Matt Larkin

Matt Larkin is a writer and editor at The Hockey News. He's been part of the THN team since 2011, but he's been married to hockey since he got beat up for collecting NHL sticker books in the mid-1980s. If you like strong opinions on the game itself, fantasy hockey tips and a hefty dose of pop culture in your readings, he's your man. And yes, the eyebrows are real.

Taylor Hall says the honest thing, not the ‘right’ thing, about trade to Devils

Matt Larkin
Taylor Hall. (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Taylor Hall belonged to an Edmonton Oilers core often derided among hockey pundits for its lack of on-ice maturity. The group, which included first overall picks Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Nail Yakupov, dazzled with offensive skill but was criticized for a lack of defensive awareness, particularly Hall and Yakupov. They were paid like star players and honored as celebrities in Edmonton despite never making the playoffs.

But a conversation with Hall after his trade to the New Jersey Devils, however, bursts that bubble of supposed entitlement. He addressed a group of reporters in a scrum at BioSteel’s 2016 Pro Hockey Camp Tuesday in Toronto, and the one word he evoked: maturity. He spoke with a world-weariness, choosing frank answers to questions instead of cliches.

Was the stunning 1-for-1 trade sending left winger Hall to the Devils for defenseman Adam Larsson “just part of the game”? Not for Hall. He took it personally. It did not roll off his back by any means. He made that clear when one reporter asked him if the trade felt like breaking up with a lover.

“Yeah, in the sense that, in a breakup, you just try to forget about it as quick as you can, right?” Hall said. “And that’s what I’m trying to do. It’s not easy.”

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The pressure is on Dylan Strome – because of Dylan Strome

Matt Larkin
Dylan Strome. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Connor McDavid, fast on his way to becoming the face of the NHL, understandably attracted a lot of attention at BioSteel’s 2016 Pro Hockey Camp this week in Toronto. Excited kids followed him everywhere he went. So did reporters and photographers. It was hard to tell them apart from the kids.

But as he fiddled around working on his skills Tuesday, he had a worthy playmate. His old Erie Otters teammate, Dylan Strome, was out there, too, stride for stride. They worked together on some passing drills. They chatted. They competed in a raucous target shooting contest, much to the tykes’ delight from the rafters of St. Michael’s College School Arena. What stood out: Strome looked like he belonged out there, even with McDavid. We know No. 97’s raw tools are among the very best in the NHL already, but Strome flashed a lot of skill, too.
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THN’s top 200 fantasy players for 2016-17

Matt Larkin
Carey Price (Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images)

The World Cup of Hockey should be an entertaining distraction this September. It will cut into some players’ prep time for the 2016-17 NHL season, and the same inconvenience applies to fantasy pool GMs. You’ll want to have a strong sense of your personal player rankings by September, as watching the World Cup will cut into your studying time.

I’m here to help with my annual top 200 player rankings. This list blends goalies and skaters into a master breakdown tailored for anyone drafting in leagues with multiple stat categories. The rankings below are based on a standard Yahoo head-to-head format with the following categories: goals, assists, plus-minus, penalty minutes, power play points, wins, goals-against average, save percentage and shutouts.

As I say every year, these are fantasy rankings, not real-life rankings. I do not believe Artemi Panarin is better than Jonathan Toews at hockey, but I do believe Panarin will deliver more points for your pool.

Note the conspicuous absence of goalies in this initial draft of the top 200. I count only 17 guaranteed what I call a “true starter’s workload” of 50 games or more. The timeshare situation creates a nightmare for fantasy GMs. If you don’t get one of the elite starters, you can wait until late in your draft to take a stopper.

With that, let’s begin. Watch for periodic ranking updates throughout August and September leading up to the season. Share any disagreements and point out any glaring omissions in the comment section. Thanks!

Aug. 19 update: Just a quick rejig here. The list has had time to breathe, so I’ll reassess a couple of my ranking decisions. We won’t see major movements until training camps and the World Cup arrive.

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Who will be 2016-17’s breakout NHL stars?

Matt Larkin
Jake Allen (Jeff Curry/NHLI via Getty Images)

Martin Jones was a revelation in the San Jose Sharks’ crease last season. He appeared n more games than all but four goalies. He finished second in the NHL in shutouts, third in wins and seventh in goals-against average. His sample size entering 2015-16, after the L.A. Kings traded him, was tiny, but Jones generated plenty of buzz nonetheless. There was a reason Sharks GM Doug Wilson felt Jones was worth a first-round pick. Plenty of prognosticators expected Jones would bust out, and he did.

