NHL Last Lap: Hainsey, Hamhuis and Perry Worthy of Recognition
Following the Leafs 6-2 loss last Monday to the league-leading Tampa Bay Lightning, Dave Feschuk of the Toronto Star reported they had a record of 7-14-1 against this season’s top-10 defensive clubs.
That loss to the Lightning occurred during a week where the Leafs dropped three of four games while giving 23 goals. Two of those losses came to non-contenders, one of whom (Ottawa Senators) is the worst team in the league.
In the upcoming Stanley Cup playoffs, the Leafs will likely face the Bruins – one of those top-10 defensive clubs – in the opening round. They eliminated Toronto from the opening round of last year’s postseason and beat them in three of four matchups this season.
Yes, the Leafs are a better club than they were a year ago. So are the Bruins.
Even if the Leafs defeat the Bruins, their next opponent will likely be the powerhouse Lightning, another of those top-10 defensive teams.
That doesn’t bode well for Toronto’s chances of ending their 52-year Stanley Cup drought.
To be fair, the flu has reportedly ravaged the Leafs’ lineup of late, which would explain in part their sub-par performances last week. Having regular defensemen Jake Gardiner and Travis Dermott on the sidelines also doesn’t help their blueline depth.
Gardiner is often unappreciated by Leafs fans, who made him the scapegoat for last spring’s Game 7 playoff meltdown against Boston. While his defensive play can be questionable, there’s no doubt they miss his puck-moving abilities right now.
A month before the trade deadline, the Leafs acquired Jake Muzzin from the Los Angeles Kings. While he provides experienced depth and skill on the left side, he cannot fix that yawning lack of depth on the right side, currently patrolled by Ron Hainsey, Nikita Zaitsev, and Igor Ozhiganov or Justin Holl.
Hainsey, 37, is a dependable veteran blueliner. At this stage in his career, however, he shouldn’t be logging top-pairing minutes. That’s as true now as it was a year ago.
Zaitsev remains defensively suspect. Hockey Night in Canada’s Don Cherry considers him a forward masquerading as a defenseman. Ozhiganov is a 26-year-old Russian rookie who’s never skated in the Stanley Cup playoffs before. Holl, 27, is a minor-leaguer with all of eight NHL games under his belt.
Ah, but anything can happen in the playoffs and upsets can happen, right?
Sometimes, yes. Usually, no.
Expecting the Leafs’ overmatched right-side defenders to magically overcome their weaknesses through the grueling four-series, two-month slog that is the Stanley Cup playoffs is a recipe for disappointment.
But the goaltending of Frederik Andersen will bail them out, just like he’s done all year long, right?
Andersen’s a terrific goaltender but he’s also among the league’s busiest this season. That was also the case in 2017-18, and when the playoffs rolled around, Andersen seemed to have little left in the tank. He gave up 23 goals in seven games, including five in the opening game against the Bruins and six in the final one.
Yes, Andersen could bail them out, but he’ll have to elevate his game to previously unknown heights to offset his porous blueline.
This is a problem that stretches back to last season, one that’s gone largely unaddressed and will remain so until after the playoffs.
Even then, they probably won’t have the salary-cap space to give the problem the attention it deserves. Not when leading scorer Mitch Marner is due to receive a hefty raise, while restricted free agent forwards Kasperi Kapanen and Andreas Johnsson will also seek a bump in pay.
Hainsey and Gardiner could also depart this summer via unrestricted free agency. General manager Kyle Dubas will have to get creative to re-sign or replace those two.
That could mean trading one of their high-salaried forwards not named Matthews, Marner or John Tavares. Yes, Dubas said he wouldn’t trade William Nylander as long as he was in charge, but he wouldn’t be the first GM in NHL history to change his mind about one of his supposed untouchables.
The lack of quality defense, especially on the right side of their blueline, derailed the Leafs in last year’s playoffs. Barring a Conn Smythe Trophy effort by Andersen, it’ll do so again this season.
And unless they can find a way to free up sufficient salary-cap room to bolster their right side this summer, it’ll derail them next year, too.
Canucks defeat Blackhawks plus the latest on Jonathan Quick, Henrik Lundqvist, Sebastian Aho and more in your NHL morning coffee headlines.
NHL.COM: Jake Virtanen had his first two-goal NHL game to lead the Vancouver Canucks to a 4-2 victory over the Chicago Blackhawks. Canucks forward Brendan Gaunce had a goal and an assist. Blackhawks star Patrick Kane missed the game due to illness.
