"I talk more with the players than in the old days, I guess. Right now, I think a player needs the coaching staff to be close to him."
- New Jersey Devils coach Jacques Lemaire.
"I talk more with the players than in the old days, I guess. Right now, I think a player needs the coaching staff to be close to him."
- New Jersey Devils coach Jacques Lemaire.
Rasmus Asplund. Image by: Bill Wippert/Getty Images
2016 second-round pick Rasmus Asplund is getting valuable experience with Farjestad back home in Sweden, but he's looking forward to teaming up with Alex Nylander in Buffalo.
The best thing about the prospect world? There are very few “dog days.” The world juniors is in our rearview mirror, but here comes the CHL Top Prospects Game! I’ll be in Quebec City for the festivities on Monday, so stay tuned for coverage next week. As for bad news, while Hamilton, Oshawa and Regina make their bids for the 2018 Memorial Cup, the 2017 hosts from Windsor just found out key defenseman Logan Stanley (WPG) will be out long-term due to knee surgery, putting his participation in jeopardy. In the meantime, let’s take a look at some of the players with brighter storylines right now.
Rasmus Asplund, C (Buffalo): Though his world juniors ended with another disappointing fourth-place finish, overall it’s been a pretty good year for Asplund. Not only is he one of the top junior-aged scorers in the SHL, but the world juniors gave him another chance to hang out with Alex Nylander, his fellow Buffalo draft pick.
“It’s always fun to be on the same team as Alex,” Asplund said. “He’s an outstanding player and a good guy in the room, too. And now we’re both Sabres.”
Asplund was taken 33rd overall by Buffalo this summer and while it’s always fun to be drafted by the team hosting the event, the talented two-way center was getting approached for autographs the day before he was picked, giving him a preview of how knowledgeable the locals are.
“I was there for two months this summer and it’s an amazing hockey town,” he said. “Everyone is crazy about hockey so it’s going to be exciting to get there soon.”
Asplund is currently playing for Farjestad back home in Sweden. The squad is mid-table in the SHL, but for a young player with NHL dreams, Asplund is getting a golden opportunity to grow his game right now.
“It’s been a really good year for me,” he said. “I’m playing almost 19 minutes every game and in all situations, so the development has been outstanding. I’m taking steps every day.”
While Asplund and Nylander played on separate lines at the world juniors this year, they had chemistry at the tourney in 2016. And with the Sabres rebuilding and both players looking promising for the future, the two Swedish nationals could be starring in different shades of blue and gold very soon.
In the Pipeline
Mathieu Joseph, RW (Tampa Bay): It’s been a huge year for Joseph, who took silver at the world juniors with Canada. But the talented and energetic winger’s most lasting legacy may be his new franchise record point streak. Joseph has now gone 23 games without missing the score sheet, breaking QMJHL Saint John’s franchise record, which had belonged to Zach Phillips.
Mitch Vande Sompel, D (NY Islanders): I get the feeling Vande Sompel is in his element with the OHL’s London Knights. The offensive defenseman was acquired at the trade deadline from Oshawa and he already has seven points in six games for his new squad.
Daniel Sprong, RW (Pittsburgh): Injuries have devastated Sprong’s young career, so it’s good to see the kid back with Charlottetown and doing what he does best: putting up offense. Sprong has nine points in eight QMJHL games for the Islanders since returning from shoulder surgery.
Dakota Joshua, C (Toronto): It didn’t take long for Penn State to get knocked down a peg. Joshua and his Ohio State mates did the damage with two wins on the weekend and the hardworking center had four points in that span for the Buckeyes, who are climbing in the Big Ten.
2017 Draft Stars
Ian Scott, G – Prince Albert Raiders (WHL): It’s not often you hear a goaltender lauded for his leadership qualities, but that’s what some scouts see in Scott, whose big frame has won the Raiders games they shouldn’t have. Scott will get a chance to show off his stuff at the Top Prospects Game.
Dylan Samberg, D – Hermantown Hawks (Minn. HS): Scouts are having a lot of fun watching Samberg, a big, mean D-man in the Minnesota high school ranks. Along with his physicality, the University of Minnesota-Duluth commit is also a great skater – further boosting his stock.
