Movements in the world of hockey Thursday:
American Hockey League
CHICAGO WOLVES-Signed G Craig Kowalski.
Movements in the world of hockey Thursday:
American Hockey League
CHICAGO WOLVES-Signed G Craig Kowalski.
Bill Foley and George McPhee. Image by: Isaac Brekken/Getty Images
Vegas' new GM, George McPhee, crafts high-flying teams that entertain, and that's not about to change.
When George McPhee was finishing his law degree at Rutgers many moons ago, he hung out with a few guys in medical school. The aspiring doctors had an enduring credo: eat when you can, sleep when you can, work out when you can, and don’t fool around with the spleen. Really, when it comes down to it, what more life advice does a guy need?
By the time he graduated, McPhee was just three years removed from an NHL career that ended largely because he was 5-foot-9 and played like he was 6-foot-3. He took the words to heart and, almost a quarter century later, not a day goes by when McPhee doesn’t work out. Hard. Because that’s the only way he’s ever known how to do things. Whether it’s skipping rope, going to a high school track to do sprints, enduring a boot camp workout or punishing himself on the bike, McPhee pushes himself to the point of exhaustion for 30 minutes, then gets on with the rest of his day. That’s why he’s a 58-year-old who looks like he could still play in the league in which he’s been an executive for more than two decades. And his spleen, for the record, is in terrific shape.
“You owe it to your family, and you owe it to your employer to be sharp and to stay fit,” McPhee said. “So you have to work at it.”
Good listener, George McPhee. The smartest guy in the room, they say, is smart enough to know he’s smarter than most people but not smart enough to recognize when other people are smarter. Those are the kind of guys who spend their lives annoying people at dinner parties and running Enron into the ground. McPhee isn’t one of them. Anyone who can juggle law school and a hockey career, then graduate from Rutgers, is plenty smart, to be sure, but McPhee’s true intelligence came from absorbing the lessons he learned from the people around him. And none was more influential than Pat Quinn, a Hall of Famer, who taught McPhee the importance of integrity and ethics. It was Quinn who hired him to replace Brian Burke as assistant GM of the Vancouver Canucks when McPhee was still studying for the New York-New Jersey bar exam.
McPhee learned a lot about hockey from Quinn. More importantly, though, he absorbed the significance of cultivating relationships. It’s a template McPhee carried with him through 17 years as GM of the Washington Capitals and will continue to guide him as the first GM of the Vegas Golden Knights.
“I got really lucky to be able to work with Pat and to get to know him,” McPhee said. “He did things the right way. There are a lot of us who were really lucky that our lives intersected with his.”
Some intersected with Quinn’s more than others. McPhee’s was almost on a parallel track. Both were marginal NHL players who went on to become respected executives. Both went to law school but never wrote the bar exam. Quinn was fiercely protective of his players and McPhee, well, remember when he was suspended one month (20 games) for going after Chicago Blackhawks coach Lorne Molleken after a pre-season game in which McPhee thought the Hawks were manhandling his team?
Actually, that’s kind of the way McPhee approached the game as a player. At Bowling Green, he won the Hobey Baker Award on the strength of his offensive prowess, but it wasn’t enough to get him drafted. His coach at Bowling Green was Jerry York, who more than 30 years later coaches McPhee’s son Graham at Boston College. York said McPhee could have been a Brian Gionta-type of player if there was a place for them in the early 1980s.
“When he turned pro, he had to find a way by bringing all kinds of grit to his teams,” York said. “He’d take on anybody.”
The record shows McPhee fought 28 times in just 144 regular season and playoff games, and he wasn’t a guy to pick his spots. Consider his fight card: Dave Brown, Craig Berube, Scott Stevens, Marty McSorley, Nevin Markwart, Rick Tocchet (three times), John Kordic and Ed Hospodar.
Yet like Quinn, the philosophy McPhee took to building a team in his post-playing career was everything he wasn’t as a player. Quinn, who wore his defiance for playing an offensive game in a defensive era like a badge of honor, earned a disciple in McPhee, who plans to build a team in Las Vegas that attacks, plays stick-on-puck hockey and tries (likely mightily in its first couple years) to create a masterpiece rather than destroy one. And that, if nothing else, will make it an anomaly among expansion teams.
