The Winnipeg Jets should probably send Don Sweeney a fruit basket. When the rookie Bruins GM made three straight picks in the middle of the first round of the draft, he and his scouting crew somehow left centers Matt Barzal and Kyle Connor on the board, reaching instead for Jake DeBrusk and Zach Senyshyn (although taking Jakub Zboril at No. 12 was solid, as he was the best D-man still on the board).
The New York Islanders immediately traded up to grab Barzal, meaning the Jets had the opportunity to snap up the leading scorer in the United States League.
The earliest revolutions in hockey happened because of the players. The Bobby Orrs changed the way we looked at position players, the Russian five-man unit altered coaching strategies and equipment technology spawned faster skaters and harder shots.
But the next big changes are happening away from the rink, in offices crammed full with whirring and buzzing computer towers and servers.
With the ability to track stats in a more specific manner, the league has already seen changes in terminology and how we value and analyze players. It is impacting arbitration and the way teams scout and has added numerous jobs in NHL front offices. The NHL’s partnership with business software company SAP repackaged and delivered many of the numbers that had become popular with statheads, but new technologies, like player tracking that companies such as Quebec startup Sportlogiq are developing, could transform the way coaches do their jobs and change the outcomes of games in real time.
Hockey is entering a new ice age, and how the community deals with it could have a significant bearing on the evolution of the game. Climate change may not affect where we can put an indoor rink, even in the warmest climes, but it’s having a profound impact outdoors, where the game was born and its mystique still lies.
Today, Torontonians get about 60 days of outdoor skating a year. So do those in Montreal. That’s two months to play keep away with your siblings, pretending to be various members of the Staal family out on a sod farm in Thunder Bay. Or maybe you and your buddy are John Tavares and Sam Gagner, who used to skate in Gagner’s backyard so often the pizza delivery guy knew to bypass the house and head straight to the homemade rink. Either way, play hard now, because those days are dwindling.
This shouldn’t come as a newsflash. In 2012, members of McGill University’s department of atmospheric and oceanic sciences proved the skating season in Canada was shrinking. Fifty-five years prior, you’d have had upwards of 15 more days of outdoor shinny. But those days are getting fewer as we continue to burn fossil fuels. Will hockey have to sacrifice the outdoor game for the indoor one?
Give credit to Dallas Stars GM Jim Nill. He always makes the summer interesting. His tenure in Texas kicked off with a bang in 2013 when he swiped Tyler Seguin in a summer deal with Boston, and he followed that up by prying Jason Spezza from Ottawa one off-season later.
So what did the erstwhile Red Wings executive do for an encore? He snagged Patrick Sharp from the Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks, who happened to be in a perilous cap situation. The trade, which also saw blueline prospect Stephen Johns come to the Stars in exchange for veteran D-man Trevor Daley and agitator Ryan Garbutt, had been in the works for more than a month before the two sides came to a conclusion, and Nill was open in his admiration for trade partner Stan Bowman. “I have so much respect for Chicago,” Nill said. “That’s where we want to get to.”
Forget HD resolution or viewing parties on massive projector screens. It won’t be long until fans will feel as though they’re sitting front and center ice rather than lounging on their tired sofas, cold beers in hand. At least that’s the virtual future now being presented at conferences across North America, where participants are plunked right into the thick of the game via a headset and clever camera angles.
“4K resolution seems like the next move in camera coverage, although the Japanese I think are just going to go right to 8K – that’s what they’re planning on doing for the Olympics as the host broadcaster,” said John McGuinness, co-ordinating producer, Hockey on NBC and NBCSN. “Any time you can make it easier for the viewer to see, a sport like hockey could definitely benefit from it because of the old, ‘I can’t see the puck’ argument.”
The most important thing to know about a player is how valuable he is to his team. In hockey, that’s a difficult question to answer and one usually met with fierce debate.
War-on-ice.com founders and academic hockey researchers Andrew Thomas and Sam Ventura, the latter of whom was recently hired by the Pittsburgh Penguins, hope to make things a bit clearer. It starts with part of the website’s name: WAR.
If you’re familiar with baseball stats, you’ll recognize the acronym WAR – wins above replacement. It determines how many wins a team gets from a player compared to one who’s easily replaceable.
Citius, Altius, Fortius. It’s a term that belongs to the Olympics – the International Olympic Committee has wisely had its motto trademarked – but it could just as easily describe hockey. It would be impossible to look at today’s NHL player and argue he’s not faster, higher, stronger, not to mention more skilled, better coached, better equipped, better nourished and better prepared than ever. The good old days might harken to a time when players were less complex and more like the common man, but they weren’t nearly as good.
In today’s game, we have freaks of nature like Zdeno Chara, who can shoot the puck in excess of 100 miles per hour. We have cyborgs such as Duncan Keith, who can log enormous minutes playing in every situation and never seem to get tired. We have kids such as Sarnia Sting defenseman Jakob Chychrun, a candidate to go first overall in the 2016 draft, who could have walked into an NHL dressing room at 15 and not looked out of place from a body-type standpoint.
Little-known fact about top 2016 draft prospect Auston Matthews: his nickname is ‘Papi.’ That’s because his mom was born in Mexico, before coming to Arizona, where Matthews was born and raised. And while Matthews appears to be a lock to go first overall next June, he could be dethroned by defenseman Jakob Chychrun, who hails from Florida originally. And when 2017 rolls around, NHL scouts will likely be keeping an eye on blueliner Max Gildon, a pure Texan.
It’s been a long time since Montreal, Northern Ontario and the Prairies propped up hockey, but the diversification of the game is increasing at an incredible rate, and it’s not just in players coming from non-traditional markets in the United States. Top talent now hails from all different backgrounds and ethnicities, while the number of nations producing players is also growing. Simply put, the face of hockey is changing.