Artyom Minulin, D – Swift Current Broncos (WHL): Along with forward Aleksi Heponiemi, Minulin is providing the Broncos with great value from their imports. A smart, two-way defenseman, Minulin leads the Swift Current blueline in points with 34 through 48 games.
Isaac Ratcliffe, LW – Guelph Storm (OHL): Ratcliffe showed deft hands in tight on a game-winner against Windsor on the weekend and at 6-foot-6, his mitts are impressive. The big left winger has seven points in his past eight games and leads the Storm in scoring.
Cameron Crotty, D – Brockville Braves (CCHL): A shoulder injury kept him out of the spotlight for a while, but Crotty is back and has three points in his past three games. The Boston U. commit is a puckmoving defenseman with good size and great skating ability.
2018 Draft Star
Bode Wilde, D – U.S. NTDP (USHL): There was a lot of hype around Wilde, who was seen as a potential No. 1 pick for the OHL before he committed to the NTDP. But the big defenseman has lived up to expectations, using his bomb shot and elite skating to get results. Wilde is committed to Harvard and Saginaw owns his OHL rights.
Eric Boulton. Image by: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images
Eric Boulton is the lone survivor of his draft class and among the last of a dying breed. For more than two decades, he has done everything to impress his teammates -- from fighting heavyweights to eating raw potatoes.
The stories are flowing now, and Chris Thorburn is really rolling. The Winnipeg right winger’s voice is rising, picking up pace, cresting every dozen-odd seconds with a hearty chuckle. In places, he sighs in disbelief, a wonder in his voice. The laughter is as genuine as it gets.
Thorburn is talking about Eric Boulton, sharing tales of his former linemate in Atlanta, the bruising enforcer who has carved for himself an unlikely pro career that’s stretched 20 years and counting. Boulton, 40, has crossed paths with all manner of players and coaches during his time in the Rangers, Sabres, Thrashers, Devils and now Islanders organizations, even skating on the same line as Wayne Gretzky in an intrasquad game during one of The Great One’s pre-seasons in New York. But none speak of the pugilist’s goofy side with more reverence than old teammate Thorburn.
He takes us on a trip to Philadelphia, back in Thorburn’s Thrashers days on the road with Boulton in the late 2000s. They’re at a steakhouse, a fancy one with the boys from Atlanta, and the game is called Stupid Money. Its rules are easy to follow – pick a dare, however bold or ill-advised, and whoever has the stones to go ahead with it wins a bit of cash. Boulton is up, and he’s got a good one.
On the table in front of the players is a display of spud potatoes. They’re raw, meant only for decoration, but Boulton has an idea. He spies a big one, 12 inches long or so, and turns to his teammates. How much, he’d like to know, if I eat it?
“ ‘Bolty,’ ” Thorburn pleads. “That thing’s not even washed. Who knows how long it’s been sitting there?”
Boulton is unfazed.
“How much?” he repeats.
Thorburn, a little beside himself, confers with his teammates. They come up with a dollar figure pooled from their per diem cash, the exact number now lost to Thorburn, but, he recalls, “It wasn’t a small amount, because there’s no way (we thought) this guy is going to eat a foot-long potato that’s been in the basket forever.”
With his prize confirmed, Boulton goes to work. In front of his stunned dining party, the six-foot, 227-pound left winger, who once earned his stripes in the NHL by engaging Bob Probert on the ice and giving the legendary grappler more punches than he could handle, wolfs down the entire potato. Only then does he really start to show off.
“And then,” Thorburn remembers, “he ate his 40 oz. ribeye.”
It was classic Boulton, and what else can Thorburn do but crack up at the memory? “I got stories of Bolty,” he confirms. “I could write a book on him.”
Eric Boulton scrapping with Chris Neil. Image by: Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
Long and winding though it may have been, there seems to be one uniform truth to the career of Eric Boulton. For as brutal a fighter as he is on the ice, he is as treasured a teammate as you’re likely to find off it.
Boulton was born in Halifax, in 1976, reaching the NHL via the OHL’s Oshawa Generals. He was picked by the Rangers 234th overall in the 1994 draft, one selection after Steve Sullivan, and if that seems like a long time ago, here’s why: Boulton, who wouldn’t make his NHL debut until many years later, is the last remaining player from his draft class still on a big league contract. Ed Jovanovski, that year’s No. 1 pick? Retired in 2014. Ryan Smyth, taken at No. 6? Out of the league in ’14, too. Eleventh overall pick Jeff Friesen had a pretty good career that lasted 893 games and produced 516 points. He’s been out of the NHL almost a decade. No matter how unlikely it seemed then to pro hockey evaluators, only Boulton remains.
