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Kessel eager to bounce back for Coyotes in Cup Qualifier –



Phil Kessel said he is eager to rebound from his least productive season since 2015-16 when the Arizona Coyotes face the Nashville Predators in the Stanley Cup Qualifiers.

“Obviously, I had a tough year,” the forward said after skating with teammates at Gila River Arena on Tuesday. “I had, I think it’s probably my most injuries I’ve had is this year, but that’s no excuse. It’s one of those years. Obviously, I’m going to look to never have that again. I’ve never had a year like that, so I’m looking to bounce back. This is a good time to get it started again.”

The 32-year-old is a six-time 30-goal scorer but struggled in his first season with the Coyotes; he had 38 points (14 goals, 24 assists) in 70 games before the NHL season was paused March 12 due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus. Kessel scored 82 points (27 goals, 55 assists) for the Pittsburgh Penguins last season.

His 38 points were his fewest since he had 59 points (26 goals, 33 assists) in 82 games for the Penguins in 2015-16, when he had 22 points (10 goals, 12 assists) in 24 Stanley Cup Playoff games to help them win the Cup.

“I think [playoff experience] matters,” Kessel said. “I think guys that have been there in those spots, they know what to expect and what to do. I think to be honest, it’s a different level of hockey. It’s a faster, more crisp game. It’s a fun time of year.”

Kessel, who was traded by the Penguins to the Coyotes on June 29, 2019, did not miss a game for Arizona during the regular season and said he feels fresh heading into training camp. Camps are scheduled to open July 10 as part of Phase 3 of the NHL Return to Play Plan, provided that medical and safety conditions allow, and the NHL and NHL Players’ Association have reached an agreement on resuming play. The length of training camp and the start date for resumption of play (Phase 4), as well as the two hub cities — one for the 12 participating Eastern Conference teams, and one for the 12 Western Conference teams — will be determined.

“I feel good right now,” said Kessel, who has 77 points (33 goals, 44 assists) in 87 playoff games. “I feel better than I did all year, so I’m excited. My body feels good, I feel rested. I’m going to be ready to go.”

The Coyotes went 33-29-8 (.529 points percentage) in the regular season and will enter the qualifiers as the No. 11 seed in the West. They will play the No. 6 seed, the Predators (35-26-8, .565), in one of eight best-of-5 series, with the winners advancing to the playoffs.

Arizona finished with its highest points percentage in six seasons (.543 in 2013-14) and hopes to reach the playoffs for the first time in eight.

Kessel, who self-quarantined at his home in Florida and returned to Arizona three weeks ago, said he’s hopeful the time away could prove to be beneficial.

“Yeah, it could be. I think it could be a real positive for us,” Kessel said. “I think everyone’s excited, and we’re going to be ready. We’ve got a good, young core, and all the guys are looking forward to this.

“We’re going to have to get into it right away. It’s going to be a different playoff than ever before, obviously. I think without fans and everything, it’s going to be strange, but I think guys know what they’re playing for. We all want a chance to win. … I think it’s going to be interesting. We have the camp to kind of get ready and try to get into it. I don’t know how many exhibition or preseason games we’re going to have, but I think the team that gets into it the fastest and can get into that shape and play well, I think they’ve got a big advantage.”

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Slimmed-down Marc Gasol should be a difference-maker for Toronto Raptors – TSN



TORONTO – Spend any amount of time with Marc Gasol and one of the first things you’ll notice about the big Spaniard is his Thumility.

The 35-year-old has a wealth of knowledge on a wide range of subjects – relating to and outside of basketball – and he’s generous enough with his time to share it. Ask him about pick and roll coverage, politics or wine and he’ll gladly fill your notebook.

The one topic that Gasol isn’t especially interested in talking about is: Gasol. Don’t expect the veteran centre to pat himself on the back. After 12 seasons in the NBA, the former Defensive Player of the Year has become quite good at politely swatting away questions that are designed to elicit self-praise.

Ask him about his historic dominance over Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid or Orlando’s Nikola Vucevic and he’ll credit his team’s collective defensive effort. Ask him if he’s thought about his chances of making the Hall of Fame when his illustrious NBA and international careers come to an end and he’ll tell you it hasn’t crossed his mind.

