The Toronto Maple Leafs are about to do something stupid

Do the thing, Toronto.

The rest of the employees of the Springfield Power Plant gathering around the control center of Sector 7-G, with Lenny narrating for everyone the normal practice, “Get ready everyone, he’s about to do something stupid…” is what the NHL is now, gathering around The Six and wondering just what the Toronto Maple Leafs might come up with.

There was probably a good four minutes there, right after the Leafs finally conquered the hydra that had been the first round of the playoffs, where GM Kyle Dubas, coach Sheldon Keefe, and president Brendan Shanahan thought they could breathe. They had finally gotten where they never have before, they were clearly the most talented team left in the Eastern Conference, and once they threw off their stone of shame (if you’ll allow me to exceed the Simpsons reference quota) then possibilities should have seemed limitless.

‘We want Florida.’ Indeed.

It took the Leafs, in their destiny to always blow their own face off, a little over a week to wash away all that oxygen, getting speedbagged by the Florida Panthers, a wildcard team in just five games. And now Toronto is even more of that air-deprivation tank than it’s ever been. Everyone’s calling for major changes, something to reset their feelings and alleviate the feeling of dread that this roster now carries with it everywhere it goes.

It will certainly not help anyone at Scotiabank Arena that they just spit it to a team, the Panthers, that did just swap out their leading scorer from last season for a player who turned out to be better, the Jonathan Huberdeau-for-Matthew Tkachuk trade. Tkachuk is seen as the main driver of the Panthers’ success (mostly but not all true), while Huberdeau’s Flames fizzled out short of the playoffs in a Darryl Sutter cloud of misery. So now all Leafs observers just assume that’s on offer for everyone, especially them.

But Leafs observers have been trying to solve the harrowing problem of, “We have too many good players” for years, and it’s not solvable because it’s not really a problem. Good players are the goal of any roster construction. There isn’t always a playoff-hero ready to be swapped in for the really good player a team has decided to jettison merely to be seen as “doing something.”

The Leafs problems are clear. Their defense is slow and unskilled. Any team in a playoff series that’s dedicated to doing so can cut off the Leafs defense from their forwards and make the latter not as effective. The blue line can’t get out of trouble by itself, which means one or two forwards have to help out simply getting the puck out from behind their own goal-line, 195 feet from where they do their best work.

Is Kyle Dubas to blame?

And yet this seems to be policy for GM Kyle Dubas. His midseason trades have been the likes of Mark Giordano, Luke Schenn, Jake McCabe…you can’t get into fourth gear with that bunch, much less the fifth gear that the Leafs forwards want to and should play in and other teams wouldn’t be able to deal with.

Should Dubas be fired? Probably. Not just for chum for freaks, but look at his drafting record. Dubas has had five whacks at the draft. It has produced 140 games of Rasmus Sandin, pieces for a trade for Jake Muzzin (something of another knuckle-dragger who is now crocked), 31 games of Nick Robertson (who is definitely not his brother Jason), and the hope of Matthew Knies.

While the Leafs haven’t had high first round picks in his time as GM, a front office still has to get players through the system and help at a cheap rate. The Penguins got back to Cup-level because Jake Guentzel, Bryan Rust, Brian Dumoulin and some others came through to fill in spots behind the expensive guys. The Lighting found Cirelli or Cernak or they find a Nick Paul or Brandon Hagel. Dubas hasn’t done any of this. Be it drafting or development, the Leafs don’t get enough coming through, to go along with his fascination with d-men that skate like Eeyore.

The problem is that should the Leafs pull the trigger on Dubas, you better believe they’ll go to another old head who “knows the way to the Cup” instead of another unproven GM with a different way of seeing the game, which is probably what they need. Dubas’ problem, whether this is actually how he sees things or was bowing to pressures from elsewhere, was bending to old hockey ways and trading for crease-clearing road-graters on defense when he needed guys who can move and pass. The smart money would be Dubas’ replacement leaning even more that way.

The trade market offers no way out

As far as a big trade, there’s almost no way that the Leafs wouldn’t jettison William Nylander or Mitch Marner for no more than 75 cents on the dollar. Even if they could admit to themselves that Morgan Rielly is not a #1 d-man for a team totally serious about Cup run, where are they getting that? There isn’t one on the free agent market. The Oilers may want to wave the white flag on Darnell Nurse now, but he’s 28 and proven what he is, which is basically a large bag of failed promise, and he costs $9 million a year.

