Mikael Wikstrand left the Ottawa Senators overnight ahead of the 2015-16 campaign, and after his mysterious departure, subsequent suspension and eventual loan, there appears to be some finality to the saga. Wikstrand has signed a four-year deal with the SHL’s Farjestad BK.
In September 2015, it looked as though Mikael Wikstrand’s career was at an impasse. The 22-year-old defender had mysteriously left Ottawa’s training camp, returned to his native Sweden and was told by then-Ottawa Senators GM Bryan Murray that the only was his career was going to continue was if he was playing defense for a beer league team.
Wikstrand’s extension with Farjestad is another strange twist in a story that caught many by surprise at the beginning of the campaign and remains a head-scratcher, if only in the sense that Wikstrand was in Ottawa one day and gone the next.
His bizarre season began when he disappeared from the Senators’ training camp in late-September to be closer to his brother, who had fallen ill. While Wikstrand’s departure alone isn’t incredibly peculiar, it was made strange by the fact he failed to tell anyone — not Murray, not his teammates, not even his agent. Overnight, Wikstrand had packed his things and left. The next day, when Wikstrand was located, he was torn into by Murray. The Senators GM said Wikstrand could “go back and be a grocery clerk or play in the beer leagues, but he (cannot) play (professional) hockey in any shape or form if he doesn’t play for the Ottawa organization.” Subsequently, Wikstrand was suspended by the Senators.
Later, Wikstrand admitted to Swedish outlet Varmlands Folkblad that his decision to leave without saying anything was “really bad,” but said he wanted to keep his personal matters to himself. And as the weeks and months wore on and it became more apparent that Wikstrand wouldn’t be returning to the NHL, Ottawa relented and loaned him to Farjestad BK for the remainder of the 2015-16 season. It was said that playing in North America was not in the immediate plans for Wikstrand.
“In an effort to further monitor his development, we have agreed to loan Mikael to Färjestad for the remainder of the season,” Murray said in January. “We will retain his North American rights and should he change his outlook on working towards playing in the National Hockey League, we will be open to discussing a potential return at an appropriate time in the future.”
It doesn’t appear that Wikstrand’s “potential return” will be coming anytime soon, however. The four-year deal will mean the once highly praised prospect probably won’t be heading back to North America before the 2020-21 season. That said, Wikstrand would be entering his prime once his four-year contract in Farjestad is up. Maybe he shows willingness to jet to North America at that time and the Senators consider bringing him back into the organization. After all, he was projected to be an AHL regular in 2015-16 and a young defenseman who Murray thought could potentially stick with the big club.
This past season, Wikstrand scored one goal and nine points in 17 games with Farjestad, adding another three points in five post-season games.
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The usual suspects -- Bergeron, Kopitar, and Toews -- appear to be out of the discussion for the Selke Trophy. Here are five names that seem to have the best chance at stepping in.
When it comes to handing out hardware at the NHL Awards, the Selke hasn't been all that tough to figure out in recent seasons. For the last five years, the same three players have dominated the voting. Patrice Bergeron, Anze Kopitar and Jonathan Toews have accounted for all five wins, as well as eleven of the fifteen finalist spots.
But this year is shaping up like it could be different, with all three players slumping offensively. Maybe that shouldn't matter, since the Selke is supposed to be a defensive award. But over the years, it's morphed into a trophy that recognizes two-way play, which means you need to be scoring to get much consideration. If you pro-rate the lockout year, nobody has won the Selke with fewer than 55 points in the salary cap era. None of the Big Three are on pace to get there this year.
With half a season left to play, that could still change. And it's always possible that in the absence of a slam dunk candidate emerging somewhere else, voters could opt to play it safe and go back to one of the old familiars. But for the first time in years, the Selke really does seem up for grabs.
So who has a shot? Assuming that Bergeron, Toews or Kopitar don't take the trophy home this time, here are the five names that seem to have the best chance at stepping in.
Ryan Kesler, Ducks
The case for: The veteran is having his best season since 2011, and is on pace for about 65 points while playing tough minutes for a first-place Ducks team. His advanced stats won't blow anyone away, but they're good enough that the analytics guys shouldn't push back too hard, and everyone loves a good comeback narrative.
The case against: While it wouldn't be held against him by voters, Kesler doesn't really fit our "new blood" theme; he was the last player to win the award before the Bergeron/Toews/Kopitar trinity took over, and he finished third in the voting last year.
More importantly, there's at least an argument to be made that linemate Andrew Cogliano deserves the award, too. If that line of thinking catches on, the two could end up splitting votes and knocking each other out of the running.
Mikko Koivu, Wild
The case for: While it's meant as a single-season award, voters tend to like to treat the Selke as more of a career achievement; it's rare for somebody to win the award without having built up a resume over the years. That works in Koivu's favor, as he's been considered a strong defensive forward for a decade now, finishing as high as fourth in the Selke voting back in 2009. He hasn't come especially close since, but he's had votes every year.
New coach Bruce Boudreau has leaned heavily on Koivu in the defensive zone, and his ability to handle the duties has been a big part of Minnesota's unexpected success. With the Wild emerging as one of the one of the year's best surprises, voters will be paying attention.
The case against: Koivu's all-around numbers are good but not great, and he's benefitting from a sky-high on-ice save percentage and PDO that's unlikely to continue. With Devan Dubnyk looking like the Vezina favorite and Boudreau having a shot at the Jack Adams, voters might figure that their ballots are already getting crowded with Wild names.
The case for: Backlund seems to have emerged as a trendy dark horse pick in recent weeks. It's well-deserved: his numbers are excellent, and he's posting them in tough minutes for a young Flames team that asks a lot of him. His offensive numbers aren't jaw-dropping, but he's leading the team in scoring, and that should be enough to satisfy those "two-way" demands if he can keep it up.
The case against: While Backlund's been an underrated defensive player for a while now, he's never received a Selke vote. Again, you can argue that that shouldn't matter, but history has shown that it does. That could make it tough for him to get enough votes to win outright.
Aleksander Barkov, Panthers
The case for: At 21, Barkov would fit the new blood narrative perfectly. And he's already on voters' radars after finishing sixth in last year's balloting. He checks most of the boxes that voters tend to look for, posting solid offensive stats and strong possession numbers. And in a season where the biggest story has been the emergence of the next generation of star players, you could see the voters turning to one of the best young two-way forwards in the game.
The case against: Barkov is hurt right now and has already missed two weeks, so if he's not back soon he probably falls out of the running. He's also been playing a more offensive role this year under new coach Tom Rowe, which may be good for the Panthers, but probably not for his Selke chances. And given how things are turning out in Florida this year, voters may not be interested in having many Panther names on their ballot.
Nicklas Backstrom, Capitals
The case for: If building up enough support to win the award is a long-term process, this could be your guy. Backstrom generated plenty of Selke buzz last year, but finished just outside the top ten for the second straight year. It helps that he's putting up the sort of big offensive number that voters like to see. And after years of largely playing in Alex Ovechkin's shadow, he seems to be settling in as one of those guys that everyone in the hockey world decides has been underrated for too long. What better way to make it up to him than with some awards ballot love?
The case against: In terms of pure numbers, you could make a good case that Backstrom's defensive game was better last year than it is now. That won't necessarily hurt him with voters who feel like he's finally due, but it could keep him from getting the kind of widespread groundswell of support that would help push him past a strong candidate like Kesler.
Honorable mentions (and why they won't win):
- Brad Marchand (Bruins): He's getting some buzz, and has earned votes in the past. But has he really become a better option than Bergeron right now? And if not, how can you win the Selke when you're not the best defensive forward on your own team?
- Nazem Kadri (Maple Leafs): He's a relatively new candidate who'll face the same uphill climb as Backlund, with the added disadvantage that plenty of people don't seem to like him.
- Sidney Crosby (Penguins): He's been underrated in his own end for years, and you could see him getting some consolation ballots if voters decided to break for Connor McDavid for the Hart. But right now, the Crosby focus is still on the MVP race.
- Joe Thornton (Sharks): He gets votes every year and finally had his first top five finish last season, so the timing seems right. But his offensive numbers are down this year.
- Ryan O'Reilly (Sabres): He's been in the mix before. But the Sabres' disappointing season may doom him; there's never been a first-time Selke winner from a team that didn't make the playoffs.
- Jordan Staal (Hurricanes): He'd face the same hurdle as O'Reilly if the Hurricanes miss the playoffs, although these days that seem less and less likely. He may have the best case of anyone in this section.
Sean McIndoe has been writing about the NHL since 2008, most recently for ESPN and Grantland. He spends most of his time making jokes on twitter, where you may know him as @downgoesbrown. He appears weekly on TheHockeyNews.com.
The Oilers are very likely bound for the playoffs for the first time in a decade, and former No. 1 overall pick Ryan Nugent-Hopkins will be crucial to their success.
Without a doubt, the resurgence of the Edmonton Oilers this year is being driven by Connor McDavid. The sophomore phenom is in position to win the Art Ross or the Hart or both, while his team is firmly locked in a playoff position for the first time in more than a decade.
I feel at this point we're past talking about if the Oilers will make the post-season and can move on to what they will do once they arrive there. Because as great as McDavid has been for the offense, the Oilers will need balance. And that’s where Ryan Nugent-Hopkins comes in.
Remember the Nuge? He’s not exactly obscure, being a No. 1 overall pick overall. But like fellow Edmonton lifer and linemate Jordan Eberle, Nugent-Hopkins has toiled in Alberta for years without playoff hockey. That’s about to change and for a player who has largely been out of the limelight for some time, Nugent-Hopkins will be crucial to Edmonton’s long-term success this season.
Right now, Nugent-Hopkins is below his usual career offensive clip, but the Oilers are also winning a lot more and have a healthy McDavid in the lineup ahead of him.
“Every team in the league has two or three scoring lines now, it seems,” Nugent-Hopkins said. “Obviously Connor’s a great player and I want to produce offensively as well, but I have to be a 200-foot player and grow my defensive game.”
Nugent-Hopkins is a decent possession player and is better on faceoffs than McDavid, though neither is great. The Nuge can take on tough defensive assignments and that will be important going forward, unless the Oilers bolster their forward corps with a trade for another responsible center.
It’s interesting to see where Nugent-Hopkins is at this point in his career. He was the top prospect in the 2011 draft, though it wasn’t a fever year in that regards – while Adam Larsson and Gabriel Landeskog were also thought of highly, the best players to date from that class are probably Johnny Gaudreau (104th overall), Nikita Kucherov (58th) and Mark Scheifele (seventh).
Nugent-Hopkins was seen as a slight player with incredible vision who may have needed one more year of junior before hitting the big time, but he bucked those predictions and went straight to Edmonton, earning All-Rookie Team honors in the process.
Unfortunately, in the center’s six NHL seasons, he has already had six coaches with the Oilers. That’s one of several factors that have kept Edmonton out of the playoff picture and undoubtedly hurt the development of some players (Nail Yakupov comes to mind). But with Todd McLellan now in his second year with the squad, Edmonton has a coach who has seen a fair share of playoff games and owns a Stanley Cup ring from his days as an assistant coach in Detroit.
“He’s been great,” Nugent-Hopkins said. “He’s definitely an experienced guy, being in San Jose for a lot of years. He brought that to us – we were a younger team and we still are. He keeps us accountable and definitely teaches us, so it’s good.”
