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Would the Raptors consider pulling the plug on the season

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TORONTO – With each loss, the Toronto Raptors are watching their once-promising season slip away.

They were 11-9 when Pascal Siakam returned from his groin injury in an impressive win over Cleveland late last month. After treading water without their best player for three weeks, they seemed poised to make a run in what looked like a wide-open Eastern Conference.

Since then, they’ve dropped nine of 11 games, including their past six – the longest active losing streak in the NBA. Seeing a light at the end of the tunnel depends on your willingness to separate process from result.

If winning is the cure, as Siakam put it last week, then they’ve been close to turning the corner. Of those six straight losses, four have come down to the final possession or two.

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In their latest defeat, a 104-101 overtime loss to the Philadelphia 76ers on Monday, they played hard on the second night of a back-to-back, defended well and got a brilliant performance from Siakam, who scored 38 points and hit the game-tying layup at the end of regulation. They were also held to just five points on 16 possessions in nine minutes to close the contest.

Good teams find ways to win games. Instead, the Raptors are finding new and increasingly frustrating ways to lose.

From top to bottom, everyone in the organization has remained patient, understanding that there’s still plenty of basketball left to be played and a chance to turn things around, like they started to do around this time last year. But that’s only true until it’s not anymore. A sense of urgency is beginning to creep in, as it should.

After visiting the Knicks – the league’s hottest team and winners of eight straight games – on Wednesday, they’ll face the red-hot Cavaliers in Cleveland to close out the week. Coming out of a short Christmas break, they host the Clippers, Grizzlies and Suns – each of them top-five teams in the Western Conference – before the calendar flips to 2023. If their luck, and their play, doesn’t turn quickly, they could be looking at an 11-game losing streak on Jan. 1.

At 13-18, they currently sit 10th in the East, occupying the conference’s final play-in seed. They’re only five games back of fifth-place Philadelphia, but they’re even closer to the bottom of the standings. Only 3.5 games separate them from the Houston Rockets for the third-worst record in the league and a 14 per cent chance at the first-overall pick in this summer’s draft.

The clock is ticking, leaving Masai Ujiri and Bobby Webster with a big decision to make as we move closer to the Feb. 9 trade deadline.

The vultures are already circling. If the losses continue to pile up, people are wondering whether the Raptors would consider pulling the plug on this season, or even take a more drastic measure. It’s not just fans. Sensing blood in the water, teams have started calling Toronto to inquire into the availability of its core players, multiple sources confirm to TSN.

This front office isn’t one to hang up the phone. They’ll listen to offers, as they generally do, and at this point everything – and everyone, save for reigning Rookie of the Year Scottie Barnes – should be on the table.

Still, those preliminary and very hypothetical discussions are a long way away from becoming anything more. This is not a short-sighted group. Tempting as it may be to chase lottery balls in a draft year headlined by a pair of generational talents, French big man Victor Wembanyama and dynamic guard Scoot Henderson, they won’t do that at the expense of their long-term vision. What will ultimately determine how Ujiri and Webster approach the deadline is whether that vision has changed.

Heading into the season, the plan was to continue developing their core and remain competitive, while sitting on their assets – which include a full complement of first-round picks – and waiting for the right opportunity to go all-in and add a star via trade. Sure, they wanted to see progress and take another step forward this season, but it was less about what they would do this year and more about what they could become in the years to come.

We know they felt strongly about that plan, the core and their preferred style of play a few months ago. Do they feel differently based on what they’ve seen – or haven’t seen – over the past few weeks?

That’s the question they’ll have to answer internally, first and foremost. Do they still believe that some combination of Barnes, Siakam, Fred VanVleet and O.G Anunoby, plus that hypothetical star, could be the nucleus of a championship team? If the answer is yes, then you stay the course and live with a potentially disappointing result to this season. If the answer is no, then this could be the time to pivot.