Over his first four pro seasons, he cut his teeth with seven teams in the minor leagues, proving his mettle, fighting the toughest guys in the ECHL, International League and AHL. Then in 1999, Buffalo signed him, and Boulton finally reached the NHL in 2000.
At 24, he was old for a rookie then, but still young for a man, and what better way than a tussle with Probert during an exhibition game against the Blackhawks to show his new coaches and teammates what he was about?
“I actually did well against him,” says Boulton, who fought him to a draw for nearly two minutes before the late Probert collapsed underneath Boulton to the ice.
“I proved I can step up and handle myself in this league.”
What followed was a journey through pro hockey that is common among enforcers. Boulton bounced to a few different teams, was among league leaders in penalty minutes a few seasons (top 10 in 2002-03 and 2008-09), played sparingly, and clashed fists when he did. But Boulton’s career is different for how long it has continued, among the longest runs for a so-called fighter in NHL history, even longer than that of Probert, who retired at 36.
Boulton himself never thought he’d get here.
“My goal was to play till I was 34. Then 36. Then 38. Then I thought, I might as well try till I’m 40,” he says. “You can never go back, so you might as well try to play till your legs fall off.”
His stats, especially in recent seasons, have never turned heads (31 goals and 79 points in 654 games). And yet teams keep bringing him back, signing him for one more year, as the Isles did last July, despite Boulton only playing six games for them the previous season. The reason is clear: his value extends beyond what he can bring when his stick hits the ice.
No matter if he is asked to play every 10 games or every 20, he has learned to keep a level head, to be there for his teammates, to mentor younger guys as Adam Graves and Dave Andreychuk once did for him. That he is a famous jokester – gobbling up pineapple skins, or straight-razoring his head bald during other notorious stunts on the road – only adds to his appeal as a dressing room hero.
“Over a long season, the grind can get pretty tough,” Thorburn says. “Bolty always had a way to lighten the mood, make it fun to go to the rink.”
Boulton knows he cannot play forever, and perhaps this season will be his last (in October, the Islanders assigned him to the AHL). Whether he turns to coaching, or joins the media, or simply retreats to a quiet life with his wife, Ryan, and their four young children upon retirement, he is sure to remain the same old beloved Bolty.
The Stupid Money would be to bet otherwise.
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins can focus on his defensive play as a No. 2 center. Image by: Andy Devlin/Getty Images
The Oilers are very likely bound for the playoffs for the first time in a decade, and former No. 1 overall pick Ryan Nugent-Hopkins will be crucial to their success.
Without a doubt, the resurgence of the Edmonton Oilers this year is being driven by Connor McDavid. The sophomore phenom is in position to win the Art Ross or the Hart or both, while his team is firmly locked in a playoff position for the first time in more than a decade.
I feel at this point we're past talking about if the Oilers will make the post-season and can move on to what they will do once they arrive there. Because as great as McDavid has been for the offense, the Oilers will need balance. And that’s where Ryan Nugent-Hopkins comes in.
Remember the Nuge? He’s not exactly obscure, being a No. 1 overall pick overall. But like fellow Edmonton lifer and linemate Jordan Eberle, Nugent-Hopkins has toiled in Alberta for years without playoff hockey. That’s about to change and for a player who has largely been out of the limelight for some time, Nugent-Hopkins will be crucial to Edmonton’s long-term success this season.
Right now, Nugent-Hopkins is below his usual career offensive clip, but the Oilers are also winning a lot more and have a healthy McDavid in the lineup ahead of him.
“Every team in the league has two or three scoring lines now, it seems,” Nugent-Hopkins said. “Obviously Connor’s a great player and I want to produce offensively as well, but I have to be a 200-foot player and grow my defensive game.”
Nugent-Hopkins is a decent possession player and is better on faceoffs than McDavid, though neither is great. The Nuge can take on tough defensive assignments and that will be important going forward, unless the Oilers bolster their forward corps with a trade for another responsible center.
