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.”
Adding big pieces at the deadline isn’t going to be easy thanks to how tight a number of contenders are to the cap. There are some cheap veterans who could make an impact, though.
More than ever, it feels as though this season’s trade deadline is set to be plagued by league parity and the salary cap. For the most part, the teams in contention are the teams who have spent like it, meaning those right in the thick of the playoff picture don’t have all that much room under the cap to make additions in their hunt for the Stanley Cup.
In all likelihood, the tight cap and battles for wild-card spots around the league will result in the number of blockbuster deals we see come March 1 being less than in years prior, and it could very well result in a few teams in contention looking for cheaper additions that can help down the stretch and into the post-season. That can come in the form of young players just about to hit the open market for the first time or, more likely, as veteran players who’ve only months remaining on their current deals with not much left to provide a non-playoff team.
The list of veterans who could be in line to shuffle around the league is plentiful, but landing the Jarome Iginlas or Shane Doans of the league isn’t going to be all that affordable for a number of top contenders. There are several 30-plus players who fit the bill for those teams tight to the cap, though.
Here are five veterans who could be cheap but effective acquisitions at the deadline:
5. Kyle Quincey, New Jersey Devils
He’s not the first name that comes to mind when you think of trade targets at the deadline, but Quincey, 31, could be an intriguing addition to a team’s defensive corps as the post-season approaches. He doesn’t bring with him the flash of someone like, say, Kevin Shattenkirk, who stands to be the top free agent target in the summer, but Quincey has managed four goals and 12 points in 51 games for the Devils while averaging upwards of 18:30 per game.
Quincey has some playoff experience, too. All told, he’s played 54 post-season games and has appeared in the playoffs in each of the past five seasons as a member of the Red Wings. While in Detroit, Quincey was used to middle-pairing minutes in the playoffs, even while playing under coach Mike Babcock. Quincey could be a very useful fifth or sixth defenseman on a top contender without breaking the bank. He’s on a one-year deal that pays $1.25 million.
4. P-A Parenteau, New Jersey Devils
Depth scoring is one of the biggest factors in post-season success, especially against a team that’s good at playing the matchup game. If your top stars are shut down, you need the secondary scorers to step up and make the difference. One target for teams looking to add a boost to their secondary scoring game might need to look no further than the Devils’ P-A Parenteau, 33, who’s earning $1.25 million on a one-year deal.
Parenteau is one of those players who has seemed to be a fixture of trade deadline talk for the past few seasons, but this could actually be the year when a team steps up to take him on. A 20-goal scorer in 2015-16, Parenteau is again on pace to near the 20-goal mark with 13 in 57 games in New Jersey this season. His rate of scoring is all the more impressive when you consider he’s skating bottom-six minutes on a Devils team that doesn’t have all that much offense.
If Parenteau comes in and contributes 5-10 goals before the playoffs, he’s already more than made the acquisition worth it, and he’s likely a lock to contribute a couple of goals in the playoffs.
3. Brian Boyle, Tampa Bay Lightning
Boyle’s an interesting one. The most expensive player on this list, he’s currently in the final season of a three-year, $6 million contract, but he’s the kind of acquisition teams will be after as much for his two-way play as they are for his offensive punch. He’s had some of that this season, too. His 13 goals in 52 games matches his total from the entire 2015-16 season, and he’s already surpassed his point total from the year prior.
The rumor has been that it could cost as much as a first-round pick to pry Boyle, 32, out of Tampa Bay, which apparently isn’t all that frightening a price for some teams given the strength of the draft this year. And while that may seem a hefty price, teams value — and sometimes overvalue — experience. It’s going to be hard to find a player of Boyle’s ilk with more experience, either.
Since the start of the 2011-12 season, Boyle has played 95 playoff games. Only Carl Hagelin has played more, but that Boyle would have been tops in the league over that span and then some if his Lightning had been able to eke out the Game 7 victory against Hagelin’s Penguins in the 2016 Eastern Conference final.
