Hockey

vs.

RECORDS: Hawks 22-20-6   Maple Leafs 25-16-7

PUCK DROP: 6pm

TV: NBCSN Chicago, NHL Network

ALL DAY: Pension Plan Puppets 

We’ve been doing this all season. The Hawks string together two or three wins, generally over bad teams, and look good in at least one of them, and a part of you wants to believe that something has clicked and just might go on a run to make the season interesting. They’re only four points out of a playoff spot, with only one team between them and that last wildcard spot, and you don’t even have to squint all that hard to make a case they could make a run at it. Especially when they’re chasing the Oilers, who are more guaranteed to have their intestines fall out than the Hawks. Vancouver and Arizona could also still make a thud.

And then usually they get thwacked by a good team and we start this all over.

So that’s what feels like is about to happen tonight, as the Hawks take their three wins against the Ducks, Sens, and Habs up against a real team. And the Leafs are the fully operational annoyance that they were forecasted to be. Casting off the shackles of Mike Babcock has had the effect that Kyle Dubas would have hoped, as Sheldon Keefe has helped everyone realize their joy again. The Leafs are more threatening, more dynamic, and quite a bit more scary now that Keefe has allowed them to “try shit.”

Which shouldn’t have been all that hard. The Leafs still have perhaps the richest array of offensive talent in the league. There certainly isn’t a team that can match Matthews-Tavares down the middle at 1-2, and Alex Kerfoot has enjoyed the sweetheart spot that used to belong to Nazem Kadri. Nylander, Marner, Hyman, Johnsson, Kapanen certainly don’t lessen the threat on the wings. If they’re on song, they can put up a touchdown on you before you’ve finished your Timbo’s.

But the problems for the Leafs are still the same, and they’re exacerbated now. Both Morgan Rielly and Jake Muzzin are out for weeks with a broken foot each, and this wasn’t a great defense to begin with. It’s lead them to give Travis Dermott top pairing minutes, and use Tyson Barrie as a defensive specialist, neither of which is a path you’d choose lest your life depended on it. Keefe has at least kept Cody Ceci away from the top pairing.

And the goalie is far from sure either. The Leafs haven’t had a solid backup all season, as you saw evidenced by Michael Hutchinson KICK-ing every puck into his own net here in Chicago last time they met (get it?). But Fab Five Freddie Andersen has been bad for six weeks now, partly due to exhaustion. Also he’s Freddie Andersen, which is the definition of “just good enough to break your heart.”

For the Hawks, Brandon Saad could suit up tonight, but that’s looking like a gametime decision. Brandon Hagel could make his NHL debut after being Rockford’s leading scorer. With optional morning skates we’re guessing along with all of you. Corey Crawford will get the start, with Lehner taking the back half of the double tomorrow night at home against Winnipeg.

Once again, the Hawks have risen to at least the discussion of a playoff spot. But now they’ll be facing two teams that are either good or competing with them for that spot, and it’s a spot where they’ve generally fallen flat on their face. The Leafs aren’t invulnerable here, given the state of their defense and Andersen’s level right now. But getting into a track meet with this team almost certainly equals death, and yet the Hawks don’t have the structure generally to keep things tight. They did so for most of the game against the JV version of the Leafs in Montreal, but this is the real thing.

They were able to hilariously add on to a Leafs crisis last year in T.O, even though Duncan Keith did his best to ruin all that work. It’s a big stretch here on the weekend and then Quenneville Bowl on Tuesday. The Hawks have to put it together now, so five of six points is minimum before we even consider believing they can actually take this to the wire.

Plus, beating the Leafs is always fun.

Hockey

Certainly there’s more to Sheldon Keefe than just his work behind the bench with the Leafs. We discussed that here, though have come to learn later that some of it is no longer the case. Today we’re just here to discuss his work the past two months with the Leafs, and leave the rest for another day.

What was clear before Keefe arrived is that life under Mike Babcock was miserable for the Leafs. Auston Matthews had just about completely tuned him and the staff out, and Hockey Night In Canada had a few chronicles of him looking dejected with them on the bench. He wasn’t alone, as Babcock’s simply abusive personal style and his stifling tactics had choked the life out of Toronto. So really anyone coming in, their simple task was to make the Leafs enjoy hockey again. That doesn’t sound all that hard when you consider the talent on offer here.

Oh, and maybe not play Cody Ceci so much.

So how has Keefe done? Whatever he is actually doing, he has certainly freed up the Leafs. Before Babcock’s firing, the Leafs had a positive possession-share but were below water in expected-goals to the tune of 47.9%. That should have never happened with the arsenal the Leafs have. Keefe obviously realized this, because since he took over the Leafs’ expected goals-percentage is 54.8, third best in the league behind Vegas and Tampa, the latter of which you might have noticed have lost like one game in the past two months.

And as you might expect, the Leafs have improved their numbers by simply upping the offense. This is a team that has at least three scoring lines and should just be bludgeoning teams. Their attempts per 60 have only gone up about one per game, but their expected goals-for has gone from 2.14 under Babcock to 2.69 under Keefe. That’s a rise of 25%. Their scoring chances per 60 has risen at just about the same rate, so clearly Keefe has found a way to get the Leafs in more dangerous areas more often. Which against the quality of finishing the Leafs have, is death to most teams.

What might really rankle Babcock is the Leafs have gotten better defensively as well, though that’s probably to do with having the puck more and creating better chances. But their expected goals-against has gone down from 2.33 under Babs to 2.22 now. Offense sometimes is the best defense?

Luck of course plays a role, though Leafs followers would argue that a happier team is more prone to get the bounces, especially when they’re forcing things more as they are. The Leafs shot 7.8% under Babcock, and that’s risen to 9.6 under Keefe. The SV% has also gone up, from .909 to .916 at evens.

The power play is also clicking a little better, with 19 goals in Keefe’s 25 games after 13 in Babs’s 23, and that might be a result of letting Matthews freelance a little more on it. The motion the Leafs get is akin to when the Sharks’ PP became self-aware a few years ago. They’re also getting that kind of movement at even strength, and there are very few teams that can live with that speed when it’s allowed to go wherever it wants.

Of late, Keefe hasn’t been hesitant to shift things around. Matthews had spent most of his time earlier with William Nylander and Andreas Johnsson, and now Marner has replaced Nylander on the top line. Zach Hyman has replaced Johnsson. Considering their xGF% is 65% together, it’s clearly working.

Keefe’s big tests are yet to come. He’ll be without both Jake Muzzin and Morgan Rielly for the next few weeks as both have broken a foot (how adorbs). And of course, no one’s going to care about anything until the Leafs get past the first round. Perhaps any coach could have lightened the mood simply by not being the overrated, raging asshole that Babcock apparently was. Still, the results are the results, and the Leafs certainly are a more fun bunch to watch and be around now.

Everything Else

vs.

Game Time: 6:00PM CST
TV/Radio: NBC Sports Chicago, NHL Network, SportsNet, TVA-S, WGN-AM 720
Kyle Dubas Is An Enabler Of Sexual Assault: Pension Plan, Leafs Nation, Literally Any Hockey Publication

And now the Blackhawks’ season can officially gets under way tonight, as all hockey is invariably pulled toward the quasar star that is the Toronto Maple Leafs; a pulsating, sucking vortex of psychosis and entitlement from which no light ever escapes.

Hockey

The only team that matters. Don’t believe it, just ask them. The Leafs got Mitch Marner into the fold before the season, which was something of a minor upset. They’re going into the season with a better defense than they did last year, now a full year of Jake Muzzin, along with Tyson Barrie and Cody Ceci arriving this summer (the latter already causing hilarious furor). And yet, this collection of players still doesn’t have a playoff series win to its name. The thinking is that if they get the first a whole bunch more will follow. Problem with that is they’re still in the same division with Tampa and Boston. And we know if they don’t get past them, it’ll be a national disaster and you all have to have a week of mourning. Is this the time? Could be, but it’s no guarantee.

