Matt Walilko had a playoff game to remember, recording six goals and five assists. It wasn't exactly a once-in-a-lifetime game since he had a 10-point game earlier this year.
In the dying minutes of his Jr. C playoff game Tuesday night, Matt Walilko of the Midland Flyers had his stick broken in two by a slash. A dastardly deed to be sure, but you can kind of see his opponent’s reasoning. It was the probably same thought process Bobby Clarke had when he broke Valeri Kharlamov’s ankle during the 1972 Summit Series.
“The guy was telling me that my stick was way too hot and he had to break it,” Walilko said. “He just axed the stick right in half and said it had too many points in it. We were laughing about it after the game.”
Considering that stick – along with the 17-year-old using it - was responsible for six goals and five assists in a 12-3 rout over the Huntsville Otters, you can understand why the opponent would rather see that one propping up tomato plants than demolishing his team’s playoff hopes. So when his team hits the ice for Game 6 of their playoff series Friday night, Walilko will be using new lumber, but riding the confidence of a once-in-a-lifetime game.
Or was it? Earlier this season, the Grade 12 high school student registered a 10-point game with five goals and five assists en route to scoring 80 points in 39 games and being named rookie of the year in Ontario's Provincial Junior Hockey League. Walilko is just 17, playing in a league where there are players as old as 22. He was easily the youngest player among the league’s top 10 scorers this season and one of only two teenagers. In what should come as no surprise, Walilko’s night vaulted him into the league’s playoff scoring lead with 10 goals and 20 points in five games. “It makes it look like I’ve been lighting it up every night,” Walilko said, “but I only had nine points in four games before that one.”
Back to the game, Walilko attributed his good fortune to being in the right place at the right time. He said a couple of key players were out with injuries and school commitments, so he knew he would have to step up. One of his linemates had seven points in the game and the other linemate had six. Walilko said that, as was the case in his 10-point night earlier this season, he went into the game knowing he was facing the opponent’s backup goalie.
“You kind of do your research, right?” Walilko said. “You see the backup is starting and you try to put a lot of pucks on net.”
What makes the feat even more impressive is that it gave Walilko’s team a 3-2 series lead with a chance to win it in Game 6. The Flyers had dug themselves into a 2-0 hole in the series, but have stormed back and clearly have some momentum on their side, not to mention a confident young man leading the attack.
Which begs the question: What is a young man this good doing playing this far down the junior hockey ladder? Well, Walilko played AAA midget last season in Barrie and rather than play on the third or fourth line for a Jr. B or Jr. A team this season, he thought it would be better for his development if he were a prime time player at a lower level. He has his sights set on earning a scholarship, something he hopes to do in a year or so. Walilko plans to take next season off school and hopes to play next season for the Pembroke Lumber Kings. He plans to write his SATs in the hope of attracting interest from U.S. schools.
Flyers president and GM Gerry Asselin said Walilko is so focused on getting a scholarship that he turned down a chance to practice, and perhaps even play, with the struggling Barrie Colts this season. The Flyers are affiliated with the Colts, who are struggling and in last place this season. Asselin said he recently had a conversation with Colts GM Jason Ford, in which Ford asked him to suggest a couple of players the Colts might have a look at down the stretch. Asselin said when he approached Walilko, he was flatly turned down.
“He’s a smart kid,” Asselin said. “He has his head screwed on right.”
A student at a Catholic high school in Barrie, Walilko said he can’t take all the credit for his success. His personal motto comes from the Bible passage Philippians 4:13, which says, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
“I’ve put it on every stick I’ve bought since I was a young kid,” Walilko said. “I grew up in a religious family and every time I’m on the ice and having a tough time, I’ll just look down at that and kind of re-motivate myself. It kind of applies to me in everything I do, not just hockey.”
Walilko will be looking to continue making a big contribution in the playoffs, but is another double-digit performance in the future?
“I don’t know if any of my backup sticks have that many points in them, but I’ll try.”