Who will take the mantle from Jones and become a star in 2016-17? Let’s look at some breakthrough performers from last season and who might follow in their footsteps next.

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Why next season’s Dallas Stars have a higher ceiling – and a lower floor

Matt Larkin
Stephen Johns and Kari Lehtonen. Photo by Glenn James/NHLI via Getty Images)

Ending a season with a 6-1 home loss in a Game 7 obviously leaves a bitter aftertaste. But it could’ve been worse for the Dallas Stars.

The lopsided letdown in the Central Division final was embarrassing but hardly signified the end of something. Quite the opposite. The Stars are beginning something: an era of what might be sustained dominance. There’s an excellent chance we merely look back on 2015-16 as their warmup act.

The Stars jumped from out of the post-season to second overall in the NHL and first in the Central Division. They got a second straight MVP-caliber year from captain Jamie Benn. Tyler Seguin continued to score at an elite pace. Sophomore D-man John Klingberg busted out for 58 points. The versatile Cody Eakin has become one of the game’s best third-line centers, and Jason Spezza’s 33 goals were one short of his career high. The Stars led the league in scoring and finished second in 5-on-5 Corsi For Per 60. They were an offensive juggernaut, and they have room to grow in that regard. Power winger Valeri Nichushkin hasn’t realized his potential yet but is still just 21. Prospects Jason Dickinson and Brett Ritchie lurk on the roster bubble, with Denis Gurianov on the way eventually.

The Stars also came within one victory of the Western Conference final without Seguin, who missed all but one playoff game with an Achilles injury. So they have a lot going for them, especially on offense. Their best players remain in their 20s. Franchise cornerstones Benn and Klingberg are signed long term. This team has as high a ceiling as any in the NHL. That’s why we picked Dallas to reach the Stanley Cup final in our 2016-17 THN Yearbook.

Note that we didn’t pick them to win it all, however. The Stars are a strange beast in that, for all their upside, they have a significant amount of downside in 2016-17, too. Or they at least raise a truckload of questions.

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Can NHL 17 make hockey’s biggest video game franchise great again?

Matt Larkin
Photo Courtesy of EA Sports

Gone are the days when hockey video games were practically carved out of concrete before their release dates. NHL ’96 was NHL ’96. Once it hit stores, that was the game, for better or worse. If you found a glitch goal, a cheap way to score, too bad.

But the times have changed. We live in the era when the online experience of any games, let alone sports games, trumps the individual “campaign” experience. And online players have formed their own highly vocal communities. If there’s a problem with a game, they let the world know about it.

Companies like EA Sports can now release beta modes of their games to get feedback before finalizing their releases. And even “finalizing” doesn’t carry the same meaning anymore, as the game makers can tweak their products on the fly based on how users react and comment.

“We’re at the point now where our fans will message us via social media or whatever avenue it is and say ‘Hey, listen, the scoring from the top of the slot, going top shelf or to the glove-hand side of the goalie is way too overpowering. Can you guys dial it back?’ ” said Sean Ramjagsingh, head producer of EA Sports’ NHL series since 2009. “We can make changes hourly if we wanted to right now based on the feedback that we’re getting.”

This new era is a blessing for the most part, but it’s also a curse sometimes. Gamer expectations have never been higher. They want the slickest, most fluid, most realistic gameplay standards. They want believable physics for fair human-on-human competition. They want lots of different game modes. And while the game manufacturers can make plenty of changes on the fly via downloadable bundles, known as “tuner sets,” they can’t make seismic shifts. Sooner or later every release of the game has to stand on its own as a finished product, as a company like EA Sports has to get working on the next season’s edition.

And that worked against EA two years ago, when it dropped NHL 15, the series’ first foray into eighth-generation consoles Xbox One and PlayStation 4. The leap in graphics quality meant a gorgeous game but also that the series had to eschew many of its popular game modes, most notably the EA Sports Hockey League, which let players create their own characters and join online leagues with all-human 6-on-6 play. Fans were outraged. NHL 15, according to aggregate review site Metacritic, was the worst-reviewed title in the franchise’s history. Critics gave an average score of 60 out of 100 for the PS4 edition and 59 out of 100 to Xbox One. Users were savage, rating NHL 15 1.4 out of 5 on PS3 and 3.2 on Xbox One.

