National Hockey League
PHILADELPHIA FLYERS-Signed LW Ben Eager to a two-year contract.
American Hockey League
BRIDGEPORT SOUND TIGERS-Named Michael Burkhed equipment manager.
National Hockey League
PHILADELPHIA FLYERS-Signed LW Ben Eager to a two-year contract.
American Hockey League
BRIDGEPORT SOUND TIGERS-Named Michael Burkhed equipment manager.
Illustration by Ben Shannon.
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.”
Patrik Laine set the Winnipeg Jets franchise rookie record with 30 goals, surpassing…Ilya Kovalchuk? It’s time to get used to referencing the Thrashers when it comes to present-day Jets history.
When Patrik Laine blasted home his second goal in Tuesday night’s game against the Toronto Maple Leafs, his 30th tally of the season, he set the Winnipeg Jets’ rookie goal scoring record. It takes a split second to realize how, though, because the rookie goal scoring record — not just for the team, but for the league — belongs to Teemu Selanne, who scored 76 goals during his high-flying Winnipeg Jets days. And while it may lead to some confusion down the road, the 18-year-old winger was able to set the franchise mark because Selanne’s Jets aren’t Laine’s Jets.
Most know that to be true, yes, but it’s worth repeating when something monumental, like Laine breaking the franchise rookie goal record, happens. The ‘Finnish Flash’ set his record and scored his points as a member of what is now the Arizona Coyotes franchise, even if that history isn’t celebrated the same around those parts as it is 3,000 kilometres north. As for Laine, he set his franchise’s mark by blasting his way past the previous high of 29 set by Ilya Kovalchuk in 2001-02. It’s a record that’s almost a decade younger and not even close to as hard to surpass, but the record nevertheless.
Even knowing full well that’s the case, it’s still a somewhat jarring fact. Hearing Laine take the franchise rookie record by snapping the mark set by Kovalchuk sounds bizarre. It takes a moment to realize these are the Jets related to Kovalchuk, Marian Hossa, Kari Lehtonen and, to a much lesser extent, Patrik Stefan. This isn’t the same franchise that was led by Selanne, Dale Hawerchuk, Teppo Numminen and Nikolai Khabibulin. It’s not the one that came over from the WHA during the Avco Cup-winning era, and it’s not the same franchise that signed Bobby Hull.
Separating the old Jets from the new Jets isn’t something that happens much, especially not in Winnipeg where the franchise’s outdoor game features an alumni team filled with what are technically former Coyotes. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, as the former players who were part of Winnipeg’s original NHL run mean more to the city and its fans than the former Thrashers players. Bringing them back is to celebrate the city’s hockey history, not necessarily that of the current franchise that calls Manitoba’s capital home. The fact of the matter, though, is the original Jets alumni has very little to do with what are franchise records for the present-day Jets, and that’s something we have to get used to.
However, as the years go by, it stands to reason that the new Jets, or Jets 2.0, will take over the current franchise record book and erase many of the marks held by former Thrashers. Already, that process has started. Ondrej Pavelec, for instance, is the franchise’s all-time wins leader. Though he started his career in Atlanta, all but 41 of his 152 wins came in Winnipeg. Chris Thorburn also holds the franchise’s games played record, but more than half of his 691 games have come as a Jet, not a Thrasher.
Those two are only a couple on a long list of franchise records held by former Thrashers that have been or stand to be surpassed by present-day Jets. Here are five major marks still held by former Thrashers players — and players most will recognize as Thrashers — that stand to be overtaken by current Jets:
Points by a rookie: Dany Heatley, 67 points, 2001-02
While Kovalchuk was sniping his way to the now-former franchise mark of 29 goals by a rookie, Heatley was doing his best to keep pace — he finished with 26 goals — and managed to set the team’s rookie scoring mark along the way. Appearing in all 82 games that season, he added 41 assists to his goal total for a combined 67 points and he’s held onto the rookie mark since then. There’s a good chance Kovalchuk could have matched or tied Heatley’s mark had the Russian winger been able to play the full season, but he missed 17 games and finished with 51 points.
And that Kovalchuk finished with 51 points means that Laine is already three points ahead for second-place in franchise history. Next up will be breaking Heatley’s record, and Laine’s current points pace suggests that shouldn’t be a problem. After Tuesday night’s performance, Laine is on pace for 40 goals and 72 points. And if he doesn’t miss another game, he’ll have only played 74 this season.
The split history version, wherein the old Jets franchise mark is adopted by the new Jets, is 132 points. Selanne really wasn’t taking any prisoners during his rookie season.
