"I thought to myself, 'Self, you're a sick man trying to make logic of this.' I just, ah, I just...it was hard."
- Winnipeg coach Claude Noel after his team's 9-8 win in Philadelphia Thursday night.
"I thought to myself, 'Self, you're a sick man trying to make logic of this.' I just, ah, I just...it was hard."
- Winnipeg coach Claude Noel after his team's 9-8 win in Philadelphia Thursday night.
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.
Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi. Image by: Steven Ryan/Getty Images
Nothing has gone the Stars’ way in what was supposed to be a Cup-contending season. With so many injuries and many pending free agents, becoming a seller could be their best strategy.
We should’ve seen it coming, really. The Dallas Stars were a seriously flawed hockey club. But their strengths were just so intoxicating.
They blitzed the NHL with 3.23 goals per game last season, topping all 29 other teams, even the potent Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins. Dallas boasted the league’s best tandem of elite scorers in Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin. Defenseman John Klingberg broke out with a 58-point sophomore year and finished sixth in Norris Trophy voting. The Stars won the hotly contested Central Division with 109 points, finished with the NHL’s second-best record and came within one victory of the Western Conference final.
So we can forgive ourselves for being so jazzed about their 2016-17 potential that we picked them to reach the Stanley Cup final. This team was as fun as any in hockey last year. In reality, though, it had some holes and chose not to address them in the off-season.
The first was goaltending, of course. Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi, the infamous $10.4-million tandem, ranked 38th (.906) and 40th (.905) among the NHL’s 44 qualified leaders in save percentage. The Stars as a team ranked 24th out of 30 teams in SP at .904. Lehtonen and Niemi were inconsistent throughout the playoffs, and while each had his moments, they wilted in Game 7 of the Central Division final against St. Louis and ultimately cost Dallas the series. I spoke at length with Stars GM Jim Nill over the summer, and he was convinced his goalies deserved another shot. He shot down rumors of a Ben Bishop or Marc-Andre Fleury acquisition. To briefly revisit that interview:
“Right now we’ve got two goalies that came in and, say what you want, but they got 50 wins for us and we got second overall in the league, so something had to go right.
"Unfortunately, all anybody’s really remembering is our last game of the year against St. Louis. Nobody remembers the game before that where Kari stood on his head to get us into Game 7. There were definitely times in the season where they would’ve liked some games back. But that’s kind of on our whole team. Every team goes through that. I really think they’re going to be better this year. It was kind of a feeling-out process last year, and now they’ve both settled in. We’re status quo, and they’ve got the ability to be better than last year, which I hope turns into even more wins for us next year."
Well, it hasn’t. The opposite happened. Lehtonen and Niemi continue to bleed goals this year. Niemi sits 37th in SP at .902, Lehtonen 39th at .899. The Stars have slid to 27th in team SP. I caught up with Nill again this week, though, and he was quick to defend them.
“To be fair, they haven’t been our issue,” Nill said. “Our special teams have been terrible, especially our penalty kill.”
He’s right. The Stars’ penalty kill ranks 29th in the NHL, their power play 19th. And there’s further statistical validity to the idea Lehtonen and Niemi don’t deserve all the blame. Lehtonen’s advanced metrics actually suggest he’s been much better than advertised, as he rates well above average in even-strength SP, low-danger SP and medium-danger SP. Niemi has been outstanding stopping low-danger shots, rating right up there with the league’s best. The problem: both goalies have been weak against high-danger chances, Niemi against medium-danger ones too, and the Stars just happen to specialize in allowing those. They rank third last in the league 5-on-5 in expected save percentage, which is how likely the average shot is to go in, and that reflects the quality of chances surrendered.
That’s where the second major flaw we ignored comes in: team defense. The Stars were a powerhouse of possession on the offensive side of the puck last year but were subpar defensively, often peppered with shot attempts from their opposition. They overhauled their blueline in the summer, trading Alex Goligoski’s rights and letting Jason Demers and Kris Russell walk in free agency. The plan had pros and cons. On one hand, it wasn’t the worst idea to change up a D-corps that was mediocre anyway, and the Stars had a truckload of promising young D-men ready for NHL roles, from Stephen Johns to Esa Lindell to Julius Honka to Patrik Nemeth to Jamie Oleksiak. On the other hand, it probably would’ve been best to rely on one of two of those guys in major roles – not all of them.
Honka’s only appeared in eight NHL games this season, and his possession numbers actually look quite good. But every other member of the Stars’ D-corps, including the rookie group, free agent signing Dan Hamhuis and even vets like Johnny Oduya – has gotten lit up. The “best” mark in 5-on-5 Corsi Against per 60 among the entire group is Johns’ 56.11. Klingberg has found himself a healthy scratch more than once. The Stars rate 26th as a team in Corsi Against. They were below average defensively last year, ranking 19th, but their offense bailed them out.
