“This decision was something I have thought about for a long time going back to the lockout and spending the year in Russia. Though I decided to return this past season, Lou was aware of my desire to go back home and have my family there with me. The most difficult thing for me is to leave the New Jersey Devils, a great organization that I have a lot of respect for, and our fans that have been great to me.”
- Statement from Ilya Kovalchuk after he announced his retirement from the NHL.
The Panthers are looking to add some scoring punch by the deadline, but they’ve already gotten plenty out of Jonathan Huberdeau in the six games since his return to action.
At points throughout the season, it’s looked like all the promise that surrounded the Florida Panthers entering the campaign was going to go unfulfilled, that the injuries and coaching change and off-ice shuffles were going to turn 2016-17 into a lost season. Florida has been on the outside of the playoff picture looking in more often than not this season, and as recently as last week they sat five points out of a wild-card spot, tied with the Buffalo Sabres and New Jersey Devils with 58 points.
One week can change things, though. Especially at this time of year.
The Panthers are as much a part of the post-season race as ever before, and now there’s the matter of the Panthers having games in hand on their side. While a minimal margin, Florida enters the final full week of February with two fewer games played than the Atlantic Division’s third-place squad, the Boston Bruins, while sitting only two points back of the divisional playoff spot. Meanwhile, when it comes to the wild card, the Toronto Maple Leafs hold a one point advantage on the Panthers, but Florida has one game in hand entering play on Monday.
So, with the playoffs well within reach, Florida’s president of hockey operations Dale Tallon told NHL.com that his team is looking to add with the trade market about to get that much more active with the deadline approaching. It makes sense, too, for Florida to get in on the dealing if they can add a few pieces that put them into the post-season and earn them some valuable experience. The Panthers were two wins away from the second round in 2015-16, and this could be the year they take that small step forward on the road to becoming a perennial contender.
It’s entirely possible, however, that the best acquisition the Panthers will have made going into the deadline won’t even cost them an asset in exchange. As a matter of fact, it wasn’t really an acquisition at all.
Jonathan Huberdeau injured himself with mere days remaining until the start of the season, and the injury to the 23-year-old was quite possibly more impactful than anyone could have imagined. The Panthers offense was struggling mightily through the first 51 games of the season without him, producing just 119 goals in 51 games, good for 2.33 per game. The only teams with less prolific attacks were the Devils, Vancouver Canucks, Arizona Coyotes and Colorado Avalanche. That’s four non-playoff teams who have nothing but a prayer of getting into the playoffs.
But things have been different for the Cats since Huberdeau’s return. There was some expectation, of course, that getting Huberdeau back would provide the offense with some sort of boost, but not even the most optimistic of Florida fans would have suggested that the difference in the team’s scoring ability would be so profound once Huberdeau was back in the lineup. It’s a small sample size, to be sure, but in the six games that Huberdeau has seen since his return from injury, the Panthers are averaging more than four goals per game and have mustered a couple of doozies, including six- and seven-goal performances. Oh, and Florida has only lost once in the six games since Huberdeau’s been back.
Of course, that the Panthers are producing at such a rate doesn’t necessarily have to point to Huberdeau being the most effective player on the ice, and it could simply be a nice run of play from a team that was underperforming. Sure doesn’t seem like that’s the case, though. Huberdeau has a point in all but one of the six games he’s played in since his return, and he’s picked up four goals and eight points over that span. Included in his totals are two game-winning goals — the game-winner in his first game back and an overtime winner in a thriller against the San Jose Sharks — and all four of his markers have come at even strength.
Again, while it’s a small sample size, one also can’t help but be impressed by the impact Huberdeau has had on Jaromir Jagr and Aleksander Barkov since returning. The trio formed the Panthers’ top line for much of the 2015-16 campaign and were reunited upon Huberdeau’s return in early February. Huberdeau has contributed one goal and four points at 5-on-5 playing on the line, while Jagr has two goals and five points and Barkov has lit the lamp four times. Seven goals and 13 points at 5-on-5 across six games is rather impressive output.
Huberdeau has managed all of this while having his minutes limited, too. No one outside of the organization likely knows the extent to which the effects of Huberdeau’s Achilles injury is still bothering him, but the busiest evening he’s had since his return was a 17:30 outing in his season debut. Since then, Huberdeau has only eclipsed the 17-minute mark once and twice skated less than 16 minutes. And it’s a wise decision by Panthers coach Tom Rowe to limit Huberdeau even if the injury isn’t plaguing him all that much. The more well-rested Huberdeau is for the playoffs — should the Panthers sneak in — the better.
Surely, Huberdeau’s return and Florida’s subsequent rise has played into Tallon’s interest in adding at the deadline, and he said he wanted to add some extra punch on the power play. The Panthers are still fighting to get into the post-season, and anything that can help Florida get into either a divisional or wild-card spot is worth picking up, because this is a team whose window is just starting to crack open. The Panthers have the space to do so with more than $9 million in cap space, according to CapFriendly, and it would be far from shocking to see Florida reach out and nab a veteran who can find the net with the extra man.
