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.”
Eric Staal on life in the NHL before the 2004-05 lockout, and which human body parts he has autographed.
What was your favorite NHL team growing up?
The Leafs. I grew up in Thunder Bay, and it’s mostly Leaf Nation up there, too.
Who did you model your game after?
One of my favorite players was Joe Sakic, because of his clutch ability and because he played at both ends of the rink really well. He’s a good all-around player but was clutch.
Your ‘welcome to the NHL’ moment?
My first year was before the 2004-05 lockout, so any time I got near the net I took about eight cross-checks and slashes. I had a lot of those moments my first year at 18. It was a lot more physical before they changed the rules after that lockout.
First splurge purchase after signing an NHL contract?
I bought a Cadillac Escalade my first year once I knew I was staying and signing in Carolina. I needed a car, and my parents helped me, and I went and got one of those. It didn’t have spinning rims or anything like that, but it was nice.
What’s your favorite way to score?
I like to score from anywhere, but the fun ways to score are the one-timers or a sweet play. But most likely for me scoring, it’s going to be a quick-release shot. It’s going to be five-hole or low blocker. Those are my go-to.
What’s your craziest fan interaction?
I’ve signed people’s body parts. This one guy in Carolina, the whole team that won the Stanley Cup, he had everybody’s name tattooed to him. So he went around and basically got everybody that was on the team to sign, I think it was his leg or his calf or something, and he ended up tattooing everyone’s signature to his body. Hey, whatever you want to do. That was interesting.
Best thing about being an NHLer?
The fact I get to play a game for a living. How many people get to say they play a sport for a job? If I didn’t have this for a job, I would love playing beer-league pickup hockey with my buddies, because I love the game. I get to do that and get paid to do it, so there’s nothing better than that.
Worst thing about being an NHLer?
Travel. When you have a wife and kids, it’s hard being away. It’s hard for your wife when you’re busy and the kids are in school and hockey and everything else. It’s no fun being away. You always want to be around and be a part of everything, but the reality is we play 41 games on the road. That’s the hardest part.
Winterhawks center Cody Glass is doing a good job of proving people wrong as he develops into an offensive star in the WHL.
How do you like them apples? Excuse the backwards reference, but Harvard won its first Beanpot title in 24 years Monday night, running over Boston University 6-3 in the classic NCAA showdown. The Crimson are an older bunch, but still had a good dose of NHL talent in their ranks. Elsewhere in the prospect world, the Five Nations tourney in Sweden wrapped up, with Team USA taking first. This was a big win for the National Team Development Program, which had struggled for most of the season beforehand (part of that may have been the high bar set by previous editions led by Clayton Keller, Auston Matthews and Jack Eichel). For a look at some of the players involved in those contests and around the hockey world, let’s dive in to this week’s list.
Cody Glass, C – Portland Winterhawks (WHL): Hot tip for anyone facing Glass in the next decade: don’t take him for granted, because he will burn you. With 79 points through 55 games, he’s one of the highest scorers in the WHL and past slights have spurned him on.
“I use motivation as my key,” Glass said. “I got cut from Team Canada (for the summer Ivan Hlinka tourney) so I used that to push through and prove to people that I should have made it. I just keep trying to prove people wrong, starting as an honorable mention (on NHL Central Scouting’s list) and moving up to eighth.”
It’s impossible to ignore the Winnipeg native now and scouts certainly aren’t underestimating him. They love the kid’s combination of playmaking, hockey sense and hands. Still thin, Glass knows he must get stronger – but his 6-foot-2 frame is very projectable.
Portland is in the thick of the wild card race right now thanks to an 8-2 run in the Hawks’ past 10 games. The team lost a lot of veterans to the pros in the summer, but the return of franchise guru Mike Johnston has helped.
“He’s had a huge response coming back from Pittsburgh, especially him being with Crosby and Malkin,” Glass said. “He brought a lot of good skill development. With his system, with the young guys and speed we have, it helps a lot.”
Glass had just 27 points last season, so his ascent has been meteoric. Based on his skills and potential ceiling, I wouldn’t be surprised if he becomes the Mark Scheifele of this draft – a player that goes earlier than expected to a team that really covets him. Funny how the new Scheifele could be a Winnipeg kid who only got to see NHL hockey in town recently with the Jets’ return.
“Everyone was pretty ecstatic when they came back,” Glass said. “Getting to see the NHL back in Winnipeg is awesome.”
And it won’t be long before we see Glass in the NHL, making his point…by piling up points.
In the Pipeline
Alex DeBrincat, RW (Chicago): DeBrincat is wrecking all sorts of Erie Otters records lately, but there’s another milestone coming for the small-but-deadly scorer. DeBrincat is well on pace to hit 50 goals and 100 points in all three of his OHL seasons – quite the rare feat.
Ryan Donato, LW (Boston): The prettiest goal of the Beanpot final came from Donato, who used his slick hands and great elusiveness to bury one for the Crimson. The son of Harvard coach Ted Donato has more than a point per game as a sophomore and the Crimson have won six straight.
Ryan Pulock, D (NY Islanders): The AHL player of the week, Pulock registered six points in four wins – all one-goal games – for the Bridgeport Sound Tigers. The big blueliner with the rocket shot will almost certainly push for a regular NHL spot in Brooklyn next season.
Brandon Gignac, C (New Jersey): Athletic and skilled, Gignac had the only goal in a great showdown with Halifax on the weekend as his Shawinigan Cataractes maintained their perch atop the QMJHL standings. Gignac has also been great on faceoffs, while tallying 49 points in 45 games.
Steve Michalek, G (Minnesota): Since the calendar flipped over to 2017, Michalek has yet to surrender more than two goals in a game, even in contests where his Iowa Wild were considerably outshot. The rookie AHLer now has one of the highest save percentages in the league at .923.
Josh Norris, C – U.S. NTDP (USHL): The whole NTDP blew the doors off the Five Nations, but Norris definitely led the charge with seven points in four games. That was best among all skaters in the tourney and the University of Michigan commit has been stepping it up lately in general. Norris is a smart, consistent center who skates well and plays in all situations.
Erik Brannstrom, D – HV71 (SHL): The best defenseman at the Five Nations, Brannstrom had four points in four games for the Swedes, creating opportunities nearly every period. Though he’s on the small side, Brannstrom is an incredibly skilled and smart puck-moving defenseman.
Filip Chytil, C – PSG Zlin (Cze.): One of the better Czechs at the Five Nations, Chytil is a strong, two-way center who does all the right things on the ice. That included netting three points in four games for the squad. He plays against men back home right now.
Mick Messner, RW – Madison Capitols (USHL): The USHL’s forward of the week, Messner had four points in three games, scoring or assisting on the overtime winner in all three matches. The University of Wisconsin commit is a smart, hard-working player who beats opponents with his quick hands right now but must iron out his short skating stride at the next level.
2018 Draft Star
Filip Zadina, LW – Dynamo Pardubice (Cze.): Due to his late birthday, the 1999-born Zadina won’t be draft eligible until next season, but he’s showing off incredible skill already. A fast, shifty shooter with a high-end motor, Zadina killed it at the Five Nations, leading the Czechs in scoring with five points and the tournament in goals with four in four games.
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.).