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.
University of Minnesota alumnus Thomas Vanek’s homecoming hasn’t gone as planned. His point production is his weakest since his rookie season of 2005-06. When he finally did make a Wild headline Thursday night, it was for a morally questionable hit.
Let’s whisk ourselves to the Xcel Energy Center. It’s halfway through the first period. Chicago’s Daniel Carcillo stumbles as he enters the neutral zone with the puck and hands it off to Marcus Kruger. Just as Kruger looks back for the puck, he’s side-swiped by Vanek. Kruger flies face-first into the boards. The Blackhawks bench explodes in outrage. Vanek gets slapped with a five-minute boarding major. Have a look:
Raise your virtual hand if you’ve been in this situation before: you have a sore throat and that wonky knee of yours is bothering you, too. You head to your family doctor and spot a sign taped to the wall: “Please limit your visit to one issue.” What does that mean? Are you seriously supposed to make two appointments?
I’m out to right that wrong in this week’s fantasy mailbag. Many readers crammed multiple questions into their “one” question. But I’ll answer them all if it’s the last thing I do.
John Daniels (@Daniels1984J) asks…
Is it time to bail on Nathan MacKinnon (i.e. take anything in a trade)? I feel like I’ve been holding out for too long.
It’s that time of year when we pretend it’s that time of year.
Mid-season awards don’t really mean much, but they provide a strong sense of what to expect when the NHL hands out the real hardware in June. We held a vote between eight THN staffers for the Hart, Vezina, Norris, Calder and Selke trophies and the Jack Adams Award. Each voter submitted a top three for each award. Finalists received three points for a first-place vote, two for second place and one for third place.
It’s one of the least surprising moves of 2014-15. And yet, it’s the talk of the hockey world. Randy Carlyle coaches the Toronto Maple Leafs no more.
Hiring Carlyle in the first place three years ago always seemed an odd fit. He carried a Cup-winning reputation from his days helming the Anaheim Ducks, but he was also “the coach who made fighting en vogue” on that 2007 championship team, and there he was, taking over a 2012 edition of the Leafs that made its hay on speed and finesse, icing fleet-of-foot units like Mikhail Grabovski between Clarke MacArthur and Nikolay Kulemin.
The square peg stuffed itself into the round hole with reasonable success in 2012-13, as Carlyle helped Toronto reach its first playoffs since 2003-04, but it was speed, not brawn, that had the team within a whisker of upsetting the Boston Bruins in seven games. Nevertheless, Grabovski, MacArthur and Kulemin don’t play for the Leafs anymore, and GM Dave Nonis gradually molded the team into more of a “Carlyle” blueprint. That included signing David Clarkson, swapping John-Michael Liles for Tim Gleason and, this past summer, dealing Carl Gunnarsson for Roman Polak and signing Stephane Robidas.
Carlyle guided Toronto to a respectable 91-78-19 record during his tenure, and he had the Leafs 21-16-3 this season, good enough to cling to the Eastern Conference’s bottom playoff rung for now.
The wall, however, was so covered in writing you’d mistake it for a graffiti mural. The hirings of Kyle Dubas, Cam Charron, Darryl Metcalf and Rob Pettapiece signalled Toronto’s shift toward an analytics-first philsophy, and we all know the enduring hallmark of the Carlyle era was horrible analytics. Per puckalytics.com, the Leafs’ Corsi Close ranks in each Carlyle season or half-season: 24th, 29th, 29th and 28th. The ice consistently tilts the other team’s way. The Leafs have always given up far more chances than they’ve generated under Carlyle, making them too dependent on goaltending. That’s why the stat geeks correctly predicted the Leafs’ regression last season and why no one’s heart rate climbed when Toronto sat 19-9-3 after six straight wins in mid-December. The numbers said this team was due for a tailspin again. That’s exactly what happened, and that’s why Tuesday’s firing was utterly predictable.
