“I probably wouldn’t have signed that deal if I knew I was going to be traded. When I signed that contract, I wanted to stay in Philadelphia for the rest of my career and that’s what I envisioned until this afternoon at 3 o’clock when I got the call.”
- Los Angeles Kings center Mike Richards, who signed a 12-year, $69-million deal with Philadelphia in 2007, but was traded Thursday.
Isaac Ratcliffe pairs good hockey sense and deft hands with a 6-foot-6 frame, though he could add some weight and muscle.
The big news of the week in the prospect world is that Regina will host the 100th Memorial Cup next year. The WHL’s Pats are one of the best teams in the CHL already and won’t lose too many significant parts over the summer, so they’ll be very competitive hosts – and hey, perhaps the defending champions. Elsewhere, Chicago pick and Erie Otters star Alex DeBrincat continued his assault on the record books by breaking the 50-goal mark for the third straight season. No one had done that in the modern OHL and Dale McCourt was the last before that, dating back to 1977. Let’s take a look at who else is making noise around the world right now.
Isaac Ratcliffe, LW – Guelph Storm (OHL): At 6-foot-6 and nearly 200 pounds already, there’s an obviousness to Ratcliffe’s potential. The fact he marries his great frame with good hockey sense and deft hands makes it all the more clear why the left winger will be one to watch in the first round of the draft this summer. Not that it’s easy to grow that frame.
“The past couple years I’ve definitely been conscious of what I’ve been eating,” Ratcliffe said. “I have that skinny-lean body and I need to get thicker. Eating well, putting on some mass and muscle will be part of getting to the next level.”
Right now, he’s getting help from fellow Storm forward Givani Smith, a Detroit Red Wings pick who plays a hard game, but laces it with skill.
“Being an older guy here, he’s definitely a strong leader,” Ratcliffe said. “He’s a big man like me and I’ve taken some pages from his book, try to play a bit like him.”
Ratcliffe likes to use his size and smarts to his advantage, whether it’s along the wall or down low by the net. He showed a nice touch at the CHL Top Prospects Game and leads the Storm with 44 points through 55 games. That’s not exactly a huge total, but Guelph is in the midst of a serious rebuild that saw the team bottom out last season. With Ratcliffe, Smith and top OHL pick Ryan Merkley growing together, there’s hope for the future. And even though the Storm will likely finish last in the Western Conference, at least there has been more wins than in last year’s rough campaign.
“It was tough, but we tried to keep a strong head on our shoulders,” Ratcliffe said. “We weren’t separate off the ice, we just weren’t clicking on the ice.”
The big left winger still wants to get stronger and faster, but with his foundation, he already has a nice set of tools to entice scouts with.
In the Pipeline
Jonathan Dahlen, LW (Ottawa): One of the top junior-aged snipers in Sweden’s Allsvenskan (just below the SHL) all season, Dahlen is playing on Timra’s top line and excelling. The smart and skilled youngster now has 39 points in 41 games against men.
Ethan Bear, D (Edmonton): The WHL’s player of the week, Bear put up a sick 10 points in his past five games – not bad for a blueliner. The right-shot D-man has a sturdy frame and loves to jump into the rush for the Seattle Thunderbirds.
Filip Hronek, D (Detroit): Thanks to eight points in his past three outings, Hronek is now averaging more than a point per game in his rookie OHL season with Saginaw. The offensive defenseman from the Czech Republic has a wicked shot and lots of puckhandling skills, though he still needs to get stronger.
Peter Thome, G (Columbus): Part of a big USHL goalie trade carousel, the new Waterloo Black Hawk repaid his squad by earning goalie of the week honors in the league. Thome, a 6-foot-3 North Dakota commit, had two wins (including a shutout) and a .964 save percentage to pick up the honors.
Adam Gaudette, C (Vancouver): Now riding an 11-game point streak for Northeastern, Gaudette has been deadly as the Huskies’ second-line center. The NCAA sophomore goes to the tough areas and is reliable in both ends, as well.
Finn Evans, RW – St. Michael’s Buzzers (OJHL): A two-way forward who plays in all situations for the Buzzers, Evans has five points in his past five games. The Princeton commit works hard and loves to spin off defenders when he has the puck.
Denis Smirnov, LW – Penn State Nittany Lions (Big Ten): His size and skating will likely hold him back until the later rounds of the draft, but Smirnov has incredible offensive skills, no doubt. One of the top scorers in the conference, the puck wizard has 39 points in 28 games as a freshman.
