Vancouver Canucks fans have to be pretty happy as the stretch drive to the playoffs begins, given how their Olympic representatives fared in the two-week tournament.
On the gold medal-winning Canadian team, Roberto Luongo had the reins passed down to him. Much like a 29-year-old Martin Brodeur had the torch passed to him in 2002 after Curtis Joseph faltered against Sweden, 30-year-old Luongo took the opportunity afforded him after a Brodeur loss against the USA and carried the torch high. In five games, Bobby Lou had five wins, a shutout, a .927 SP and 1.76 GAA. His positioning was impeccable and even though he was pointed out as fighting the puck sometimes, Luongo made the saves he had to make to give his team the wins and now no one can say he isn’t a proven winner.
On Team USA, Ryan Kesler only scored two goals, but he was a serious two-way force and a leader on the young squad. Kesler averaged 17:31 of ice time in the Games, tied for second among USA forwards with Patrick Kane and four seconds off Jamie Langenbrunner’s pace.
The defending Olympic champions from Sweden were disappointing in a quarterfinal loss to Slovakia and the Sedin twins, used to being offensive catalysts in Vancouver, were relegated to the second unit, seeing their ice time cut drastically from their NHL levels. That may have contributed to their lower than normal production, but the two still combined for five points and a plus-five rating in four games.
But perhaps the most impressive and comforting performance from a Canuck fan’s standpoint was the play of Pavol Demitra. Injured for all but 11 games in the NHL this season, the 35-year-old had only managed four points heading into the Olympics. However, three of them came in his last two games before the break and then once the tournament began, Demitra took off.
Not only was the entire Slovakian team surprising in their fourth-place showing, but Demitra’s 10 points in seven games led the tournament. He had one game-winning goal, a power play goal, a shorthanded goal and led all Slovak forwards in ice time with 20:07 per game; a raise of about five minutes from his NHL time.
Can these guys continue their performances that ranged from consistent to explosive? Only the last 21 games on the schedule can answer that, but things are setting up pretty nicely for the third-ranked team in the West.
This article also appeared in the Vancouver Metro newspaper.
Rory Boylen is TheHockeyNews.com's web content specialist and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Tuesdays and his feature, A Ref's Life, appears every other Thursday.
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Claude Julien's off the board as a free agent coach, but there are several other out-of-work bench bosses vying for the job with the Golden Knights. But who should Vegas choose?
The Vegas Golden Knights are coming together quickly, and are just a couple weeks (and an important payment to the NHL) away from even being able to make trades. They have a lot of front office pieces in place except for one notable addition still to be made -- the coach. And given the number of high-profile coaches who have recently become unemployed, the Knight appear to have a decent pool of candidates to draw from.
So here are our picks for who should be the first coach in team history. Turns out only two stand out above the rest.
Golden Knights GM George McPhee said he’s open to looking at all options for Vegas’ first coach, but the sense is he’s leaning towards a more experienced, veteran coach who can come in and instantly establish himself in the dressing room. Hard to think of a coach who brings with him more clout than Hitchcock, who’s two wins away from becoming the third winningest in league history. Were it not for some shaky goaltending, he’d likely be in position to coach for the Stanley Cup this season, but Hitchcock’s bad luck could be the Golden Knights’ good fortune.
Strategically, there’s not a better coach available than Hitchcock, and he has the ability to take a ragtag group assembled through the expansion draft and put them into a place to compete for a playoff spot in their first season. It’s not an easy task, but one made that much easier by nabbing the best coach available on the market. (Jared Clinton)
I know Habs fans will probably groan at this answer, but Therrien would give the Golden Knights instant credibility and years of NHL coaching experience. Look at some of the most successful expansion teams of the past and you'll find an old hand behind the bench: Minnesota and Jacques Lemaire, Florida and Roger Nielsen, St. Louis and Scotty Bowman (who took over midway through the first season from the also-experienced Lynn Patrick), to name a few.