2018-2019

46-28-8  100 points (3rd in Atlantic, out in 1st round)

3.49 GF/G (4th)  3.04 GA/G (20th) +37 GD

51.7 CF% (8th)  51.7 xGF% (10th)

21.8 PP% (8th)  79.9 PK% (17th)

Goalies: So here’s the thing. The Leafs can dress up their changes, acquisitions, and experience gained all they want, but they’re still counting on Freddie Andersen. And Freddie Anderson is the very definition of “good enough to break your heart.” It’s what he does. It’s what he’s always done. He’s certainly more than enough to rack up points in the regular season, especially when you score a ton of goals as the Leafs do. And he wasn’t even bad in the playoffs last year, with a .922 SV% in the series against Boston. But it wasn’t enough in Game 7. It never is. That’s what happens. And the Leafs seem to think they can break through the same wall this time. They don’t have a good enough defense to shield him. They need Freddie to make the saves. It’s been a while since we’ve seen a team that just scores its way through four rounds. Freddie has yet to do it. I’m not betting on him to do it now.

Anyway, Michael Hutchinson is backing him up. There’s not enough time for all that I want… to say about him.

Defense: It’s new look, and if it doesn’t work everyone here is a free agent after the season except LGBTQ spokesman Morgan Rielly. You would think that would create some urgency, which could help. I’m bigger on Tyson Barrie than most, and provides someone who can get the puck up himself or to the forwards better than anyone they had last season save Rielly. Cody Ceci is already causing Alka-Seltzer sales to go up in Ontario, as everyone expects Mike Babcock to use him way too often. They’ll get a full season of Muzzin, who was surprisingly good last year after arriving from LA. But beyond those four it is ugly, which is probably where the Ceci fears are springing from. Martin Marincin, Justin Holl, The Other Schmaltz, Ben Harpur, you don’t want any of these idiots skating more than 10 minutes a night. Which might leave the top four exposed and exhausted by the time the games really count.

Forwards: If any unit can counteract what the defense can’t do, it’s this forward group. Everyone’s locked in now, so they don’t have that hanging over them. There’s still no team rolling out a better top six than this, with Auston Matthews, John Tavares, Mitch Marner, William Nylander, Kasperi Kapanen, and whatever other jokers you want to pair with them. Nylander should rebound after getting a full training camp and having Marner take all the recent-signee pressure off of him. They’ve lost some depth in trading Nazem Kadri for Barrie, and Kadri did a lot more for this team than people realize.

There isn’t anyone around to take up that role, and you don’t want either of Tavares or Matthews to do it. Nick Shore? Nic Petan? Those are huge steps down from Kadri, who was a shutdown center who could also score a lot. Nobody is going to replace him on either side of that ledger, and the Leafs downfall might be either having some top line go off on them in the playoffs (again) or having to use Matthews to fight fire with fire and losing his production. It’s an issue.

It’s not much different on the wings. where only Andreas Johansson looks like a useful bottom-six piece. Jason Spezza is dead. They’ll be hunting depth via trade.

Prediction: With all the pieces locked in now, one wonders how much patience they’ll have under Mike Babcock again. He’s not a soft sort to play for, and now the Leafs have made their commitments. What happens when Marner and Matthews start rolling their eyes at Babs in January or December even? That’s one iceberg they’ll have to avoid, and it might help that Babs is going to have to play his top six a ton. But if Ceci ends up being a disaster, there’s not much anyone can do about the defense.

And there’s not much Babs can do about Andersen, either. There’s more than enough talent here than make a run…and there’s enough holes to eat it in the first round to any of Tampa or Boston or any surprise like Montreal or Florida as well. Whatever it ends up being, there’ll be far more noise than is warranted.

Previous Team Previews

Carolina

Columbus

New Jersey

New York Islanders

New York Rangers

Philadelphia 

Pittsburgh

Washington

Boston

Buffalo

Detroit

Florida

Montreal

Ottawa

Tampa Bay

 

Everything Else

We’ll wrap up our free agent wishlist, and wait for the Hawks to sign players we never considered, with the biggest fish out there, unrestricted or restricted. And let’s cut the heart out of the Leafs while we’re at it. 