As we count down to the March 1 trade deadline, here are five of the teams that present the toughest buy-or-sell call.
We're now one week away from the trade deadline, which means the entire league is being divided into buyers and sellers. This year, there's far more of the former than the latter, so much so that it might throw the market into chaos, or maybe lead to a very quiet week.
Still, most teams know where they stand by now. If you're a Cup contender or desperate for a playoff spot, you buy. If you're already toast, then you look to the future and let the firesale begin.
But what about those teams that are stuck somewhere in between? Even this late in the season, there are still some teams that could make a good case for either side of the equation. Maybe they're not quite sure if they're still in the running, or maybe they can't decide if this is the right year to make a push. But either way, they've got a few days left to make up their minds.
As we count down until March 1, here are five of the teams that present the toughest buy-or-sell call.
Toronto Maple Leafs
The case for buying: One year into the Auston Matthews era, the Leafs have been better than most expected and are right in the mix for an Eastern Conference playoff spot – and a run at home-ice or even a division title isn't completely out of the question. The team has access to a ton of cap room and plenty of picks and prospects to work with.
And maybe more importantly, they have a three-year window while Matthews and Mitch Marner are on their rookie contracts. James van Riemsdyk's cheap deal runs for one more year after this one. William Nylander needs a new contract after next season. The time to strike could be soon.
The case for selling: "Soon" doesn't mean now. The Leafs have been patient during this rebuild, and waiting another year to really swing for the fences would be the smart play. And with a handful of rental options like Roman Polak and Matt Hunwick, collecting a few more future assets might be a smart way to prepare for what's to come.
Where they'll end up: You never know with Lou Lamoriello and his fortress of silence, but for now it sounds like they're not planning to do much.
The case for buying: After making the playoffs last year, the Flyers have taken a step back and are fading from the race. But this team is good enough to do some damage, as they showed earlier this year when they won nine straight and briefly moved into the mix with other elite teams in the Metro. Ron Hextall has been patient since taking over the GM's job, but this team hasn't won a playoff round since 2012 and Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek are in the late stages of their prime. At some point, it's time to take a step forward.
The case for selling: Timing is everything, and this year's Metro Division is so stacked that taking a run at it seems foolish. Better to move rentals like Mark Streit and Michael Del Zotto (and maybe even Steve Mason) and regroup for next year.
Where they'll end up: Their next two games are against the Capitals and Penguins, if they lose those, Hextall likely folds his hand.
The case for buying: We've been talking about the Jets as the NHL's team of the future for years now, but that future never seems to arrive. The West is wide open this year, and the path out of the Central doesn't seem as daunting as it has been in recent years. Their biggest need is goaltending, and there could be some good ones available, even as short-term rentals. With the team on the edge of the playoff bubble, this could be the year to make a push.
The case for selling: This team is good enough to make the playoffs, but are they really a threat to do much damage once they're there? The franchise has been patiently building up a young talent base since returning to Winnipeg, and abandoning that approach now just to get swept in the first round could seem like a panic move.
Where they'll end up: History tells us that GM Kevin Cheveldayoff and the Jets won't do much at all, no team has been as reluctant to trade in recent years. This could be the year that changes, especially if a goaltender shakes free as a decent value buy. Then again, it feels like we've said that before.
The case for buying: They've been bad for five straight years. Some of those were strategic, granted, but that phase of the rebuild was supposed to end in 2015 and give way to progress. There's been some, but not as much as fans probably hoped, and they're on the verge of missing the playoffs yet again.
But they've been better since a rash of injuries torpedoed their start, and they've got assets to work with to plug some holes. And in an off-year for the Atlantic, a push into the playoffs isn't far-fetched.
Again, most teams don't want to load up at the deadline just to make the playoffs and go out early. But this isn't the same situation as a team like the Jets, who didn't have to endure hitting rock bottom like the Sabres did. In Buffalo's case you wonder if even a first-round exit wouldn't represent a worthwhile investment, if only to offer long-suffering fans some hope that things are moving in the right direction.
