Matt Larkin

Matt Larkin is an associate 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.

Are the Blues missing crucial pieces of the Stanley Cup puzzle?

Matt Larkin
Blues lose

No one likes knee-jerk analysis during a best-of-seven playoff series, especially when the home team has won the first four games of said series. Regardless, it’s hard not to make alarming observations about the St. Louis Blues, who have now blown a 2-0 series lead in the first round for the second consecutive season.

This team has been my 2014 Stanley Cup pick since last summer and still is, yet I can’t help but remember the questions raised in the THN war room last summer when we were yelling working out a consensus title pick.

1. Do the Blues have a real superstar to rely on with the game on the line?
2. Do the Blues have a money goaltender who can steal games in the playoffs?
3. Do the Blues have enough veteran experience to guide them through adversity?

As for the first question, look at what Chicago has done the last two games. Captain Jonathan Toews scored the winner in Game 3 and it was Patrick Kane’s turn to take over in Game 4. He scored twice, including this laser to clinch it in overtime:

When in doubt, Chicago can lean on its megastars. In Game 4, Toews had no equal on the forecheck and Kane elevated every Blues fan’s blood pressure every single time he had the puck, terrorizing Ryan Miller. His winner was more of an inevitability than a surprise. Duncan Keith dazzled on the back end with his wheels, too,skating the puck out of trouble repeatedly.

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Why these ain’t your granddaddy’s San Jose Sharks

Matt Larkin
Torres

“Just win, baby.” An effective expression for sports, as victories are what matter in the end, but it really doesn’t do the San Jose Sharks justice right now. They’re showing us a side of them we’ve rarely if ever seen not just because they’re winning, but because of how they’re winning.

Remember that vintage L.A. Kings period, when they silenced the SAP Center crowd with two rapid first-period goals, when Jonathan Quick looked absolutely unstoppable, turning aside all 15 shots? And remember the Kings’ humiliating 7-2 defeat, in which Quick was a sieve and an emotionally rattled Kings team saw captain Dustin Brown ejected? Hard to believe it all happened in the same night. And if the Sharks end up on a long, glorious run this spring, we may look back at April 20 as the night they went from prey to predators in the Western Conference.

On a stacked San Jose team, the catalysts were actually the grinders. Make no mistake: the likes of Raffi Torres and Mike Brown won Game 2.

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Grant Fuhr a man at peace as he prepares tell-all book

Matt Larkin
Grant Fuhr

It’s a dark, frigid morning during Toronto’s cruelest winter in 20 years. Anyone awake is annoyed about it, unable or unwilling to string two sentences together. Except a Hall of Fame goaltender named Grant Fuhr, who saunters into the Westin Harbour Castle hotel lobby, fashionably late, with the cheerful Zen of a monk. Maybe it’s his surgically replaced knee, made of titanium, that keeps him from hurrying anywhere. “He sets off all the alarms at the airport,” says his fiancée, Lisa.

Or maybe Fuhr glides along with such tranquility because he simply has life all figured out.

What he’s about to do is daunting in theory. After years out of the public eye, he’s resurfacing to make about a dozen major media appearances in a row. Breakfast Television, TSN radio, and so on. He’s promoting a soon-to-be released autobiography. It’s a tell-all, meaning he’ll account his best days backstopping the Edmonton Oilers dynasty and his adventures in golf, but he’ll also face the harder parts of his life head on. That includes his battle with cocaine use, which led to a lengthy suspension during his playing career.

Some people would be jittery resurfacing to be thrust in the spotlight for 12 straight hours, but not Fuhr. He’s one of the sport’s all-time best money goalies, remember. He has five Stanley Cup rings and a Canada Cup. And when the camera or microphone is in his face, Fuhr, now 51, laps up the pressure, no problem. He answers questions on anything, from his playing days to Canada’s 2014 Olympic team, with such little hesitation that he’s, well, goalie-like in his reaction time. “This is fun,” he says. “I haven’t done this for years.”

Maybe Fuhr is so comfortable with the attention because he attracted so much of it during his career. He was a highly coveted goaltender coming out of junior, drafted eighth overall by the Oilers in 1981. An athletic netminder who modelled himself after Tony Esposito, he was a perfect fit on the most high-octane offense the game has ever known, because the team’s style was familiar to him. “I loved playing for a run-and-gun team,” he says. “I got lucky enough that when I was playing junior in Victoria, that was the first time I’d seen a run-and-gun team, so with junior and the training, my progression to the NHL was playing the same style of hockey. It was comfortable for me.”

