of the Leafs would have a bottom six that could at least do other things (defend, hit, wear opponents down) if they weren’t going to produce offence. Which brings me to Thornton and how, if he’s not going to produce offence, I’m not sure he’s going to do much else.

I’m confident he’ll be more willing to hang on to pucks in the offensive zone, control play, and play at the net, but let’s not kid ourselves about what he’s supposed to do. His role will be to help get some offensive punch out of the bottom six, and I’m not overly confident a ton of punch still exists.

I’m also pretty sure he won’t be taking more D-zone starts off the table from the top lines, meaning he may need some protecting himself. So there’s some justifiable grounds in questioning his addition, as has been done by my Hockey Central teammate Brian Burke:

But let’s not overthink this too much. Let’s lay the reality out much more plainly. We’re basically talking about swapping Joe Thornton in for Frederik Gauthier, not Thornton for Kapanen or Andreas Johnsson, as those guys and their dollars went to improve the team’s defensive corps. Thornton can take that spot as a bottom-six centre (call it third-line centre for now), and create some offence at both 5-on-5 and on the second power play unit.

Keep in mind that while Thornton had only 31 points last season, he also had 18 assists at 5-on-5, which if you look at league-wide comparables (names like Jack Eichel, Nicklas Backstrom and Blake Wheeler) was pretty decent. That was all while playing the bulk of his minutes with a pretty meh Marcus Sorensen (18 total points) and Kevin Labanc (33 points).

So he didn’t exactly play with big talent (his minutes away from those two saw him drive play at a much more successful rate), and he also saw his power play assists fall off the map, tallying only five on a quite-bad Sharks special teams unit. It’s tough to play chicken-or-egg with laying fault for his limited power play points, but certainly some of it had to do with an overall bad unit.

It’s not at all unreasonable to think that if the Leafs play him 13 or 14 minutes a game (instead of 15.5 as with San Jose), if he sees power play time with more talented players (almost a certainty), and if he just has a little better luck, his numbers could tick up this season. Whatever mix of linemates he hops the boards with, from Wayne Simmonds to Ilya Mikheyev to Jimmy Vesey to Jason Spezza or whoever, he’ll almost certainly have quality finishers alongside him.

There’s also the matter of what his more reliable presence can do for the rest of the lineup, which includes allowing Kerfoot to play more at wing — where he looked at his best for the Leafs last season. With that, Thornton too can play wing when needed, allowing Sheldon Keefe some versatility not just in-game, but in-season as injuries mount and lineup juggling becomes standard.

I’ve been trying not to, but it’s also tough to not come back to the money in the end. How many minutes or points would constitute value on a league-minimum deal like Thornton’s? Elven or 12 decent minutes a night? Thirty-one points again, over 82 games? If you consider the type of players (usually just-OK prospects) that play for his number, the bar is pretty low.

Let’s go deeper into that part.

Was signing Thornton the best use of a bargain-basement spot on next season’s Leafs?

When looking at the potential UFAs available on Oct. 8, I dedicated a paragraph to some of the bigger names. With Thornton, I hinted at the things I mentioned above – he can still get assists and retains some effectiveness, but I closed with this:

At some point, though, the pace just slows too much, and the “getting some points” thing isn’t enough. If Thornton’s willing to play a minimal role (fourth-line minutes) and play for a fourth-liner’s salary, you could maybe talk me into it (and he is, by all accounts). The hard truth though is that even then, I’d probably prefer to spend the money on some young forechecking machine who can make your team tough to play in other ways.

When I wrote that, I don’t think I considered the idea that he’d play for just $700,000 (I figured $1 million was likely). That changes things. So while I outlined Thornton not being a perfect fit for the changes the team may have wanted to make, we also need to consider the fit of their salary cap, and how his addition may allow the Leafs to keep another valued contributor, someone who may not have been able to stay had the Leafs spent even as much as $1 million on that bottom-six centre spot instead. The fit consideration isn’t purely about his game — it’s the fit of the Leafs puzzle as a whole. When considered like that, Thornton looks like more of a win than just what his on-ice, tangible game will offer.