What might that look like? While you never want to rule anything out completely, a full-on rebuild seems unlikely. There’s a reason why their guys are in high demand: they’re really good players and extremely valuable assets. Siakam and VanVleet are all-stars in their prime. Anunoby is one of the league’s best two-ways players, just entering his prime. All three are homegrown and fit the organizational culture and preferred style of play.

Those are not the kinds of players that you trade just to bottom out and be bad. You’re not trading them for a middling prospect, expiring salary and a contending team’s late first-round picks. And you’re probably not getting fair value if you’re looking for a win-now return. The only way you’re considering moving those guys, Siakam in particular, is if you decide to rebuild and a team is offering a massive haul of unprotected future picks, on par with what Utah got from Minnesota for Rudy Gobert this past summer.

Even then, that’s not a decision you make lightly. Trading a player, or players, of that calibre is not something you can undo. Those are the moves that can make or break a franchise’s fate for years to come.

The Raptors have worked hard to build and, with the exception of the anomaly 2020-21 season, maintain a winning culture. There’s value in that, and it’s hard to see them upending it and putting their future in jeopardy for an outside shot at hitting it big in the lottery.

“The Tampa Tank,” as Ujiri would later refer to it, was under completely different circumstances. The Kyle Lowry era was coming to an end on its own merit. VanVleet was yet to become an all-star and Siakam still hadn’t regained his pre-pandemic form. If there was a long-term plan, it was a lot harder to see, making “Play-in for what?” hit differently. The opportunity cost of tanking was a lot lower.

And even still, not all tanks are created equal. That was more of a soft or natural tank. For one, they didn’t have to unload anyone. The deal they made at the deadline – turning Norman Powell’s expiring contract into a younger and more controllable asset in Gary Trent Jr. – was a neutral move.

Then, with the injuries and losses mounting late in the season, it made sense to start sitting guys out, especially Lowry at the tail end of his Raptors tenure. That they were playing games in an empty arena or in front of other teams’ fans on the other side of the continent made that decision easier, and the result was the fourth-overall pick and, ultimately, Barnes.

In the event that this season can’t be salvaged, and we’ll get a pretty good sense of that over the coming weeks, then the soft tank remains a possibility. Post-deadline, if they’re still dealing with various ailments and are hovering around those play-in spots, you could imagine them opting to take another strategic, short-term step back and shutting players down early. Expect to see plenty of “sore ankles” and “knee contusions” around the league as the Wembanyama sweepstakes heats up late in the season.

At some point in the not-so-distant future, decisions have to be made regarding the viability of this core, which is about to become very expensive. But any major change is more likely to come during the off-season, when Ujiri and Webster prefer to do their heavy lifting.

That doesn’t mean they should stand pat now, or that they will. Regardless of how they approach the deadline, expect them to gauge the market for Trent, who’s likely to opt out of his deal and become a free agent this summer, when he’ll be in line for a big raise. Unless they plan to pay him, he could be dealt in a similar move to the one that brought him to Toronto.

The deadline is seven weeks away. You can expect Ujiri and Webster to spend that time watching closely, evaluating, and trying to determine whether this recent skid is a blip on the radar or something bigger and more concerning.

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Leafs may have lucked out with timing of Auston Matthews and Matt Murray injuries – The Globe and Mail

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Toronto Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews and goaltender Matt Murray celebrate after defeating the Colorado Avalanche at Ball Arena in Denver on Dec. 31, 2022.Ron Chenoy/USA TODAY Sports via Reuters

Not that it is ever good to have key players injured, but the Maple Leafs may have caught a break with Auston Matthews and Matt Murray.

With the NHL’s all-star weekend just ahead, both will have more time to nurse what ails them while also possibly missing less action.

Matthews suffered a knee sprain in an overtime victory against the New York Rangers on Jan. 25 and the team’s star centre is expected to be sidelined at least three weeks. It will cause him to miss Saturday’s all-star spectacle in Sunrise, Fla.

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Murray, who had already surrendered the starting job in Toronto’s net to Ilya Samsonov, is now plagued by an ankle affliction and it is anybody’s guess when he will return.