Are they going to try and convince a decaying Drew Doughty to finally come home? Maybe if the Knights find themselves in cap hell again this summer they could try and poach Shea Theodore, which is exactly what the Leafs need. Devon Toews? There are some second-pairing solutions out there too like Dmitri Orlov, or Matt Dumba, or John Klingberg, but all are UFAs and either might be too expensive to install on the second pairing or have played themselves into second pairing money because they’ve started sprouting weird hairs and spots (Klingberg). This is a funny discussion, when we all know they’re going to offer Radko Gudas a bag (which isn’t necessarily the worst idea, but is for the reasons the Leafs will do it). And the Leafs obviously don’t have a ton of cap space.

Trading Marner or Nylander simply for cap space only makes the team worse. The other problem for the Leafs is that their goalie-track doesn’t match the track of the rest of the team. Ilya Samsonov and Joseph could form a talented, young, and most importantly cheap tandem. But there’s a learning curve in the playoffs, and you never know where it might end. The Leafs don’t have time to find out, but they also don’t really have a choice. They’ll also have to crowbar Matt Murray, another band-aid solution, off the roster.

What Leafs Nation always seems to fail to realize, is that their unique collection of forwards always keeps them in the contender conversation. Which is not that easy. And in the NHL, that’s about all you can do. Be in the top group, and just hope the bounces go your way as they have for others before. You can’t lock in a Final appearance. It’s lunacy to break what puts you in that select room. You just have to keep reshuffling what’s around that. It sucks, it’s not guaranteed to work, but it’s the only way. But that won’t feed the beast that is the gaping maw that surrounds the team, and the Leafs may break themselves before they have to.

Follow Sam on Twitter @Felsgate as he tries to get Marner to be Connor Bedard’s first linemate. 

Gabriel ThreeYaksAndADog will miss all of next season, and the Colorado Avalanche era may already be over

Tough break for the Avs.

In the salary-capped NHL, you get one, or two shots with one roster, and then you basically have to reshuffle everything around your core stars, and hope that new hand still produces a flush. It’s a constant game of draw poker.

The Colorado Avalanche are learning that with the news that their captain, Gabriel Landeskog (SapsuckerFrog to those in the know), will miss all of next season after missing all of this season to undergo cartilage transplant surgery. It’s the same procedure that Lonzo Ball is undergoing before they send him to Dr. Nick. Landeskog may not be too far behind.

All of it puts the Avs in a bind. While they were able to win the Central Division again this season, their whole campaign felt like a whiskey-dick stumble praying for an end. They were riven with injuries in addition to their captain, as they only had five players suit up for 79 games, or more. The Avs of 2021-2022 that rolled through the league and then went 16-4 in the playoffs in one of the more dominant postseason runs in recent history were built not just on their nitro souped-up blue line riven with guys who could push the play, but a nuclear top six. There wasn’t much to be done about losing Nazem Kadri to free agency, he had earned his big payday. But combined with losing Landeskog as well turned the Avs basically into a one-line team. Evan Rodrigues or J.T. Compher or Valeri Nichushkin weren’t up to the task of being in a top six, and Alex Newhook just never made a jump in his development. Time is still on Newhook’s side, he’s 22, and the Avs might have to bank on that very fact going forward.

Colorado’s life gets more complicated next season as Nathan MacKinnon’s new contract starts, which sees his salary double to $12 million a year. The Avs will be paying MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, and Cale Makar a combined $30 million per year for at least the next two seasons when Rantanen reaches free agency. And they should be, there’s probably still no better foundation of stars than those three in the league.

Cash only rules everything around you if you have it

But it means being awfully swift in every other spot and getting lucky in some others. The Avs only have 12 players signed from this year’s team for next year, and they’re going to have to give Bowen Byram a big raise from his rookie deal. Even before they do that, they only have about $13 million cap space. If Byram takes up $3-$4 million of that? Hard calls might need to be made, like deciding if Devon Toews one year out from unrestricted free agency is worth keeping around or using as a device to try and bolster the second line while Byram takes on his role.