This year, the scoring hasn’t been around to mask the flaws. Benn has battled several injuries, having core muscle surgery at the start of the season, injuring his foot a few weeks ago and breaking his nose over the weekend. Mattias Janmark and Ales Hemsky are out with long-term injuries. Valeri Nichushkin returned to the KHL. The Stars have slipped to 15th in offense at 2.69 goals per game. A lot of that can be blamed on rotten luck, but that doesn’t change the fact it’s happened.
“I never like to make excuses, I don’t believe in it, but with the parity in the league and the condensed schedule, injuries made it tough,” Nill said. “We started on the wrong foot, with six of our top nine forwards injured.”
So the Stars’ huge strength has been neutralized, and their flaws have dragged them down in the standings. They’re 19-20-9, four points out of a Western Conference wild-card position, buoyed by a whopping nine overtime or shootout defeats.
“Our special teams have been terrible, especially our penalty kill.”
Now Nill has some tough decisions to make. This team boasts a ton of talent and, for all its struggles, remains surprisingly alive in the playoff race. The optimistic line of thinking would have Nill finally pursue a goaltending upgrade in the form of Bishop, Fleury or perhaps Semyon Varlamov and seek veteran help on defense. After all, Nill has so many good young ‘D’ prospects that he could spare one or even two. While he didn’t suggest this week to THN.com any trades were imminent, he left the door open a crack when I asked him about goaltending, suggesting “we always want to make our team better.”
Chasing a Stanley Cup at this point, though, would be a mistake. The Stars still have a bright future, but they’re best off accepting 2016-17 as a disaster year and coming back strong. Why?
First off, Benn just can’t get healthy, or at least he doesn’t look it. He hasn’t been himself. He’s as tough as any player in the sport, having not missed a game last year after surgeries on each hip during the 2015 off-season, but that may work against him right now. To get the peak Benn, Dallas would probably be best off resting him for an extended period and saving him from himself. Worrying about a playoff hunt won’t allow that to happen.
“We’ve had discussions and he says he’s healthy,” Nill said. “But is he ‘healthy but not healthy’? Only he can answer that. He’s been adamant that he’s healthy, though. We have not discussed shutting him down. “
Secondly, the Stars still have an extremely promising group of prospects, especially on the defensive side of the puck. Why mortgage away a Honka or Lindell or Johns, or a forward like Jason Dickinson or Denis Gurianov, when the playoffs look like a long shot right now anyway? Dallas can spend another year developing the kids.
Most importantly, Dallas’ salary situation suggests there’s a ton to gain by folding up the tent and deciding to sell. They have some extremely attractive pending unrestricted free agents to rent out. Plenty of teams would trip over themselves to get Patrick Sharp and his three Stanley Cup rings. Same goes for Oduya, a two-time champ with the Hawks, who has proven he can eat huge minutes as top-four blueliner under playoff pressure. Heck, the Hawks might be wise to reacquire both. Patrick Eaves has enjoyed a major breakout year, with 17 goals already, but he’s 32 and injury prone. Why not cash in that chip? Jiri Hudler and Lauri Korpikoski are UFAs as well. The Stars could further pack their system with picks and prospects with a nice trade-deadline fire sale.
Lastly, waiting until summer to fix the goaltending situation might come in handy. After this season, Lehtonen and Niemi have one year remaining on their contracts. They suddenly become much easier commodities to move. It’s unlikely the Vegas Golden Knights claim one of them, but GM George McPhee might see some appeal to picking up an expiring deal for the purpose of flipping for picks at the 2018 trade deadline. Nill might also be able to target a salary-floor team to pick up one of the goalie’s contracts, the way Arizona did with Pavel Datsyuk last June. That would free up money to then pursue Bishop in free agency.
Picture a 2017-18 Stars team free of several expensive veterans, armed with a young D-corps now boasting another year of experience, with a fully healthy Benn and a brand new No. 1 goaltender in Bishop, not to mention countless extra picks and prospects to throw around after acquiring them as a seller at the 2017 deadline. That could make Dallas a real contender next fall. Getting to that point requires a white-flag approach for the rest of 2016-17, however. If the Stars keep struggling into February, Nill should strongly consider it. He acknowledges that route is a possibility, especially with all his UFAs. It’s too early to quit on the year, though.
“We’re still on the playoff bubble,” he said. “If we win four or five in a row, we’re right in the thick of it again. The next three weeks will determine a lot.”
