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NHL Power Rankings: Interesting Contract Situations Edition

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Contracts are always a talking point in the salary capped NHL, especially when the spending ceiling may only start creeping up little by little next season.

We’ve already seen some big extensions fall into place this season, especially with defencemen — Morgan Rielly and Adam Fox‘s deals are two recent examples. But just as important are the contracts that need to be extended or moved on from by next summer.

This week’s Power Rankings look at interesting contract situations around the league, and that could also include inflated deals that will be hard to live up to, or possible trade candidates who could rise in rumours as the season progresses.

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As always, the rankings themselves are based on a combination of expectation, overall results and recent results.

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1. Florida Panthers: 10-2-1

This one isn’t an expiring contract — in fact, Sergei Bobrovsky has another four years beyond this left on his deal. It is interesting for a couple of reasons though. No. 1: In the first two years of this deal, Bobrovsky hasn’t played nearly to his Vezina potential, exposing the vast over-payment. No. 2: As future No. 1 and current backup Spencer Knight develops, the two will be jostling for starts.

There was some belief that battle could even begin this season. Then Bobrovsky started with a .948 save percentage and 6-0 record, and when he was sidelined with a short-term upper-body injury, Knight allowed 12 goals in three games, losing Florida’s first two in regulation. This is bound to balance out somewhat, but what if Bobrovsky does find his old form again behind one of the most electric teams in the league?

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2. Carolina Hurricanes: 10-1-0

A $6.1 million-offer sheet may have seemed like a good idea for revenge when the Hurricanes signed Jesperi Kotkaniemi away from the Canadiens, but now we’re looking at a player who has had a shot in a top-six role on one of the NHL’s best offences and struggled to produce — so much so that he’s even been demoted down to the third or fourth lines. He has just two goals at 5-on-5 and one special teams assist. Kotkaniemi is the lowest-ranked Carolina forward in terms of individual expected goals (a measure based on the quality of looks he’s getting) and he’s been doing it on the wing, where he’s been a better fit so far in his career.

Carolina will have to extend RFA Martin Necas this summer as well as, presumably, UFA Vincent Trocheck, so if Kotkaniemi doesn’t start playing like a top-six option it could be hard to pay him over $6 million again, especially with any sort of term attached.

3. Edmonton Oilers: 9-2-0

It makes sense to think the Oilers might look to upgrade their goalie situation at some time before the playoffs.

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Between Mike Smith’s age and Mikko Koskinen‘s unreliability over stretches, a Cup contender might want to improve the tandem somehow. And while the countdown is on for the end of Koskinen’s inflated, Chiarelli-era $4.5 million contract at the end of the year, he’s played well in seven straight starts since Smith became injured. A .920 save percentage and 7-1 record? The Oilers would take that any day from their No. 2.

If he keeps it up, they may not have to address their goalies until the summer.

4. Minnesota Wild: 9-3-0

With Ryan Suter and Zach Parise bought out, the Wild have a heavy price to pay between 2022 and 2025 when a couple of non-roster players will account for over $12 million of cap. Meantime, the Wild are a budding young team with some entry-level contracts coming up and their biggest piece — Kirill Kaprizov — signed to term.

In between is Kevin Fiala, a first-line winger who was on track for 60-point upside the last time we had a scheduled full season. After this season he’ll be an RFA just one year removed from UFA status, so an extension will likely start to buy up some of Fiala’s most expensive years. How expensive? Fiala currently makes $5.1 million against the cap.

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5. Calgary Flames: 7-2-3

A plausible major off-season shake up that never came to be has been washed away by a fantastic start by the Flames.

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Where once we all thought Johnny Gaudreau‘s inevitable departure from the team that drafted him would come either via trade or when his contract expires in 2022, the door for an extension appears to be open. Gaudreau talked about wanting to stick around after last season, but that extension talks would stay out of the public eye — and it was a topic GM Brad Treliving didn’t dive into on the FAN 960 this week.

Now Gaudreau has 14 points in 12 games and leads the league in primary assists at 5-on-5. His line with Elias Lindholm and Matthew Tkachuk has been dynamite on offence and has yet to surrender a 5-on-5 goal against. But, of course, cap considerations could complicate this.

Not only could Gaudreau command a raise from his current $6.75 million cap hit, but Tkachuk is also an RFA this off-season looking at a $9 million qualifying offer, and sudden Team Canada hopeful Andrew Mangiapane will also be in for steep raise. It could end up being a challenge for Treliving to keep all his key players in place.

