The news is bound to send a stir through fantasy hockey leagues: Scott Niedermayer is back on skates and might soon be lacing them up again with the Anaheim Ducks.
Niedermayer is in California working himself into shape and the word is he'll be ready to return by Christmas.
You'll remember Niedermayer announcing after the Ducks won the Stanley Cup that he might retire. Since he never made a commitment one way or the other, perhaps he now feels bad that his former team is floundering as the season near the one-quarter mark and wants to help.
Regardless, his team would obviously love to have his offensive skills back in the lineup. And so would poolies, especially those who own struggling Ducks like Francois Beauchemin, Chris Kunitz and Andy McDonald.
With only nine points after weekend play, McDonald particularly looks lost without Niedermayer or his old winger Teemu Selanne, also pseudo-retired since last summer.
Will Selanne be tempted to return to the Ducks if Niedermayer does so first? It's not nearly as likely.
Selanne is in California too, but apparently has done little if any skating since hoisting the Cup. Only if you have room on your reserve would Selanne be a good option. With Niedermayer, though, give yourself an early Christmas present and claim him if you can right now, or very soon.
There's another gifted free agent out there who has also been rumoured to be returning to hockey. Sadly, poolies can probably give up entirely on Peter Forsberg.
The annual Karjala Cup in Finland was going to a litmus test for Forsberg, the chance to show himself and NHL general managers that he was good to go. But even before his Swedish national team played a single game, he hurt his ever-wonky ankle in practice and pulled out of the tournament.
Telling reporters afterwards he "made a fool" of himself and that "I just can't do it," this certainly sounds like end of the line for Peter the Great.
Putting aside the watching and waiting, poolies starting the season lame like the Ducks will need to find immediate solution to their woes.
A line shuffle in Tampa Bay might unearth a nugget or two. Jan Hlavac is now skating with the reunited Martin St. Louis and Brad Richards on what has the potential to be an explosive line.
Even more promising is the addition of Michel Ouellet to Vincent Lecavalier's No. 1 line with the red-hot Vaclav Prospal on the other wing. With two goals and six points in his last five games, Ouellet is looking like a pretty good pickup.
Poolies looking for help in goal should consider the services of Ondrej Pavelec of the Thrashers. The rookie has taken over as interim starter while Kari Lehtonen recovers from injury and has looked impressive while winning three of his last four starts.
Ride him while you can because Lehtonen will be out at least another two weeks.
It's not going to last long but with three assists in two games defenceman Petteri Nummelin has fared quite well playing forward with the Wild. He's playing up for the time being because so many Wild forwards are hurt.
Not surprisingly, that includes Marian Gaborik and Pavol Demitra, both hobbled with groin injuries. Could these guys ever go a year without an injury?
Unfortunately, their absence not only affects poolies who took a chance of them but also the ones holding other Wild players.
Defenceman Luc Bourdon has been called up by the Canucks and might be worth watching if he shines on a revamped blue-line brigade missing Sami Salo (broken nose) and Kevin Bieksa (calf muscle surgery) for at least four weeks.
All-star defenceman Dan Boyle of the Lightning is out again after a second tendon replacement surgery on his left wrist. He'll be gone until the new year, for sure.
Tough guy Shane O'Brien had his second two-goal game of the season for the Lightning last Thursday, but it'll be defenceman Paul Ranger who will see the increased time and responsibility on the blue-line.
Greg Dennis can be reached at theCanadianpress.pool(at)hotmail.com.
Some players to watch or watch out for in your hockey pool this week:
1. D Ed Jovanovski, Coyotes. Given up for dead, Jovocop has six points in four games.
2. LW Sean Avery, Rangers. Two goals and three assists last week plus the usual PIM.
3. LW Ray Whitney, Hurricanes. Old vet on a roar with points in nine straight games.
4. D Andrei Markov, Canadiens. Erasing memory of Souray with five points in five games.
5. G Jose Theodore, Avalanche. Wins and .920 save percentage earn him rotation with Budaj.
1. D Christian Ehrhoff, Sharks. An assist Saturday but was scratched three games prior.
2. C Daymond Langkow, Flames. No points in four games and now has a concussion.
3. LW Patrik Elias, Devils. Scored his only goals Oct. 13 and has no points in November.
4. D Brent Sopel, Blackhawks. A sleeper on draft day, he's still sawing logs today.
5. W Raffi Torres, Oilers. Played 202 consecutive games, the last seven without points.
It's not often stars like Matt Duchene are on the trade block. It will take a king's ransom to pry him from the Avalanche but these teams have a shot at him.
