Phoenix Coyotes right wing Shane Doan (19) battles for possession with New York Rangers center Chris Drury (23) defending in the first period of their NHL hockey game at Madison Square Garden in New York, Monday, Oct. 26, 2009. (THE ASSOCIATED PRESS/Kathy Willens)
Author: The Hockey News
Gaborik scores twice; Rangers end 3-game losing streak by beating Coyotes
NEW YORK - Marian Gaborik vaulted to the top spot on the NHL goal list and earned first star honours with a performance that helped the New York Rangers snap a three-game losing streak.
But Broadway's newest flashy forward didn't get a chance to celebrate his big night on the ice because of an injury that ended it early.
Gaborik scored two goals, moving him into a tie for first in the NHL with 10, and added an assist in the Rangers' 5-2 victory over the Phoenix Coyotes on Monday night. He was on the ice when teammate Enver Lisin closed the scoring with 8:13 left, but didn't finish the game.
He limped to the dressing room, creating concern throughout Madison Square Garden. There was no definitive word on what ailed Gaborik, but he said it wasn't related to his groin or hip that caused him to miss significant time in previous seasons.
"We'll see how everything is in the morning," Gaborik said. "I collided with one of their players, but it's nothing major. It happened with about five minutes left and the game was pretty much over."
Gaborik has 16 points in 12 games, quickly paying dividends on the big free-agent contract the Rangers gave him this summer to pry him from the Minnesota Wild.
"He adds a different level that we haven't had since (Jaromir) Jagr," said Henrik Lundqvist, who made 30 saves. "He brings it every night. He has been huge for us."
The Rangers scored two goals on five shots in the first period and two more on only six more attempts in the second to chase goalie Ilya Bryzgalov.
Gaborik did most of the damage. His first goal gave New York a 2-0 lead, and his second made it 4-0. In between, Gaborik set up Vinny Prospal's goal.
That was enough for the Rangers to snap their losing streak (0-2-1) that came on the heels of a seven-game winning run. Artem Anisimov scored for the second straight game.
"We know how to win," forward Brandon Dubinsky said. "We put together a nice stretch there in the beginning of the year. We know what we need to do."
Phoenix seemed to get a bit of a lift after former Rangers goalie Jason LaBarbera replaced Bryzgalov. The Coyotes cut the deficit in half on a goal by defenceman Ed Jovanovski and a short-handed goal by Vernon Fiddler with 41 seconds left in the second.
This wasn't the start the Coyotes were looking for as they began a three-game road trip following a 3-1 homestand. Bryzgalov was in the nets for three of Phoenix's first four road games this season and posted a 3-0 mark with a 0.97 goals-against average - including two shutouts.
"It's tough anywhere you fall behind 4-0," Coyotes captain Shane Doan said. "We're not going to win games when we do that. Our power play really let us down. They got two, we didn't get any on ours."
Phoenix allowed only five goals in its first four road games, but New York nearly matched that in 40 minutes. The Coyotes have lost two straight, including a 5-3 defeat against Los Angeles on Saturday.
"We've got to go back and work at it," Jovanovski said. "We don't want to lose three in row."
Anisimov scored his third goal, and second in two games, just 2:31 in. Gaborik doubled the lead 7:39 later with a power-play goal.
Dubinsky, who was benched for the second half of Saturday night's 5-4 overtime loss at Montreal following a critical turnover, made up for it. He streaked down the left wing, carried the puck behind the net and found Gaborik in the slot for a quick one-timer.
Christopher Higgins, still looking for his first goal with the Rangers, was benched with Dubinsky on Saturday, but coach John Tortorella said both played well against Phoenix.
"You make a mistake and pay the consequence and learn from it," Dubinsky said. "I came in here focused on making the right plays with the puck and taking care of it."
New York finished the first period with only five shots, but held a 2-0 lead.
The onslaught continued in the second, and the Rangers showed off their speed and transition game. After Lundqvist stopped Scottie Upshall, New York went up ice. Gaborik and Prospal ran a give-and-go with Prospal cutting to the net, shifting to his backhand and beating Bryzgalov at 6:05.
