From roster construction to on-ice execution, one would be hard-pressed to sketch a better first-half blueprint for the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2021.
Their best players are their best players: The $40-million Core Four represent the Leafs’ top four scorers. Mitch Marner ranks fourth overall in points (37) and second overall in even-strength goals (11). A banged-up Auston Matthews has more goals (21) and game-winners (six) than anyone. And William Nylander and John Tavares are trending upwards.
GM Kyle Dubas has reaped rewards from his newfound goaltending depth (six wins from backups), his cap-friendly veteran leadership (is Jason Spezza the best bargain in hockey?), and his efforts to balance the blue line (Calgary sure could use a T.J. Brodie).
Toronto’s bad nights have been few and far between. The Leafs avoided consecutive regulation losses until March and seldom look overwhelmed. They lock down leads better than ever, their explosive power-play keeps opponents in check, and their depth contributions have been accelerated due to an infusion of internal accountability and competition.
“The team is really gelling. We enjoy spending time together,” Joe Thornton says. “We compete hard every night. We’re a deep, four-line team, deep six D, and we got some great goaltending, so it’s just a very complete team. You feel like, when you hit the ice, you have a chance to win every night. And when you have that feeling it’s pretty nice.”
Record: 19-7-2, (1st in North Division)
Goals per game: 3.46 (2nd)
Goals against average: 2.50 (6th)
Power play: 31.3% (2nd)
Penalty kill: 77.2% (20th)
Best surprise: The Maple Leafs can defend
Connor McDavid’s frustrated expression. Leon Draisaitl’s slamming of the Gatorade bottle and sarcastic response to a reporter during a post-game Zoom. And their coach, Dave Tippett, feeling compelled to throw his two Hart Trophy winners on the same line because they were having trouble solving the Maple Leafs’ blue line on their own – despite having three full games to do so.
Toronto’s 13-1 shutdown of arguably the two most dangerous forwards in the sport, on their home ice no less, from Feb. 27 through March 3 sums up 2021’s most pleasant surprise in Leafland.
When the Maple Leafs lost another elimination series, their fourth in a row, last summer, we screamed uncle. Fun and fast sells sweaters, but if Dubas was serious about winning in crunch time, he’d need to bring in experienced defenders, players who care more about preventing points than accumulating them.
Well, the GM did just that, bolstering his defence corps with play-buster T.J. Brodie — a smart stick, a steady breakout, and the most consistent partner Morgan Rielly has ever had — and Zach Bogosian, a million-dollar steal.
Given a better foundation to work with, Keefe then drilled home a defensive mandate to all his players, and there has been buy-in up and down the lineup.
“We’ve cleaned up a lot of stuff defensively,” Matthews said.
While the penalty kill remains a soft spot, a once-porous Toronto club has significantly reduced its goals and shots against. The Leafs give up fewer slot chances and odd-man rushes, they backcheck with purpose, and get hemmed in their own zone less frequently than ever before with this core.
“We’re getting to the point here now where we’re proving that we’re a team that can defend well,” said Keefe.
Now that’s a pleasant surprise.
Biggest disappointment: Reverse Retros Injury woes
Toronto’s position atop Canada is all the more impressive when you consider the number of man-games lost to injury: 72.
According to the number-crunchers at ManGamesLost.com, no team has had its win-loss record affected more by injuries than Toronto, believe it or not.
Key veterans Wayne Simmonds (wrist) and Joe Thornton (rib) sat weeks with broken bones. Core leaders Jake Muzzin (face), Zach Hyman (foot) and Auston Matthews (wrist) have missed days, while others, like William Nylander (undisclosed), have been pushing through pain at various points during this truncated schedule.
Further down the depth chart, the organization’s most prized prospects — Nick Robertson (knee, oblique) and Rasmus Sandin (foot) — have been dealt difficult setbacks in their development, appearing in just one NHL game apiece this season.
Most concerning is Toronto’s struggle to get its top two netminders operating at full health at the same time. Certainly, the plan was not to have Michael Hutchinson — signed as a fourth-string depth piece in the off-season — make five starts in the first half, although the journeyman has comported himself well (3-2, .934).
Jack Campbell (3-0-0) has played but once since going down with a leg injury in January, and Frederik Andersen (13-5-2) is still dealing with an undisclosed lower-body ailment.
Adversity is welcome, but this group needs healthy goaltending and full movement in Matthews’ wrist by the time the second half wraps.
Biggest question for second half: Will complacency become the enemy?
Leaf fans have seen it in the past. The team they root for gets comfortable in a standings position (usually third in the Atlantic, not first in the North) and becomes susceptible to wild bouts of inconsistency. They’ll go toe-to-toe with a power like the Lightning one night and phone one in against a Buffalo the next.
Now that the Leafs have a decent cushion, and they’ve fended off “measuring stick” challenges from Montreal and Edmonton and Winnipeg, can they keep their foot slammed on the gas without a test from Vegas or Tampa or Carolina around the corner?
Can they enter the postseason — the only true referendum on their excellence — with their A-game and hunger intact?
“We’ve seen with teams we’ve played [lately] that they’ve been hard on us generating offence,” Keefe observed.
“The more that teams are settling into the season and their systems and getting to know all the opponents that much better, it’s going to continue to get harder. So, we’ve got to continue with [improving] ourselves.
Boston Bruins Add Offense With Solid Taylor Hall Trade – Boston Hockey Now
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.
— Elliotte Friedman (@FriedgeHNIC) April 12, 2021
The Buffalo Sabres retained half of the $8 million salary that Hall signed for prior to the start of the 2021 hockey season.
After acquiring Hall @ 50% & Lazar for Bjork, the #NHLBruins added $772K Cap Hit for remainder of year.
They have $24K of Projected Cap Space; $100K Annual Cap Hit that can be added, w/ 24 Active on Roster. Sending players to taxi would create more room.https://t.co/2o0hsHzUIy https://t.co/rXiRKKk3lt pic.twitter.com/I7ZRUSmSQp
— PuckPedia (@PuckPedia) April 12, 2021
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.
Drouin must return to mentality that’s led to success this season – Sportsnet.ca
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.
Scioscia to lead U.S. baseball bid for spot at Tokyo Olympics
(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)