Fuhr battled for time with Andy Moog, which he believes made him a better goalie, and became Edmonton’s primary starter for most of the 1980s, especially during the playoffs. Fuhr played a crucial role in four of the five Cups he won with Edmonton, including an incredible 1988 run in which he went 16-2 en route to the Oil’s fourth Cup in five years. Wayne Gretzky called Fuhr the greatest goalie in the history of the game,

Fuhr played in six All-Star Games, won the 1988 Vezina Trophy and was acrobatically sensational for Canada in the 1987 Canada Cup, too. But he wasn’t just a star for what he did on the ice. He’s not the first black player in NHL history, but he is the first black superstar. “You notice it more now,” Fuhr says. At the time you just treated yourself as a player, first and foremost.  Obviously with Willie O’Ree and Mike Marson, Billy Riley, Tony McKegney, all those guys playing ahead of me, you didn’t really think of it that way. So I just feel pretty fortunate to have ended up in a spot where I could be successful.”

He is also remembered for being suspended by the NHL for a year in 1990 for using cocaine throughout the mid to late 1980s. The league was aware Fuhr had been clean for a year, but punished him for conduct “dishonorable and against the welfare of the league.” He earned early reinstatement by February 1991 and played a key role in another deep Oiler playoff run. “My only hard feelings out of the whole thing was it was probably about two or three years late, but at the same time, you make a mistake and you’ve got to pay the price,” Fuhr says. “We were just young and got caught up with the wrong crowd. It was a young, dumb mistake.”

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New York Islanders should keep 2014 pick, defer Buffalo pick to 2015

Matt Larkin
Snow

My overlord esteemed colleague Brian Costello laid out a compelling case for the New York Islanders giving their 2014 first-round pick to Buffalo as part of the Thomas Vanek trade. He makes some excellent points, but I disagree. The Isles should work with what they have and use their selection this June. Here’s why;

It’s far easier to plan a team’s future working with what you know. No one can take away that the New York Islanders possess a high first-round selection in the 2014 draft. That pick can end up as high as first and no worse than sixth, depending on the draft lottery. Mr. Costello is correct to say the 2014 draft class is weaker than 2015′s projects to be, but that only applies once you leave the top 10. In the top five or six picks, there are plenty of talented players with superstar upside. Does 2014 have a potentially once-in-a-generation find like Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel? No, but there’s no way of knowing the Isles can land those two anyway. What we do know is they are guaranteed a player from the talented group of Aaron Ekblad, Sam Reinhart, Sam Bennett, Leon Draisatl, Michael Dal Colle, Brendan Perlini, Willie Nylander and Kasperi Kapanen, among others. Why throw away a sure thing for a maybe?

The Islanders will almost certainly be better next year. In the shortened 2012-13 campaign, this team (albeit with Matt Moulson and Andrew MacDonald still there) was good enough to make the playoffs and give Pittsburgh a healthy six-game fight. Next year, John Tavares should be fully healthy and reunited with Kyle Okposo on a powerhouse line. The Isles should also have Ryan Strome in the lineup all season. He’s the No. 5 overall prospect in THN Future Watch and has little left to prove at the American League level, having ripped up the circuit for 49 points in 37 games with Bridgeport. He tallied a respectable 18 points in 37 NHL games this season, too, and will give the Isles a legit secondary scoring threat. A center core of Tavares, Strome, Frans Nielsen, Anders Lee and Brock Nelson ain’t half bad. Maybe hulking blueliner Griffin Reinhart, No. 11 in Future Watch, makes the jump by next year, too.

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Why an Evgeni Malkin for Alex Ovechkin trade makes sense

Matt Larkin
Malkin Ovechkin

Look at the headline. Take a deep breath and count to 10. The idea is preposterous, yes, but try to entertain it for a few minutes.

If and only if the Pittsburgh Penguins bow out earlier than expected for the fifth straight post-season after winning the Stanley Cup in 2008-09, an Evgeni Malkin for Alex Ovechkin trade could benefit the Penguins and Washington Capitals.

