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Raptors’ Nurse, Bjorkgren celebrating friendship with All-Star Game roles – Sportsnet.ca

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The NBA All-Star Game is a showcase to celebrate the game’s best, to shine a spotlight on unique talents and provide a stage where they can shake, shimmy, fly and strut.

But those in the know recognize it takes a team for individuals to have a chance to shine.

So you won’t hear Toronto Raptors star Kyle Lowry talk about his individual accomplishments as he lines up in Chicago for his sixth All-Star appearance. He’s only there because others helped make it happen. Coaches, for example.

In an 82-game season, there are big goals and mini goals. One of the Raptors’ goals as their 15-game winning streak began to take shape was to be in second place in the Eastern Conference by Feb. 2, and thus guarantee head coach Nick Nurse and his staff the honour of coaching Team Giannis (since Mike Budenholzer of the first-place Bucks coached the All-Star Game in 2019, he was ineligible).

Mission accomplished.

“We go through all of it together. All the hard work, they put in hard work. I think it’s just important that we do that for them, too,” said Lowry before heading off to Chicago where he and Pascal Siakam will play for Team Giannis. “Not that we didn’t want to win [and] be in second place or whatever. But knowing that is an extra motivation, and something that we felt like we’ve got to go out there and do it and make sure they get an opportunity to be out there too.”

But within every team there are alliances and partnerships; micro-units that weave together to make the whole stronger. And while the entire Raptors staff gets to coach in Chicago, the honour carries a little more weight for Nurse and his right-hand man Nate Bjorkgren, a couple of Iowa-born hoops junkies who have known each other since Bjorkgren was a walk-on point guard with a full head of blonde hair and Nurse was a young assistant coach at the University of South Dakota in 1993-94.

It’s only taken 25 years, but the two Iowa boys have arrived at the centre of the basketball universe.

“I mean, I did a couple [of All-Star weekends] as a D-League coach,” said Nurse referring to years when the G League All-Star Game was an undercard to the main event. “And we got to kind of, you know, cross paths with the NBA guys when we were coming off the practice floor and they were going on. That was cool to us. Nate and I were going like, ‘Oh my God, that was LeBron James.’ And now we devise plans to beat those guys.”

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There were some detours along the way.

After two seasons together at South Dakota, Nurse left on his lengthy tour through the British Basketball League and Bjorkgren eventually went on to become a successful high school coach in Arizona after his university playing career was over.

But their paths to the NBA All-Star Game began more than a decade later in 2007. Nurse returned from Europe and became the head coach of the Iowa Energy in Des Moines, with the expansion franchise in what was then the NBA Development League, now the G League.

Bjorkgren heard about it and so began a mission.

“He just called me up, he wouldn’t leave me alone,” recalls Nurse. “[He] said he wanted to be an assistant… and he wouldn’t go away. And I was like, ‘It’s the D-League, I guess I got one assistant, I’ll take another one if the price is right.’ So he hung in there, he volunteered [in Year 1] and I think Year 2 we paid him $500, I think, and Year 3 $2,500 and the other guy finally left and he made $25,000 Year 4 so he was beside himself.”

“I always wanted to get into pro basketball,” says Bjorkgren. “When he was named coach of the Iowa Energy, I was emailing and calling and knocking on the door because I wanted that opportunity to coach pro players. … That was the opportunity. That’s what took me.”

It’s not what paid him though. Bjorkgren was able to coach for free because he took on substitute teaching roles at a pair of local elementary schools – Cattel Elementary and Walnut Street – and was able to come to an understanding with a very sympathetic boss.

“I had a great principal that she would let me do all the morning duties and all the lunch duties so I could get out of there at 12:30 to go to practice,” says Bjorkgren. “I’ll never forget it. And then after school sometimes, I’d hop in my car and drive to the road games.”

It was that unwavering dedication that caught Nurse’s attention.

“I didn’t know him all that well as a coach,” says Nurse. “To be honest we took him because we could use the extra pair of hands around. But then it was total dedication from minute one. We spent literally, I don’t know how many hours together, 12, 16, 18 hours a day trying to figure out how to win in the D-League and lots of time, we’d go to practice and he’d [drive] all the players back home or whatever and we’d meet again and watch D-League games all night at his apartment and all that kind of stuff. It was pretty evident pretty quickly that he was going to be a really good basketball coach, his care level was up, and the biggest thing is he’s a super-positive guy.”