It's not fun and yes, it's kinda boring, but Therrien has been to a Stanley Cup final and gone on numerous playoff runs. His act may have worn thin in Montreal, but Vegas will need a strong personality right off the hop and Therrien can be that guy. I'm not saying he's the long-term solution – ideally Vegas finds their Al Arbour or Fred Shero once the Knights get settled in after a few seasons – but he's a great option to get the ball rolling. (Ryan Kennedy)
It’s pretty simple, really. Ken Hitchcock has worked for three GMs in his NHL coaching career – Bob Clarke, Bob Gainey and Doug Armstrong. It’s important that he have a good relationship with his GM and, guess what? He and George McPhee happen to be pretty good friends. And despite Hitchcock’s pronouncement at the beginning of the season that this would be his last as a coach, he has backed off on that and is believed now to still be considering his options. All of which makes Vegas the perfect landing spot for both him and the Golden Knights. Look at it this way, this team is not going to be tanking off the hop because the talent the NHL is making available will make it impossible to do so. They’re going to get two very good NHL goalies and the team will be stocked with mid-range forwards and defensemen, good players at the NHL level who have character, compete and experience. They may have trouble scoring, but they’ll also be a bugger to play against. Now is that the perfect template for a Ken Hitchcock team or what? It should happen, it must happen and we’re betting heavily that it will happen. (Ken Campbell)
Michel Therrien is my pick. He has lots of recent experience with veteran-laden clubs, having guided the Montreal Canadiens through some decent regular seasons and several playoff series victories. Therrien isn't known for leaning on his youngsters, which is fine – as the Vegas squad will take a few years to stockpile draft picks and line its system with legit young prospects. The expansion draft should give the Golden Knights a bunch of bona fide NHLers, creating the need for a coach to merely keep a veteran squad relevant and prevent it from embarrassing itself in front of an unpredictable fan market. The Ken Hitchcocks and Gerard Gallants of the world have shepherded young teams in recent seasons, and those are the types of coaches the Golden Knights might prefer two or three years from now. (Matt Larkin)
In the war to secure talent, agents are going after kids before they even hit their teens. Is it time to curb the chase?
There is a boy playing minor hockey in Toronto you haven’t heard about yet but probably will before too long. Then again, he could be out of hockey in three years or become a marginal player in junior or college hockey. We have chosen to not publish his name. But he’s very, very good. He’s attending an elite hockey academy in Toronto and is thriving a year above his age bracket for one of the top Triple-A organizations in the Greater Toronto Hockey League. He’s big and he’s skilled and he has lots of promise.
He’s also just 12 years old. And his family has been getting calls from player agents. The same agents who represent multimillionaires playing in the NHL have been contacting the parents of a 12-year-old kid. And he’s not the only one. Players, particularly in Canada’s biggest city, have become accustomed to being contacted by agents during their bantam years, (ages 13 and 14) and some of them already have representatives.
“He’s the one people think is ‘The Next One,’” said Anton Thun, a longtime player agent of M-Five Sports, of the player in question. “People think he might be the next Connor McDavid or John Tavares. Numerous agencies have spoken with the family and, quite honestly, we have spoken with the family. We’ve gotten information into his hands to let him know we exist. We’re not going to let other agencies come into our backyard and take the best player.”
Said another agent who requested anonymity, “It’s brutal and it’s getting out of hand. I don’t want to do it, but if I don’t, I’m going to be out of business. Now it’s not about who wins the battle, but who gets there first.”
Whether the NHL Players’ Association, which certifies and regulates player agents, is prepared to do something about it remains to be seen. Setting age restrictions was a hot topic at the NHLPA’s meeting with agents in the summer, and the union has since sent out a missive to agents to determine whether it’s an issue that needs to be addressed. And as the self-appointed pseudo-governing body for agents, it appears the NHLPA is the only institution that can save the agents from themselves on this one.
“The matter of the age restriction regarding recruiting is something that is somewhat on hold while the Hockey Summit discussions regarding draft age, development are ongoing,” said an NHLPA spokesman in an email, referring to the Hockey SENSE meetings that took place this summer, the second of which spent a good chunk of time focused on youth hockey.
As a group, the agents want to have age limits put on them when it comes to contacting prospects. For one, it levels the playing field for everyone. And it also means they can spend their time doing more productive things than chasing bantam players around cold local arenas. And lastly, the agents want this for the same reason Pat LaFontaine and his group are looking into a 19-year-old draft. The longer they give players to develop, the less chance there is for a mistake to be made by everyone involved.
“Back in the 1980s, we recruited 18-year-old kids,” Thun said, “but now I’m being asked to go watch a hockey game where there’s a 13- or 14-year-old kid.”