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6. Winnipeg Jets: 6-3-3

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Both sides of last year’s big Winnipeg-Columbus trade have important contracts to deal with next summer, but while the jury is still out on Patrik Laine‘s fit with the Jackets, Pierre-Luc Dubois looks much more like the player the Jets thought they were getting than he did last season.

When Dubois arrived in Winnipeg he had to go through quarantine and was injured shortly after — he just never got comfortable. So far this season, though, he has 11 points in 12 games, is leading the top line on the team and complementing Kyle Connor’s elite scoring. No Jets forward has a better 5-on-5 shot differential or on-ice expected goal differential than Dubois.

7. Washington Capitals: 6-2-4

A first-round pick in 2015, Ilya Samsonov figured to be the heir apparent to Braden Holtby in Washington’s crease, but that transition has been bumpy to say the least.

With Holtby out of the picture last season, Samsonov contracted COVID and struggled to perform at the same level as backup Vitek Vanecek, who was the Game 1 playoff starter and only lost the job when he was injured. Early this season, Samsonov has again been outperformed by Vanecek and has a sub-.900 save percentage. Both of these goalies are RFAs at the end of the season and how they perform the rest of the way will greatly influence the team’s approach to those extensions.

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8. Toronto Maple Leafs: 8-5-1

After signing Morgan Rielly to an extension, GM Kyle Dubas talked about prioritizing cap space for the goaltender position, and with Petr Mrazek already signed three years, that means figuring out how to keep Jack Campbell is front of mind for the organization. It might be a tight squeeze and won’t get any easier at the rate Campbell is going. Off to a 7-3-1 start with a .936 save rate, Campbell has allowed two goals or less in five of his past six games and leads the league in goals saved above expected — he finished 13th in the stat last season.

It seems a $5 million AAV is the base line for Campbell, but if he’s one of the best two options on the UFA market, how high could that number realistically go?

9. Tampa Bay Lightning: 6-3-3

Will Ondrej Palat be the next cap casualty in Tampa Bay? The Lightning are already projected to have almost no cap space before re-signing anyone this year, so unless Palat cuts his $5.3 million salary he could be a tough one to keep. A top line left winger on this team, Palat has eight points in 12 games and has as many 5-on-5 goals as Brayden Point and Steven Stamkos.

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10. St. Louis Blues: 8-2-1

Vladimir Tarasenko asked for a trade long ago, but it’s been difficult moving a $7.5 million player who’s struggled to score and dealt with multiple recent shoulder surgeries. He’s shown some life again early this season, though a very fast start has cooled somewhat in November. Tarasenko still has another year left on his contract, so while his trade value would rise again with strong play, it would also make him more valuable to keep around.

11. Columbus Blue Jackets: 7-3-0

Currently injured, Patrik Laine will miss the next 4-6 weeks with an oblique injury that adds another complicating mix to his contract and possible future in Columbus. The Jackets figured they were acquiring one of the league’s top snipers when Laine arrived last season, then he scored six goals in his first 10 games — and that was the peak. Laine had his minutes slashed, found himself benched and just never got fully engaged, finishing with 10 goals in 45 games with Columbus. Then he was an RFA and a possible trade candidate, until he signed a one-year extension for $7.5 million that kicked the ultimate decision down the road a bit.

Laine again will be an RFA in 2022 and after that, eligible for unrestricted free agency. His start this year was much better — three goals and 10 points in nine games until his injury. But the next time we see him he’ll be back from extended time off to injury and some question how he’ll respond. These two sides still seem to be feeling each other out. Will Columbus be a team good enough for Laine to be happy with? Will Laine be a consistent enough producer for the Jackets to invest tons of money and term in? Or does he pop up in trade rumours once more?

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12. New York Rangers: 7-3-3

The Rangers got an important piece of business done earlier this month, signing Adam Fox to a seven-year extension with a $9.5 million cap hit. Why is that interesting? Fox may have left money on the table, which isn’t the most surprising thing given he came out of the NCAA with a clear desire and goal to play only for New York.

Now, $9.5 million is still a hefty amount, but the reigning Norris Trophy winner is off to another fantastic start, leading all NHL defencemen with 13 points in 13 games. Had Fox really pushed it he could have been a market-setting contract, but instead he’ll fall in line with Charlie McAvoy and Seth Jones, and wind up with the fourth-most expensive defence contract in the league.

