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LeBrun: What rival NHL executives are saying about the simmering Maple Leafs powder keg

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TORONTO — The problem, of course, is that you can’t evaluate the Maple Leafs’ start to the 2022-23 season in a vacuum.

Whether it’s fair or not, the team’s 4-4-2 record isn’t just about the first 10 games of the season.

It’s about a powder keg that has always been sitting there because, for this organization as it’s currently constructed, this is the do-or-die season.

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It’s about general manager Kyle Dubas not being offered a contract extension this past summer, which came after the team lost in the first round of the playoffs — which came after other first-round fumbles in the years prior. No one’s panicking about the Lightning’s so-so start. For obvious reasons. When the Leafs decided not to extend Dubas, it put everyone in the organization on notice, including the players. And they can’t help but feel it, whether they admit it or not.

And it’s about Auston Matthews, who likely has to decide by the end of this season if he intends to extend with the Leafs. His current contract expires and he becomes an unrestricted free agent after the 2023-24 season. I still think he will want to re-sign with the Leafs. But the point is, that’s another major franchise decision looming, and wouldn’t that decision be easier to make if the team finally does something in the playoffs?

There’s so much riding on this season for so many people, and from the offseason into camp, people from other organizations relayed to me that they could sense that tension in the Toronto front office. And I mean, it’s understandable. People’s jobs are on the line.

What I didn’t see coming, and maybe I should have given what’s at stake, was this level of drama so early this season. I figured this team would more or less steamroll through the regular season, finish first or second in the Atlantic, and then we would get set for the playoff drama, regardless of the final outcome.

But since training camp, head coach Sheldon Keefe has been hinting at his level of concern through his actions, whether it’s dropping an F-bomb during a drill in camp or directing a number of postgame comments at his players right from opening night in Montreal.

Some of his comments early this season have certainly been noted around the league.

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I asked Keefe during his daily media availability on the morning of an Oct. 20 game against the Stars if he intended to approach the season this way or if it was spur-of-the-moment reactions.

He responded: “Well, it’s a little bit of both. It’s a combination of the fact that we had talked before the season began about the importance of being really consistent and having our game, as often as we can, look like ourselves. Right from Game 1, that wasn’t the case. Even though you have a lot of good things happening in preseason and you got a lot of confidence going, you go out there and it doesn’t look that way.

“For a team that’s been together as long as ours has — I know we have new players and stuff like that — but obviously the identity of our team and the core of our team has remained the same. So there’s an expectation that you would start at a really high level. And you don’t. So that was disappointing.”

Specifically, at the time, he was referring to losses to the Habs and Coyotes.

“We’ve been talking about not leaving those points on the table and it just so happens (with) the schedule, we get two opponents there that were the type of teams we struggled with last season,” Keefe continued. “And the expectation (is) that we’ve improved there, and we didn’t. So, I think (the sharp criticisms of players are) more just a symptom of that than anything.

“I don’t know if I had a game plan to how I was going to approach the early going here other than to say that there’s a high expectation that our group would continue to grow and have a good start to the season (and), particularly in those types of games, we would be better. And we haven’t been.”

First of all, I appreciate the honesty in that answer.

And since then, there have been losses to San Jose and Anaheim, which presumably would again be the type of teams Keefe was referring to.

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What I make of Keefe’s edgy behavior with his players so early in the season is that he’s trying to get the foundation as right as possible for playoff time as opposed to waiting until then to raise the decibel level.

Which I get. Don’t cram last minute for your final exam. Do the work ahead of time.

But in the process, he obviously risks alienating his top players, as our intrepid Leafs beat writer Jonas Siegel wondered about after the Ducks loss and the Mitch Marner benching heard around the world.

All of which, of course, has Toronto media and fans alike wondering how hot a seat Keefe is on.

One thing to consider: Not that Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment is counting its pennies, but remember that MLSE is still paying Mike Babcock this season through June 30 for one last year at $5.8 million. Keefe makes just under $2 million in salary for each of this season and next. If you fire Keefe, you’re paying two guys just south of $7.8 million this season not to coach. Gulp. It’s MLSE, so maybe that’s a drop in the bucket, but then also add on whatever salary is attached to a new coach, especially if it’s a new coach with a brand name. MLSE would be in double digits overall this year between the new coach and the two former coaches.