The case for selling: They're not winning it all this year, and the roster is still young. Sure, missing the playoffs again will be frustrating, but there's no need to rush. Trust the process, trust Jack Eichel and the young core, and most of all, trust Tim Murray. At least for one more year.
Where they'll end up: Murray might tinker here or there, but any big moves to improve now would also have to extend to next season and beyond.
Tampa Bay Lightning
The case for buying: They're the Lightning. They went to the Cup final in 2015, and to the conference final in 2016. Plenty of us picked them to win it all this year. They'll be facing a cap crunch soon and their window may be closing, but on paper this team is still good enough to win it all, especially if Steven Stamkos comes back by the playoffs.
So of course you're buying. This team can win the Stanley Cup. They're the Lightning.
The case for selling: They're also terrible.
I don't know why. You don't know why. I'm not sure Steve Yzerman knows why. But they just haven't clicked all year, and they remain outside the playoffs with multiple teams to pass. Better to accept that, recoup some assets for guys like Ben Bishop and Brian Boyle, and maybe even figure out a way to dump some deals with term. For whatever reason, this just isn't their year, so start setting the table for the next ones.
Where they'll end up: Yzerman's earned the benefit of the doubt over the years, so you figure he'll make the right call one way or another. The betting is with two more home games before the deadline, he waits as long as he can before throwing in the towel. But I have them in the "sell" column.
Sean McIndoe has been writing about the NHL since 2008; you may know him from Twitter as @downgoesbrown. His e-book, The 100 Greatest Players in NHL History, is available now. He appears weekly on TheHockeyNews.com.
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.
With a 7-3 record in their past 10 games, the Hawks are beginning to look a lot like the dynasty that has won three Stanley Cups since 2010.
During the pre-game festivities at the United Center, the Blackhawks play a campy fight song called Here Come the Hawks! And as we enter the stretch drive of the season, that fight song could very well be a recurring theme.
Because, well, here come the Hawks. With a 7-3 record in their past 10 games and a seven-game winning streak on the road, the Hawks are beginning to look a lot like the dynasty that has won three Stanley Cups since 2010. Will the Blackhawks make any tweaks before the trade deadline? Well, the way some of their young players have been performing lately, that might not be necessary. With their current hot streak, particularly on the road, the Blackhawks find themselves atop THN.com’s weekly Power Rankings. (Last week’s rankings in parentheses.):
CREAM OF THE CROP
1. Chicago Blackhawks (3) 2. Florida Panthers (12) 3. New York Rangers (2) 4. Pittsburgh Penguins (5) 5. Washington Capitals (1) 6. Boston Bruins (7) 7. Minnesota Wild (4) 8. New York Islanders (16) 9. San Jose Sharks (8) 10. Toronto Maple Leafs (13)
Captain Serious Jonathan Toews is seriously heating up with 8-12-20 totals and five multi-point games in his past 12…The Panthers may have saved their season by sweeping a five-game road trip for the first time in franchise history...The Rangers’ power play has gone dry. It’s 1-for-18 in the past seven games and 3-for-39 in the past 14…Don’t look now, but the Penguins are only three back of Washington for first overall in the NHL. (The Caps have a game in hand). By the way, Dave Molinari of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette had the line of the year describing the Penguins 3-1 win over Carolina Tuesday night: “The first two periods of the Penguins’ 3-1 victory against Carolina Tuesday night at PNC Arena were, as hockey games go, a work of art,” Molinari wrote. “The kind a sleep-deprived first-grader might produce if working with a limited selection of broken crayons.”…The Capitals have used a league-low 26 players – goaltenders included – so far this season…Claude Who? The Bruins go into Wednesday's game in Anaheim 4-0-0 under interim coach Bruce Cassidy…Back in the lineup after missing four games with a knee injury, Matt Dumba was minus-4 in a 5-3 loss to Chicago Tuesday night…The Islanders are just 8-13-4 on the road, but started a brutal nine-game road trip with a 3-1 win over Detroit Tuesday night…The Sharks have lost just one regulation game in their past 10, but have dropped four in overtime and one in a shootout…After suffering a shoulder injury last week, rookie Leafs Mitch Marner is on injured reserve.
