Matt Walilko had a playoff game to remember, recording six goals and five assists. It wasn't exactly a once-in-a-lifetime game since he had a 10-point game earlier this year.
In the dying minutes of his Jr. C playoff game Tuesday night, Matt Walilko of the Midland Flyers had his stick broken in two by a slash. A dastardly deed to be sure, but you can kind of see his opponent’s reasoning. It was the probably same thought process Bobby Clarke had when he broke Valeri Kharlamov’s ankle during the 1972 Summit Series.
“The guy was telling me that my stick was way too hot and he had to break it,” Walilko said. “He just axed the stick right in half and said it had too many points in it. We were laughing about it after the game.”
Considering that stick – along with the 17-year-old using it - was responsible for six goals and five assists in a 12-3 rout over the Huntsville Otters, you can understand why the opponent would rather see that one propping up tomato plants than demolishing his team’s playoff hopes. So when his team hits the ice for Game 6 of their playoff series Friday night, Walilko will be using new lumber, but riding the confidence of a once-in-a-lifetime game.
Or was it? Earlier this season, the Grade 12 high school student registered a 10-point game with five goals and five assists en route to scoring 80 points in 39 games and being named rookie of the year in Ontario's Provincial Junior Hockey League. Walilko is just 17, playing in a league where there are players as old as 22. He was easily the youngest player among the league’s top 10 scorers this season and one of only two teenagers. In what should come as no surprise, Walilko’s night vaulted him into the league’s playoff scoring lead with 10 goals and 20 points in five games. “It makes it look like I’ve been lighting it up every night,” Walilko said, “but I only had nine points in four games before that one.”
Back to the game, Walilko attributed his good fortune to being in the right place at the right time. He said a couple of key players were out with injuries and school commitments, so he knew he would have to step up. One of his linemates had seven points in the game and the other linemate had six. Walilko said that, as was the case in his 10-point night earlier this season, he went into the game knowing he was facing the opponent’s backup goalie.
“You kind of do your research, right?” Walilko said. “You see the backup is starting and you try to put a lot of pucks on net.”
What makes the feat even more impressive is that it gave Walilko’s team a 3-2 series lead with a chance to win it in Game 6. The Flyers had dug themselves into a 2-0 hole in the series, but have stormed back and clearly have some momentum on their side, not to mention a confident young man leading the attack.
Which begs the question: What is a young man this good doing playing this far down the junior hockey ladder? Well, Walilko played AAA midget last season in Barrie and rather than play on the third or fourth line for a Jr. B or Jr. A team this season, he thought it would be better for his development if he were a prime time player at a lower level. He has his sights set on earning a scholarship, something he hopes to do in a year or so. Walilko plans to take next season off school and hopes to play next season for the Pembroke Lumber Kings. He plans to write his SATs in the hope of attracting interest from U.S. schools.
Flyers president and GM Gerry Asselin said Walilko is so focused on getting a scholarship that he turned down a chance to practice, and perhaps even play, with the struggling Barrie Colts this season. The Flyers are affiliated with the Colts, who are struggling and in last place this season. Asselin said he recently had a conversation with Colts GM Jason Ford, in which Ford asked him to suggest a couple of players the Colts might have a look at down the stretch. Asselin said when he approached Walilko, he was flatly turned down.
“He’s a smart kid,” Asselin said. “He has his head screwed on right.”
A student at a Catholic high school in Barrie, Walilko said he can’t take all the credit for his success. His personal motto comes from the Bible passage Philippians 4:13, which says, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
“I’ve put it on every stick I’ve bought since I was a young kid,” Walilko said. “I grew up in a religious family and every time I’m on the ice and having a tough time, I’ll just look down at that and kind of re-motivate myself. It kind of applies to me in everything I do, not just hockey.”
Walilko will be looking to continue making a big contribution in the playoffs, but is another double-digit performance in the future?
“I don’t know if any of my backup sticks have that many points in them, but I’ll try.”
As the trade deadline approaches, the likes of the Stars, Lightning, Red Wings, Canucks, and Sabres could all start selling off some attractive assets.
