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Maple Leafs quarter-mark report: The great, the meh and the questions – Sportsnet.ca

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TORONTO — No hockey team gets scrutinized, dissected or deconstructed on a daily basis than the Toronto Maple Leafs. One poor effort can ignite a bad week’s worth of chatter in this market. One dominant evening, and it’s dust off the parade maps.

So, it’s worthwhile to zoom out — 14 games into a season Frederik Andersen dubbed “a sprint and a marathon” — and take stock of how it’s going.

The Maple Leafs are surely benefitting from 2021’s realignment.

And while it’s difficult to judge just how good they actually are when they’ll never get a measuring stick like Tampa or Boston, Washington or Vegas, Toronto’s welcoming of this All or Nothing pressure is off to a promising first episode.

WHERE THEY ARE RELATIVE TO EXPECTATIONS

Any critique of the NHL’s top team (11-2-1) feels like picking nits off a thoroughbred, particularly during a nine-game points streak.

The Maple Leafs’ best players are putting up Nintendo numbers. The much-publicized veteran-slash-leadership acquisitions — Joe Thornton, Wayne Simmonds, T.J. Brodie, Zach Bogosian — have all met or exceeded expectations. And Toronto has finally taken its long-awaited defensive leap.

“We have a great vibe on the bench,” beams Justin Holl, another feel-good story from Q1.

The majority of Canada’s organizations would kill for the Leafs’ early woes (injured backup goalie, in-flux bottom six, promising D-men forced to be healthy scratches).

The best news is about Toronto’s record is that, to a man, the Leafs still don’t believe they’re firing on all cylinders quite yet.

Puck possession is a priority for any Sheldon Keefe–helmed squad, and this is one area the coach believes his charges can improve.

“That’s a huge part of our philosophy, for sure. I don’t think we were very good in that area, to be frank, in the first 10 games, but we’ve shown progress,” Keefe says.

“While we are known for our offence and our scoring and had a bit of a breakout here in the last couple games, our offence wasn’t the reason why we’re winning games in the first 10 games of the season.

“We were winning because of our power play and because of the fact that we were defending better, in my opinion. That carried us through a lot of those really tight games.”

TOP-SIX FORWARDS GRADE: A+

Mitch Marner has 21 points and just wrapped an eight-game point/assist streak.

Auston Matthews ran an eight-game goal streak, has points in 12 of 13, and has lit more lamps (11) than anyone in hockey.

Keefe knows exactly what he’s getting from Zach Hyman every night, and it’s all good.

William Nylander and John Tavares both believe they have another level to reach in terms of 5-on-5 production. And yet they’re firmly in point-per-game territory thanks, largely, to a double-barrelled power play driven by the Leafs’ Core Four forwards.

When healthy, old newcomers Thornton and Simmonds have complemented the young stars nicely.

“They’re obviously very talented up front,” says Montreal goalie Carey Price, who’s lost twice to Toronto. “That group of forwards thinks the game very well.”

Less obvious is the step Matthews and Marner have taken defensively. There is less cheating for offence among the top six, which lends an honesty to the gaudy offensive stats.

Matthews, in particular, is off to the type of campaign that will thrust him into the conversation for hardware — and we’re not only talking about the Rocket Richard Trophy.

“He’s a special player,” says Jason Spezza, “who’s putting together an MVP-type season.”

BOTTOM-SIX FORWARDS GRADE: B–

A concern for the duration of 2019-20, the revolving door to the bottom of the Leafs’ forward group keeps on spinning.

The absence of a pre-season and an influx of fresh faces has prompted Keefe to extend role-player tryouts into February, as the coach searches for the best mix to tread water — or, better still, chip in — when his all-stars catch their breath.

It’s been a mixed bag.

For every Jason Spezza hat trick, we get an Alexander Barabanov, who doesn’t look NHL ready. For every fearless Simmonds’ scrap or pretty redirect goal, we get a snake-bit Ilya Mikheyev or a Nick Robertson injury.

Travis Boyd is revealing himself a fine find; the jury is still out on Jimmy Vesey and Pierre Engvall.

And while there’s plenty to like about the feisty Alexander Kerfoot, who is much more engaged this season, he has been prone to penalties — and, unfortunately, his mere presence is a reminder to Leaf Nation that they lost a pure two-way centreman via the Nazem Kadri trade.