Mitch Marner

Height: 6-0 (not really)  Weight: 175 lb

Age: 22   Shoots: Right

2018-2019

82 games – 26 G – 68 A – 94 P – 22 PIM

52.0 CF% (+0.38 Relative)  52.8 x GF% (+1.63 Relative) 51.6 ZSR

Why The Hawks Should Sign Him

Because he’s really good. Because he might actually be a generational player. Because 22-year-olds who just racked up 94 points are generally nowhere near the market, and we can thank the Toronto media and fans for this bit of intrigue. Because he’s another torch-bearer when Toews and Kane can’t do it anymore. Because it’s a statement of intent. Because it makes it clear the last two seasons were simply unacceptable. Because it shows imagination and hutzpah. Because the Hawks might actually have to sell some tickets instead of papering their sellout streak anyway possible. Because it would certainly placate the veterans you still want to be a part of things. Because it would be exciting and suddenly your team might just be Showtime of the Central Division. I really don’t even have to sell this.

Why the Hawks Shouldn’t Sign Him

Well, that’s just as obvious, isn’t it? He ties up the cap something fierce. He doesn’t help the defense other than scoring more goals. There are questions about his appetite for getting involved in the middle of the ice when things matter most, though that’s probably drummed up by the Toronto media again to help drive his price down. He’s a touch small, but that shouldn’t be a concern at all. He doesn’t help the kill much, though he did kill penalties for the first time this season, and is someone whose speed and threat could be a real weapon on the kill. Point-men would be a little more careful with the puck knowing any slip is sending Marner the other way.

Verdict

Ok, let’s first figure out how it’s possible, because it is. Let’s just say right now it takes a seven-year, $77M offer. It might even be more, but let’s go with the $11M figure for now. The Hawks have just over that in space, so signing Marner to that leaves no room for Perlini and Kampf. Well, actually it does, because you can be 10% over until opening night.

So for the 185th time, get Anisimov off this roster. You just drafted his replacement anyway, and said replacement should probably be playing, and if Dach really isn’t up for it this season guess what? Marner can play center too. It’s not ideal, but you can do it. So there’s $2-4M in space depending on what you have to take back to get Arty’s beleaguered ass out of town. That probably gets you through this season, though your defense is still a goddamn mess. But we’ve pretty much already acquiesced to that being the case.

BUT WHAT ABOUT STROME AND TOP CAT HOW ARE WE GOING TO PAY THEM?! That’s been the squeal from the front office itself for about six months now. First, pump the brakes on Strome for a hot minute. This time last year the Hawks were telling everyone that they had to reserve space to throw $6-7M a year at Nick Schmaltz. He’s on a trainer’s table in Glendale now. Strome gave you a good 50 games. So did Schmaltz. Let’s just say he’s got more to prove.

Still, you’ll obviously need more than $6M in space or so that moving Arty along will give you, plus the minuscule bump the cap will get. It’s the season after that when the new US TV deal will kick in and the cap will get a noticeable bump, so we’ve got some work to do.

Let’s attack another way. The Hawks currently have $23M open for next year. $11M to Marner brings that down to $12M, but a punting of Arty makes it somewhere between $14-$16. If everything goes well this year, DeBrincat and Strome eat that up, and you also haven’t re-signed Crawford yet. But, one or two of Murphy, de Haan, or Maatta probably have to go because they all do the same thing and by 2020 Adam Boqvist and Ian Mitchell had better be in the lineup or everyone’s fired. You’re probably selling Brandon Saad too unless he does something pretty goofy this season. After that the US TV deal kicks in and you have more room and fucking figure it out.

As for the draft picks? Who gives a shit? You’re not going to have a top three pick again, and you supposedly just got your #1 center of the future. You clearly think you have enough young d-men to make up for the fact that none of them are a true #1, but it may be that you don’t need that anymore. You can find players at #18 or #25 or wherever the Hawks plan on finishing, but you can find players anywhere too. Maybe you convince the Leafs to send one of the #1s back to you for Gustafsson or something. Or you get another #1 for him at the deadline when he’s goofing another 60 points off the power play but Jokiharju and Boqvist are ready to go and hey maybe Denver is done early and Mitchell is too. Whatever, how long do you want to be in the wilderness?

Basically, it doesn’t make any sense but it can be figured out. Fortune favors the brave. Let’s get nuts.

Everything Else

vs.