The only problem is that if one or two rogue agents chase after kids barely in their teens, everyone is forced to do it or risk missing out on the best players. It’s pretty much the same principle that guides the salary cap in the NHL. There’s no age limit on when U.S. college teams can recruit players, and there have been examples of kids barely in their teens committing to programs – albeit making commitments that are not binding when it comes to choosing between major junior hockey and the NCAA. The WHL has a bantam draft, and there is always talk the OHL might follow suit. So young kids are being expected to make monumental decisions, including whether they need an agent or family advisor.
But like so many other things it does well when it comes to dealing with young players, Sweden appears to have come up with a great way of dealing with this problem. There are about 50 agents/recruiters in Sweden, and they have an agreement with the Swedish players’ association that they cannot approach or be approached by any player prior to Jan. 1 of the year he turns 16. That coincides with the first time they have an opportunity to be selected for a national team. Every fall, the country holds its annual TV Puck tournament featuring the best 15-and-under players. That’s basically the first time elite players are identified, and by January, they can make contact with an agent. Agents who directly or indirectly contact players prior to the set date are first warned, then fined, then risk having their licenses revoked.
And the agents are also working with the Swedish Ice Hockey Federation to try to put sanctions in place that penalize players whose (often overaggressive) parents reach out to agents or sign an agreement with one.
“If I get a call from a parent looking for an agent, the first thing I ask, ‘So, you don’t have an agent?’ ”said longtime Sweden-based agent Claes Elefalk of CAA. “The second question is, ‘How old is he?’ And if it’s before Jan. 1 of the year he turns 16, I have to say, ‘Oh, we have a rule that means I need to hang up the phone immediately and you can only call me back the first of January.’ I’m not allowed to even speak for five minutes or send an email or anything. I must say it has been working really well in Sweden.”
Evander Kane has been on fire of late and he could interest teams looking to add another scoring threat by the deadline. But trading him now might not be the best move for the Sabres.
The Sabres find themselves in an interesting position as the trade deadline approaches. With 60 games played, Buffalo is four points out of a playoff spot, but, according to THN’s playoff predictions, the Sabres have about a six percent shot at actually making it to the post-season. Stranger things have happened, but with the deadline eight days away, the Sabres have to decide whether they want to buy, sell or stand pat.
The most realistic scenario sees Buffalo GM Tim Murray take stock of what he currently has on his roster and decide how he can make his team better in the future by selling at the deadline. That’s to say Murray should be focused on shipping out expiring contracts or assets deemed non-essential to the future of the club and building for next season. This Sabres team isn’t ready to compete for a Stanley Cup — at least not yet — so no use going all-in at the expense of the rebuild.
That means players such as Dmitry Kulikov, Cody Franson and Derek Grant could very well be trade chips come March 1. All have expiring contacts and serve to be potential rental pieces as the post-season approaches. Captain Brian Gionta could also be added to that list, but he’s reportedly told the team he would prefer to stick around. The most interesting name on the roster, however, isn’t a rental in the traditional sense. That said, Evander Kane, with one year remaining on his deal after this season, could start to draw increased interest due to his recent performance.
Kane has had the Midas touch of late, especially over his past eight games. He’s scored seven goals over that span, all of which have come at even strength. It hasn’t just been this eight-game run, however. His scoring has picked up significantly as the season has progressed. In the past month, for instance, Kane is a point per game player with nine goals and 13 points in 13 games. Since the start of January, Kane has 13 goals and 19 points in 23 outings. Once on pace to finish the year with roughly than 20 goals and 35 points, Kane is now looking to near the 30-goal, 50-point mark for the first time since the 2011-12 season, which was his third in the league.
There’s also the matter of Kane contributing alongside a pair of youngsters, Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart. The trio has produced a combined 15 goals and 37 points over the past four weeks. And Kane has also continued to show he can log and be effective in big minutes, as his place as one of Dan Bylsma’s favorite forwards hasn’t changed, either. Kane has averaged upwards of 19 minutes per game over the past month, third behind Eichel and Ryan O’Reilly, and Kane ranks fourth in average ice time among all Sabres forwards over the course of the season.