The list of Avs free agents are real conundrums. Compher, Rodridgues, and Cogliano are nice players, but difference makers they are not. Someone is going to have to skate beneath the top line and the free agency class this summer is, to be kind, total butt. Would they want to send Patrick Kane to get the bionic hip he clearly needs, miss half the season, and hope he can put together something resembling what he used for a discount? Seems a real stretch, and neither Kane nor his dipshit father want to go that far west anyway. Kane’s disappearing twin in the playoffs Vlad Tarasenko will also cost too much and has a lot of mileage. Could they convince Ryan O’Reilly to come back for a slightly lower hit? How much tread is on those tires either?

Jason Zucker is more in the fold of what they need, but he’s probably just short of being able to carry a second-line load these days, and coming off 27 goals for Pittsburgh he very well might get second-line money from someone.

The Avs really have nothing in the pipeline other than a player or two who can help on the bottom of the roster, but that won’t solve their second-line problem. If they can find a reasonable deal for Toews it’s worth looking at, but that would erode their blue line depth that made them special. There’s been talk that it could be Sam Girard (think him up a donut with sprinkles) who’s shopped around so the Avs can keep around their arsenal of nifty, fleet-footed blue-liners. But again, Toews is one year out from free agency, and defensemen who put up 50 points in their sleep make a whole lot more than the $4 million Toews is pulling in now. Trading Girard may see the Avs without both him and Toews come 2024.

And what may really worry the Avs is that even if they’re willing to be short next year, waiting for Landeskog to be anything like he was could be pure fantasy given that he’ll miss two full seasons and will be returning from a pretty out there surgery. What exactly will they be getting going forward? While the Avs can put Landeskog on LTIR for some cap relief, doing so in the offseason really handicaps a team during the season when injuries hit. Almost all teams wait until the season starts before going to that LTIR route. Landeskog’s injury almost certainly won’t aid them in the offseason.

The Avs catch a break in that their division isn’t all that challenging. The Stars are probably maxed out, the Wild are always irrelevant, and the Jets are breaking apart. Connor Bedard may be landing in June but he and the Hawks are at least three years from challenging for anything that truly matters. The Blues, Preds, and Coyotes, or moving back-ards.

But this is what happens in the NHL. The Hawks or Penguins or Lightning could tell you that. The last two went years between Final appearances as they had to redo the pack behind their leading horses. The Hawks had to do it after 2010, maxed out the second edition, and then never produced another one and let the end of the Kane, and Toews era was a beer fart.

But this is the way he wants it.

Follow Sam on Twitter @Felsgate as he’s still drinking Red Wings fans’ tears over Bedard.

The Chicago Blackhawks, the worst team you know, got all the luck

Connor Bedard is the consensus No. 1 overall pick

Tanking isn’t a plan, at least in leagues with a lottery. It’s a wager. A GM or front office or owner isn’t putting up money, other than the lack of tickets and merch they’ll sell while their team is shit. They’re putting up a season or many of complete haplessness with rosters devoid of useful players who promise a future, on the chance that things will break their way with ping-pong balls. It’s why it’s a lottery. You can make it as safe a wager as you can by being the worst around, but it’s still a wager.

As anyone can tell you, sometimes bets pay off. It’s why there’s a multi-billion dollar gambling industry, after all. Even bad ones sometimes cash out. That’s what the Chicago Blackhawks found out last night. They wagered this season and possibly three or four after it that they could be handed Connor Bedard. They didn’t even finish worst in the league, but the randomness of ping-pong balls doesn’t really care that Luke Richardson turned out to be a pretty good coach or Alex Stalock ended up playing far better than anyone would have ever guessed. Sometimes the ball lands on 27, or you catch a six on 15.

But they won, they caught that card, and now their entire franchise’s direction and feeling changed. Bedard is, or most likely will be, the kind of player that acts as a pivot point for a team all on his own. The biggest question any team in any sport has to face is, “Where are you gonna find your DUDES?” The Hawks have that answer now. There’s a good chance that in five years’ time, they’ll have the league’s preeminent DUDE.

To say it made the hockey world gag would be an understatement. The Hawks have been a swear word and rightly so for a couple years, since it came out what they’d done to Kyle Beach. Should the Hawks even have had this pick that came up as the golden ticket and not have it stripped by the NHL? There’s certainly a case. Should it be Rocky Wirtz who is already benefiting from the waterfall of season ticket money pouring in to watch the next era’s defining player? Almost certainly not. But those ships have sailed.

