Kirsty Williamson, United Kingdom
Kirsty Williamson, United Kingdom
Patrick Kane. Image by: Getty Images
It wasn't easy to get off the ground, but 20 years after it began the National Team Development Program has become synonymous with grooming NHL stars like Patrick Kane.
For the current generation of supremely skilled, but not-so-big players, Chicago Blackhawks star Patrick Kane is an inspiration. The Buffalo native has weaved his 5-foot-11, 177-pound frame through NHL defenses for years, winning Stanley Cups and numerous awards along the way. For Kane, it’s a little bit of a wake-up call to realize he’s an archetype.
“I guess it means I’m getting old, right?” he said. “It’s amazing I’m in my 10th season and how fast it goes by.”
One of the major reasons Kane is where he is today is the National Team Development Program, USA Hockey’s hothouse program that brings together some of the premier under-17 and under-18 players in the nation. This season represents the 20th anniversary of the NTDP and was a major talking point during Hockey Week Across America, which is on right now. During a call promoting HWAA, Kane extolled the virtues of his time with the NTDP.
“For me, at that age, to go into a program like that – I was very undersized and it was great for me,” he said. “It had a huge impact on my development.”
Whether it was the focus on weight room time or simply learning from different athletes, Kane wrung as much as he could out of the Michigan-based program before heading off to the OHL’s London Knights. There, he crushed the competition with a league-high 145 points in 58 games before being selected first overall in the draft by the rebuilding Blackhawks in 2007.
While the NTDP has become synonymous with grooming NHL stars such as Kane, Phil Kessel and Ryan Suter, kicking off the experiment was not easy. Jordan Leopold and Adam Hall are still venerated by the program for taking a risk when the NTDP was just starting and no one knew what to expect. But it was a necessary gambit for USA Hockey at the time.
“We were not getting it done in big tournaments,” said Dave Ogrean, the soon-to-be retired executive director of USA Hockey. “And if you look at the arc that we’ve been on in the past 20 years, there has been significant improvement.”
Indeed, on top of three world junior golds in the past eight years, the U.S. has dominated the world under-18s, using a squad made up almost entirely of NTDP kids (one or two outsiders are sometimes brought in) every year.
“When you’re at The Program, there’s two big things you gear up for,” Kane said. “First is the World Under-17 Challenge, then the world under-18s. To go into a short tournament and come out on top was special for us.”
This is actually an interesting year for the NTDP’s under-18 squad. Though phenoms such as Auston Matthews, Jack Eichel and Zach Werenski are all recent alums, there’s a distinct possibility that no NTDP kids will go in the top-25 picks at the draft this summer. Since both the under-17s and under-18s play against older competition in the USHL and NCAA ranks, the NTDP kids often struggle at the beginning of each campaign, until they get physically stronger. While this season’s under-18s seemed to struggle a bit more than usual early on, the team did just win the Five Nations tourney in Sweden and scouts see them as a favorite once again for the worlds in mid-April (Canada’s efforts at the tourney are always hampered by the CHL playoffs, which run at the same time).
As for the draft anomaly, it’s just kind of a down year for Americans. Casey Mittelstadt looks like a potential top-five pick, but is splitting his time between Minnesota high school and the USHL’s Green Bay Gamblers. Kailer Yamamoto is playing for his hometown Spokane Chiefs in the WHL. One of the NTDP’s most promising prospects is defenseman Quinn Hughes, but his late birthday means he’s eligible for the 2018 draft instead.
Nonetheless, the NTDP still looks vibrant for the future. Hughes, Bode Wilde (U17) and Brady Tkachuk (another late birthday) all look like blue-chippers for next year’s draft, with other big under-17 names such as Oliver Wahlstrom, Jake Pivonka and Jake Wise right behind them.
The hothouse experiment has been tried by other countries, such as Slovakia and Russia, without much success (in Russia’s case it was the worst ever, as the team had to be replaced before the world under-18s due to a drug scandal). It’s funny to think the Americans ever needed an about-face on international success, but that also speaks to the success of the NTDP in the past 20 years. Before we know it, Eichel and Matthews will be the ones wondering where their time in the NHL has gone.
Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog and Matt Duchene
Avalanche GM Joe Sakic has been chatting with Bruins GM Don Sweeney, but is also following his team on an Eastern road trip as he looks to rebuild his roster.