Really, for the first time since he was acquired in a blockbuster, eight-player deal in February 2015, Kane is providing what the Sabres wanted out of him and hoped they would get. And that’s exactly the reason why some teams who may have been scared off pursuing the winger earlier in the year might circle back around and check in with Murray now.
However, despite the early season rumbles that Kane was on the block, it seems Murray has stepped back from sell mode. In interviews with WGR 550, both TSN’s Darren Dreger and ESPN’s Craig Custance reported that Kane’s name is out there in trade speculation, but that a deal is only really there to be made if the package is such that Murray can’t really turn it down. And despite all the off-ice happenings, from legal difficulties to the scratch due to oversleeping, that have made some Sabres fans want to see Kane shipped out, Murray would be right to hang on to the 25-year-old if it means potentially landing a better return in one year’s time.
Think of it this way: if Kane’s production over the past two months carries over into the 2017-18 campaign, he could be a near 30-goal scorer and 50-plus point producer by the time next season’s deadline rolls around. Not only does having Kane playing at such a high level stand to benefit the Sabres in their pursuit of a playoff berth. Given his big minutes, ability to break a game open with his speed and shot and fit alongside Eichel and Reinhart, he’s a weapon the Sabres could use. But then, come the deadline, it would be time for the Sabres to start listening to offers.
As next season winds down, so does Kane’s contract. At that point, he’s a true rental and the number of teams willing to pay up for him might increase as they’d be free of the contract if they so choose come the 2018-19 campaign. And it is quite the contract. Kane’s cap hit is $5.25 million for both this season and next, meaning any team competitive enough to want to land him might want the Sabres to take back some salary in the deal. Retaining salary on Kane this year means less money to spend in the off-season for Buffalo. That’s not an issue come next deadline, however, with the deal expiring only months after any potential trade.
Not only that, but trading Kane next year, regardless of what position the Sabres are in, stands to help the team recoup some of the assets that were lost in acquiring him. It would also be worthwhile because, at this point, the likelihood Kane remains in Buffalo beyond next season seems slim. Again, despite the off-ice issues that have plagued him in the past few years, Kane will have his share of suitors and he’ll be free to go to any of the clubs willing to pony up the cash.
It only makes sense then that Murray should be playing the long game with Kane and eying up next deadline, or close to it, as the time to ship the winger out. While there are no doubt other factors at play come next season, that Kane has seemingly started to hit his offensive stride seems to bode well for the chances of a repeat performance. And if he’s flirting with 30 goals come the next deadline, he stands to be one of the hottest assets available for next season’s playoff push.
(Ed. Note: Cody McCormick was listed as a free agent-to-be. McCormick was forced to retire due to blood clots last season.)
There's still a third of the season to go, and the conditions are right for the Lightning to shock the world and make a run to the playoffs.
It’s just a pair of wins, and they came at home, but the Tampa Bay Lightning have to feel a glimmer of optimism. The Anaheim Ducks and Los Angeles Kings are never easy outs. Tuesday’s victory was a 5-0 thumping of L.A., a team known for suppressing opponents’ offense.
At the very least, the baby streak reopened the discussion of whether the Lightning can make the playoffs this spring. That shows just how dire things looked last week. Even now, after a four-point surge, they have the NHL’s 25th-best points percentage at .500. So much has gone wrong for the team we picked not just to make the playoffs, but win the Stanley Cup. It started with center Steven Stamkos’ torn meniscus, sustained in November after a sizzling start to his eight-year contract extension. It continued with starting goalie Ben Bishop’s ugly play, then with successor Andrei Vasilevskiy’s sudden slump. Right winger Ryan Callahan’s hip broke down on him, too. The Lightning’s top pair of Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman remained rock steady when together, but there was a gap between them and the rest of the D-corps, so coach Jon Cooper has had to split them up to balance out the group.
What started as talk of a “hockey trade” for GM Steve Yzerman to upgrade his blueline devolved into straight-up seller talk. Could he trade Ben Bishop for Kevin Shattenkirk with Tampa bound for a playoff miss? Should an unrestricted free agent like center Brian Boyle become trade bait?
But the pair of wins at least buys Yzerman enough pause to check the standings again. The Lightning are, astoundingly, tied for last in the Eastern Conference in points. The only teams to play more games than their 54 are the Montreal Canadiens and Boston Bruins with 55. Nevertheless, extreme parity puts Tampa just four points back of the Philadelphia Flyers for the second East wild-card berth. And it’s a true four points since they’ve played the same number of games.