Gaborik struck again on the power play 1:45 later, 57 seconds into Adrian Aucoin's tripping penalty.
Phoenix got on the board on Jovanovski's goal at 15:47 of the second, and Fiddler brought the Coyotes within 4-2 on his first of the season.
NOTES: Fiddler's previous goal was scored last April 7 against Chicago. ... Lisin was acquired by the Rangers from Phoenix during the off-season. ... LaBarbera made 12 saves.
Joe Thornton is two assists away from becoming the 13th player to reach the 1,000-assist milestone, and it should have him considered among the greatest playmakers the league has ever seen.
Two assists. That’s all Joe Thornton needs to hit 1,000 for his career, and there’s a chance he could be celebrating the milestone helper in less than one week, earning an undeniable spot as one of the greatest playmakers the game has ever seen.
When he reaches the milestone mark, and there’s no question he will, it only stands to add to what are some already stellar Hall of Fame credentials. Thornton has a Hart Trophy and Art Ross to his name, a first all-star team nod and two times he was voted to the league’s second all-star club. But forget the awards and look past the nearly 400 goals, because reaching the 1,000-assist milestone is the most impressive of all of Thornton’s feats. It’s a statistical achievement the likes of which has seldom been recorded.
It may seem like the 1,000-assist mark wouldn’t be so rare given there are two assists handed out for every goal scored, but there are only 12 players to have hit 1,000 assists for their career. By comparison, 19 players have at least 600 goals and there are 45 with 500 or more tallies in their career. The all-time assists leader, as one would expect, is Wayne Gretzky, with the likes of Mario Lemieux, Gordie Howe, Steve Yzerman, Ray Bourque and Jaromir Jagr among those who round out the 12-man 1,000 assist club.
That’s indicative of the type of savvy playmaker Thornton has been throughout his career. His puck distribution skills have been and remain some of the best in the league, and that he’s still managing to dish out perfect tape-to-tape passes as he inches closer to his 38th birthday is telling about the dedication he has to his craft. This season, only 15 players have more assists than Thornton, and the list includes a number of the league’s current greats, from Connor McDavid and Sidney Crosby to Brent Burns and Duncan Keith.
It’s not as if Thornton has maneuvered his way to 1,000 assists by way of being in the right place at the right time, either. Some contest that he’s racked up a boatload of secondary helpers over his career, but stats.HockeyAnalysis.com has data on primary assists over the past 10 seasons. No one has registered more overall assists than Thornton’s 548, and no player has more first assists than the 314 Thornton has compiled.
But with Thornton close to the end of his career, it’s worth wondering how far up the all-time assist chart he can rise. Once he hits the 1,000-assist milestone, he’ll be 16 back of matching Joe Sakic, 33 behind Lemieux, Marcel Dionne will sit 40 assists ahead and Howe 49 up on Thornton. Realistically, he could make a dent in the chase to tie Sakic by the time the season ends, possibly by as much as another 10 to 12 assists. That would put Thornton up to 1,010 in his career. What happens next season, though?
First and foremost, the concern has to be about returning to a lineup where he can produce. There has been speculation that Thornton, a free agent come July, wants to hang around for at least another couple seasons, playing into his 40s and possibly beyond. That’s not out of the realm of possibility, especially with him continuing to contribute, and we’ve seen the likes of Jagr, Shane Doan and Matt Cullen contribute as they enter the “over the hill” stage of their career. If Thornton does come back, as it seems he will, the question then becomes the rate at which he is actually able to contribute.
At his current rate, he’s registering .57 assists per game, down from last season’s .77 rate and slightly down from his .63 rate during the 2014-15 campaign. Over the past three seasons, that’s a pace of .66 assists per game, which means over the course of an 82-game season he’d register roughly 54 helpers.