The 28-year-old, whose acquisition was seen as risky owing to his history of injuries, has already missed more than a month with an adductor strain. He has not played 40 games in a season since 2018-19.

“There’s something there that’s going to require time for sure,” Sheldon Keefe, the Maple Leafs’ head coach, said. “We won’t quite know, really, until we come back from the break.”

Toronto has a contest against Boston at Scotiabank Arena on Wednesday before its eight-day recess begins. Its next game after that will be at Columbus on Feb. 10.

Despite a lengthy list of injuries, the Maple Leafs have done well over the first two-thirds of the season. They are 31-12-8, second in the NHL’s Atlantic Division and a shoe-in to reach the playoffs even if 11 points behind the Bruins.

Boston is an almost incomprehensible 38-7-5 but arrives in town with three consecutive losses. A win will boost the Maple Leafs’ faint hopes of catching up.

“You want to go into the break feeling good,” Keefe said Monday after a team meeting and an optional workout for players at the Ford Performance Centre. “We expect a tough game for sure.

“Our job is to keep pace and apply pressure a little more, just like the teams behind us are trying to do to us. It is a great way to go into the all-star break. There is a lot of excitement.”

After an uninspired effort in a loss to Ottawa on Friday, Toronto rebounded to dismantle the Washington Capitals 5-1 on Sunday.

John Tavares recorded two assists in the 1,000th game of his NHL career, Morgan Rielly scored for the first time this campaign and Samsonov recorded 23 saves as he ran his record on home ice to 15-1-1.

“We played today more for John,” Samsonov said after improving his record to 17-5-2 overall. He did not realize Tavares was about to reach a milestone until a pre-game ceremony.

“One thousand games,” Samonov said, pausing, “That’s amazing.”

Rielly, who is respected as an offensively skilled defenceman, had gone without a goal in 35 previous games this season. In the best year of his career, he had 20 goals.

“Mostly, I just feel relief,” Rielly said. “We wanted to respond after a bad game against Ottawa. We weren’t very proud of ourselves when we went home from here on Friday.”

Joseph Woll, who is 12-1 with a .928 save percentage for the Toronto Marlies, has been called up from the American Hockey League as Samsonov’s backup.

With any luck at all, Woll will not be pressed to play thanks to the upcoming prolonged break.

But first the Bruins come to town.

“Every game against Boston is special,” Alexander Kerfoot, the Maple Leafs’ forward, said.

William Nylander had an assist on Sunday and on Monday was named the league’s second star of the week. He leads Toronto with 28 goals and is tied with Mitch Marner for the team lead with 59 points.

“We are just trying to carve our way back to Boston,” Nylander said. “We have to keeping winning games and see what happens.

“The Bruins are on an incredible pace and will be hard to catch but we are going to try our best to do that.”

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Cult figure Bobby Hull was a hockey wild man in a bygone NHL era – The Globe and Mail

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Chicago Blackhawks legend Bobby Hull is introduced to fans during a convention in Chicago on July 26, 2019.Amr Alfiky/The Associated Press

Before Bobby Hull showed up, the NHL was long on workmanlike effort and short on rock ’n’ roll erraticism. Now that he’s gone, it’s returned to its former state.

But for a while there, Hull played hockey the way Led Zeppelin played arenas – the most interesting stories didn’t happen in public view, and few of them were the sort you’d want to hear in decent company.

One of the great pure goal scorers in the game’s history and its most notable off-season farmer, Hull bridged the gap between the NHL’s working-class roots and its jet-set aspirations. His career was full of ‘what ifs’ – what if he’d stayed in the NHL past his early 30s?; what if he’d been allowed to play in the Summit Series? The best testament to Hull’s athletic greatness was that despite often working against his own best interests, he still managed to be remembered as great.

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Hull, 84, died on Monday.

Like many of his contemporaries, Hull was the sort they grew big on the farm. Born in rural Ontario, he came up through the provincial ranks and joined the Chicago Black Hawks in 1957. He was only 18, but already fully formed as a player.