RECORDS: Hawks 30-30-9   42-22-5

PUCK DROP: 6pm

TV: NBCSN

THE ABYSS: Pension Plan Puppets 

During the Hawks first “streak,” it was obvious they were benefitting from a softening of the schedule. Even when they played barely real teams, they were simply outclassed. We don’t know if this is a new “streak” yet, three in a row hardly constitutes that, but whatever it is is unlikely to continue tonight. The Hawks are playing one of the few REAL-ASS teams in the league, and we know how that’s gone. And they’re facing one that’s probably going to have an edge/snarl to it.

The Leafs had something of a “test” on Monday, and they got absolutely horsed by the Lightning at home, 6-2. If they had won that game or even been close, you might be hopeful of catching them with their focus elsewhere. Probably no such luck tonight. Maybe if the Bruins had beaten the Jackets last night and moved six points ahead of the Leafs, they would have decided there’s nothing left to play for and would have spent the last 13 games looking at their watch. But with a four-point gap and a game in hand, the Leafs can reasonably think that home-ice is still on the table and worth chasing (which is debatable). So the combination of frustration and motivation should have the Leafs antennae up, which is hardly good news.

There’s also the small matter of Morgan Rielly, which shouldn’t matter but will in the sense that he will get a standing ovation from the frothing, rich aristocracy that fills the Whatever It’s Fucking Called Now Center, because…he might…not have…used a homophobic slur? They won’t know why, they’ll just clap like the trained seals all fans become in situations like this. Either way, he and the Leafs will be happy to have a game to play to distract from whatever the last two days were. All of this does not add up to a pleasant night for the Hawks.

And even without all that, this is a team so far beyond the Hawks you wouldn’t want to drive it. In games against the league’s penthouse residents, the Hawks have generally been embarrassed. The Lightning have dribbled their head like a basketball twice. So have the Sharks. The Jets took them seriously for like a combined 12 minutes and got three wins out of it. They were with the Bruins in South Bend when the Bs were in their worst stretch, and then nowhere close in Boston. They’re 0-3 against the Flames. It’s not an enviable record.

And though they may finish third in their division. and though their media and fans refuse to shut up about anything, this is still an unholy offensive force. John Tavares has 76 points, and he’s the second center. There are three lines here better than the Hawks can muster with one, and when they get rolling no one can live with it (except Tampa, apparently). The Hawks were able to put up six on this team in the home opener because they got a look at Garret Sparks. They’ll find no such refuge here. The Leafs will want a recovery from Monday, which means Andersen, who’s been one of the better goalies in the league.

If the Leafs have a weakness it’s a defense that still is short, even with Jake Muzzin, but you have to get the puck first which is the real trick. Sure, if the Hawks can get DeBrincat or Kane or Saad or Toews bearing down on Hainsey or Zaitsev or whoever they might find some joy, but getting to those spots takes more than a smile. It’s also a beat-up blue line as both Gardiner and Dermott are out.

For the Hawks, shouldn’t be too many changes. Crawford will start, and the lines should look the same (go pound, John Hayden). The expectations for this one should be nil. If the Hawks can get a win in Montreal against a Canadiens team fighting it, this trip will be a success. After that, it’s the Canucks, Flyers, and a home-and-home with the Avs. Basically it would be set for the Hawks to perform one last death rattle if they get out of Canada alive.

And if not, they are who we through they were anyway.

 

Game #70 Preview Suite

Preview

Spotlight

Douchebag Du Jour

I Make A Lot Of Graphs

Lineups & How Teams Were Built

Everything Else

 vs. 

SCHEDULE: Game 1 Thursday, Game 2 Saturday, Game 3 April 16th, Game 4 April 19th

We all know the format for the NHL playoffs is pretty stupid. In fact the NHL playoffs, if you really think about it, are kind of stupid. We just played an 82-game regular season to figure out who the best teams are, and now we’re going to subject them to the vagaries of luck and injury in a two-month battle royal that doesn’t really give us the best team, just the hottest one. But let’s leave that and say the divisional system as constructed is a problem. So when fans and media say it’s not fair that two of the seven best teams in the league have to face each other in the first round, they’re not exactly wrong.

But because it’s Toronto and Boston, I don’t give a flying fuck. Fuck ’em.

