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.

What would a 32-team NHL realignment look like?

Matt Larkin
One proposed realignment would put the Jets and Canucks in the same division, reminiscent of their Smythe days. (Photo by Lance Thomson/NHLI via Getty Images)

Talk of NHL expansion just won’t go away. It’s pluckier than the ice bucket challenge, despite Gary Bettman’s claims last week that expansion talk was “complete fabrication.”

Investigative reporter Rick Westhead’s story for TSN is plenty interesting. It asserts that, Bettman’s stance be damned, several senior NHL team sources suggest expansion will be a serious discussion topic at the NHL board of governors meetings Sept. 30. Sources also told TSN a team in Toronto would command a North American sports record $1.2-billion expansion fee via auction. Wow. You need Grand Canyon-like pockets to make the Toronto dream happen.

Let’s say it does, however. I’ll borrow from colleague Rory Boylen and call the team the Toronto Toros. And let’s say one of the other rumored expansion franchises comes through – Quebec City, Seattle or Las Vegas. What would a 32-team NHL look like? With a 16/14 imbalance between the East and West already, realignment would be a near certainty once a second Toronto team arrived. Eight divisions of four teams spread across two conferences makes plenty of sense. Assuming Rich Uncle Pennybags shells out $1.2 billion at an auction, I’ll draw up the NHL with Toronto 2.0 and one version with each of the other candidates. My assumed playoff format would differ from the NFL’s, in that I’d still put 16 teams through. But would it be best to have the top two from all eight divisions comprise the playoff picture, or just the division winners plus four wild cards? I’m guessing the latter.

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Pixels and pucks: a history of hockey video games

Matt Larkin
NHL 94 image

Hockey video games have made an incredible journey over the past three decades, from pixelated characters to the spitting images of real players, from mindless fun to managing a salary cap, from something little kids play to something NHL players compete to represent. THN delves into the world of consoles to unearth the nuts and bolts of every 
landmark release and paradigm shift in how our great sport has appeared in game form.

 

THE 1980S: COLD, HARD STEEL

 

It is 1988. I am five years old. I kneel before a large Zenith television, encased in wood panelling, inches away from a black screen, brow furrowed in frustration. It worked yesterday. I thought Dad fixed it. I pop the hood of my Nintendo Entertainment System and yank out the cartridge. I stick my bowl-haircutted head against the console and blow inside of it until my lungs are empty. He said it was dust. I jam the game back inside, turn it on and hear the sounds I’ve giddily awaited. First the high-pitched SCHLING! Then the familiar, muffled voice: “Blades…of Steel.”

It brings Dad jogging into the room. We grab controllers, choose our teams and go head-to-head for three hours straight. He beats me 10 times in a row. I cry. His rapid puck movement reminds me of those Red Army guys he told me about. The game’s voice, which I swear has a hand covering it, haunts me: “HITS THE PASS. HITS THE PASS. HITS THE PASS.”

Mom, furious, tells Dad to let me win. “No way,” he says. “When he beats me for real, it’ll be that much better.” And he’s right.

Ice Hockey. The simplistic name implied its creator didn’t understand the material. You know who calls our sport “ice hockey”? People who don’t watch or play it.

It was thus not a huge surprise the Nintendo Entertainment System’s 1988 release Ice Hockey had four skaters per team, not five, and a few faceless nations to choose from. Colin Moriarty, senior editor for the juggernaut video game publication IGN and a classic games expert, describes it as one cog in NES’s nondescript sport series, which included such original titles as Golf and Baseball.

“The ice was a little bit more wide open and the game wasn’t a simulation at all as much as it was a very arcadey experience,” Moriarty says. “But it was still fun. It was still a classic game.”

Anyone who played Ice Hockey remembers it fondly for one fun feature. Among those gamers: Sean Ramjagsingh, producer of EA Sports’ NHL series, the pinnacle of modern hockey gaming.