Points in a season: Marian Hossa, 100 points, 2006-07
At his current age, most think of Hossa as that incredibly talented two-way winger who keeps chugging along for the Chicago Blackhawks. Before he turned into the savvy veteran he is now, though, Hossa was one of the best scorers in the entire league. No season was that quite as apparent as the 2006-07 campaign when Hossa blasted home 43 goals and 100 points while playing alongside Kovalchuk during the height of his powers with the Thrashers.
Hossa’s record is one of those that is going to stick around for a while, too. Here’s the full list of players to score 100-plus points in a season over the past three full campaigns: Patrick Kane and Sidney Crosby. That’s it. The current Jets have some players with the potential to set the new mark, however. Mark Scheifele is proving with each passing game that he’s a top scorer in the league, Blake Wheeler neared the 80-point mark in 2015-16 and Nikolaj Ehlers has all the tools to do it. None of this is to mention Laine, who could be a real threat for a 50-goal season soon.
As for the Jets-Coyotes record, Selanne’s 132-point season was the best mark ever put forth by a member of the former Jets. Expect to have the same conversation about this record as we’re having today about Laine snapping Kovalchuk’s mark.
All-time points: Ilya Kovalchuk, 615 points, 2001-2010
This is worth tackling in a couple of parts. Let’s start with the goals, of which Kovalchuk had 328 during his time as a Thrasher. The only current Jet close to that mark is Bryan Little, who has played the majority of his career in Winnipeg after being drafted while the franchise was in Atlanta. Little’s contract is up following next season, however, so there’s a chance he’s not around to set the record. Realistically, Wheeler or Scheifele currently stand the best chance of reaching the 328 mark first, with Laine as the obvious favorite at this point to eventually hold the mark.
Kovalchuk also holds the record for assists, though, with 287. However, Toby Enstrom, who’s played the bulk of his games as a Jet, has a chance to take the mark. He’s 38 back with 249 assists for his career, and a good close to the season plus a productive 2017-18 could have him surpassing Kovalchuk’s mark.
The toughest one overall, though, will be the total points. The closest current Jet is Little, and he’s 199 points behind Kovalchuk. Wheeler is 236 back, Dustin Byfuglien is 288 away from the mark and Scheifele is a whopping 408. Who gets there first? Well, three 70-point campaigns gets Wheeler there, and as the Jets’ captain, he could very well be set to stick around for longer than the two years he has left on his deal once this season closes.
Dale Hawerchuk holds the original Jets records for goals (379) and points (929), but it’s Thomas Steen who possesses the all-time assists mark with 553. Shane Doan, who started his career as a Jet, holds the franchise’s all-time record in every major scoring category with 401 goals, 564 assists and 965 points.
Single seasons wins by a goaltender: Kari Lehtonen, 34, 2006-07
The way things have gone between the pipes for the Jets this season has some feeling like Lehtonen’s record might take forever to fall, but rest-assured that at some point he’s going to have his 34-win total surpassed by someone suiting up for Winnipeg. It’s actually been close to happening in the years since the team moved to Manitoba, too. During the 2011-12 season, Pavelec turned in 29 wins, and Pavelec holds three of the five winningest seasons by a goaltender in franchise history.
The thing is, though, that Lehtonen wasn’t all that good during his record-setting season, and Pavelec wasn’t either in his pursuit of the record. Lehtonen had a .912 save percentage and 2.79 goals-against average, which was better than Pavelec’s .906 and 2.91 marks.
Even through his tough season, Connor Hellebuyck remains the hope for the future in goal, and if he can right the ship come next season with a more experienced Jets team that is, once again, looking to take a step into the post-season, putting up a 30-plus win season shouldn’t be too tall of a task. And if he really hits his stride, don’t look past the possibility he turns in a stellar 35-win season.
In doing so, Hellebuyck — or whoever surpasses Lehtonen’s record — also stands to set the all-time mark for Winnipeg’s NHL clubs. Bob Essensa’s 33 wins in 1992-93 was the franchise record when the Jets moved to Phoenix. Overall, it’s Ilya Bryzgalov who holds the original Jets’ franchise record with 130 wins.
All-time coaching wins: Bob Hartley, 136, 2003-2007
Hartley was less than three seasons removed from a Stanley Cup championship with the Colorado Avalanche when he landed with the Thrashers. The situation wasn’t all that dissimilar to what happened with Claude Julien, actually. Let go by the Avalanche in December 2002, Hartley was hired by the Thrashers a month later and led the team to a 19-14-5-1 record to end the season and ended his tenure with a 136-118-13-24 record. It was his 0-6-0 start to the 2007-08 season that resulted in his firing.
Hartley’s record isn’t set to stand for much longer, however. Paul Maurice is currently 12 wins back of surpassing Hartley for the franchise mark. With the rest of this season and what is currently slated to be the entirety of the 2017-18 campaign remaining, Maurice should easily be able to take the record barring an unforeseen firing. No other coach in franchise history has surpassed the 80-win mark.
The best output from any coach for the former Winnipeg franchise was 106 wins, accomplished by John Paddock. In overall Jets-Coyotes franchise history, Dave Tippett stands atop the list with 273 wins in nearly 600 games behind the bench.
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Matt Walilko had a playoff game to remember, recording six goals and five assists. It wasn't exactly a once-in-a-lifetime game since he had a 10-point game earlier this year.
In the dying minutes of his Jr. C playoff game Tuesday night, Matt Walilko of the Midland Flyers had his stick broken in two by a slash. A dastardly deed to be sure, but you can kind of see his opponent’s reasoning. It was the probably same thought process Bobby Clarke had when he broke Valeri Kharlamov’s ankle during the 1972 Summit Series.
“The guy was telling me that my stick was way too hot and he had to break it,” Walilko said. “He just axed the stick right in half and said it had too many points in it. We were laughing about it after the game.”
Considering that stick – along with the 17-year-old using it - was responsible for six goals and five assists in a 12-3 rout over the Huntsville Otters, you can understand why the opponent would rather see that one propping up tomato plants than demolishing his team’s playoff hopes. So when his team hits the ice for Game 6 of their playoff series Friday night, Walilko will be using new lumber, but riding the confidence of a once-in-a-lifetime game.
Or was it? Earlier this season, the Grade 12 high school student registered a 10-point game with five goals and five assists en route to scoring 80 points in 39 games and being named rookie of the year in Ontario's Provincial Junior Hockey League. Walilko is just 17, playing in a league where there are players as old as 22. He was easily the youngest player among the league’s top 10 scorers this season and one of only two teenagers. In what should come as no surprise, Walilko’s night vaulted him into the league’s playoff scoring lead with 10 goals and 20 points in five games. “It makes it look like I’ve been lighting it up every night,” Walilko said, “but I only had nine points in four games before that one.”
Back to the game, Walilko attributed his good fortune to being in the right place at the right time. He said a couple of key players were out with injuries and school commitments, so he knew he would have to step up. One of his linemates had seven points in the game and the other linemate had six. Walilko said that, as was the case in his 10-point night earlier this season, he went into the game knowing he was facing the opponent’s backup goalie.
“You kind of do your research, right?” Walilko said. “You see the backup is starting and you try to put a lot of pucks on net.”
What makes the feat even more impressive is that it gave Walilko’s team a 3-2 series lead with a chance to win it in Game 6. The Flyers had dug themselves into a 2-0 hole in the series, but have stormed back and clearly have some momentum on their side, not to mention a confident young man leading the attack.
Which begs the question: What is a young man this good doing playing this far down the junior hockey ladder? Well, Walilko played AAA midget last season in Barrie and rather than play on the third or fourth line for a Jr. B or Jr. A team this season, he thought it would be better for his development if he were a prime time player at a lower level. He has his sights set on earning a scholarship, something he hopes to do in a year or so. Walilko plans to take next season off school and hopes to play next season for the Pembroke Lumber Kings. He plans to write his SATs in the hope of attracting interest from U.S. schools.
Flyers president and GM Gerry Asselin said Walilko is so focused on getting a scholarship that he turned down a chance to practice, and perhaps even play, with the struggling Barrie Colts this season. The Flyers are affiliated with the Colts, who are struggling and in last place this season. Asselin said he recently had a conversation with Colts GM Jason Ford, in which Ford asked him to suggest a couple of players the Colts might have a look at down the stretch. Asselin said when he approached Walilko, he was flatly turned down.
“He’s a smart kid,” Asselin said. “He has his head screwed on right.”
A student at a Catholic high school in Barrie, Walilko said he can’t take all the credit for his success. His personal motto comes from the Bible passage Philippians 4:13, which says, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
“I’ve put it on every stick I’ve bought since I was a young kid,” Walilko said. “I grew up in a religious family and every time I’m on the ice and having a tough time, I’ll just look down at that and kind of re-motivate myself. It kind of applies to me in everything I do, not just hockey.”
Walilko will be looking to continue making a big contribution in the playoffs, but is another double-digit performance in the future?
“I don’t know if any of my backup sticks have that many points in them, but I’ll try.”
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Connor Hellebuyck and Auston Matthews. Image by: Mark Blinch/Getty Images
As we count down to the March 1 trade deadline, here are five of the teams that present the toughest buy-or-sell call.
We're now one week away from the trade deadline, which means the entire league is being divided into buyers and sellers. This year, there's far more of the former than the latter, so much so that it might throw the market into chaos, or maybe lead to a very quiet week.
Still, most teams know where they stand by now. If you're a Cup contender or desperate for a playoff spot, you buy. If you're already toast, then you look to the future and let the firesale begin.