Let’s break it down.

Goalies: There can’t be a worse person to be than the Leafs goalie in the playoffs. No one is watched by more and more closely. And really, Freddie Andersen has always been just good enough to break your heart. He was excellent two years ago in the first round against Nashville, but only played five games. His three other campaigns in the playoffs have not been impressive, though some were effected by Bruce Boudreau’s treating his goalies like they were foosball players. Really, Andersen had the same season this year that he did last year, and he was fine against the Caps. But fine wasn’t enough then, and fine probably isn’t going to be enough against the Bruins. He is capable of more, we’ve just rarely seen it.

If we wrote this a couple months ago, we’d say the Bruins have a big advantage here. But Tuuke Nuke ’em has only been ok since the end of February and was horrific in three April starts. However his playoff pedigree is far ahead of Andersen’s, and he wasn’t the problem against the Senators last year. So it’s whether we go with his current form, which is basically “meh,” or what he’s done in the playoffs before which is much more. Still, I would expect Tuukka to be slightly better than Freddie at worst.

Defense: It’s kind of a measure of the firepower of the Toronto forwards that they amassed as many points as they did with this blue line. It’s still not very good, even if they figured out that Travis Dermott was a neat toy to have every night. It’s not that Jake Gardiner or The Mike Rielly Assassination or Rod Hainsey are bad… it’s just that you’d struggle to think of them as top pairing guys. They’ve been fascinated with Nikita Zaitsev for a couple seasons and yet no one’s quite explained what it is he does. Roman Polak is a circus bear. Even with the Bruins banged up whoever they throw out against Bergeron and Marchand and Pastrnak you’d have to give the B’s the advantage. And if you don’t keep a top line from scoring in a series, you’re kind of fucked.

The Bs will be without Brandon Carlo, as his ankle went Gumby, but they did get the moon-faced mouth-breather Charlie McAvoy back which is more important. He’s reinvigorated Zdeno Chara to a new contract, and he’s one of the bigger reasons that the Bruins were so good this year. Torey Krug as a bum-slayer is what you’d want, and Kevan Miller is better than I think even though his first name is stupid. Adam McQuaid has a big, dumb face and a big, dumb game but thanks to McAvoy the Bs have a top pairing where the Leafs don’t.

Forwards: Whatever arguments you might have with their defense, the only team that can even claim to have the Leafs’ top nine right now is Winnipeg. When JVR and Tyler Bozak are on your third line, you are the envy of pretty much the whole league. Which means the Leafs can get at Krug in his own end and McQuaid anywhere through Kadri and Marleau and Marner and even Plekanec on the 4th line. The depth is scary and the Leafs’ best hope. It’s also a ton of speed the Bs are going to ask Chara to deal with, and he don’t got none no more.

The Bruins will start this series without both Nashes, Riley and Rick. Though missing Rick in the playoffs really isn’t a big deal. Without them though, this starts to look a little one line-ish. It’s a hell of a line, with Pastrnak-Bergeron-Marchand, but they’ll need more. Krejci and Backes on the second isn’t the worst you could do, but comparing it to the Leafs and you see the problem. Donato and Heinen are kids farther down the lineup that could be weapons, especially against the iffy Leafs defense. But the Bs will need some people to return before too long. And Babcock is going to play Komarov 25 minutes anyway. The other thing to note is that since 2011, Brad Marchand has been a playoff dog, and if that continues this definitely tips to the Leafs.

Prediction: I want to pick the Leafs, I really do. Their forward depth is going to be hard to deal with. But I don’t trust their blue line or Andersen to keep the Bs top line off the scoresheet, and the important players on the Bs have all done this before. Unless Marchand pulls his Copperfield act in the spring again, the Bs seem too much. It’s going to take a while, though. Bruins in 7. 

Everything Else

We can’t give you his name, as he’s shrouded in secrecy. He used to run PensionPlanPuppets, but now he just sits in a dark room plotting his revenge. You can follow him @MLSE, if you dare. 