In Malkin and Sidney Crosby, the Pens have been blessed with two future Hall of Famers and two of the top five players of this generation. They’ve combined for four scoring titles (including Crosby’s this season), two Ted Lindsay Awards, seven First-Team All-Star selections, a Rocket Richard and a Conn Smythe. Crosby and Malkin rank fourth and 11th, respectively, in NHL history in points per game. Add up all those amazing accomplishments and it’s mildly disappointing they’ve yielded but one Cup five years ago.

Sooner or later, it’s going to feel like the Pens are “wasting” these prime years.

And what about Washington? Ovechkin is just as decorated as Crosby and Malkin, if not more, minus a championship. ‘Ovie’ is a three-time MVP, soon to be a four-time goal-scoring king and he belongs on that same short list of this era’s greatest players. But to say he’s been a polarizing figure in D.C. this season is an understatement. He’s been called out for a lack of effort by coach Adam Oates, and Ovie’s defensive ineptitude has made his 50-goal campaign the most criticized in NHL history. First in goals with 50 but 870th in plus-minus at minus-36, Ovie is entertainment incarnate, ain’t he? You know some team is scoring whenever he’s on the ice.

After missing the playoffs, the Caps are in desperate need of a shakeup. If the Pens flop this year, they will be, too. Swapping Malkin and Ovechkin straight up would rock each franchise’s foundation without robbing either of elite talent. Here’s why the trade works a lot more than you may think:

1. There’s a precedent for it. Not just for a superstar trade, but for a trade between division rivals. Edmonton dealt Wayne Gretzky within the Smythe Division in 1988. As the cliché goes, if he can be traded, anyone can. Other superstars dealt while still at the peak of their abilities or close to it: Mark Messier, Paul Coffey, Pavel Bure and Jaromir Jagr. Yes, those trades were largely contract-related, but they still happened and shifted the balance of the league.

2. Money is not an issue, at least cap-wise. Malkin, 27, is due $9.500 million annually for the next eight seasons. Ovechkin, 28, is due $9.538 million annually for the next seven seasons. Remarkably similar situations, meaning the swap would have no impact on either team’s salary cap structure. Ovechkin’s actual salary for the rest of his deal is $500,000 higher at $10 million, but Malkin is due $5-million signing bonuses in 2020-21 and 2021-22. Those payouts are far enough away that they shouldn’t deter the Caps in this fictional deal.

3. Malkin is better than Ovechkin at making others around him better – and Malkin plays his best sans-Crosby. As dynamic a talent as Ovie is, he’ll never be mistaken for a complete player. On top of the defensive deficiencies, he has assisted on just 27 goals all season. Malkin is more capable of controlling the flow of a game. His most dominant season was arguably 2011-12, when he tallied 50 goals and 109 points, won the Hart and was widely considered the best player on the planet. That came in a year when Crosby played just 22 games. ‘Geno’ has never needed Crosby’s help to dominate and they have rarely been linemates, anyway.

4. Ovechkin on Crosby’s wing? Are you kidding me!? It’s the equivalent of uniting Arya Stark and Daenerys Targaryen. If they fought for one side, our brains and televisions would melt from sheer awesomeness. (Maybe they do, eventually? I haven’t read the books. No spoilers, I beg of you.) And any talk of Crosby and Ovechkin’s alleged dislike for each other would rapidly evaporate the minute Sid started feeding Alex the biscuit. I’d set the over/under for Ovechkin goals at 65.5.

5. Pittsburgh could fill its void at center with Ryan Kesler. If the Penguins pursued Kesler already, we know they can afford his $5-million cap hit. Ovechkin only puts $38,462, a.k.a. a decent luxury sedan, more than Malkin toward the cap, so that wouldn’t change much. In my zany hypothetical world, the Pens would only make the earth-shattering Ovie deal once they’ve acquired Kesler, whose talents would be wasted in a No. 3 role behind Malkin anyway.

6. Massive void on Washington’s wings? Move Evgeny Kuznetsov to Malkin’s wing. Pairing them on the first line and, say, Nicklas Backstrom and Marcus Johansson on the second looks pretty dangerous to me.

While “hockey trades” of this magnitude simply don’t happen anymore, the deal could genuinely improve both teams. It’s a tougher sell for the Pens, who don’t exactly have trouble scoring and would be adding the one league’s weakest defensive players to a team that already ranks in the middle of the pack in important advanced statistics like Corsi and Fenwick. Adding a Kesler type first would make Ovie more than worth it, though.