Oh, the possibilities. Matt Duchene is the most fun trade-bait name to pop up in a while.
First off, his skill set tantalizes. He’s got blazing speed, elite hands and can play center or wing. Teams chasing his services have many different ways to slot him into their lineups. Secondly, Duchene isn’t a rental. He’s under contract for two more seasons after this one at a $6-million cap hit. While that means the lowly Colorado Avalanche and GM Joe Sakic have no reason to rush and force a deal by March 1, it does mean Sakic should receive some 10-bell offers. Sakic also might receive pitches from bubble teams or even non-playoff squads, as anyone acquiring Duchene, 26, can make him part of their long-term plans.
Still, chances are the rebuilding teams wouldn’t target Duchene until draft day. This month’s offers should skew heavily toward contenders. Which teams are the best fits for Duchene? Keep in mind the return must be significant.
6. BONUS TEAM: OTTAWA SENATORS
It wouldn’t do the Senators justice to bury them in the honorable mentions category. They deserve a few extra words, as they’ve been linked to Duchene often of late. The problem is Colorado needs good young defensemen more than anything else – and a Duchene trade likely can’t happen unless Ottawa includes prized prospect Thomas Chabot. That’s a borderline non-starter for Ottawa. With no Chabot involved, Colorado would want Cody Ceci, but trading him would be counterproductive for the Sens, as he logs more than 23 minutes a game. They need him too much for the playoff hunt. The Avs could also ask for promising two-way center prospect Colin White, but they’d want much more than just White, and the smarter return for Duchene should start with a defenseman. Duchene is also somewhat of a luxury for Ottawa, who is already solid up the middle and might put Duchene on a wing if it acquired him.
The mutual interest makes sense, as Duchene would bolster Ottawa’s top six no matter where he plays and the Sens have pieces Sakic would covet. But I just don’t see Ottawa coughing up what Colorado wants.
5. CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS
The Chicago Blackhawks need a left winger to play with Jonathan Toews yet again. A quick and dirty way to plug the hole this year might be to grab pending unrestricted free agent Patrick Sharp back from the Dallas Stars. If GM Stan Bowman wants to aim high, though, he could target Duchene. And we can’t underestimate Bowman’s ability to pull off massive deals. He surrendered a first-round pick and Marko Dano as part of the Andrew Ladd acquisition last winter. Bowman gave up a 2018 second rounder plus Philip Danault, who currently centers Montreal’s top line, to snag Dale Weise and Tomas Fleischmann. The year before, Bowman used first- and second-round picks as part of swaps for Antoine Vermette and Kimmo Timonen.
It’s established that Bowman has no problem giving up future assets for playoff pushes. He knows his team remains in a Cup-contending window. Better yet, Duchene could become part of Chicago’s star core for years to come. Bowman would then have to sort out some serious salary-cap problems in the summer, but c’mon…we all know that never stops him from dreaming big.
What Chicago can offer: The Hawks lack elite prospects, though Alex DeBrincat has almost played his way into that status with OHL Erie this year. He could be part of a Duchene trade. Some goes for blueliner Chad Krys or NHL rookie Nick Schmaltz.
Red flag: Chicago has three Stanley Cups in since 2010. It hasn’t selected in the top 15 of an NHL draft since 2008. The Hawks have also traded away multiple high picks before using them at the draft. It’s no wonder, then, Chicago’s farm system isn’t studded with A+ prospects. The Hawks would be squarely behind the other suitors in terms of what they could offer for Duchene. Bowman has also publicly stated he doesn’t expect to be active approaching the deadline. Choose for yourself whether you believe that, though Chicago’s lack of in-season cap space alone would make a Duchene deal difficult to execute. Some veteran body would have to go Colorado’s way, and Bowman doesn’t want to upset his team chemistry.