For example, Barry Trotz isn’t coming to Toronto for anything less than $5 million per year, in my mind anyway. Speaking to Trotz back in September, it was clear that while he eventually wanted to return to an NHL bench, he wasn’t quite ready yet. He needs more time to attend to things in his personal life. My understanding is that Trotz wouldn’t be ready to entertain an NHL return until December at the earliest.

In any case, I don’t believe a coaching change is the first thing the Leafs should look at if things don’t improve.

Instead, I agree with our Leafs columnist James Mirtle that the first thing I would look at, as difficult as it is so far away from the March 3 trade deadline, is making a transaction to help the roster.

I get that it’s hard in a flat cap world this early in the season, but look at those two Vancouver deals last week. Nothing big, but they’re tweaks that could help the team.

Personally? I think it’s too early for this level of panic in the Toronto market. I think this team will get going.

I reached out to several rival front-office executives to see if they agreed, asking them for their honest takes on the Leafs. Some politely declined to comment because it’s too early, but others responded (via text message and under the condition of anonymity, of course):

Team exec No. 1: “Playing .500 10 games in and two points out of a playoff spot … let’s not panic here!! They obviously need to figure it out but way too early to panic.”

Team exec No. 2: “I would be a little bit nervous if I were them. … They haven’t looked great so far. I still think they are very likely to make the playoffs, but I don’t think it is guaranteed, and the bar for them is higher than that.”

Team exec No. 3: “There are 72 games to go, lots of runway. That group will get going.”

Team exec No. 4: “It’s too early to panic. The games I’ve watched, it really was how inconsistent they were during the game. They looked great then just awful. I thought before the season goaltending was a concern but (Ilya) Samsonov has been solid. Offensively they have a top-five team in the league maybe even top-three. Defensively they need to defend as a five-man unit and take pride in it. Also losing to all these weak teams just shows me they don’t have a killer instinct. They go into games thinking it’s going to be easy. So that’s on the coaches to get them ready. With all that, I totally think they will be fine.”

The reality of the situation is that the kind of major changes that some Leafs fans are clamoring for don’t normally happen in-season. Those who want Dubas fired, for example, and want a new GM in place, to me that’s an offseason project when you have access to a larger field of candidates.

And more profound roster changes are easier to pull off in June than they are midseason. There are just more teams willing to talk about things when there’s more flexibility.

That’s not saying changes aren’t coming if the season goes off the rails. They most likely will be.

But I still think the likeliest scenario is the Leafs get back on track and we wait until springtime for that true final exam for the organization, one way or another.

(Top photo: Debora Robinson / NHLI via Getty Images)

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LeBron Saves Team USA in Thrilling Exhibition Against South Sudan at O2 Arena

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LONDON — In what could have been one of the most monumental upsets in international basketball history, Team USA narrowly escaped with a 101-100 victory over a spirited South Sudan team at the O2 Arena in London on Saturday night. This exhibition match, serving as a tune-up for the 2024 Olympics, showcased the rapid rise of South Sudanese basketball and the indomitable spirit of the American team led by LeBron James.

The atmosphere at the O2 Arena was electric, with fans witnessing a game that turned out to be far more competitive than expected. South Sudan, a team composed largely of refugees and players from the diaspora, pushed the heavily favored Americans to their limits.

First Half Highlights:

  • South Sudan came out firing on all cylinders, building a surprising 16-point lead in the second quarter.
  • Team USA struggled with their three-point shooting, missing 12 of their first 13 attempts from beyond the arc.

Despite the odds, South Sudan’s players, many of whom have overcome significant personal and professional challenges, played with remarkable cohesion and determination. Their performance was a testament to the rapid progress the team has made under the guidance of former NBA star Luol Deng.

With the game hanging in the balance, LeBron James demonstrated why he remains one of the greatest basketball players of all time. Benched at the start of the third quarter, James returned to the floor with a determination that was palpable.

Key Moments:

  • Third Quarter: Anthony Davis’ defensive prowess helped shrink the deficit. LeBron’s return brought stability and focus back to Team USA.
  • Final Minute: With just 20 seconds left, JT Thor of South Sudan scored over LeBron, giving his team a one-point lead.
  • Game-Winning Shot: LeBron drove to the basket, scoring the decisive layup with eight seconds remaining.

South Sudan’s journey to this point has been nothing short of inspirational. The country gained independence from Sudan in 2011, and the basketball program, still in its infancy, has quickly become a source of national pride.

