It was a relatively uneventful press conference for NHL commissioner Gary Bettman Saturday in the hours leading up to the NHL All-Star Skills Competition in Nashville. The league unveiled a new website, the 2017 All-Star Game host and a particularly special charity donation. Other than that, Bettman more or less played tennis with reporters on site, batting down questions about expansion and John Scott, among others.
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.
There’s something surreal about the NHL’s all-star festivities this time around. And that’s saying a lot. This event, after all, birthed the glowing puck, North America versus the World and Alex Ovechkin on a breakaway with two sticks and a pair of sunglasses. But Nashville might be hosting the strangest, most memorable edition yet.
Live, gritty country music plays from every window, door and crevice on Music City’s famous Broadway Street. Friendly citizens ask about “the hawkey game” in charming southern accents. Velveeta cheese cascades from a fountain at the Fan Fest. Every All-Star Game has a culture of fun enveloping it, but Nashville feels unique. It doesn’t blend with the sport as seamlessly as wintery cities like Chicago or New York or Ottawa might – and that’s a good thing. The contrast is fun. Aaron Ekblad talks about singing karaoke later (Call Me Maybe). P.K. Subban says he already has (Folsom Prison Blues). Matt Duchene and Johnny Gaudreau, massive country music fans, soak in the atmosphere. Duchene hopes he gets a chance to jam on his guitar.
The strange thing about the tough decisions facing Winnipeg Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff all year: they’ve gradually become easier. Entering 2015-16, his team was fresh off a playoff appearance, with an elite farm system. The arrow pointed decidedly upward. Dealing with his two prominent unrestricted free agents, left winger Andrew Ladd and defenseman Dustin Byfuglien, was a daunting proposition. Winnipeg needed both players if it wanted to remain a playoff contender, so Cheveldayoff would have to ponder retaining them through the trade deadline, even if he hadn’t re-signed them by then, which would risk losing them for nothing in July.
Flash forward to late January, and Winnipeg’s season looks grim. The Jets are closer to last overall in the NHL than they are to a playoff berth. They have games in hand on Western Conference wild-card occupiers Minnesota and Colorado, but a 10-point deficit will be difficult to overcome. Byfuglien and Ladd suddenly look like much more realistic trade options, especially when each would fetch a first-round pick and then some.
Ladd expressed interest in re-signing with the Jets earlier in the year, and negotiations with Big Buff were infrequent, but the tide recently reversed. Talks have broken off or at least stalled with Ladd and resumed with Byfuglien. Ladd, even as team captain, appears more likely to move by the Feb. 29 deadline. What teams are the best fits for his extremely valuable services? Consider these five.
With each passing day, the Florida Panthers and GM Dale Tallon look smarter for grabbing Aleksander ‘Sasha’ Barkov second overall at the 2013 draft. Nathan MacKinnon went first, but many draft rankings had Seth Jones and Jonathan Drouin ahead of Barkov. Today, the big Panthers center is a driving force behind their breakout 2015-16, and he’s been rewarded handsomely.
Per Panthers beat writer and THN correspondent George Richards, the Cats have re-signed Barkov, a pending restricted free agent, to a six-year, $35.4-million contract. The deal carries a $5.9-million cap hit. And it sure looks like a coup for Barkov and the Florida organization.
The Chicago Blackhawks and Anaheim Ducks struck a mini deal Thursday. Left winger Ryan Garbutt heads to the Ducks and left winger Jiri Sekac joins the Hawks.
The salary cap exchange is negligible. Sekac carries a $925,000 cap hit and is a restricted free agent this summer. Garbutt’s number is $900,000, as the Dallas Stars ate half his $1.8 million in the Patrick Sharp trade with Chicago. Garbutt has one season left on his deal.
The John Scott drama is officially over.
It was controversial enough to see the 6-foot-8 enforcer voted into the 2016 All-Star Game as a captain by the fans. It was even more controversial to see Scott traded to the Montreal Canadiens and subsequently demoted to the AHL’s St. John’s IceCaps.
Wherever people stood on Scott’s All-Star Game participation – from believing he made a mockery of the event by playing to being excited to see the big monster competing in the 3-on-3 tournament – most of us could agree the entire situation was an embarrassment for the NHL. Scott graciously chose to participate in the game and honor the fans who voted him in, and he and his wife Danielle are expecting twins, so it was a double slap in the face to see him removed from the All-Star Game by the trade and shipped off to Newfoundland shortly before his wife gives birth.
But the wrong has been righted. The NHL announced Tuesday Scott would still captain the Pacific Division squad despite no longer playing for the Arizona Coyotes and despite the fact playing in the AHL would typically make him ineligible for the All-Star Game. That means no Eastern Conference player will have his invite reneged, and it means Arizona’s Shane Doan and Oliver Ekman-Larsson remain uninvited.
The star-crossed Oilers sustained yet another blow Monday night. Scoring center Ryan Nugent-Hopkins left Edmonton’s game against the Florida Panthers after he attempted to block a Dmitry Kulikov shot and took a puck off the hand. After the game, Oilers coach Todd McLellan announced Nugent-Hopkins would be “out long term.”
Here’s a look at the play that caused the injury to Nugent-Hopkins, the first overall pick of the 2011 draft:
Anyone who prefers on-ice justice to the official, league-mandated kind of justice can rejoice at what happened Monday night between the Edmonton Oilers and Florida Panthers.
On Jan. 10 Oilers left winger Matt Hendricks caught the Florida Panthers’ Aaron Ekblad with a hit from behind. Ekblad returned to the game but wound up in concussion protocol and was forced out of the lineup the following night. He hasn’t played since, though he’s expected to return later this week.
Hendricks earned a three-game suspension for the hit but returned just in time for his Oilers to face the Panthers again Monday. It didn’t take a genius to know what was coming, though it was hardly the Claude Lemieux treatment for Hendricks, who stood tall. Rugged Panthers defenseman Erik Gudbranson, all 6-foot-5 and 216 pounds of him, challenged the six-foot, 207-pound Hendricks. Fists flew just 4:16 into the game. Check it out: