"We joked about who had it worse."
- Anaheim defenseman Aaron Ward on what he talked about with Lubomir Visnovsky as the two new Ducks had dinner together. Both were acquired at the deadline from bottom-feeders Carolina and Edmonton.
"We joked about who had it worse."
- Anaheim defenseman Aaron Ward on what he talked about with Lubomir Visnovsky as the two new Ducks had dinner together. Both were acquired at the deadline from bottom-feeders Carolina and Edmonton.
Martin St-Louis’ journey didn’t start with his name being called at the draft, but that didn’t stop him from reaching great heights in the NHL. This season, these five undrafted players are making their presence felt.
Friday night in Tampa Bay, the Lightning celebrated the career of Martin St-Louis, one of the greatest players in franchise history, by raising his famed No. 26 to the rafters.
For St-Louis, the jersey retirement marked one of the final great moments in a career that had plenty. From Art Ross Trophies to a Stanley Cup victory, St-Louis was one of the greatest players of his generation, hanging up his skates with nearly 400 goals and more than 1,000 points to his name.
Despite having an outstanding career, though, the one thing St-Louis never got to experience was having his name called at the draft. Instead, he played his way through junior hockey in Ontario and Quebec, made some noise with four solid seasons at University of Vermont and earned his shot at the NHL after producing consistently in the minor leagues. Even still, that St-Louis was never selected in the draft is one of the great misses in draft history.
An undrafted player having a career like St-Louis’ is rare, but of the 100-plus players in the league who were skipped over on their respective draft days, a handful are making their presence felt this season. Here are the five undrafted players impressing the most this campaign:
5. Conor Sheary, Pittsburgh Penguins
Sheary landed a deal with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins after four seasons with UMass in the NCAA, and few would have pegged him to be the type of impact depth player he has become. However, after a strong, 20-goal, 45-point campaign in 2014-15, Sheary got his shot at the big league and filled in as a fourth-line piece. His real breakout came in the post-season, though.
En route to a Stanley Cup with the Penguins, Sheary netted four goals and 10 points in 23 games, matching his regular season total in roughly half the time, and he has continued to score in his sophomore season. Through 34 games this season, Sheary has 11 goals and 25 points.
4. Jonathan Marchessault, Florida Panthers
One of the best stories early in the campaign was the breakout Marchessault was experiencing as a member of the Panthers. Signed in the off-season to a two-year, $1.5-million deal, Marchessault was brought for his potential to be a contributor in the bottom-six, but he’s been a top-six player for much of the campaign in Florida with 12 goals and 26 points in 37 games.
Marchessault’s path to the NHL had a few more stops than some of the others on this list, too. After finishing his QMJHL career with the Quebec Remparts, Marchessault found a spot with the AHL’s Connecticut Whale and then inked an entry-level deal with the Columbus Blue Jackets. After kicking around the AHL for much of the next three seasons, became a part-time NHLer in 2015-16 with the Tampa Bay Lightning before making his mark with the Panthers this season.
3. Torey Krug, Boston Bruins
Size was one of the knocks against St-Louis, who’s listed at 5-foot-8, and it was likely one of the major reasons why Krug was overlooked as a defender. At 5-foot-9, he is the league’s most diminutive blueliners, but size hasn’t stopped him from becoming a key part of the Bruins’ back end.
No defender in Beantown has put up even half the points that Krug has this season, who has four goals and 28 points, and he’s worked his way into top-pairing minutes. He’s averaging nearly 22 minutes of ice time per game.
Krug’s big breakout came during the 2012-13 post-season, which saw the Bruins make their way to the Stanley Cup final. He chipped in four goals and six points on that run, and was an every-game NHLer by the time the 2013-14 campaign rolled around.
2. Mats Zuccarello, New York Rangers
Zuccarello’s the only player on this list who had the opportunity to play with St-Louis, and the 5-foot-8 Rangers winger definitely picked up a thing or two from a veteran who had made a career as a small man in what is sometimes viewed as a big man’s game.
Unlike others on this list who had to fight their way through the college game and minor leagues to make it to the NHL, Zuccarello managed to find his way to the NHL through the Swedish league. After a couple of outstanding seasons in Norway, Zuccarello landed with MODO in the SHL, but up two great years and inked a deal with the Rangers. He’s been a Blueshirt ever since.
After a career-best 61 points in 2015-16, Zuccarello looks to be on pace to nearly equal that total this season. The shifty playmaker has eight goals and 31 points in 43 games.
1. Artemi Panarin, Chicago Blackhawks
That Panarin slipped through the draft is incredible given the way he has shown he can handle the big league game, but his career didn’t really take off until the 2013-14 season, so maybe it’s hard to fault scouts for missing on him earlier.
Panarin, who has 17 goals and 42 points in 45 games this season, saw his first pro action all the way back in 2008-09 with the KHL’s Vityaz Chekhov, and he scored at about a half-point per game rate during those early years. A move to SKA St. Petersburg in 2012-13 changed his career, though, as he started to find his scoring touch in a big way. In 108 games with SKA, Panarin scored 46 goals and 103 points, often outshining more recognizable talents on the team, such as Ilya Kovalchuk.
Panarin was scooped up by the Blackhawks ahead of the 2015-16 season on a bonus-laden two-year deal, and the Russian sniper has cashed in big. He met all of his bonuses with an outstanding 30-goal, 77-point rookie season, captured the Calder Trophy and he has continued to tear up the opposition this season.
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Bill Foley and George McPhee. Image by: Isaac Brekken/Getty Images
Vegas' new GM, George McPhee, crafts high-flying teams that entertain, and that's not about to change.
When George McPhee was finishing his law degree at Rutgers many moons ago, he hung out with a few guys in medical school. The aspiring doctors had an enduring credo: eat when you can, sleep when you can, work out when you can, and don’t fool around with the spleen. Really, when it comes down to it, what more life advice does a guy need?
By the time he graduated, McPhee was just three years removed from an NHL career that ended largely because he was 5-foot-9 and played like he was 6-foot-3. He took the words to heart and, almost a quarter century later, not a day goes by when McPhee doesn’t work out. Hard. Because that’s the only way he’s ever known how to do things. Whether it’s skipping rope, going to a high school track to do sprints, enduring a boot camp workout or punishing himself on the bike, McPhee pushes himself to the point of exhaustion for 30 minutes, then gets on with the rest of his day. That’s why he’s a 58-year-old who looks like he could still play in the league in which he’s been an executive for more than two decades. And his spleen, for the record, is in terrific shape.
“You owe it to your family, and you owe it to your employer to be sharp and to stay fit,” McPhee said. “So you have to work at it.”
Good listener, George McPhee. The smartest guy in the room, they say, is smart enough to know he’s smarter than most people but not smart enough to recognize when other people are smarter. Those are the kind of guys who spend their lives annoying people at dinner parties and running Enron into the ground. McPhee isn’t one of them. Anyone who can juggle law school and a hockey career, then graduate from Rutgers, is plenty smart, to be sure, but McPhee’s true intelligence came from absorbing the lessons he learned from the people around him. And none was more influential than Pat Quinn, a Hall of Famer, who taught McPhee the importance of integrity and ethics. It was Quinn who hired him to replace Brian Burke as assistant GM of the Vancouver Canucks when McPhee was still studying for the New York-New Jersey bar exam.
McPhee learned a lot about hockey from Quinn. More importantly, though, he absorbed the significance of cultivating relationships. It’s a template McPhee carried with him through 17 years as GM of the Washington Capitals and will continue to guide him as the first GM of the Vegas Golden Knights.
“I got really lucky to be able to work with Pat and to get to know him,” McPhee said. “He did things the right way. There are a lot of us who were really lucky that our lives intersected with his.”
Some intersected with Quinn’s more than others. McPhee’s was almost on a parallel track. Both were marginal NHL players who went on to become respected executives. Both went to law school but never wrote the bar exam. Quinn was fiercely protective of his players and McPhee, well, remember when he was suspended one month (20 games) for going after Chicago Blackhawks coach Lorne Molleken after a pre-season game in which McPhee thought the Hawks were manhandling his team?