In a league full of big, tough men, Hull was bigger and tougher, but also remarkably skilled. His slap shot is still remembered as a weapon of NHL mass destruction.

Teammate Glenn Hall once said of it: “The idea was not to stop that thing, but to avoid getting killed.”

Defending Hull was a special challenge because he didn’t have to find a way around you. He could just go through you.

He remains the only hockey player who is more recognizable with a pitchfork in his hands, bailing hay, than he was in uniform on the ice. Up until the chemists got involved, Hull may have had the most imposing physique in sports history. He put it to brutal use on the ice.

He was the first player to score more than 50 goals in a campaign. He scored more points than anyone ever had in a season. He won a single Stanley Cup, giving him access to the best-ever conversation.

In a two-fisted league, Hull and his Chicago teammates played a particularly exuberant brand of hockey. It made them famous outside the game’s usual strongholds.

Like a lot of other famous people in the sixties, Hull took full advantage of the social perks.

I spent an hour with him in a hotel room a decade ago. He was releasing a book and in high spirits, clearly enjoying the attention. But there was a hook of resentment in every story he told.

“We had guys who liked to have fun. But when they dropped the puck at 7:30, we played guilty,” Hull said. I remember him titled forward, waving his hands around. They were enormous.

Guilty?

“We used to say to each other, ‘C’mon, guys. We were pissed up last night. So now we gotta play guilty.’ And there are a lot of guys who don’t understand that – these coaches, I mean. Don’t bother us, cause we’re the guys who know how to play. I never listened to a coach in my life.”

This sort of approach worked for Hull, until it didn’t.

When he publicly mused that he would consider leaving the NHL to join the upstart World Hockey Association for a million dollars – a ridiculous amount at the time – guess what? They gave him a million dollars. That was 1972.

Having got what he wanted, Hull found out it wasn’t what he needed. Once the biggest deal in the biggest league, Hull became the richest guy in an outfit no one cared about.

He continued to score goals in the WHA through the seventies, but his star dimmed. His turncoat status meant he wasn’t invited to join Team Canada for the Summit Series. Just like that, Hull was cut out of Canadian history.

Eventually, he’d find his way back to the national team and the NHL, but the damage had been done. Hull became a cautionary tale about valuing the wrong things.

Post-career, shorn of the protection that teams and the journalists who cover them offer to active stars, Hull went from colourful to objectionable. In the late nineties, it was reported that Hull had given an interview to an English-language Russian newspaper in which he praised Hitler and denigrated Black people.

Once back home, Hull denied it all. The paper stuck to its version of the story and the issue was left unresolved. Whatever the truth of it, Hull was pushed down to the second tier of NHL legends. He still worked the autograph circuit, but no one was anxious to have him make appearances on behalf of the game.

Hull leaned into his reputation as a hockey wild man rather than a legend of the sport. By that point, he was most familiar to contemporary fans as the father of Brett Hull. That seemed to bother him as well.

Where does Hull figure in the pantheon? As a cult figure.

The NHL’s golden age is chock-a-block with team-first guys who played the game the right way – Howe, Beliveau, Richard, Orr, et al. The hard thing is finding a guy in there that anyone had a bad word to say about.

Hull was the wild card in that pack. He played like a virtuoso and lived like a roadie. He made terrible decisions, but kept emerging from them, diminished but intact. He was hockey’s fallen star, and one who kept falling.

It doesn’t make him heroic, but it does make him interesting.

That time I met him he was going through his own book, looking at pictures of himself and pointing out the other people in them.

“He’s dead. He’s dead. He’s dead,” Hull said, quiet and contemplative for the first time that afternoon. “I hate it when I’m the only one alive in these things.”

Now he’s gone, and an era with him. If it can be said that the NHL had a wild, uncontrollable period in its adolescence, Hull embodied it. Then, like a lot of precocious teens, he never quite get over it.

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Canucks left searching for off-ice leadership in wake of Horvat trade – Sportsnet.ca

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