LOS ANGELES TIMES: Kings goaltender Jonathan Quick is sidelined indefinitely following surgery yesterday to repair a torn meniscus. Recovery time is typically between three-to-six weeks.
SPECTOR’S NOTE: I’ll have more on the Kings later this morning in the Rumors section.
NEW YORK POST: Long-time Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist insists he’s committed to the club’s rebuilding plans.
SPECTOR’S NOTE: In other words, he’s not going to ask for a trade to a playoff contender so quit bugging him about it.
THE SCORE: The Nashville Predators activated goaltender Pekka Rinne (undisclosed ailment) off injured reserve yesterday.
THE NEWS & OBSERVER: Carolina Hurricanes general manager Don Waddell said he believes a new contract for rising star Sebastian Aho can be completed before season’s end. Both sides are seeking a long-term deal and Waddell said they’re not that far part regarding the money.
SPECTOR’S NOTE: Aho is in the final season of his entry-level contract and has steadily improved in his brief NHL career. He had 49 points as a rookie, 65 as a sophomore (and was their leading scorer last season) and is on pace (17 points in 12 games) for 116 points this season. He might not finish with 100 points but it’s safe to assume (barring injury) he could reach 80.
Aho is the real deal, the biggest star the Hurricanes have had since Eric Staal was in his playing prime. He could get between $8.5 million and $10 million annually. If the Hurricanes can get him for less than $8 million per it’ll be a bargain.
TORONTO SUN: Maple Leafs defenseman Ron Hainsey will play in his 1,000th career NHL game when the Leafs face off against the Dallas Stars.
SPORTSNET: Montreal Canadiens forward Paul Byron (lower-body injury) is questionable for tonight’s game against the Washington Capitals.
OTTAWA SUN: The Senators placed goaltender Mike Condon on waivers.
CBS SPORTS: Philadelphia Flyers forward Corban Knight (broken collarbone) is expected to be sidelined four months.
The Anaheim Ducks sent forward Sam Steel to their AHL affiliate.
AWFUL ANNOUNCING: The NHL is shifting more weekend games to afternoons to attract more European fans. The league “has changed the start time of nearly 50 games this season for the purpose of broadcasting games in prime time across the European continent.”
Entering the 2018-19 NHL season, a number of Toronto Maple Leafs followers believe their team can win with their current defense corps.
That was part of the headline of a recent column by the Toronto Sun’s Steve Simmons. He points to the last two Stanley Cup champions, the 2017 Pittsburgh Penguins and the 2018 Washington Capitals, doing so with bluelines he considered not much better than the one currently this season iced by the Leafs.
Simmons observed how the game is changing. He cites Leafs defenseman Ron Hainsey pointing out there’s no one standing in front of the net crosschecking opponents anymore. Hainsey also notes the Leafs have two 50-point rearguards in Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner. Simmons indicates first-pass ability is the big play for today’s defensemen.
All of these points are valid. The game certainly has evolved from the not-so-distant past when the emphasis was on size and strength over speed and puck-moving skills and when uncalled obstruction masqueraded as defensive hockey.
And yet, legitimate concerns remain over this season’s version of the Leafs defense.
Before getting to those, it’s worth recalling the Penguins’ 2017 defense corps was actually much deeper than that of today’s Leafs. That’s why they successfully overcame the absence of top rearguard Kris Letang (neck injury) throughout that postseason. It’s difficult to imagine the Leafs coping well in a similar circumstance without Rielly.
The Capitals, meanwhile, had John Carlson, who was last season’s leading scorer among blueliners throughout the regular season and the playoffs. With all due respect to Rielly, he’s not yet in the same class as Carlson.
It’s also worth remembering the Penguins and Capitals had world-class goaltending during their respective Cup runs. Marc-Andre Fleury and Matt Murray split the duties for the Pens while 2016 Vezina Trophy winner Braden Holtby regained his stellar form last spring following a so-so regular season.
Leafs netminder Frederik Andersen is a significant upgrade over those who guarded the crease for Toronto in recent years. Simmons pointed out the Leafs had the 12th-fewest goals-allowed last season while the Capitals were 16th overall.
However, that overlooks the fact Holtby had an off-year and was frequently spelled off by Philipp Grubauer. He also indicated the 2017 Penguins were 17th, but that was due to Fleury having an inconsistent regular season while Murray was hampered by injuries. When the playoffs began, those netminders significantly stepped up their play.