4. ANAHEIM DUCKS
The Ducks average the fewest goals of any team in either conference currently holding down a playoff position. Right winger Corey Perry has just nine. The Ducks need an injection of scoring, and GM Bob Murray has made six deadline-day trades over the past two seasons. He knows Perry and Getzlaf are inching deeper into their 30s, slowly closing the franchise’s championship window, and Murray thus doesn’t mind making moves. It helps that Duchene isn’t a short-term asset, too. And Duchene wouldn’t have to play center to help the Ducks. Coach Randy Carlyle could try him on the top line with Getzlaf and Perry, using Rickard Rakell to create nightmare matchups from the third unit.
What Anaheim can offer: Defensemen. So many defensemen. Maybe even two. The Ducks are spoiled at the position, with Cam Fowler, Hampus Lindholm, Sami Vatanen, Josh Manson, Shea Theodore and Brandon Montour leading the way, not to mention 2015 first-rounder Jacob Larsson marinating in the Swedish League. Murray could find himself in an expansion draft bind, too. Veteran Kevin Bieksa’s no-movement clause makes him a must-protect asset, and Murray would never expose Lindholm, Vatanen or Fowler as long as he has them. That could put Josh Manson in a precarious position, forcing Murray to lose him or, most likely, expose a decent forward like Jakob Silfverberg.
Long story short: dealing from their ‘D’ surplus helps the Ducks not just in that it could yield Duchene, but also because it would solve a roster logjam.
Red flag: We know Sakic seeks multiple useful pieces in a Duchene deal, so the return wouldn’t just be a Theodore or Montour. The Avs could easily demand, say, Vatanen along with one of the younger prospects, with a first-round pick to boot. Murray does have many D-men to spare, but surrendering one of his top-four guys for the stretch run would up the pressure on his youngest D-men. Are they ready?
My colleague Ken Campbell said it best in our podcast this week: the Canadiens owe it to their fan base to make a push. They lead the Atlantic, hockey’s weakest division, but have wilted in recent weeks. They don't want to waste goaltender Carey Price’s prime years. And any team forced to shoehorn Paul Byron and Artturi Lehkonen into top-six duty scares no one. The Habs need more high-end talent for their scoring lines.
What Montreal can offer: The negotiation starts and finishes with Mikhail Sergachev and/or Nathan Beaulieu. No way GM Marc Bergevin gets a foothold without dangling his best young blueliners. A steep price? Yes. But the Habs, unlike the Sens with Chabot, are at more of a win-now juncture. That’s what last summer’s Shea Weber acquisition told us. The question is whether the Avs would also ask for hulking winger Michael McCarron in a Duchene package. My guess is yes. And Montreal should meet the price. It’s time to go for glory.
Red flag: Is Montreal even a top-four team in the Eastern Conference? Would you pick the Habs over the Washington Capitals, Pittsburgh Penguins, Columbus Blue Jackets or New York Rangers in a series? I’m obviously playing devil’s advocate here, but the point is acquiring Duchene carries risk, as Montreal has stiff competition and would have to empty its farm system in a Duchene deal. The good news, of course, is that the Habs would naturally become a much stronger contender in the East with Duchene.
2. CAROLINA HURRICANES
Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman raised an excellent point: it helps the Hurricanes to acquire players with term because they aren’t big players in the free agent game. The Canes are trending in the right direction, with strong analytics numbers. Sebastian Aho would be a Calder Trophy contender in most years but happens to be up against a fantastic rookie crop. The Canes have Julien Gauthier on the way, too. But as they mature into a pretty competitive club, they could use a boost in veteran scoring, and Duchene would provide just that. He could immediately take over as Carolina’s No. 1 center.
What Carolina can offer: The ’Canes are up there with Anaheim as the best pure hockey fit for a trade from Colorado’s perspective. Carolina boasts an impressive stable of young defensemen. Justin Faulk is untouchable in a Duchene negotiation, as is Noah Hanifin, but Brett Pesce and Jaccob Slavin should be in play. Neither of them would constitute nearly enough to land Duchene, which is where picks and high-end prospect defensemen Jake Bean and Haydn Fleury come in. Carolina has enough defensive depth to spare a couple in a Duchene package, and GM Ron Francis is swimming in cap space, too.
Red flag: The Hurricanes are in the midst of true rebuild. It’s trending in the right direction, with Carolina four points back of the Philadelphia Flyers for the second Eastern Conference wild-card position with two games in hand. The ’Canes are hardly guaranteed a ticket to the big dance this spring, though, and they aren’t in a rush. That doesn’t mean Duchene is a poor fit. It does mean a Duchene trade could go down at the draft in June instead of in the next few weeks.