Other than Wirtz, there isn’t anyone left to punish. Everyone’s been fired, and even if there were rumors that Stan Bowman or Joel Quenneville could wash up in another locale this summer have been quickly squashed by the fact that Gary Bettman would have to sanction their hiring and that isn’t close yet. It probably will be one day, but we’re not there yet. And we’re numb to owners getting away with it by this point.

Blackhawks moved on from franchise faces Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews

Hawks’ GM Kyle Davidson spent the year trying to rush whatever came before out the door. Aggressive trades around last June’s draft for a team that wasn’t going anywhere anyway, not even a thought of contract extensions for Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, a constant theme of moving on as Kane was traded and Toews told he was playing his last games in Chicago. The Hawks made it clear all that was over. Most want to view it as the Hawks being rewarded for being evil, but it’s actually much closer to them being rewarded for trying to cleanse all that as quickly as possible and dumping every player and employee connected to it. Ping-pong balls don’t care about karma anyway.

Bedard arriving means the Hawks won’t have to trade on nostalgia anymore, which they had been for a couple seasons, while also trying to get the sludge of all that went on as deep in the rearview as they could. Fans can focus on what’s to come instead of trying to remember what came before. Winning the Bedard lottery means once again anticipating the charge on a winter night as you walk to the arena for a game that matters. Or when the clocks change in the spring and the team is still in it and the games mean something more. Spring nights at the bar where overtime causes one to go three or four beers over their stated target for the night. Involuntary fist pumps and yelling and cursing and caring again.

That’s why we do it after all.

The Golden State Warriors aren’t dead, but it’s not looking good

It would be unwise to declare the Warriors dead, as some were inclined to do when they went down 2-0 to Sacramento last round. They long ago entered the have-to-see-the-body territory. But this series against the Lakers shows just how amazing they were to play the style they did and have it always work. Because when it goes off the boil, it is unsightly indeed.

Brainless turnovers, Klay’s contested threes with 20 seconds on the shot clock, Steph unable to break down Anthony Davis with two chances on the dribble, it all actually looked pretty fragile. Which it never did when it works. It was a high-wire act that just never fell off. And it might get back up on there again for good. But it doesn’t take much for it to go from a stunning feat of grace and precision to just…messy.

Follow Sam on Twitter @Felsgate while he repeatedly begs Bedard to drop the stupid No. 98.

The Rangers eat dirt like the frauds they’ve always been

Members of the Rangers said they let Igor Shesterkin down in Game 7

It’s important to review recent New York Rangers history to know why they ended up with a handful of their own dicks in the first round, to a New Jersey Devils team that is far more equipped for what wins in the NHL these days. Two years ago, James Dolan took a break from his normal paint-huffing routine to climb down what assuredly is a staircase covered in gold and marble to declare that the Rangers rebuild, overseen by John Davidson and Jeff Gorton, was for weaklings, essentially. And that it wasn’t moving fast enough. You can be sure the word “pussies” was uttered in those meetings, given where the team went next.

So everyone was fired, Dolan declared that the Rangers had to be big, tough, and mean. They hired Gerard Gallant, who specializes in turning players into hair-triggered, puck-ignorant missiles (case in point: Trouba, Jacob), as coach. They traded for Ryan Reaves, whose 27 career goals over seven seasons still exceeds his collection of brain cells. Reaves didn’t even last through a second season on Broadway. They traded Pavel Buchnevich (who has gone on to collect 143 points in two seasons for some piss-poor Blues teams) for Sammy Blais, who has the hands of a backhoe, and they were so impressed with him they sent him back to St. Louis after 54 games as a Ranger. Dolan had them live up to their glitzy locale by signing Artemi Panarin the year before all this. He has three even-strength playoff goals in 27 playoff games the past two years.

New York has put up gaudy regular season standings points

The Rangers have put up gaudy regular season standings points the past two years, but as the Boston Bruins just got finished proving, the standings aren’t worth much anymore. They tell us basically who might be good and who probably sucks, and too many other details beyond that. The Rangers have borderline sucked at even-strength both this year and last, and have power play’d and goalie’d their way to 100+ point seasons. You can power play-and-goalie your way through 82 games, and maybe even a couple of rounds in the playoffs if the Penguins have two goalies get hurt and Trouba is also allowed to decapitate the other team’s best players, as he was with Sidney Crosby last year. He couldn’t catch Jack Hughes this time around.