Matt Larkin is a writer and editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to thn.com. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin
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The Brian Elliott acquisition hasn’t paid off for the Flames, and GM Brad Treliving would be wise to take another long look at acquiring Ben Bishop or Marc-Andre Fleury once the off-season rolls around.
The Flames’ goaltending issues were at their pinnacle in 2015-16 with the four-man rotation of Jonas Hiller, Karri Ramo, Joni Ortio and Niklas Backstrom leaving much to be desired, and that not one of the foursome has a job in the NHL this season is indicative of how poor they performed. It was a no-brainer for the Flames to chase a goaltender this past off-season.
The prevailing notion was Calgary would chase one of Ben Bishop, the 30-year-old Lightning starter who was nearing free agency, or Marc-Andre Fleury, the 32-year-old career Penguin who had lost his starting job to Matt Murray en route to the Stanley Cup. It was rumored the asking price was too high for the Flames’ liking. And as for Bishop, he was actually close to landing in Calgary. He told the Tampa Bay Times’ Joe Smith that he and the Flames were negotiating a new contract, but it was then that the Flames pivoted and decided Brian Elliott would be the answer to their goaltending woes.
The deal made sense for the Flames. Elliott, 31, was coming off of one of the best seasons of his career and at 5-on-5 there were few goaltenders as dominant as he was with the St. Louis Blues. He had posted a .930 save percentage at all strengths — the best mark in the league — and his 2.07 goals-against average was the best mark Elliott had produced in a 40-plus game season in his career.
It’s nearing on impossible to recall that was the case, however, with Elliott looking pedestrian in Calgary through 23 games this season. His .891 save percentage is a mark you’d expect from a backup, his goals-against average has ballooned to 2.92 and after earning a few votes for the Vezina Trophy in 2015-16, he has a better shot at competing for the Masterton Trophy in 2017-18 than he does landing any recognition for his play in goal this campaign.
Now Calgary is more than halfway through their season asking themselves the same questions they were last April. And were it not for Chad Johnson, 30, signed to backup Elliott, the Flames could be in a much worse position than boasting a one-point edge on the final wild-card spot. Even with Johnson’s play being somewhat of a season-saver, though, Flames GM Brad Treliving won’t have much of a choice but to go back and look at his options in goal this off-season.
Looking inside the organization, consideration has to be given to Jon Gillies. The 6-foot-6 netminder has had a tough go in AHL Stockton this season after injuries sidelined him for much of 2015-16, but he’s the de facto goaltender of the future and arguably the top prospect the Flames have whose not yet in the NHL. The 23-year-old was a stud in the NCAA, backstopping Providence to a title in 2014-15. Gillies has the size and talent to be a difference-maker down the line, but Treliving would be remiss to think Gillies can solve the Flames’ current problems in goal.
Really, the only way to really fix what’s broken in Calgary right now is for Treliving to focus on the two goaltenders he passed over for Elliott this past summer. And while it’s an issue that could use addressing now, it’s unlikely Treliving could swing a deal to land Bishop or Fleury before the trade deadline.
All three teams — the Flames, Lightning and Penguins — are right up against the cap, dipping into long-term injured reserve in order to have any breathing room at all. Almost any deal made would have to be dollar-in, dollar-out. That complicates matters, which is to say the Flames might only have a prayer of fixing the situation in goal by the time March rolls around.
Things will get interesting in the off-season, however. Come July 1, the Flames are going to have six restricted free agents in need of deals, but more than $22 million in cap space and close to $17 million coming off the books as veterans hit the open market. Among the expiring contracts are Dennis Wideman’s $5.25-million deal, Deryk Engelland’s $2.917-million contract and the $4.2 million the Flames have locked up in Elliott and Johnson.
The upcoming expansion draft for the Vegas Golden Knights doesn’t make it a lock that Bishop hits the open market, and it doesn’t ensure Fleury will be on the trade block as a Penguin come July 1. That said, there is a way for Treliving to use the expansion draft in his favor, using it to approach Lightning GM Steve Yzerman or Penguins GM Jim Rutherford with a deal.
The benefit for the Flames is clear. Trading for Bishop or Fleury lands Calgary another shot at a starting goaltender, this time with Stanley Cup final experience. But there’s a positive for Tampa Bay and Pittsburgh, too. Instead of losing a bonafide starting netminder for nothing, Calgary’s trade partner can recoup an asset. Even a draft pick for either Bishop or Fleury would be more than Yzerman or Rutherford could possibly hope for if Vegas plucks away either netminder.
The time is right for Treliving to do what he struggled to pull off last off-season, and that’s bring either Bishop or Fleury to Calgary. Goaltending has been an issue for two seasons straight, but both the money and assets will be there for the Flames to fix it this off-season.
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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.