Stevens took over for fired head coach Ken Hitchcok on Oct. 22. "I'm excited," Stevens said in a statement. "I know that we have work to do here, but I do see a lot of potential for this hockey team. I want to be the guy who brings success here. I've been in Philadelphia for a long time and I know what it means to win here. I've won championships at the minor-league level and I'd love to have the chance to do it at the NHL level."
The Flyers had a 4-7-1 record under Stevens heading into Monday night's game with Pittsburgh. The 40-year-old native of Campbellton, N.B., joined Hitchcock's staff as an assistant last June after being head coach of the AHL's Philadelphia Phantoms for six seasons. He led the team to the Calder Cup AHL championship in 2004-05.
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.”
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.
The Blues regret getting to a point where coach Ken Hitchcock was fired, but everything they have faced has galvanized the players and they've turned the corner.
The St. Louis Blues aren’t used to being in this position in the regular season. Sure, there have been playoff letdowns, but the grind they have experienced this year, particularly the stretch that led to the firing of coach Ken Hitchcock, was new.
“It’s been a tough year,” said defenseman Carl Gunnarsson. “We’ve played some really good games, then played some really bad ones. No one wants to see the coach fired because it comes down on us – we didn’t do our jobs. It’s kind of embarrassing someone had to take the blame for it.”
Like several other squads of late, the Blues did rebound with Mike Yeo officially taking over head coaching duties, something he was ordained to do next season already. St. Louis won six of seven after Hitchcock was turfed and the one loss came against the defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins.
“At this point, we’re kinda past it,” said blueliner Jay Bouwmeester. “We were spinning our tires and something had to happen. (Yeo) relates to some guys a little differently. Communication has been good, practices have been up-tempo…little subtle changes, nothing huge. But it’s been good.”
The other most obvious change? Goaltender Jake Allen got his groove back. The starter has struggled this season, with December going poorly and January being an unmitigated disaster. Allen even took some time off to reset and it seems to have worked. The 26-year-old has surrendered a grand total of seven goals in five games since Hitchcock was fired and all of a sudden looks like the guy St. Louis chose over Brian Elliott.
“He went through a tough time, but everybody does,” Bouwmeester said. “The problem when you’re a goalie is that it’s magnified; there’s nowhere to hide. He’s had a couple really strong games since the all-star break. He’s feeling good, we’re feeling good with him, so away we go.”
Perhaps what should be most heartening for Blues fans is that the players actually seem a little pumped about the adversity they faced. The firing of Hitchcock? To a man, they all regretted it. But it seems to have been the wake-up call necessary.
“You get some extra energy with a change like that and right now we’re rolling,” said center Patrik Berglund. “But we’re not just having luck; we’re playing the right way and that’s why we’re racking up points.”
The funny thing is, the Blues were never in serious trouble; they were still a wild card team when Hitchcock was fired. But this franchise has become used to life at the top of the Central and things were getting uncomfortable. For a team still waiting to hoist its first Stanley Cup, being pushed out of their comfort zone may end up paying dividends.
“Now you have to keep track of the standings,” Berglund said. “In the past few years we didn’t have to worry. But it’s also a good challenge to have to dig in every single game. Every game is very important and we have to stay focused and keep going.”
That adversity has also had a galvanizing effect on the players. St. Louis experienced a great deal of turnover in the summer with vets such as David Backes, Troy Brouwer and Steve Ott moving on (many of my peers have already pointed out that such players were known as Hitchcock buffers who could take heat in the right way from the coach), but those who remained aren’t ready to leave the city, despite the mid-season chaos.
“Everyone knows the trade deadline is coming up,” Gunnarsson said. “No one wants to move. We all want to be here, to play our hearts out every night. That’s been the biggest change, so that’s a good feeling in the group, coming from something bad.”
With Minnesota and Chicago so far up in the stratosphere, St. Louis can’t do any better than third in the Central at this point. And slipping behind Nashville into a wild card spot is definitely a possibility.
St. Louis slayed their Blackhawks playoff demon in the first round last year and made the conference final for the first time since 2001. But the Blues have gone through their own version of hell this season and who knows? It may have been the best thing to ever happen to this group.