DEFENCE GRADE: A–

If I were to tell you prior to the season that the Maple Leafs would post a below-median save percentage and still be among the NHL’s elite, surely you would assume they’ve been winning games by scores like 6-4.

But that’s far from the case. Toronto’s first seven wins were all grind-’er-out, one-goal affairs (sometimes plus an empty-netter). In nearly every case, they had to lock things down in their own end, weather a storm, and hold a lead like a grudge.

This group is much better equipped to do so. With a top four of Morgan Rielly–T.J. Brodie and Jake Muzzin–Justin Holl trusted to match the division’s elite top-sixes and depth well beyond Zach Bogosian on the third pairing, we dare say this is the most balanced Leafs blue line of this century.

That said, Toronto’s penalty kill (76.5 per cent) remains in the bottom third of the league, where it’s been stuck for years.

The early returns on the seldom-noticed Brodie (this is a good thing) are fantastic, and he deserves partial credit for a healthy 11-point burst out the gates from Rielly.

Meanwhile, Mikko Lehtonen, Travis Dermott and Rasmus Sandin are all inspired to give A+ effort every night just to prove they’re worthy of dressing.

In his five years a Leaf, Frederik Andersen has never been so sheltered.

“The biggest reason why our shots on goal have reduced is we just don’t allow teams into our zone with near the same level of frequency, and the number of odd-man rushes have dramatically decreased against,” notes Keefe. That message was drilled into all skaters, forwards included, from Day 1 of camp.

“We’ve seen great strides in that area. It’s a credit to the players for how they’ve bought into it,” Keefe adds. “When the puck changes hands… and it starts moving towards our net, our guys have been really committed to making sure we’ve got numbers above it. We can kill plays before it before they have a chance to get to our goalie.”

GOALTENDING GRADE: B+

After zero tune-up games and a just-OK start, Andersen has settled nicely into a groove during this critical contract year.

Toronto’s undisputed No. 1 has posted a .924 save percentage over his past 10 starts. He outright stole Monday’s 3-1 victory over Vancouver and outduelled Price with a season-best 33-save performance on Wednesday.

Andersen’s ability to rise to the occasion is all the more valuable considering the double-whammy the Leafs’ goaltending chart has been dealt below him.

Third-string insurance guy Aaron Dell was scooped off the waiver wire before he could stop one puck for the team that signed him. And backup Jack Campbell, who shone in his two starts (2-0-0, .923), has been sidelined indefinitely with a leg injury suffered Jan. 24 in Calgary. That Campbell isn’t even skating yet is a concern.

Health willing, we expect Keefe to ride Andersen. Michael Hutchinson, originally signed to be the club’s fourth-string netminder, could make his NHL debut during next week’s back-to-back versus Ottawa.

A BIG QUESTION FOR THE SECOND QUARTER: Where does Zach Hyman slot in?

Hyman has been the silent contributor to arguably hockey’s hottest duo, doing the dirty work for Matthews and Marner. No one disputes that he fits well on Toronto’s top line because, honestly, Hyman fits well anywhere he’s thrown.

But with a healthy Joe Thornton (rib) set to return next week and eventual top-six left winger Nick Robertson (knee) not too far behind, it will be interesting to see how Keefe arranges the pieces to his forward puzzle.

The Leafs ultimately desire a consistent third line with an identity, one that is hard to play against. Injuries have tossed a wrench into those plans. Let’s see if Hyman, with help from Kerfoot, can drive a third unit on their own.

Bonus questions for Q2: When will Campbell be ready? Who ultimately locks up the 6D job, Lehtonen or Dermott? And will GM Kyle Dubas actually pull the trigger on a depth forward trade?

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Homan, Einarson improve to 8-1 at Canadian women's curling championship – CBC.ca

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The favourites set the tone in championship pool play Friday at the Canadian women’s curling championship.

With a few surprise teams making the eight-team cut, perennial contenders Rachel Homan, Jennifer Jones and Kerri Einarson posted afternoon victories and showed why they’re good bets to reach the playoffs.

  • Watch and engage with CBC Sports’ That Curling Show live every day of The Scotties at 7:30 p.m. ET on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.

“With only three teams advancing, you can’t have very many losses to advance,” Jones said. “So we know that and we know we’re going to have to play every game as though we have to get that W and hopefully we perform well.”

Homan’s Ontario team stole a point in the 10th end for a 7-6 victory over Chelsea Carey’s Team Wild Card One and then came back for an 8-7 win over Quebec’s Laurie St-Georges in an extra end.

