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Make-or-break time for Nick Ritchie on Maple Leafs’ top line

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TORONTO – As recovering left winger Ilya Mikheyev circled the Scotiabank Arena ice Thursday morning, each stride sounded like footsteps coming for a run at a top-six left-wing spot.

The fleet-footed Russian’s return is not imminent.

The pins were only recently extracted from Mikheyev’s broken thumb. He is now stickhandling with lightweight orange pucks and there is no pep on his shot.

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To paraphrase the old Bruno Caboclo line, he’s probably two weeks away from being two weeks away. And with the Toronto Maple Leafs winning nine of 10, there is no need to rush.

At some point, however, a healthy Mikheyev will take someone else’s job.

“We haven’t seen Ilya Mikheyev yet this season. He was a guy that had a tremendous camp for us and preseason, and we were really excited about where he was at before his injury,” coach Sheldon Keefe said.

“So, we’ve got some things to sort through there.”

What needs sorting is the same issue that needed sorting during training camp and early in the season.

As was the case in 2020-21 with Joe Thornton and Jimmy Vesey, the left wings that began in the top six were unable to hold that position throughout.

Michael Bunting has shown flashes, yet has slipped to the fourth line.

Nick Ritchie — in whom the club has investing $5 million for two seasons — is now entering his second extended trial alongside Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner.

This despite registering zero goals, two assists (both on the power play), and a minus-4 through 17 games a Leaf.

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Surely the contract is the reason everyone involved is trying so hard to make him stick up top.

“That is an important role. They are two good players,” Keefe said. “It’s important minutes. You’re gonna play against tough matchups.

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“Right now, it’s Ritchie’s opportunity, and we’re looking to give him a chance here to take hold of it. It hasn’t happened here quite yet, and we’re going to try to stay with it and see what we can get out of it. But we believe we have some options there. We knew coming in that was going to be something [to figure out].”

Bunting and Ondrej Kase have each had looks alongside the big boys, but Keefe loves the consistency he’s getting from the Kase–David Kampf combo on Line 3.

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With reacquired veteran Kyle Clifford set to tune up his game in the AHL, and a wild card such as Josh Ho-Sang putting up seven goals and 10 points through his first 11 games with the Marlies, there are other hungry options.

The pressure is on Ritchie to perform sooner than later.

“He would’ve liked to get off to a better start,” Jason Spezza said. “He’s a guy who, when he gets a little more production, it’ll give him more confidence. Hopefully, we can get that for him because the guy’s had a great attitude.”

The biggest Maple Leaf at least stood out in Tuesday’s win.

When he crushed Preds defenceman Mattias Ekholm into the glass, he freed Matthews and Marner for a Grade-A rush and ignited a fight with Michael McCarron.

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“I was wound up,” Ritchie said. “Just a little bit adrenalin kind of thing.”

But Keefe benched him for a few shifts later in the game as punishment for committing brain-fart slashing minor.

“Not a very smart penalty,” Ritchie conceded. “A little bit of frustration, maybe, but I know not to do that anymore. … You can’t take penalties where you’re not saving a goal or something like that.”

Keefe said he spoke with the penalty-prone Ritchie before the season began about curbing the bad habit.

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“It’s really more about the team, frankly, than it is about Nick, in that case, because I do sympathize with the type of game he has to play to be engaged. And at times you cross that line a little bit, and that’s part of what you get,” Keefe explained. “But you do need to control it there. It’s a very tight game, and retaliatory penalties like that don’t really help the team in any way.”

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Moreover, they don’t help the bench or the front office with feeling like they’ve found a top-line left wing.

And if a forward doesn’t seize that gig internally, there is no doubt Kyle Dubas will go shopping for one come late winter.

Would Filip Forsberg be available for rent by then? Andrew Copp? Robbi Fabbri? The impact left wings could be few and far between.

It’s a topic we’ll surely revisit down the road.

For now, it’s Richie’s time to shine.

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“Just got to keep plugging away and shooting and trying my best and getting to the front of the net,” Ritchie said. “Hopefully something falls soon.”