It’s likely, though, that Thornton’s assist rate drops as he continues on. Let’s say he nabs 43 assists in 2017-18, 39 in 2018-19 and 34 in 2019-20. That’s a consistent dip of .05 assists per game from his current rate over the next three seasons. It’s only an estimation, of course, but that would net Thornton another 116 assists over the following three seasons. Add that to the 1,010 he projects to have by the time the post-season rolls around, and Thornton would have 1,126 assists in his career. He would sit seventh all-time, ahead of Adam Oates and Steve Yzerman and only slightly behind Bourque and Paul Coffey.
The thing about the all-time list, though, is that it doesn’t take into account the era the player’s career occurred in. The first seven seasons of Thornton’s career came in the low-scoring pre-lockout years, and he’s spent 12 in the post-lockout, more free-flowing game that we see today. Scoring isn’t up all that much, however. Thankfully, Hockey-Reference has done the legwork in adjusting scoring for the separate eras, and on that list, Thornton is already top-five all-time. The only players he trails are Gretzky, Howe, Jagr and Ron Francis.
As far as catching the foursome at the top of the adjusted assists list goes, it’s not going to be easy. He sits 87 back of Francis, and it’s going to take much of the rest of Thornton’s career to surpass him, and there’s about no chance he reaches the same heights as Jagr, Howe or Gretzky. Even still, that’s company even more exclusive than the list of players with 1,000 assists. Being mentioned alongside arguably the three greatest offensive players in the league’s history, and three veritable legends of the sport, would put into perspective the type of assist machine Thornton has been.
Thornton’s chase to the 1,000-assist milestone is something to pay attention to and worth even more recognition than it’s sure to get. While the Stanley Cup may have eluded Thornton to this point, the longer he plays, the more he cements his legacy as one of the greatest set-up men the league has ever seen. And when the time comes, he’ll be more than worthy of enshrinement in the Hockey Hall of Fame.
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.)
It's not often stars like Matt Duchene are on the trade block. It will take a king's ransom to pry him from the Avalanche but these teams have a shot at him.
Oh, the possibilities. Matt Duchene is the most fun trade-bait name to pop up in a while.
First off, his skill set tantalizes. He’s got blazing speed, elite hands and can play center or wing. Teams chasing his services have many different ways to slot him into their lineups. Secondly, Duchene isn’t a rental. He’s under contract for two more seasons after this one at a $6-million cap hit. While that means the lowly Colorado Avalanche and GM Joe Sakic have no reason to rush and force a deal by March 1, it does mean Sakic should receive some 10-bell offers. Sakic also might receive pitches from bubble teams or even non-playoff squads, as anyone acquiring Duchene, 26, can make him part of their long-term plans.
Still, chances are the rebuilding teams wouldn’t target Duchene until draft day. This month’s offers should skew heavily toward contenders. Which teams are the best fits for Duchene? Keep in mind the return must be significant.
6. BONUS TEAM: OTTAWA SENATORS
It wouldn’t do the Senators justice to bury them in the honorable mentions category. They deserve a few extra words, as they’ve been linked to Duchene often of late. The problem is Colorado needs good young defensemen more than anything else – and a Duchene trade likely can’t happen unless Ottawa includes prized prospect Thomas Chabot. That’s a borderline non-starter for Ottawa. With no Chabot involved, Colorado would want Cody Ceci, but trading him would be counterproductive for the Sens, as he logs more than 23 minutes a game. They need him too much for the playoff hunt. The Avs could also ask for promising two-way center prospect Colin White, but they’d want much more than just White, and the smarter return for Duchene should start with a defenseman. Duchene is also somewhat of a luxury for Ottawa, who is already solid up the middle and might put Duchene on a wing if it acquired him.
The mutual interest makes sense, as Duchene would bolster Ottawa’s top six no matter where he plays and the Sens have pieces Sakic would covet. But I just don’t see Ottawa coughing up what Colorado wants.
5. CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS
The Chicago Blackhawks need a left winger to play with Jonathan Toews yet again. A quick and dirty way to plug the hole this year might be to grab pending unrestricted free agent Patrick Sharp back from the Dallas Stars. If GM Stan Bowman wants to aim high, though, he could target Duchene. And we can’t underestimate Bowman’s ability to pull off massive deals. He surrendered a first-round pick and Marko Dano as part of the Andrew Ladd acquisition last winter. Bowman gave up a 2018 second rounder plus Philip Danault, who currently centers Montreal’s top line, to snag Dale Weise and Tomas Fleischmann. The year before, Bowman used first- and second-round picks as part of swaps for Antoine Vermette and Kimmo Timonen.
