June 26, 2019

Roberto Luongo Retires

Roberto Luongo is undoubtedly the greatest goaltender in Vancouver Canucks history. He should be given more consideration as the greatest player in franchise history, too.

Of course, the previous statement is also every bit as accurate if we change the change to the Florida Panthers.

Through his eight seasons with the Canucks, Luongo left a lasting legacy for the city of Vancouver — mostly good but some bad.

The veteran netminder is the Canucks’ all-time leader in wins and shutouts. He also poked fun at his own contract when the team couldn’t trade him at the 2013 trade deadline, and is known for a zany sense of humour on his popular Twitter account.

Luongo began his tenure with the Canucks after being acquired from the Panthers on June 23, 2006. With this blockbuster move - the Canucks sent beleaguered Todd Bertuzzi the other way - a new era of hope arrived in Vancouver.

Luongo came in as a savior. He was this spectacular goalie, constantly on highlight reels but always on poor teams. In New York. In Florida. Probably ever since he was a kid. Even in Vancouver when he first arrived, he gave poor teams chances to win games, and in doing so he provided hope.

The early part of the 2008-09 season saw Luongo at his regular-season best. During a three-game stretch against the Predators, Coyotes and Wild, Luongo registered three straight shutouts. His overall shutout streak lasted 242:36 minutes, eclipsing the team record he set the previous year.

More than two years later the Canucks made the unconventional move of naming their goalie the team’s 12th captain in history. It was short lived but there was no denying the always popular Lou was the team’s best player.

The 2010 season provided Luongo financial security and the chance of a lifetime. On Sept. 2, he signed a 12-year, $64-million US contract. The year would get significantly better. After being named to Canada’s Olympic team for the Vancouver Winter Games, Luongo replaced Martin Brodeur during the tournament. His steady play helped Canada in its run to a memorable Olympic gold medal, winning four straight elimination games under the most intense circumstances perhaps ever faced.

After several disappointing playoff seasons, the Canucks finally broke through in 2011. They got a scare in the first round against the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks. Vancouver took the first three games, only to lose the next three.

It took a Game 7 overtime win to get by Chicago, but the Canucks advanced all the way to the Stanley Cup final. Vancouver appeared on the verge of capturing the city’s first title as it took a 3-2 series lead over the Boston Bruins. However, a brutal Game 6 loss in Boston brought the series back to Vancouver for a seventh and deciding game. The battered and bruised Canucks were then overwhelmed in a devastating 3-0 loss, leaving a bitter taste in fans mouths to this day.

By the time the 2013 trade deadline rolled around, Luongo saw the writing on the wall. The team seemed poised to move on with upstart Cory Schneider, but there was one small problem. The Canucks couldn’t unload Luongo and his fat contract at the deadline. In an interview that went viral, Luongo gave his blunt reasoning as to why he wasn’t dealt. “My contract sucks,” he memorably proclaimed.

Luongo was eventually traded back to the Florida Panthers — where he is also the greatest goalie in that franchise’s history — one day before the 2014 trade deadline. Canucks GM Mike Gillis, who completely botched the goaltending situation by also trading Schneider at the 2013 NHL draft, was fired after the team failed to make the playoffs a month later.

Luongo retired in 2019 after 1,044 games, 489 wins (third all time), 77 shutouts and 19 campaigns in the big leagues. He is also a two-time QMJHL champion, has two World Championship golds, one World Cup gold and the famous Olympic gold in Vancouver. He is undoubtedly bound for the Hockey Hall of Fame as soon as 2022.

June 25, 2019

Hockey Hall of Fame Class of 2019

The Hockey Hall of Fame announced their induction class of 2019 today.

Canadian women's hockey legend Hayley Wickenheiser headlines the class of six. Joining her in the player category are NHL stars Guy Carbonneau and Sergei Zubov, and Czech hockey legend Vaclav Nedomansky. Long time GM Jim Rutherford and Boston College coach Jerry York were selected in the builder category.

The induction ceremony will take place on November 18th.