The next step will be the most fun and the most daunting. All of a sudden, there are expectations for the Oilers outside of Northern Alberta. We all want to see how this team will handle playoff hockey and while McDavid is the head, he can’t be expected to go it alone. Cam Talbot must be great in net and the defense will have to hold up. If Nugent-Hopkins and Eberle can be that secondary scoring threat while also playing sound 200-foot hockey, the Oilers will be more than just a nice story in the post-season.
It’s very likely Gerry Boley is the world’s only male hockey-playing nun with a hip replacement, mitral valve patch in his heart and pin in his shoulder. And if that sounds like a joke, don’t worry, Boley’s not offended – he’s just happy that he made you laugh.
“I just want to bring joy and whatever assistance I can to Canadians who need it, and there’s no better way of doing that then combining satire with our country’s favorite pastime,” the St. Catharines, Ont., native said.
In 2005, Boley founded the Ladies in Black theatrical charity team – a group of men in nun costumes that performs comical skits while playing hockey to raise awareness for a variety of causes, such as women’s shelters and food banks.
The first event was a charity game for Parkinson’s disease, an illness that Boley knows all too well.
“My dad had Parkinson’s, and just seeing what he and my mom, who was caring for him, went through, I decided I couldn’t sit by and just watch,” he said.
But he soon found out that building the LIB wasn’t going to be an easy task. It took him a year to find sponsors, create characters and costumes, put together skits and find a venue. On top of all of that, he still had to put together an actual team.
After scouting the ranks, Boley recruited former junior and professional athletes to adopt a nun persona. Former Hamilton Tiger-Cat and CFL Hall of Famer Rocky DiPietro, who was teaching football at Lakeshore High School in Port Colborne, Ont., at the time, was one of the first players to jump on board.
“He approached me with the idea, and at first I was a little taken back,” said DiPietro, who is known on the ice as Sister BigFoot, the big, hairy team enforcer. “I mean, what do you say when someone asks you to play hockey as a nun? But I figured, why not have some fun and give back to the community at the same time.”
DiPietro brought with him Chris Zanutto, a former junior defenseman for the London Knights and the 1994-95 Canadian National Team, and Josh Oort, who played in Europe and had a short stint with the ECHL’s Greenville Grrrowl in 2004-05. Zanutto became known as Friar Truck, the team’s wacky trainer, and Oort took on the persona of Sister Celine Poutine, a play on Celine Dion and a delicious Quebec specialty.
Despite the amusement of seeing grown men throwing hip checks in nun costumes, the characters aren’t the funniest part. The LIB perform a number of spoofs, starting from the moment they enter the ice – full speed to their theme song Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress by The Hollies. From there the crowd can expect to witness anything from Sister Suzuki dishing out nasty karate chops to a performance of West Side Story’s I Feel Pretty, used to distract the opposing team while the nuns set up a stretch pass to Sister Offside.
“I remember the first time we performed, people had no idea what to expect,” DiPietro said. “Seeing them light up and react the way they did, it only confirmed that we had to keep doing this.”
But tragedy struck Boley and his family, causing him to hang up the skates for a little while.
On July 27, 2014, his nephews Jonathan, 33, and Daniel, 49, were killed while waiting at a red light in Kanata, Ont. Their vehicle was struck by a speeding motorist who hit a median, flipped in the air and came crashing down on their hood.
This wasn’t the first time their family had experienced loss. Boley’s sister Carol had also lost two of her daughters – Christine, to asthma, and Angela-Joy, to cancer – a few years prior.
Shortly after, Boley had his hip replaced and underwent open-heart surgery.
“When it rains, sometimes it pours,” he said. “I needed to put everything on hold.”
Now feeling much healthier, he and the LIB are ready to strap back on their skates and robes to hit the ice again.
“It’s nice to just go to a rink, let loose, forget about all your worries and have fun,” he said.
And to Boley, that’s what the game is all about.
“Hockey, just like life, is about having fun,” he said, “and if I can do something to help others fulfill that whether it’s through laughter or raising awareness, I’m certainly not going to sit on the bench and do nothing.”