2. Patrick Eaves, Dallas Stars
Versatility, two-way ability and a strong checker. Those are the staples of Eaves’ game. The fact that he has 21 goals this season, though, is going to put a premium on his services if the Stars are willing to part ways with the veteran winger. It’s not easy to find a player who can provide punch on the power play, skate on the penalty kill and switch to either wing at the drop of a hat, and even more difficult to find that player for a mere $1-million cap hit.
There’s going to be some questions about the 32-year-old, however. He has spent the majority of this season skating alongside Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn, and it doesn’t take Einstein-level intelligence to determine that playing on a line with two of the game’s top scorers is going to benefit any winger.
Does Eaves manage to produce even close as well away from Dallas’ dynamic duo, or does his scoring screech to a halt when he’s playing a middle-six role beside second- or third-line talents? Eaves could be a boom or bust addition at the deadline.
1. Radim Vrbata, Arizona Coyotes
Here’s a list of players Vrabta, 35, has produced as much or more than for at least $2 million cheaper: Ryan Johansen, Joe Thornton, Tyler Johnson, Patrick Marleau, Mike Fisher, Justin Williams and you get the point. Vrbata went back to the desert for the third time in his career, and for the third time it was the shot in the arm his game needed.
The goals haven’t been quite as frequent as in the past, but he still has 11 tallies and 40 points in 57 games on a Coyotes with an absolutely anemic offense. Matter of fact, Vrbata has factored in on 30 percent of the goals Arizona has scored this season, which is telling about how well he’s played. He hasn’t just been good for a Coyote, though, he’s been good for any player heading to UFA status. Of all players set to his the open market at season’s end, Vrbata is the fourth-highest scorer, and he’s earning just $1 million this season.
If Vrbata changes locales, the biggest concern has to be whether or not he keeps his scoring up. He succeeded in his first season as a Vancouver Canuck, but he slowed significantly in 2015-16, to the point that some were questioning whether he’d even land a deal for the current campaign. There has to be some worry about playoff scoring, too. In 42 games, he has eight goals and 18 points, which is far from his .60 points per game rate in regular season play.
That said, he might be worth whatever the risk. If a team is looking for high-scoring potential in a cheap veteran winger, Vrbata has to be the top target.
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.
Vancouver GM Jim Benning said he’d evaluate the deadline situation after they play their next five games, but even if they win every game, the Canucks should be selling come March 1.
With less than two weeks to the trade deadline, the Vancouver Canucks somehow sit a mere five points out of a wild-card spot in the Western Conference. Given the way the season started in Vancouver, that’s nothing short of miraculous because there was a time when fans were thinking more about what number Nolan Patrick would wear when he joins the Canucks than the possibility of post-season play.
The wonders of league parity have been at play, however, allowing Vancouver to pick their way back up the standings, fight their way into the conversation as one of the league’s bubble teams and make the trade deadline all the more confusing than it ever should have had to be for GM Jim Benning. For much of the early season, the Canucks were firmly in the seller category and speculation circled about which free agents-to-be would be gone come March. Now, instead of a fire sale, there seems to be real, honest to goodness talk about whether Vancouver is going to be selling or buying come the deadline.
“We’ve got five more games before the trade deadline,” Benning said in an interview with TSN 1040. “We still have some time. We want to see where we’re at going into the deadline and then, like I’ve said all year, we’ll talk to players, find out what their thoughts are and go from there.”
You can maybe understand where Benning is coming from. The Canucks made the post-season in his first year as the club’s GM, but the 2015-16 season was a disaster and 2016-17 started much the same. The playoffs are enticing, and with the West looking more wide open than in years past, there’s certainly some appeal to trying to sneak in, capture some magic and go on a deep run. But for Vancouver to do anything but sell right now would be absolutely foolish.