Wickenheiser was the only first-year eligible player to be selected. Other notable first timers Vincent Lecavalier and Patrik Elias were overlooked.

Wickenheiser retired as the all-time leading scorer after 23 years on the national team. The native of Shaunavon, Saskatchewan was the best women's player on the planet during that time, winning four Olympic gold medals.

Carbonneau, of Sept-Iles, Quebec, is a breath of fresh air for the Hall. Instead of looking at the many forwards who piled up large point totals during the high scoring 80s, Carbonneau was known as the premiere defensive forward of his time. He won three Selke Awards along with three Stanley Cups.

Zubov was a brilliant offensive defenseman who helped the New York Rangers win the Stanley Cup in 1994 and the Dallas Stars in 1999.

Nedomansky played 12 seasons in Bratislava before becoming the first athlete from an Eastern European communist country to defect to North America to pursue a pro hockey career. He played in the WHA with Toronto and Birmingham before joining the Detroit Red Wings as a 33-year-old rookie in 1977. His NHL days were very late in his illustrious career, but he was a dominant player on the international scene and a true pioneer of hockey.

Rutherford has been a general manager in the NHL since the 1980s, winning Stanley Cups with Carolina and Pittsburgh (2).

York has been a head coach in the NCAA since 1972 and has won five national championships.

June 23, 2019

Pucks On The 'Net: World Yawn of Hockey

The big headline out of the NHL this day is that the NHL and NHLPA are going to reboot the World Cup of Hockey.

Again.

AGAIN!!!!

Let's review. There was this fantastic tournament called the Canada Cup from 1976 to 1991. Essentially it was a true world championship between the Soviets and the Canadians, who, unlike at the Olympics and Worlds, had their absolute best roster available. It was fantastic hockey, featuring some of the greatest moments in international hockey history.

Gary Bettman took over the tournament and rebranded it as the World Cup of Hockey in 1996. That's okay. By this time much of the rest of the world had caught up, with the Americans, Swedes, Czechs, Slovaks and Finns all challenging for top bidding. Bettman's dream scenario played out, with the Americans topping the Canadians for the inaugural championship. The importance of that win on the now-fully-blossoming American hockey scene can not be overlooked.

And then the NHL screwed it all up, time and time again. Lets' see. They didn't host another tournament until 2004. Canada won that one, but really no one much cared about that tournament. It finished on the eve of the NHL lockout announcement that would cost everyone the 2004-05 NHL season.

And then they didn't get around to having another tournament until 2016. It was kind of a gimmicky tourney with teams featuring under 23 North American stars and a team called Europe, comprising all the various nations that weren't big enough to compete on their own. Nonetheless, the tournament had a couple memorable highlights, but it paled in comparison to the Olympics. It was not even close!

And then NHL has never announced any plans to hold it again.

This is in the news again as the NHL and NHLPA are discussing the international calendar as part of the next Collective Bargaining Agreement dialogue. It's a pawn in a much bigger game of labour negotiations. The PA wants to go the Olympics, the League does not. They'd rather host their own tournament to recoup costs.

Today's headline really did not suggest what the plan is for the future of the World Cup of Hockey, because there is no plan. And they've destroyed whatever shine this tournament once held. No one cares any more. It's a cash grab held out of convenience.

It's time to let it die.


June 22, 2019

Pucks On The 'Net: Jim Benning Retraction

Oh Jimbo.

Yesterday I praised Jim Benning for nice moves involving Alexander Edler and Vasili Podkolzin.

Today, well, much of Canucks fandom is mad at Benning again.

Every hockey fan in the world knows you don't give up your first round pick when picking up another team's salary dump. 

Someone forgot to tell Jim.

Benning traded a conditional first rounder, meaning it is in the deep 2020 draft if the Canucks make the playoffs next year and in 2021 if they don't, along with a third rounder in 2019 and minor league goalie Marek Mazanek to Tampa Bay for J.T. Miller.

Now Miller is an excellent add, checking many boxes for the Canucks. They could use 2 or 3 more J.T. Millers. But they paid a steep price to get him, and kind of look silly in doing so.