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If Nurse’s trademark is his confident, easy-going chill, Bjorkgren’s trademark is a seemingly natural tendency to see the bright side of things; a rock-solid belief that the best is around the corner.

He does it with an earnestness that is rare in an NBA world where cool rules, and it’s welcome.

“I think Nate’s fun,” says Siakam. “I hear him all the time in my ear talking about something. Every morning he’ll say hi to you and give you a dab. He’s present and I think his energy is felt and needed on this team. He’s a great guy to have, a great coach and somebody who is a likeable person and so serious about his job … Nate’s fun.”

Bjorkgren doesn’t discriminate. Walk around the halls at Scotiabank Arena and it’s common to see him dabbing up security staff, maintenance staff and even reporters.

“We gotta get this one,” he’ll say.

It was one of the qualities that stood out when Bjorkgren was coaching for nothing in the D-League.

Gary Garner saw it first-hand when he worked with Nurse and Bjorkgren as Nurse’s lead assistant with the Energy. Garner was a long-time Division I head coach at the time and connected with Nurse through the team’s owner. He quickly came to appreciate Nurse’s overall abilities – “student of the game,” “fire in the belly,” “great feel for the team and each of his players” were among Garner’s Nurse-related superlatives, but he was also quickly impressed by Bjorkgren.

“The best volunteer assistant coach in the history of basketball,” says Garner, now the head coach at Dakota State University. “He just worked his butt off. Ran from teaching school to the arena, wanted to learn everything he could. You knew he was going to make it in coaching, someway, somehow. But most importantly just a really good guy. I could talk about him for 20 minutes and not have a negative thing to say about him.”

Within the Raptors eco-system, Bjorkgren serves as a sounding board and Nurse whisperer, a gift honed after years in the trenches together.

“They have a special bond,” says Adrian Griffin, who – along with Sergio Scariolo – rounds out Nurse’s staff of assistants, the core of a much larger basketball operations group. “Everyone needs someone they can lean on, their right-hand man that they can confide in. That’s priceless. [Nate] is kind of the glue that keeps everyone together. Every staff is like a team in itself and everyone brings something to the team. Nate brings that togetherness. A lot of times I’ll go to Nate before I go to Nick, just because he knows him so well.

Bjorkgren also serves as an in-game flashlight when things fog over; for those moments when Toronto is down 10 and hasn’t hit a three for going on a full quarter and even Nurse’s cool gets tested.

“He’s the guy sitting next to me when I’m sensing disaster going on in a game and he’s saying, ‘We’re gonna win, we’re gonna come back, constantly, we’re gonna do it, we’re gonna come back,’ and then helps me out quite a bit,” says Nurse. “… I love it and that’s the thing I keep saying, his sense of positivity is off the charts, in those games he’s always confident we’re gonna win and he keeps saying it and he keeps prodding everybody and it spreads. He helps teams win … when I’m constantly saying, ‘We’re in trouble, we ain’t got it, we’re not moving, what’s wrong with us,’ blah blah blah and then I get those out and he’s got me back on track. He might say ‘Do something then, change defences or something,’ [or just] ‘Be quiet!’”

Being around Bjorkgren, you get the sense that the positivity comes easily, but he’s also made it a conscious choice.

“That’s the fun part of it, that’s why I coach basketball,” says Bjorkgren, who was an assistant coach with the Phoenix Suns before Nurse tapped him to join his Raptors staff in the summer of 2018. “I always had fun playing it when I was a little kid. After college I couldn’t play it anymore, so I just wanted to keep having fun while I coached it.”

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Being in the NBA hasn’t changed a thing for Bjorkgren.

“I’m biased. I think [Nurse] does an excellent job. I think our players play their hearts out for us [and] I’m happy to assist in any way I can at that,” he says. “One of my strengths is being positive. I wanna win really, really bad. I want to win every night. And I think being positive is the best way to do that.