“Nintendo hockey: the skinny guy, the fat guy and the medium guy,” he says. “Very basic game mechanics. The fat guy was strong and the skinny guy was quick and fast. That’s how it started. Back then it was figuring out the easiest way – the consoles weren’t anywhere close to what they are now – to get something that looked like hockey. That being a player moving on an ice surface, as opposed to all the other sports with running, and trying to make that as real as possible.”

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What’s new in NHL 15? It’s a matter of physics

Matt Larkin
NHL15

Sometimes, it’s OK to enjoy the sizzle more than the steak.

If you’re a diehard hockey video gamer, you know it’s good to temper expectations when a game debuts on a new console. An entirely new generation means new bugs to work out. It’s thus not fair to compare NHL 15, the first release on Xbox One and PlayStation 4, to the final couple releases on Xbox 360 and PS3.

Chances are, there will be some kinks to work out between NHL 15 and NHL 16. Some 13-year-old kid will discover a glitch goal and annihilate the online competition. Much fuss has been made over the lack of game modes in this year’s edition, too.

But when EA Sports officially launched its newest game at the Mastercard Centre outside Toronto on Thursday, there was no point nitpicking. It’s too early for that. Instead, it was a day for wide-eyed appreciation at the latest leaps the game has made. There are many, and most of them relate to the look and feel.

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Top 10 fantasy sleeper picks for 2014-15

Matt Larkin
Mikael Granlund has the talent to become Minnesota's unquestioned No. 1 center. (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)

It’s September. And if you don’t think that means fantasy hockey time, check the weather in the Alberta Rockies. Whoa.

If you’re a keener, you’ve probably gotten ahead already and checked out the top 200 players. Now it’s time to look at sleepers. I identify sleepers as follows:

(a)    Players who will outperform their average draft position
(b)    Players who will outperform some players drafted before them
(c)    Players you can steal cheap at the end of drafts to reap major profits

All three points essentially mean the same thing. The later rounds are all about value, and the sleepers are guys who deliver more value than others picked just before or after them. Some are overlooked rookies – especially rookies who weren’t drafted this past June. Some are guys earning new roles. And some are young guys about to break out and deliver on the promise that made them high draft picks. Two great examples from 2013-14 are Ben Bishop (a guy given a new role) and Ryan Johansen (a high draft pick realizing his potential).

Onto the 2014-15 sleeper list. Keep these fellas in mind and enjoy making your friends mad. I’ve included their overall rankings in brackets to provide a sense of when to draft them. There’s a such thing as a third-round sleeper and a 15th-round sleeper, so it’s important to know the difference.

I’ve also included each guy’s average draft position in Yahoo leagues. Note that each guy’s ADP is way lower than my ranking. in other words, when you get to the end of this list, I’m telling you the player I rank 81st overall is available on average 149th overall. Now that’s a sleeper who can turn a profit.

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Advanced stats vs. the old guard: inside the bitter rivalry

Matt Larkin
Simmons tweet

It’s late June 2014. Tyler Dellow and Steve Simmons want to kill each other. Hyperbole? Probably. At the very least, though, Simmons is about to boil over and Dellow calmly relishes it.

Dellow, a Toronto-based lawyer, and Simmons, a Toronto-based sports columnist, are debating the validity of advanced statistics on a radio show and, more specifically, statistical darling Mikhail Grabovski versus clutch playoff performer Dave Bolland. Simmons tells Dellow, one of the leading voices in the analytics community, to throw his stats out the window and look at Grabovski’s lone-wolf tendencies as a center.

“I just judge hockey players based on whether their team scores more goals than the other team,” Dellow says, “and when Grabovski’s on the ice, that happens.”

“One guy, who won a Stanley Cup scoring the game-winning goal in the final minute of Game 6? The other guy’s never been close to that,” Simmons retorts, twice as loudly.

“Yeah, and what did Dave Bolland do?” Dellow teases. “Is he Jonathan Toews’ dad? Because I’m not sure how you’re giving him credit for the team he played on.”

The tension is palpable and very much what we’ve come to expect from a rivalry that exploded over blogs and the social media universe in recent seasons.