It’s established that Bowman has no problem giving up future assets for playoff pushes. He knows his team remains in a Cup-contending window. Better yet, Duchene could become part of Chicago’s star core for years to come. Bowman would then have to sort out some serious salary-cap problems in the summer, but c’mon…we all know that never stops him from dreaming big.
What Chicago can offer: The Hawks lack elite prospects, though Alex DeBrincat has almost played his way into that status with OHL Erie this year. He could be part of a Duchene trade. Some goes for blueliner Chad Krys or NHL rookie Nick Schmaltz.
Red flag: Chicago has three Stanley Cups in since 2010. It hasn’t selected in the top 15 of an NHL draft since 2008. The Hawks have also traded away multiple high picks before using them at the draft. It’s no wonder, then, Chicago’s farm system isn’t studded with A+ prospects. The Hawks would be squarely behind the other suitors in terms of what they could offer for Duchene. Bowman has also publicly stated he doesn’t expect to be active approaching the deadline. Choose for yourself whether you believe that, though Chicago’s lack of in-season cap space alone would make a Duchene deal difficult to execute. Some veteran body would have to go Colorado’s way, and Bowman doesn’t want to upset his team chemistry.
4. ANAHEIM DUCKS
The Ducks average the fewest goals of any team in either conference currently holding down a playoff position. Right winger Corey Perry has just nine. The Ducks need an injection of scoring, and GM Bob Murray has made six deadline-day trades over the past two seasons. He knows Perry and Getzlaf are inching deeper into their 30s, slowly closing the franchise’s championship window, and Murray thus doesn’t mind making moves. It helps that Duchene isn’t a short-term asset, too. And Duchene wouldn’t have to play center to help the Ducks. Coach Randy Carlyle could try him on the top line with Getzlaf and Perry, using Rickard Rakell to create nightmare matchups from the third unit.
What Anaheim can offer: Defensemen. So many defensemen. Maybe even two. The Ducks are spoiled at the position, with Cam Fowler, Hampus Lindholm, Sami Vatanen, Josh Manson, Shea Theodore and Brandon Montour leading the way, not to mention 2015 first-rounder Jacob Larsson marinating in the Swedish League. Murray could find himself in an expansion draft bind, too. Veteran Kevin Bieksa’s no-movement clause makes him a must-protect asset, and Murray would never expose Lindholm, Vatanen or Fowler as long as he has them. That could put Josh Manson in a precarious position, forcing Murray to lose him or, most likely, expose a decent forward like Jakob Silfverberg.
Long story short: dealing from their ‘D’ surplus helps the Ducks not just in that it could yield Duchene, but also because it would solve a roster logjam.
Red flag: We know Sakic seeks multiple useful pieces in a Duchene deal, so the return wouldn’t just be a Theodore or Montour. The Avs could easily demand, say, Vatanen along with one of the younger prospects, with a first-round pick to boot. Murray does have many D-men to spare, but surrendering one of his top-four guys for the stretch run would up the pressure on his youngest D-men. Are they ready?
My colleague Ken Campbell said it best in our podcast this week: the Canadiens owe it to their fan base to make a push. They lead the Atlantic, hockey’s weakest division, but have wilted in recent weeks. They don't want to waste goaltender Carey Price’s prime years. And any team forced to shoehorn Paul Byron and Artturi Lehkonen into top-six duty scares no one. The Habs need more high-end talent for their scoring lines.
What Montreal can offer: The negotiation starts and finishes with Mikhail Sergachev and/or Nathan Beaulieu. No way GM Marc Bergevin gets a foothold without dangling his best young blueliners. A steep price? Yes. But the Habs, unlike the Sens with Chabot, are at more of a win-now juncture. That’s what last summer’s Shea Weber acquisition told us. The question is whether the Avs would also ask for hulking winger Michael McCarron in a Duchene package. My guess is yes. And Montreal should meet the price. It’s time to go for glory.
