All posts by Josh Wegman

McDavid lauds Leafs’ stingy defense: ‘They had us pretty figured out’

The Toronto Maple Leafs' inability to defend has hindered their progress in recent years, but they appear to be turning a corner this season and allowed just one goal over nine periods in a three-game sweep of the Edmonton Oilers.

Toronto held the NHL's leading scorer, Connor McDavid, pointless in three straight contests for just the third time in his career, according to Sportsnet. The Oilers captain couldn't offer an explanation as to how the Leafs shut him and his club down.

"For whatever reason, we couldn't figure those guys out and they had us pretty figured out," McDavid said following Wednesday's 6-1 loss.

Fellow superstar Leon Draisaitl, who picked up one assist in the three-game set, was equally mystified.

"I think they played really good all three games - made it hard on us," Draisaitl said. "But we also didn't push back enough."

The Maple Leafs' 2.33 goals against per game is the fourth-best in the league. Toronto hasn't finished a season with a top-10 defense since 2002-03 or a top-five defense since 1992-93.

The most notable personnel changes on the blue line came in the form of TJ Brodie and Zach Bogosian replacing the departed Cody Ceci and Tyson Barrie, the latter of whom now plays for the Oilers.

"They gave us a bit of a lesson there that they're probably the team in our division that's the gold standard right now. ... They embarrassed us three games in a row," Barrie said.

Having played under Sheldon Keefe, Barrie knows the defensive system that the Leafs head coach has been trying to implement since he was hired in November 2019. That system appears to be coming together now.

"You can't chase that team," Barrie said. "They're playing super well structurally, and they're not giving us any freebies and any looks that we wouldn't earn."

The Leafs are 45-19-7 since Keefe took over for Mike Babcock last season.

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Ovechkin avoids suspension for spearing Frederic in groin

Washington Capitals sniper Alex Ovechkin was fined $5,000 - the maximum allowable under the CBA - for spearing Boston Bruins forward Trent Frederic in the groin Wednesday, the NHL Department of Player Safety announced.

The two players received minor penalties on the play: Frederic for crosschecking and Ovechkin for slashing.

Ovechkin and Frederic nearly got into a fight earlier in the game.

Ovechkin's fine is the equivalent of $26.21 for someone who earns $50,000 a year, notes The Athletic's Mark Lazerus.

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Maple Leafs’ Matthews, Andersen to return vs. Oilers

The Toronto Maple Leafs are getting some significant pieces back on Wednesday as they look to complete a three-game sweep of the Edmonton Oilers.

Star pivot Auston Matthews and No. 1 goaltender Frederik Andersen will return to the lineup, head coach Sheldon Keefe said, according to TSN's Mark Masters.

Matthews missed the team's last two games with a wrist injury, an ailment he's played through for most of the campaign. He appeared to aggravate the issue last week against the Calgary Flames while crashing into the boards. The 23-year-old still leads the NHL with 18 goals.

Andersen hasn't played since Feb. 20 against the Montreal Canadiens due to a lower-body injury. Michael Hutchinson and Jack Campbell held down the fort, going 3-1-0 with only four goals against. Andersen owns a .905 save percentage and a 2.69 goals-against average over 16 games this season.

Here is Toronto's projected lineup, with Alexander Barabanov coming out for Matthews.

Keefe also added that Campbell, who missed Monday's game after aggravating a leg injury that held him out of action for over a month, could back up Andersen on Wednesday. If he can't play, Hutchinson will dress.

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Canadiens’ Bergevin fired goalie coach midgame Tuesday

Montreal Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin revamped his coaching staff last week, firing head coach Claude Julien and associate Kirk Muller while promoting assistant Dominique Ducharme to interim bench boss. Goalie coach Stephane Waite initially appeared to be safe, but Bergevin wasn't done tinkering.

Waite was informed during the second intermission of Tuesday's game against the Ottawa Senators that he was being let go, Bergevin said Wednesday, according to The Athletic's Arpon Basu.

"This decision was not based only on this season," Bergevin said. "I had seen a bit of a pattern."

Starting netminder Carey Price has struggled this season. Even after stopping 26 of 27 shots Tuesday night, his .893 save percentage and 2.96 goals-against average are both worse than the league average. Price's $10.5-million cap hit makes him the NHL's highest-paid goalie, and there's still an additional five years left on his contract.

Bergevin insisted the 33-year-old remains elite and might just need a different voice in the form of new director of goaltending Sean Burke.

"Carey is still an excellent goalie, one of the best in the league, but he needs help," Bergevin said.

The Canadiens hired Burke as a scout in 2016, but he'll need to quarantine for 14 days before he can join the team. Bergevin believes Burke's experience going through the "ups and downs" through his 18 years as an NHL goaltender will help Price.