One-Timers Ondrej Kase needed imaging and missed Wednesday’s practice after his gutsy dying-minutes shot block during Tuesday’s win over Nashville left a mark. He had a positive morning skate and will be a game-time decision … . Kirill Semyonov will also take the warmup skate, just in case … . Timothy Liljegren will be healthy scratched for a consecutive game, as the defence rotation continues … . Jack Campbell (and his silly-good .943 save percentage) gets the start again because why wouldn’t he … . New York Rangers coach Gerard Gallant refused to announce his starter, but after Igor Shesterkin’s 40-save show in this rink a month ago, it’s gotta be him, right?





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Peyton Manning Reveals Why He Stayed In The AFC

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(Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

 

During a player’s time in the NFL, they are usually quiet about their decisions, specifically, why they made them.

Podcasting is quickly becoming an outlet that many former players go to, as is the case for Peyton Manning, and recently, Tom Brady.

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During these podcasts, fans get the opportunity to peek behind the curtain, as players tend to reveal some behind-the-scenes information.

Brady announced his retirement last week and took to his podcast to discuss the situation.

Of his notable guests were Manning, Patrick Mahomes, Bill Belichick, and Rob Gronkowski, who each shared their unique perspectives.

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Manning revealed something in particular that was a shock to many.

During this podcast, Manning announced that the main reason that he didn’t go to a team in the NFC was to keep playing against Brady.

The adage remains true.

To be the best, you have to beat the best.

At the time, and for over 20 years, Brady was the best, and the New England Patriots were the best.

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Once Manning left the Indianapolis Colts, he ended up with the Denver Broncos, where he faced Brady and the Patriots six times.

While on the Broncos, Manning’s record against Brady was 3-3, including a victory in the 2015 AFC Championship.

The Manning-Brady rivalry was one of the best in NFL history.

As of right now, there isn’t a rivalry in the league that is as storied as theirs, although, one is budding.

Mahomes and Joe Burrow is turning into a rivalry, considering they have met in the AFC Championship in back-to-back seasons.

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The post Peyton Manning Reveals Why He Stayed In The AFC appeared first on The Cold Wire.





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A conversation with USFL VP of Operations Daryl Johnston

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USFL VP of Operations Daryl Johnston discusses what the league can do for players, some new faces in the league and more.



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Maple Leafs Mailbag: Is a Jakob Chychrun trade in the works?

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Oh, baby.

The appetite for the trade deadline is reaching full drool.

As evidenced by the number of trade-related questions submitted for this edition of the Maple Leafs Mailbag, fans are antsy and opinionated when it comes to general manager Kyle Dubas’s next move.

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And we don’t blame them.

For variety’s sake, we also fielded questions on the NHL’s controversial playoff format, coach Sheldon Keefe’s goaltending strategy, Michael Bunting and Auston Matthews’ next contracts, and measuring-stick games.

Mostly we talk trades, though.

Let’s give the people what they want.

Aside from the big names we all dream of the Leafs landing, who are some realistic trade targets who could make an impact on the Leaf roster? —@ChrisJackman12

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I’m of the mind that the big names — Timo Meier, Jakob Chychrun, Ryan O’Reilly, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Vladmir Tarasenko — are not unrealistic. (You gotta be willing to pay the price, though. And there was a time I thought Alex Pietrangelo was precisely the perfect — if expensive — target for this franchise.)

Dubas loves finding value others may overlook, he prefers non-rentals and he memorably got outbid around this time last winter for Brandon Hagel, who has fit in nicely with a rival.

Some less-heralded trade candidates this time around include Ivan Barbashev, Vladislav Gavrikov, Luke Schenn, Sam Lafferty, Jake McCabe, Adam Henrique and Max Comtois.

Comtois is an interesting one. He’s a pending RFA with arbitration rights carrying a manageable $2.04-million hit. The 210-pound left wing is only 24.

