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.

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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NWHL holds jersey vote for fans to pick teams’ 2016-17 designs

Matt Larkin
RivetersVote

The National Women’s Hockey League is all systems go for its second season in 2016-17. Its sweaters, it turns out, were one-offs.

The league announced Thursday all four teams – The Boston Pride, Buffalo Beauts, Connecticut Whale and New York Riveters – were retiring their inaugural jersey designs. Next up? A fan vote to choose each team’s new threads for 2016-17.

​”It has always been important to us for our fans to have a voice,” said NWHL commissioner Dani Rylan. “The NWHL’s inaugural jerseys were designed and voted on by fans, and we’re excited to commemorate their importance by retiring the historic set. Memories were made, miles were logged, and history began in those jerseys. It all started with our fans, and we’re excited to hear what they have to say for Round 2.”

Each voter will be faced with the following choices:

 

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So why hasn’t your team done anything this off-season?

Flyers GM Ron Hextall. (Photo by Len Redkoles/NHLI via Getty Images)

August marks hockey’s “silly season.” Very little happens. And idle hands are the devils’ playthings, right? Countless blog commenters and Twitter trolls dust off the “Slow news day?” insult whenever we find something to talk about. During the month before NHL training camps begin, fan bases twiddle their thumbs. And think. And overthink. And worry.

“Why hasn’t my team DONE anything this off-season?”

You know who you are. You, from that city with the sandwich everyone needs to try. Your team has been uncomfortably quiet this off-season, with nary a big trade or free agent splash. Should you panic over your team’s 2016-17 outlook? Or will you end up patting your favorite GM on the back for staying the course?

Here’s a rundown of the summer’s most tranquil teams – and whether their fan bases should worry.

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Three playoff teams who could miss in 2016-17, and three non-playoff teams who could get in

Claude Giroux (Len Redkoles/NHLI via Getty Images)

Playoff turnover is a hallmark of the NHL’s salary cap era. It’s rare to see a single franchise entrenched in a contending position for decades at a time. The Detroit Red Wings are the remarkable exception. Typically, we see plenty of playoff squads slide out of the picture from one season to the next, while several also-rans sneak back into the big dance.

Five Canadian teams qualified for the playoffs in 2014-15, and all five missed in 2015-16. The Calgary Flames, Vancouver Canucks, Montreal Canadiens, Ottawa Senators and Winnipeg Jets slipped out, replaced by the Los Angeles Kings, San Jose Sharks, Florida Panthers and Dallas Stars. The 2015-16 playoff picture consisted of 31.25 percent “new” teams. That’s down from 43.75 percent the year prior but still constitutes significant turnover.

Chances are, it’ll happen again in 2016-17. Which recent qualifiers might slip out of the post-season and which might claw their way back in?

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Why Las Vegas’ expansion team should be sneaky-competitive in Season 1

Matt Larkin
Bill Foley (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Any smug prognosticator convinced Las Vegas’ NHL franchise will be a laughing stock has a head start. It’s an expansion team, after all, and recent NHL history tells us brand-new franchises normally fall flat on their faces.

The San Jose Sharks joined the NHL 25 years ago and won a combined 28 games in their first two seasons. The Ottawa Senators arrived a year later and won 24 games over their first two years. The Tampa Bay Lightning, Anaheim Ducks, Atlanta Thrashers, Columbus Blue Jackets, Minnesota Wild, Nashville Predators… each of those franchises wobbled out of the womb like a baby calf. The 1993-94 Florida Panthers set the gold standard of modern expansion club respectability, and even they didn’t finish .500, going 33-34-17. None of those teams made the post-season in its first two tries.

It thus stands to reason Vegas, a market already inviting some skepticism of its ability to fill an NHL arena long term, is in trouble. History suggests teams take years to build their youth crop and field competitive clubs. If the Vegas fan base is as fickle as some perceive it to be, that’s a deadly combination of lack of winning and lack of interest.

But Vegas has something going for it no franchise has before upon its inception: the salary cap. Vegas is the cap era’s first expansion team, and it will have advantages every other new NHL franchise has lacked.

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What’s the next wave of coaching strategy in hockey?

Matt Larkin
Willie Desjardins (Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images)

Few NHL teams in recent memory will put the copycat coaching theory to the test like the 2015-16 Pittsburgh Penguins. Mike Sullivan’s group won the Stanley Cup with a north-south approach that used speed and stretch passes and generated oodles of shot attempts, catering to “analytics hockey,” and it thus may have broken a barrier. More and more teams may try to win with the possession game, and that will be drilled into new coaching recruits from the ground up.

“As a coach you have to be careful,” said Vancouver Canucks coach Willie Desjardins, “because it’s one thing to run a system with one team, and then all of a sudden you have different personnel, and the system won’t work with different personnel. You always have to adjust what you’re doing to your personnel. Just because it’s worked for one team it doesn’t mean that system will work for you.”

It’s an interesting debate, and it’s one aspiring coaches might strike up with Desjardins at the 2016 TeamSnap Hockey Coaches Conference. He’ll appear there as a speaker when the conference comes to Toronto July 15 and 16. San Jose Sharks assistant Steve Spott and hockey journalism maven Bob McKenzie, former Hockey News editor in chief, will join Desjardins along with many other prominent names in the industry. The conference then shifts to Vancouver, where Carolina Hurricanes head coach Bill Peters, AHL all-time wins leader Roy Sommer and legendary NCAA Div. I women’s coach Shannon Miller headline the group of mentors speaking July 22 and 23.

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Best of the rest: top 10 remaining unrestricted free agents after Day 1 – UPDATED

Matt Larkin
Jiri Hudler (Eliot J. Schechter/NHLI via Getty Images)

It was a wild day, to say the least. As is customary in the era of the five-day negotiation window preceding it, free agency started with a deluge of signings as previously struck deals were made official. Per capfriendly.com, 131 players signed for $651,249,125 in total contract dollars.

But plenty of impact players remained unsigned after Day 1. The 10 best still out there after July 1:

1. JIRI HUDLER, RW
Age: 32
2015-16 cap hit: $4 million

Career year in 2014-15, then tanked in contract year. Still a handy playmaking forward for someone’s top six.

2. RADIM VRBATA, RW
Age: 35
2015-16 cap hit: $5 million

One season removed from arguably being the Canucks’ best player. Will attract teams starved for secondary scorers.

3. KRIS RUSSELL, D
Age: 29
2015-16 cap hit: $2.6 million

A trap signing? Lauded for shot blocking but possession numbers suggest he was a below-average defender in 2015-16. Reports July 1 suggest he’s in for a payday north of $5 million per season.

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