1. NASHVILLE PREDATORS
You should’ve seen Duchene during all-star weekend in Nashville last year. He couldn’t stop smiling. As a country music fan and musician, he’s made for that city. Not that such an emotional connection makes him more likely to become a Predator, of course, but it’s nice to think about.
What makes Duchene most likely to become a Predator is that Nashville has the best blend of need and willingness. Mike Fisher shouldn’t be a top-two center on any team calling itself a Stanley Cup contender. That’s not meant to disrespect Fisher. It’s just that he’s 36. He’s still an effective two-way player and would be a wonderful No. 3 center on a powerhouse. Landing Duchene would put Fisher in that spot and give the Preds another dangerous scorer up front, which they desperately need. No Nashville player has more than 17 goals, albeit Filip Forsberg has heated up a lot lately.
GM David Poile is the king of blockbuster trades in the salary-cap era. He pulled Seth Jones for Ryan Johansen and Shea Weber for P.K. Subban in 2016. He’s made winter deals involving first-round picks over the years to land Peter Forsberg, Cody Franson, Paul Gaustad and Fisher. Poile treats every trade deadline like it’s his team’s last chance at a Stanley Cup push, and we thank him for it. The man is entertaining.
What Nashville can offer: Mattias Ekholm’s name has been tossed around in trade rumors this year. After dealing Jones away last season, though, Poile has to be careful not to weaken his depth too much. The more likely scenario: offering a first-rounder and a prospect such as Dante Fabbro. Maybe Kevin Fiala or Vladislav Kamenev, too. We know Poile is fearless.
Red flag: It’s taken the Predators all season just to climb back into a playoff position, and they’re a short losing streak away from slipping into ninth place. The smart money says they hold off their competition, but they’re no lock. At least Duchene isn’t a one-and-done commodity, though. So the threat of a playoff miss shouldn’t spook Poile.
OTHER TEAMS TO WATCH:
Los Angeles Kings, St. Louis Blues, Vancouver Canucks
The Maple Leafs suddenly have as much as $15 million to work with at the trade deadline which they could use to make a big deal; Avalanche stars could stay put.
The rebuilding Toronto Maple Leafs are among this season's most-improved clubs. After finishing at the bottom of the standings last season, the Leafs are jockeying for a post-season berth in the Eastern Conference.
Despite this improvement, the Leafs still have some roster weaknesses to address. Their most-pressing need is a skilled puck-moving defenseman. With the playoffs in sight, perhaps the Leafs could address that need by the trade deadline.
That possibility increased when Sportsnet's Chris Johnston last week reported the Leafs quietly placed injured players Nathan Horton, Joffrey Lupul and Stephane Robidas on long-term injured reserve. The moves give the Leafs flexibility in the form of an additional $15 million in salary-cap space.
With that kind of space, the Leafs have room to pursue a big-name player at the trade deadline. They've been linked in recent weeks to St. Louis Blues defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk. Despite the Blues' recent resurgence, TSN's Darren Dreger claims the 28-year-old Shattenkirk remains in play.
The asking price for Shattenkirk is thought to be at least a first-round pick and a top prospect. While the Leafs have the depth to meet that return, they could be unwilling to do so unless Shattenkirk, who's eligible in July for unrestricted free agency, is willing to sign a long-term extension.
If Shattenkirk proves too costly for the Leafs, more affordable options include Buffalo Sabres defenseman Dmitry Kulikov and New Jersey Devils rearguard Kyle Quincey. If they want additional depth at forward, Johnston suggests Tampa Bay Lightning left winger Brian Boyle, Dallas Stars right winger Patrick Sharp or Arizona Coyotes center Martin Hanzal.
DUCHENE, LANDESKOG COULD STAY PUT IN COLORADO AFTER DEADLINE
The Colorado Avalanche reportedly continue to entertain offers for Matt Duchene and Gabriel Landeskog. While the notion of one or both moving before the March 1 trade deadline provides a much-needed spark to the trade-rumor mill, they could still be with the Avalanche when the deadline passes.
It's not as though there isn't any interest in the pair. For several weeks, the 26-year-old Duchene was linked to the Montreal Canadiens. Reports out of Boston earlier this month suggested the Bruins could make a push for the 24-year-old Landeskog. The Ottawa Sun's Bruce Garrioch reports there's talk the Senators kicked tires on both players.
