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The Edge of Lori: Too soon to panic

By Lori Bennett

Sports Columnist

NHL Noise

How early is too early to panic? Some NHL teams are asking that question already.

After missing the playoffs last year, the Vancouver Canucks had a fairly uneventful summer where player personnel is concerned. They addressed a contract or two and brought in some new executives, but one would be hard-pressed to look at on ice product and expect a dramatic difference from last year.

The Canucks opened their season with four straight losses, all sustained after squandering a lead. On opening night, they lost to the Edmonton Oilers after holding a three-goal lead. They blew a two-goal in a loss to the Philadelphia Flyers. They were leading 4-2 against Washington and still lost following four unanswered goals from the Capitals. On Tuesday, the Canucks lost a fourth straight game after giving up a lead. The consolation was the loser point they gained from the overtime loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets. On Thursday they earned another loser point against the Minnesota Wild in a game they’d led at two different points.

Boudreau has expressed his frustration in post-game pressers, calling his team “mentally weak” and “afraid to win”. Is the coach feeling the pressure? Boudreau was hired last December to replace Travis Green after the team went 8-15-2 to start the season. He was given a two-year deal at the time and was able to get a little more out of the roster than his predecessor, at one point raising hopes that the Canucks could sneak into the post-season.

Boudreau had wanted a contract extension in the summer, which was not forthcoming. His contract included an out-clause, and his decision to return for another season was not immediate. With the team limping out of the gate, and with what appears to be a lukewarm relationship between the coach and management, a parting of ways might still be realized before the contract comes to an end.

Boudreau is not the only coach feeling the heat. Last week I predicted Sheldon Keefe would not last the whole season in Toronto, and nothing that’s happened since has shifted my view. Keefe’s frustration is showing and growing after just a few games.

Following the loss on opening night to the Montreal Canadiens, the team who finished last place last season, Keefe called his team’s performance unacceptable. The commentary went downhill from there. When they lost to the Arizona Coyotes on Monday night, Keefe was a little more precise in his criticism. “The difference between us and Arizona is that we have elite players, and our elite players didn’t play like elite players.” Ouch.

On Wednesday, Keefe was in front of reporters again, trying to put the toothpaste back in the tube, saying he had “used some of the wrong words” in trying to explain where the Maple Leafs had fallen short against the Coyotes.

Keefe finds himself in a dicey situation. No one watching would disagree with his assessment, but there is no question that those superstars he’s calling out have more clout than any coach. Owners and management know how rare some of these players are, and if a coach can’t pull the best out of them, they’ll give someone else a go.

Both Keefe and GM Kyle Dubas are under the microscope. The years of tanking in Toronto yielded a stacked roster, but that roster is yet to make it out of the first round of the playoffs. On Thursday night, the Leafs delivered a 3-2 overtime win against the Dallas Stars to ward off the wolves for a bit.

In Montreal, another type of panic is settling in. The Canadiens are in the middle of a rebuild and, after drafting Juraj Slafkovsky first overall last year, fans would love to add another high pick this summer. This draft is stacked with elite talent that would go a long way to building a consistent contender. But players don’t care about rebuilds and they surely don’t buy into tanking. Before the season began, Captain Nick Suzuki pronounced that this team would surprise people. So far, his prophecy is proving accurate.

The Habs beat the Leafs on opening night. After losing a couple, they pulled off another win against Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins. Then on Thursday night, the Canadiens handed the Arizona Coyotes the pummeling they expected to get in Toronto.

Coach Martin St. Louis is leading this crew of kids to deliver exciting performances that are thrilling fans, while making that high pick less likely. Can they sustain it?

The fear for fans is another mediocre year where the Canadiens are not strong enough to make the playoffs and do damage, but not weak enough to nab the high pick so they can get better. As much as fans fear being stuck in the middle, it’s hard not to love what these young players are delivering so far.

Raptors Racket

The Toronto Raptors opened the 2022-23 season on Wednesday night with a win against the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Raps fell behind, and got in a little foul trouble, but outscored the Cavs 32-21 in the fourth quarter for the 108-105 win. The win was earned despite a little injury grief the Raptors are already experiencing, with Chris Boucher and Otto Porter Jr. unable to play. Rookie Christian Koloko had an impressive first game, demonstrating the defensive prowess he can bring to Toronto.

The Raptors were due to play two road games this past weekend against the Brooklyn Nets and the Miami Heat.

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