Andersen is a good goaltender but he’s yet to prove himself on the same level as Fleury, Murray and Holtby. With the defense in front him, he must elevate his play if the Leafs hope to march to Stanley Cup glory next spring.
The Leafs defense corps of last season remains largely intact for 2018-19. Rielly and Hainsey form the top pairing, Gardiner and Nikita Zaitsev the second pairing with Travis Dermott as part of the third pairing.
This is the group that gave up the fourth-highest shots-against per game (33.9) last season and the third-most (35.0) in the 2018 playoffs. This is the same bunch that suffering three blowout defeats to the Boston Bruins on route to getting bounced in the opening round in seven games last spring.
Rielly should continue to improve but the 37-year-old Hainsey reached his ceiling a long time ago. Gardiner is fine offensively but his defensive play can sometimes leave much to be desired. Zaitsev showed promise as an NHL rookie two years ago but struggled through injury and inconsistency last season. Dermott shows promise but it remains to be seen if he’ll blossom into a solid top-four d-man.
As things stand right now, this doesn’t look like a blueline that can shut down talented Eastern Conference rivals like the Tampa Bay Lightning, Pittsburgh Penguins, Washington Capitals, Boston Bruins or a rising team like the Florida Panthers in the postseason. If they can actually advance to the Stanley Cup Final, a powerhouse like the Nashville Predators or Winnipeg Jets could be waiting for them.
Sure, anything can happen in the playoffs. But the Leafs will need Andersen to play at a higher level he’s never before displayed and his blueliners must all have career years to even have a chance against those aforementioned opponents in a seven-game series. Either that, or they’ll have to win a lot of high-scoring run-and-gun games. Or maybe most of those opponents will be upset before the Leafs face them in the playoffs.
I’m sure there are sensitive Leafs fans who won’t brook any criticism of their beloved club. They’ll probably read this and write me off as a hater. Rest assured, I’m nothing of the sort. The Leafs might not be my favorite team but I’d love to see them finally end that 52-years-and-counting Stanley Cup drought.
Maybe the Leafs will prove me wrong. Maybe, as Simmons believes, this is a defense that can win.
Maybe it will, but I’ll have to see it to believe it.
Game recaps plus the latest on Phil Kessel, Tuukka Rask, Jonathan Drouin, Connor Hellebuyck and more in your NHL morning coffee headlines.
NHL.COM: Boston Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask extended his personal points streak to 20 games (18-0-2) backstopping his club to a 4-1 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs. Bruins defenseman Charlie McAvoy returned to the lineup after being sidelined nearly two weeks due to a procedure to address an abnormal heart rhythm. Leafs blueliners Morgan Rielly and Ron Hainsey also returned from injuries and illness.
New Jersey Devils center Travis Zajac scored twice and set up another as the New Jersey Devils defeated the Pittsburgh Penguins 3-1. Penguins winger Phil Kessel picked up his 40th assist of the season and moved within three points of Tampa Bay Lightning winger Nikita Kucherov for the NHL scoring lead.
Speaking of Kucherov, he picked up two assists (including his 300th career point) as the Lightning doubled up the Vancouver Canucks 4-2.
Michael Frolik’s game-tying goal in the third period set the stage for Sean Monahan’s overtime tally as the Calgary Flames snapped a six-game losing skid with a 4-3 win over the Chicago Blackhawks.
Anntti Niemi made 43 saves and Jeff Petry tallied two power-play goals as the Montreal Canadiens upset the Anaheim Ducks 5-2. Canadiens winger Jonathan Drouin left the game after being struck in the ribs by a slapshot by teammate Karl Alzner. X-rays revealed no fractures but he’ll be re-evaluated on Sunday.
Connor Hellebuyck made 25 saves as the Winnipeg Jets shut out the Colorado Avalanche 3-0. Hellebuyck picked up his career-high 27th victory of the season and is two away from tying Ondrej Pavelec (29) for second-most wins in a season by a Thrashers/Jets goalie. Avalanche netminder Semyon Varlamov made his first start after missing 11 games with a groin injury.
Los Angeles Kings goaltender Darcy Kuemper turned in a 27-save shutout effort in a 6-0 victory over the Arizona Coyotes. Teammate Jake Muzzin had a goal and two assists.
Tyler Seguin netted three points while Jamie Benn and Alexander Radulov each collected two points as the Dallas Stars thumped the Minnesota Wild 6-1.