The Rangers were 17th this year in Corsi percentage, and 19th in expected goals percentage. They were 24th in both categories last season. Last year it was Chris Kreider scoring with a quarter of his shots on the power play and Igor Shesterkin’s Vezina season that covered up all their faults. This year it was Mika Zibanejad and Shesterkin. You can fool some of the people some of the time, but there comes a time when you have to win games at 5-on-5. The Rangers are decidedly unequipped.

All that glitters…

It’s true that the rebuild wasn’t really going to work because their two top-two picks, Alex Lafreniere and Kaapo Kakko, blow chunks. Rangers fans and media alike keep trying to convince themselves that they’re a great energy line now in some sort of public-facing Stockholm Syndrome, and yet they continually get their asses kicked up to their ears when faced with any kind of opposition. Zibanejad is a good player, but he’s no No. 1 center. Take a look at what Hughes did in this series to see the difference.

But these were the Rangers, this is New York, this is Dolan, and instead of addressing their real concerns of depth scoring on the bottom six or finding any d-man that could skate with the puck over 3 MPH, they chased big names to put on the marquee. Vladimir Tarasenko’s body has been breaking down for a few years, but the Rangers thought they could revive him. Patrick Kane spent the first four months of this season looking like his bones had turned to the consistency of milk left out in the sun for a month, had one good week, and they thought they could bring “Showtime” to the Garden. That went so well that they had to kick Kane off the first power play unit during their series with the Devils and watched him eschew any battle for a puck unless they were already up three goals.

Speed kills

It was striking just how second-best, and more importantly, slower the Rangers were all over the ice once the Devils stopped just donating them power plays as they came to grips with playoff hockey. In Games 3-7 the Devils’ expected-goals shares at even strength were 58.3, 70.2, 55.5, 52.7, and 69.1. That’s getting one’s ass rubbed in the moonshine violently.

Whatever the Devils wanted to do, they could do. When they wanted to strangle the Rangers defensively and dare them to work through the neutral zone, they didn’t have any puck carriers to do it or didn’t have the forecheckers to short-circuit it by winning the puck back below the goal line. When the Devils wanted to turn up the volume and pressure the Rangers in their own zone into turnovers and cause chaos in the Rangers’ zone, they could do that too. In Game 7, Adam Fox was determined to prove he’s just another phrase for “Torey Krug,” a power play specialist who’s great if you can get him set up in the offensive zone first but is in bad need of an after-school tutor in his own zone. Here’s Ondrej Palat turning him into a fine paste to open the scoring last night:

The rest of the Rangers’ blue line was completely unarmed to deal with what the Devils were bringing to them, because they are slow and stone-handed. Here’s Trouba losing a puck battle badly in while pinching up, with a little help from Kakko as Palat once again plays them like a bass drum to start the rush to the Devils third and killer goal:

K’Andre Miller looked slow. Trouba’s main trick of braining some opponent came far too late to make a difference. Niko Mikkola looked exactly like the type of player the Blues felt they didn’t need anymore.

Rangers aren’t getting any younger

The Rangers will still hang around for a couple more years. They have a little cap space — about $10 million — and an extension for Miller might eat up a decent chunk of that. They’re not exactly young. Of all their important players, only Fox, Chytil, and Miller are young, and whatever they want to do this summer will have to keep in mind an extension for Shesterkin that isn’t too far over the hill. How much better can they get? They also just saw what they are against the new rising power in the division, one rife with players under 25, who have a much bigger runway for improvement and $24 million more in cap space.

The Rangers, as all Dolan’s teams seem to be, were built with an ancient and archaic vision of what the game should be and how you win. While Trouba’s hits and Gallant’s faces and bitching to the refs may act as a form of discount Viagra to Dolan and any Rangers fan over 50, they just got a face-full of what the game looks like now, and they were miles behind it. Oh, and Connor Bedard might land in the division soon.

This is what happens when you let a loose cannon of an owner come down and tell you what he thinks the score is. The Rangers have been a shell of a good team for two seasons, and the Devils just showed the world how there are no insides beyond that shell.

Follow Sam on Twitter @Felsgate for more hockey thoughts that involve Rick Vaive.