"The Wings have shown a lot of interest, and playing with them would be a great opportunity. But I have to decide if mentally, I want to go through with training again and playing."
- Mike Modano on the possiblity of signing in Detroit as a UFA.
"The Wings have shown a lot of interest, and playing with them would be a great opportunity. But I have to decide if mentally, I want to go through with training again and playing."
- Mike Modano on the possiblity of signing in Detroit as a UFA.
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.”
Lindy Ruff’s contract in Dallas is up at season’s end and with the Stars struggling, change could be coming behind the bench. The Stars will have plenty of coaches to choose from, too.
It’s hard not to feel bad for Lindy Ruff.
The Dallas Stars have two dozen games left on their schedule before the season is up, and there Ruff is with a team that’s sunken rather unexpectedly to the bottom of the standings. This was supposed to be a year in which a threatening Stars lineup took another step forward, pushed deep into the post-season and maybe even flirted with winning the franchise’s second Stanley Cup. Instead, Ruff’s Stars have plummeted to the bottom of the standings. Only the Arizona Coyotes and Colorado Avalanche — both real, honest to goodness bad teams — have fared worse.
We’ve touched on it before, but this isn’t exactly Ruff’s fault. Given the injuries his roster has sustained, the changes his lineup has seen and the fact the duo of Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi still aren’t getting the job done between the pipes, Ruff hasn’t had all that much help. Losing Alex Goligoski and Jason Demers seems to have had a bigger impact than anyone could have suspected, and making matters worse is that while the pure firepower that was Dallas’ calling card before isn’t exactly gone, it’s not succeeding at the same rate as past seasons, so outscoring opponents on a nightly basis hasn’t quite worked, either.
Put that all together and you’ve got a Stars team that’s right near the bottom of the standings, and that has to be tough enough on Ruff. Somehow, though, that isn’t even really the worst of it.
The most difficult part about Ruff’s position has to be that he’s a sitting duck. Throughout this season, Gerard Gallant, Jack Capuano, Michel Therrien and Claude Julien have been fired. The blindsided nature of those firings, especially for Gallant and Therrien, had to be tough, no doubt, but Ruff may be able to literally count the days until he’s gone. His contract, a four-year deal he inked back in 2013, is up after this season, and with the Stars looking like a lock to miss the post-season, it seems more likely than not that Dallas will be moving on.
If Ruff is indeed gone at season’s end, it then becomes a question of who steps in to take over the position. Before the Canadiens swooped in a picked up Julien, he would have been the perfect candidate for the Stars job. Problem is, he was also the perfect candidate for the job in Montreal. And he also would have worked well in Florida or Brooklyn or Vegas. Even if the Stars wanted Julien, he was going to have options, and now that option is completely off the table.
One intriguing scenario would be if the move by the Canadiens to bring back Julien, who coached in Montreal from 2002 to 2006, has somehow inspired the Stars to look to their own past. There are two bench bosses available who fit the bill of a former Dallas coach who could be in line for the gig, Marc Crawford and Ken Hitchcock. The likelihood either return to Dallas might be slim, but they’re options nevertheless.
Crawford held the Stars job on his way out of the NHL back in 2011, but his two-year stint with the franchise was fruitless. Despite turning in two consecutive winning seasons, the team finished outside of the post-season both years, even if was by only a slight margin. His candidacy for the job would be interesting in that he’s coming off of several years coaching overseas and won two championships in the Swiss league. Now an associate with the Ottawa Senators, he could take what he’s learned over the past few years and apply it to a team with more firepower.
The more interesting of the two former coaches, however, is Hitchcock. Crawford’s had his own success, but only a select few can match what Hitchcock has done throughout his career, and fans in Dallas will certainly remember him fondly. He joined the franchise in 1995-96 and over the next four seasons the Stars gradually built to a Stanley Cup championship in 1998-99. The next season, Hitchcock again led the Stars to the final, but they came up just shy of back-to-back titles. Even when he was let go, Dallas was above .500. A tough coach? Maybe. They don’t come much better, though.
