DALLAS - The Columbus Blue Jackets activated forward Fredrik Modin and defenceman Ole-Kristian Tollefsen from the injured list and assigned defenceman Duvie Westcott to Syracuse of the AHL on Saturday.
Modin, 33, had been sidelined since Nov. 1 due to a back injury sustained in a game at Anaheim. He returned from a 35-game absence Saturday and played in Columbus' 3-1 road loss to the Dallas Stars.
Tollefsen was also in the Blue Jackets lineup, and was a minus-3.
Westcott, who had to clear waivers before being assigned to Syracuse, has been bothered by recurring headaches. He has one goal and three assists in 23 games this season.
Chris Pronger is the last defenseman to win league MVP honors, and that was back in 2000. Since then these five defensemen came closest to cracking the Hart Trophy puzzle.
Brent Burns is on fire. The Sharks' defenseman is enjoying one of the best goal-scoring seasons by a blueliner in recent memory while leading his team to first place in the Pacific. He's emerged as the runaway favorite for the Norris Trophy. And now, he's even starting to get some Hart Trophy buzz.
He almost certainly won't win – this year's MVP vote has been shaping up as the first of many Sidney Crosby vs. Connor McDavid referendums. Barring an injury or something entirely unexpected, that won't change. It's Crosby vs. McDavid, and everyone else is gunning for third place.
But third place would still be a historic achievement for Burns. A defenseman hasn't been a serious Hart Trophy candidate since 2000, when Chris Pronger won. For whatever reason, blueliners just don't get much respect from Hart voters. Pronger remains the only defenseman to win MVP honors since Bobby Orr in the early 70s, and nobody since 2000 has even finished as a finalist.
That's kind of weird when you think about it. Ask any NHL GM about how to build a championship contender, and they'll rave about the importance of a blueline stud. But when it comes to naming the league's most valuable player, the entire position ends up being an afterthought at best.
So even if Burns won't win, just being in the conversation is impressive. As we watch his record-breaking season unfold, let's look back at the five defensemen who came closest to cracking the Hart Trophy puzzle in the years since Pronger took the trophy home.
No surprise here. Lidstrom was the runner-up to Pronger for the Norris Trophy as best defenseman in 2000, then dominated the voting for that award for most of the next decade, winning seven times.
What's somewhat surprising is that Lidstrom never came especially close to contending for a Hart Trophy, and he was only the top vote-getter among blueliners four times. In two of his Norris-winning years (2003 and 2011), MVP voters showed more love to someone else at the position. And one time, in 2002, nobody cast so much as a single Hart ballot for any defensemen at all.
Lidstrom's closest call to finalist status came in 2008, when he finished fourth. It wasn't an especially near miss – Lidstrom finished well back of Evgeni Malkin and Jarome Iginla, neither of whom were close to threatening Alex Ovechkin's near-unanimous win. But Lidstrom did receive two first-place votes, tied for the most since Pronger's 25, and that fourth-place finish remains the only time since Pronger's win that a defenseman has even finished in the top five.
Karlsson has been the top vote-getting blueliner three times, trailing only Lidstrom in the post-Pronger era. That includes both of his Norris-winning seasons in 2012 and 2015. It also includes last year, when he finished ahead of Drew Doughty in Hart voting despite finishing behind him in a contentious Norris race.
That said, the Senators' star has never come all that close to the Hart Trophy conversation. He's never finished higher than eighth in the balloting, and he's yet to receive a first-place vote. That's despite owning the best offensive season by a defenseman since 2000 in terms of points scored, and three of the top seven. That could be a bad sign for Burns. Hart voters don't seem all that swayed by gaudy offensive numbers from the blueline after all.
Apart from Lidstrom and Karlsson, Chara is the only other defenseman since 2000 to top the position in Hart voting more than once. He managed it twice, in 2009 and 2011. That 2009 season was also notable for Chara joining Lidstrom as the only defenseman in the era to get multiple first place votes, he had two.
But much like Karlsson, Chara never really came close to MVP honors. He only finished eighth in 2009, and was all the way back at 12th in 2011. Still, he received at least one Hart vote somewhere on a ballot in seven of eight seasons beginning in 2004. That's not much to get excited about, but at least somebody somewhere was writing his name down. As far as the era's blueliner's go, that seems to be about all you can ask for.
While Niedermayer is now widely recognized as one of the best defensemen of his era, the truth is that for most of his career in New Jersey he played in the shadow of Scott Stevens. Heading into 2003-04, he'd only had one season in which he'd finished in the top ten in Norris voting, and that had come six years earlier.