His production is disappointing (nine points in 40 games) and his penalties are through the roof (70 PIM), but he was scoring at a 20-goal pace just two seasons ago.

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The injured Gustav Nyquist and Sean Monahan are also intriguing candidates for contenders, who may be able to stash them on LTIR until needed.

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Have you heard anything behind the scenes about the whole Chychrun removing any mention of the Coyotes in his IG/Twitter bios and following Matthews, Marner and Bunting? —@jtaracing

Jakob Chychrun spun the rumour mill into a tizzy over the weekend when some noticed that he had listed himself simply as “athlete” on Instagram. On Twitter, however, he’s still using photographs of himself in Coyotes gear.

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No doubt, Chychrun knows a few Leafs from Arizona off-season training and hangouts, and he and Bunting are former teammates. The follows aren’t as fresh as some believed.

Be careful to read too much into things just yet. Chychrun is still a Coyote. He scored twice Monday in Arizona’s win. If a trade was imminent, you’d have to imagine him being held back to avoid injury.

After the win, Chychrun told Coyotes beat reporter Craig Morgan that he had dropped mention of his club affiliation way back in the off-season, when he was prepping himself for a possible trade at the draft.

“It’s just that nobody noticed,” he said, laughing.

Still, the playoff-starved Chychrun would like to be dealt to a contender, and Toronto rightly has interest. So do the Boston Bruins and others.

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None have met GM Bill Armstrong’s price.

Why not? Chychrun is a productive, 24-year-old, top-four defenceman under contract through 2024-25 at a bargain $4.6 million cap hit. He’s a left shot open to right-side usage.

Is there a better Jake Muzzin succession plan?

The catch is, this trade deadline doesn’t have to be Chychrun’s trade deadline.

Should the league just get rid of offside? —@aresis24

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No. It should get rid of offside reviews. And the trapezoid. And those ADD dasherboards. And it should contract and shorten the season to create more intensity.

Will the Leafs ever split the playoffs as Murray for away games, Sammy home? —@ChrisCaine17

History and my gut both say no. (History and my gut also question the availability of Matt Murray the rest of the way here.)

But the severe home-road splits of these guys are wild — at least 33 save percentage points apiece.

“It’s definitely a thing,” Keefe said.

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Ilya Samsonov wins more at home (15-2-1, .924) and loses more on the road (2-4-1, .889).

Murray loses more at Scotiabank Arena (4-6-0, .888) and wins more away from it (12-7-4 .921).

Before Murray suddenly going down with his ankle injury, the Maple Leafs were making a conscious effort to get him more home starts, so there is effort to break the pattern here.

Hey, all of Toronto’s decisions are informed by data, right down to flight times.

Starting Murray in Amalie Arena and using Samsonov exclusively at home — instead of sticking with the hot hand — would be an unconventional call. I’ll believe it when I see it.

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Also: I kinda want to see it.

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Two-part question. A Bunting extension, what does it look like? Following that thought, does an extension impact the type of player Toronto attempts to acquire this deadline? —@Seansky14

There will be desire on both sides to get a Bunting contract done, and I don’t believe his status will or should have much impact on Dubas’s deadline moves.

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With cap space always at a premium for contenders, and with the 27-year-old winger’s career earnings sitting at $2.62 million, the logical path is for the team to give the scrappy pride of Scarborough, Ont., more term to keep his AAV down and still allow for a juicy payday.

Nick Paul’s seven-year, $22.05-million deal in Tampa ($3.15 million cap hit) or Ilya Mikheyev’s four-year, $19-million deal in Vancouver ($4.75 million cap hit) have been trotted out as templates.

Well, they signed their deals after career-best 32-point seasons.

Bunting is gunning for back-to-back 20-goal, 60-point seasons.

Some team would offer him a $5 million AAV on the open market, no? So, does Dubas give eight years to keep Bunting’s cap hit down?

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Remember, this is a support piece — albeit it nice one — who has played only 157 NHL games. The Leafs are thin on the left side and better with Bunting’s emotional investment. Fascinating negotiation to watch.

