#NJDvsNYR https://t.co/IcFFCdDdMT — NHL (@NHL) October 18, 2015
#NJDvsNYR https://t.co/IcFFCdDdMT — NHL (@NHL) October 18, 2015
Bill Foley and George McPhee
Claude Julien's off the board as a free agent coach, but there are several other out-of-work bench bosses vying for the job with the Golden Knights. But who should Vegas choose?
The Vegas Golden Knights are coming together quickly, and are just a couple weeks (and an important payment to the NHL) away from even being able to make trades. They have a lot of front office pieces in place except for one notable addition still to be made -- the coach. And given the number of high-profile coaches who have recently become unemployed, the Knight appear to have a decent pool of candidates to draw from.
So here are our picks for who should be the first coach in team history. Turns out only two stand out above the rest.
Golden Knights GM George McPhee said he’s open to looking at all options for Vegas’ first coach, but the sense is he’s leaning towards a more experienced, veteran coach who can come in and instantly establish himself in the dressing room. Hard to think of a coach who brings with him more clout than Hitchcock, who’s two wins away from becoming the third winningest in league history. Were it not for some shaky goaltending, he’d likely be in position to coach for the Stanley Cup this season, but Hitchcock’s bad luck could be the Golden Knights’ good fortune.
Strategically, there’s not a better coach available than Hitchcock, and he has the ability to take a ragtag group assembled through the expansion draft and put them into a place to compete for a playoff spot in their first season. It’s not an easy task, but one made that much easier by nabbing the best coach available on the market. (Jared Clinton)
I know Habs fans will probably groan at this answer, but Therrien would give the Golden Knights instant credibility and years of NHL coaching experience. Look at some of the most successful expansion teams of the past and you'll find an old hand behind the bench: Minnesota and Jacques Lemaire, Florida and Roger Nielsen, St. Louis and Scotty Bowman (who took over midway through the first season from the also-experienced Lynn Patrick), to name a few.
It's not fun and yes, it's kinda boring, but Therrien has been to a Stanley Cup final and gone on numerous playoff runs. His act may have worn thin in Montreal, but Vegas will need a strong personality right off the hop and Therrien can be that guy. I'm not saying he's the long-term solution – ideally Vegas finds their Al Arbour or Fred Shero once the Knights get settled in after a few seasons – but he's a great option to get the ball rolling. (Ryan Kennedy)
It’s pretty simple, really. Ken Hitchcock has worked for three GMs in his NHL coaching career – Bob Clarke, Bob Gainey and Doug Armstrong. It’s important that he have a good relationship with his GM and, guess what? He and George McPhee happen to be pretty good friends. And despite Hitchcock’s pronouncement at the beginning of the season that this would be his last as a coach, he has backed off on that and is believed now to still be considering his options. All of which makes Vegas the perfect landing spot for both him and the Golden Knights. Look at it this way, this team is not going to be tanking off the hop because the talent the NHL is making available will make it impossible to do so. They’re going to get two very good NHL goalies and the team will be stocked with mid-range forwards and defensemen, good players at the NHL level who have character, compete and experience. They may have trouble scoring, but they’ll also be a bugger to play against. Now is that the perfect template for a Ken Hitchcock team or what? It should happen, it must happen and we’re betting heavily that it will happen. (Ken Campbell)
Michel Therrien is my pick. He has lots of recent experience with veteran-laden clubs, having guided the Montreal Canadiens through some decent regular seasons and several playoff series victories. Therrien isn't known for leaning on his youngsters, which is fine – as the Vegas squad will take a few years to stockpile draft picks and line its system with legit young prospects. The expansion draft should give the Golden Knights a bunch of bona fide NHLers, creating the need for a coach to merely keep a veteran squad relevant and prevent it from embarrassing itself in front of an unpredictable fan market. The Ken Hitchcocks and Gerard Gallants of the world have shepherded young teams in recent seasons, and those are the types of coaches the Golden Knights might prefer two or three years from now. (Matt Larkin)
Illustration by Ben Shannon.
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.”
Isaac Ratcliffe. Image by: Mathieu Belanger/Getty Images
Isaac Ratcliffe pairs good hockey sense and deft hands with a 6-foot-6 frame, though he could add some weight and muscle.
The big news of the week in the prospect world is that Regina will host the 100th Memorial Cup next year. The WHL’s Pats are one of the best teams in the CHL already and won’t lose too many significant parts over the summer, so they’ll be very competitive hosts – and hey, perhaps the defending champions. Elsewhere, Chicago pick and Erie Otters star Alex DeBrincat continued his assault on the record books by breaking the 50-goal mark for the third straight season. No one had done that in the modern OHL and Dale McCourt was the last before that, dating back to 1977. Let’s take a look at who else is making noise around the world right now.