Bergevin added he did not consult Price before making the change.

"The day I decide to do that, it will mean I'm not the right guy for the job," he said.

Bergevin didn't dive into what Burke's role will entail or whether there will be a goaltending department in the future similar to the Florida Panthers' recent innovative approach. Burke's contract still expires at the end of the season.

Waite had been Montreal's goalie coach since 2013-14, meaning he oversaw Price's career year in 2014-15 when he won the Vezina and Hart trophies.

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Blue Jackets GM gives Tortorella vote of confidence

Columbus Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen doesn't plan on making a coaching change amid the team's five-game losing streak.

Kekalainen called a press conference Tuesday to address any questions about head coach John Tortorella's job status.

"I wanted to have this call to just kind of clarify that this coaching staff has got us out of the slumps before, they've done a great job for us in the past five, six years they've been here, and they are the ones that are going to get out of this jam," the general manager said.

Tortorella, who has been Columbus' bench boss since the 2016-17 campaign, is easily the most successful coach in the franchise's history, leading the team to playoff appearances in each of his four prior campaigns at the helm. No other coach in the club's history has led the team to multiple playoff berths.

"He's done a great job for us. I think we owe him a lot for what he's done for this franchise," Kekalainen said of Tortorella, who's in the last year of his contract. "All the other issues will get solved in time."

The 8-10-5 Blue Jackets are seventh in their division in points percentage, ahead of only the Detroit Red Wings. Columbus got off to a slow start last season, too, beginning the year 5-7-3. Kekalainen believes a similar turnaround is in the cards, despite the shortened campaign.

"I have full confidence we're going to snap out of this," Kekalainen said.

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Oilers claim Stalock off waivers

The Edmonton Oilers claimed goaltender Alex Stalock off waivers from the Minnesota Wild on Monday, the team announced.

Stalock will report directly to the Oilers following his 14-day quarantine, according to Sportsnet's Elliotte Friedman.

The 33-year-old owns a .909 save percentage and 2.61 goals-against average in 151 career games between the Wild and San Jose Sharks - quality numbers for a backup. He's yet to make an appearance this season.

The underlying numbers don't support Stalock as strongly, though.

The Oilers didn't have a third goalie with any NHL experience when Mike Smith went down prior to the start of the season, which forced Mikko Koskinen to start 10 consecutive games to begin the campaign. However, Smith has played well since returning.

Stat Koskinen Smith
Rec. 7-8-0 6-1-0
GAA 3.26 2.04
SV% .901 .934
SO 0 2

Stalock is signed through next season with an annual cap hit of $785,000.

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Report: Former NHLer Todd Bertuzzi arrested on suspicion of DUI

Longtime NHL player Todd Bertuzzi was arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence last weekend in Michigan, TMZ reports.

The 46-year-old was reportedly swerving all over the road and ran a red light before he was pulled over Saturday morning in Auburn Hills.

Responding officers believed Bertuzzi was under the influence of alcohol, but he refused a breathalyzer test, according to TMZ. He reportedly showed signs of impairment while undergoing other field sobriety tests.

Bertuzzi was eventually arrested and taken to Oakland County Jail, per TMZ. Police reportedly received a warrant for a blood draw, but the results are currently unknown.

The former Vancouver Canucks star is best remembered for sucker-punching Steve Moore and slamming his head into the ice during a game against the Colorado Avalanche in 2004. The NHL suspended Bertuzzi for 20 games, and he pleaded guilty to assault. Moore suffered three fractured vertebrae among other injuries and never played pro hockey again.

Bertuzzi also played for the New York Islanders, Florida Panthers, Detroit Red Wings, Anaheim Ducks, and Calgary Flames over his 1,159-game career.

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Capital assessment: Evaluating Senators’ rebuild after 3 years

On March 1, 2018, exactly three years ago to this day, Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk announced his club was entering a rebuild.

"Now is the time for us to focus on the future, rather than dwelling on a difficult season," Melnyk wrote at the time.

At that point, the Senators hit rock bottom. The team, one year removed from being a goal away from the Stanley Cup Final, sat 29th in the league standings.

We decided this three-year anniversary would serve as a good opportunity to dive into Ottawa's rebuild, ask some pressing questions, and determine whether the team is on the right track.

How realistic was Melnyk's timeline?

Andre Ringuette / National Hockey League / Getty

Almost a year after declaring a rebuild, Melnyk, on Feb. 6, 2019, provided a timeline on the club's growth.

"The Senators will be all-in again for a five-year run of unparalleled success - where the team will plan to spend close to the NHL’s salary cap every year from 2021 to 2025," the owner said.

