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Raptors fall to Celtics as reality of log-jammed Eastern Conference setting in

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The fight is on.

After a charming five-game winning streak, the Toronto Raptors have lost three straight. After blowing out the Boston Celtics three weeks ago, the Raptors weren’t up for a repeat.

The Eastern Conference is deep and the Raptors’ path to the promised land of a top-six spot and thus avoiding the play-in tournament is going to be fraught. Even finishing in the 7-10 range isn’t a given.

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It’s not news — it would be if it was otherwise. But after a slow start and a promising surge and now a road-heavy schedule approaching, reality is setting in.

The Raptors fell to 6-6 after dropping a 104-88 rock fight to the Celtics, who were eager to avenge the surprising 32-point blowout the Raptors put on them in October.

The Celtics (5-6) are finding their game after an awful start and all that means is they’re joining an already log-jammed Eastern Conference playoff picture.

“It’s funny, I was just talking to Bobby Webster, our GM, on the way over and I said, ‘Man, the league is competitive this year,’” Raptors head coach Nick Nurse said. “Just watching games on a night-to-night basis, teams are really playing hard and I think there is a lot going on.

“He kind of started a conversation about the East. I won’t repeat it exactly but this will give you a sense. He started going through the teams, listed a whole bunch of them, and he forgot like four. That’s kind of what you do: Brooklyn and Milwaukee, and then you forget four teams that are pretty good. It’s really deep, super competitive. The games each night are really good.”

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Against Boston, the Raptors’ effort was fine, but their execution never quite rose to the required level. They trailed all game and by 12 heading into the fourth quarter and could never get over the hump. They pulled within eight with seven minutes to play but never closer. Their five fourth-quarter turnovers all seemed to come just when the Raptors were gathering some form of momentum, which was a problem.

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“It just takes the momentum, it takes the energy [away],” said Raptors point guard Fred VanVleet. “You know we’re trying, we’re playing hard, but sometimes it doesn’t go your way, so there’s like the normal turnovers that’ll happen, and there’s the unforced turnovers, and I just thought we didn’t have a great rhythm offensively or defensively all night.

“We’ve got to find ways to create it when it’s not there and then usually we can do that on the defensive end, but every stop we got it felt like they got an offensive rebound, when we got a breakout in transition, sometimes the ball just ended up out of bounds, or missed a layup … it was one of those nights.”

On the night the Celtics stole liberally from the Raptors preferred formula: They gathered 12 offensive rebounds — eight by Robert Williams III — to six for Toronto while the Raptors turned it over 18 times to 15 for Boston, the latter a low number for the Raptors, who lead the NBA in opponent turnovers.

Scottie Barnes finished with 21 points, seven rebounds and four assists, one of the few bright spots as Toronto shot 42.9 per cent from the floor and just 6-of-24 from deep, off-setting a decent defensive effort as they held Boston to 44.7 per cent.

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Overall, the Raptors are still trying to find their bearings with Pascal Siakam working himself back into the lineup after off-season shoulder surgery. Siakam remains on a minutes restriction — he played 30 minutes and may be held out of Thursday’s back-to-back in Philadelphia. He contributed defensively, giving the Raptors one more switchable defender while his two steals hinted at his activity on defence, offensively he was clearly out of sync with four turnovers through three quarters, having a hard time simply finding shots and spots on the floor. He finished with eight points on seven shots.

Patience will be required.

“I was just was trying to reassure him and keep telling him: just keep going ’till you figure it out. He’s finding himself, finding his legs,” said VanVleet. “It’s a different lineup, you know, without a big out there most of the time and the spacing is a little different. … I think it’s gonna take some time, obviously, and we would all like for it to be tonight or yesterday or whatever. But, you know, that’s not how those things work. So we just got to stay together and keep working.”

Before the game Nurse was expecting the Celtics would be looking to respond after the Raptors tore them to pieces on the Celtics home opener, which simultaneously suggested Toronto might have a little more upside than pre-season projections would indicate and revealed some cracks in the Celtics foundation.

Boston ended up starting the season 2-5 and had to resort to a players-only meeting to gain their bearings. They responded with blowout wins over Orlando and Miami.

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“I would expect this to be a little bit of a street brawl tonight, I really would. They’re gonna come with some physicality,” Nurse said.

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The Celtics were without Jaylen Brown, their leading scorer so far, but scanning through their key players — Jayson Tatum, Marcus Smart and Al Horford — all came into the game shooting well below their career averages. As a team, the Celtics were shooting just 33.2 per cent from three, 20th in the league.

That can’t last all season and the Celtics were able to find their rhythm in the early going. They shot 5-of-9 from three in the first quarter as Boston jumped out to a 33-25 lead. Toronto going 6-of-14 in the paint – an area of concern all season – also worked in the Celtics’ favour.

But that was hardly the most important statistical advantage Boston staked out. In their first meeting of the season, Toronto had a 21-10 advantage on the offensive glass and a 25-11 edge in turnovers. The result was a massive 100-82 edge in field goals attempted.

The Celtics weren’t going to let that happen a second time on their home floor. The Celtics opened up an 18-point lead and went into the half with a 62-46 edge thanks in part to a 9-4 edge in offensive rebounding and a 6-5 edge in turnovers and a 54-44 advantage in shot attempts.

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The Raptors were missing Khem Birch for the second straight game due to a swollen knee and his absence was felt. He’s not a “true” big but his combination of size, quickness and hoops IQ gives allows him to figure things out most nights.

But without Birch there weren’t any lineup configurations Nurse tried that provided an answer for the blunt force that is Celtics big man Williams, who was 7-of-8 from the floor in the first half and gathered seven offensive rebounds on his own.

The Raptors only counter was rookie Barnes, who had 13 points and six rebounds at half. Take away his numbers and Toronto shot just 37 per cent from the floor and going 3-of-14 from deep didn’t help.

The Raptors showed some fight in the third quarter as they were able to turn the Celtics over with four early steals that gave them a chance to get out in transition. A jumper from Gary Trent Jr. cut Boston’s lead to 11 midway through the quarter and a VanVleet triple trimmed it to nine with 3:44 to play in the quarter. But the Celtics held their ground, taking an 80-68 edge to start the fourth.

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The Raptors couldn’t reel them in from there, and their challenge in the East will be holding their ground against a deep field, Boston just one of many.



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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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