But during that 2003-04 season, the normally indestructible Stevens suffered a concussion and missed half the year. That allowed Niedermayer to step into the spotlight, and he responded with a Norris-winning campaign that saw him dominate the vote. It would be the first of three straight first-team all-star seasons for Niedermayer, establishing his Hall of Fame credentials.
And through all of that, he still finished just ninth in Hart voting, one spot back of the legendary Marty Turco. It marked the only time in his career that he was the highest defenseman in MVP voting.
If your first memories of MacInnis are of him blasting holes through terrified goaltenders with his patented slapshot for the Calgary Flames in the 1980s, you may have forgotten that he was still going strong when Pronger was winning his Hart at the turn of the millennium. In fact, the two were teammates at the time, with MacInnis winning his only Norris Trophy the year before at the age of 35.
He very nearly won another in 2002-03. At 39 years old, MacInnis finished second to Lidstrom in that year's Norris voting. But he edged out Lidstrom in MVP voting, finishing sixth. It was the highest of his three top-ten Hart finishes, and was also his last. MacInnis played just three games in the following season before suffering a career-ending eye injury.
Those five names comprise the entire list of defensemen since Pronger to lead the position in Hart voting while also finishing in the overall top ten. If you're wondering, three more players have led all blueliners while finishing outside the top ten – P.K. Subban (13th in 2013), Mike Green (14th in 2010) and Duncan Keith (15th in 2014).
Sean McIndoe has been writing about the NHL since 2008; you may know him from Twitter as @downgoesbrown. His e-book, The 100 Greatest Players in NHL History, is available now. He appears weekly on TheHockeyNews.com.
There's no "generational talent" at the top of the draft this season, but there is a nice battle for the top spot between Nolan Patrick and Nico Hischier.
It’s time for draft rankings, people, and it’s getting very interesting out there.
The 2017 draft class has already been pilloried quite a bit this season, but I think we just have to appreciate it for what it is: a chance for teams to get better. We’ve been spoiled by “generational” talents such as Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews lately, but that can’t happen every year. Instead, we have a nice little battle shaping up at the top between Nolan Patrick and Nico Hischier. And don’t be surprised to see even more movement as time goes on.
I have Timothy Liljegren third, but I’m kinda conservative when it comes to moving top players down. Recognize that he may slide as other blueliners make their cases, or if it appears we’ll have another run on centers at the top this summer in Chicago. Whatever happens, here’s the first round as I see it right now.
1. Nolan Patrick, C, Brandon (WHL): Back from injury and from all appearances, not suffering. Patrick has the size, skill and all-around game to be an instant NHLer
2. Nico Hischier, C, Halifax (QMJHL): The high-end skills and smarts are so tantalizing. Hischier is certainly giving Patrick a run for his money and surpassing the Wheat King is not out of the question.
3. Timothy Liljegren, D, Rogle (SHL): Liljegren seems to be back on track after illness and a loan to Timra. His skating and offensive instincts are excellent and he’s getting some nice responsibility with Rogle.
4. Gabe Vilardi, C, Windsor (OHL): Skating is the knock, but scouts are already downplaying it by hyping up his other skills. Vilardi is big, smart and talented and really, the speed isn’t that bad right now.
5. Owen Tippett, RW, Mississauga (OHL): A weaponized winger with size, speed and a big-time shot, Tippett doesn’t have the versatility of Vilardi, but the physical tools are beguiling.
6. Klim Kostin, RW, MVD (Rus.): Surgery ended his nightmare season, but Kostin is enough of a known quantity thanks to earlier international duty. He’s a big, powerful kid with loads of talent.
7. Casey Mittelstadt, C, Eden Prairie (Minn. HS): The Minnesota commit wanted one more shot at a state title, so Mittelstadt is currently laying waste to high schoolers with Eden Prairie. Tons of skill and he put up numbers in the USHL, too.
8. Michael Rasmussen, C, Tri-City (WHL): Starting off with his nearly 6-foot-6 frame, there’s a lot to like about Rasmussen. Naturally his reach is good, but his hands are also pretty sweet and he can play with an edge.
9. Eeli Tolvanen, LW, Sioux City (USHL): A wicked shot in a smaller package. The Boston College recruit is a pure goal-scorer and draws penalties with his skill. Mixed opinions out there on his feistiness.
10. Miro Heiskainen, D, HIFK (Fin.): Smooth-skating defensemen are in and Heiskanen may even challenge Liljegren for draft stock. Some scouts thought he was Finland’s best blueliner at the world juniors.
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.”
The Wild have a potential Vezina winner, coach of the year and a workhorse top defenseman, but come the post-season, opponent’s should most fear Minnesota’s depth.
