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NHL hot topics: Debating Leafs' D targets, coaches on hot seat, more

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With the quarter mark of the 2023-24 season in the rearview, theScore's John Matisz and Josh Wegman offer their takes on four topics captivating the hockey world.

Which realistically available defenseman should the Maple Leafs target in a trade?

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Matisz: With regulars Mark Giordano, Timothy Liljegren, and John Klingberg all out for extended periods, the Leafs have an obvious need on the blue line.

They reportedly have an eye on the Flames' Chris Tanev, and I don't hate the idea. But I think Toronto would be better off targeting a responsible right-shot defenseman with a lower cap hit, some upside, or perhaps both.

Nashville's Dante Fabbro, whose name has been on and off the rumor mill for at least a year now, checks both boxes. The Predators' roster is in transition and the 25-year-old strikes me as a typical change-of-scenery guy.

Fabbro's arguably been the Preds' leading defensive defenseman this season. Among the 130 NHL blue-liners to log 300 or more five-on-five minutes, the 2016 first-rounder sits 23rd in high-danger shot attempt suppression - an area in which Toronto struggles. This isn't a small-sample bump in performance, either: Fabbro's posted sound defensive metrics throughout his career.

A pending restricted free agent, Fabbro makes just $2.5 million, and he won't have the counting stats to command a huge raise in the offseason. The Leafs need defensemen for the future, too (Morgan Rielly is the only blue-liner signed past 2024-25). The way I see it, Toronto can invest in Fabbro now and, if necessary, add another rearguard closer to the March 8 trade deadline.

Wegman: I like Fabbro, but for a team under pressure to deliver in the postseason, the battle-tested Tanev is the superior option. He's the exact type of defenseman Toronto needs: elite defensively, gritty, proven, and competent at moving the puck.

Tanev, 33, could slot into one of Toronto's top two defense pairs and make an instant impact. But his presence would be highly valuable beside Rielly, who's never had a sturdy, right-handed partner even remotely close to Tanev's caliber.

Even though Tanev is a pending unrestricted free agent, he could conceivably be re-signed given his prior relationship with Leafs general manager Brad Treliving - who signed Tanev during his time with the Flames - and the fact that he's from Toronto.

Which team is most in need of a coaching change?

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Matisz: The Senators, by a landslide.

D.J. Smith, Ottawa's head coach since May 2019, is sitting on a piping-hot seat after beginning a projected step-forward season with the NHL's ninth-worst points percentage (9-10-0 record). The penalty kill stinks, ranking 27th out of 32 teams in success rate, and the power play isn't much better, sitting at 22nd.

One more number: 9.4%.

Those are Ottawa's current playoff chances, according to MoneyPuck.

Smith no longer has late owner Eugene Melnyk and ex-GM Pierre Dorion to grind through a tough stretch of hockey with. The new owner-executive duo - Michael Andlauer and president Steve Staios - seems hesitant to make a quick decision on coaching, sure, but the season is slipping away quickly.

It's never one thing with losing. But coaching's part of it. A big part of it.

Wegman: While I agree that Ottawa is long overdue for a change behind the bench, no team has more on the line this season than the Penguins. If they don't make a run this year, it's probably over for the aging core of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, and Erik Karlsson.

We've already seen two teams benefit from the new coach effect. The Edmonton Oilers are 6-3-0 under Kris Knoblauch, while the Minnesota Wild are 3-0-0 under John Hynes.

I think Mike Sullivan is an excellent coach, but it seems he's run his course in Pittsburgh. And a fresh voice has historically served the Penguins well. Dan Bylsma was hired midseason before the Pens' 2009 Stanley Cup, and Sullivan himself was hired midseason before championships in 2016 and 2017.

An 11-10-3 start has the Penguins on the verge of missing the playoffs for the second straight campaign - unacceptable for a group clearly in win-now mode. New GM Kyle Dubas can't afford to wait any longer.

Rank the 5 best teams in the top-heavy Western Conference

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Matisz: Coming out of the summer, I had the Golden Knights, Avalanche, Oilers, and Stars as the conference's strongest teams. Nearly two months in, I'm finding it impossible to not pick the Kings as the team to beat out West.

No club in the entire NHL is operating on the same level as L.A. right now.

They're a defensive juggernaut: On a per-game basis, the Kings allow the fewest goals, fewest expected goals, second-fewest shots on goal, second-fewest shot attempts, and fewest slot shots. They attack in waves; the Quinton Byfield-Anze Kopitar-Adrian Kempe line has been unreal, and Phillip Danault, Pierre-Luc Dubois, and Blake Lizotte are centering highly effective lines, too. Oh, and L.A.'s unheralded goaltending duo is, in a word, reliable.

Vegas and Colorado are my No. 2 and No. 3 teams, respectively. The reigning champion Golden Knights - who lost only one key contributor, Reilly Smith, in the offseason - don't look any less dangerous than last year. The top of the Avalanche's lineup, meanwhile, continues to wreak havoc. The slight edge goes to Vegas because I trust their team defense and goaltending a teensy bit more.

Dallas is the Western Conference's clear No. 4, and Vancouver rounds out the top five.

Wegman: For me, the Golden Knights are No. 1 until proven otherwise.

By leading the Western Conference in points - despite some notable injuries - they've done nothing to warrant removing them from that spot. As John noted above, they brought back virtually the same group that ran rampant through the rest of the NHL during the 2023 playoffs. Their physical brand of hockey makes them a tough out in the postseason.

After Vegas, I have the Kings at No. 2, the Avalanche at No. 3, the Stars at No. 4, and the Canucks at a distant No. 5.

I pondered having the Avalanche at No. 2, but their overall lack of depth is concerning to me (more so than Alexandar Georgiev's struggles).

The Canucks, meanwhile, are coming down to earth with a 5-5-0 record in their last 10 games. I still think they're a playoff team, but I don't think they belong among the conference's elite.

The All-Star Game draft is back. What other wrinkle should be added to the weekend?

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Matisz: The league should tap into its NHL Edge tracking data and other statistical measures to determine participants in its skills competition.

Rasmus Kupari, who reached a league-high top speed of 23.95 miles per hour earlier this season, should be in the fastest skater competition. Radko Gudas, the current leader in top shot speed at 101.7 mph, should compete for the hardest shot. Darcy Kuemper, unbeaten on 11 shootout and penalty shots, should be involved in whatever iteration of the shootout we see this year. And the list goes on.

It'd also be neat if All-Star Weekend incorporated prospects somehow. Maybe an on-ice showcase for draft-eligible kids similar to the annual CHL Top Prospects Game - except it'd be broadcast on a night free of NHL games.

Wegman: Enough with having one representative from each team. This isn't house league where everyone gets a participation ribbon. Frankly, there's no reason why someone from the Sharks should be an All-Star simply because they're the best player on the worst team. It takes a spot from a far more deserving player who just happens to be second- or third-best on his team.

I have no issues with the draft format. It should make for good entertainment. But at a future All-Star game, I'd like to see the return of Team North America versus Team World, which was used from 1998-02. International bragging rights - even though All-Star games are basically scrimmages - are more meaningful than conference, or divisional, supremacy.

You might see players try just a little bit harder.

(Advanced stats courtesy Evolving-Hockey and Natural Stat Trick)

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