For weeks, the Arizona Coyotes and Colorado Avalanche were the only clubs considered sellers in the NHL trade market. But with the March 1 trade deadline less than three weeks away, several clubs with fading postseason hopes could join them.
Among them could be the Dallas Stars. After topping the Western Conference standings in 2015-16, the Stars were eight points out of a wild-card berth as of Feb. 10. ESPN.com's Pierre LeBrun believes the next couple of weeks will determine what action Stars GM Jim Nill takes leading up to the deadline. If they fail to gain ground in the standings, he could become a seller.
LeBrun speculates Nill could peddle some of his pending unrestricted free agents. Notables include forwards Patrick Sharp, Patrick Eaves, Jiri Hudler and Lauri Korpikosi. Of this group, Sharp and Eaves have the most value.
Sharp, 35, missed a significant chunk of this season to concussion symptoms. When healthy, however, he's a proven scorer with considerable playoff experience. Eaves, 32, is a versatile two-way forward who's flirting with a potential career-best 30-goal campaign.
Like Sharp, veteran defenseman Johnny Oduya has a solid postseason background. However, the 35-year-old is currently sidelined by a lower-body injury. That will hamper efforts to move him.
LeBrun also reports the Stars contacted the Pittsburgh Penguins regarding goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, but those discussions haven't gone far. It's widely assumed the Pens want to trade the 32-year-old netminder in order to protect young starter Matt Murray from the expansion draft in June.
If Fleury agrees to waive his no-movement clause to join the Stars, he might give them a much-needed goaltending boost to get back into playoff contention. Signed through 2018-19, he would be more than just a rental player.
Such a move, however, means shipping Kari Lehtonen or Antti Niemi to the Penguins or trading them to another club. Both have a year remaining on their contracts with no-trade clauses. Still, either guy might accept finishing this season with a Stanley Cup contender in Pittsburgh, even if it means being unprotected in the expansion draft.
The Tampa Bay Lightning could also go into sell mode soon. As of Feb.10, they were near the bottom of the Eastern Conference, six points out of a wild-card spot.
Considered a Stanley Cup contender entering this season, injuries hampered the Lightning for months. GM Steve Yzerman probably won't gut his roster because of one bad season, but he could look at moving out pending UFAs such as goaltender Ben Bishop and checking-line forward Brian Boyle.
Throughout this season, Yzerman's sought a top-four defenseman. Sportsnet's Elliotte Friedman reports the Bolts GM and Colorado Avalanche GM Joe Sakic scouted last Friday's Anaheim Ducks game against the Florida Panthers. The Ducks are loaded with good young defenseman and Friedman speculates one of them could be dealt for a scoring forward.
The Ducks' biggest need is bolstering their scoring punch at left wing. With the Lightning carrying over $59 million in payroll for 2017-18 and left wingers Ondrej Palat and Jonathan Drouin becoming restricted free agents this summer, perhaps there's a deal to be made There.
Detroit Red Wings GM Ken Holland could also become a seller by the deadline. His club is also mired near the bottom of the Eastern standings. Friedman thinks the Chicago Blackhawks might come calling if Holland puts winger Thomas Vanek on the trade block. The 33-year-old is on track for a 20-goal, 55-point season.
The Vancouver Canucks are another club that could join the deadline sellers. Earlier this season, Canucks GM Jim Benning said he wouldn't ask players with no-movement/no-trade clauses, such as goaltender Ryan Miller and winger Alex Burrows, to waive them. However, TSN's Bob McKenzie reports Benning might reconsider if there's interest in either guy.
Buffalo Sabres GM Tim Murray could also see an increase in trade inquiries over the next two weeks. There's talk pending UFA blueliner Dmitry Kulikov could attract attention from clubs seeking a skilled puck-moving rearguard.
Earlier this season, left winger Evander Kane was the subject of considerable trade chatter. That died down when the 26-year-old was sidelined by a rib injury. His improved performance in recent weeks, however, could rekindle that speculation. He's on pace for over 25 goals and 45 points.
Mike Harrington of The Buffalo Newsreports Kane's improvement is creating a dilemma for Sabres management. Do they keep Kane as a core player going forward, or take advantage of his improved play to sell high at the deadline in hopes of landing a top-four defenseman?