“In the games that we have, these NBA games that you see so much, there are so many highs and lows. You’ve got to always stay positive. You might get down eight, nine, 10 points, but if you put your head down and start pouting, you’re going to get deep. These games can turn quickly. I think it’s very important to stay positive throughout all areas of the game.”

It was a quality that Nurse eventually deemed indispensable, although they each had to go their separate ways before they could reconnect. After four years working together in Des Moines – which culminated with the Energy winning the D-League title in 2011 – Nurse took a job with the Rio Grande Vipers, the Houston Rockets’ affiliate, while Bjorkgren got his head-coaching opportunity with the Dakota Wizards – which became the Santa Cruz Warriors, the Golden State Warriors G League team.

Each found great success, and in 2013 found themselves opposing each other in the G League championship finals. It was one of the only times their coaching bromance was put on hold.

“We spoke to each other all year about games and all that and then we just shut it off,” says Bjorkgren. “We didn’t speak to each other for a week, week-and-a-half – they beat us in two games.”

But it was the conversation they had after the final buzzer sounded that was the most meaningful and prophetic.

“After the game – this my favourite story of all that – when we shook hands, he said there is no reason we can’t do this at the next level.

“That meant a lot [to me] and here we are coaching this team today.”

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A Maple Leafs lottery win would magically open up trade options – Sportsnet.ca

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TORONTO — The morning after yet another swift and painful postseason exit strangely brings a ray of hope to Leafs Nation.

A 12.5 per cent chance to land a sure-thing star forward in Alexis Lafreniere and energize GM Kyle Dubas’ options for a reset.

The NHL Draft Lottery goes tonight on Sportsnet at 6 p.m. ET. And for the first year since 2016, Toronto is in the running for the No. 1–overall pick.

Worked out pretty good last time, eh?

From the Stanley Cup Qualifiers to the Stanley Cup Final, livestream every game of the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs, blackout-free, on Sportsnet NOW.

A mere 19 hours after hanging heads and shaking hands with the Columbus Blue Jackets, the Maple Leafs join the Edmonton Oilers, Florida Panthers, Minnesota Wild, Nashville Predators, New York Rangers, Pittsburgh Penguins and Winnipeg Jets with a ball in the hopper and a prayer to the hockey gods.

As evidenced by some of the logos stamped on tonight’s eight ping-pong balls — together Pittsburgh, Edmonton and Toronto represent a 37.5 per cent chance of sending social media into a firestorm — and some of the logos that won’t be (Montreal and Chicago), the hockey gods have a devilish sense of humour.

Make no mistake: This is not the Elite Eight the Leafs wanted to be part of.

When the NHL announced its creative and chaotic return-to-play and two-phase lottery formats, with more moving parts than a Professor’s Cube, Dubas was clear his mind would not be wandering to Lafreniere’s cherished blend of creativity and physicality.

“Not to say that it would be a horrible scenario to win the lottery or anything like that, but I tend to focus more on the optimistic view, which is getting our team ready to… be able to have success,” Dubas said prior to restart camp.

“I think there are going to be a lot of interesting results in this qualifying round, just given the nature of things and the delay between when teams last played and different changes to the roster in that meantime.”

Interesting, indeed.

Dubas was in regular communication with the NHL as it designed both these unique lottery odds and tournament format.

“They bounce things off you, and you quickly realize that there’s no perfect way to do it,” Dubas said. “And regardless of how it all came out, everyone’s chances were going to be affected differently.”

The possibility of the Leafs landing Lafreniere only exists because Dubas made certain his 2020 first-overall pick was top-10 protected when he traded it to Carolina last summer as part of the Patrick Marleau salary-dump deal.

If one of the seven other teams claims Monday’s lottery, Toronto’s 2020 first-rounder transfers to Carolina and results in a 13th- or 14th-overall choice for the Hurricanes. Consider that a cap-weaponized trade win for Don Waddell.

So, after blaming bad fortune on the ice Sunday night, some good lottery luck Monday will alleviate two per cent of the sting Sheldon Keefe is feeling.

“I’m obviously not focused on it one bit, but it’s the next thing on the calendar for us, so I’ll be paying attention to it,” said Keefe, before shifting his focus back to Game 5’s disappointment. “I’ll be thinking about this one for quite a while.”

As the Maple Leafs’ freshest failure dusts off old concerns about roster construction, a Lafreniere win could do wonders here.

Essentially, the kid is a get-out-of-jail-free card.

Keep him. Move some money.

Three years of an elite winger on entry-level money gives the brass no excuse to not trade one of the Big 4 and use that freed cap space to address its defensive deficiencies in a meaningful way.

This wildly unlikely scenario, this 12.5 per cent Hail Mary, has made us think of something the general manager said about fixing his team’s problems at the trade deadline.

“I’m not gonna come up and bulls— and tell you I have some magical solution,” Dubas said that day, standing pat and scratching his head.

Finding yourself lucky enough to win Alexis Lafreniere after finishing 13th overall in the regular season is about as close to a magical solution as one could get.

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2020 NHL Draft Lottery Phase 2 Primer: Who will pick first overall? – Sportsnet.ca

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On Monday night, the hockey world will know who is likely to draft Alexis Lafreniere first overall when the results of the draft lottery are announced.

Wait — didn’t we already have 2020 draft lottery results?

Yes! But like everything else this year, the path to first overall is a little unorthodox. We had a Phase 1 lottery in June that could have determined the top three picks if only non-playoff teams were drawn, but since a “Placeholder” team won that initial lottery, we have to do a second one now.

Confused? You’re probably not alone. And so that’s why we’re getting you caught up with everything you need to know about Monday’s lottery… and why there’s a second draw at all.

And you can watch the drama unfold on Sportsnet and Sportsnet NOW, beginning at 6 p.m. ET/3 p.m. PT.

From the Stanley Cup Qualifiers to the Stanley Cup Final, livestream every game of the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs, blackout-free, on Sportsnet NOW.

OK, SO WHY ARE THERE TWO LOTTERIES THIS YEAR?

When the NHL paused its season in March, we were in the midst of a tight playoff race, with only a handful of teams that really were out of it. A couple others — notably Montreal and Chicago — had an extremely long shot of getting in.

So the NHL had a dilemma when trying to formulate a return-to-play plan: where would the cut-off line be for who’s in and who’s out? What was fair, given some teams had played more games than others, and the season wasn’t complete?

Ultimately the league returned with 24 teams getting “in” — eight would get a bye into Round 1 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and the remaining 16 would play a best-of-five qualifying round series to advance. The losers of those series would then fall back into lottery contention.

When the first lottery was drawn, we only knew seven of the teams involved: Detroit, Ottawa, Buffalo, Los Angeles, Anaheim, New Jersey and San Jose (though Ottawa held their pick). The other eight teams were represented by a “placeholder” tag to stand in for the qualifying round losers who would be determined at a later date. If the placeholder team was drawn for any of the top three draft positions, a second lottery needed to be held for the eight teams eliminated in qualifying.

So, of course, one of these placeholders “won” the first overall pick, which is why we need a second draw now.

HOW WILL THE SECOND LOTTERY WORK?

This is only involving the eight teams that were eliminated from the qualifying round: Toronto, Winnipeg, Edmonton, Pittsburgh, Nashville, Minnesota, Florida and the NY Rangers. One of those teams will pick first overall at this year’s draft. All of the others in this lottery will be slotted in reverse order of points percentage finish in the regular season, starting at the ninth overall pick. By the end of Monday night, we’ll know the order of the first 15 picks of the 2020 NHL Draft.

The Pittsburgh Penguins had the best points percentage of any eliminated team in the regular season, so if they do not win the first overall pick, they’ll lock in at 15th overall. Edmonton had the next-highest points percentage, so if neither the Penguins or Oilers win the first pick, Edmonton will end up 14th overall. And so on.

The Wild had the lowest points percentage in this group, so if they don’t win the first pick, they’ll slot in at ninth overall.

The interesting thing here is that, unlike how the draft lottery usually works, this one will not be weighted by regular season success. The Wild will have no better odds to wind up with the first overall pick than the Penguins, Oilers or Maple Leafs.

Each of the eight teams in Monday’s lottery have an even 12.5 per cent chance of winning.

The reveal and how the team is picked will also work a little differently.

