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.
A believable narrative: Timmy is a Toronto Maple Leafs fan. Timmy knows his Maple Leafs will struggle this season. Timmy is a Toronto Blue Jays fan, too. He’s devoted all his energy toward following the ballclub’s post-season exploits. He hasn’t watched a minute of Leafs hockey yet this season.
Timmy checks the NHL standings, though, and he shrugs his shoulders. Same old same old. The Leafs have a single win in their first six games. They’re dead last in the Atlantic Division. Their lone victory came against the 0-7 Columbus Blue Jackets. They average 2.17 goals per game and allow 2.83. They rank 22nd in power play and penalty kill percentage. Start dreaming of Auston Matthews, Jesse Pulujarvi or Jakob Chychrun in blue and white.
The latter thought is legit. The Toronto Maple Leafs will be a lottery team in 2015-16. But to assume the current incarnation is the same sad sack of underachievers is inaccurate. Beneath the surface of this flaccid team, the Mike Babcock effect has already begun.
That twisted, charred pile of skate blades, black tape and fiberglass used to be your fantasy hockey team. Alas, you WASTED your first picks on bums like Sidney Crosby, Claude Giroux, Sergei Bobrovsky and Ryan Getzlaf. You’re in last place a week and a half into your season. You’re finished. FINISHED I say!
…or maybe not. Maybe the season is half a dozen games old for most NHL teams. Maybe you have the best team in the league, and it just had an off week, the kind that would go completely unnoticed in the dog days of February.
You shouldn’t panic. Or should you? That’s the theme of 2015-16’s first fantasy mailbag. Let’s calm a few panicked poolies – and stoke the fires of a few who may be onto something. Thanks to all who tweeted me which players are making them sweat the most. I compiled a list of the most frequent names that popped up.
Some stories write themselves, and Alex Galchenyuk opened 2015-16 using the ice as his personal typwriter.
This season was supposed to mark the breakout for Galchenyuk, 21, whom the Montreal Canadiens drafted third overall in 2012. It was a logical progression for a youngster who set career highs across the board last season, notching 20 goals and 46 points. And there he was, in Montreal’s first game of the season Oct. 7, rifling home the game-winning goal against the Toronto Maple Leafs at Air Canada Centre. And there he was again, tasked with shutdown duty in the final minute after the Leafs pulled goaltender Jonathan Bernier. Galchenyuk started the season in which he’s expected to become Montreal’s most important forward by…being Montreal’s most important forward. It was too perfect.
Why the extra pressure for Galchenyuk all of a sudden? Because he represents the closest thing to a major off-season acquisition GM Marc Bergevin could muster. The Habs did very little to improve a good team that had trouble scoring and depended too much on all-universe goalie Carey Price. Free agent signee Alexander Semin is a lottery ticket, and trading Brandon Prust for Zack Kassian quickly blew up in the team’s face after Kassian was injured in a car accident while riding with an impaired driver. The key to Montreal’s offense spiking: improving from within the organization by giving its best young player a new assignment. It was time to move Galchenyuk to his natural position of center.
The North American Youngstars have their coach for next September’s World Cup of Hockey. On Friday, the team’s management unveiled Todd McLellan as its choice.
And yes, with McLellan’s Edmonton Oilers off to an 0-4-0 start, social media snickering ensued. Here was the bench boss tasked with guiding promising young talents Connor McDavid and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins to success in the NHL, and the team has fallen flat on its face so far. Now, McLellan will attempt to lead…McDavid and Nugent-Hopkins, among others, to success at the 2016 World Cup. The North American Youngstars squad will feature only players who have not turned 24 by Sept. 1, 2016. Joining McDavid and ‘The Nuge’ should be Jack Eichel, Johnny Gaudreau, Nathan MacKinnon, Aaron Ekblad and many other thrilling talents. So why hand the reins to McLellan?
For one, hockey’s social media community and the Edmonton Oilers fan base need to calm down. Sure, 0-4-0 is disastrous, but that doesn’t morph McLellan into a bad coach overnight. He did a fine job for many years as the San Jose Sharks’ coach and molded many a young mind, from Logan Couture’s to Marc-Edouard Vlasic’s. McLellan will be fine, and he’s a perfectly solid choice to guide the Youngstars. If you’re curious as to how the team will shake out, I took a crack at a projected roster last winter. Not much has changed, though Connor Hellebuyck has vaulted into the goaltending mix ahead of Zach Fucale. Max Domi, Anthony Duclair and Mark Scheifele sure look like strong bets to make it as forwards right now, too.