13. Los Angeles Kings: 7-5-1

Cal Petersen hasn’t wrestled the No. 1 job away from Jonathan Quick so easily this season as the two have swapped starts. Petersen will eventually be the lead guy, though. Signed to a three-year extension with a $5 million cap hit that kicks in next season, Petersen’s new contract is something of a baseline market setter for next year’s UFA goalie class, led by Jack Campbell and Darcy Kuemper.

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14. Philadelphia Flyers: 6-3-2

There’s a real question if this will be Claude Giroux‘s last season in Philadelphia, leaving the Flyers looking for their next captain. Giroux has been a regular and important player in Philadelphia for over 10 years, but the team has not found any consistency through much of that period. Giroux is off to a fast start with 12 points in 11 games and if he can maintain that pace for the full season it might leave the Flyers with an interesting situation of having to give him a raise on $8.275 million, or keep their cap options open.

15. Anaheim Ducks: 7-4-3

Written off as lottery fodder before the season began, the Ducks are actually hanging around through 14 games and have won five games in a row (which followed a stretch of six straight losses). Troy Terry is the talk of the league and congratulations if you picked him off waivers in your fantasy league early on. Jamie Drysdale marvels with his skating and puck play from the back end. Isac Lundestrom has been solid, Trevor Zegras has flashed, and you can see how the future may eventually come together here.

But Ryan Getzlaf is the curious contract. He signed a one-year extension to stay with Anaheim, but that followed rumours that he could be dealt as a rental at last year’s deadline. Getzlaf is already one assist shy and five points short of what he produced in 48 games last season and his new $3 million cap hit would be affordable to just about anyone by deadline time in March. Whether or not his name comes up in rumours again this season will entirely depend on if the Ducks can stay in the race.

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16. New York Islanders: 5-3-2

It’s been a slow build for defenceman Noah Dobson, the 12th overall pick in the 2018 draft. His ice time has gradually ticked up over three years, and while he’s still used as a third-pair defender at even strength, he’s carving out more of a role for himself on the power play. His talent is undeniable and in a lot of other organizations he may have been afforded greater opportunity by now. That likely means his next contract, up this summer, leans more towards a cheap bridge deal than anything close to the huge extensions we’ve seen other young defencemen get. But Dobson has all the potential to eventually hit big as he moves up the depth chart.

17. Boston Bruins: 6-4-0

Patrice Bergeron is 36 years old, in the final year of his contract and likely has one more go with Team Canada at the Olympics. He was asked about his future before this season started, and only said he was focused on this season and would make that decision at a later date. It’s hard to imagine he’d leave the Bruins for another team, but retirement? That only gets more likely every year from here on. He’s still producing and leading one of the league’s top lines down the middle — when Bergeron is on the ice, the Bruins have controlled 62 per cent of the shots at 5-on-5. Only eight other forwards with 10 games played have a better rate this season.

Honourable mention here to the curious non-contract of Tuukka Rask. Recovering from a torn labrum in his hip, Rask is a UFA who could possibly be back around February. How that plays out is anyone’s guess, but he was seen on the ice in Boston this week.

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18. San Jose Sharks: 7-4-1

If things stayed off the rails in San Jose this season it would be easy for Tomas Hertl to walk away in free agency. Now things aren’t going so poorly, though, fourth in the Pacific and Hertl with nine points in 12 games. But it’s unclear if he wants to stick around or try something new — and if he’s not signed by the deadline it’ll be difficult for the Sharks not to trade him.

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19. Colorado Avalanche: 4-5-1

There’s a three-way tie for top scorer on the Avs so far: Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog and…Nazem Kadri. With 10 points in 10 games, Kadri has been an important contributor on offence playing as their No. 2 centre, but when MacKinnon missed two games Kadri stepped into his top-line role and posted four points in two games.

Importantly, as a bit of an agitator, Kadri has taken one minor penalty so far and drawn three, and it’s crucial for him to stay in the positive there. He can walk that line and sometimes step over it, as we’ve seen through his multiple playoff suspensions that ultimately led to his trade out of Toronto. Now he’s in a crucial season again.

While Kadri’s production has seen an uptick so far, it dipped in the shortened 2021 calendar, and that season finished with yet another post-season suspension (this time for eight games). He’s on an expiring contract and bound to get a raise from his $4.5 million cap hit, but how will the Avalanche weigh his value vs. his risk? MacKinnon will be in line for a major pay day a year from now and further investment will need to be made on the goalies this summer.

20. New Jersey Devils: 6-3-2

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Jack Hughes‘ breakout season has been postponed at least another few weeks as he recovers from a shoulder injury, but he looked up to meeting those expectations in the first two games he did play. An RFA in the off-season, Hughes’ next deal will be fascinating because the Devils wasted no time locking in their other young centre and top pick, Nico Hischier, to a big-money, long-term deal when his ELC expired.