And what of the other three recently relieved bench bosses? Therrien, Gallant and Capuano will all have their suitors, and Dallas could be among them.
Therrien’s the most successful with 406 wins to his name and his .563 points percentage is the highest of any of the trio of recently removed coaches. Therrien also has 71 post-season games under his belt with a .535 winning percentage, including an Eastern Conference title with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2007-08. Playoff success can be alluring, especially for a team that appears a piece or two away from a deep run, and that alone could be enough for the Stars to take a long hard look at Therrien.
But Gallant and Capuano are also worth taking a look at if Dallas is in the market. Gallant’s work with the Panthers was admirable. He was given a young roster with loads of potential and turned them into a playoff team, and many had the Panthers pegged for another successful season before his shocking firing. As for Capuano, he had a lengthy tenure with the Islanders and one could argue had Kyle Okposo and Frans Nielsen stuck around Capuano might still be around.
Of course, hiring Crawford, Hitchcock, Therrien, Gallant or Capuano is contingent on their availability. There’s a job to be had with the Vegas Golden Knights and questions about the future behind the bench for the three interim coaches, Bruce Cassidy in Boston, Tom Rowe in Florida and Doug Weight in New York. If the interims give up the job, that’s three more openings. None of this is to mention Crawford inked a three-year deal with the Senators, so he might be sticking in Ottawa for a while.
Dallas could look anywhere, though. The talk of Utica Comets coach Travis Green taking over an NHL bench has grown consistently and Sheldon Keefe’s success with the Toronto Marlies could see him draw some interest. Even Texas Stars coach Derek Laxdal could be in the conversation. Then there’s current NHL assists like Kirk Muller and Kevin Dineen among others, which is to say the options are near limitless.
The most unexpected move of all, though, would be giving Ruff one more shot and it wouldn’t be an unprecedented move. After a disappointing end to the 2014-15 season, a third-straight first-round exit, St. Louis gave Hitchcock another shot on a one-year deal. He subsequently took the Blues to the Western Conference final in 2015-16, beating the Stars along the way, and earned another one-year deal before his eventual firing when the Blues ran into some mid-season difficulties.
The situation isn’t all that similar for Ruff and the Stars, but the down year doesn’t necessarily represent what he’s been able to manage in Dallas. Ruff led the team to one of the franchise’s best regular season performances in 2015-16, and each of the past three seasons the Stars earned 90-plus points. Does he come back? That’s for Dallas’ front office to decide. One would guess Ruff lands on his feet either way.
The Stars’ decision for the future behind the bench will be one of the most important the franchise makes in the coming months. There are plenty of options available, be it Ruff or otherwise, and choosing the right coach for the job could very well be the difference between Dallas taking the next step or a few years where the playoffs aren’t quite a certainty.
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Nicklas Lidstrom. Image by: Claus Andersen/Getty Images
Chris Pronger is the last defenseman to win league MVP honors, and that was back in 2000. Since then these five defensemen came closest to cracking the Hart Trophy puzzle.
Brent Burns is on fire. The Sharks' defenseman is enjoying one of the best goal-scoring seasons by a blueliner in recent memory while leading his team to first place in the Pacific. He's emerged as the runaway favorite for the Norris Trophy. And now, he's even starting to get some Hart Trophy buzz.
He almost certainly won't win – this year's MVP vote has been shaping up as the first of many Sidney Crosby vs. Connor McDavid referendums. Barring an injury or something entirely unexpected, that won't change. It's Crosby vs. McDavid, and everyone else is gunning for third place.
But third place would still be a historic achievement for Burns. A defenseman hasn't been a serious Hart Trophy candidate since 2000, when Chris Pronger won. For whatever reason, blueliners just don't get much respect from Hart voters. Pronger remains the only defenseman to win MVP honors since Bobby Orr in the early 70s, and nobody since 2000 has even finished as a finalist.
That's kind of weird when you think about it. Ask any NHL GM about how to build a championship contender, and they'll rave about the importance of a blueline stud. But when it comes to naming the league's most valuable player, the entire position ends up being an afterthought at best.