So, when he finally spoke to the media for the first time since before the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise to see him quickly shift the conversation away from his recent physical transformation. But, hey, we had to give it a shot.

The legend of ‘Skinny Marc’ started to grow when a photo of the slimmed-down Gasol began to circulate online in June. How did he use the time off to get himself in such great shape?

“It goes with training regimen, goals, sleeping habits, everything,” Gasol told reporters on a Zoom call from the Disney bubble, following the Toronto Raptors’ Wednesday morning practice session. “Obviously, when you’re at home, everything is a lot easier than when you’re on the road and travelling and trying to make everything work and [to] win games.”

Did he lose weight?


How much?

“Not really sure. I don’t think that’s really relevant. What’s important. like I said, what we’ll all be measured by is winning games and getting another ring. That’s what we’re all here for. We’re all trying to be in the best situation [individually] to do that.”

Fortunately, at least for our purposes, his teammates and coaches have a lot more to say on the subject of Gasol’s conditioning. Like the rest of us, they saw the photo on social media, but know that images can be deceiving, especially in this day and age. They needed to see it for themselves. When the Raptors reconvened in Fort Myers, Fla., for pre-camp workouts late last month and everybody first saw Gasol, they were stunned.

“I had to do a double take, I won’t lie,” said assistant coach Adrian Griffin. “I was so impressed about the way he looks. He just looks phenomenal.”

“I was shocked seeing him,” guard Patrick McCaw added. “It was like, ‘sheesh,’ I couldn’t really recognize him.”

“The change is that drastic,” said guard Norman Powell. “I make fun of him all the time, [he’s] looking like a soccer player from Barcelona. He looks great, man, he’s moving great, he’s feeling great.”

“He looks like prime Marc to me,” guard Terrence Davis said. “So, I don’t know, man. It’s scary.”

Gasol was in Toronto when Utah Jazz centre Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19 on March 11, and the season – followed by most of North American living – was quickly put on hold. After going through an initial round of testing – he didn’t play against Gobert and the Jazz a couple nights earlier, but he was in Utah with the team – and clearing the precautionary quarantine period, Gasol spent the next few months in Spain with his wife and two kids. Knowing he was close to his parents, grandparents and uncles in case of emergency helped give him peace of mind.

The details of his training regimen remain a mystery, but Gasol was clear about his motivation for working himself into tip-top shape.

“It was a frustrating season for me personally because I could never get a rhythm and help the team the way that I should be helping the team,” he said. “As soon as the [the Raptors’] facility closed down, I got together with my team on a phone call and got going on a plan to resolve these ongoing issues.”

Gasol was physically and mentally exhausted when training camp opened last fall. He had played more basketball over the previous year than during any other 12-month span of his life.

After appearing in 53 games with Memphis in 2019-20, he was dealt to Toronto ahead of the February trade deadline – changing teams and moving cities for the first time in his career. He would go on to win his first NBA championship with the Raptors last June (and steal the show at the parade) before joining the Spanish National Team and winning the FIBA World Cup later in the summer. He only took a couple weeks off and then it was back to work.

The fatigue may have affected his play early in the season. He got off to a slow start, particularly on the offensive end of the floor, but was beginning to get his rhythm back when he hurt his left hamstring in a win over Detroit just before Christmas.

The lingering injury cost him 28 games over two separate stints. He made his return in Sacramento – playing 16 minutes and sitting out for rest in Utah the following night – just before the season was suspended, but would have probably been at less than 100 per cent for the duration of the campaign and into the playoffs.

The silver lining and unintended consequence of the hiatus was that it gave banged up and burnt-out players a chance to rest and heal. Few needed it more than Gasol.

It’s going to take most players some time to get back into game shape, and it may take even longer for Gasol on account of his age. Head coach Nick Nurse has been encouraging his players – especially Toronto’s veterans – to “self-monitor” and pull themselves from practice if and when they need a breather. Gasol is one of the guys who have taken him up on that a few times during their first week of practice in the NBA bubble, understanding the importance of easing back after a long layoff.

According to Nurse, Gasol’s hamstring is fully healed. That, in addition to his new physique, should pay dividends for the Raptors when they resume their season in Orlando next month, and then even more come playoff time, given how important Gasol is to their success.

Despite struggling with his shot and then battling injuries, the Raptors have outscored opponents by 10.4 points per 100 possessions with Gasol on the court this season – the best mark among Toronto’s rotation players. Even at less than full speed, he impacts the game with his passing, screen setting, defensive positioning and communication, and high basketball IQ. He’s a hub on both ends of the floor. And now, if he’s a bit quicker on his 35-year-old feet, well, that can’t hurt.

“Maybe the leaner Marc gets to more rebounds, gets him to better defensive positions more quickly,” Nurse said before camp started. “Not that those were a problem [before], but maybe he’s gonna produce more in those [areas now]. Maybe his legs stay in there late in the game for some three-balls. I don’t know. If he can improve, if his conditioning improves him as a player, that’s gonna be a super added bonus for us.”

There’s plenty at stake for Gasol as well. His contract is up after this season and he’ll be an unrestricted free agent in the fall. He’s at the back end of his career but he’s proven he still has something left in the tank and can help a team win. But, to little surprise, he says he isn’t thinking about his contractual situation. His goal – same as the motivation for transforming his body – is to help lead the Raptors to another championship.

“I think we’re all here for the same goal and that’s to try to win a ring,” he said, expertly steering away from a question about his upcoming free agency. “Anything outside of that is just not relevant at this moment, it can’t help you and it’s not important. Once we all committed to playing, we’re here for one reason and one reason only, and that’s to win.”​

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NHLTopPlayers: Top Goalies, Nos. 5-1 –



From Stanley Cup champions to Vezina Trophy winners to all-stars, the NHL has many great goalies. NHL Network producers and analysts chose the top 10 goalies in the League right now, and Nos. 5-1 were revealed Wednesday in the second of an eight-part series featured on “NHL Tonight.” Here is the list:

5. Jordan Binnington, St. Louis Blues

Binnington has proved that last season was no fluke. In 2018-19, he was a finalist for the Calder Trophy as NHL rookie of the year (24-5-1, 1.89 goals-against average, .927 save percentage, five shutouts) and won 16 Stanley Cup Playoff games to help the Blues to their first NHL championship. This season, he was third in the NHL with 30 wins (30-13-7) and had a 2.56 GAA, a .912 save percentage and three shutouts in 50 games (all starts). Binnington also was selected to the 2020 NHL All-Star Game and helped the Blues finish with the best record in the Western Conference (42-19-10, .662 points percentage).

“He’s been fantastic,” NHL Network analyst Mike Rupp said. “When goalies break into the League, some goalies get hot for 20 games and we think they’re the next great [goalie], and then the market kind of corrects itself. Not with this guy though. I love the way he’s come and attacked this season, that’s why the St. Louis Blues are my favorite to win the Stanley Cup again this year.”

Video: FLA@STL: Binnington robs Weegar on breakaway

4. Ben Bishop, Dallas Stars

Bishop, who was the runner-up to Andrei Vasilevskiy of the Tampa Bay Lightning for the Vezina Trophy as the best NHL goalie in 2018-19, had another strong season, going 21-16-4 with a 2.50 GAA, a .920 save percentage and two shutouts to help the Stars earn a playoff berth. After he was 1-4-1 with a 2.84 GAA and .889 save percentage in his first six games, Bishop went 11-2-1 with a 1.70 GAA and .947 in his next 16 games. Over the past three seasons, he is tied for second in the NHL with Boston Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask in GAA (2.33), behind Binnington (2.30), and tied for third in save percentage (.923), behind Arizona Coyotes goalies Darcy Kuemper and Antti Raanta (each .924). Bishop was a Vezina finalist three times in six seasons from 2013-19.

“I love his game. He’s huge (6-foot-7, 210 pounds), he’s athletic, he’s competitive, he’s down there in Dallas,” Rupp said. “They’ve got a very good structure in front of him, which I think is showing all of his talents. He’s a dominant goalie in the League right now.”

Video: DAL@MTL: Bishop extends his pad for clutch save in OT

3. Connor Hellebuyck, Winnipeg Jets

Hellebuyck went 31-21-5 with a 2.57 GAA, a .922 save percentage and a League-leading six shutouts to help the Jets to a berth in the Stanley Cup Qualifiers, when they will play the Calgary Flames. He was tied for first with Carey Price of the Montreal Canadiens among NHL goalies in games (58), faced the most shots (1,796), and made the most saves (1,656). Hellebuyck, who allowed two goals or fewer in 32 games this season, has made the most starts (182) and has the second-most wins (109), behind Vasilevskiy (118), in the past three seasons. He was the runner-up to Pekka Rinne of the Nashville Predators for the Vezina in 2017-18.

“This is a big, bounce-back year for him because we knew how good he was early on, a few years back,” Rupp said. “He was a little bit inconsistent. Well this year, what does he do? This team loses four of their top six defensemen coming into the season, and he is unbelievable. He’s been fantastic, puts the Winnipeg Jets into this preliminary round.”

Video: VGK@WPG: Hellebuyck stymies Vegas to earn the shutout

2. Tuukka Rask, Boston Bruins

Rask went 26-8-6 and led the NHL with a 2.12 GAA, was second in save percentage (.929), behind Stars goalie Anton Khudobin (.930), and was tied for second with Marc-Andre Fleury of the Vegas Golden Knights with five shutouts. He, along with Jaroslav Halak, helped Boston win the William M. Jennings Trophy for allowing the fewest goals in the NHL (167). Rask allowed two or fewer goals in 27 of 41 games and began the season with a 20-game point streak on home ice for the Bruins (14-0-6), who won the Presidents’ Trophy with the best record in the NHL (44-14-12, .714). Over the past seven seasons, he is second in wins (225), behind Washington Capitals goalie Braden Holtby (245), and GAA (2.30), trailing Bishop (2.28), and is tied for third in save percentage (.920) among goalies who played at least 100 games.

“Tuukka Rask has probably been the most consistent guy on this list over the last number of years,” Rupp said. “He always seems to be at the top in every statistical category. This guy never gets the full love in Boston. I don’t think he will until probably he’s the goalie in between the pipes when they win Stanley Cup. But I love him, he’s been very consistent in recent years.”

Video: Tuukka Rask is likely Vezina Trophy front-runner

1. Andrei Vasilevskiy, Tampa Bay Lightning

After winning the Vezina last season, Vasilevskiy (35-14-3) led the NHL in wins for the third straight season. He had a 2.56 GAA, a .917 save percentage and three shutouts, and allowed two goals or fewer in 27 of 57 games to help the Lightning qualify for the playoffs. He had a 21-game point streak from Dec. 17-Feb. 15 (19-0-2) and helped Tampa Bay win at least 10 straight games twice this season. Vasilevskiy leads the NHL in wins (118) and is tied for first with Fleury in shutouts (17) over the past three seasons, and he is fourth in save percentage (.921) among goalies who played at least 100 games over that span.

“The Tampa Bay Lightning are trying to play better defensive hockey under (coach) Jon Cooper now, but the reality is, [Vasilevskiy] still sees a lot of stuff that he shouldn’t see.” Rupp said. “He’s big (6-3, 216), he’s athletic, he’s competitive. He’s the most dominant goalie in the National Hockey League and has been for a couple of years.”

Video: MTL@TBL: Vasilevskiy makes 32 saves to record shutout

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High-flying Nick Robertson turning heads at Toronto Maple Leafs camp – TSN



TORONTO — Nick Robertson is by far the youngest, least experienced player that the Maple Leafs included on their return to play roster for training camp, but you’d never know it from the flood of expectations he rolled in on. And since there’s no use hiding from the hype, Robertson’s content to ride the wave. 

“I’m definitely aware of the Toronto social media [conversations] for sure,” Robertson said over a Zoom call with reporters on day three of camp at Ford Performance Centre on Wednesday. “I know my name has been put out there a lot. I try to not really look at that stuff and carry on with not hearing outside noise, but it’s good to hear some positive stuff. I’m glad to have the Toronto fans on my side but it’s what my teammates and the coaching staff think of me [that’s important].”

It’s hard to fault Robertson for courting so much attention, given the season he just had. The 18-year-old winger led the entire CHL in 2019-20 with his astonishing 55-goal, 86-point campaign for the OHL’s Peterborough Petes, earning the CHL’s Sportsman of the Year distinction in June for his efforts. 