How many chickens would it take to kill an elephant? —_jwill34

One thousand, nine hundred sixty-seven.

Would now not have been the perfect time to get a new player via trade, given the two-games-in-13-days stretch here? Or do we likely have to wait the month? —@ChellHero34

As keen as most buyers are to get their business done early and give their additions more time to adjust to their new surroundings, the pesky cap gets in the way.

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The longer the Maple Leafs can wait, the more financial flexibility they can free up. Plus, we should get more clarity on the health of Muzzin and Murray this month. That will have LTIR implications.

Another major factor at play is that the sellers have no reason to drop their prices yet. Buyers are hopeful that the ask for impact players, particularly rentals, drops when the realization that they could walk for nothing sets in.

In short: You might have to wait another three weeks.

Doesn’t it make sense to trade Auston Matthews now, if you know that he will just leave (in 2024) like Johnny Gaudreau? Again, to be clear: Not advocating trading him for sake of trading him. But if you know he’s going anyway, why not sell high instead of getting Johnny Hockey’d? —@LeafsRag

No.

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Don’t galaxy-brain this. You have the reigning MVP (and what should be a well-rested one) leading an excellent hockey team into the playoffs. He can’t even sign until July 1.

Let’s see how they do here.

What’s the best possible next 12 months look like for the Leafs? Toronto wins the Cup, the cap unexpectedly goes up to $86 million this summer, Matthews signs an extension for a minimum of four years, and they host an NHL all-star game that goes back to focusing on the game of hockey? —@FOTTML

… Jason Spezza pops out of retirement, signs for minimum wage, scores the Cup-winning goal on Jack Campbell; William Nylander takes a discount; Bunting shrugs and figures $950,000 will buy him all the Tim Hortons he needs; Steve Dangle embarrasses Brad Marchand in a Twitter dustup; Scotiabank Arena drops its ticket prices to $2; free sushi in the nose-bleeders; racism ends; world peace settles in; and they remove Milk and TikTok from one of the nicest uniforms in sport.

Will the Leafs ever wear their newest Reverse Retro jerseys again this year? —@DianeLeafer

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To my understanding, no. Which is a shame. They’re beautiful.

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If you were GM, what would you do for trade deadline? Do you see them making a big splash or doing nothing at all? —@ZakGodard_

I’d go big. But that’s easy to say when my job’s not on the line.

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The Leafs are guaranteed only two more shots with Matthews and Nylander in the fold. Captain John Tavares is getting older. I’d put their late first-round pick in play, and — for an impact return — Matthew Knies, too.

I’d take a run at Chychrun and then try to get a second- or third-line rental forward, because there are more of those available than buyers.

Dubas is smarter and will be more prudent.

He’ll make moves for sure, but I imagine his trades won’t be wild swings. He needs to show his current (or next) employer that he won’t jeopardize the future out of desperation.

My understanding is, the GM sees a path to extend the contention window beyond 2024.

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I wonder if the greatest chances for this core to break through are beginning to peter out. Might Leaf Nation look back at 2021 and the Canadian Division as the best shot?

We saw goalies taking shots during this year’s All-Star Skills Competition. What would you prefer next year: Faster Skater, er, Goalie or the Hardest Shot by a goalie? —@BriGrey

A full-contact, full-gear goalie race would be loads of fun. Especially if Jordan Binnington and Mike Smith got invited. Maybe drag Billy Smith and Ron Hextall into the ring, too.

But it’ll never happen due to injury risk.

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Can you consider a game a “measuring-stick game” when the reigning MVP and Rocket Richard trophy winner isn’t playing? —@HiJing123

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I see where you’re going with this, HiJing123. No doubt, Matthews’ absence from Toronto’s 5-2 loss on Feb. 1 to the Boston Bruins should not go unnoted.

That said, the Leafs’ schedule is bubbling over with matchups that tell us very little of the group’s ability to survive a tough playoff opponent. Not until Feb. 24 versus Minnesota does Toronto face another playoff-positioned team.