While Canucks fans are up in arms today, they will come to like Miller once he takes to the ice. He is really solid in pretty much every aspect of the game. He's only 26 and has a reasonable salary cap number.

And if he can help the Canucks back to the playoffs, he will help Benning keep his job. He needs to acquire at least a couple of defensemen if that's going to happen, but Benning thinking the playoffs are within is reach is not delusional. The Canucks had strong goaltending from Jacob Markstrom, a budding superstar in Elias Pettersson and hopefully another rookie difference maker in Quinn Hughes. And the Pacific Division looked horrendous last season, so there is a shot. 

Pucks On The 'Net: Jim Benning

I have been increasingly voicing my displeasure with Jim Benning as the Vancouver Canucks general manager of late.

But Benning has had a very good week this week. I'm still not really seeing Benning's grand vision, but this week was good.

First he signed veteran defenseman Alexander Edler to a very reasonable 2 year, $6 million per year contract. He gave the veteran the respect he deserved with the desired no-trade clause and buyout proof bonus structure. In exchange he kept Edler at a very reasonable price and the desired term for the team. This way they do not have to expose Edler in the Seattle expansion draft, allowing them to protect a younger player.

All said and done, it was a deal that, on both sides, made a whole lot of sense. In these days of free agency, it's not often you can say that.

Benning then used the 10th overall selection to draft Russian star Vasili Podkolzin. It was an announcement that kind of stunned the home town audience and might not prove to be the most popular move this weekend, but it was the right move for the organization. For a GM who is so far without a contract extension and under pressure to return the team to the playoffs this coming year or possibly lose his job, it was not the easy way out.  Matt Boldy or even pint-sized Cole Caulfield would have been easier choices to appease the onlookers, though they would not have stepped into the line-up immediately either.

Podkolzin will be viewed as risky by fans because a) the Canucks have not had much luck with Russians since Pavel Bure demanded to be traded more than 20 years ago and b) Podkolzin is under contract in the KHL for 2 more years. Impatient fans will have to wait at least that long to see what they got this weekend.

But it was the right move because Podkolzin was the best player available at the 10th pick. History very well might prove otherwise, but at this stage no prospect remaining has the tool kit that Podkolzin has.  He is a pure goal scorer with a nasty, physical edge to him. If his name was Johnny Smith and he played in Kamloops, fans would love this guy.

But he's not. He's in Russia and will be for a while. Not that any other prospect at the 10 spot would make immediate returns anyway. So he has some time for his game to mature and to learn English.

In a best case scenario, Podkolzin may prove to be a new era's Jaromir Jagr. I'm not saying he's anywhere near as good as Jagr or his game even resembles JJ's. I'm thinking back to the 1990 NHL draft when the top two prospects were billed as Mike Ricci and Petr Nedved, with Owen Nolan and Keith Primeau rising fast in their draft years. History shows us the draft order went Nolan, Nedved, Primeau, Ricci, but clearly the best player available that year was the fifth overall pick, Jaromir Jagr.

Jagr would have very likely been the top overall pick in a landslide that draft year, and history clearly shows he should have been. But back then Jagr's release date from the still Communist state of Czechoslovakia was unknown. He was not expected to come to North America for at least a couple years, and possibly for quite a while beyond that.

But the Pittsburgh Penguins did the right thing and drafted the best player available. As it turned out, the Penguins were able to secure his playing rights and freedom for the 1990-91 season.

Jagr of course went on to help the Penguins with back-to-back Stanley Cups, as well as winning five NHL scoring titles (including four in a row from 1998 to 2001), three Pearson (now Lindsay) awards, and a Hart trophy. Jagr still plays back home in the Czech Republic, and he exited the NHL as the second highest scoring player of all time, behind only Wayne Gretzky.

Vasili Podkolzin will very likely not have a career as good as Jaromir Jagr's, but he could prove to a better player than some of those chose ahead of him. If so, that's a very good thing for the Canucks one day, whether Jim Benning is still around or not by then.

