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.

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.

A big reason the Isles missed the playoffs: their league-worst .894 save percentage. Evgeni Nabokov, Kevin Poulin and Anders Nilsson won’t do. My money’s on GM Garth Snow nabbing a free agent like Brian Elliott, Jaroslav Halak or Jonas Hiller to take over starting duty.

The sum of those personnel improvements should be a climb in the standings. If you’re skeptical, you at least can’t expect this team to regress next year, which it would need to do for any mathematically realistic shot at McDavid and Eichel. It’s more likely the 2015 pick is lower than this year’s, so why on earth would you defer the 2014 selection?

Saving the pick for next year sends a horrible message to an already-suffering fan base. “Hey everyone, we’ve sucked for the better part of a decade, and we’re not hiding the fact we really, really hope to suck even worse next year.” That’s the message withholding the selection sends, as you don’t do so with any intention besides tanking for McDavid or Eichel.

The Isles have John Tavares as their centerpiece – and at an amazing discount. They’ve amassed enough young pieces that adding another in this June’s draft should put them on the road to relevance. It’s not worth waiting a year, especially when there’s nothing close to a guarantee that waiting will yield a superior draft selection.

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

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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NHL stretch run primer: who’s clinched, who’s still in the hunt

Matt Larkin
starscoyotes

The NHL’s regular season ends in 10 days. Is your team safely in a playoff position, fighting for its life or booking golf vacation packages? Here’s a bare-bones breakdown. Playoff chances in percentages are from Sports Club Stats. Anyone understand how the Rangers can be 100 percent, yet haven’t clinched? I don’t.

EASTERN CONFERENCE – CLINCHED

1. Boston Bruins (110 points)
2. Pittsburgh Penguins (101 points)
3. Tampa Bay Lightning (93 points)
4. Montreal Canadiens (93 points)

WESTERN CONFERENCE – CLINCHED

1. St. Louis Blues (109 points)
2. Anaheim Ducks (108 points)
3. San Jose Sharks (105 points).
4. Colorado Avalanche (102 points)
5. Chicago Blackhawks (99 points)
6. Los Angeles Kings (96 points)

EASTERN CONFERENCE – WILD CARD RACE

5. New York Rangers (90 points, 100.0%)
6. Phladelphia Flyers (87 points, 99.2%)

WILD CARD 1: Detroit Red Wings (93.7%)
(86 points, 6 games left vs. Buf, @ Mtl, @ Buf, @ Pit, vs. Car, @StL)

WILD CARD 2: Columbus Blue Jackets (79.9%)
(83 points, 7 games left @ Phi, vs. Chi, vs. NYI, vs. Phx, @ Dal, @ TB, @ Fla)

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20 things to love about Jaromir Jagr after 20 seasons

JJagr

Just when we thought Jaromir Jagr was out, he pulled us back in.

It appeared No. 68 was done being relevant when he petered out with 22 goal-free playoff games as a Boston Bruin last spring. Signing with the New Jersey Devils meant he’d toil in obscurity and fade away. Instead, he’s busted out his best season since his three-year Kontinental League vacation. Not only have his 24 goals and 64 points in 76 games at age 42 blown us away, they’ve clinched fantasy titles for plenty of poolies who scooped him in the final rounds of drafts.

Better yet, Jagr has tacked a few more memorable moments onto a Hall of Fame career. His latest: making his teammates look away when it was a Devil skater’s turn in last night’s shootout against Buffalo. Was it superstition or was Jagr sparing his mates from watching a team that is 0-11 in shootouts? Either way, it was awesome.

It inspired me to list 20 of the best things about Jaromir Jagr, in random order, inspired by his 20 amazing years in the NHL.

1. Those rosy cheeks. Don’t you just wanna pinch ‘em? He brings out the inner grandma in all of us.

 

jagr cheeks

2. He shepherded us through the worst of the dead puck era. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, when the NHL became molasses on ice, Jagr was still tossing up 120-point seasons and winning scoring titles by 20 points.

3. Game-winning goals. Gordie Howe lovers be damned, the recorded stats say ‘Jags’ has more clinchers than any player in history. And this is a Jagr list, not a Howe list, so Jagr deserves a tip of the cap. Actually, better yet…

4. The salute. Annoying if he did it after scoring on your team, but awesome whenever he was easing the dagger into any other squad’s heart.

5. A wild man behind the wheel. Remember that? When he was a teenager? He was a menace to the road, and it was somehow endearing at the time. Especially the glove box full of speeding tickets.

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Open-and-shut-case: suspend Douglas Murray for hit on Michael Kostka

Matt Larkin
kostka hurt

What a buzzy night for the NHL. We saw Sidney Crosby’s 100th point, a warm, fuzzy game-winning goal by David Clarkson to keep Toronto’s playoff hopes alive, a surprisingly competitive game between the Sabres and Devils…and oh, boy, the Canadiens and Lightning.

The story should be the continuously inspired play of Tampa’s Ryan Callahan and Tyler Johnson, or Carey Price’s spectacular effort in defeat. Unfortunately, hulking Habs blueliner Douglas Murray did this to Bolts defenseman Michael Kosta:

Eek. Hard to defend this one, and I won’t. Murray takes a good look at Kostka, leaves his feet (better angles around the 1:10 mark), and extends his elbow into Kostka’s chin. Murray was assessed a match penalty for the hit and Tampa Bay scored on the ensuing power play to put the game out of reach. Though Kostka spurned the stretcher, got up and left the ice under his own power afterwards, he will undoubtedly receive concussion tests.

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