People close to
Julie Chu consider her superhuman. But you’d have to forgive her if you spotted bags under her eyes in winter 2013. It was a non-Olympic year, so Chu, one of Team USA’s most decorated forwards ever, worked as an assistant coach with Union College in Schenectady, N.Y., as a day job. She gave instruction wearing full equipment so she could squeeze daily workouts in simultaneously. She stayed with the team from Monday to Saturday, including game nights, which were typically Friday and Saturday. Her rest and recreation after a game consisted of hopping in her car and driving to Montreal (215 miles), Toronto (367 miles) or Boston (186 miles), depending on where her Canadian Women’s League team competed that weekend. She’d arrive to join it late – often at 2 a.m. or so. She’d get what sleep she could and play in the Montreal Stars’ game the next day. After that? Back in the car. Back to Eastern New York to get ready for work Monday. Rinse, repeat.
It’s not quite the glamorous life you’d picture for a Harvard graduate who finished her amateur career as the NCAA’s all-time leading scorer, was her country’s flag bearer at the end of the 2014 Sochi Games and donates oodles of money to buy hockey equipment for children of military members. Yet Chu’s story paints an accurate picture of everyday life for elite female hockey players – and she’s one of the lucky ones. She’s been fortunate enough to find work in the sport when she’s not competing. Still, she can’t get paid to play the game professionally. No CWHL players can. They’re forced to work other jobs, yet they’re expected to perform at the peak of their abilities on game day. They’re attempting to attract interest, sponsors and enthusiasm while playing the sport with one hand tied behind their collective back.
Is it better to give than receive? It is during the holiday season, maybe, if you’re a really good person. But nowhere does that adage apply less than on the trade market. The Boston Bruins won’t pat themselves on the back for giving Dallas the extravagant gift that is Tyler Seguin. In hindsight, a Starbucks card would’ve sufficed.
Which teams did the best jobs giving and receiving in 2014? What were the 10 best trades of the year? As I outlined in last year’s edition, the trade’s utility is key. A big-name deal doesn’t mean much if it helps no one. It’s important to avoid evaluating trades based on the emotion at the time of the deal. For example, everyone remembers Montreal’s Thomas Vanek acquisition as a fleecing of Islanders GM Garth Snow when, in the end, the Habs got a brief rental who disappeared in the playoffs. The best swaps are the ones that tangibly benefit one or both parties.
With that, let’s delve into the list.
It was a play that transcended a single game.
Winless Denmark found itself deadlocked with the winless Czech Republic in a crucial Group B affair Monday afternoon, and Winnipeg Jets prospect Nikolaj Ehlers found the puck on his stick with his Danes on a power play early in the third period. Using his eye-popping speed, Ehlers zoomed into the high slot, charging up a wrister before surprising everyone on the ice with a gorgeous backdoor pass onto Mathias Asperup’s stick. Easy goal, 3-2 lead for the Danes.
In the end, the go-ahead marker didn’t stop the Czechs from tying the game and winning in overtime on a beautiful goal from Bruins 2014 first-rounder David Pastrnak. And the Czechs largely deserved the victory, having outshot Denmark 47-14. Still, seeing Ehlers make a play that exotic, that skilled, said something more significant. It wasn’t a good goal “for Denmark.” It was an elite play by an elite young player for an emerging nation. It reminded us to take these Danes more seriously than we ever have.
Swing and a miss, NHL player safety department.
It was a particularly scary night for Max Pacioretty and the Montreal Canadiens. Pacioretty was already sensitive to dangerous hits, having sustained a career-threatening fractured vertebra in 2011 when Boston’s Zdeno Chara drove him into a stanchion. Chances are, ‘Patches’ experienced some traumatic flashbacks after last night’s collision with Anaheim blueliner Clayton Stoner.
After Pacioretty “admired a pass,” as the homer-as-it-gets Anaheim broadcasters put it, Stoner sent him hurtling into the boards with a late hit. Pacioretty struggled to get back to his feet, was in obvious pain and was taken to hospital for precautionary reasons. Here’s a look at the play: