Former Canadiens captain Saku Koivu retires, but his amazing legacy will live on

Adam Proteau
Saku Koivu (Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images)

Saku Koivu’s NHL career came to an end Wednesday when he announced his retirement, but the ideal manner in which he conducted himself over 18 seasons in the sport’s top league – and the courage he showed in triumphing over cancer – will resonate in the hockey community for years to come.

When Koivu arrived in North America in 1995, he had already established himself as the best player in his native Finland, winning the Finnish Elite League’s regular-season and playoff MVP awards. But none of that could’ve prepared him from life in the hockey pressure-cooker that is Montreal. As the Canadiens’ first round pick (21st overall in 1993), he had expectations placed on him from the get-go, but he amassed 20 goals and 45 points in 82 games of his rookie NHL season.

His physical challenges began in his sophomore campaign, which saw him miss 32 games because of a knee injury. From that point on, Koivu played just one more 82-game season thanks to a slew of ailments that included concussions, as well as injuries to both knees and one of his eyes. Many of those injuries came because he was an undersized player (listed at 5-foot-10) who never shied away from physical contact. He was as brave as any player and respected by all of his teammates for the way he played the game and the way he lived his life. Read more

Top 10 players/coaches on The Hot Seat

Rick Nash (Photo by Rebecca Taylor/NHLI via Getty Images)

The most daunting challenge when it comes to forming a list of people on The Hot Seat™ for 2014-15 is keeping the list to just 10. Heck, you could have 30 just by placing every coach in the league on there. Because as your trusty correspondent recently pointed out, coaches and GMs are getting whacked at a dizzying rate these days.

But some, obviously, are feeling the heat a little more than others. You wouldn’t think the Los Angeles Kings would be too concerned about Darryl Sutter if they don’t get off to a great start this season. And during football season, is anyone going to notice if Bill Peters can’t turn the moribund Carolina Hurricanes around?

With that in mind, we’ve kept our list to 10, evenly divided between coaches and players. These are people who will be under pressure to produce results or face either (a) the prospect of being fired, in the case of coaches; or (b) the prospect of feeling shame, in the case of players.

So, here we go:

10. Ken Hitchcock: The St. Louis Blues coach has done everything right with this team, with the exception of win a playoff series. Since he took over in 2011-12, the Blues have won just one playoff series and compiled an 8-13 record in the post-season. There were rumbles that Hitchcock was in jeopardy after the Blues lost in the first round to Chicago, but they were quelled by GM Doug Armstrong. But if Hitchcock can’t find a way to get his team over the Chicago/Los Angeles hump, there might be no choice but to make a change.

9. Ryan Johansen: Even though they appear to be playing hardball with him, the Columbus Blue Jackets will sign Johansen at some point. But after an acrimonious summer in which Johansen felt his team’s offer was a “slap in the face,” there will be pressure on Johansen to prove he was worth all the off-season angst, particularly if he misses training camp or some of the regular season. Johansen is at a critical point in his development as a player and he has every right to sit until he gets what he feels is a fair deal. But with that comes the pressure of living up to it.

8. Bruce Boudreau: The Anaheim Ducks coach is quickly becoming known as The Man Who Can’t Win Game 7. The Ducks won the Western Conference regular season title last season, but the fact they didn’t take their foot off the pedal in the regular season cost them in the playoffs. Boudreau will have to do the delicate dance between being good enough to compete in the west, while not burning his team out for the time when the games get really important.

7. Alex Ovechkin: How does a 50-goal scorer end up on the list of players on the hot seat? By piling up points on the power play, being an uninspired player 5-on-5 and not leading his team to the playoffs, that’s how. Ovechkin might be one of the least-feared 50-goal scorers in the history of the game, primarily because he does precious little other than feast when the Capitals are on the man advantage. He’ll also have to adjust to a new coach in Barry Trotz who will demand more defensive accountability. For real.

6. Todd McLellan: There were rumors the Sharks coach was on his way out of San Jose and to Toronto after last season, but GM Doug Wilson opted to keep him after his team blew a 3-0 lead in the first round to the Kings. Instead of firing the coach, which would have been the convenient thing to do, the Sharks instead emasculated Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau. If the Sharks stumble out of the gate, McLellan might be an easy target.

5. P.K. Subban: The Montreal Canadiens defenseman became the first player in NHL history to reach a contract agreement after an arbitration hearing and before a decision was rendered. And what an agreement! Subban will undoubtedly face pressure to justify his $9 million-per-season cap hit, but he will be courting trouble if he internalizes it and tries to do so every time he touches the puck.

4. Paul MacLean: There were rumblings that MacLean lost his golden touch last season with his players and mismanaged his players last season. Not surprisingly, he was not able to coax the results out of his team that he got in 2013. Even though the Senators are closer to being a lottery winner than a playoff team, expectations are always high in Canadian markets. And if the Senators get off to a disastrous start, the only guy at the Canadian Tire Centre with a bushy moustache will be MacLean’s doppelganger in the first row.

3. David Clarkson: The Toronto Maple Leafs winger is a classic example of expectations gone awry because of a huge contract. Clarkson was never going to be able to live up to the deal he signed with the Maple Leafs, but even by those standards, his 2013-14 season was an unmitigated disaster. Clarkson’s best course of action would be to forget the contract and resist the temptation to be something he’s not.

2. Randy Carlyle: Clarkson’s coach with the Maple Leafs is undoubtedly on the shortest leash of any coach in the NHL right now. With analytics gaining more prominence in the game, the Leafs cannot afford to continue getting Corsi-ed to death on a regular basis. The Leafs have significantly improved their bottom six, but if they don’t tighten up defensively, Carlyle will likely become the first coach looking for work this season.

1. Rick Nash: The New York Rangers winger led the team in goals with 26 last season, but Nash simply can’t produce when his team needs him most. Including all his NHL playoff games and the two Olympics in which he has participated, Nash has seven goals in 54 games. There was a time when Nash seemed to be able to carry players on his back on his way to the opposing net. It seems now he can’t even get himself to the net, which is why he finds himself on the periphery so much.

Weekend odds and ends: Stamkos’ unsatisfactory explanation; Brodeur in Montreal; and young Ducks goalies

Steven Stamkos (Claus Andersen/Getty Images)

On the first weekend in September, here are a few medium-sized hockey thoughts for your consideration:

Lightning star Steven Stamkos addressed the media in Tampa Bay Thursday and talked in greater detail about his adventures on social media this summer. Stamkos said he mistakenly pressed the favorite button on a Tweet from THN’s account linking to my story on him potentially coming to his hometown Maple Leafs when he becomes an unrestricted free agent in 2016.

“You press the favorite button by accident and an hour later Twitter blew up,” Stamkos said. “But you live and learn and I’ll be more careful on the favorite button the next time around.

Sounds reasonable, right? Who among us hasn’t made a similar slip? And here’s the thing – if it was only one tweet, I’d be inclined to take Stamkos at face value. But Stamkos didn’t just favor one tweet. He subsequently favorited a second tweet linking him to the Leafs.

Now, one mistaken favorite, I understand. Two? And both just happen to be about the same topic? Sorry, but I’ve yet to hear a satisfactory explanation of how that happened. Read more

Top 10 off-season NHL signings

Christian Ehrhoff (Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images)

As the beginning of NHL training camps draws closer, it’s natural for fans to debate and discuss which teams had the most productive off-season. And although the answer to that question won’t be confirmed for months, if not years, that won’t stop us from ranking the 10 best off-season unrestricted free agent signings:

10. Thomas Vanek, Wild (3 years, $19.5 million). Granted, Vanek didn’t help his contract negotiating stance with a poor playoff showing for the Canadiens, but his regular-season production has been dependably above-average – and given that Minnesota struggled to put pucks in nets last season (their 207 goals-for was third-worst in the Western Conference), he’ll help a great deal and isn’t locked up to a contract with an onerous term.

9. Ales Hemsky, Stars (3 years, $12 million). The 31-year-old Hemsky hasn’t reached the 20-goal mark since he had 23 for Edmonton in 2008-09, but he’ll play on Dallas’ second line – alongside former Senators teammate Jason Spezza, with whom he enjoyed some solid chemistry in his 20-game stint in Ottawa last year – and should perform well playing in a non-fishbowl market with increased minutes.

8. Radim Vrbata, Canucks (2 years, $10 million). Vrbata has been under most people’s radar playing in Phoenix, but the 33-year-old has proven himself to be a reliable 20-30-goal-scorer. On the rejigged Canucks, he’ll see time on the same line as the Sedin twins and will get first-unit power play minutes. The term of this deal also makes this a win for new Vancouver GM Jim Benning. Read more

NHL players hit their peak by 29. How wise is the eight-year contract?

Jason Kay
P.K. Subban will only be 33 when his eight-year deal expires (Photo by Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images).

The NHL took a hard stand during the 2012-13 lockout when it came to maximum contract length, fighting fervently for five years, then compromising at eight (for re-signings).

Since then, up to the pact agreed to by P.K. Subban in early August, 11 players had won max term. In the big picture, it’s a small number, representing a tiny fraction of all deals. But due to the dollars and profile involved, the question remains: is eight great?

The answer depends on your perspective. If you’re demanding equal value across all seasons, prepare to be disappointed. The evidence shows that, apart from notable exceptions, returns diminish on players beginning in their early 30s.

Read more

Alex Kovalev on P.K. Subban’s $72 million contract: “I don’t understand why he got so much money”

Alex Kovalev scored 430 career goals in the NHL. (Photo by Andre Ringuette/NHLI via Getty Images)

In his time as an NHLer, Alex Kovalev was a divisive figure. He had all the natural talent and size to be a dominating player and sometimes he was just that. In 2000-01, he scored 44 goals and 95 points with the Pittsburgh Penguins, a career high. But he was also inconsistent and his dedication was constantly called into question. In 2003-04, three years after that career-best season, Kovalev managed just 45 points in 78 games between the New York Rangers in Montreal Canadiens.