It was a prolific season Robertson might have struggled to see coming in September. Back then, he entered Toronto’s training camp as the organization’s top prospect, fresh from being selected in the second round, 53rd overall, in the 2019 NHL Entry Draft. 

But rather than give him a long look, the Leafs sent Robertson packing three days in as one of the camp’s earliest cuts last fall. 

In hindsight, Toronto’s general manager Kyle Dubas admitted that wasn’t the right move, and when word of the NHL’s return to play plan came down in the spring, Dubas knew Robertson deserved a second chance. 

“Looking back and reflecting on it, I think we probably should have given [Robertson] more of a look in training camp and probably rewarded him with an exhibition game or two to see how he did there,” Dubas told reporters in March. “But he went back to Peterborough, he had a great attitude and he was an excellent player. Come [next] training camp, we’ll give him every opportunity to potentially make the team and put the ball in his court.”

The Leafs have delivered on that, placing Robertson right in the thick of their 34-man camp. He’s the only player involved without any professional hockey experience, and the first three days of practices and scrimmages have been expectedly challenging. 

“Everyone’s just a lot smarter and their experienced and it’s definitely an eye-opener for me when I’m out there,” Robertson said. “There’s a lot of stuff you can get away with in junior and now it’s different. The time and space is definitely taken away, but I think I’m going to catch on to it pretty quick.”

Robertson wasted no time jumping on board the Leafs’ return to play plan, either. He arrived back in Toronto from his off-season home in California well ahead of Phase 2’s voluntary workouts starting, so he could serve a 14-day quarantine and get right to work. And there have been no shortage of lessons being taught since. 

“It’s just the little details,” he said. “It’s a lot faster pace. You can have a lot of skill but you have to think and you have to work within the system and find ways to take advantage of not only a skill but just your mind and I think that definitely was shown when I got here for Phase 2 and working out and how detailed the practices were and the scrimmages as well. I’m still trying to learn but I think I’ll get onto it pretty soon.”

Leafs’ head coach Sheldon Keefe has no doubt Robertson will find his way eventually, and that those outsized expectations attached to him now won’t affect the way Robertson approaches his craft. 

“That’s part of being a talented, high-end prospect for the Toronto Maple Leafs,” Keefe said of the attention. “But he’s earned that, because he’s had the season he had in junior hockey. It’s not matched by very many people in history and he’s shown what he’s capable of doing by the results that he had. So he’s earned that [spotlight], but it’s enhanced like everything else. He’s got to tune that out, and just do his work and I’m not concerned about him. He’s an extremely focused individual.”

And a popular one, too. Robertson’s teammates have been singing his praises for days, and are eager as anyone to see him take the next step.

“Since he’s come in, he’s been a little water bug out there,” said Cody Ceci. “He’s flying around, he’s got a good shot. He’s doing great; he’s really opening some eyes.”

“He’s a tremendous player,” added Jack Campbell. “I love his work ethic and his dedication. He’s one of the most prepared kids at his age that I’ve ever seen personally. He’s giving it his all. He’s got a great shot, he’s a great talent and a nice kid and works his tail off.”

Robertson’s shot has become a hallmark of his game, a skill he’s diligently honed since childhood but that only really emerged for him “in the last couple of years.” As a smaller player (5-foot-10, 164 pounds), Robertson’s always strived to set himself apart in other ways, and that’s the energy he brings daily to the Leafs’ ice.

“I think I just have to compete,” he said. “The only thing I control is my work ethic, and whether you’re having a good game or not, I think just the work ethic has to separate me from others and I’m trying to do so here. As the week goes, I think I’ll get even more comfortable and try to get back to my game and try to get more puck touches and a lot more shots.”

Whether that leads to Robertson cracking the roster for Phase 4, or waiting until next fall’s training camp to try again, he’ll take the decision in stride. After all, this is just the beginning. 

“It’s definitely exciting [being here],” said Robertson. “I couldn’t tell you a year ago that I’d be in this position. It’s definitely another opportunity and right now I’m just trying to learn as much as possible. So much has been thrown at me, a lot of curveballs, a lot of stuff I didn’t really expect but I’m trying to adapt to all that and learn as much as possible and be  a sponge and a student while I’m here and just try to be as competitive as possible.”

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