Team USA named John Tortorella World Cup coach last month. The Eurostars squad chose Ralph Krueger. Oleg Znarok will coach Russia, Lauri Marjamaki Finland and Rikard Gronborg Sweden. Teams still without coaches: the Czech Republic and…Canada. Who deserves the gig in the Great White North this time around? Here are the contenders.
And the wait is officially over.
It’s not like it was an eternity for Edmonton Oilers mega-prospect Connor McDavid. But two games into his career without a goal felt like a long time given the hype for the first overall pick. But, just as No. 99 did more than three decades ago, No. 97 got tally No. 1 in game No. 3.
Here it is, in all its glory, a deft redirection off an Andrej Sekera point shot to draw Edmonton even with the Dallas Stars:
A basement full of hockey players snacking on pizza doesn’t typically make for an intense environment. But this humid August evening is an exception.
Strewn across the considerable couch space at the beautiful home of Mike Wilson, famous Toronto memorabilia collector: Joel Ward, Devante Smith-Pelly and Anthony Stewart. They represent a small chunk of the NHL’s growing black population. Also on hand: retired trailblazer Mike Marson, one of the game’s first black players. Some other NHLers, such as Mike Hoffman and Michael Latta, have tagged along, too.
And there’s tension in the air. We all wait as intrepid documentarian Damon Kwame Mason tinkers with the audio of a giant home theatre setup. He’s about to unveil a rough cut of his labor of love, Soul On Ice: Past Present & Future, and he wants everything to be absolutely perfect. The sound system isn’t quite on point for the first few seconds of his film, and that just won’t cut it. He starts it from the top several times until he knows it’s just right.
And from the minute the opening credits of Soul On Ice arrive, bathed in edgy hip-hop, everyone in the room understands how important this screening is. Mason has spent the last several years pouring his energy into documenting the history of black players in hockey, what hardships the pioneers overcame to break into the sport and why our perception of black players in the game is changing. He’s on a mission to show that black hockey roots run deeper and longer than so many of us realize, and he wants to shatter stereotypes of what it means to be a black hockey player today.
The seeds of Mason’s project were planted in his childhood, playing road hockey on the streets of Toronto in the late 1970s. Every kid pretended to be his favorite player, and Mason loved Guy Lafleur. “No, you can’t be Lafleur,” he remembers one kid telling him, because Lafleur was white.
“I wasn’t upset about it, because it’s a fact that he’s not black, you know?” Mason said. “So I had to deal with that. You grow up thinking that: ‘We don’t play hockey. This is one of the games we don’t play.’
We’ve said it time and again in the THN office in the weeks leading up to 2015-16: this is the most anticipated hockey season in years. From Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel’s arrivals to Phil Kessel in Pittsburgh to 3-on-3 overtime to the beginning of the Mike Babcock era, the NHL has exciting storylines coming out the wazoo. And the Montreal Canadiens’ season-opening tilt against the Toronto Maple Leafs gave us an accurate snapshot of what to expect from the game’s maddest markets in 2015-16.
Here are five takeaways from Game 1 of the NHL season:
Advanced statistics have permeated hockey so much that they now reside on NHL.com in their own category. We don’t need to repeat how many teams have hired experts. But that doesn’t mean the numbers game won’t evolve again. As Toronto Maple Leafs assistant GM Kyle Dubas once told me, hockey’s analytics are 20 years behind baseball’s. Sooner or later, someone will invent a more accurate way to track statistics like possession.
Is Drake Berehowsky that someone?
It’s been a long time since we saw Berehowsky, 43, manning a blueline. He last suited up in the NHL for the Leafs, the team that took him 10th overall in 1990, late in the 2003-04 season. He bounced around the Swedish League, AHL and German League after that and retired in 2006. But Berehowsky stayed busy. He’s spent the better part of the past decade behind various benches, from OHL Barrie to AHL Peoria to ECHL Orlando and WHL Lethbridge, where he was head coach the past two seasons. Now he’s back in the OHL as an associate coach with the Sudbury Wolves.
Along the way, through the ups and downs helming all those different teams, ideas danced around in his head. Was there a better, faster, more accurate way to evaluate his players? Could he pinpoint what data would help him and others make wiser decisions, be they in-game line combinations or even just deciding who should and shouldn’t make the team?
Drake and his sister, Danielle, began work on an idea called StatsTrack, an application that tracks player and team events on the ice in real time. Drake provided the ideas and concepts behind what the program would track, Danielle ran the business side of things, and they worked with a team of digital technology specialists to develop the concept. The NHL Alumni Association also came on board as a partner.