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Raptors secure foundation for their future

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TORONTO – What separates the NBA’s great organizations from the good ones?

There are numerous factors, of course, but a big differentiator is how they transition from one era to the next. Can they do it seamlessly without having to hit the reset button or endure a long and painful rebuild?

It’s a rare ability that requires pristine drafting and player development, savvy asset management, and a little bit of luck – occasionally a lot of luck. But it can be done, as teams like the San Antonio Spurs and Miami Heat, among others, have shown.

The Spurs are probably the best example – the gold standard in the league and throughout professional sports for more than two decades. Prior to this past season, they had a record-tying run of 22 straight playoff appearances, resulting in six trips to the Finals and five championships.

Head coach Gregg Popovich and chief executive R.C. Buford were the constants, but their run – which came to an end when they went 32-39 and missed the post-season in 2019-20 – was a credit to the way they passed the torch between prominent players.

David Robinson helped groom Tim Duncan, who mentored Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, who paid it forward to Kawhi Leonard. Whenever a franchise cornerstone was nearing the end of his career, there always seemed to be another waiting in the wings and ready to inherit the reigns.

The Toronto Raptors have aimed to emulate that approach, and while they still have a long way to go in order to reach that almost unprecedented level of sustained success, they’re on the right track.

Their seven consecutive playoff appearances are tied (with Portland and behind Houston) for the NBA’s second-longest active streak. They’ve won at least one post-season series five years in a row, which is tops in the league. There aren’t many clubs that are held in higher esteem for their body of work over the past decade.

Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan and Dwane Casey – along with the architect Masai Ujiri – were the faces of their unlikely rise. While the core has undergone changes over the years – most notable with Nick Nurse replacing Casey and DeRozan being sent to San Antonio for one memorable year of Leonard – Lowry remains at the forefront of the team’s identity.

The six-time all-star is turning 35 in March and will be a free agent following this season. Even if he remains a Raptor beyond that point – and many are hoping he will – he can only defy the aging process for so long, you would think. Eventually, it will come time to pass the torch.

The Raptors have been good enough for long enough that they’ve had to consider and plan for what comes next. That’s what this past year has been about for Ujiri and general manager Bobby Webster – setting the Raptors down a path that ensures they’ll be competitive for the foreseeable future.

The foundation they’ve built, and recently secured, features the promising young trio of Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet and OG Anunoby.

In the fall of 2019, the Raptors signed Siakam to a maximum salary contract extension worth more than $130 million over the next four years, beginning this season. Last month, they gave VanVleet a new four-year, $85 million deal. On Monday, just ahead of the deadline, they agreed to extend Anunoby for four years at $72 million. His deal will kick in next season.

All three players are home grown, having been drafted – or, in the case of VanVleet, signed as an undrafted free agent – by Toronto. They’ve come up together through the Raptors’ system, learning from veterans of the previous regime and sharing in the team’s recent success, including the championship run in 2019.

They’re all under the age of 27, yet to or just about to reach their prime years. They’ve each taken meaningful steps early in their professional careers and shown there’s still another level that they can reach. And now, they’re all under contract through 2023-24.

“They were second-year players when I was a rookie, so we all started off the same and we’ve all just been growing,” Anunoby said. “It’s been cool to see. We all work really hard, we’ve all been happy for each other. So it’s cool to see and I’m excited for the future.”

“I think it’s really been fun and interesting to watch them all grow,” said Nurse. “I think it’s a real credit first of all to them individually and to our organization – coaching staff, player development, all that stuff that we’ve been able to grow these guys to this point.”

“I don’t think any of them were real sure-fire high draft picks or whatever. Freddy’s undrafted and [Siakam and Anunoby were] late first-round picks, and they go out there and they compete with the best.”

For the Raptors, that’s been the key to carrying over their success, as it was for the Spurs. As a winning team that’s routinely selecting from the bottom of the first round, if they even have a pick at all, scouting and drafting well are paramount.

Sure, San Antonio was fortunate to end up with the first-overall pick in a class that happened to feature a generational talent like Duncan, but from there, they found Ginobili with the 57th pick and Parker at pick No. 28. Even Leonard, who they acquired on draft night, was a steal at 15.

A surprise 27th-overall pick in 2016, Siakam has blossomed into an all-star and all-NBA talent. VanVleet was passed over 60 times in that same draft and has become one of the league’s best success stories. Anunoby, who was recovering from a serious knee injury at the time of the draft in 2017 and fell to the Raptors at No. 23, may have the highest upside of the trio.