The announcement came while the club was dead last in the standings. Mike Hoffman and Erik Karlsson were already traded, and Matt Duchene and Mark Stone would be shipped away later that month.

Quick turnarounds aren't completely uncommon in the NHL, but a lot needs to fall into place. We've seen teams like the Toronto Maple Leafs and Colorado Avalanche go from basement dwellers to juggernauts overnight. Some rebuilding franchises - such as the Edmonton Oilers - took longer than expected. Others - like the Buffalo Sabres - are still looking for answers.

With all due respect to key building blocks Brady Tkachuk and Thomas Chabot, Ottawa didn't have a generational talent on its hands. The Senators weren't expected to land one that offseason, either, as their first-round pick that summer belonged to Colorado as part of the Duchene deal. So, no, Melnyk's timeline wasn't realistic.

The COVID-19 pandemic hasn't made things any easier. The virus' financial repercussions have been hard on many teams, but small-market clubs like the Senators are hit harder. The pandemic also makes it more difficult to scout and develop prospects, which is crucial for a rebuilding organization. It may also lead to the 2021 draft's postponement.

However, the pandemic gave the Senators one edge that they failed to take advantage of properly.

2020 offseason: A missed opportunity

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Before COVID-19, the NHL salary cap was expected to increase by as much as $6.5 million - a substantial amount in a hard-cap league. Due to the pandemic, the league's cap is likely staying flat at $81.5 million for at least the next three seasons.

The flat cap forced many teams this offseason to trade away quality players for pennies on the dollar due to cap constraints. This meant teams with ample cap space could take advantage of the market.

The Senators did this in one move, netting a second-round pick from the Tampa Bay Lightning for taking Cedric Paquette and Braydon Coburn's contracts. But most of Ottawa's offseason deals left much to be desired.

The Sens sent a second-round pick and a prospect to the Pittsburgh Penguins for goalie Matt Murray and handed him a four-year, $25-million contract. Murray, who struggled in two of his last three seasons in Pittsburgh, has been dreadful this year, posting a .884 save percentage.

Ottawa also surrendered a second-round pick for Derek Stepan, a fourth-round selection for Josh Brown, and a fifth-round pick for Erik Gudbranson. None of those players are likely pieces of the puzzle moving forward. The Stepan acquisition was particularly perplexing, considering he's already declining and a pending UFA.

If the Senators intended on trading draft capital to improve this offseason, they should've used it on players who could be valuable long-term assets.

For instance, Devon Toews, a quality top-four defenseman who just turned 27, was traded to the Avalanche for two second-rounders because the New York Islanders couldn't afford to give him his RFA raise. Had the cap increased, he likely wouldn't have been available. Ottawa could've landed Toews for the second-rounders it gave up for Murray and Stepan, and he would've been a smart use of cap space (he signed a four-year deal with Colorado at $4.1 million per season).

The Senators could've further bolstered their blue line by acquiring Ryan Murray, who the cap-strapped Columbus Blue Jackets traded to the New Jersey Devils for a fifth-round pick. Murray has struggled to stay healthy, but he's two years younger than Gudbranson and a far superior player. They're both pending UFAs, but Murray would've been worth keeping around for the competitive window. Gudbranson clearly isn't.

A blue line featuring Chabot, Toews, Murray, Erik Brannstrom, Nikita Zaitsev, and Artem Zub would've sped up the rebuild. Yes, prospects like Jake Sanderson, Jacob Bernard-Docker, and Lassi Thomson are eventually coming, but that isn't a reason not to improve the current product. Instead, big, physical, immobile defenders like Gudbranson, Brown, and Coburn weigh the team down.

Bottom line: Top-four defensemen don't grow on trees, and Ottawa had an opportunity to acquire two of them for below market value. Instead, the Sens handed a big contract to an inconsistent goalie and spent draft picks on mediocre players who may only stick around for a season.

The current status

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The Senators are playing better as of late and have proven to be a nuisance for some North Division contenders this season. They rank 12th in the league in five-on-five Corsi For percentage, too, showing they're not getting dominated in games. They ranked 26th in that regard a year ago, so there's some underlying improvement.

Most importantly, rookies Tim Stutzle and Josh Norris have been impressive, and Ottawa is getting significant contributions from other youngsters such as Brannstrom and Drake Batherson.

However, the team still hasn't taken a step in the wins department. The Sens sit last in the league standings, and their .326 points percentage stands to be the worst in franchise history since 1995-96.

While not having games against fellow bottom feeders like the Sabres and Detroit Red Wings doesn't help, having one of the worst statistical seasons in club history during Year 3 of a rebuild is highly disappointing.

Should anyone be feeling the heat?

