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.

Why Mark Hunter is a smart hire as the Maple Leafs’ director of player personnel

Matt Larkin
Mark Hunter is the second Ontario League GM hired away by the Leafs since the summer. (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)

The Toronto Maple Leafs went so nuts with their hiring spree – from Brendan Shanahan to Kyle Dubas to Darryl Metcalf of Extra Skater – that they couldn’t stop shopping for executives by the time the season started.

Tuesday, they unveiled Mark Hunter as their new director of player personnel, taking over Dave Poulin’s old role. Hunter should be a familiar name to you. He was a 628-game NHL veteran and he’s Dale’s brother. More importantly, he’s masterminded the London Knights juggernaut in the Ontario League as the team’s owner, vice-president and GM for 12 years. Under his watch, the Knights won three OHL crowns and, of course, the 2005 Memorial Cup with an absolutely stacked squad that went 79-9-2 over the entire year.

Hunter will oversee the Leafs’ pro and amateur scouting, plus player evaluation. It should inspire confidence knowing Corey Perry, Dave Bolland, Brandon Prust, Steve Mason, Sam Gagner, Patrick Kane, Nazem Kadri, John Tavares and Olli Maatta, just to cherrypick a few names, filtered through London and the Hunter brothers, some for a lot longer than others, before reaching the NHL.

The hire also gives the Leafs’ new brain trust three former OHL GMs: Hunter, Dubas and assistant coach Steve Spott. Does adding Hunter mean Shananan is simply fulfilling his promise to improve the Leafs’ scouting and development? Or does it also mean current GM Dave Nonis should start sweating just a little bit more? In the last year, he’s been surrounded by a Hall of Famer czar and two former junior GMs. Is Nonis being nudged toward milk-carton status a la Greg Sherman in Colorado?

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This is the biggest, strangest hit of the year

Matt Larkin
BigHit

Note the headline. It ain’t hyperbole. And to throw around “biggest hit of the year” is bold in October.

But this WWE-inspired body blast by Kristaps Zile earns such high scores in brutality, creativity and originality that it’ll be tough to top. The hit happened in an MHL (the Kontinental League’s junior circuit) game last Friday. Zile, an HK Riga defenseman, laid a hip check on Lukas Pozgay of HC Red Bull. Pozgay made the mistake of holding on for dear life, and Zile proceeded to carry Pozgay several meters before stapling him to the boards, as forcefully as you would a particularly thick document. Here’s the unstoppable finishing move, complete with death metal:

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Frederik Andersen makes history, wins Ducks’ No. 1 goalie job

Matt Larkin
Frederik Andersen is off to one of the greatest starts to a career of any goalie in league history. (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)

So much for the Anaheim Ducks’ goaltending controversy.

Entering training camp, no one knew much about Anaheim’s plans in net. We did know unrestricted free agent Jonas Hiller was a goner, but that was pretty much it. The Ducks were blessed with John Gibson, the NHL’s top goaltending prospect and No. 2 overall prospect according to THN Future Watch, and Frederik Andersen, a less-heralded but highly effective Dane who flourished in his rookie year. It was anyone’s guess as to who would win the starting job in 2014-15. The long-term edge seemed to be Gibson’s, considering his pedigree and the fact Bruce Boudreau had enough confidence in Gibson to toss him into a Game 7 against the L.A. Kings.

But things haven’t gone exactly as expected between Anaheim’s pipes in this young season – and it’s actually great news for the Ducks.

John Gibson, 21, wasn’t ready for a Game 7 last spring, and he didn’t look ready for a No. 1 job in the NHL in his first start this fall, a six-goal clobbering, albeit it came against Pittsburgh.

And then there’s Andersen. The towering Dane, 25, has been the mightiest of Ducks, starting the season 5-0-0 and allowing just seven goals, producing a 1.38 goals-against average and .950 save percentage. He’s made some serious history, too. Andersen is now 25-5-0 to start his career, which makes him just the second stopper in NHL history to win 25 of his first 30 decisions. The other was Boston’s Ross Brooks, who opened 25-2-3 from October 1972 to February 1974.

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Carey Price has a celebrity bedroom stalker

Matt Larkin
Actor Jay Baruchel takes his love for the Habs to the extreme in a new ad.

It’s easy to make fun of obligatory promotional videos and commercials involving hockey players. Often, the come off a little wooden, or just plain creepy. Right, Mario?

But this one involving Carey Price and actor Jay Baruchel, who is a diehard Montreal Canadiens fan, is pretty good. Price sells it and Baruchel pulls off the stalker persona nicely. Check out the video, which promotes the Habs fan loyalty program Club 1909:

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Watch John Scott score a goal on purpose. This is weird

Matt Larkin
John Scott (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

This is a public service announcement. It’s safe to climb out of your fallout shelters. Apologies if you dipped into your tomato soup reserves.

Turns out the world did not explode last night. Nothing melted. The walking dead do not roam the Earth. The oceans did not engulf major cities. Hmpf. A little surprising. John Scott scored a goal, after all. Figured that meant the End of Days.