A hilariously far-fetched idea, of course. Agree or disagree? If you vote nay, constructively tell me why it’s dumb in the comments.

Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blogFor more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazineFollow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin

P.K. Subban hits kid with shot – and totally redeems himself

Matt Larkin
PKSubban

Paging all P.K. Subban haters. Please don your bibs and prepare to mow down on some crow.

In a recent clash between Subban’s Canadiens and the Ottawa Senators, the star defenseman wired a puck into the crowd from center ice. It glanced off an adult spectator and caught a little boy named Thomas in the ear.

Kudos to the reality show 24CH for capturing what happened next so beautifully. Subban tracked down Thomas’ family, had them come back for another Canadiens game, met Thomas and gave him a signed puck – the same puck Subban shot into Thomas’ ear. The story unfolds here:

Especially heartbreaking is the footage of a father carrying his injured son up the steps after the puck catches him. And you have to love Thomas’ matter of fact, “I’m here to see P.K. Subban so he can sign my puck.” The kid owns it.

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Top five compliance buyout candidates for 2014

Matt Larkin
Leino

It’s that time of year when fans prepare for playoff pushes and other fans go full Joffrey and demand heads on stakes.

By heads on stakes, I mean buyouts in this case. For any suffering supporter who can’t stand to look at an expensive star player’s face another second, there’s hope. Remember the compliance buyouts from last summer? They’re BACK, albeit not in Pog form.

The rules, per NHL.com:

Under the collective bargaining agreement signed last season, teams are allowed two compliance buyouts within designated time periods last summer and this summer. That’s two buyouts total, not two per summer, and the buyouts can be used at a team’s discretion. That means some teams can (and did) use both last summer, some used one and some saved both for this summer.

When using a compliance buyout, a team “must pay two-thirds of the remaining contract across twice the remaining term of the deal. The bought-out players become free agents July 5 (2013, and July 1, 2014) and can sign with any team, other than the one that bought out the player.”

A refresher of last year’s compliance buyouts can be found here. But here’s a short list of who does and does not have flexibility.

TWO BUYOUTS LEFT: Anaheim, Boston, Buffalo, Calgary, Carolina, Colorado, Columbus, Dallas, Florida, Los Angeles, Nashville, Ottawa, Phoenix, Pittsburgh, San Jose, St. Louis, Winnipeg

ONE BUYOUT LEFT: Detroit, Edmonton, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York Islanders, New York Rangers, Tampa Bay, Vancouver, Washington

NO BUYOUTS LEFT: Chicago, Montreal, Philadelphia, Toronto

Factoring that list in, I’ve ranked my top five compliance buyout candidates below. My key criteria: (a) No one would want any part of this player’s contract in a trade; (b) this player wasn’t signed last summer, as sheer pride would likely stop most GMs from admitting their mistakes after just one year; (c) this player is not suffering from a long-term injury.

1. Ville Leino, LW, Buffalo Sabres
(Three years left, $4.5-million cap hit)

He scored in his first game as a Sabre Oct. 7, 2011 and it was all downhill from there. In the 132 contests since, Leino has nine goals. He has zero in 54 games this season. Calling him a buyout candidate is a gross understatement.

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Robin Lehner has a pet piranha named after every Ottawa Senators beat writer

Matt Larkin
Lehner

Nothing makes for fun Friday reading like those terrifying little fishies that turn you into a skeleton after they swarm you, at least in cartoons.

 

piranhajpg

Ottawa Senators goaltender Robin Lehner is a colorful, emotional personality who typically isn’t afraid to speak his mind to the media. He’s also known to have a temper and maybe, just maybe, the pressure of playing more this season and struggling (9-15-6, 3.22 goals-against average, .909 save percentage) has made him a bit sick of reporters.

It makes sense, then, that Lehner named his five pet piranha after Sens beat writers: Don Brennan, Bruce Garrioch, Sylvain St-Laurent, Ken Warren and…a fifth piranha that died, according to Lehner. The reason is easy enough to figure out. Lehner is playing up the metaphor of journalists as bloodthirsty piranha, gnawing away at a story. Stick tap to Brennan listing his namesake fish as “yours truly” as he told the story.

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