But what about those teams that are stuck somewhere in between? Even this late in the season, there are still some teams that could make a good case for either side of the equation. Maybe they're not quite sure if they're still in the running, or maybe they can't decide if this is the right year to make a push. But either way, they've got a few days left to make up their minds.
As we count down until March 1, here are five of the teams that present the toughest buy-or-sell call.
The case for buying: One year into the Auston Matthews era, the Leafs have been better than most expected and are right in the mix for an Eastern Conference playoff spot – and a run at home-ice or even a division title isn't completely out of the question. The team has access to a ton of cap room and plenty of picks and prospects to work with.
And maybe more importantly, they have a three-year window while Matthews and Mitch Marner are on their rookie contracts. James van Riemsdyk's cheap deal runs for one more year after this one. William Nylander needs a new contract after next season. The time to strike could be soon.
The case for selling: "Soon" doesn't mean now. The Leafs have been patient during this rebuild, and waiting another year to really swing for the fences would be the smart play. And with a handful of rental options like Roman Polak and Matt Hunwick, collecting a few more future assets might be a smart way to prepare for what's to come.
Where they'll end up: You never know with Lou Lamoriello and his fortress of silence, but for now it sounds like they're not planning to do much.
The case for buying: After making the playoffs last year, the Flyers have taken a step back and are fading from the race. But this team is good enough to do some damage, as they showed earlier this year when they won nine straight and briefly moved into the mix with other elite teams in the Metro. Ron Hextall has been patient since taking over the GM's job, but this team hasn't won a playoff round since 2012 and Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek are in the late stages of their prime. At some point, it's time to take a step forward.
The case for selling: Timing is everything, and this year's Metro Division is so stacked that taking a run at it seems foolish. Better to move rentals like Mark Streit and Michael Del Zotto (and maybe even Steve Mason) and regroup for next year.
Where they'll end up: Their next two games are against the Capitals and Penguins, if they lose those, Hextall likely folds his hand.
The case for buying: We've been talking about the Jets as the NHL's team of the future for years now, but that future never seems to arrive. The West is wide open this year, and the path out of the Central doesn't seem as daunting as it has been in recent years. Their biggest need is goaltending, and there could be some good ones available, even as short-term rentals. With the team on the edge of the playoff bubble, this could be the year to make a push.
The case for selling: This team is good enough to make the playoffs, but are they really a threat to do much damage once they're there? The franchise has been patiently building up a young talent base since returning to Winnipeg, and abandoning that approach now just to get swept in the first round could seem like a panic move.
Where they'll end up: History tells us that GM Kevin Cheveldayoff and the Jets won't do much at all, no team has been as reluctant to trade in recent years. This could be the year that changes, especially if a goaltender shakes free as a decent value buy. Then again, it feels like we've said that before.
The case for buying: They've been bad for five straight years. Some of those were strategic, granted, but that phase of the rebuild was supposed to end in 2015 and give way to progress. There's been some, but not as much as fans probably hoped, and they're on the verge of missing the playoffs yet again.
But they've been better since a rash of injuries torpedoed their start, and they've got assets to work with to plug some holes. And in an off-year for the Atlantic, a push into the playoffs isn't far-fetched.
Again, most teams don't want to load up at the deadline just to make the playoffs and go out early. But this isn't the same situation as a team like the Jets, who didn't have to endure hitting rock bottom like the Sabres did. In Buffalo's case you wonder if even a first-round exit wouldn't represent a worthwhile investment, if only to offer long-suffering fans some hope that things are moving in the right direction.
The case for selling: They're not winning it all this year, and the roster is still young. Sure, missing the playoffs again will be frustrating, but there's no need to rush. Trust the process, trust Jack Eichel and the young core, and most of all, trust Tim Murray. At least for one more year.
Where they'll end up: Murray might tinker here or there, but any big moves to improve now would also have to extend to next season and beyond.
The case for buying: They're the Lightning. They went to the Cup final in 2015, and to the conference final in 2016. Plenty of us picked them to win it all this year. They'll be facing a cap crunch soon and their window may be closing, but on paper this team is still good enough to win it all, especially if Steven Stamkos comes back by the playoffs.
So of course you're buying. This team can win the Stanley Cup. They're the Lightning.
The case for selling: They're also terrible.
I don't know why. You don't know why. I'm not sure Steve Yzerman knows why. But they just haven't clicked all year, and they remain outside the playoffs with multiple teams to pass. Better to accept that, recoup some assets for guys like Ben Bishop and Brian Boyle, and maybe even figure out a way to dump some deals with term. For whatever reason, this just isn't their year, so start setting the table for the next ones.
Where they'll end up: Yzerman's earned the benefit of the doubt over the years, so you figure he'll make the right call one way or another. The betting is with two more home games before the deadline, he waits as long as he can before throwing in the towel. But I have them in the "sell" column.
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.