“It’s kind of like the Hatfield and McCoy feud,” said Globe and Mail hockey columnist David Shoalts. They went on so long, nobody can remember how or why it got started.”

Little did we know the advanced statistics versus old-guard debate, the nerds versus dinosaurs war, would go from hot fad to revolution over the summer.

It was a full-on NHL takeover for the stat heads. Dellow now works for the Oilers. Sunny Mehta, a pro poker player turned Oilers blogger, was named the New Jersey Devils’ director of analytics. Whiz-kid stat guru-turned Ontario League GM Kyle Dubas, 28, is now the assistant GM of the Toronto Maple Leafs, who also launched an analytics department and poached the minds behind extraskater.com.

The slew of hirings brought validation to the growing community of thinkers who believe possession-driven statistics like Corsi and Fenwick are the best predictors of success in the NHL. And they poured gasoline on the fiery fight emerging between the stat heads and the traditional-thinking journalists.

“They think I’m a moron, to be honest,” Simmons said. “Not someone who’s covered the NHL for 34 years, not someone who coached hockey for 25 and is a level 3 instructor, not someone who ran hockey schools. I’m a moron.”

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The NHL’s 10 worst contracts

Matt Larkin
(David Cooper/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

It’s not the pre-season, but it’s the pre-pre-season. That means assessing each team’s chances for 2014-15 and beyond, looking their rosters up and down and even checking out their salary cap situation.

When we peruse the contracts on capgeek.com, our eyes bug out of our head from time to time. “They paid how much for how long for that guy? I forgot about that.” Some deals have cumbersome cap hits, others absurdly long terms for players past their primes, and many have no-trade clauses. The perfect storm of bad contracts contains all three, and some of my picks for the league’s 10 worst deals fit that description.

We’ll start with No. 10.

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Chris Stewart on Sabres season: “Tanking is not in my DNA”

Matt Larkin
Chris Stewart

It’s hard not to think of Chris Stewart’s 2013-14 season as a slow, smothering banishment. He entered the season with St. Louis as its reigning top scorer, but that feels like an eternity ago. He struggled to find his consistency and fell as far as the fourth line.

Then came the trade to the lowly Sabres, with Stewart heading to Buffalo as part of the Ryan Miller swap. Looking back on it, plenty of players would sugarcoat their feelings and talk about what a great opportunity it was. Not Stewart. He tells it like it is, which is extremely refreshing.

“It was kind of frustrating,” Stewart said. “Being traded from the first place to the last place team in the league, that was definitely a surprise. But I got there, and I’m willing to go anywhere a team wants me and is going to show me that respect, give me a chance to showcase my talents. So I’m excited to be there. We made a lot of changes in the off-season. We’re going to have a team next year with Teddy Nolan leading the charge. We’re going to be ready to compete and surprise a lot of teams.”

And where does Stewart fit into that puzzle? You never know what you’re going to get with him performance-wise. There’s no doubting his raw ability. He’s a hulking power forward, 6-foot-2 and an honest 231 pounds, and still squarely in his prime at 26. He’s a legitimate goal scorer when he’s focused and on his game, having notched 28 twice. He’s capable of taking a team on his back when he’s hot. He sniped 15 goals in 26 games after the Colorado Avalanche traded him to St. Louis during the 2010-11 season.

On the other hand, coaches have called Stewart’s work ethic into question on and off throughout his career. This is a talented player, with a first-round draft pedigree, and his coaches expect high output from him every game. When they haven’t gotten that, they’ve pushed Stewart down the depth chart and even into the press box on occasion.

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New All-Star jersey photo leaked – Should we love it or hate it?

Matt Larkin
ASG jersey 2

The NHL gave us heavy dose of special Stadium Series jerseys last season, consistently infused with a shiny chrome treatment over the logos.

According to a leaked photo posted on the website Icethetics, the chrome takeover continues. The key detail missing: we don’t yet know what this jersey will be used for. If it’s a practice jersey – and it sure looks like one – it’s pretty darned cool. The black and white are simple and classy enough, and the huge, shimmering NHL crest immediately grabs the eye.

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