“He hopefully understands he can become one of the league’s elite defenders,” Nurse said of Anunoby on Tuesday. “And then the rest of it, I just think continues to develop. He certainly shoots the ball well. His other skill work – what is he gonna do in transition, what’s he gonna do on the block, what’s he gonna do starting and ending drives, what kind of passer is he gonna become – all those things, I think, are accelerating I would say at probably a faster rate than expected. He’s certainly more than just a play defence and stand in the corner guy. He’s becoming a more active member of the offence because his skills are improving.”

“I definitely think I’m capable of more than I’ve shown [offensively],” said the 23-year-old forward. “I work really hard at this stuff. Especially with what my role’s been, I think I’m definitely capable of more, for sure.”

With an expanded role in the team’s offence, many are expecting Anunoby to take a big step forward in his fourth campaign, but the spotlight will be on all three of the young Raptors when they tip off the new season in Tampa on Wednesday. Siakam’s fourth year, and first as a primary option, was a success – or at least it would have been if not for his disappointing showing in the bubble. He’ll be on a mission to prove that, at 26 years of age, it was merely a small setback and his best is yet to come. VanVleet showed that he can be a full-time starter, but with the big contract people will want to see him continue to evolve as a lead guard.

“I think Fred is certainly a leader of the team, he’s kind of a natural leader anyway and [with] the departures of Serge [Ibaka] and Marc [Gasol] he probably takes a bigger role,” Nurse said. “And as far as Pascal and OG, I think this is the opportunity for them to grow into this a little bit. I think Pascal’s doing so, maybe his status in the locker room or status on the team helps that and OG’s coming along. He still seems like the young one of the group, not quite into that leadership role yet, but I think the chemistry between them has developed nicely.”

To compete for championships in the NBA you need a superstar, and the Raptors know that more than most – it’s the reason they traded the popular DeRozan for what turned out to be a rental in Leonard.

It’s why they were crossing their fingers in the hopes that Giannis Antetokounmpo would pass on signing his extension with Milwaukee, giving them a shot – even if it would have been a long one – at landing him next summer. It’s also why they’ve reportedly kicked the tires on the disgruntled James Harden, even though he would be a questionable fit in Toronto, both on and off the court.

Those types of players are hard to get your hands on, and unless one of their young foundational pieces takes an unexpected leap into that stratosphere, the Raptors will always be in the market for one of those elite talents.

But with the trio of Siakam, VanVleet and Anunoby – three all-star calibre players, or guys with all-star potential – under long-term control, the Raptors are virtually a lock to remain competitive as they transition to the next era. And with assets, and the willingness to spend them, they’re well positioned to make the move that would take them to the next level, if and
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Easy to point at goalie, defence, but Leafs’ offence yet to find high gear – Sportsnet.ca

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You lose like this to the presumed seventh seed inside the Group of Seven and the arrows will be pointed in familiar directions.

Frederik Andersen looks like an easy target, as does a defensive program that surrendered more goals per game than all but one team invited to the NHL’s summer bubble last year.

But neither touches the heart of the biggest questions facing the Toronto Maple Leafs coming out of Friday’s 5-3 loss to the Ottawa Senators: Why did they veer into the ditch after a solid opening 29 minutes? And where was the offensive wave that’s supposed to be a distinguishing quality for them in this North Division?

Toronto’s 39 per cent expected-goals rate tells us even more than the result, especially since it generated next to nothing at 5-on-5 while playing the back half of the game from behind.

Any potential offensive flow died in transition. And the gold-standard series of shifts with sustained pressure building up to Alex Kerfoot’s 2-1 goal quickly became notable because they couldn’t be repeated while Ottawa roared back to win the first game it was playing in 310 days.

“Scoring that goal for us, if we want to be a team that’s going to accomplish anything, the game should be over from there,” said Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe. “We should be able to take care of the lead and then build on the lead. Obviously, it showed that we’re not there yet.”

They were a long way off against D.J. Smith’s determined group.

That Smith would have his team closely protecting the net front should surprise no one that watched Ottawa battle through a rebuilding season. The Sens’ issues were personnel-related and their personnel improved considerably since March.

But they still boast the kind of defensive corps a team with Toronto’s weapons should be expected to overwhelm — only it didn’t happen nearly enough in the opener of a back-to-back set at Canadian Tire Centre.