THE MUSHY MIDDLE
11. Tampa Bay Lightning (21) 12. Columbus Blue Jackets (11) 13. Ottawa Senators (20) 14. St. Louis Blues (6) 15. Montreal Canadiens (19) 16. Edmonton Oilers (10) 17. Anaheim Ducks (9) 18. Los Angeles Kings (18) 19. Calgary Flames (24) 20. Philadelphia Flyers (17)
Ben Bishop is not making things easy for the Lightning. They have a major decision to make before the trade deadline. Do they trade him to avoid losing him for nothing in the expansion draft, or do they ride his hot hand and hope they can make the playoffs?...Brandon Dubinsky is heating up for the Blue Jackets. He has 4-6-10 totals in his past nine games, including the overtime winner against his arch-rival Pittsburgh Penguins…Senators GM Pierre Dorion told TSN of Curtis Lazar, “We’re just not going to give him away.” So now they’re openly talking about trading him. Is it just me or do the Senators seem intent on ruining this kid?...With Kevin Shattenkirk and Patrik Berglund pending UFAs, Blues GM Doug Armstrong will be both a buyer and a seller at this year’s trade deadline…Paul Byron is the Canadiens’ secret weapon. He has both game-winners in the Habs’ two shootout wins this season…Brian Boyle and Martin Hanzal are the two players most linked to the Oilers at the trade deadline… In an effort to try to spread out the offense, the Ducks broke up the Andrew Cogliano-Ryan Kesler-Jakob Silfverberg line, but that didn’t last long. Coach Randy Carlyle put them back together in a 1-0 win over Los Angeles Sunday…The Kings’ 2-1 win over Colorado Tuesday night was Darryl Sutter’s 215th victory as coach, tying him with Andy Murray for No. 1 on the franchise’s all-time wins list. It was also his 1,262nd game, tying him with Jacques Lemaire for 13th on the all-time NHL list…Johnny Gaudreau had four assists in the Flames 6-5 overtime win over the Predators Tuesday night, but has just one goal in his past 20 games…The Flyers face Eastern Conference teams in 20 of their final 23 games.
VYING FOR THE PARTICIPATION BADGE
21. Winnipeg Jets (25) 22. Buffalo Sabres (22) 23. Nashville Predators (14) 24. Dallas Stars (28) 25. Arizona Coyotes (23) 26. New Jersey Devils (15) 27. Detroit Red Wings (29) 28. Vancouver Canucks (26) 29. Colorado Avalanche (30) 30. Carolina Hurricanes (27)
Patrik Laine is just the third active player – Jeff Skinner and Sidney Crosby are the two others – to score 30 goals as an 18-year-old…Evander Kane has 14 even-strength goals since Dec. 3, which is the most in the NHL in that time span…Talk about efficient. Filip Forsberg scored three goals on three shots in just 16:16 of ice time in Nashville’s 6-5 overtime loss to Calgary Tuesday night…Jamie Benn has 10-7-17 totals in his past 15 games, but the Stars are only 5-8-2 in that span…The Coyotes kicked off their annual Fire Sale by dealing pending UFA Michael Stone to Calgary last week…Just a thought here: With two years at a $5 million cap hit, is there any way 34-year-old Michael Cammalleri gets some attention at the trade deadline? Probably not…It’s pretty clear Henrik Zetterberg is doing everything he can to prevent the Red Wings from missing the playoffs on his watch. He has 5-10-15 totals in his past 13 games…Bo Horvat has 40 points this season, which matches his career high…Avs defenseman Nikita Zadorov is out for the year after breaking his ankle in practice…The Hurricanes have scored just four goals in the past five games, only two at even strength.