Speaking of fit, though, how much of his gains will be provided off the ice? I realize this stuff is unquantifiable, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t real.

Is it possible to just consider Thornton for his value as a hockey player in this upcoming season, as we’ve aimed to do above?

I mean, of course not. Where the conversation about the “fit” of Joe Thornton takes me is from the hockey fit, to the money fit, then to the intangibles. The Leafs have dedicated their off-season to finding one thing: hockey obsessives. I thought that was one of the reasons they kept Kerfoot over Johnsson — he’s a serious hockey diehard, extremely passionate about his craft. That was the stated reason they wanted Joey Anderson from the Devils, too – he’s a hardcore, committed, hockey obsessive.

Y’know who else is? Leafs’ rising star Nicholas Robertson. Also motivated? Simmonds, come home to prove his last season was a blip and not the end. Vesey wants to do the same, saying he’s “going to come out with his hair on fire.” Thornton – Cup-chasing and hungry – fits that mold, too, as the type of desperate player the Leafs want to put around their core.

So yes, Thornton fits reasonably well for the Leafs on the ice. But it’s when you pull back that it really makes sense. The core players all finally have their big comfortable contracts, and the last thing they need is for those guys to actually get comfy.

Surrounding them with pros with passion, with veterans like Thornton and Spezza who can serve as examples that nothing is promised, and no single shot at the Cup should be taken for granted, should help get the most of them, too. To me, that fits what the Leafs are chasing here as much as anything else.

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Pacers hire Raptors assistant Nate Bjorkgren as new head coach –



The Indiana Pacers have hired Toronto Raptors assistant Nate Bjorkgren as their new head coach, the team announced Tuesday.

Indiana has been looking for a new head coach since firing Nate McMillan back on Aug. 26, only 14 days after strangely agreeing to a contract extension with him. McMillan’s dismissal came shortly after the Pacers were ousted from the playoffs in the first round for the fifth-straight season.

Evidently looking to shake things up and with a roster that contains its own plethora of questions, Indiana settled on Bjorkgren, who’s been a valuable member of Nick Nurse’s staff since joining the coaching ranks as an assistant in 2018.

“We are very pleased and excited to have Nate as our new coach,” said president of basketball operations Kevin Pritchard in a press release. “This was an extensive and thorough search, and when we reached the conclusion, we felt strongly Nate is the right coach for us at the right time. He comes from a winning background, has experienced championship success, is innovative and his communication skills along with his positivity are tremendous. We all look forward to a long, successful partnership in helping the Pacers move forward.”

A coach with NBA championship experience following Toronto’s 2019 run, Bjorkgren also served as an assistant with the Phoenix Suns from 2015-17 and spent a lengthy period of time in the then-D League, a space in which he was given his first pro-coaching job by Nurse with the Iowa Energy and in which he built a relationship with current Pacers forward T.J. Warren as head coach of the Bakersfield Jam.

“Nate and I have known each other for 30 years, and I will miss having him next to me on our bench, and I know the Raptors players and staff will miss working with him every day,” Nurse said in a statement. “With Nate, the Pacers are getting someone who is ready to lead an NBA team, who is always prepared and is super-positive, who knows what it takes to win a championship, at any level, and is willing to put in the work to get there.”

The Pacers now join the Brooklyn Nets as the only two teams with coaching vacancies to go with a first-time hire.

“I am honoured to take on the role as head coach of the Indiana Pacers,” said Bjorkgren. “This is something I have prepared for during my career. I want to thank Kevin, Chad (Buchanan), Kelly (Krauskopf), Larry Bird, Donnie Walsh and Herb and Steve Simon for this opportunity. I also want to thank Nick Nurse for giving me my first professional coaching job 14 years ago.

“I’m looking forward to working with this great team to achieve our goal as NBA champions.”

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