“It’s an entertaining way to play for your fans, it’s a fun way to play for the players, and it can be successful,” McPhee said. “Pittsburgh has done it and Chicago has done it. Hockey should never be boring.”
That philosophy led to McPhee giving a career minor league coach named Bruce Boudreau his first job in the NHL. The two of them never came close to winning a Stanley Cup despite having one of the league’s most offensively explosive teams, and both were ultimately let go, so the theory has a few holes in it. Boudreau, now coaching the Minnesota Wild, speaks of McPhee like he’s a brother. And this is the guy who canned Boudreau. That, of course, goes back to the integrity factor and McPhee’s insistence on treating people with respect. Boudreau said the friendship runs so deep that he even sought McPhee’s counsel when things got really rocky in Anaheim last year and after he was ultimately fired by the Ducks.
“He’s such a standup guy,” Boudreau said. “You want him in your corner every time because he will fight for you. I know before I was let go (in Washington) he fought for me really hard. When he let me go, I forgave him 20 minutes later. I knew it was tough, and he gave me a big hug. And I think he went to bat pretty good for me on this job, too.”
Boudreau and McPhee are well into their new starts in the game this season. For his experience alone, McPhee was an excellent choice to be the Golden Knights’ first GM. Expansion teams that hire GMs with experience do much better early and make the playoffs quicker than those who fight through their first couple years with men who have no experience running a hockey department.
McPhee has already instituted 30-, 60-, 90- and 120-day plans for the franchise, checking off the boxes as they move along. He knows he can’t prepare for every challenge that will come his way, but that won’t stop him from trying. Every GM in the league will have him on speed dial leading up to the expansion draft.
McPhee knows that, at this moment, it’s probably the best it will be for a long time. The beauty of taking over an expansion team is the blank canvas. There are no bad contracts to get out from under, there is no losing culture and nobody needs to be fired. The people working for you are eager and enthusiastic because they’re getting their first chance in the NHL or are grateful to get another. The best thing of all is there are no wins and losses to consume your thoughts. And McPhee is eminently prepared for the challenge. He took over the Capitals in 1997 from David Poile and watched as his team made the final in his first year. But it wasn’t long before the Capitals bottomed out, then drafted Alex Ovechkin first overall in 2004.
“To be as honest as I can be, it hasn’t been daunting at all,” McPhee said. “After building the clubs we built in Washington, I have a lot of confidence that I can do it again. Everything I’m about to see, I’ve already seen. I’ve seen this movie before. In Washington, we tore it right down to the point where we were just filling boots the first year out of the lockout.”
McPhee had a rich, aggressive, larger-than-life owner in Ted Leonsis then (the man who ordered him to trade for Jaromir Jagr against McPhee’s advice), much the way he has in Bill Foley now. Foley originally boldly predicted his team would win a Stanley Cup within eight years, then amended that to six. Wealthy, eccentric guys are like that. But before the Golden Knights can even think of being competitive, let alone win a Cup, they have to establish themselves in a market where the NHL’s only presence has been its awards show. Everything looks promising at the moment, but nobody goes into these things thinking they’re going to fail. The best the Golden Knights can hope for is to become a modern-day version of the Nashville Predators, a well-run team that plays in a fickle market and always faces enormous challenges.
“I understand that this is important, that Bill Foley has put a lot of money into this and put his reputation on the line,” McPhee said. “And we have to make this work. We certainly understand the challenge and what’s at stake.”
The Jets were a popular breakout pick for 2016-17 thanks to all their young talent. They instead remain mired in mediocrity. How can they save their season?
We really didn’t see this coming, Jets fans. We swear.
We oozed optimism last summer while forecasting Winnipeg’s 2016-17 finish in the Central Division standings. We saw the Jets rising into a Western Conference wild-card playoff position. They’d landed one of the game’s most dynamic young talents in Patrik Laine. Mark Scheifele had blossomed into a true No. 1 center after a torrid finish to 2016-17. Dustin Byfuglien was inked long term to be the franchise’s horse on defense. New captain Blake Wheeler was fresh off a top-10 finish in scoring.
Two seasons earlier, in our 2015 edition of THN Future Watch, we dubbed the Jets "2019 Stanley Cup champions." We felt confident making that call because they had the game’s best youth brigade. Jacob Trouba flashed all-star potential on the blueline. Josh Morrissey had potential as a rushing defenseman. Nikolaj Ehlers had oodles of speed and offensive creativity. Connor Hellebuyck was a star goaltender in the making and only needed his chance. And, heck, in the two years since that magazine printed, the Jets padded their elite farm system even more. They traded for Marko Dano, drafted Kyle Connor and Jack Roslovic in 2015 and, of course, landed Laine last June at the draft. Plus they still had veterans like Mathieu Perreault and Bryan Little up front and Tyler Myers and Tobias Enstrom on defense.
We absolutely thought the Jets would ascend past the Minnesota Wild and swipe a playoff seed. It hasn’t happened. Last night, the Jets suffered their 11th loss by three or more goals this season and, as you’ve likely seen already, coach Paul Maurice blew a gasket. Three wins into a four-game stretch suddenly became two losses in a three-game stretch, Wednesday’s by an ugly 7-4 margin. It was a boiling point for a team hovering just below .500 at 20-21-3, technically one point out of a playoff berth but having played three more games than the L.A. Kings, the team they’re chasing. With Laine out an indefinite amount of time with a concussion, the Jets’ playoff hopes look grimmer by the day.
What on earth went wrong with this promising squad? And what solutions might rescue its season?
Any fan who rejoiced Ondrej Pavelec’s demotion was justified. That’s not meant as an insult to Pavelec. But, statistically, he’s had a devil of a time stopping the puck over the past half decade. Forty-two goaltenders have appeared in 100 or more games over the past five seasons. Among them, Pavelec ranks 41st in save percentage over that time at .906. So yes, it was a godsend when the Jets settled on a young battery of Hellebuyck and Michael Hutchinson to start 2016-17.
Their performance, however? Uninspired. Among the 47 goalies with enough game action to qualify for the league leaders, Hutchinson’s .890 SP across 17 appearances ranks 46th. Hellebuyck sits at a pedestrian .910 over 33 appearances, placing him 30th. The supposedly improved Jets goaltending has looked positively Pavelecian thus far. What’s the solution? Do the Jets have to promote Pavelec? Explore the trade market? Stay the course?
SOLUTION: Stay the course. One thing Winnipeg has done right this season is give Hellebuyck, a top-notch netminding prospect, the chance to establish himself as the unquestioned bellcow. He’s started 31 games to Hutchinson’s 13. Hellebuyck hasn’t performed nearly as well as advertised, but it’s far too early to write him off. I interviewed him for the first time in fall 2015, and the attribute of his that blew me away the most wasn’t his size, athleticism or accomplishments for his age, all of which were impressive. It was Hellebuyck’s swagger that stood out most. He’s breezy in his demeanor, a gamer who believes in himself wholeheartedly. Mental toughness in goalies goes a long way – the same trait foreshadowed Matt Murray’s rise last season – and Hellebuyck has what it takes to get hot in the second half.
It was already happening before he coughed up three goals in 14 minutes Wednesday and got pulled for Hutchinson. Hellebuyck was 6-3-0 with a .924 SP in his previous nine appearances.
He ranks near the top of the NHL in low-danger SP among goalies with 1,000 or more minutes played but sits near the bottom in medium- and high-danger SP. That obviously means Hellebuyck needs to be better, but his 5-on-5 SP is better than what the Jets are used to so far in his career, and his sample size remains small. Check out this study from Garret Hohl for a good breakdown.
Trouba ended his holdout in early November and played his first game of 2016-17 Nov. 11. Myers sustained a lower-body injury that same game and hasn’t suited up since. He recently left the team due to a personal matter. That one fateful game Nov. 11, Winnipeg iced Trouba, Myers, Byfuglien, Enstrom and Morrissey simultaneously. Interestingly, the Jets are one of the NHL’s best this season at suppressing shot attempts, ranking fourth in the NHL at 5-on-5 Corsi Against per 60, but when their depth is tested because of injuries, they’re subbing in stopgap players like Ben Chiarot and Paul Postma, who grade out poorly in shot suppression.
SOLUTION: Get healthy. Hopefully Myers rejoins the lineup soon and we can finally see this group at full strength. It’s been especially encouraging to see Morrissey post strong possession numbers. His offense hasn’t arrived yet, but he’s been sneaky effective.
Oh, the irony! The Jets missed the playoffs in 2013-14 and 2015-16 largely because they couldn’t beat their Central neighbors during the regular season, going 9-15-5 and 11-16-2, respectively. In 2014-15, a playoff year, they went 16-8-5 against Central opponents. This year the Jets are a sparkling 9-4-1 in divisional play…and 7-12-2 against the Eastern Conference. Ouch.
SOLUTION: Here’s one we know the Jets can accomplish: play the East less. Winnipeg is 2-7-1 against the powerhouse Metro Division. Every team gets pummelled by the Metro, so that’s forgivable. Winnipeg has faced the East in 47.7 percent of its games so far. It only plays cross-conference 11 more times, or 28.9 percent of its remaining schedule. The Jets also face the Metro just six more times, thank goodness.
The Jets would never be confused with a “shallow” team in terms of forward depth but, in today’s NHL, every line counts. Look no further than the Columbus Blue Jackets, who have gotten tremendous mileage out of Scott Hartnell and Sam Gagner as high-skill fourth liners. The Jets’ fourth line has been somewhat of a bugaboo. Brandon Tanev and Chris Thorburn have each posted ugly possession numbers, the worst on the team 5-on-5, when slotted in there.
THE SOLUTION: Winnipeg needs Marko Dano back. He can play a rambunctious game in the bottom six but with a nice dose of skill. Unfortunately, he’s out until March with a lower-body injury. At least he’ll be the equivalent of a trade-deadline upgrade when he comes back.
Finally, we get to Maurice. All the problems above suggest we can’t blame the Jets’ underwhelming 2016-17 entirely on coaching, but most bench bosses eventually pay for their teams’ sins. Winnipeg ranks 19th in power play efficiency, 26th in penalty killing and 24th in shots on goal per game. It’s the NHL’s second-worst faceoff team. Only the Calgary Flames have taken more minor penalties. This team is struggling to master far too many small details.
And why does Maurice always seem to get a pass? He’s long been a media pet, a likable straight shooter, easy to root for. But how much more mileage can a coach get from being a good guy? Maurice has coached in the Stanley Cup playoffs five times in 18 completed seasons. His teams have missed the playoffs in nine of his past 11 seasons. Even if we subtract 2013-14, when he replaced Claude Noel in Winnipeg mid-season, that’s eight misses in 10 seasons. Maurice’s 2014-15 playoff run with the Jets was his only one in his past five seasons.
Maurice hasn't typically enjoyed a stacked roster to work with, rarely in his Hartford and Carolina days, never in his Leafs days and not for much of his Jets days. But he also hasn’t been saddled with laughing-stock franchises many times. And he has more talent in Winnipeg right now than he’s ever had, albeit some of it is young and raw.
SOLUTION: It’s doubtful anything happens to Maurice this season barring a major team slump, but it wouldn’t be unreasonable for Jets management to start paying close attention to how well this team responds to its coach over the rest of the season. We know Noel lost the room in three years ago. It happens. Sooner or later, Maurice has to start winning.
Matt Larkin is a writer and editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to thn.com. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin
Alex Ovechkin and Matt Niskanen
Washington is atop the league and in position to chase a second straight Presidents’ Trophy, but what should really excite Capitals fans is the improvement in the possession game.
The Washington Capitals entered Sunday’s game against Philadelphia with the chance to take over top spot in both the league and the Eastern Conference, and when it was all over, Barry Trotz’s club had done so in decisive fashion with a 5-0 thumping of the Flyers.
The victory marks the second time in as many years that the Capitals find themselves atop the league in mid-January, and, coincidentally, it marks the second-consecutive campaign in which an early January run has had the Capitals looking like one of the league’s best teams. As pointed out by the Washington Post’s Dan Steinberg, the Capitals’ have gone 16-2-2 over their past 20 games, which mirrors the team’s effort over the same 20-game stretch from the 2015-16 campaign that saw Washington collect the Presidents’ Trophy.
However, it would be safe to approach the Capitals current run and standing in the league with cautious optimism. Runs like this have been commonplace in Washington, with five 100-plus point seasons in the past decade and not a single Stanley Cup, let alone Eastern Conference title, to show for it. That includes the past campaign where, despite their league-best performance, the Capitals were sent packing in the second round of the post-season, dropping in six games to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins.
Anyone thinking this season will be different, though, might be on to something.
First, let’s get this out of the way: the Capitals current nine-game win streak isn’t necessarily indicative of this team’s overall play.
Though they’re tearing through the opposition, the fact of the matter is that this run of play that has seen Washington post four shutouts in their past six games, allow only one 5-on-5 goal in the past two weeks and run roughshod over opponents like the Penguins, Columbus Blue Jackets, Montreal Canadiens and Chicago Blackhawks likely won’t last. Eventually, holes are going to appear and a few back-to-back defeats will come, and that’s about as simple as pointing to the fact that the Capitals currently have an exorbitant PDO — combined shooting and save percentage — of 112.8 during their winning streak. Washington is bound to come back down to earth.
However, over the course of the season as a whole, the Capitals are looking like a team that has bought in even further to the idea of shot suppression and puck possession. The results have been evident.
This season, through 43 games, the Capitals boast the league’s fourth-best possession rate at 52.1 percent and a large part of that has been the dip in shot attempts against per 60 minutes. Though it may not seem like all that much, Trotz’s team has seen two fewer attempts against per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 compared to last season, and that can be enough to make a difference. And while puck possession wasn’t a glaring fault of the Capitals during the 2015-16 season, it was one area that certainly needed improvement.
At just 51 percent puck possession during their run up to the Presidents’ Trophy, the Capitals were the definition of a middle-of-the-road team. They ranked 14th in the league, behind the likes of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Winnipeg Jets and Carolina Hurricanes. And while a strong Corsi For percentage clearly isn’t the be-all, end-all — the Capitals were the league’s best regular season squad while the Maple Leafs were decidedly not — the inability to drive the flow of the game came to roost in the post-season.
In four of the six games of the second round series against the Penguins, the Capitals lost the possession battle, and the only game in which Washington escaped with a landslide in driving the play came in an outing which Pittsburgh had already gotten themselves out to a 3-0 lead. After their six-game defeat of the Capitals, it didn’t come as much of a surprise that a Penguins team that was exceptional at driving play during the regular season, finishing second in the league behind only the Los Angeles Kings, used their ability to possess the puck paired with some incredible scoring ability to power their way to the Stanley Cup.
That’s almost exactly the way the Capitals have been playing this season, too, using their ability to possess the puck paired with sharpshooting and creative offensive talent to blow the opposition away. In fact, at 5-on-5, there’s only one team as good as the Capitals at producing goals at 5-on-5, and it’s the Penguins. Both teams have scored 2.78 goals per 60 minutes at five-a-side, and it seems like all of Washington’s big-name talent is starting to heat up at just the right time.
While there’s no Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel scoring trio in Washington, the trio of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov is about as good an answer as there could be. Backstrom has been lights out over the past month, Ovechkin is again pacing the team and near the top of the league in goal scoring and after a slow start, Kuznetsov has rattled off two goals and 12 points in his past 14 games. When you match that kind of scoring prowess with the ability to generate shot attempts and scoring chances, it can make for a formidable foe. Of course, none of this is to mention the exceptional goaltending of Braden Holtby, who continues to prove that he’s one of the games best netminders.