Third-period goals by Jordan Eberle and Brock Nelson rallied the New York Islanders to a 4-3 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets. Isles goalie Jaroslav Halak made 46 saves for the win.
Kevin Fiala scored twice and goalie Pekka Rinne picked up his seventh straight victory as the Nashville Predators downed the New York Rangers 5-2. Rangers defenseman Marc Staal and winger Jimmy Vesey both left the game with head injuries.
St. Louis Blues netminder Carter Hutton had a 27-save shutout performance as his club blanked the Buffalo Sabres 1-0. Carl Gunnarsson scored the only goal late in the third period.
Mike Hoffman’s shootout goal gave the Ottawa Senators a 4-3 win over the Philadelphia Flyers, who overcame a 3-1 deficit to tie the game. Flyers forward Travis Konecny assisted on all three of his club’s goals.
A controversial goal by Aleksander Barkov with 8 seconds left in the game resulted in the Florida Panthers edging the Detroit Red Wings 3-2. The Wings contended Barkov interfered with goalie Petr Mrazek by bumping him before scoring. “That’s insane they called that a goal,” forward Justin Abdelkader said. “That was an easy one, I thought. It’s frustrating.”
TSN: The NHL’s department of player disciplined fined Washington Capitals winger T.J. Oshie $5,000.00 for cross-checking Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Kris Letang on Friday.
As the opening day of the 2017 NHL free-agent market winds down, here’s a brief look at the day’s notable signings.
San Jose Sharks re-sign defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic (eight years, $7 million annual average value) and goaltender Martin Jones (six years, $5.75 million AAV). Both contracts kick in on July 1, 2018. The Sharks also sign center Joe Thornton (reportedly one-year deal and around $6.5 million).
Vlasic’s an elite NHL defenseman and his new contract puts him among such notables as Drew Doughty of the LA Kings and Kris Letang of the Pittsburgh Penguins. I’d say he belongs there. He’s a crucial part of the Sharks defense corps.
Jones’ new salary places him around fifteenth among the highest-paid goalies. If the 27-year-old returns to his solid form of 2015-16, this could prove a bargain for the Sharks over the long run.
Despite all the speculation linking Thornton to other clubs leading up to July 1, it wasn’t surprising that he re-signed with the Sharks. He was seeking a three-year deal but apparently was willing to accept a one-year deal for a full $6.5 million salary.
It’s been reported Thornton’s future in San Jose was tied to long-time Sharks teammate Patrick Marleau. Thornton’s signing could signal Marleau’s return.
Anaheim Ducks re-sign defenseman Cam Fowler (eight years, $6.5 million AAV) and goaltender Ryan Miller (two years, $2 million AAV).
Like Vlasic’s and Jones’ new contract, Fowler’s kicks in next July. Though he was the subject of frequent trade speculation last summer, it’s apparent the Ducks consider him the key cog of their blueline. Th 25-year-old’s new contract is comparable to that of St. Louis’ Alex Pietrangelo.
As for Miller, his days as an elite netminder are in the past. He’ll take on a backup/mentor role for starter John Gibson.
New York Rangers sign defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk (four years, $6.65 million AAV). The biggest name in this summer’s UFA market lands where he was always expected to go. He finished among last season’s leading scorers among blueliners though he’s earned criticism for his defensive game.
The 28-year-old will be skating on the right side of the Blueshirts top pairing with Ryan McDonagh. He’s being overpaid for his services but the Rangers at least didn’t lock him up for too long.
Pittsburgh Penguins re-sign defenseman Justin Schultz (three years, $5.5 million AAV). Schultz rejuvenated his NHL career with the Penguins, playing a role in their consecutive championships in 2016 and 2017. Tallying a career-high 51 points last season, he was among the league’s highest-scoring blueliners. That ensured the Pens would keep the mobile rearguard in the fold and give him a healthy raise to boot.
Montreal Canadiens sign defenseman Karl Alzner (five years, $4.65 million AAV). The Canadiens land themselves a quality replacement for Alexei Emelin, who was plucked away by Vegas in the expansion draft. The 28-year-old Alzner is a durable, physical shutdown defender. The Habs got him for a reasonable deal.
Dallas Stars sign center Martin Hanzal (three years, $4.75 million AAV). The 6’6”, 226-pounder brings size and two-way skills at center for the Stars. However, he also has a long injury history and only two 40-point seasons on his resume. The salary’s a little pricey but the Stars didn’t saddle themselves with a lengthy term.