21. Pittsburgh Penguins: 4-3-4

A UFA at season’s end, Evgeni Malkin has still not played a game this season. The Penguins are going to have to start turning this thing over eventually, but they could try and run it back with Malkin and Kris Letang the same as ever, if the price to retain makes sense. You know they’re not blowing it up as long as Sidney Crosby is around. Malkin is 35 years old now, and coming off knee surgery when he does return.

22. Detroit Red Wings: 7-5-2

A first-round pick in 2011, Vladislav Namestnikov has been inconsistent as a player and his career-best 22 goals and 48 points from 2017-18 seemed a distant memory. He scored eight times in 53 games with the Wings last season and is already one off that total in 2021-22. He’s bound to slow down somewhat as he’s outshot his expected goal rate (and it’s hard to visualize him as a 40-goal scorer anyway) but he’s filling a third-line role and producing for this young team, which could either be a decent and relatively cheap piece to move forward with if the Wings extend him, or perhaps more likely, a pretty good trade chip for teams seeking scoring depth at the deadline. How that plays out either way will depend on what level Namestnikov can keep producing at this season.

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23. Nashville Predators: 7-5-1

Off to a level start, the Predators remain in a weird place among the middle of the pack. It’s not that they’re going to rebuild through the draft, but it’s come to a crossroads where decisions need to be made on certain players. Viktor Arvidsson was dealt to Los Angeles. Pekka Rinne retired. Mattias Ekholm was re-signed.

Next up is Filip Forsberg a UFA at season’s end who has been a leading piece of some solid Nashville teams of the recent past. But he’s been slowed by injury and is currently on the sideline again, week-to-week with an upper-body injury. So, do they re-sign him and possibly make Forbserg the highest-paid forward on the team, or will they go the trade route instead?

24. Vegas Golden Knights: 7-6-0

With Jack Eichel in the fold, the Golden Knights will have some cap gymnastics to pull off later this season because, when everyone is healthy, they figure to be over the cap by roughly $10 million. So how to get under?

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It seems another trade is inevitable and pending UFA Reilly Smith lines up as a sensible cap casualty. He counts for $5 million against the cap, so he won’t get the Golden Knights below the threshold on his own, but no other single player will move that needle more, unless we start considering Max Pacioretty as a trade option (though he has a modified NTC where Reilly has none). Smith is one of the few original Golden Knights still with the team and he’s so far gotten the most — and the best — scoring chances of any Vegas player this season.

25. Vancouver Canucks: 5-6-2

The Canucks made a big splash in the off-season in a trade with Arizona and while Conor Garland was welcomed with open arms, defenceman Oliver Ekman-Larsson came with a lot more pessimism because of a $7.26-million cap hit that will be on Vancouver’s books for six years. OEL will be in tough to play up to that contract, but the important thing now is that he’s not a troubling liability and fits in neatly (and quietly) to Vancouver’s top four.

So what have the early results been? When OEL is on the ice at 5-on-5 the Canucks have outscored their competition 8-3 and outshot them 105-96 — both marks are the best differentials among Canucks defencemen. He’s not being sheltered much either, with more defensive zone starts than other Canucks blueliners. And while the offence hasn’t come for him yet, that could be on the way, as no Canucks player has taken more shots that OEL’s 44.

26. Buffalo Sabres: 5-5-2

Victor Olofsson has been a nice seventh-round find for the Buffalo Sabres, but as an arbitration eligible RFA next summer, what should his next contract look like? He’s been a goal scorer for them, though it should be noted his totals declined in his second season and most of that production has come on the power play. In a very small sample early this season, he’s outscored his expected goal rate at 5-on-5. The Sabres need young scorers like him, so it’s not a question of if they should keep him or not, but what his value is.

Buffalo’s future salary cap flexibility figures to be a huge asset for them, even with Jeff Skinner’s inflated $9 million on the books. Maybe Olofsson comes out to a bridge contract to get some more views, but it could be risky investing too much term and money in him at this point.

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27. Dallas Stars: 4-6-2

The defence market has gone wild in the pandemic seasons, with Seth Jones, Adam Fox, Cale Makar and Dougie Hamilton all signing for at least $9 million just in the past few months. Dallas has already given hefty contracts to Esa Lindell ($5.8 million) and Miro Heiskanen ($8.45 million) on the blue line and now John Klingberg will be eyeing a competitive salary with his own unrestricted free agency on the horizon this summer.

But while Klingberg would be a highly coveted UFA should he hit the market and worth the big contract he’ll inevitably pull in, he might not be the best defenceman on his own team. And, heck, Dallas doesn’t have even one regulation win over a month into the season, so maybe they’re not the solid bounce-back team we thought they were. In that case, perhaps Klingberg becomes a tradable asset with a $4.25-million expiring contract that’d be affordable to a lot of teams come deadline season.

28. Seattle Kraken: 4-8-1

The Kraken are off to a slow start in the Pacific and, while it’s too early to draw any definitive conclusions, every loss pushes them closer to the seller category.

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Enter Mark Giordano, who would check a lot of boxes for defence-hungry contenders in March. Giordano has a positive on-ice shot differential and leads the Kraken blue line with seven points in 13 games. It’s fair to start contemplating who he might play for next.

29. Chicago Blackhawks: 3-9-2

From Vezina Trophy winner to maybe not even cracking Canada’s goalie-starved Olympic team, Marc-Andre Fleury has, by the numbers, been one of the league’s worst goalies so far this year, with a minus-5.87 goals saved above expected rate that is better than only Philipp Grubauer and Carter Hutton.

Of course, Chicago’s atrocious defence has played a role, with only five other teams allowing more 5-on-5 scoring chances per 60 minutes. The Blackhawks erroneously figured they were out of a rebuild and that’s going to lead to a host of other problems. But Fleury is a rental who, at this rate, you’d think would be a trade candidate.

30. Ottawa Senators: 3-8-1

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Earning $6.25 million against the cap through 2023-24, Matt Murray hasn’t proven to be worth that relative to market value yet, and now he has 23-year-old Filip Gustavsson trying to steal away some time. Can Murray settle in, stay healthy and help put the Sens ahead of schedule, or will it prove crucial to have Gustavsson come along?

31. Montreal Canadiens: 3-10-1

At $5.5 million for the long term, Josh Anderson‘s contract is always going to be a conversation point because of his role and importance to the team, and the conditions he signed this deal under. Anderson had one really good season in Columbus, scoring 27 goals, but that was followed by a single tally in 26 games and a trade request.

When the Habs acquired him, they immediately signed him for seven years. As the Habs have struggled to score, Anderson has found a way to get a decent amount of quality looks and has scored three goals, but his consistency has often been a question here. It’s hard to gauge just what the Habs are now, following a trip to the Stanley Cup Final in one of the weirdest seasons we’ll ever see, but Anderson must be an impact player and someone who can at least sniff 30 goals most years for the contract to be worth it.

32. Arizona Coyotes: 1-11-1

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The Coyotes reset much of their roster over the summer, but a couple moveable pieces remain and Phil Kessel tops that list. In the final year of his contract with a $6.8-million cap hit, Kessel has five points in 13 games, most of which has come on the power play.

It’s hard to get a read on the 34-year-old in such a dreadful situation, but Kessel’s underlying numbers show a player who is still a leader on this team in terms of generating opportunities. A proven playoff performer, we’ve seen Kessel be added as a final piece in a Cup run before and there’s bound to be a contender who’ll be interested in him again this season around March.





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As Raptors navigate slumps, upcoming winnable matchups could be cure

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TORONTO — The simplest way for the Toronto Raptors to solve their problems — and they have a few — is to win some games, maybe three in a row or something.

Their chance might be at hand: sure the Lo Angeles Lakers visit Wednesday as one of the hottest teams in the league having won eight of their last 10 (as of Monday), riding the MVP-level play of Anthony Davis and the return to health of LeBron James.

But the Lakers will be arriving from Cleveland playing on the second night of a back-to-back in the middle of a six-game road trip. They are still a sub-.500 team. There is a win there if the Raptors can take it.

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And after that Toronto heads to Orlando for a pair of games against a Magic team that is young, short-handed, and focused on the draft lottery, as the Raptors saw for themselves with an easy win over Orlando on Saturday. As long as the Raptors pay attention to the job at hand, sweeping Florida is a reasonable expectation.

The point being: things can change quickly in the NBA. Just when things are looking bleak, they can turn around, the Lakers being a perfect example. After a 2-10 start that looked disastrous they strung some wins together — helped along by a friendly schedule — and things don’t seem so bad for the moment.

The Raptors can’t say the same thing, having been blown out twice on the road last week by good teams and — after a comfortable win over Orlando — punting an otherwise winnable game against the Boston Celtics, who were playing on the second night of a back-to-back and missing two starters and their sixth man.