So even if Burns won't win, just being in the conversation is impressive. As we watch his record-breaking season unfold, let's look back at the five defensemen who came closest to cracking the Hart Trophy puzzle in the years since Pronger took the trophy home.
(All award vote data via hockey-reference.com.)
No surprise here. Lidstrom was the runner-up to Pronger for the Norris Trophy as best defenseman in 2000, then dominated the voting for that award for most of the next decade, winning seven times.
What's somewhat surprising is that Lidstrom never came especially close to contending for a Hart Trophy, and he was only the top vote-getter among blueliners four times. In two of his Norris-winning years (2003 and 2011), MVP voters showed more love to someone else at the position. And one time, in 2002, nobody cast so much as a single Hart ballot for any defensemen at all.
Lidstrom's closest call to finalist status came in 2008, when he finished fourth. It wasn't an especially near miss – Lidstrom finished well back of Evgeni Malkin and Jarome Iginla, neither of whom were close to threatening Alex Ovechkin's near-unanimous win. But Lidstrom did receive two first-place votes, tied for the most since Pronger's 25, and that fourth-place finish remains the only time since Pronger's win that a defenseman has even finished in the top five.
Karlsson has been the top vote-getting blueliner three times, trailing only Lidstrom in the post-Pronger era. That includes both of his Norris-winning seasons in 2012 and 2015. It also includes last year, when he finished ahead of Drew Doughty in Hart voting despite finishing behind him in a contentious Norris race.
That said, the Senators' star has never come all that close to the Hart Trophy conversation. He's never finished higher than eighth in the balloting, and he's yet to receive a first-place vote. That's despite owning the best offensive season by a defenseman since 2000 in terms of points scored, and three of the top seven. That could be a bad sign for Burns. Hart voters don't seem all that swayed by gaudy offensive numbers from the blueline after all.
Apart from Lidstrom and Karlsson, Chara is the only other defenseman since 2000 to top the position in Hart voting more than once. He managed it twice, in 2009 and 2011. That 2009 season was also notable for Chara joining Lidstrom as the only defenseman in the era to get multiple first place votes, he had two.
But much like Karlsson, Chara never really came close to MVP honors. He only finished eighth in 2009, and was all the way back at 12th in 2011. Still, he received at least one Hart vote somewhere on a ballot in seven of eight seasons beginning in 2004. That's not much to get excited about, but at least somebody somewhere was writing his name down. As far as the era's blueliner's go, that seems to be about all you can ask for.
While Niedermayer is now widely recognized as one of the best defensemen of his era, the truth is that for most of his career in New Jersey he played in the shadow of Scott Stevens. Heading into 2003-04, he'd only had one season in which he'd finished in the top ten in Norris voting, and that had come six years earlier.
But during that 2003-04 season, the normally indestructible Stevens suffered a concussion and missed half the year. That allowed Niedermayer to step into the spotlight, and he responded with a Norris-winning campaign that saw him dominate the vote. It would be the first of three straight first-team all-star seasons for Niedermayer, establishing his Hall of Fame credentials.
And through all of that, he still finished just ninth in Hart voting, one spot back of the legendary Marty Turco. It marked the only time in his career that he was the highest defenseman in MVP voting.
If your first memories of MacInnis are of him blasting holes through terrified goaltenders with his patented slapshot for the Calgary Flames in the 1980s, you may have forgotten that he was still going strong when Pronger was winning his Hart at the turn of the millennium. In fact, the two were teammates at the time, with MacInnis winning his only Norris Trophy the year before at the age of 35.
He very nearly won another in 2002-03. At 39 years old, MacInnis finished second to Lidstrom in that year's Norris voting. But he edged out Lidstrom in MVP voting, finishing sixth. It was the highest of his three top-ten Hart finishes, and was also his last. MacInnis played just three games in the following season before suffering a career-ending eye injury.
Those five names comprise the entire list of defensemen since Pronger to lead the position in Hart voting while also finishing in the overall top ten. If you're wondering, three more players have led all blueliners while finishing outside the top ten – P.K. Subban (13th in 2013), Mike Green (14th in 2010) and Duncan Keith (15th in 2014).
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.
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.).
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