We’ll start with simple stuff: Just what the hell is going on with this team? 
They’re doing better than last year somehow (better goal differential and more points through the same number of points) but most fans aren’t happy with how they’ve done it. Last year’s team was a swashbuckling team of kids that played with no fear. This year’s team is now a chip and chase team that is more focused on stopping the other team than in trying to force the game on their terms.
Is Mike Babcock, in fact, not a genius?
Babcock is an incredible coach. He does, however, have a few blind spots that we knew from his time in Detroit. Mainly, it’s that he favours (don’t you dare “fix” my Canadian spelling) veterans over youth and he has a clear idea of how he wants different aspect of his team to be built (muckers on the fourth line, defencemen with cement-filled skates that can absorb shots on the PK). Randy Carlyle was a little similar in that regard but obviously with a lot less ability (his own and the team’s). It does look like Babcock is starting to come around. Travis Dermott finally got a shot, Matt Martin may finally be a scratch, and Leo Komarov will be on the fourth line instead of dragging down Marleau and Kadri. Of course, that’s just for road games because Babcock doesn’t have last change. And it’s that need to control every aspect of the game that I think is his biggest issue.
What are the Leafs going to do at the deadline? We have to believe a d-man is on the list, no?
It’s been on the list for the last 12 years! If they could add a top pairing defenceman that pushes everyone down one spot on the depth chart (and gets Polak in the press box for good) then the defence suddenly becomes a pretty good group. If you can give Rielly better support and then have Gardiner/Zaitsev/Hainsey facing second tier competition and Carrick/Dermott eating up the rest then you have good skaters and puck movers on every line which is what this team needs to get back to being a fast, skilled team.
Name Kadri was a 30-goal scorer with 61 points and impressive metrics last year. All have dropped. What’s going on here?
Same thing that sewered the year before last: luck. You can split his season in two and you’ll see that the second half has seen him produce more shots but his shooting percentage plummet. His line has been struggling in terms of carrying the play compared to his career. Part of that is that I don’t think Komarov can face the toughs anymore and I’m not sold on Marleau being able to either (despite being a good addition). If Babcock trusted the Matthews line more at home then I think you’d see Kadri’s struggles turn around really quickly. Plus, in the last two games he’s made amazing passes to Marleau for goals that have been miraculously saved. It’s been that kind of stretch for him.
Is it time for Leafs fans to crack each other’s skull open and feast on the goo inside? Or is this kind of just a midseason lull and they’ll give Tampa everything they can handle in the playoffs?
It will always be skull cracking time with Leafs fans but that has nothing to do with how the team is doing so much as the feeling you get from talking to them. I think that the Leafs could possibly be having some come to Jesus moments that will bear fruit in the long term and they’re lucky enough to be in a division that is a total mess so there’s no pressure other than knowing they’ll face one of the two top teams in the NHL in the first round. I think that best case scenario, barring any big trades, is like last year: a gallant effort, some excitement, and a 5/6 game series loss to Tampa or Boston. After last year we’d all hoped for more but I don’t see much that gives me hope for more unless Babcock really starts changing how he dresses the team and Lou and Co. can get them a bit more help. But no big deal, these teams of young (looks at LA) studs (looks at Pittsburgh) always (looks at Chicago) eventually come good, right? (Looks at Edmonton, barfs)

 

Game #48 Preview

Preview

Spotlight

Q&A

Douchebag Du Jour

I Make A Lot Of Graphs

Lineups & How Teams Were Built

Everything Else

One of the things we’ve lamented most over our entire time doing this, and in a connected fashion probably one of the reasons for our “success,” is how inaccessible hockey coaches and media make information that might teach others the game. Getting any sort of useful nuggets of insight from a coach or player is akin to finding a good dentist in Atlantis. They just don’t give it to you. Most of the time I’ll give the players a pass, as stringing together sentences is enough of a challenge and they’re most assuredly following orders.

We all know why. Everyone takes their cues from football coaches, whom these days are taking their cues from Bill Belichick. But there was a holier than thou quality to football coaches long before Belichik turned it into something of an art, and this shit didn’t really fly when he was coaching the Browns. And even in football, it’s a little silly.