Actually, that’s kind of the way McPhee approached the game as a player. At Bowling Green, he won the Hobey Baker Award on the strength of his offensive prowess, but it wasn’t enough to get him drafted. His coach at Bowling Green was Jerry York, who more than 30 years later coaches McPhee’s son Graham at Boston College. York said McPhee could have been a Brian Gionta-type of player if there was a place for them in the early 1980s.
“When he turned pro, he had to find a way by bringing all kinds of grit to his teams,” York said. “He’d take on anybody.”
The record shows McPhee fought 28 times in just 144 regular season and playoff games, and he wasn’t a guy to pick his spots. Consider his fight card: Dave Brown, Craig Berube, Scott Stevens, Marty McSorley, Nevin Markwart, Rick Tocchet (three times), John Kordic and Ed Hospodar.
Yet like Quinn, the philosophy McPhee took to building a team in his post-playing career was everything he wasn’t as a player. Quinn, who wore his defiance for playing an offensive game in a defensive era like a badge of honor, earned a disciple in McPhee, who plans to build a team in Las Vegas that attacks, plays stick-on-puck hockey and tries (likely mightily in its first couple years) to create a masterpiece rather than destroy one. And that, if nothing else, will make it an anomaly among expansion teams.
“It’s an entertaining way to play for your fans, it’s a fun way to play for the players, and it can be successful,” McPhee said. “Pittsburgh has done it and Chicago has done it. Hockey should never be boring.”
That philosophy led to McPhee giving a career minor league coach named Bruce Boudreau his first job in the NHL. The two of them never came close to winning a Stanley Cup despite having one of the league’s most offensively explosive teams, and both were ultimately let go, so the theory has a few holes in it. Boudreau, now coaching the Minnesota Wild, speaks of McPhee like he’s a brother. And this is the guy who canned Boudreau. That, of course, goes back to the integrity factor and McPhee’s insistence on treating people with respect. Boudreau said the friendship runs so deep that he even sought McPhee’s counsel when things got really rocky in Anaheim last year and after he was ultimately fired by the Ducks.
“He’s such a standup guy,” Boudreau said. “You want him in your corner every time because he will fight for you. I know before I was let go (in Washington) he fought for me really hard. When he let me go, I forgave him 20 minutes later. I knew it was tough, and he gave me a big hug. And I think he went to bat pretty good for me on this job, too.”
Boudreau and McPhee are well into their new starts in the game this season. For his experience alone, McPhee was an excellent choice to be the Golden Knights’ first GM. Expansion teams that hire GMs with experience do much better early and make the playoffs quicker than those who fight through their first couple years with men who have no experience running a hockey department.
McPhee has already instituted 30-, 60-, 90- and 120-day plans for the franchise, checking off the boxes as they move along. He knows he can’t prepare for every challenge that will come his way, but that won’t stop him from trying. Every GM in the league will have him on speed dial leading up to the expansion draft.
McPhee knows that, at this moment, it’s probably the best it will be for a long time. The beauty of taking over an expansion team is the blank canvas. There are no bad contracts to get out from under, there is no losing culture and nobody needs to be fired. The people working for you are eager and enthusiastic because they’re getting their first chance in the NHL or are grateful to get another. The best thing of all is there are no wins and losses to consume your thoughts. And McPhee is eminently prepared for the challenge. He took over the Capitals in 1997 from David Poile and watched as his team made the final in his first year. But it wasn’t long before the Capitals bottomed out, then drafted Alex Ovechkin first overall in 2004.
“To be as honest as I can be, it hasn’t been daunting at all,” McPhee said. “After building the clubs we built in Washington, I have a lot of confidence that I can do it again. Everything I’m about to see, I’ve already seen. I’ve seen this movie before. In Washington, we tore it right down to the point where we were just filling boots the first year out of the lockout.”
McPhee had a rich, aggressive, larger-than-life owner in Ted Leonsis then (the man who ordered him to trade for Jaromir Jagr against McPhee’s advice), much the way he has in Bill Foley now. Foley originally boldly predicted his team would win a Stanley Cup within eight years, then amended that to six. Wealthy, eccentric guys are like that. But before the Golden Knights can even think of being competitive, let alone win a Cup, they have to establish themselves in a market where the NHL’s only presence has been its awards show. Everything looks promising at the moment, but nobody goes into these things thinking they’re going to fail. The best the Golden Knights can hope for is to become a modern-day version of the Nashville Predators, a well-run team that plays in a fickle market and always faces enormous challenges.
“I understand that this is important, that Bill Foley has put a lot of money into this and put his reputation on the line,” McPhee said. “And we have to make this work. We certainly understand the challenge and what’s at stake.”
Gabriel Landeskog (right) and Matt Duchene
The lowly Avalanche seem poised to make some big moves, but potential deals for forward Gabriel Landeskog and Matt Duchene keep stalling.
For several weeks, Colorado Avalanche forwards Gabriel Landeskog and Matt Duchene featured prominently in NHL trade speculation. With the Avs at the bottom of the Western Conference standings and considered out of playoff contention, GM Joe Sakic is reportedly listening to offers for his core players, with Landeskog and Duchene the most notable trade candidates.
Sportsnet's Elliotte Friedman reports Sakic's set a high asking price. On Jan. 3, Friedman said the Avs GM sought “legit young defensemen or defensive prospects.” Recent rumors linking the 24-year-old Landeskog to the Boston Bruins claimed Sakic sought promising defenseman Brandon Carlo in return, an offer the Bruins apparently rejected.
TSN's Darren Dreger reports Sakic's asking price for Landeskog is higher than originally thought. He said the Avs seek a “top-level defenseman, a first-round draft pick plus.” He adds that's generated a negative reaction from his peers.
Every GM sets an initially high price when shopping a core player, but Sakic's dreaming if he thinks he'll net that type of return for Landeskog. While he has four 50-plus points seasons on his resume, including a career-high 65-points in 2013-14, his production doesn't merit such a lofty return. His sub-par production this season (13 points in 30 games) won't bolster his trade value.
There's been no word on Sakic's asking price for Duchene, but one can assume it's similar to Landeskog's. The 25-year-old center has better stats this season (24 points in 36 games) than the Avs captain and exceeded 50 points five times in his career.
First-line center Nathan MacKinnon is the only Avalanche player who might fetch that big return. Given his age (21) and skills, he could reach his full potential on a deeper roster. Still, a rival GM must give considerable thought toward deciding if MacKinnon is worth a top defenseman, a first round pick and more.
Dreger's colleague Pierre LeBrun thinks Sakic could make a move involving Landeskog or Duchene in the off-season. Interested parties should have more salary-cap space to work, plus there's usually more willingness at the NHL draft weekend in June to swing deals involving established stars.
DROUIN COULD MAKE FOR GOOD TRADE CHIP FOR LIGHTNING
A year ago, Tampa Bay Lightning left winger Jonathan Drouin generated headlines with his demotion to the club's farm team, followed by a holdout and refusing to play and requesting a trade. Eventually, Drouin withdrew his request, returned to action and became a productive part of the Lightning roster.
But with the Bolts sitting outside the Eastern Conference playoff picture and in danger of sliding further out of contention, perhaps Drouin could be used as a trade chip. In his trade-season preview of the Eastern Conference, ESPN.com's Craig Custance suggests the 21-year-old could be the type of player that fetches some much-needed help for the Bolts' blueline.
Custance observes Drouin is a restricted free agent this summer, along with fellow forwards Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat. All will be in line for significant raises, leading Custance to suggest that “at some point the cap space is going to disappear.”
The Lightning's biggest need is another top-four defenseman. If there's one to be had via trade of the same pedigree as Drouin, Custances feels it would make sense to make that move.
Adding a quality rearguard won't be easy. GM Steve Yzerman repeatedly said he's making calls but there's not much happening in the trade market right now. So far, there's no indication out of Tampa Bay suggesting Drouin is available.
Yzerman could be forced to wait until the market improves, but that could be weeks away. By that point, it could prove too late to save the Lightning's season.
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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Phil Kessel. Image by: Joe Sargent/Getty Images
From his day with the Cup in Toronto to a September night tweeting (infamously) at home with his dog to running for president, we’re seeing a new Phil Kessel.
By Shelly Anderson
He got chirped by the president. Then he jokingly ran for president. Winning the Stanley Cup with Pittsburgh certainly has elevated Phil Kessel’s lot in life in unexpected ways.
Kessel was seen by some as sullen and surly during his six seasons with Toronto, but his first year-plus since the Penguins traded for him in July 2015 has been super. He helped Pittsburgh win the Cup, leading the team with 10 goals and 22 points in 24 playoff games, and had a strong start this season averaging nearly a point per game. He has won over his teammates and jettisoned any lingering angst or ugliness he might have felt toward Toronto. It was a big transition in a short time heavily facilitated by his new club’s success.
“I mean, it’s pretty easy, isn’t it?” Kessel said, smiling and laughing – a side of the right winger Maple Leafs fans likely would not recognize.
Kessel harbors no ill will toward Toronto.
“I love the city,” he said. “It’s a good city.”
In July, he took the Cup to Toronto, visiting The Hospital for Sick Children. Three months later, Kessel spiffed up for the Penguins’ Oct. 6 visit to the White House. He got red-cheeked and laughed with everyone else when President Barack Obama opened with this line aimed at someone who had barely sniffed the post-season before last spring: “We are here to celebrate an extraordinary achievement – Phil Kessel is a Stanley Cup champion.”
He’s a Cup champion who was overlooked by Team USA for the World Cup of Hockey. It’s unclear whether Kessel would have been ready after having off-season hand surgery, but it was still seen as a snub. Kessel rolled with it. The night the Americans played, and lost to, Canada, he tweeted this zinger: “Just sitting around the house tonight with my dog. Felt like I should be doing something important, but couldn’t put my finger on it.”
Then, in the pre-season, cameras followed Kessel, 29, during a day of team photo sessions. He good-naturedly poked fun at himself for being tired and for looking like he was balding in some of the shots.
The topper came when Kessel provided some levity the day before the presidential election when he tweeted a photo of himself wearing a T-shirt touting, “Phil for president…Nice guy. Tries Hard. Loves the Game.”
Teammate Tom Sestito stumbled upon the shirts online at Sin Bin Hockey and ordered several. His teammates got a huge kick out of the stunt, though they aren’t all sure he’s quite ready to hold the highest office.
“Uh, yeah, I don’t know,” captain Sidney Crosby said, barely able to talk because he was laughing hard. “I love the shirt, though.”
Kessel’s teammates have embraced him completely.
“Dry sense of humor,” said goalie Marc-Andre Fleury. “I think with us he can relax and be himself. He seems pretty reserved, and then he takes pictures of himself in that shirt and puts it on Twitter, all serious looking. It was funny stuff. He’s a funny dude.”
One who is perfectly willing to be, or even set himself up as, the fall guy when it comes to jokes. “He’s got pretty thick skin,” Crosby said. “He’s pretty good about it.”
Unlike Crosby, winger Carl Hagelin was sold on the Phil for President idea. “I would have voted for Phil, yeah,” said Hagelin, who is Swedish. “Phil’s the man. He’s a funny guy. He’s a great teammate. You just like seeing him when he comes to the rink.”
The now famous ‘HBK Line’ of Kessel, Hagelin and Nick Bonino has played together only at times this season, but Kessel has continued to produce – just not in his usual way. Through Friday, he led the team with 28 assists, dishing up perfect saucer passes and setting up teammates for deflections.
“Phil has that great release, but he also can find those little soft passes,” said winger Chris Kunitz. “He’s really good at being deceptive and throwing people off.”
Kessel insisted it isn’t a new aspect of his game: “I try to make the right play. That’s about it. I’ve always felt like if there’s a pass, I’m going to make the pass. If I feel like I can shoot it, I’m going to shoot it, right?”
Kessel has scored 30 or more goals five times and is closing in on 300 for his career, but he is off his standard pace so far. He was averaging 2.83 shots per game, down from his career average of 3.37. That concerned coach Mike Sullivan.
Sullivan chatted with Kessel in early November to deliver a message. “He is a very good passer and a very good playmaker, but we think when he’s at his very best, he’s thinking shot first,” Sullivan said. “He’s choosing to distribute versus shooting the puck. We’d like to see him shoot a little more.”
At least Kessel has shown a willingness to shoot more from the lip, much to the delight of his teammates.