As always, the issue is the asking price. It's believed the Avs seek a good young defenseman, a first-round pick and a top prospect for either guy.
In a recent mailbag segment, CSNNE.com's Joe Haggerty said the Bruins shouldn't give up a promising young blueliner such as Brandon Carlo or Charlie McAvoy for Landeskog. TSN's Bob McKenzie reports Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin has no intention of sacrificing his future. His colleague Pierre LeBrun believes the Sens interest in Duchene is pretty much dead unless the asking price is reduced.
LeBrun suggests the Carolina Hurricanes possess considerable depth in young blueliners and need a scoring center. However, he's not convinced Hurricanes GM Ron Francis will pony up for Duchene. LeBrun suggests Francis try to tempt the Toronto Maple Leafs into parting with William Nylander.
Avalanche GM Joe Sakic apparently isn't under pressure to move Duchene or Landeskog before the deadline. It's expected he'll wait for the off-season, when general managers usually have more salary-cap room and a willingness to deal.
FLAMES COULD LOOK AT GOALIES AGAIN
Prior to the 2016 NHL draft, the Calgary Flames created a stir when it was reported they contacted the Pittsburgh Penguins about goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury. The discussion apparently ended when the Pens asked for the Flames first-round pick (sixth overall). Calgary used that pick to select left winger Matthew Tkachuk.
The Flames eventually acquired Brian Elliott from the St. Louis Blues, but he's failed to play up to expectations as a starting goaltender. With Chad Johnson also struggling of late, Sportsnet's Nick Kypreos reports the Flames could revisit their interest in the 32-year-old Fleury, who's lost his starter's job to rookie Matt Murray.
Earlier this month, Penguins GM Jim Rutherford said he's open to dealing Fleury but prefers retaining him as insurance for the playoffs. Unless Fleury, who carries a modified no-trade clause, asks to be dealt, he could finish the season in Pittsburgh.
The Flames also nearly had a deal in place last June to acquire Ben Bishop from the Tampa Bay Lightning. If they can't pry Fleury out of Pittsburgh, maybe they can once again look into the 30-year-old Bishop's trade status.
Bishop's an unrestricted free agent this summer and isn't expected to be re-signed. If the Lightning put Bishop on the block, they could seek a young defenseman in return. It's doubtful, however, the Flames meet that price unless they get assurances that Bishop will re-sign with them.
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.).
Adding big pieces at the deadline isn’t going to be easy thanks to how tight a number of contenders are to the cap. There are some cheap veterans who could make an impact, though.
More than ever, it feels as though this season’s trade deadline is set to be plagued by league parity and the salary cap. For the most part, the teams in contention are the teams who have spent like it, meaning those right in the thick of the playoff picture don’t have all that much room under the cap to make additions in their hunt for the Stanley Cup.
In all likelihood, the tight cap and battles for wild-card spots around the league will result in the number of blockbuster deals we see come March 1 being less than in years prior, and it could very well result in a few teams in contention looking for cheaper additions that can help down the stretch and into the post-season. That can come in the form of young players just about to hit the open market for the first time or, more likely, as veteran players who’ve only months remaining on their current deals with not much left to provide a non-playoff team.
The list of veterans who could be in line to shuffle around the league is plentiful, but landing the Jarome Iginlas or Shane Doans of the league isn’t going to be all that affordable for a number of top contenders. There are several 30-plus players who fit the bill for those teams tight to the cap, though.
Here are five veterans who could be cheap but effective acquisitions at the deadline:
5. Kyle Quincey, New Jersey Devils
He’s not the first name that comes to mind when you think of trade targets at the deadline, but Quincey, 31, could be an intriguing addition to a team’s defensive corps as the post-season approaches. He doesn’t bring with him the flash of someone like, say, Kevin Shattenkirk, who stands to be the top free agent target in the summer, but Quincey has managed four goals and 12 points in 51 games for the Devils while averaging upwards of 18:30 per game.
Quincey has some playoff experience, too. All told, he’s played 54 post-season games and has appeared in the playoffs in each of the past five seasons as a member of the Red Wings. While in Detroit, Quincey was used to middle-pairing minutes in the playoffs, even while playing under coach Mike Babcock. Quincey could be a very useful fifth or sixth defenseman on a top contender without breaking the bank. He’s on a one-year deal that pays $1.25 million.