Since early-December, the Colorado Avalanche have been a fixture in the NHL trade-rumor mill. Mired at the bottom of the overall standings, they need a roster shake-up. GM Joe Sakic could attempt to trade a core player, such as center Matt Duchene or left winger Gabriel Landeskog, in hopes of landing a young, skilled defenseman.
Trade chatter over the past month linked the 24-year-old Landeskog to the Boston Bruins, who need scoring depth at left wing. One rumor had Bruins GM Don Sweeney rejecting Sakic's asking price of a package with promising defenseman Brandon Carlo as the centerpiece.
On Sunday, the Landeskog-to-Boston chatter flared back to life. Fluto Shinzawa of The Boston Globe reports Sakic was spotted chatting with Sweeney in the TD Garden press box during the Bruins 4-0 win over the Montreal Canadiens.
If the Bruins want Landeskog, Shinzawa believes the price tag is a player, a draft pick and a prospect. Shinzawa thinks Sakic could still insist on Carlo as part of the return.
Terry Frei of The Denver Post reports Sakic was also expected to watch Monday's Beanpot final between Boston University and Harvard. Four Bruins prospects, including promising defenseman Charlie McAvoy, took part in that game.
The Bruins aren't the only team Sakic will follow this week. Frei reports the Avs GM will remain with his club as they swing through Buffalo to meet the Sabres and Carolina to play the Hurricanes. He notes the Hurricanes have considerable depth in young defensemen, including Justin Faulk, Jaccob Slavin, Brett Pesce and Ryan Murphy.
While the Anaheim Ducks aren't on Sakic's current scouting list, they could be another trade possibility for the Avalanche. Eric Stephens of the Orange County Register suggests Landeskog could be a good fit for the Ducks, who lack scoring punch at left wing. Like the Hurricanes, the Ducks are loaded with young blueliners.
While Cam Fowler was the subject of trade rumors earlier this season, Stephens considers him too valuable to the Ducks playoff hopes. Other options include Shea Theodore, Brandon Montour or Josh Manson.
Duchene, meanwhile, might interest the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins. On Saturday, Sportsnet's Nick Kypreos reported there's talk Penguins GM Jim Rutherford could take a run at acquiring the 26-year-old center, who can also skate on the wing. Kypreos' colleague Elliotte Friedman said Rutherford told him he's willing to do whatever it takes to win.
Rutherford's made blockbuster moves before, including his acquisition of winger Phil Kessel from the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2015. That deal, however, took place in the offseason, when he had more salary cap space to work with. With Duchene carrying a $6-million annual cap hit through 2018-19, the Penguins pressed for cap space and the Avs' high asking price, that deal could be almost impossible to pull off by the trade deadline.
Kypreos said the Hurricanes could also be in play for Duchene. Sitting 20th in goals-for per game (2.60) and power-play percentage (17.2), they would benefit from adding a proven 30-goal scorer. Along with their depth in good young defensemen, they also have plenty of cap room to take on Duchene's cap hit.
The Ottawa Sun's Bruce Garrioch also speculates the Hurricanes could pursue Duchene. He also thinks the Nashville Predators could make a push. Like the Hurricanes and Ducks, they have depth in young defensemen to tempt Sakic.
Garrioch reported Senators GM Pierre Dorion admitted having trade discussions with Sakic. While Dorion didn't say if they talked about Duchene or Landeskog, he said a deal wasn't realistic between the two clubs because the Avs sought too much in return.
St. Louis Blue defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk also remains a hot topic of discussion as the March 1 trade deadline approaches.
Earlier rumors about the 28-year-old rearguard claimed he preferred to be dealt to an Eastern Conference team, preferably in the American Northeast. However, Kypreos said Shattenkirk is open to being dealt to an Eastern Canadian team such the Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens.
Garrioch reports the Leafs, Bruins and Tampa Bay Lightning have all made pitches for Shattenkirk. He believes the Bruins are the only club with the ability to sign the blueliner to a long-term deal.
Mark Zwolinski of the Toronto Star, however, doubts the Leafs will get into the Shattenkirk sweepstakes. He cites the cost of re-signing him (at least $6-million annually), the Leafs unwillingness to part with one of their prized young players, and the eventual cost of re-signing young stars such as Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner.
Shinzawa notes the Bruins had interest in Shattenkirk at the 2016 NHL draft. Given their depth in promising young defenders, however, they might not be as keen on him as they once were. The cost of re-signing Shattenkirk could also be a sticking point.
Teams with interest in Shattenkirk apparently prefer a “sign-and-trade” scenario, rather than acquire him as a postseason rental. They don't want to part with assets at the trade deadline for a player who could depart in July for free agency.