Not only did the Sharks professional caveman enforcer light the lamp, he actually did it with panache. Check out this video, which was hilariously easy to find (Google John Scott goal, and there aren’t many competing results):

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St. Louis is the toughest place for an NHL prospect. Right, Dmitrij Jaskin?

Matt Larkin
Even high praise from coach Ken Hitchcock wasn't enough for Dmitrij Jaskin to crack a stacked St. Louis lineup. (Photo by Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images)

Dmitrij Jaskin wants to play in St. Louis. Blues GM Doug Armstrong and coach Ken Hitchcock think he’s good enough to play in St. Louis. Alas, he’ll open 2014-15 with the team’s American League affiliate in Chicago. The Blues were just too deep, with too many players on one-way deals, so down went Jaskin, the team’s No. 1 prospect in Future Watch 2014.

In one sense, St. Louis is prospect heaven. The Blues are a well-coached Stanley Cup contender with plenty of great two-way players to learn from. In another sense, it’s prospect hell, or at least purgatory. It’s oh-so difficult just to make the team, as Jaskin learned, and even if you do, there’s still the matter of winning Hitchcock’s trust. Just ask Vladimir Tarasenko.

Talk to any scout, GM, media member or hockey pool guru about the most promising young goal scorers in the game today and, invariably, Tarasenko’s name pops up. There’s no denying what the kid can do with the puck on the stick. He has an Alexander Mogilny-like ceiling. He made that clear with five points in his first two NHL games two seasons ago.

That same year, Future Watch 2013 ranked Tarasenko the top prospect in the game. In an interview for that magazine, however, Hitchcock foresaw a bump in the road. ‘Hitch’ predicted an adjustment from lateral puck movement to linear. Sure enough, Tarasenko slumped badly in the second half of that season. Hitchcock, who preaches defensive responsibility and system play like few other coaches, entrusted his rookie sniper with just 13 minutes of ice time per game in 2012-13.

Between learning Hitchcock’s scheme and simply cracking one of the NHL’s densest, most talented depth charts, life is difficult for any Blues rookie. That’s why Jaskin has an uphill climb.

“It’s always hard to be a rookie, but especially here, when you get 12 of the best players in the NHL,” he said two weeks before being cut. “It’s way harder to get here faster and get more time. But that means you have to work for it harder than somewhere else.”

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Jiri Sekac is before, Tomas Plekanec is after

Matt Larkin
Tomas Plekanec led Montreal with two goals Wednesday night.  (Photo by Graig Abel/NHLI via Getty Images)

There was a typical cluster of reporters in Montreal’s dressing room after Game 1 of the 2014-15 NHL season. Their prey wasn’t who you’d expect — P.K. Subban sat across the room, enjoying a rare minute of solitude. It was Tomas Plekanec, who played hero for the Habs against the Leafs at the Air Canada Center.

Plekanec’s night epitomized the expression “They all count.” His first goal came when he undressed Leaf goalie Jonathan Bernier on a perfectly delayed backhand deke. His second? A final-minute bank shot off rookie Stuart Percy, clinching a 4-3 road win for Montreal.

And as the media swarm engulfed Plekanec, he took it in stride, even joking that it had “been years” since he’d been asked to play an offensive role. It’s not that Plekanec, 31, wasn’t capable, but his penalty killing and faceoff prowess made him too indispensable. The addition of outstanding checker Manny Malhotra this off-season, however, gave Plekanec a chance to play on a scoring line between Alex Galchenyuk and Brendan Gallagher. The early results were obviously promising.

At the adjacent stall stood rookie and pre-season sensation Jiri Sekac, 22, with nary a reporter around him, still relatively anonymous. It’s natural to compare the Czech prospect with his countryman Plekanec. Their games aren’t identical — Sekac is a winger, for one — but they share good vision, touch around the net and puck-possession ability. So maybe, the Game 1 hero Plekanec represents the “after” and Sekac is the “before.”

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2014-15 THN office fantasy draft results

Matt Larkin
It was a mild shock when John Tavares went second overall in the THN draft. (Getty Images)

What’s best way to prepare for your fantasy draft? Checking out player rankings is a smart idea. But there’s something especially useful about studying other drafts. When poolies are on the clock, they make slightly different decisions. Gut feelings and biases steer them in unexpected directions. It happened often during THN’s 2014-15 office draft, which spanned 15 rounds in a snake format and included 150 NHL players.

It’s a points-only league, meaning no goalies and a lopsided forward-to-defenseman ratio. Here’s a look at the “experts,” in draft order:

1. Ryan Kennedy, associate senior writer
2. Ronnie Shuker, associate editor
3. Jason Kay, editor in chief
4. Dominik ‘The Hammer’ Luszczyszyn, intern
5. Ken Campbell, senior writer
6. Matt Larkin, associate editor, a.k.a. me, a.k.a. the defending champion
7. Adam Proteau, columnist
8. Brian Costello, senior editor
9. Shea Berencsi, graphic designer
10. Edward Fraser, managing editor

I’m not gonna lie — I made up Dom the intern’s nickname. Like, right now, on the spot. He doesn’t even know it’s his nickname…yet.

Here’s a look at how the draft played out, round by round, pick by pick.

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