Kane's scoring skills and physical play could prove attractive. However, lingering off-ice baggage remains a serious sticking point.
Rumor Roundup appears regularly only on thehockeynews.com. Lyle Richardson has been an NHL commentator since 1998 on his website, spectorshockey.net, and is a contributing writer for Eishockey News and The Guardian (P.E.I.).
Eric Staal on life in the NHL before the 2004-05 lockout, and which human body parts he has autographed.
What was your favorite NHL team growing up?
The Leafs. I grew up in Thunder Bay, and it’s mostly Leaf Nation up there, too.
Who did you model your game after?
One of my favorite players was Joe Sakic, because of his clutch ability and because he played at both ends of the rink really well. He’s a good all-around player but was clutch.
Your ‘welcome to the NHL’ moment?
My first year was before the 2004-05 lockout, so any time I got near the net I took about eight cross-checks and slashes. I had a lot of those moments my first year at 18. It was a lot more physical before they changed the rules after that lockout.
First splurge purchase after signing an NHL contract?
I bought a Cadillac Escalade my first year once I knew I was staying and signing in Carolina. I needed a car, and my parents helped me, and I went and got one of those. It didn’t have spinning rims or anything like that, but it was nice.
What’s your favorite way to score?
I like to score from anywhere, but the fun ways to score are the one-timers or a sweet play. But most likely for me scoring, it’s going to be a quick-release shot. It’s going to be five-hole or low blocker. Those are my go-to.
What’s your craziest fan interaction?
I’ve signed people’s body parts. This one guy in Carolina, the whole team that won the Stanley Cup, he had everybody’s name tattooed to him. So he went around and basically got everybody that was on the team to sign, I think it was his leg or his calf or something, and he ended up tattooing everyone’s signature to his body. Hey, whatever you want to do. That was interesting.
Best thing about being an NHLer?
The fact I get to play a game for a living. How many people get to say they play a sport for a job? If I didn’t have this for a job, I would love playing beer-league pickup hockey with my buddies, because I love the game. I get to do that and get paid to do it, so there’s nothing better than that.
Worst thing about being an NHLer?
Travel. When you have a wife and kids, it’s hard being away. It’s hard for your wife when you’re busy and the kids are in school and hockey and everything else. It’s no fun being away. You always want to be around and be a part of everything, but the reality is we play 41 games on the road. That’s the hardest part.
Any late season surge in Boston won’t be because of a new coach, it’ll be because a good team finally started getting some bounces.
When a team fires a coach mid-season and the guy barely lasts a week on the unemployment block, they’ve probably just made a huge mistake.
Back in 2011, the Capitals made that mistake. They fired Bruce Boudreau after the team hit a rough patch, and he was subsequently hired just two days later by Anaheim. It took two other coaches and three seasons for the team to find themselves another coach of his calibre, a waste of the their best players’s prime years.
Last week, the Boston Bruins made that same mistake firing Claude Julien. He lasted exactly one week on the market before another team scooped him up. The fact it was the division leading Montreal Canadiens makes matters even worse as it points to how clear of an upgrade they thought Julien was over the guy who led them to the top.
Boston’s decision came down to results and expectations. From that standpoint, it’s clear why they did what they did. After making the Cup final in 2012-13 and winning the President’s Trophy in 2013-14, the Bruins missed the playoffs twice and were sure looking like they would make it three with a 26-23-6 record under Julien. Someone had to take the fall and with this being Julien’s 10th season as bench boss, maybe his voice was getting a bit stale.
I’m not sure I buy that though and it all comes down to what the Bruins are doing under the hood this year. The year after the President’s Trophy win, the team took a step back dropping from third in score-and-venue adjusted Corsi to 12th and then dropped to 17th the year after. This year, they’ve shot all the way back up to first, ahead of the perennial kings of this stat, the Kings. Their mark of 56 percent is the ninth best mark of any team since 2007-08. Ahead of them are two Detroit teams, three Chicago teams, and three Los Angeles teams – and also three Stanley Cups. No fired coaches either.