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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Anya Battaglino in action. Image by: Courtesy of NWHL.
Meet Anya Battaglino, Connecticut Whales forward and new head of the NWHL Players’ Association. She’s on a mission not just to earn more respect for her fellow athletes, but for women in general.
Anya Battaglino had the job locked up. She was ready for an exciting new role as a tech sales rep in Stamford, Conn.,, but something didn’t quite sit right. Her new employer told her what her salary would be and, in her heart, she knew she had to take a risk and speak up. She asked him if he felt the number offered to her was appropriate and whether a male employee with the same qualifications would earn the same figure. Her frankness may not have landed her the number she truly deserved in the end, but it helped. Her employer listened.
“It did change where I was as the start of the conversation vs. the end of the conversation,” she said.
“That’s what sports gives women.”
It’s a strong-willed, inspirational perspective, befitting a leader of people, and that’s precisely what Battaglino has become. By day, Battaglino holds down that tech sales job, but she moonlights as a forward for the NWHL’s Connecticut Whale, and she was named director of the NWHL Players’ Association earlier this month.
She feels competing as a professional athlete, in North America’s first paying women’s hockey league, has rubbed off on other aspects of her life, made her more confident and willing to stand up for what she knows is right. She sees the value in athletics for all women. She’s realistic in her expectations for women’s salaries in pro sports – she knows they won’t become millionaires overnight, even if they deserve to – but she believes female athletes must respect themselves more. That means, she says, an equipment sponsorship deal should earn NWHL players some money. Speaking engagements should be paid gigs if they aren’t for charitable causes. Women provide just as much value as men in these arenas and deserve to be treated like the role models they are.
“We’re professional athletes, too, and we have that poise to say ‘No, I’m not just going to take your stick for free and give you free marketing,’ “ she said. “Why don’t you give me something or appreciate what I do?’
“It’s the principle. It’s saying, ‘If you pay Zdeno Chara $7,000 to come speak at your engagement, that’s wrong.’ Women have a very different story to tell, and it’s important.”
As you might guess, being named NWHLPA director wasn’t a case of the league and commissioner Dani Rylan searching endlessly for appropriate union heads and prompting teams to nudge candidates forward. No, Battaglino was first in line, volunteering herself. The decision was extremely easy for Rylan to make.
“It was obvious Anya wanted to take over the director role and that it was a perfect position for her,” Rylan said. “She believes in this league, and she understands the business as well as the player side and has always been such a great ambassador for the sport and the players.”
“Always” is right. Battaglino had been gradually growing into the role for years. The seeds were sown during her days attending Boston University and playing for the Terriers. She had no major leadership aspirations at the time but was forced to join a student athlete support group as a freshman walk-on. The happy accident lit a spark.
“I really fell in love with that,” she said. “I like viewing athletes in a position of power, saying, ‘Your kids should meet these people. They are doing something amazing in their own right, and they should be treated that way.’ You start looking at athletes in a different way, as a benefit to the community as opposed to just a part of it.”
Battaglino understood the privilege of playing at the highest level of women’s hockey and how she could stand out as a role model to inspire other young athletes. Before taking over as NWHLPA director, she was already prominent on social media, known for wearing GoPro cameras to document her practices and even providing some color commentary for games. She was a natural fit as player union champion. She also oozes leadership. She speaks loudly, passionately, words dripping with conviction. She has big ideas and a magnetic personality.
"I’m going to be trying to monetize my players’ time and help them to feel they’re valuable. I don't think women’s professional athletes think they are valuable, and that breaks my heart.”
“She is incredibly charismatic, outgoing, and really one of the more kind-hearted people that I’ve encountered over the last couple years on this venture,” Rylan said. “I’m incredibly honored to be working alongside her as we continue to grow as a business and make something special for the players.”
Battaglino never seems to waste a breath when she speaks, every thought she shares seemingly a meaningful quip, and maybe that’s because she actually doesn’t have time for small talk. Her average day is jaw-droppingly busy. It starts at about 5:00 a.m. She catches up on work emails she may have received overnight, as she deals with people from the west coast in her job. She gulps down a quick breakfast and hits the train by 7:00. During that two-hour commute, she dons her NWHLPA hat. She studies where the league’s dollars are allocated. She searches for causes the players can associate themselves with, such as the epically impactful 2017 Women’s March. She hunts for potential sponsorship in companies expressing love for women’s sports. She looks for speaking engagements and other ways in which the league can give back to the community. She explores publicity opportunities through the media. She works tirelessly with Rylan to get the players and league office in more of a dialogue, as Battaglino lists lack of communication within the young organization as a major early hurdle.