So, yes. You can learn something from how Toronto and Boston’s bottom sixes and bluelines and goaltenders compare when they go head-to-head.

Kyle Dubas was taking notes.

Further: There is no guarantee Toronto’s entire Core Four will be healthy come postseason, let alone throughout a deep run. Tampa had to win multiple rounds last spring without Brayden Point. Colorado persevered without Nazem Kadri for a chunk.

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The Leafs lost Tavares early in the 2021 series against Montreal.

The games go on, and these are the risks of investing in top-loaded talent.

How important is home ice this year against the Lightning? It seemed like there was a big difference when Jon Cooper had last change getting Anthony Cirelli out against the Matthews line. —@Milward_MTGO

I see your point. Cirelli is one of the best shutdown centres in the game, and when opponents can roll out a dogged defensive centre who doesn’t care about his own point totals (Phillip Danault is another example), Toronto’s big guns have a history of being less effective.

And yet, I’ve reached a point where I don’t think it matters much for this group. The Leafs held home ice in 2020, 2021 and 2022, and still couldn’t finish the task. (They also had a chance to clinch on home ice in 2019.)

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Their challenge is mental, not geographical. They need to get it done regardless of arena.

“(Home ice) is not something we’re focused on. We’re focused on being as good as we can with our game every day, improving every day,” Keefe said. “Internally, we’re focused on our game, our team, our players, to have things in order as best we can. Results will come for us, and everything else will sort themselves out.”

Would the Leafs benefit from a playoff format change? Because this setup ain’t helping. —@shawnmrphy

Definitely.

So would the Lightning and the Bruins and, to a lesser degree, the other Eastern Conference contenders.

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Three of the NHL’s top five teams (by points percentage) belong to the Atlantic Division. Five of the top five play in the East, while four of the bottom five skate in the West.

Interesting to hear superstars such as Sidney Crosby speak out in favour of a 1-8 seeding over All-Star weekend, as the current seeding is sucking the drama out of some matchups.

“The Toronto-Tampa thing is silly,” Avalanche star Nathan MacKinnon told reporters. “You come second in the conference, you play the third-place team in your conference the first round. I don’t understand that.”

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman is downplaying the appetite for adjusting the format. But the thing has been tweaked 26 times already. It won’t be like this forever.

Funny enough, at the time of this writing, the Maple Leafs would be in line to face the Lightning in Round 1 of a 1-8 seeding format. In 1-16 seeding, Toronto would draw the defending champion Colorado Avalanche.

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Sign us up for seven games of that.

Who wins the Cup this season? —@PizzaPopps

Back in October, I predicted the New York Rangers.

And although the Boston Bruins look unstoppable, I’ll stay pat and bet on Igor Shesterkin’s goaltending, Chris Drury’s deadline additions and the Metropolitan’s path being easier than the Atlantic’s.

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Do you think Timo Meier is a good fit for the Leafs? —@PaulDelser

A 220-pound power forward in his prime? That elusive bona fide top-six winger who’s in the process of trotting out back-to-back 35-goal, 70-point seasons? Absolutely.

The catch is, after the playoffs, you either need to qualify him at $10 million or sign him long-term for — what? — $8.5 million per?

Sounds like a deal more likely to be made by New Jersey.

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There are so many players scoring more goals than Matthews. How does that impact his next contract? —@DavidHo40528505

True: Matthews ranks a surprising 27th in the goal-scoring race and isn’t leading the Leafs in that category. (That would be fellow 2024 UFA Nylander, with 28 tucks.)

Also true: Management would be insane to ask the two-time Rocket Richard winner to take a haircut because he slipped from his 60-goal pace.

Hey, Matty. I know you’ve bought in defensively and won a Hart and are still firmly in your prime, with one more long contract, will probably go down as the greatest Maple Leaf in history. But your goal production has dipped. So … how about you give us a discount?

The open market would explode if a 26-year-old Matthews reached unrestricted free agency, regardless of this season’s totals.

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He holds all the leverage.

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