4. P-A Parenteau, New Jersey Devils
Depth scoring is one of the biggest factors in post-season success, especially against a team that’s good at playing the matchup game. If your top stars are shut down, you need the secondary scorers to step up and make the difference. One target for teams looking to add a boost to their secondary scoring game might need to look no further than the Devils’ P-A Parenteau, 33, who’s earning $1.25 million on a one-year deal.
Parenteau is one of those players who has seemed to be a fixture of trade deadline talk for the past few seasons, but this could actually be the year when a team steps up to take him on. A 20-goal scorer in 2015-16, Parenteau is again on pace to near the 20-goal mark with 13 in 57 games in New Jersey this season. His rate of scoring is all the more impressive when you consider he’s skating bottom-six minutes on a Devils team that doesn’t have all that much offense.
If Parenteau comes in and contributes 5-10 goals before the playoffs, he’s already more than made the acquisition worth it, and he’s likely a lock to contribute a couple of goals in the playoffs.
3. Brian Boyle, Tampa Bay Lightning
Boyle’s an interesting one. The most expensive player on this list, he’s currently in the final season of a three-year, $6 million contract, but he’s the kind of acquisition teams will be after as much for his two-way play as they are for his offensive punch. He’s had some of that this season, too. His 13 goals in 52 games matches his total from the entire 2015-16 season, and he’s already surpassed his point total from the year prior.
The rumor has been that it could cost as much as a first-round pick to pry Boyle, 32, out of Tampa Bay, which apparently isn’t all that frightening a price for some teams given the strength of the draft this year. And while that may seem a hefty price, teams value — and sometimes overvalue — experience. It’s going to be hard to find a player of Boyle’s ilk with more experience, either.
Since the start of the 2011-12 season, Boyle has played 95 playoff games. Only Carl Hagelin has played more, but that Boyle would have been tops in the league over that span and then some if his Lightning had been able to eke out the Game 7 victory against Hagelin’s Penguins in the 2016 Eastern Conference final.
2. Patrick Eaves, Dallas Stars
Versatility, two-way ability and a strong checker. Those are the staples of Eaves’ game. The fact that he has 21 goals this season, though, is going to put a premium on his services if the Stars are willing to part ways with the veteran winger. It’s not easy to find a player who can provide punch on the power play, skate on the penalty kill and switch to either wing at the drop of a hat, and even more difficult to find that player for a mere $1-million cap hit.
There’s going to be some questions about the 32-year-old, however. He has spent the majority of this season skating alongside Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn, and it doesn’t take Einstein-level intelligence to determine that playing on a line with two of the game’s top scorers is going to benefit any winger.
Does Eaves manage to produce even close as well away from Dallas’ dynamic duo, or does his scoring screech to a halt when he’s playing a middle-six role beside second- or third-line talents? Eaves could be a boom or bust addition at the deadline.
1. Radim Vrbata, Arizona Coyotes
Here’s a list of players Vrabta, 35, has produced as much or more than for at least $2 million cheaper: Ryan Johansen, Joe Thornton, Tyler Johnson, Patrick Marleau, Mike Fisher, Justin Williams and you get the point. Vrbata went back to the desert for the third time in his career, and for the third time it was the shot in the arm his game needed.
The goals haven’t been quite as frequent as in the past, but he still has 11 tallies and 40 points in 57 games on a Coyotes with an absolutely anemic offense. Matter of fact, Vrbata has factored in on 30 percent of the goals Arizona has scored this season, which is telling about how well he’s played. He hasn’t just been good for a Coyote, though, he’s been good for any player heading to UFA status. Of all players set to his the open market at season’s end, Vrbata is the fourth-highest scorer, and he’s earning just $1 million this season.
If Vrbata changes locales, the biggest concern has to be whether or not he keeps his scoring up. He succeeded in his first season as a Vancouver Canuck, but he slowed significantly in 2015-16, to the point that some were questioning whether he’d even land a deal for the current campaign. There has to be some worry about playoff scoring, too. In 42 games, he has eight goals and 18 points, which is far from his .60 points per game rate in regular season play.
That said, he might be worth whatever the risk. If a team is looking for high-scoring potential in a cheap veteran winger, Vrbata has to be the top target.
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.”