Then she arrives at work for her day job at 9:00. At lunch: back on the NWHL beat, where she’ll often hop on a phone call with Rylan. Then it’s work until 5:30, and more NWHL on that train home. Then she has an hour to get ready for her Whale practice at 8:40. She’s home by 10:30 and somehow expected to turn off her brain and sleep. She estimates she gets five hours of shuteye per night. And that might be too optimistic considering Rylan says she’ll sometimes get a text from Battaglino at 4:30 a.m.
So Battaglino clearly puts a lot of sweat into everything she does, and that’s what it will take to get the NWHL to new levels of popularity and the players to earn the living they deserve. Rylan said the league is a full go for Season 3, but sponsorship has remained relatively sparse, and player salaries got slashed by 38 percent this season in the interest of prolonging the league’s life. That’s a devastating number for a circuit in which the minimum pay was $10,000 and top earners Kelli Stack and Amanda Kessel got $25,000 and $26,000.
Battaglino didn’t take the news as a defeat. The day of the salary announcement, she tweeted: “It’s time to roll up our sleeves and prove ourselves now, @NWHL. Hearing ‘No’ never stopped me before…you taught me that.” And she sees a few different ways she can effect change as NWHLPA director. One is to make the sport more appealing to new fans by being more inclusive and inspiring people through sharing personal stories – something that has traditionally been stigmatized on the men’s side of hockey, at least until recently.
“I am very open about mental health awareness, trying to tell people my life hasn’t always been easy, but I have gotten to this great place in my life,” she said. “Making a kid do something like that who doesn't have hope or doesn’t think they can achieve great things, being open and honest about the problems and questions and the hardships, it makes it more relatable. Maybe a little girl read my story and was feeling down on herself, and maybe she brushed it off and went to practice that day, because I know there were times when I couldn’t.”
The natural issue for a PA director to target, likely the first one most of us think of, is player salaries. Battaglino considers herself a realist on the topic. She believes it would take at least a decade for female pro players to earn a full-time living. She doesn’t think she or the other players have reached a juncture where they can give up the separate, often highly fulfilling non-hockey lives they’ve built for themselves. She does, however, see piecemeal ways to earn better pay for NWHLPA players. It starts with proper compensation for equipment sponsorships and public appearances. Rylan says she’s discussed the topic with Battaglino and that they’re working on a platform through which players can book themselves for appearances, youth practices or to be ambassadors for certain brands – and be paid accordingly. Doing so would give the NWHLers some supplementary income while the league continues to grow and hopefully work its way back to the salary benchmarks set in year 1.
“I’m going to be trying to monetize my players’ time and help them to feel they’re valuable,” Battaglino said. “I don't think women’s professional athletes think they are valuable, and that breaks my heart.”
Her words evoke real emotion. The NWHL hasn’t yet achieved solid financial footing, and its existence remains year to year, but it’s now armed with a potent weapon, a player rep bursting with passion and ideas, and that can only help the league’s chances of surviving and thriving. What Battaglino really wants us to understand is that the NWHL and women’s sports in general can’t be treated merely as fun startup projects. They really matter. They have a role to play in the world, and it transcends sports entertainment.
“One of the things I always say is get your girls to play hockey, because it doesn’t change the world you live in, but it changes the amount of confidence you have,” Battaglino said. “Even though you’re getting paid less than the guy who didn't do half as well, it gives you the poise, dignity and confidence to go advocate for yourself, your work, your life.”
Marc-Andre Fleury. Image by: Dave Reginek/Getty Images
With parity at its zenith, Vegas looming and a so-so 2017 draft class, figuring what to do at the NHL swap meet has never been harder.
While the trade deadline tends to be one of the biggest TV days of the hockey year, its actual impact has long been exaggerated. Of course it would be glib to point out only one team – the eventual Stanley Cup winner – can really “win” the deadline, but it’s also inaccurate. That’s only true if you’re considering the “buyer” teams. The “seller” teams can also really benefit if their GMs play the field right.
Parity wreaked havoc on the trade market for most of this season, and perhaps with the blockbusters of the summer (Shea Weber for P.K. Subban, Taylor Hall for Adam Larsson), that was to be expected. But with very few teams truly out of the playoff picture and the deadline approaching, GMs have to be cagey this season.