It’s not what one would call a bold prediction, but the Canucks aren’t going to win the Stanley Cup this year and it matters naught who they add come the deadline. The pieces, simply put, aren’t there. Daniel and Henrik Sedin still have magic left in their sticks as they inch closer to sailing off into the sunset, but on a team-wide basis, this isn’t a Vancouver club that’s in position to do much damage at all.
Look at it this way: Yes, the Canucks are five points out of a playoff spot with five games to go before the deadline, and yes, that means the Canucks could potentially have 66 points to their name by the time deadline day rolls around, but Vancouver has just 21 regulation or overtime wins to their name, tied for fourth-worst in the league, have a minus-30 goal differential, also tied for fourth-worst in the league, and they’ve produced a grand total of 138 goals this season, which is, you guessed it, fourth-worst in the league.
This is to say that to this point, Vancouver’s reaching this level of success this season has largely been a mirage, something underlying numbers also point out. For instance, Vancouver ranks 21st in the league in Corsi For percentage at 48.6 percent, they have the fifth-worst scoring chance for percentage in the league at 46.9 percent and, as far as expected goals for go, only the Colorado Avalanche and Arizona Coyotes rate worse at 5-on-5.
Even if Vancouver were to wiggle their way into the post-season, the Canucks’ stay would almost undoubtedly be a short one. And if all that adding a few pieces at the deadline is going to net you is a couple home games and a bit of extra revenue, why bother?
In their current position, the Canucks have to be thinking about long-term gain over short-term pain. Getting involved in buying at the deadline would be a fool’s errand for a team that should be retooling at this point. Sure, Vancouver stands to potentially inject some hope, however false, into the fan base, but it almost assuredly won’t pay off. This should be the time for the Canucks to look at the Coyotes, Buffalo Sabres and Toronto Maple Leafs, teams who have stockpiled picks in hopes of a bright future, and bring a piece of that to the West Coast. The rebuild doesn’t have to be the same or nearly as extreme, and it definitely won’t be while the Sedins remain in town, but it certainly wouldn’t hurt to be similar.
That’s why making an acquisition at the deadline, no matter who it is, wouldn’t make all that much sense. First and foremost, the price for any player, no matter who, is upped at the deadline, and there’s simply no point in the Canucks participating if it means they’re giving up assets that could potentially be a fit down the line.
Say what you will for the first round of the upcoming draft — there’s a reason talk has been first-round picks could be thrown around without so much as a second thought — but there’s always the chance one of the draft picks the Canucks would potentially give up could hit. The same goes for prospects who haven’t quite made it yet. It always helps to have more potential, more chances, to find someone who can fit the organization than it does to have less. And you never know when a player might find their game.
The shame of it all is that Vancouver isn’t really in a position to be a big-time seller, either. Alexandre Burrows is the top UFA-to-be on the roster and he could draw some interest as a depth scorer, agitator and penalty killer. There could also be consideration given to shipping out Jannik Hansen or Alex Edler, and maybe someone would be willing to throw a pick Vancouver’s way for Jack Skille and Jayson Megna, both of whom are set to walk in July if they so choose. But even if the return is minimal on what Vancouver does have to sell off, now’s the time to do it.
In the coming seasons, the Canucks stand to bring Brock Boeser, Olli Juolevi and goaltender Thatcher Demko into the NHL, and that can add to a more youthful core highlighted by Bo Horvat, with Sven Baerstchi, Markus Granlund and Troy Stecher as the secondary players. That’s a solid group to work off of and build a future around, but buying and giving away assets now when a Stanley Cup is nothing more than a pipe dream would jeopardize the future. For the young core the Canucks are building to be successful in the future, they need to be supplemented by players who can contribute, not middling players barely able to move the needle.
The next few seasons are going to be the most important for the Canucks, as rebuilding the right way can make the future brighter than it has been in the past. Going in too soon, though, and buying into the status as a bubble team only serves to damage what could be. Regardless of the result of the next five games, the Canucks should either sell or stand pat. They’ll be thankful for it down the line.