In a normal NHL draft lottery, it’s not one “ping pong ball” that gets pulled out, but rather a sequence of four numbers. Each team is assigned a certain number of combinations — the lower in the standings you finished, the more you get. And whichever team holds that winning collection of four numbers wins the lottery.

But on Monday night it’s much simpler than that. One ping pong ball will be pulled and the winning team’s logo revealed.

There is no dramatic card countdown reveal from Bill Daly this time.

WHAT WOULD THE MOST CHAOTIC OUTCOME BE?

If the Edmonton Oilers win the lottery and pick first overall again, the hockey world outside of the city will go mad. The Oilers picked first overall four times in six years between 2010 and 2015 and since then there have been calls to put a limit on how many times a team can pick first over a certain time period. No changes have been made yet, so Edmonton is again mixed up in all of this.

Can you imagine the playmaking Alexis Lafreniere on Connor McDavid’s or Leon Draisaitl’s wing? And on an entry-level contract? The lottery result would be an eye-roll, but the pressure to win would get ramped up to new high levels in Edmonton.

How about Pittsburgh? They’ve won just one of their last eight playoff games and have quickly been dispatched two playoffs in a row. Perhaps they’re more in need of this than we think, but then again, they were seventh in the NHL by points percentage this season and have star power of their own. Lafreniere next to Evgeni Malkin? Or how about next to Sidney Crosby, who came out of the same Rimouski Oceanic program? Lafreniere also became the second player ever to win CHL Player of the Year honours twice, joining Crosby.

And now, of course, we have the Toronto Maple Leafs, who will be facing many off-season questions about the roster’s make up. If they were to land Lafreniere to add to the wing, does it make it any more likely that William Nylander or even Mitch Marner could be dealt?

The wild thing about how this ended up shaking out is that Lafreniere will likely land on a pretty good team. There’s a 50 per cent chance he’ll go to Edmonton, Pittsburgh, Toronto or Winnipeg.

In Winnipeg, there are visions of him joining Mark Scheifele, or playing opposite Patrik Laine. In Nashville, he would join a top-six that looks good on paper, but was generally disappointing this season. Still, with the Preds’ strong defence and overall team depth, a player like Lafreniere could quickly get them back on track. Even the New York Rangers seem primed to break out in a big way before long. Put Lafreniere there and it could happen as soon as 2020-21.

DOES EVERY TEAM HOLD ITS OWN FIRST-ROUND PICK?

Whoever wins the draft lottery will choose first overall, but there are other conditions on some of these picks if they end up slotting elsewhere.

Pittsburgh: As part of the Jason Zucker trade this season, the Penguins conditionally moved their 2020 first-rounder to Minnesota. If the pick ends up 1-15 (which it will now), the Penguins will have seven days after the lottery to decide whether or not to give it up to the Wild. If they choose to keep it, Minnesota will get Pittsburgh’s 2021 first-round pick regardless of finish.

Toronto: As a result of the Patrick Marleau trade to Carolina (who then bought him out) the Leafs have to give up their 2020 first-round pick unless it winds up in the top 10. The only way that can happen is if they win the lottery. So if the Leafs’ lottery ball is not pulled on Monday, Carolina will get their pick.

WHO ARE THIS YEAR’S TOP PROSPECTS?

From pre-season to now, the No. 1 prospect has been Lafreniere. Known for his smarts and his complete skillset, he’ll be a game-changer for any team lucky enough to draft him.

Fellow forwards Quinton Byfield and Tim Stutzle also have franchise-player potential themselves, while this class’s strongest skater, Jamie Drysdale, looks likely to be the first defender off the board.

If Monday night’s lottery winner does not pick Lafreniere — after a 35-goal, 112-point season in 52 games — it would be a shock.

WHEN IS THE DRAFT?

If all goes smoothly and according to plan, the draft is tentatively scheduled for Oct. 9-10 and will be a virtual event.

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Habs Headlines: Veteran vs. Rookie goalie battle key in first round – Habs Eyes on the Prize

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In today’s links, the goaltending battle between veteran and rookie will be key against the Flyers, Philadelphia is sure to be formidable opponents, the Bruins aren’t concerned about their round-robin performance, and more.

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