NHL Images / National Hockey League / Getty

Pierre Dorion has been Ottawa's general manager since April 2016. He's done a lot of good for the organization, despite this past offseason not being his best work.

The Senators ranked third on The Athletic's Corey Pronman's post-draft list of every team's young talent. Dorion comes from a scouting background, so it's a good sign that he's excelling in the area he knows best.

However, Dorion's trade history is a mixed bag. His first major deal - swapping Mika Zibanejad and a second-round pick for Derick Brassard and a seventh-rounder - looked bad at the time and even worse now.

The Duchene acquisition was Dorion's next big move, and while he deserves some credit for going all-in, that trade clearly backfired. How good would Bowen Byram look in a Sens uniform right now?

On the positive side, Dorion hit a home run on the Karlsson trade. The return may have looked underwhelming at the time, but the first-round pick Ottawa received from the San Jose Sharks turned into Stutzle. And Norris has developed better than expected.

Dorion also did well netting a first-round pick and two prospects for Duchene and first- and second-round selections for Jean-Gabriel Pageau.

The return for Stone - a second-round pick and Brannstrom - will be judged by the latter's development, but it looks like the blue-liner's ceiling is high.

Dorion shouldn't be on the hot seat yet, but he needs to find a way to make impactful additions to the young core so the team can take the next step in 2021-22. If the next offseason is anything like 2020, where he fails to properly take advantage of the market and team's cap space, then it's fair to call for his job.

As for head coach D.J. Smith, he's only in his second season at the helm and clearly hasn't had much to work with. His job is safe, but an improved record by next season is important.

When would it be time to panic?

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Melnyk's timeline was never realistic - and COVID-19 didn't help - but it wasn't totally far off.

A run of "unparalleled success" was a major stretch, but showing improvement by next season and making the playoffs by 2022-23 should be considered realistic goals. The young core is talented enough and will only improve.

Plus, Dorion should have the financial resources to shore up the roster's remaining holes, considering Melnyk doubled down with his high hopes when he boldly stated in October that the Senators would be a "Stanley Cup winner within four years."

If the Sens are still bottom-feeders two or three seasons from now, Dorion and Smith will probably be gone. Then, Melnyk will be the only person left to blame.

Melnyk is the most outspoken owner in the league, and perhaps in all of North American sports. Fans have made it clear they want him out. If he fails to deliver on his promises, maybe Melnyk will think twice about making such bold proclamations next time.

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Leafs’ Matthews out vs. Oilers; Campbell, Muzzin, Thornton return

Toronto Maple Leafs superstar Auston Matthews will not play Saturday against the Edmonton Oilers due to a wrist injury, head coach Sheldon Keefe said, according to Sportsnet's Elliotte Friedman.

Matthews' wrist has bothered him "virtually all season," according to Keefe. The NHL's leading goalscorer appeared to aggravate it on Wednesday against the Calgary Flames when he crashed into the boards.

However, the Leafs will get some reinforcements, as goaltender Jack Campbell, defenseman Jake Muzzin, and forward Joe Thornton will all draw back into the lineup.

Campbell hasn't played since Jan. 24 due to a leg injury. His return comes at a key time as starting netminder Frederik Andersen remains out due to a lower-body injury.

Muzzin has missed the last two games with a face injury. He'll be forced to play with a full face shield. The 32-year-old ranks second among Toronto blue-liners in points and third in average ice time.

Thornton has also missed the last two contests with an undisclosed ailment. He was riding a four-game point streak before going down.

Here's Toronto's projected lineup for Saturday night based on Friday's practice lines:

Joe Thornton John Tavares Mitch Marner
Alexander Barabanov Alexander Kerfoot William Nylander
Ilya Mikheyev Pierre Engvall Zach Hyman
Nic Petan Travis Boyd Jason Spezza
Morgan Rielly TJ Brodie
Jake Muzzin Justin Holl
Travis Dermott Zach Bogosian

The Leafs won their lone game without Matthews this season - a 4-2 victory over the Oilers on Jan. 22.

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Leafs’ Matthews day-to-day with hand injury

Toronto Maple Leafs superstar Auston Matthews did not take part in Friday's practice and is considered day-to-day with a hand injury, the team announced.

Matthews' status for Saturday's game against the Edmonton Oilers currently remains unclear.

The 23-year-old appeared to be in discomfort after going hard into the boards on Wednesday against the Calgary Flames.

Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe said postgame that Matthews has battled a wrist ailment all year.

"We don't think it's anything more at this point than what he's been dealing with virtually all season," Keefe said.

Matthews, who leads the NHL with 18 goals, is likely considered a front-runner for the Hart Trophy as the league's most valuable player.

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