Trailing 4-2 entering the third period, the Leafs put just four more shots on Matt Murray while attempting five shot attempts at even strength. That’s why the rush to dissect every defensive breakdown feels a little incomplete.

These are the early days of a weird season that included no exhibition games and a lot of money is being made by those betting the “over” league-wide right now. There’s isn’t much tight, organized hockey being played anywhere right now and, theoretically, that should play directly into the hands of a team like the Leafs.

Yes, they’ve hung eight goals on the scoreboard across two games, but they haven’t tilted the ice nearly as much as desired. Against the Senators they were pushed toward the perimeter and looked too often for the ideal play.

“There’s a great number of goals that are scored in the league that are just randomness,” said Keefe. “You just put the puck to space and try to outnumber the opposition and win loose pucks and that’s really all their goals for the most part came off of situations like that.

“We had great control of the game for long periods of time but didn’t accomplish much with it.”

The coach will have his patience tested during the quick turnaround before Saturday’s game. He’s indicated a desire to give his lines a chance to find some cohesion but must be feeling the itch to rearrange the pieces.

An obvious change would be removing fourth-line winger Alexander Barbanov, who saw just over four minutes in Friday’s game. The taxi squad offers multiple replacement options — one of Nick Robertson, Adam Brooks or Travis Boyd could jump in, or perhaps Keefe might elect to give Mikko Lehtonen or Rasmus Sandin a look as part of a 11F/7D rotation.

A silver lining from a tough night came from the fact his glue guys showed cohesion. Keefe has high hopes for Kerfoot, Zach Hyman and Ilya Mikheyev as a third line and they managed some tone-setting shifts, plus the Kerfoot goal.

“I think that we all play fast, we play hard,” said Hyman. “I thought we had a strong game. I thought we played well together. I like playing with those guys.”

It may only be a matter of time for Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and Joe Thornton — assuming they remain intact. They’ve played big minutes and generated enough chances to have scored a couple goals already but are still looking for their first.

We got a glimpse of what Thornton can offer early in Friday’s game when he stationed himself behind the net and fed Matthews for a chance in close.

“Those little give-and-go plays, we’re just trying to create little wedges, 2-on-1s, and try to find open guys,” said Matthews.

“We’re trying to speed up our game a lot offensively and challenge the net a lot more,” added Keefe. “I mean we just haven’t done that. That’s going to take some time, that’s a big adjustment from a lot of our guys.”

The lack of flow has been noticeable. They’ve played from behind in both games and haven’t yet found a high gear, even while rallying to beat the Montreal Canadiens in Wednesday’s season opener.

Ottawa is supposed to be their easiest mark in the division and yet the struggle was real in Game 2.

“It shows you how tough it is to win in this league,” said Andersen.

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Senators’ blue-collar effort stuns Maple Leafs in season opener – Sportsnet.ca

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The new-look Ottawa Senators promised to play a brand of hockey that would make the home fan base proud.

And while that fan base was scattered around the region Friday night, watching the home opener on TV because of a fan ban during the COVID-19 pandemic, they were surely proud of their upstart Sens putting a 5-3 spanking on the provincial rivals from Toronto.

The Leafs will be looking for revenge in Saturday’s rematch on Hockey Night In Canada.

For Ottawa, it’s one down and 55 more hockey games in Canada to go.

“We enjoy tonight, but tomorrow we have a tough matchup again,” said veteran centre Derek Stepan, who scored in his Senators debut. “The way the schedule is set up you’ve got to have a short term memory. It was a good win but tomorrow we’ve got to put our work boots on because that team is going to come out, they’re going to play hard.”

Riding a second period wave that featured three goals in less than five minutes, the Senators erased a 2-1 Maple Leafs lead and brought home the win with a blue-collar effort in the final 20 minutes.

During that decisive second period, which began with the Leafs holding the play and the puck in Ottawa’s end, momentum seemed to change in a heartbeat. A Brady Tkachuk tip off a Nikita Zaitsev shot, an Austin Watson wrister and a Chris Tierney chip shot during a delayed penalty call produced a trio of goals that had the favoured Leafs reeling.

The Sens held Toronto to 23 shots. Ottawa’s new starting goaltender, Matt Murray, provided a sense of calm throughout.

“I thought the team did a heck of a job keeping them to the outside.” Murray said. “That’s a heck of a team over there, tons of skill. I really liked our effort. We had five guys all over the ice.”