But NHL 15 might have simply been a necessary blow for EA to absorb. The first year in every console generation requires game makers to iron out kinks. The company took the feedback to heart and rebounded with last year’s NHL 16, bringing back the sorely missed online features, and game was generally well received. A key reason for the turnaround was EA Sports’ Game Changers program – a group of hardcore players brought in as an expert feedback panel. It worked so well last year, especially with its input on the goalie physics, that EA expanded the Game Changers group. Included in the NHL 17 process were reps for various modes of the game, from Hockey Ultimate Team (HUT) to offline Franchise Mode to Be a Pro Mode. There was even “a guy from Europe” devoted to “hardcore gameplay and presentation,” Ramjagsingh said.

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The Red Wings are in limbo – and Ken Holland is OK with that

Matt Larkin
Red Wings GM Ken Holland. (Photo by Dave Reginek/NHLI via Getty Images)

Assessing the Detroit Red Wings’ off-season depends on what kind of person you are.

If you see the world sunny-side up, summer 2016 was a rah-rah moment for the franchise. The Wings, hovering around the playoff bubble for the past few seasons in the Eastern Conference, said goodbye to their best forward of the past decade, Pavel Datsyuk, but they brought in some veteran help. They threw $31.5 million over six years at center Frans Nielsen. They snagged Minnesota Wild castoff Thomas Vanek at the low-risk, high-gain price of $2.6 million over one year. They added center Steve Ott for veteran leadership. They re-signed speedy pivot Darren Helm and top blueliner Danny DeKeyser long-term. Detroit has made the playoffs 25 straight years and, to an optimist, the off-season sends the message the franchise wants a 26th berth. Maybe the Wings can ascend into something more than a bubble team if young center Dylan Larkin and goalie Petr Mrazek continue ascending and become organizational pillars.

The crabby pessimist, perpetually trailed by a rain cloud, isn’t so happy about the Wings’ summer. This team has finished with a .567 points percentage twice in the past three seasons, marking 16-year lows. The Wings haven’t picked in the top five at the NHL draft since Keith Primeau in 1990. They haven’t picked in the top 10 since Martin Lapointe in 1991. That’s 25 years, matching the playoff streak. Hardly a coincidence. The pessimist might say the Wings have become victims of their own success, which includes four Stanley Cups since 1996-97. They’re never bad enough to blow the operation up and rebuild around superstar draft picks, and they’re no longer good enough, it seems, for a deep Stanley Cup playoff run.

So who’s right? Will the Wings doom themselves to mediocrity if they limp forward with a good-but-not great roster, or are they on the cusp of a turnaround, fuelled by improving youth and an injection of free-agent talent? The person best equipped to tackle the topic is, naturally, Ken Holland, Detroit’s GM since 1997. And he’s refreshingly candid about the state of his team.

“The philosophical question you’re asking me is, ‘Do we head in a direction where we make a determination that it’s all about five years from now? Or do we continue to try to be a playoff team?’” Holland said. “When you’ve got Mrazek, and you’ve got Larkin, and you’ve got Riley Sheahan, Justin Abdelkader, and you’ve got Tomas Tatar and Gustav Nyquist, and you’ve got DeKeyser, and you’ve got Nielsen… we’ve either got to have those people and we’re trying to win the division, we’re trying to qualify for the playoffs…or don’t sign Frans Nielsen. Don’t sign Thomas Vanek. Don’t bring in Ott. And just go with a bunch of kids. And let the chips fall where they may.

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Five hockey players who competed at the Summer Olympics

Matt Larkin
Hayley Wickenheiser. Photo by Bernard Weil/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

The 2016 Summer Olympic Games officially launched Friday in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil with the opening ceremonies. Even if we hockey lovers feel starved for the Winter Games, we can get our fix if we think outside the box.

Start by cheering for Ray Whitney. The 1,330-game NHL veteran has found a new passion in retirement: caddying. He’ll carry the sticks for Canadian golfer Graham DeLaet on the course in Rio. Whitney and DeLaet both live in Scottsdale, Ariz., they’re good friends, and they’ve played multiple charity tournaments together. Whitney will sub in for DeLaet’s regular PGA caddy, Julian Trudeau.

So we have a hockey player to cheer for. Still, it’s not like Whitney will actually compete. Plenty of outstanding hockey players have at the Summer Games, however, and that doesn’t just include all the teams from 1920, when hockey was a Summer Olympic sport.

Here are five pucksters who legitimately competed at the Summer Olympics over the years.

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