Devan Dubnyk is well on his way to winning the Vezina Trophy and given the Wild have matched their win total from the past season in 25 fewer games, Bruce Boudreau is going to be in the conversation for the Jack Adams Award. He could very well take home the hardware by the time the season ends, too. There’s also going to be talk about Mikko Koivu for the Selke Trophy and Ryan Suter, as always, is going to be part of Norris Trophy discussions.
But with all the solo performances that have made this season an impressive one for the Wild, there’s more to this Minnesota club that the standout performances of single players. Rather, the best thing the Wild have going is their incredible depth, and as the playoffs inch nearer and Minnesota gears up for what looks like it could be a deep run, the way the Wild have been able to win should be striking fear into the hearts of opponents.
As of Friday, the Wild currently have the fourth-highest scoring offense in the league, but that’s a bit of a head scratcher given not a single player has hit the 20-goal plateau. Compare Minnesota’s lineup to that of the Pittsburgh Penguins, New York Rangers and Washington Capitals — the top three offenses in the league, respectively — and you don’t exactly walk away thinking the Wild belong in the conversation. The Penguins boast Crosby and Malkin, Kevin Hayes and J.T. Miller are leading the way for the Rangers and the Capitals are always lethal with Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov. On paper, one would likely take all three offenses ahead of Minnesota’s, especially given the Wild’s current top scorer, Mikael Granlund, had maxed out at 44 points before this season.
It’s been that kind of year in Minnesota, however, with just about everyone on the team stepping up under Boudreau. Matter of fact, no team boasts a more spread out offense than the Wild, who have 10 different players to have scored at least 10 goals. That list includes Koivu, Granlund, Zach Parise, Charlie Coyle, Chris Stewart, Eric Staal, Erik Haula, Nino Niederreiter, Jason Pominville and Jason Zucker. The Capitals high-powered offense is the only other group in the league that has as many 10-goal scorers, but the Wild have two more players, Suter and Jared Spurgeon, sitting at eight goals and on pace to hit double digits this season.
One of the things that’s evident is that Bourdeau has found a way to get the most out of players who are right in that prime stage of their development. There’s no better example than Granlund, whose 16-goal, 51-point performance thus far has already seen him set dual career highs. He’s not the only one on pace to reach new heights, however. Coyle’s 44 points are a new career-best, while Spurgeon, Jonas Brodin, Matthew Dumba, Nino Niederreiter and Jason Zucker are all on their way to setting new bests.
And while Granlund is the best example of a guy flourishing under Boudreau, no player is quite as indicative of the way the Wild’s depth has been clicking like Zucker. The 2015-16 season was a frustrating one for Zucker and Wild fans. After coming off a 20-goal campaign in 2014-15, the belief was Minnesota had a goal-scoring star in the making. All the facets of his game were present, but none more than his ability to absolutely burn up the ice when he hit his top speed. And while he’s seen his ice time take a dip under Boudreau — he’s playing roughly a shift or two less per game — Zucker is having the season of his life while playing bottom-six minutes.
Through 57 games, he has 16 goals and 38 points, but only a single point of his has come on the power play and not a single point of his has been scored shorthanded. Instead, he’s been a stud for the Wild at 5-on-5, so much so that he’s in the same league as Sidney Crosby and Connor McDavid. That sounds bizarre, but it’s true.
Zucker’s managed 14 goals and 37 points while playing five-a-side this season, and the other 500-plus minute players who rank in the top five in scoring are McDavid, Crosby, Brent Burns and Mark Scheifele. That’s a select bunch as all four rank in the top six in league scoring. More impressive yet is that Crosby is the only one of those four others to have a higher points per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 than Zucker’s 2.86. Of course, no one is about to say Zucker’s in the same overall league as Crosby or McDavid, but when it comes to even strength play this season, the Wild winger is sure producing like it.
The brilliant thing about a player like Zucker playing that way is that he’s exactly the type of weapon a team that has designs on going deep into the post-season needs. Every post-season run has its unsung heroes, and they’re generally players who score a clutch overtime goal or get moved up the lineup in hopes of generating some offense. With the way Zucker has played, chances are he could be exactly that type of player for Minnesota in the playoffs, and if it’s not him, Niederreiter, Haula, Pominville and Stewart have all been proving they can give that added punch.
The post-season can be as much about rolling four lines and getting some mismatches along the way as it is about high-end skill. Given that’s the case, there isn’t a team more well equipped to make an opponent’s bottom six and depth defensemen pay quite as much as the Wild. So, while Dubnyk, Koivu and Suter could be in line for end-of-year award recognition, it’s the depth, led by players such as Zucker, that stands to carry Minnesota towards the real prize they’re chasing.