The team made a remarkable year-to-year jump, the results just weren’t there. The team has the lowest shooting and save percentage among those top teams, and that’s led to a dastardly low 46.3 percent goals ratio, a full 10 percent lower than their shot share and six percent lower than the worst of the eight juggernaut teams above them.
While goaltending is a concern, some of that is a result of how terrible their back-up goalies have been. You’d also figure that a world class goalie like Tuukka Rask will get his groove back. The real big issue is on offense where the team ranks 21st in goals per 60 at 5-on-5. While they may have the ninth best shot attempt rate since 2007-08, they’re also posting the sixth worst shooting percentage since 2007-08.
The obvious answer from most pundits is that the Bruins aren’t actually a good team due to their massive shot advantage because a majority of those shots are coming from the outside. It turns out they have a point. Take a look at this heat map from HockeyViz.com of all the shots the Bruins are taking this year to see for yourself. It might be a lot to take in, but basically, red means “hot spots” where the team shoots more than league average, while blue represents “cold spots” where the team is getting fewer chances.
Just as expected, a lot of red on the outside and a huge blue zone right in front of the –– wait, wrong picture. That’s actually the Bruins 2010-11 season where they won the Cup and had the second highest goal scoring rate at 5-on-5. My bad. Here’s this year.
Yep, there we go. A little better than 2010-11, but still, they’re not really getting to the front of the –– wait, that’s not it. That’s actually the Bruins 2012-13 season where they made it to the Cup final and had the ninth highest goal scoring rate at 5-on-5. My bad. Here’s this year.
Hmm, a lot fewer shots overall, but again, their biggest cold spot is right in front of the –– wait, I did it again. That’s actually the 2013-14 season where the Bruins won the President’s Trophy and had the third highest goal scoring rate at 5-on-5. My bad. Okay, here’s 2016-17, for real this time.
Remember that this offense is the 21st rated offence at 5-on-5. If anyone could point out how it differs from any time the Bruins had a top five or 10 offense the past few years, I’m all ears. There is a bit of a deeper contour in front of the net than other seasons, but not by much, and the red zone in front of the slot is a deeper red and much closer to the front of the net. That should all cancel out, and it does. By expected goals for, here’s how every season under Julien ranks.
This year, the Bruins should be having one of the most prolific offenses they’ve had in years, instead, they’re struggling. The idea they’re “not getting to the front of the net” is a bad excuse because it’s clear they either never really have, it’s never really mattered, or there’s a systemic bias in Boston to record fewer shots there. Whatever the case, it doesn’t hold water.
The Bruins offense hasn’t changed much, but the results have and Julien lost his job because of it. Some might say the Bruins Corsi doesn’t tell the whole story here, but even by expected goals they’re the league’s top team, and those teams rarely struggle to convert like this team has. I normally hesitate to use “luck” as a crutch to describe a team with poor results, but it’s hard to point the finger anywhere else.
If you’re still not convinced, here’s another way to look at it. I plotted every player’s personal shooting percentage (at 5-on-5) this season compared to the the three seasons prior. Unsurprisingly, nearly everyone is having a down year.
There’s a fair number of players here who were reliable scorers in the past that suddenly can’t put it in. These 19 players have 86 goals this year, but if they were as efficient as they were before this season, they’d be at 111 collectively. If you look at expected shooting percentage that number drops a little to 104, but their expected shooting percentage is actually higher than it was in the previous three seasons. It’s hard to imagine all these guys suddenly forgot how to score, but that’s the reality if you think these results have nothing to do with luck.
Eventually, things should revert back to normal and they’ll start scoring at their normal rates again. With the way the Bruins control play, that’ll likely mean more wins down the stretch and it may be enough for a playoff spot (we think they’ve got a 70 percent shot at the moment). If they make it, they’re a dark horse team in the East, especially in a weak Atlantic. That is, if they keep playing as well as they did under Julien.
Whatever happens though, any team success will come back to the coaching change as a turning point. Make no mistake though, they likely would’ve turned it around anyways. Any late season surge won’t be because of a new coach, it’ll be because a good team finally started getting some bounces. The Bruins won’t be a good team now because they fired Julien -- they already were one.