That left Homan in top spot at 9-1 with Einarson, the defending champion, who topped Saskatchewan’s Sherry Anderson 10-6 before eliminating Carey from playoff contention with a 9-3 rout.

THAT CURLING SHOW | Previewing weekend play at the Scotties:

The drama is ramping up at the Scotties and Devin Heroux and Colleen Jones have all your predictions and scenarios. 49:50

Jones’s Manitoba team earned a split on the day to sit in a tie for third place at 7-3 with Alberta’s Laura Walker. Jones posted a 12-8 win over Beth Peterson of Team Wild Card Three before dropping a 7-5 decision to Walker.

“I guess mandatory is a good word for it,” Walker said of the win. “We needed it and I’m proud of the way we went out there and got it.”

With Anderson sitting out the nightcap with an injury, alternate Amber Holland threw fourth stones for Saskatchewan. She dropped a 10-9 decision to Peterson in an extra end that left both teams tied with Quebec at 6-4.

Earlier, Walker edged St-Georges 7-6 in an extra end. Saskatchewan and Quebec had an unexpected share of the Pool B lead after the preliminary round.

THAT CURLING SHOW | Laura Walker defeats Jennifer Jones:

Laura Walker beats Jennifer Jones 7-5, Alberta and Manitoba are now tied with 7-3 records. 0:51

Carey (5-5), who’s filling in at skip for Tracy Fleury this week, barely missed a runback double-takeout attempt with her final shot against Homan, who put the pressure on with two protected stones near the button.

“They hung in there with me and we made some good ones in the end,” Homan said of teammates Emma Miskew, Sarah Wilkes and Joanne Courtney.

Jones, who’s aiming for a record seventh Scotties Tournament of Hearts title, stole five points in the 10th for her afternoon victory. Einarson was also tested early in that draw before a late deuce sealed the win.

Two more draws were set for Saturday at the Markin MacPhail Centre. The top three teams in the eight-team pool will reach the playoffs on Sunday.

The second- and third-place teams will meet in an afternoon semifinal for a berth in the evening final against the first-place team.

The Hearts winner will return as Team Canada at the 2022 national playdowns in Thunder Bay, Ont. The champion will also earn a berth in the Olympic Trials in November at Saskatoon.

The men’s national championship — the Tim Hortons Brier — starts March 5 at the same Canada Olympic Park venue. The Hearts is the first of six bonspiels to be held at the arena through late April.

THAT CURLING SHOW | Ben Herbert logs Scotties championship predictions:

The Olympic gold medallist breaks down the competition heading into the weekend in the Calgary bubble. 3:26

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Jim Benning followed in the footsteps of his mentor, Peter Chiarelli, and built the Edmonton Oilers – Vancouver Is Awesome

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As Canucks fans are well aware, Peter Chiarelli and Jim Benning won the Stanley Cup together in 2011 with the Boston Bruins. Chiarelli was the general manager and Benning was his right-hand man, one that the rest of the NHL saw as having paid his dues to become a general manager himself.

Sure enough, when the Vancouver Canucks needed a new general manager after firing Mike Gillis in 2014, they turned to Benning, whose experience as a scout and running drafts on his resume was hoped to be an antidote to the team’s lack of success at the draft.

A year later, after the Bruins missed the playoffs for the first time in eight years, Chiarelli was out of Boston too, but didn’t need to wait long to find a new job. The Edmonton Oilers snapped him up to not only be their new general manager, but also their President of Hockey Operations.

Surely the experienced GM with a Stanley Cup ring could take a core that featured Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and Leon Draisaitl back to the playoffs. And oh yeah, he had the first overall pick in the 2015 draft and added Connor McDavid. What could possibly go wrong?

Everything. Every damn thing.

Disastrous moves and false hope

Some of Chiarelli’s biggest moves backfired significantly. He traded Taylor Hall one-for-one for Adam Larsson in hopes of finding a number one defenceman. Hall went on to win a Hart Trophy with the New Jersey Devils, while Larsson has had a marginal impact on the Oilers blue line.

Another attempt to find a young defenceman was nearly as bad. Chiarelli traded his first and second round picks for Griffin Reinhart, who played a grand total of 30 games for the Oilers. That first-round pick turned into Mathew Barzal, the Islanders’ franchise forward.