June 17, 2019

Pucks On The 'Net: Jacob Trouba

There was not a hockey fan in the world who did not know Jacob Trouba was going to get traded this summer. It was just a matter of where.

The Winnipeg Jets had to move their top pairing, right handed defenseman because a) they are so tight up against the salary cap and b) Trouba would walk at the end of next season for nothing. Trouba has openly wanted to leave and play for American based teams, and everyone knew he would leave next summer leaving the Jets with nothing but an empty bag.

So the Jets did the best they could, trading Trouba to the New York Rangers in exchange for the 20th overall pick in the 2019 draft and promising defenseman Neal Pionk.

The Rangers, of course, are fast-tracking their impressive rebuild by landing one of the top defensemen in hockey. They still have to re-sign him but the expectation is they will be able to get that done at some point this season if not sooner.

The Jets, famous for their stockpiling of prospects, get two in this deal. We will have to wait and see who they select with the 20th overall pick. In Neal Pionk they get a strong puck moving blue liner who led the Rangers power play in his first NHL season last year.

But the Jets also free themselves up some $5 million in salary cap room. So essentially this trade is not completed until we see what the Jets are able to do with that. Could they sign their own UFA in Tyler Myers with that money? Or do they sign another top player?


Pucks on the 'Net: Erik Karlsson

The days leading up to the NHL draft and then into free agency are probably the most interesting days of the year in hockey.

Once the Stanley Cup is awarded, all teams are back on even ground. The new season has begun, as far as I am concerned, because all the headlines created in the next two or three weeks are for the 2019-20 season and beyond.

So let's start looking at these headlines, starting with San Jose re-signing Erik Karlsson before he hit the open market.

The pundits always said Erik Karlsson would command top dollar, and he certainly got that from San Jose. Many wondered if San Jose would be able to keep Karlsson at this price, with names like Joe Pavelski, Joe Thornton, Joonas Donskoi, Kevin Labanc, Tim Meier and Gustav Nyquist, along with role players Michael Haley and Tim Heed.

Under Wilson's tutelage the Sharks are known as a model franchise not because of their top end talent but their impressive pipeline of supporting talent. The model probably should have had the Sharks letting Karlsson walk and keeping their depth. Tough decisions lie ahead and players will leave as salary cap casualties. Now it looks like their depth will be depleted notably. We will have to see if the pipeline is ready to fill the gap.

The fascinating question now is who is leaving? Do not think it is Joe Pavelski just because he's the biggest ticket remaining. The only way the life long Shark and team captain leaves San Jose is if he wants to. The Sharks will figure something out there, and with Meier and Lebanc too, likely at the expense of names like Justin Braun, Brenden Dillon, Marcus Sorenson and Melker Karlsson.

Nyquist and Donskoi are likely left unsigned, but what becomes of Joe Thornton? The veteran will only play hockey in one other spot outside of San Jose, and that's in Davos, Switzerland where has previously mused about finishing career. Thornton could do quite well financially in Switzerland, where his wife is from, but money likely isn't his biggest concern at this stage of his long career. It's just a matter of how much of a discount he will give to stay in San Jose.

Of course much of this could be alleviated if the Sharks could move Evander Kane and his $7-plus million cap hit. Kane has a no trade clause to all but three teams in the league, so he's far from an easy move. He still has a rap as a bit of a headache for teams, though he had a really good year in San Jose. His playoffs were a little less impressive.

Somehow Doug Wilson and the Sharks always gets things done. My bet is the Sharks will be back near the top next year, not just because of the big contracts they're handing out, but rather because of the next generation of Sharks talent about to join the team. Dylan Gambrell had a good first year in the AHL and Lukas Radil will get more ice time. Julius Bergman, Radim Simek and Joakim Ryan should get looks on the blue line. Tim Heed could return on a cheap, short deal.

These are mostly short term plugs that the Sharks are hoping their top end talent can get by with. Outside of defenseman Ryan Merkley, the Sharks don't have many notable prospects in their system right now. Expect that to be Wilson's next focus to address going forward.