The Bolts’ schedule also offers a tremendous chance to control their own destiny. They have a better record against their Atlantic Division neighbors than against any other division this season at 9-5-3, and they’re 6-10-2 against the West, even after beating the Ducks and Kings. Tampa Bay is two games into an eight-game stretch against West teams but finishes the year with 18 of 22 against Eastern foes. Of those 18 games, 13 pit the Bolts against Atlantic rivals. They begin a four-game road trip Friday in Minnesota before playing 15 of their final 24 games at home.
What can Tampa do with its opportunities, though? Believe it or not, coach Cooper’s club displays peripherals not light years away from 2014-15’s and 2015-16’s Lightning, which reached the Stanley Cup and conference finals, respectively. Tampa sits a respectable 11th in 5-on-5 Corsi for the year. It ranked fourth and sixth the two years prior, so the shot attempts trend in the wrong direction, but 11th still reflects a playoff team, not the 25th-best team. The Bolts are seventh in the East in Corsi. They still generate more shot attempts than they allow. The key difference this year: their team save percentage sits 22nd at .904, down from .910 (18th) and .916 (eighth) the previous two seasons. Bishop has struggled mightily in his unrestricted free agent walk year, and Vasilevskiy, gifted a real opportunity to seize the starter’s reins for the long term, has wilted after a stellar start.
Still, both goalies have shown signs of emerging from their funks. Bishop has a .915 SP over his past nine appearances. Hey, mediocre is an improvement over bad. Vasilevskiy has just one win in the calendar year of 2017 across 10 appearances but has a .926 SP in his past six. He also ranks among the league’s best in low- and medium-danger SP, so a bit more help in the back end limiting high-danger chances could turn around Vasilevskiy’s overall numbers dramatically.
The goaltending, combined with a so-so shooting percentage, gives Tampa Bay a PDO of 99.15. That stat combines team save and shooting percentage to create an approximation of luck, and the Bolts rank 23rd in that category. The analytics paint a picture of an above-average hockey club not getting the bounces as opposed to a basement dweller.
The Lightning’s puck luck may not magically change, though. They won’t get a major uptick in shooting skill until Stamkos returns, which won’t happen any earlier than March. If Yzerman wants more scoring, then, he may have to consider becoming a buyer, not a seller, and adding a scorer. The road through the Atlantic is hockey’s easiest relative to the other divisions, so there’s a case to be made Yzerman should just step on the gas. More important than acquiring forward help, though, is landing a top-four defenseman. Is it Shattenkirk? Johnny Oduya? Jacob Trouba? Shoring up the blueline would reduce the grade-A chances in front of Bishop and Vasilevskiy and help their SP numbers keep climbing.
Deciding to go for it with the Lightning not even in a playoff spot carries some risks. It would likely involve holding Bishop past the deadline in his UFA year, as Vasilevskiy has been too inconsistent to anoint as the playoff starter this far in advance. There would still be a strong chance the Lightning, sans-Stamkos, miss the playoffs and then lose Bishop for nothing. But 2016-17 might mark Yzerman’s last year with this particular core. Key forwards Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Jonathan Drouin are restricted free agents this summer. The Bolts will be pressed up against the salary cap, a la Stan Bowman’s Chicago Blackhawks every year and, like those Hawks teams, may have to shed a few key bodies to remain cap compliant. The expansion draft also threatens to steal a useful player from Yzerman’s NHL roster.
The Canadiens are faltering. The Ottawa Senators haven’t convinced anyone they’re contenders and just got blown out 6-0 at home. The Toronto Maple Leafs are young and defensively leaky. The Bruins just fired their coach. The Atlantic remains very much wide open. If the Bolts can sneak in, armed with a defense upgrade, and get Stamkos back, they could easily start the post-season as a No. 2 or 3 Atlantic seed and wind up favored to reach the Eastern Conference final.
So don’t let the standings deceive you. We have a third of the season to go, and the conditions are right for the Lightning to, ahem, shock the world in the months to come. If nothing else, Yzerman should stand pat a few more weeks. No team has to reveal itself as a seller until deadline day March 1.