Those are just two of Chiarelli’s disastrous moves, but two years into his tenure as Oilers GM, things weren’t looking that bad. The Oilers finished second in the Pacific Division, making the playoffs for the first time in eleven years. They made it to the second round and were a game away from the Western Conference Final, losing in Game 7.

Is this starting to sound familiar?

The Oilers believed they were a team on the rise, poised to become a powerhouse in short order. Instead, the next season they crashed and burned, not even coming close to the playoffs.

Sound familiar yet?

There are a few reasons why the Oilers collapsed after finally getting back to the playoffs. They moved on from players that had made them successful, like Jordan Eberle and Andrej Sekera. They didn’t recognize how an excellent season from goaltender Cam Talbot had masked some of their problems. And they had some big contracts on the books that made it difficult to maneuver around the salary cap to solve some of their problems.

Yeah, that sounds familiar all right.

Bad contracts and uncomfortable parallels

The Canucks are starting to look an awful lot like the 2017-18 Oilers, when they failed to follow up a strong playoff performance and missed the postseason entirely. It seems like Benning is once again following in the footsteps of his mentor, Chiarelli.

While Chiarelli had a head start with the young talent available to him when he joined the Oilers, Benning eventually caught up when several awful seasons gave him a few top 10 picks. Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes may not be McDavid and Draisaitl, but there’s certainly a parallel to be drawn.

Chiarelli failed to build quality depth around his young stars and particularly struggled to build a capable defence corps, which has similarly been a struggle for Benning. One of the major issues, of course, is the lack of cap flexibility caused by some ugly contracts.

In 2016, Chiarelli signed Milan Lucic to a dreadful seven-year contract worth $6 million per year. Shortly after, Benning followed suit, signing Loui Eriksson to a six-year deal worth $6 million per year. That’s not the only bad contract signed by the two GMs, but those are certainly the signature deals that have defined their tenure.

“When I look at the Canucks and the Oilers, one of the things that strikes me as similar and, if you’re a Canucks fan, you hope I’m wrong about this, but they have a lot of bad contracts baked into the mix that are going to get worse as years go by,” said Jonathan Willis when I talked to him about what happened to the Oilers.

“When I look at Vancouver, I see Antoine Roussel, I see Jay Beagle, I see Loui Eriksson and Brandon Sutter,” he added. “Edmonton didn’t have the ability to solve problems when it ran into them because they didn’t have any discretionary money, because so much money was tied up in bad contracts. I look at Vancouver and I wonder if they’re not looking at potentially having the same outcome.”

Like the Oilers, the Canucks lost some players in the offseason that were key to making the playoffs. Their goaltending advantage disappeared, albeit for different reasons — the Oilers simply overplayed Talbot, who wasn’t able to match his previous performance, while the Canucks saw Jacob Markstrom walk in free agency.

Chiarelli couldn’t find enough quality wingers to play with his stars; Benning let Tyler Toffoli walk in free agency.

There’s one error Benning didn’t copy from Chiarelli, but from the Oilers previous GM, Craig MacTavish, who signed expensive bottom-six veterans like Benoit Pouliot and Andrew Ference. While Chiarelli did acquire some expensive bottom-six forwards, like Mark Letestu and Lauri Korpikoski, they weren’t as expensive as Roussel or Beagle.

While the parallels are not perfect, it’s hard to ignore the end result. Benning’s Canucks have landed in the same spot as Chiarelli’s Oilers did a few years ago — wasting the final year of their franchise forward’s entry-level contract.
 

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Raptors to lean on Lowry’s leadership with Nurse sidelined – Sportsnet.ca

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Rules ruin everything.

When the news broke early Friday afternoon that six members of the Toronto Raptors coaching staff — head coach Nick Nurse and just about all of his staff — were being held out from Friday’s night’s game against the Houston Rockets due to health and safety protocols related to COVID-19 testing, the first thing that leapt to mind was: Who was going to coach this team in their game Friday night against the Houston Rockets?

Natural reaction, right? Well maybe the very first thought should have been: Let’s hope all involved remain sound and healthy and the exposure throughout the staff and the team can be easily contained.

But that aside, it was back to who is going to coach, and please, please, please let it be Kyle Lowry.

What could be more perfect? The Raptors franchise player has largely shed the reputation that followed him early in his career that he was to coaches what sun is to soft ice cream — a bright light that could make things messy.

But as he matured the reason he was a challenge to coach remained. Lowry has been a high IQ player since he stepped into the NBA, and if he thought he knew better it was hard to contain himself, and he thought he knew better a lot.