Jarome Iginla's best days are behind him, but he'd be willing to waive his no-movement clause to join a club that would give him one last shot at a Stanley Cup.
The constant trade speculation surrounding Colorado Avalanche forwards Matt Duchene and Gabriel Landeskog pushed the trade status of veteran teammate Jarome Iginla to the sidelines. The Denver Post's Terry Frei reports Avalanche GM Joe Sakic won't reveal his intentions leading up of the March 1 trade deadline, but will continue listening to offers. That includes those that might come in from playoff contenders for Iginla.
Now 39 and reaching the end of his 20-year NHL career, Iginla is willing to waive his no-movement clause to join a club that gives him one last shot at winning the Stanley Cup. ESPN.com's Pierre LeBrun cites a source claiming the Los Angeles Kings discussed the merits of acquiring the veteran right winger, who played his best seasons for Kings coach Darryl Sutter during their years with the Calgary Flames.
According to LeBrun, Iginla's $5.33-million salary-cap hit could be a sticking point for the Kings. For a possible deal to take place, he believes the Avalanche would have to pick up part of it.
LeBun doubts the Avs are getting many call for Iginla. While he remains a well-respected player and leader, his best days are well behind him. With only seven goals and 15 points in 55 games, he's on track for his worst performance in a non-lockout NHL season since his 13-goal, 32-point sophomore campaign in 1997-98.
A playoff-bound club seeking experienced depth and leadership at right wing could take a chance on Iginla. Perhaps getting away from the moribund Avalanche for one last shot at that long-elusive championship might improve his production. The Avs, however, shouldn't expect to get much in return. At this point, they could be fortunate to receive a third-round pick.
BRIAN BOYLE A SOLID ALTERNATIVE TO MARTIN HANZAL
Arizona Coyotes center Martin Hanzal is frequently mentioned as a possible target for clubs seeking size and two-way skills at center. A more affordable option, however, could be Tampa Bay Lightning left winger Brian Boyle.
Sportsnet's Elliotte Friedman reports several playoff clubs are interested in the 6-foot-6, 244-pound Boyle. Edmonton Oilers GM Peter Chiarelli scouted the 32-year-old during a recent Lightning game against the Minnesota Wild. Friedman also said the Columbus Blue Jackets and Toronto Maple Leafs could be among the suitors.
Like Hanzal, Boyle is eligible for UFA status in July. However, he has several advantages over the Coyotes' center.
A versatile checking-line forward, Boyle can play all three forward positions and can even skate on defense when needed. He's not a scorer but is on pace this season to reach 20 goals and he's had a healthier career than the oft-injured Hanzal.
Most importantly, Boyle has considerable recent playoff experience. He reached the Stanley Cup final with the New York Rangers in 2014, returned to the final the following season with the Lightning and helped them reach last year's Eastern Conference finals.
CURTIS LAZAR LIKELY LOOKING FOR TRADE
Trade speculation is growing over young Ottawa Senators center Curtis Lazar. A first-round selection by the Sens (17th overall) in the 2013 NHL draft, he was projected to become a quality two-way forward.
Now in his third NHL season, Lazar's career hasn't unfolded as expected. He tallied 15 points in 67 games as a rookie in 2014-15 and 20 points in 76 games as a sophomore in 2015-16. This season, the 22-year-old played in 30 games with only one assist to show for it.
Lazard was a healthy scratch in several recent contests, prompting some pundits to suggest he could become a trade candidate. The Ottawa Sun's Bruce Garrioch cites TSN's Darren Dreger saying he wouldn't be surprised if the unhappy young forward asked to be dealt.
Garrioch said the Lazar camp hasn't requested a trade, but will meet with Senators GM Pierre Dorion on Saturday to discuss options for his future. A trade will likely be among them. If Lazar is shopped before the deadline, Garrioch thinks Dorion could seek a high draft pick in return.
That might appear as an unrealistic asking price, but this year's draft isn't a deep one and some clubs could be willing to move their first rounders. Lazar could benefit from a change of scenery and a rival GM could take the gamble.
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.).