It’s interesting to see where Nugent-Hopkins is at this point in his career. He was the top prospect in the 2011 draft, though it wasn’t a fever year in that regards – while Adam Larsson and Gabriel Landeskog were also thought of highly, the best players to date from that class are probably Johnny Gaudreau (104th overall), Nikita Kucherov (58th) and Mark Scheifele (seventh).
Nugent-Hopkins was seen as a slight player with incredible vision who may have needed one more year of junior before hitting the big time, but he bucked those predictions and went straight to Edmonton, earning All-Rookie Team honors in the process.
Unfortunately, in the center’s six NHL seasons, he has already had six coaches with the Oilers. That’s one of several factors that have kept Edmonton out of the playoff picture and undoubtedly hurt the development of some players (Nail Yakupov comes to mind). But with Todd McLellan now in his second year with the squad, Edmonton has a coach who has seen a fair share of playoff games and owns a Stanley Cup ring from his days as an assistant coach in Detroit.
“He’s been great,” Nugent-Hopkins said. “He’s definitely an experienced guy, being in San Jose for a lot of years. He brought that to us – we were a younger team and we still are. He keeps us accountable and definitely teaches us, so it’s good.”
The next step will be the most fun and the most daunting. All of a sudden, there are expectations for the Oilers outside of Northern Alberta. We all want to see how this team will handle playoff hockey and while McDavid is the head, he can’t be expected to go it alone. Cam Talbot must be great in net and the defense will have to hold up. If Nugent-Hopkins and Eberle can be that secondary scoring threat while also playing sound 200-foot hockey, the Oilers will be more than just a nice story in the post-season.
If you want to win a Stanley Cup, you need speed. And for players on their way up through the ranks, skating acumen is going to be the price of admission for an NHL job
I was having a conversation with an NHL team scout yesterday, which is one of the best parts of my job. I learn so much from these chats and not just about the draft prospects we are discussing, but of the bigger picture as well. While discussing the pros and cons of some prospects, we began to talk about skating and its place in the game today. Simply put, it's becoming a must-have.
"The No. 1 priority is skating," said the scout. "Even if your hockey sense or skills aren't the greatest, at least we can point you in the right direction."
We all know it's a fast game today and you just have to look at all the recent champions to validate the skating argument. Team Canada's World Cup squad suffocated opponents with their skating, taking away time and space at both ends of the ice – though their excellence in the puck possession department dramatically narrowed the amount of time they had to use their speed on the defensive end.
The Pittsburgh Penguins won the Stanley Cup this past summer thanks to a team that had speed up and down its lineup. Think about it – how many Penguins from that team would you characterize as slow, by NHL standards? Maybe a couple, at most? Meanwhile, teams had to contest with Sidney Crosby, Carl Hagelin and Kris Letang, among many others.
At the world juniors, Team USA won gold with a similarly dangerous lineup, trotting out the likes of Colin White, Clayton Keller and Jack Roslovic to terrify teams.
What's really interesting for me is how speed is going to change bottom-six roles in the NHL. We're already seeing it, with teams employing fewer enforcers, but how far can the concept be pushed? Roslovic might be the perfect case study to keep an eye on, because as a prospect of the Winnipeg Jets, he's got a lot of talent ahead of him in the form of Mark Scheifele, Patrik Laine, Nikolaj Ehlers, Blake Wheeler and Kyle Connor. But if Roslovic, who is leading AHL Manitoba in scoring as a rookie, despite missing games due to the world juniors, is ready for the NHL leap next season, why hold him back if he can contribute from the third line? If defense is coming from speed these days anyway, it seems like a pretty nice way to get more skill in the lineup.
Tampa Bay will have a similar query to address in a year or two when prospects such as Mitchell Stephens, Anthony Cirelli and Mathieu Joseph come knocking on the door. All three have skill, but they can also skate and play with grit. It's a great problem to have if you're the Lightning.
What happens to prospects that aren't blessed with foot speed? Well, it's going to take them a little longer. We're seeing it with Dylan Strome, whom most of assumed would be full-time in Arizona this season. But thanks to his abundance of other talents and attributes, Strome can zero in on improving on his speed and strength, knowing that an NHL career is close. It can certainly be done, but he'll have to watch out for all the young burners out there on the fast-track while he does it.