Carolina Hurricanes sign right wing Justin Williams (two years, $4.5 million AAV). Williams, 35, returns to the team where he won his first Stanley Cup in 2006. He gets a nice pay raise over the $3.25 million per season of his previous two-year deal. Despite his age, he remains a reliable second-line right wing. The rebuilding Canes should benefit from his skills and leadership.
Nashville Predators sign center Nick Bonino (four years, $4.1 million AAV) and left wing Scott Hartnell (one year, $1 million AAV). Bonino’s two championship seasons with the Pittsburgh Penguins bolstered his free-agent value. The Pred needed two-way depth at center and willingly ponied up for him. This move likely means they’re out of the bidding for Avalanche center Matt Duchene.
The Predators also shipped Colin Wilson to the Colorado Avalanche to make room for Hartnell, who was recently bought out by Columbus. He’s returning to the club where his NHL career began. While the 35-year-old is in decline, he could be a worthwhile checking-line depth addition for the Preds.
Winnipeg Jets sign goaltender Steve Mason (two years, $4.1 million AAV) and defenseman Dmitry Kulikov (three years, $4.33 million AAV). Mason’s earning the same annual cap hit as he did on his previous three-year deal with the Philadelphia Flyers. The Jets needed an experienced goalie to carry the bulk of the workload until promising Connor Hellebuyck is ready for the full-time starter’s job. As with former Jets starter Ondrej Pavelec, however, consistency is an issue for Mason.
Kulikov, meanwhile, hopes to get his career back on track after a back injury hampered him during his brief tenure with the Buffalo Sabres. When healthy, he’s a mobile, big-minute defender. But if his back woes flare up again, this could become a costly error for the Jets.
Vancouver Canucks sign forward Sam Gagner (three years, $3.1 million AAV) and defenseman Michael Del Zotto (two years, $3 million AAV). Gagner’s 50-point bounce-back performance last season with the Blue Jackets earns him a big raise over his one-year, $650K deal in 2016-17. If he can maintain his usual 40-point production, he could provide a decent boost to the Canucks offense.
Del Zotto, meanwhile, takes a bit of a pay cut for two seasons in Vancouver. He’ll provide the retooling Canucks with experienced puck-moving depth, buying time to allow their younger rearguards to develop.
Tampa Bay Lightning sign defenseman Dan Girardi (two years, $3 million AAV) and winger Chris Kunitz (one year, $2 million). The Bolts get older, but perhaps not necessarily better. They sought an experienced top-four defenseman with a right-handed shot. However, the 33-year-old Girardi has a lot of miles on him and has lost a step or two. That’s one reason the Rangers bought him out.
Same goes for Kunitz, who’s also getting $1 million in bonus money. He helped the Penguins win three Stanley Cup titles since 2009 but saw his production decline over the past two years. Yzerman’s taking a couple of gambles here, but at least they’re affordable and only short term.
Toronto Maple Leafs sign defenseman Ron Hainsey (two years, $3 million AAV). Hainsey reached the playoffs last season for the first time in his career, helping the Pittsburgh Penguins win the Stanley Cup. The Leafs expect he’ll bring experienced depth to their defense corps, but it remains to be seen how much the 36-year-old has left in the tank.
Philadelphia Flyers sign goaltender Brian Elliott (two years, $2.75 million AAV). After washing out with the Calgary Flames last season, the 32-year-old Elliott will try to get his career as an NHL starter back on track with the Flyers. His deal is a reasonable one, but he’s unlikely to end the Flyers’ seemingly never-ending carousel of mediocre goaltending.
Florida Panther sign right wing Radim Vrbata (one year, bonus-laden contract, $2.5 million base salary). The 36-year-old Vrbata will replace now-departed winger Jaromir Jagr. He was the Coyotes’ leading scorer last season with 55 points and could be a decent short-term addition to the Panthers’ scoring lines.
Los Angeles Kings sign winger Mike Cammalleri (one year, $1 million AAV). After being bought out by the New Jersey Devils, Cammalleri returns to the city his NHL career began. The 35-year-old still has a decent scoring touch, but injuries in recent years have limited his effectiveness.
Chicago Blackhawks sign winger Patrick Sharp (one year, $800k AAV). The 35-year-old tallied 20 goals and 55 points in 2015-16 but injuries limited him to just 18 points last season. Having recovered from hip surgery, perhaps a return to Chicago, where he had his best seasons, can help him regain to form. It’s an affordable risk for the cap-strapped Blackhawks.