No matter who the Panthers acquire, though, it’s going to be hard for the additions to get much better than that of a healthy Huberdeau.
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.
Avalanche GM Joe Sakic has been chatting with Bruins GM Don Sweeney, but is also following his team on an Eastern road trip as he looks to rebuild his roster.
Since early-December, the Colorado Avalanche have been a fixture in the NHL trade-rumor mill. Mired at the bottom of the overall standings, they need a roster shake-up. GM Joe Sakic could attempt to trade a core player, such as center Matt Duchene or left winger Gabriel Landeskog, in hopes of landing a young, skilled defenseman.
Trade chatter over the past month linked the 24-year-old Landeskog to the Boston Bruins, who need scoring depth at left wing. One rumor had Bruins GM Don Sweeney rejecting Sakic's asking price of a package with promising defenseman Brandon Carlo as the centerpiece.
On Sunday, the Landeskog-to-Boston chatter flared back to life. Fluto Shinzawa of The Boston Globereports Sakic was spotted chatting with Sweeney in the TD Garden press box during the Bruins 4-0 win over the Montreal Canadiens.
If the Bruins want Landeskog, Shinzawa believes the price tag is a player, a draft pick and a prospect. Shinzawa thinks Sakic could still insist on Carlo as part of the return.
Terry Frei of The Denver Postreports Sakic was also expected to watch Monday's Beanpot final between Boston University and Harvard. Four Bruins prospects, including promising defenseman Charlie McAvoy, took part in that game.
The Bruins aren't the only team Sakic will follow this week. Frei reports the Avs GM will remain with his club as they swing through Buffalo to meet the Sabres and Carolina to play the Hurricanes. He notes the Hurricanes have considerable depth in young defensemen, including Justin Faulk, Jaccob Slavin, Brett Pesce and Ryan Murphy.
While the Anaheim Ducks aren't on Sakic's current scouting list, they could be another trade possibility for the Avalanche. Eric Stephens of the Orange County Registersuggests Landeskog could be a good fit for the Ducks, who lack scoring punch at left wing. Like the Hurricanes, the Ducks are loaded with young blueliners.
While Cam Fowler was the subject of trade rumors earlier this season, Stephens considers him too valuable to the Ducks playoff hopes. Other options include Shea Theodore, Brandon Montour or Josh Manson.
Duchene, meanwhile, might interest the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins. On Saturday, Sportsnet's Nick Kypreos reported there's talk Penguins GM Jim Rutherford could take a run at acquiring the 26-year-old center, who can also skate on the wing. Kypreos' colleague Elliotte Friedman said Rutherford told him he's willing to do whatever it takes to win.
Rutherford's made blockbuster moves before, including his acquisition of winger Phil Kessel from the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2015. That deal, however, took place in the offseason, when he had more salary cap space to work with. With Duchene carrying a $6-million annual cap hit through 2018-19, the Penguins pressed for cap space and the Avs' high asking price, that deal could be almost impossible to pull off by the trade deadline.
Kypreos said the Hurricanes could also be in play for Duchene. Sitting 20th in goals-for per game (2.60) and power-play percentage (17.2), they would benefit from adding a proven 30-goal scorer. Along with their depth in good young defensemen, they also have plenty of cap room to take on Duchene's cap hit.
The Ottawa Sun's Bruce Garrioch also speculates the Hurricanes could pursue Duchene. He also thinks the Nashville Predators could make a push. Like the Hurricanes and Ducks, they have depth in young defensemen to tempt Sakic.
Garrioch reported Senators GM Pierre Dorion admitted having trade discussions with Sakic. While Dorion didn't say if they talked about Duchene or Landeskog, he said a deal wasn't realistic between the two clubs because the Avs sought too much in return.
St. Louis Blue defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk also remains a hot topic of discussion as the March 1 trade deadline approaches.
Earlier rumors about the 28-year-old rearguard claimed he preferred to be dealt to an Eastern Conference team, preferably in the American Northeast. However, Kypreos said Shattenkirk is open to being dealt to an Eastern Canadian team such the Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens.
Garrioch reports the Leafs, Bruins and Tampa Bay Lightning have all made pitches for Shattenkirk. He believes the Bruins are the only club with the ability to sign the blueliner to a long-term deal.
Mark Zwolinski of the Toronto Star, however, doubts the Leafs will get into the Shattenkirk sweepstakes. He cites the cost of re-signing him (at least $6-million annually), the Leafs unwillingness to part with one of their prized young players, and the eventual cost of re-signing young stars such as Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner.
Shinzawa notes the Bruins had interest in Shattenkirk at the 2016 NHL draft. Given their depth in promising young defenders, however, they might not be as keen on him as they once were. The cost of re-signing Shattenkirk could also be a sticking point.
Teams with interest in Shattenkirk apparently prefer a “sign-and-trade” scenario, rather than acquire him as a postseason rental. They don't want to part with assets at the trade deadline for a player who could depart in July for free agency.
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.).
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.”