Notable Contributions:

  • Carlik Jones: Delivered a triple-double with 15 points, 11 rebounds, and 11 assists.
  • Wenyen Gabriel: LeBron’s former teammate with the Lakers, contributed 11 points.
  • Marial Shayok: Led South Sudan with 24 points.

The team’s formation and rise have been spearheaded by Luol Deng, who played a pivotal role in recruiting and funding the program. His efforts have culminated in South Sudan qualifying for the Olympics, marking a historic achievement for the young nation.

Stephen Curry: “Wild game. They played really intense. It was nice to see how we responded. LeBron with a great finish down the stretch.”

Steve Kerr: “The whole team was embarrassed at halftime. We were challenged today, and it was good for us to feel that now. This was a reminder that we need to bring our best every game.”

Luol Deng: Expressed immense pride in his team’s performance, emphasizing the significance of their journey and the obstacles they have overcome.

This exhibition game was more than just a pre-Olympic warm-up. It highlighted the potential for underdog stories in sports and underscored the global reach and impact of basketball. Team USA, despite the narrow escape, was reminded of the importance of every game and the challenges that lie ahead.

South Sudan, on the other hand, has cemented its place on the international stage, showcasing that with determination and the right support, even the newest teams can compete with the best in the world.

As both teams prepare for the Olympics, this game at the O2 Arena will be remembered not only for its thrilling finish but also for the remarkable stories of resilience and ambition that played out on the court.

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UFC Vegas 94: Amanda Lemos vs. Virna Jandiroba – Main Event Recap

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In a thrilling main event at UFC Vegas 94, strawweights Amanda Lemos and Virna Jandiroba faced off on Saturday night. After an evenly matched first round, Jandiroba secured a dramatic submission victory in the second round, just moments before the bell.

Fight Summary:

  • First Round: The opening round was highly competitive, with both fighters showcasing their skills and maintaining a close contest.
  • Second Round: In the final seconds of the second round, Jandiroba managed to secure a submission, forcing Lemos to tap out. The win marks an impressive fourth consecutive victory for Jandiroba.

Post-Fight Remarks:

  • In her post-fight interview inside the Octagon, Jandiroba confidently called out UFC President Dana White, declaring, “Dana, I’m the next one. Dana, I’m your next champion.”

Future Implications:

  • With this victory, Jandiroba has positioned herself as a strong contender for the strawweight title. Tatiana Suarez, who was the rightful next contender for Weili Zhang, has been sidelined due to an injury. Jandiroba’s current four-fight win streak and her dominant performance at UFC Vegas 94 make a compelling case for her title shot.

Stay tuned for more updates as the UFC strawweight division continues to evolve, and see if Virna Jandiroba will indeed become the next challenger for the championship belt.

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Jake Paul vs. Mike Perry: Fight Night Updates

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Jake Paul is back in the ring, and he’s promising fireworks as he takes on former UFC star Mike Perry at the Amalie Arena in Tampa, Florida. The fight will be broadcast live on DAZN. Originally, Paul was set to fight Mike Tyson, but Perry stepped in after Tyson suffered an injury.

Fight Details:

Jake Paul (9-1, 6 KOs)

  • Paul is coming off a first-round TKO of Ryan Bourland in March.
  • He has promised that Perry won’t survive the second round.
  • Paul is more experienced in boxing but still relatively new to the sport.

Mike Perry (0-1)

  • Perry, known as “Platinum,” brings over a decade of fighting experience, mainly in MMA and bare-knuckle fighting.
  • He believes Paul is still green in the fight business and intends to use his experience to pull off an upset.

Main Event:
Jake Paul vs. Mike Perry

Live Updates: Follow DAZN for all the live updates, results, and highlights from the Paul vs. Perry pay-per-view main card.

Main Card Results:

Amanda Serrano def. Stevie Morgan via TKO

  • Round 2, 0:38
    • Watch the finish

Lucas Bahdi def. H20 Sylve via knockout

  • Round 6, 2:27
    • Watch the finish

Corey Marksman def. Tony Aguilar via majority decision

  • Scores: 76-76, 77-75, 78-74

Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. def. Uriah Hall via unanimous decision

  • Scores: 59-55, 59-55, 58-56
    • Recap

Stay tuned for the main event updates and see if Jake Paul can deliver on his promise of another highlight reel knockout or if Mike Perry will teach him a lesson and pull off a major upset.

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