I’m struggling to find the video, but there was another perfect and infuriating example on HNIC’s pregame show on Saturday, which was setting up the Capitals-Leafs game that night. Both Mike Babcock and Barry Trotz were facing mini-controversies in how they sent out their forwards. Babcock has long refused to pair up Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews, even though they’ve been a fist in the face of God when he has. Trotz had split up Niklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin of late in a bid to juice scoring through more of the lineup.

The pregame show played clips of pressers each had earlier in the week. The clip of Babcock showed him responding to a question from some member of Toronto media person about the Matthews-Marner axis with, “When you coach the team you can set it up however you want. When I coach it I’ll do what I want.”

The clip of Trotz that followed wasn’t much better. When asked about Backstrom and Ovie–and by a female reporter but I’ll save that raised eyebrow for another time–Trotz’s response was, “Because I felt like it.” And he repeated that when pressed, and good on her for asking a follow-up, which seems to be a lost art these days.

What’s frustrating about these things is that no one was asking about specific game strategy. It’s not like we wanted Babcock to tell us how they were going to attack the Caps when John Carlson was on the ice that night. It’s like almost every coach doesn’t know that their team is being scouted by every other team in the league. If Babs feels that Marner and Matthews are too weak defensively to be playing together, you can be sure every other team knows that already. If Babs thinks that Marner needs the puck too much to be effective and Matthews hasn’t quite learned how to play without the puck totally effectively yet, or something like that, what’s the cost in telling your fans that? Sure, it doesn’t cost Babcock anything to keep his fans in the dark and questioning as long as the wins pile up. But it doesn’t cost him anything to not do so either.

And of course, I can totally understand the urge to tell the Toronto media to find something to spin on. We all do.

We face the same thing here in Chicago. Things are rosy for the moment, especially in the glow of Top Cat’s hat trick last night against several wildebeests masquerading as Anaheim Ducks. And if your next questions is, “Where would wildebeests get Anaheim Ducks unis?” believe me I’m right there with you. Still, A.D.B has shown he already has NHL top six skills, and yet he isn’t playing there. He fashioned a goal with his line last night, but the other two goals were when he was out there between line changes and got to run with Schmaltz and Kane. And this has kind of been the story all season.

At this point, we know Schmaltz is in the wing spot Top Cat would take in the top six because the Hawks want him to shoot more, and maybe give him a touch more space for his vision. Maybe they also don’t feel DeBrincat is ready for tougher competition. Maybe they don’t think Schmaltz has the strength or determination down low in his own zone yet to play in the middle.

But have we heard Q say any of this? None of this would be news to his opponents. They have scouts and those scouts have eyes. We’re basically guessing at what the reasons are. I’m pretty confident that the Predators know that for tonight Schmaltz is more likely to pass than shoot when in a given spot, no matter what Quenneville gives us or doesn’t.

While it’s pointless to continue to point to the NBA as comparison, one of the things serious NBA fans love about that league is that coaches give their press something. They’ll tell you if a guys spreads the floor from the four or they like his defense on the wing from the bench or whatever else. They’re not going to give you specific sets they’re going to run ahead of time but they’ll tell you why they did something in the past. You can learn something and watch your team differently.

Again, it doesn’t cost hockey teams anything to be run like this. We’ll still watch. It’s just annoying that they think they’re guarding government secrets. It might make for a more enjoyable time for everyone.

Everything Else

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Jeff Veillette and Steve Glynn Are Terrifying: Pension Plan

Sure, the Hawks have improbably vaulted themselves into basically a game and a half lead in the central as they close out their eastern Canadian swing tonight in the Dark Center Of The Universe that is Toronto, but they haven’t done it the right way. They take on too many shots, even though that’s a result of having leads, they capitalize on power plays, and they do so while paying players more than their entry level contract. All of these things are instantly disqualifiers for actual success, which is truly indicated by how much cap space a team has at the end of the year, thrown into a pivot chart against their possession stats and 5v5 goal differential, along with some other stupid fucking stats Steve Burtch made up in a craven, desperate, and pathetic attempt to get hired. And naturally, the Leafs are succeeding by all of those measures, and all the good stuff is because of Kyle Dubas (who shielded sex criminal players on the junior team he was GM for), and all the bad stuff is because of Lou Lamoriello. This is how Maple Leafs hockey works.