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The Raptors think highly of themselves: “I think we’re a really good team. I think we’ve got a lot of talent, we got good players,” said Fred VanVleet. “But there’s a level that you have to get to with consistency and execution and attention to detail. And those are things that we’re struggling to know right now.”

No one wants to put a finger on exactly what the problem is, but you don’t have to read too deeply between the lines to ascertain that yes, there are issues: tactics, personnel, vibe — something seems off.

“We’re losing, it’s not fun. We don’t like losing,” said Pascal Siakam Monday. “This organization’s not about losing and not winning games is not part of who we are. So obviously you know the mood’s gonna be a little different … we don’t want to just let the losses kind of take us down and take the mood and fun out everything. Just gotta keep it fun. And keep working because (we) believe that’s what’s going to get us out of it.”

In the meantime, the spotlight keeps searching for a scapegoat. Recently it was Gary Trent Jr. and his shooting woes that got examined, with the shooting guard eventually being moved to the bench where he’s been productive.

Then rookie Scottie Barnes was under the glare after a long stretch of poor play. The upbeat, bouncy, 20-year-old rookie energy that made him such a darling last season seems to have gone into hiding along with his ability to finish.

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Barnes also made a brief visit to the bench and subsequently had a private meeting with Raptors brass in New York on Friday. Barnes’ defence still needs to pick up, but he’s at least converting offensively on a more simplified shot menu with a greater emphasis on getting to the rim. He’s averaging 18.3 points and 10 rebounds on 61.7 per cent shooting in his last three games.

Right now it’s VanVleet’s turn to be poked and prodded. A year ago VanVleet was in the midst of the best stretch of his career. Over a torrid 34-game period beginning in late October until he cooled off in early January, VanVleet averaged 23 points a game while shooting 42.5 per cent from three on over 10 attempts a game. He became an all-star.

But unless something changes dramatically, VanVleet will have all-star weekend off come February. He’s heading into Wednesday’s game shooting just 5-of-28 from three over his last four games and shooting just 34 per cent from three for the season, a career low. Making things worse, the 28-year-old is struggling to finish in the lane, which has never been a strong point for the six-footer. This season he’s shooting just 48.6 per cent at the rim — his worst since becoming a regular — compared with 64.9 per cent last season, which was a career-best. He’s averaging 16.3 points a game compared to 20.3 last season.

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VanVleet is normally as plain-spoken as they come, but he didn’t want to elaborate too much on his struggles — which go back to last season given he shot just 29 per cent from three after the all-star break.

“I mean there’s a lot going on. I mean, like, a lot going on all across the board,” he said when asked if teams were covering him differently recently. “I’m not really going to run down the list with you guys, I’ll just play better and then you’ll have better things to talk about. But there’s definitely a lot of reasons for the situation that I’m in. I’m going to continue to keep working, being professional and giving everything I’ve got when I step out there. So hopefully I’ll turn it around soon.”

He also said he felt his shooting slump was mostly in his head at this point: “Once you’re in it it’s all just mental. There’s nothing really more to it.”

Later on head coach Nick Nurse said the data gathered by the analytics system the Raptors have at their practice facility shows that VanVleet’s ball flight is a little wonky. “Normally his numbers on his right/left, his straightness, are off the charts,” said Nurse. “…that’s the one that is got a little bit of a wrinkle for him right now that he’s got to get ironed out.”

It probably doesn’t help that with VanVleet finishing in the lane so poorly teams can be more aggressive crowding him at the three-point line — another element Nurse touched on — making life more difficult for VanVleet there, too.

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But whatever the Raptors’ issues — be they as simple as their best three-point shooter being in a deep slump or something possibly deeper and more systemic — the easiest way to put them to rest in the short term is to string together some wins.

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The Raptors were 11-13 at the same stage last season and in 12th place and were still at .500 in late January before finishing the season with a 25-11 push and moving all the way up to fifth place.

“I know it doesn’t feel like [it] … because maybe expectations are so much higher or whatever, but I would say we are really on the right track,” said Nurse. “We are making some progress … we have had a rough year injury-wise. So I think on one hand you can look at it and say we are doing ok. We are hanging in here with a lot of tough breaks and if we just hang in there and keep improving a little bit, we will get things squared away and be really tough to beat.”

That’s the optimistic view and quite possibly the proper view. But it will be a lot easier to sell with some wins — something a return to form by VanVleet would help with — and the sooner the better.

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