Post-season hockey can be an entirely different animal and a few ill-timed goals against can be the difference between a deep run and an early exit, but controlling the play and giving fewer opportunities for those mistakes to be made can be all it takes to get over the hump. And if nothing else, the improvement in that area may be enough to turn the Capitals’ cautious optimism into something more.
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Jarome Iginla is expected to waive his no-movement clause for the chance to go to a playoff contender. Could a return to Alberta be in the cards?
As the Colorado Avalanche continue to stumble along, there's growing speculation veteran right winger Jarome Iginla could be dealt in the coming weeks. The 39-year-old is eligible for unrestricted free agency in July. While he holds a no-movement clause, he's expressed a willingness to waive it if approached about accepting a trade to a playoff club.
The Globe and Mail's Eric Duhatschek suggests the Edmonton Oilers, Chicago Blackhawks, Los Angeles Kings, and Calgary Flames as possible suitors. He notes the connection with Oilers GM Peter Chiarelli and Iginla from their days with the Bruins, while pointing out the Kings last season acquired Vincent Lecavalier at the tail end of his career.
Duhatschek also suggests the Flames (where Iginla spent nearly 16 seasons) could use his physical presence. As for the Blackhawks, it was reported earlier in the week that they had interest in Iginla as a depth addition.
Given Iginla's Hall of Fame-worthy career, he will undoubtedly attract some interest from playoff-bound clubs leading up to the March 1 trade deadline. He can probably be had for a third- or fourth-round pick.
However, Iginla's no longer the dominant physical scorer he was during most of his career, managing only 10 points in 38 games. Interested parties should keep their expectations low. He's also carrying a $5.33-million annual cap hit, which could prove difficult to move.
WILL CANUCKS MAKE A MOVE FOR PLAYOFF PUSH?
A month ago, the Vancouver Canucks were on the verge of having their playoff hopes crushed. With 24 points in 26 games, they were sixth in the Pacific Division, ahead of only Arizona and Colorado in the Western Conference standings.
Approaching this weekend, however, the Canucks have climbed back into the postseason picture. Though still sixth in the Pacific Division, they had 41 points in 40 games, putting them within reach of a wild-card berth.
This improvement could give rise to talk of the Canucks becoming buyers in the coming weeks to bolster their playoff hopes. NHL insider Pierre LeBrun remains skeptical, telling Vancouver's TSN 1040 he doesn't believe GM Jim Benning is willing to give up futures for a short-term fix. Even if they bring in a rental player, LeBrun doubts that could help the Canucks go deep into the post-season.
Considering how bare the Canucks' prospects cupboard was when Benning took over as GM, it would be very surprising if he starts sacrificing them for a short-sighted playoff run this season. That doesn't mean Benning won't keep an eye on the trade market. Unless he can get a decent player at a bargain-basement price, he'll likely stay the course with his current roster.
COYOTES' HANZAL STILL ON THE MARKET
Earlier this season, Arizona Coyotes center Martin Hanzal was the subject of considerable trade speculation. At one point in late-November, there were reports claiming trade talk involving the 29-year-old was “heating up.”
In recent weeks, however, the Hanzal rumors have largely died down. The Arizona Republic's Sarah McLellan reports Hanzal acknowledges his future remains uncertain, but he hasn't rule out staying in Arizona.
Coyotes GM John Chayka remains open to continuing contract negotiations with Hanzal, but isn't ruling out the possibility of moving the 6-foot-6, 226-pounder before the March 1 trade deadline. Chayka claims he's not engaged in any trade discussions regarding Hanzal and hasn't received a serious offer yet.
Contract term is thought to be the issue. Hanzal seeks a long-term extension, but Chayka probably prefers a shorter deal to make room for his up-and-coming centers. Should Hanzal remain unsigned and healthy, Chayka will start receiving serious trade offers leading up to March 1. While the Coyotes' GM could seek a good young player in return, he'll likely receive offers of draft picks and prospects.
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.).
For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.