Rickard Hugg, C – Leksand Stars (Swe.): A two-way center who can also slide seamlessly to the wing, Hugg captained Sweden’s Five Nations squad recently and has been very reliable wearing the blue and gold. Locally, he had three points in his most recent win with Leksand’s junior squad, one of the best in the league.
Aleksi Heponiemi, C – Swift Current Broncos (WHL): Small but feisty, Heponiemi is quick on the forecheck and creates a ton of offensive opportunities for the Broncos. The 5-foot-10, 141-pound Finn has 70 points through 58 games in his first ‘Dub’ campaign.
Mathieu Charlebois, D – Halifax Mooseheads (QMJHL): There’s a lot of raw potential in the 6-foot-3, 206-pounder, but it will take time for it to come together. Charlebois has taken on a big, physical burden for a young Mooseheads blueline and scouts like his “boisterous” game.
The Blues regret getting to a point where coach Ken Hitchcock was fired, but everything they have faced has galvanized the players and they've turned the corner.
The St. Louis Blues aren’t used to being in this position in the regular season. Sure, there have been playoff letdowns, but the grind they have experienced this year, particularly the stretch that led to the firing of coach Ken Hitchcock, was new.
“It’s been a tough year,” said defenseman Carl Gunnarsson. “We’ve played some really good games, then played some really bad ones. No one wants to see the coach fired because it comes down on us – we didn’t do our jobs. It’s kind of embarrassing someone had to take the blame for it.”
Like several other squads of late, the Blues did rebound with Mike Yeo officially taking over head coaching duties, something he was ordained to do next season already. St. Louis won six of seven after Hitchcock was turfed and the one loss came against the defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins.
“At this point, we’re kinda past it,” said blueliner Jay Bouwmeester. “We were spinning our tires and something had to happen. (Yeo) relates to some guys a little differently. Communication has been good, practices have been up-tempo…little subtle changes, nothing huge. But it’s been good.”
The other most obvious change? Goaltender Jake Allen got his groove back. The starter has struggled this season, with December going poorly and January being an unmitigated disaster. Allen even took some time off to reset and it seems to have worked. The 26-year-old has surrendered a grand total of seven goals in five games since Hitchcock was fired and all of a sudden looks like the guy St. Louis chose over Brian Elliott.
“He went through a tough time, but everybody does,” Bouwmeester said. “The problem when you’re a goalie is that it’s magnified; there’s nowhere to hide. He’s had a couple really strong games since the all-star break. He’s feeling good, we’re feeling good with him, so away we go.”
Perhaps what should be most heartening for Blues fans is that the players actually seem a little pumped about the adversity they faced. The firing of Hitchcock? To a man, they all regretted it. But it seems to have been the wake-up call necessary.
“You get some extra energy with a change like that and right now we’re rolling,” said center Patrik Berglund. “But we’re not just having luck; we’re playing the right way and that’s why we’re racking up points.”
The funny thing is, the Blues were never in serious trouble; they were still a wild card team when Hitchcock was fired. But this franchise has become used to life at the top of the Central and things were getting uncomfortable. For a team still waiting to hoist its first Stanley Cup, being pushed out of their comfort zone may end up paying dividends.
“Now you have to keep track of the standings,” Berglund said. “In the past few years we didn’t have to worry. But it’s also a good challenge to have to dig in every single game. Every game is very important and we have to stay focused and keep going.”
That adversity has also had a galvanizing effect on the players. St. Louis experienced a great deal of turnover in the summer with vets such as David Backes, Troy Brouwer and Steve Ott moving on (many of my peers have already pointed out that such players were known as Hitchcock buffers who could take heat in the right way from the coach), but those who remained aren’t ready to leave the city, despite the mid-season chaos.
“Everyone knows the trade deadline is coming up,” Gunnarsson said. “No one wants to move. We all want to be here, to play our hearts out every night. That’s been the biggest change, so that’s a good feeling in the group, coming from something bad.”
With Minnesota and Chicago so far up in the stratosphere, St. Louis can’t do any better than third in the Central at this point. And slipping behind Nashville into a wild card spot is definitely a possibility.
St. Louis slayed their Blackhawks playoff demon in the first round last year and made the conference final for the first time since 2001. But the Blues have gone through their own version of hell this season and who knows? It may have been the best thing to ever happen to this group.