The Buffalo Sabres, for example, were at the bottom of the Eastern Conference as February began, but the rebuilding team is still only a hot streak away from wild-card contention.
“In the calls I make and the ones I take, I inquire about buying and I also listen to what people are asking for,” said GM Tim Murray. “So I’m kind of on both sides of the fence.”
An important reminder for teams that aren’t at the top of the standings is that building a franchise takes many careful steps, and a quick score at the trade deadline must be evaluated against long-term desires.
“Last year, as far as selling, I would have listened to anything reasonable, no question,” Murray said. “I definitely wouldn’t have bought anything that would have gone away from the plan, and I’m not sure I would this year, either. If I’m going to buy someone, I’d obviously like them to be young and someone we’d have around for awhile, but that’s not always easy.”
Figuring out exactly when your team has become a buyer or seller can be tricky, too. Ray Shero had some great deadlines as a buyer in Pittsburgh, but now he’s seeing the other side in New Jersey, as the Devils try to find their footing.
“Last year in New Jersey was the first year I really sold, and we took it all the way to the end with guys like Lee Stempniak,” Shero said. “We played Cory Schneider every game, but we just couldn’t get there. If we were five points in, it might have been different, but at the time it felt like the right thing to do and, in retrospect, it was definitely the right thing to do, so there are a lot of factors in play.”
Shero did end up dealing Stempniak to Boston, getting a fourth-rounder in 2016 (goalie Evan Cormier) and a second-rounder in 2017. The Bruins, incidentally, ended up missing the playoffs.
Another complication this season involves the Vegas expansion draft. Teams are limited in the amount of players they protect, but they must also have a certain threshold of eligible NHL players to expose. That means guys on expiring contracts aren’t as valuable as they would be in previous years.
“If you can get a real good player, you’re going to get that player,” Shero said. “But it’s happened a lot during the season where one player has a contract for next year and if he plays eight more games this season, he’s a guy we can expose, and we didn’t have that before. Teams are constantly evaluating.”
Even those on the waiver wire can be more valuable right now. Part of the reason they have been on waivers in the first place is contract status, but now another franchise may seek them out in order to expose them to the Golden Knights in the summer. On either side of the ledger, GMs and their fellow team execs are keeping constant tabs on their expansion draft situation, including the criteria of whom to expose.
And while the deadline is seen as a time for short-term gains, that’s mostly from the perspective of fans and the players. For execs, it’s all about the long term.
“The trade deadline gets overblown,” Murray said. “Sellers can certainly acquire assets that help you on draft day, and teams that are playoff bound realize it and try to give their team a jolt, but it’s not a blockbuster, long-term solution. Draft day is still the day.”
Which is why it’s interesting to see so many draft picks and prospects tossed around in deals. Unfortunately for buyer GMs, it’s the price of business. The important thing to do is never look back. With draft picks, that’s not as difficult, because every team has a very different list heading into the day. So when Shero acquired Marian Hossa from Atlanta in 2008, the 29th overall pick became Daultan Leveille for Atlanta – but the Pens wouldn’t have necessarily picked the Michigan State commit had they held on to that selection.
“The prospects you kinda know,” Shero said. “With the Jarome Iginla deal, we traded Kenny Agostino and Ben Hanowski to Calgary and they never really ended up playing, though Kenny is doing great in the minors this year. But they were assets in a deal. Same thing with Angelo Esposito (in the Hossa deal). You don’t hope they go to the Hall of Fame, but you hope they do OK. Hopefully it works for both sides.”
According to one director of scouting, the fact 2017 is seen as a down draft year is already affecting trade deadline preparation. A first-rounder in 2017 isn’t expected to have the same impact as the player chosen in the same range last year, so if your team sells off a roster player to say, Chicago or Pittsburgh at the deadline, that 28th overall pick is probably worth the same as a mid-second-rounder or worse in previous years. This is information GMs request before they seriously hit the phones.
“I still think the draft is the biggest day for us, no question,” Murray said. “You’re building your future. You look back at the history of the draft, and there’s a big difference between teams who kill it and teams who have a bad draft. Those decisions impact you for 20 years.”
Though the NHL’s parity has caused a logjam for deals so far, it only takes one or two moves before a flood is possible. The best GMs will be thinking about their short-term needs without mortgaging their future, and if it all works out, they’ll get a parade at the end of the journey. For everyone else, the gun sights turn to next season.