Isaac Ratcliffe, LW – Guelph Storm (OHL): At 6-foot-6 and nearly 200 pounds already, there’s an obviousness to Ratcliffe’s potential. The fact he marries his great frame with good hockey sense and deft hands makes it all the more clear why the left winger will be one to watch in the first round of the draft this summer. Not that it’s easy to grow that frame.
“The past couple years I’ve definitely been conscious of what I’ve been eating,” Ratcliffe said. “I have that skinny-lean body and I need to get thicker. Eating well, putting on some mass and muscle will be part of getting to the next level.”
Right now, he’s getting help from fellow Storm forward Givani Smith, a Detroit Red Wings pick who plays a hard game, but laces it with skill.
“Being an older guy here, he’s definitely a strong leader,” Ratcliffe said. “He’s a big man like me and I’ve taken some pages from his book, try to play a bit like him.”
Ratcliffe likes to use his size and smarts to his advantage, whether it’s along the wall or down low by the net. He showed a nice touch at the CHL Top Prospects Game and leads the Storm with 44 points through 55 games. That’s not exactly a huge total, but Guelph is in the midst of a serious rebuild that saw the team bottom out last season. With Ratcliffe, Smith and top OHL pick Ryan Merkley growing together, there’s hope for the future. And even though the Storm will likely finish last in the Western Conference, at least there has been more wins than in last year’s rough campaign.
“It was tough, but we tried to keep a strong head on our shoulders,” Ratcliffe said. “We weren’t separate off the ice, we just weren’t clicking on the ice.”
The big left winger still wants to get stronger and faster, but with his foundation, he already has a nice set of tools to entice scouts with.
In the Pipeline
Jonathan Dahlen, LW (Ottawa): One of the top junior-aged snipers in Sweden’s Allsvenskan (just below the SHL) all season, Dahlen is playing on Timra’s top line and excelling. The smart and skilled youngster now has 39 points in 41 games against men.
Ethan Bear, D (Edmonton): The WHL’s player of the week, Bear put up a sick 10 points in his past five games – not bad for a blueliner. The right-shot D-man has a sturdy frame and loves to jump into the rush for the Seattle Thunderbirds.
Filip Hronek, D (Detroit): Thanks to eight points in his past three outings, Hronek is now averaging more than a point per game in his rookie OHL season with Saginaw. The offensive defenseman from the Czech Republic has a wicked shot and lots of puckhandling skills, though he still needs to get stronger.
Peter Thome, G (Columbus): Part of a big USHL goalie trade carousel, the new Waterloo Black Hawk repaid his squad by earning goalie of the week honors in the league. Thome, a 6-foot-3 North Dakota commit, had two wins (including a shutout) and a .964 save percentage to pick up the honors.
Adam Gaudette, C (Vancouver): Now riding an 11-game point streak for Northeastern, Gaudette has been deadly as the Huskies’ second-line center. The NCAA sophomore goes to the tough areas and is reliable in both ends, as well.
2017 Draft Stars
Finn Evans, RW – St. Michael’s Buzzers (OJHL): A two-way forward who plays in all situations for the Buzzers, Evans has five points in his past five games. The Princeton commit works hard and loves to spin off defenders when he has the puck.
Denis Smirnov, LW – Penn State Nittany Lions (Big Ten): His size and skating will likely hold him back until the later rounds of the draft, but Smirnov has incredible offensive skills, no doubt. One of the top scorers in the conference, the puck wizard has 39 points in 28 games as a freshman.
Rickard Hugg, C – Leksand Stars (Swe.): A two-way center who can also slide seamlessly to the wing, Hugg captained Sweden’s Five Nations squad recently and has been very reliable wearing the blue and gold. Locally, he had three points in his most recent win with Leksand’s junior squad, one of the best in the league.
Aleksi Heponiemi, C – Swift Current Broncos (WHL): Small but feisty, Heponiemi is quick on the forecheck and creates a ton of offensive opportunities for the Broncos. The 5-foot-10, 141-pound Finn has 70 points through 58 games in his first ‘Dub’ campaign.
Mathieu Charlebois, D – Halifax Mooseheads (QMJHL): There’s a lot of raw potential in the 6-foot-3, 206-pounder, but it will take time for it to come together. Charlebois has taken on a big, physical burden for a young Mooseheads blueline and scouts like his “boisterous” game.
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.”
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