The Coyotes dipped their toes into the trade market by dealing Michael Stone, but the likes of Martin Hanzal and even Shane Doan could be next.
The Arizona Coyotes made their first trade of the deadline season on Monday, but it likely will not be their last. Defenseman Michael Stone went to Calgary for a third-round pick in 2017 and a conditional fifth in 2018, which Arizona receives if Stone re-signs with the Flames this summer. Arizona also retains half of the defenseman’s salary. Arizona is in the midst of a rebuild and for GM John Chayka, action is the name of the game right now.
“I’m always looking to get better,” he said. “That’s my job.”
And that’s where the intrigue lies with Arizona from now until the March 1 deadline. Just how stripped down can this squad get for the remainder of the campaign? The Coyotes are suffering through another down year in the standings, but there is plenty of hope on the near horizon thanks to the prospects they’ve accumulated lately. With Stone gone, the Coyotes called up right-shot defenseman Anthony DeAngelo from AHL Tucson in order to get the youngster another look. DeAngelo has already played 20 NHL games for Arizona this season and while the last stint ended with a three-game suspension for abuse of an official, the Coyotes want to give him another chance.
Another benefactor for Chayka is Jakob Chychrun, who has already exceeded expectations by breaking into the NHL as a defenseman straight from the draft. With Stone gone, Chychrun can now be given a crack at more special teams duty. The teen has averaged 16 minutes of ice time this season, but now has a chance to earn more (as does Kevin Connauton, whom Chayka also mentioned).
But for fans of contending teams, the juicy names in Arizona are the veterans. Martin Hanzal is the most coveted, while captain Shane Doan’s name has been floated as a trade candidate, despite his no-move clause. Leading scorer and pending unrestricted free agent Radim Vrbata has “rental” written all over him too. As far as Chayka’s concerned, the Coyotes’ yard sale is open for business.
“I don't deal with ‘untouchables,’ ” he said. “Practically speaking, there are players who are difficult to move because then you have to find someone to replace them for a role. I’d move anyone for the right deal.”
In terms of what Doan means to the Coyotes, that’s leadership and loyalty. But if Doan had a chance to win a Stanley Cup elsewhere, it’s hard to see anyone in Arizona holding him back. Hanzal, on the other hand, still has a lot of NHL years ahead of him and big, responsible centers aren't easy to find. Chayka mused that any number of avenues are available here – the Coyotes could trade Hanzal, or re-sign the pending UFA if they can figure out the right term and price. He certainly sounds like one of those players who are difficult to replace that the GM spoke of.
“He’s one of our most impactful players,” Chayka said.
While Cup contending GMs may not want to hear that, there’s definite logic in having a veteran pivot who can play against top lines on the squad next season. Either Dylan Strome or Clayton Keller (heck, maybe both) will make serious runs for roster spots in 2017-18 and being able to shelter an elite youngster at the start of the season can be quite valuable – just look at how Toronto turned Nazem Kadri into a shutdown guy while Auston Matthews ran rampant on offense.
On the other hand, your best trade return comes from Hanzal.
Looking to the future, the Coyotes have a ton of young talent. Bounce-back seasons from Max Domi and Anthony Duclair would really help next year, while Christian Fischer is ahead of schedule and brings great size and scoring touch up front. Though Keller is just a freshman at Boston University, I believe he is good enough to make the jump to the NHL next year. His ascent may be crucial, because a number of Coyote kids – Strome, Fischer, Kyle Wood and Nick Merkley – still need to work on their skating. Keller is fast and his game is tailored for the current NHL. Oliver Ekman-Larsson is the unquestioned No. 1 blueliner, while Connor Murphy, Chychrun and DeAngelo offer hope on the back end.
Of course, there are no guarantees in life, which is why Chayka’s asset management will be so crucial from now until next season and beyond. With four picks in the first three rounds of the 2017 draft already, the Coyotes can put themselves in a position where current needs are met by trading away some of the great assets the organization has already accrued. Pittsburgh did it with Ryan Whitney (for Chris Kunitz); Los Angeles did it with Brayden Schenn and Wayne Simmonds (for Mike Richards) and both franchises won Cups shortly thereafter.
Is Arizona at that point yet? Of course not. But the Coyotes have built up a solid pipeline already and with more chips likely coming before the trade deadline passes, they’re putting themselves in a good spot.