But he still made his money. In that 2003-04 season, the last without a salary cap, Kovalev earned $6.6 million. He made $4.5 million in the first four years of the cap and finished his career with two years at $5 million each. In all, Kovalev made around $52.6 million in his career.

So it’s kind of funny to hear what Kovalev said about P.K. Subban’s eight-year, $72 million extension with the Montreal Canadiens. It’s not Subban’s dedication that he calls into question, but that he doesn’t have the rounded game a defenseman should have to be a high-salaried player. Like him or not, Subban brings excitement, offence and marketability to the Habs, which is why owner Geoff Molson stepped in to make sure a deal got done outside of arbitration. After the defenseman signed a relatively cheap two-year bridge contract with the team in 2012, it was time to give him his due on this deal. Failure to do that would likely have led to Subban leaving the team as a UFA in two years. And who would they have had to replace the Norris winner?

Still, Kovalev of all people, didn’t believe Subban was worth the investment. Read more

The oral history of the 1989 Stanley Cup champion Calgary Flames: Part Two

Adam Proteau
Flames Oral History

In 1989, the Calgary Flames and Montreal Canadiens competed in the Stanley Cup Final. It was one of the rare occasions the NHL’s two best regular-season teams collided in the championship round and the recent history between the two franchises – they had clashed in the Final two years prior, with the Habs emerging victorious – ratcheted up the tension before the series began. This time, however, the victor was different: Calgary won in six games and clinched the Cup on the road – the first time the storied Canadiens were ever defeated on home ice.

The Hockey News spoke to a selection of players and management members from that 1988-89 Flames team for an oral history of the 1989 Final – the last series to feature two Canadian squads squaring off for the Cup:

(This is part two of the Flames Oral History. To read part one, click here.)

GAMES FOUR AND FIVE: TURNING TABLES

The Flames were in the same position after three games in 1989 as they were in 1986: trailing the Habs two games to one and facing a crucial Game 4 in Montreal. Three years earlier, they lost the final two games. But their 4-2 win over the Canadiens May 21 – featuring two goals from Mullen and one from Gilmour – breathed new life into the dressing room and evened the Final at two games apiece.

By this point, the series began to burnish the legends of particular players in the Flames’ dressing room. Although Calgary could boast of employing future stars Joe Nieuwendyk and Gary Roberts (who both were in their early twenties), the 1989 Final was about the emergence of Gilmour and MacInnis, both of whom were just 25 years old and entering the prime of Hall of Fame careers.

TERRY CRISP Everybody always talks about Al MacInnis and his cannon shot. Yes, Al MacInnis had a cannon, but he also had a big pump step–around. He had a snapshot. He had a wrist shot. He could find either Nieuwendyk or Mullen for a tip-in or a one–timer off to the side. He was like a football quarterback. He had it all. Read more

The oral history of the 1989 Stanley Cup champion Calgary Flames: Part One

Adam Proteau
Flames oral history

In 1989, the Calgary Flames and Montreal Canadiens competed in the Stanley Cup Final. It was one of the rare occasions the NHL’s two best regular-season teams collided in the championship round and the recent history between the two franchises – they had clashed in the Final two years prior, with the Habs emerging victorious – ratcheted up the tension before the series began. This time, however, the victor was different: Calgary won in six games and clinched the Cup on the road – the first time the storied Canadiens were ever defeated on home ice.

The Hockey News spoke to a selection of players and management members from that 1988-89 Flames team for an oral history of the 1989 Final – the last series to feature two Canadian squads squaring off for the Cup:

PROLOGUE TO THE FINAL

For the second year in a row, the Flames had finished the regular season with the NHL’s top record. In 1988, they’d won their first-round series against the Kings, only to be swept by the Edmonton Oilers in the Smythe Division final. Two years earlier, they’d made it to the first Stanley Cup Final in franchise history, falling to the Montreal Canadiens in five games.

But in 1989 – their second year with Terry Crisp as head coach – the Flames proved a more resilient squad. And they had to be right away; In their opening-round series against Vancouver (a team that finished with 43 fewer points in the standings that season), Calgary lost key defenseman Gary Suter in the first game with a broken jaw, then found themselves pushed to the brink of elimination as the Canucks forced a heart-stopping seventh game – and overtime – and yet managed to move on thanks to astounding goaltending from Mike Vernon and the series-winning goal that banked in off Joel Otto’s skate.

TERRY CRISP, HEAD COACH We really dodged a bullet in that first round. You’re that close to being gone and maybe never getting another crack at it. When I look back, I think there must have been a divine destiny somewhere in the first round, because Vancouver took us right to the wall.

CLIFF FLETCHER, GENERAL MANAGER The pressure of the first round nearly did us in. We weren’t the hockey team we had been over the course of the regular season. We were very fortunate to win that series. Mike Vernon had to make three outstanding saves before we managed to shovel a goal late in the first overtime.

AL MACINNIS, DEFENSEMAN If Mike doesn’t make those saves, we don’t move on. But when we got by Vancouver, that’s when I think that pressure was relieved from us, and we felt just felt that, ‘Man, we’re really on our way.’ After that, we lost three games total in the next three series.

TERRY CRISP After that, the guys just put it into gear and away we went. Read more