Senators head coach D.J. Smith was pleased with the way his team held its composure, led by Murray, after the Leafs got an early lead.

“We did a pretty good letting the goalie see the puck, we got some timely goals and we found a way to finish it off,” Smith said.

“You can see why (Murray) is an elite goalie in the league,” Smith said. “He doesn’t panic. He just reads the play. He gets scored on, he just goes back to work. And I think that gives our young team a lot of confidence when you’ve got a goalie in there that’s capable of closing games out.”

Wearing their home black jerseys with the retro centurion logo, the Senators looked a little rusty to start — not surprising after 310 days between games. They had to feel OK about heading to the first intermission tied 1-1.

Owners of the NHL’s worst power play last season, the Senators’ revamped unit went to work late in the first period, taking advantage of a 5-on-3 opportunity that resulted from a too-many men-call on the Leafs.

From the high slot, Thomas Chabot ripped a one-timer past Frederik Andersen. Drake Batherson, who continues to be a puck distributor on the power play, fed Chabot so neatly from the corner that Andersen could not get over fast enough to greet the Chabot blast at 19:16 in the first period.

The Leafs had scored a power play of their own midway through the first, with Zach Hyman tapping an errant puck past Murray. Replay officials took a long look before declaring it a keeper. Hyman’s stick was so close to crossbar height, it was one of those plays that could have gone either way and tends to go with the call on the ice — which was a goal.

Ottawa’s defence featured a few misadventures, especially with Christian Wolanin and Zaitsev on the ice, but Murray — playing in his 200th NHL game — was there to bail them out. Wolanin, who had been placed on waivers as recently as Monday before scoring a hat trick in a scrimmage that same evening, was charged with two giveaways in the first period alone. He looked more comfortable taking the puck up ice on the power play, more to his strength than his defensive zone play.

By the second period, Ottawa’s bench had seen enough and Zaitsev was paired with Chabot and Wolanin with Erik Gudbranson.

Even without the noisy fans of both Ontario camps, the Senators vowed to be rowdy. Feisty. Led by their chief ramrod, Tkachuk.

“We still have skill, but our look is being physical, we aren’t going to take anything from anybody,” Tkachuk said. “I think we’ve got one of the toughest teams in the whole league.

“Our goal is to make life tough on the opponent, try to impose our will.”

Tkachuk’s new centre, rookie Josh Norris, had a sweet night after earning a spot during camp. Norris was solid at both ends and picked up a pair of secondary assists.

The Norris-Tkachuk-Batherson line produced seven points, a slick debut for a trio that averages just over 21 years of age.

Stepan finished off a physical foray by Tkachuk and Batherson down low to score Ottawa’s fifth goal, putting the game out of reach. Leafs captain John Tavares rifled a bar-down shot to make the score more respectable.

Though he didn’t figure in the scoring, Senators rookie Tim Stützle did not look out of place in his NHL debut. The birthday boy made smart decisions with the puck, had a couple of “wow” moments with dazzling moves and consistently found the open man. He played just under 12 minutes. It showed that Stützle has played in the German men’s league as he was not physically intimidated.

“You can clearly tell he’s going to be a stud,” Tkachuk said of Stützle.

Eerie scene

In a normal year, a Battle of Ontario meeting to launch a season would have had all the requisite trimmings, backed by a healthy dose of hate.

Torrents of spectators wearing the blue-and-white of the Maple Leafs and red-and-white (with a mixture of black jerseys) of the Senators would have streamed into the building in a raucous parade of expectation.

Three hours before game time, the keenest of fans would have lined up along the red carpet on the arena plaza to greet players, staff and management as they entered the building, high-fiving the faithful in the sort of carefree, pre-virus ritual that feels like another world now.

On Friday, players entered through a back entrance at their leisure and closer to game time, media drove past the empty lots and parked crazily close to a Gate 2 entrance to get their temperatures taken and check off a COVID-19 health form.

Inside, the Canadian Tire Centre was eerily empty, but dressed up as smart as possible with bold red vinyl sheeting on the seats behind the player benches. When Matt Murray led his new Senators team out for the warmups, like Pavlov’s dogs, we anticipated a roaring crowd that simply wasn’t to be heard.

Defensive leader Chabot knew things would be “different” in this coronavirus season, but also that players were ready for it.

“At the end of the day, we just feel fortunate to be able to play,” Chabot said.

“For us as hockey players, we’re happy to be back on TV, to give people something to watch and to cheer for. Obviously we know our fans will be watching us every night. It’s important to go out, play our ass off and work as hard as we can.”

White, Galchenyuk and Reilly scratched

Head coach D.J. Smith promised to reward the fittest, hardest-working players in camp with starting jobs. Three veterans who didn’t make the grade were centre Colin White, forward Alex Galchenyuk and defenceman Mike Reilly.

White is the most surprising of the three, considering he is part of the youth movement at 23, and signed a six-year deal in 2019 with an AAV of $4.75M.

Smith said the other four centres — Norris, Stepan, Tierney and Artem Anisimov — had better camps, but with 56 games in 113 days, “there will be guys in and out” of the lineup.

“It’s a big story today but Colin is going to be a big part of this and help us win hockey games going forward,” Smith said.

Smith had been complimentary of White’s play early, but he also cautioned the media that some players would fall back when the tempo was increased late in camp. White put on weight and muscle in the off-season in an attempt to come back stronger. In the end, both White and centre prospect Logan Brown drifted out of the picture — Brown demoted to AHL’s Belleville Senators. White could be back in the lineup as early as Saturday night.

Galchenyuk, 26, was picked up in the off-season on a one-year, $1.05M deal. He has fallen off from his early, productive years with the Montreal Canadiens, the team that selected him third overall in 2012.

Reilly, 27, came over from Montreal via trade last season as a depth defenceman and doesn’t figure in Ottawa’s long-term plans.

Happy birthday, ‘Jimmy’ Stützle?

Tkachuk noted that he and housemate Norris got up in the morning and sang a birthday tune to Tim Stützle, their newest tenant.

“Right when we woke up we sang a little Happy Birthday for Jimmy,” Tkachuk said.

Clearly, ‘Jimmy’ is a new room nickname for Stützle, who turned 19 on opening day.

“My birthday is going to be pushed back,” Stützle said. My focus is on the game.”

Stützle became the fourth teenager in NHL history to make his NHL debut on his birthday. But he’s the only one to do it in a Battle of Ontario game.

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Canadiens, Canucks underdogs on Saturday NHL odds – Sportsnet.ca

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The Montreal Canadiens will be looking to rebound from a 5-4 overtime loss to Toronto when they open a two-game set in Edmonton on Saturday night as small -105 underdogs on the NHL odds at sportsbooks monitored by OddsShark.com.

Montreal squandered a 3-1 lead on its way to Wednesday’s season-opening loss to the Maple Leafs, and also rides a three-game losing streak in Edmonton into Saturday night’s matchup at Rogers Place.

The Canadiens showed flashes of the potential that has stoked optimism among Montreal fans entering the new season. Last summer’s surprising playoff performance and offseason additions like Josh Anderson and Tyler Toffoli have made the Canadiens a solid +475 wager to win the North Division at online betting sites as the season gets underway. However, Montreal has been largely outclassed in recent trips to the Alberta capital, with the Oilers outscoring the Canadiens by a 22-13 margin during a 5-1 run.

The Oilers have produced mixed results in season-opening action but enter Saturday’s matchup as -115 favourites. The team never led in a 5-3 loss to Vancouver on Wednesday, but never trailed in Thursday’s victory as reduced -135 chalk, with Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl combining for three goals and five assists.

Also on Saturday, the Canucks look to get back into the win column as they visit the Calgary Flames as +115 underdogs, while earlier in the evening the Toronto Maple Leafs wrap up a two-game road series with the Ottawa Senators as heavy -200 chalk.

Vancouver returns to action looking to build on a breakthrough playoff run that took them to within one game of a berth in the Western Conference Final. The Canucks have dropped three of their last four games against the Flames, scoring just three total goals in those defeats, and have alternated between victories and losses while earning the win in three of their past six games at the Scotiabank Saddledome.

And the Canucks could be facing former goaltender Jacob Markstrom, who signed with the Flames as an unrestricted free agent this past offseason. Markstrom won 99 games during seven seasons in Vancouver, but his Calgary tenure got off to a shaky start as the Flames blew an early 3-1 lead on their way to a 4-3 overtime loss in Winnipeg on Wednesday night. Despite that loss, the Flames are listed as -135 favourites in their date with Vancouver.

The Maple Leafs came out flat in a 5-3 loss to the Senators on Friday, and have now fallen to defeat in 10 of their last 14 road dates in Ottawa, which looks to Saturday night as a +170 bet.

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