The Blackhawks captain may look like he’s merely shaken off a big slump. But the underlying numbers suggest he’s emerged as a different player – more offense, less defense.
The three-goal, five-point night wasn’t the match that ignited Jonathan Toews’ season. It was a squirt of gasoline on an already-raging fire. Toews got piping hot over the past two months, and Tuesday was the boiling point.
The Chicago Blackhawks captain started 2016-17 posting the worst offensive numbers of his career. Even as his regular right winger Marian Hossa enjoyed a resurgent offensive campaign, Toews just couldn’t find the net. He sat at four goals and 12 points after 22 games. Plenty of fans and pundits scoffed on social media at his All-Star Game invite over teammate Artemi Panarin.
Typically, we’ve accepted that Toews trades a bit of offense to be an elite two-way pivot. He’s shown the highlight-reel hands to be an 80-point player – just look at his immortalized shootout performance for Canada at the 2007 World Junior Championship – but he’s let Patrick Kane be the scoring star and sacrificed some scoring to play a shutdown role. Still, even by Toews’ Selke Trophy-winning standard, his offense was pitiful through mid-December. He sat at 0.60 points per game and had never finished a season below 0.73.
Even more concerning: Toews wasn’t performing as well as advertised from a defensive standpoint, either. Per corsica.hockey, Toews rates as one of the NHL’s very best possession players since stats like Corsi and Fenwick were born. Among NHL forwards with 1,000 or more minutes played since his rookie campaign of 2007-08, Toews ranks 16th in 5-on-5 Corsi at 55.8 percent. That includes a Corsi For of 61.48 and a Corsi against of 48.68, representing a player equally adept at driving shot attempts for his team and preventing shot attempts against his team.
Toews, though, slipped to a 5-on-5 Corsi of 51.38 percent in that lackluster 22-game sample to start 2016-17, with a Corsi For per 60 of 58.51 and a Corsi Against of 55.37. Teams were having a much easier time than normal getting attempts on Chicago’s net with Toews on the ice.
But the possession stats did show a player still creating a lot of offensive action for his team, and he was scoring on just 7.3 percent of his attempts, so a positive regression was coming. Since that juncture at Game 22, Toews has ignited for 30 points in his past 29 games, including a whopping 20 in his past 12, sprinkled with four- and five-point performances. He’s doing it primarily playing with Richard Panik and rookie Nick Schmaltz, so it’s not like another star scorer is carrying Toews. He’s scoring on 12.6 percent of his shots during his hot streak, still below his career average of 14.7, so we could see this goal-scoring run continue for a while.
The most interesting change for Toews comes in his possession numbers since the 29-game binge started. Defensively, he’s actually been worse, coughing up a Corsi Against per 60 of 57.2, but he’s sizzling with a Corsi For per 60 of 64.54. Per stats.hockeyanalysis.com, Toews faced the toughest quality of competition of any NHL forward with at least 500 minutes played last season, as Toews’ opponents averaged a 5-on-5 Corsi of 50.8. This season, his opponents average 50.2, ranking him 124th among forwards in quality of opponents. So he’s facing weaker competition yet still faring worse defensively.
What, then, are we witnessing? This isn’t The Old Jonathan Toews making a triumphant return. The possession numbers suggest he’s instead reversed his career trend and sacrificed some defense for a major spike in offense. He’s still not bad defensively, as his relative Corsi Against per 60 is still among the better figures on the Hawks, suggesting the team as a whole has regressed defensively this season, not just Toews. But he’s currently not the smothering defensive player he’s reputed to be. His offense, meanwhile, is right up there with Artemi Panarin for the team’s best on the year if we judge it by Corsi For per 60 relative to teammates.
Interestingly, with Toews filling the net, the Hawks have won 14 of their past 20 games and seven of their past eight. Unlocking Toews’ scoring seems to correlate directly with Chicago re-emerging as a dangerous Western Conference contender.
Meanwhile, the first-place Minnesota Wild have dropped their past two meetings with the Hawks, including Tuesday’s. The Wild still own a five-point lead in the Central Division with a game in hand, but would anyone put it past the Blackhawks to stay hot and steal the division crown and home ice advantage for the playoffs? If that happens, watch out. Toews has not returned as a powerhouse two-way forward yet, but he has emerged as a new beast altogether, albeit in a small sample size. It’s tough to say if the Hawks are a better or worse team with Toews no longer playing great shutdown hockey, but so far, so good.