Red flag: Is Montreal even a top-four team in the Eastern Conference? Would you pick the Habs over the Washington Capitals, Pittsburgh Penguins, Columbus Blue Jackets or New York Rangers in a series? I’m obviously playing devil’s advocate here, but the point is acquiring Duchene carries risk, as Montreal has stiff competition and would have to empty its farm system in a Duchene deal. The good news, of course, is that the Habs would naturally become a much stronger contender in the East with Duchene.
2. CAROLINA HURRICANES
Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman raised an excellent point: it helps the Hurricanes to acquire players with term because they aren’t big players in the free agent game. The Canes are trending in the right direction, with strong analytics numbers. Sebastian Aho would be a Calder Trophy contender in most years but happens to be up against a fantastic rookie crop. The Canes have Julien Gauthier on the way, too. But as they mature into a pretty competitive club, they could use a boost in veteran scoring, and Duchene would provide just that. He could immediately take over as Carolina’s No. 1 center.
What Carolina can offer: The ’Canes are up there with Anaheim as the best pure hockey fit for a trade from Colorado’s perspective. Carolina boasts an impressive stable of young defensemen. Justin Faulk is untouchable in a Duchene negotiation, as is Noah Hanifin, but Brett Pesce and Jaccob Slavin should be in play. Neither of them would constitute nearly enough to land Duchene, which is where picks and high-end prospect defensemen Jake Bean and Haydn Fleury come in. Carolina has enough defensive depth to spare a couple in a Duchene package, and GM Ron Francis is swimming in cap space, too.
Red flag: The Hurricanes are in the midst of true rebuild. It’s trending in the right direction, with Carolina four points back of the Philadelphia Flyers for the second Eastern Conference wild-card position with two games in hand. The ’Canes are hardly guaranteed a ticket to the big dance this spring, though, and they aren’t in a rush. That doesn’t mean Duchene is a poor fit. It does mean a Duchene trade could go down at the draft in June instead of in the next few weeks.
1. NASHVILLE PREDATORS
You should’ve seen Duchene during all-star weekend in Nashville last year. He couldn’t stop smiling. As a country music fan and musician, he’s made for that city. Not that such an emotional connection makes him more likely to become a Predator, of course, but it’s nice to think about.
What makes Duchene most likely to become a Predator is that Nashville has the best blend of need and willingness. Mike Fisher shouldn’t be a top-two center on any team calling itself a Stanley Cup contender. That’s not meant to disrespect Fisher. It’s just that he’s 36. He’s still an effective two-way player and would be a wonderful No. 3 center on a powerhouse. Landing Duchene would put Fisher in that spot and give the Preds another dangerous scorer up front, which they desperately need. No Nashville player has more than 17 goals, albeit Filip Forsberg has heated up a lot lately.
GM David Poile is the king of blockbuster trades in the salary-cap era. He pulled Seth Jones for Ryan Johansen and Shea Weber for P.K. Subban in 2016. He’s made winter deals involving first-round picks over the years to land Peter Forsberg, Cody Franson, Paul Gaustad and Fisher. Poile treats every trade deadline like it’s his team’s last chance at a Stanley Cup push, and we thank him for it. The man is entertaining.
What Nashville can offer: Mattias Ekholm’s name has been tossed around in trade rumors this year. After dealing Jones away last season, though, Poile has to be careful not to weaken his depth too much. The more likely scenario: offering a first-rounder and a prospect such as Dante Fabbro. Maybe Kevin Fiala or Vladislav Kamenev, too. We know Poile is fearless.
Red flag: It’s taken the Predators all season just to climb back into a playoff position, and they’re a short losing streak away from slipping into ninth place. The smart money says they hold off their competition, but they’re no lock. At least Duchene isn’t a one-and-done commodity, though. So the threat of a playoff miss shouldn’t spook Poile.
OTHER TEAMS TO WATCH:
Los Angeles Kings, St. Louis Blues, Vancouver Canucks
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.”