It’s not all that unusual. There aren’t too many shrinking violets playing point guard in the most competitive basketball league in the world.

It’s just that early in his career Lowry had a hard time sharing his views diplomatically.

“When I was younger, I knew what I knew, but the emotional side would kind of get in the way and people wouldn’t listen to me,” was how Lowry explained it to me once.

And imagine how Lowry took that?

Those issues are in the past now. Part of being a franchise player is having the ear of the head coach and Nurse and Lowry relate more like partners or co-workers rather than boss and subordinate. They are two smart basketball minds that work — mostly — as one.

But imagine Lowry actually coaching? Drawing up plays in timeouts? Adjusting to match-ups on the fly? Refusing to sub himself out even with body parts showing through his skin? Sitting guys for not taking charges?

That seemed to almost be on the horizon given the Raptors’ sudden lack of options.

But alas, rules.

According to Raptors general manager Bobby Webster it is a technicality within the league’s collective bargaining agreement that would have prevented Lowry from becoming the NBA’s first player-coach since Dave Cowens did it for the Boston Celtics for part of the 1978-79 season.

“I don’t know if we have the budget to add that to his resume. I think there was probably some additional compensation,” joked Webster.

But seriously. It’s against the rules.

“You can’t really pay a player to do anything outside of his contract,” said Webster.

And how much does that suck, at least in this case?

Plan B for the Raptors turned out to be a pretty good one. Raptors assistant coach Sergio Scariolo has three European titles, two Olympic medals and a World Championship on his resume in his role as the head coach for the Spanish national team. This is his third year as an assistant to Nurse with the Raptors.

Luckily for the Raptors — as it turns out — Scariolo had been in quarantine in Tampa for the past week after returning from Poland where he coached Spain in FIBA qualifying. He was conveniently due to finish quarantine Friday morning and thus wasn’t included in the contact tracing that had eliminated the rest of the coaching staff after one of the coaches did test positive for COVID-19, according to sources.

“I just joked with him that the last team he coached he was out in Poland and I said you should be ready for this,” said Nurse. “But you guys know his resume. I don’t know how many hundreds or thousands of games he’s been a head coach, but it’s unique and he acknowledged that much as far as the NBA game and, obviously, under the circumstances. So look forward to it and I think it’ll be a new challenge for him, but I think everybody’s ready for it.”

Were it not Scariolo — and not Lowry — another option might have been to bring Raptors 905 head Patrick Mutombo over from the G-League bubble in Orlando. As it was, joining Scariolo as front-of-the-bench assistants were Mark Tyndale, Jamaal Magloire and Jim Saan. Nurse and the rest of the staff are able to participate in pre-game preparation but can’t communicate to the staff on the bench during the game.

Which brings us back to Lowry.

“Listen, we make jokes about it, but he does so much out on the court and he takes on a little bit bigger role,” said Webster. “I’ve spoken to him a number of times, spoke to him this morning, put in his head, he knew this was a possibility. Obviously with Fred [VanVleet], as well. Those guys are in many ways the de facto coaches out there, so just trying to get it in their head as early as possible so they could think about it.”

The Raptors are a deep team on the floor and off, and they had options and an identity.

“It’s Nick Nurse’s team. They run Nick Nurse’s stuff. He’s a great coach. I respect the heck out of him,” said Rockets head coach Stephen Silas. “Not having him over on the side doesn’t necessarily make me feel any better because it’s his team that’s coached. It’s the players that they have that make them really good.

“It’s a really tough situation they have for him and his coaching staff. But walking from the bus to the locker room, they have a bunch of other coaches. If that happened to me we’d be down to our trainer… or somebody would be coaching. For them, they have a bunch more guys.”

There was some consideration given to cancelling the game — a decision that rests with the NBA — said Webster, but once most of the players were cleared through two rounds of testing this morning it was judged reasonable to move ahead.

The exception was Raptors forward Pascal Siakam who — according to sources — had an inconclusive rapid test and required a more invasive PCR test as a follow-up with the result not expected to be available until after the game. If he clears that test he would presumably be available when the Raptors host the Chicago Bulls at Amalie Arena in Tampa on Sunday.

And so against Houston the band played on with their leader, Lowry, in his normal role as maestro on the floor. No harm in that, but those pesky league rules got in the way of Lowry coaching himself for at least one night and the possibility of the sharp-minded Raptors guard finally playing for someone who saw things exactly his way.

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