October 25, 2020

Calgary Canucks

There have been more than a few passing references to the "Calgary Canucks" these days. 

It seems the NHL's Calgary Flames off-season game plan is to fill roster holes by raiding the unrestricted free agents of their arch rival Vancouver Canucks.

Of course that is highlighted by stealing MVP goaltender Jacob Markstrom. The Flames handed Markstrom an exorbitant contract of $36 million over the next six years. They will likely regret that contract one day. But for the next two or three years he will give them excellent goaltending.

The Flames also took long time Vancouver defenseman Chris Tanev. Tanev has long been an underrated defensive stalwart, along the lines of a Kevin Lowe or Brad McCrimmon. They over paid for him, especially given his long injury history, but when Tanev is on the ice he will be a coach's dream.

They also took Louis Domingue, the Canucks third goalie on the depth charts. He will simply be a minor league fill in to be called up when necessary.

And now the Flames have taken a wise gamble on winger Josh Leivo. Leivo is an analytics darling who was on the verge of a breakout season last year before badly breaking his knee cap. There were probably more than a few teams willing to lowball Leivo with a show-me-what-you-got contract for one year. If he's healthy he will certainly be a nice depth piece.

Now, back to all those Calgary Canucks comments. Did you know there actually is a long standing hockey team in Calgary called the Canucks?

The Alberta Junior Hockey League's Calgary franchise is named the Canucks, and has been since 1971. Only the Spruce Grove Saints have been in this league longer, mind you they originated as the Edmonton Movers/Mets until 1974.

The list of notable players who graduated from the Calgary Canucks includes goaltenders Mike Vernon, Ben Scrivens, Corey Hirsch and Aaron Dell, as well as skaters Dany Heatley, Dana Murzyn, Ken Sutton and Craig Adams.

That list of goaltending alumni bodes well for Jacob Markstrom. But Flames fans had better hope their "Calgary Canucks" have better luck at the NHL level than the junior team has had as of late. They have only won 18 games in the last two seasons combined. They are coached and managed by another former Vancouver Canucks player, Brad Moran who played three games for the Canucks in 2006-07.

Traditionally the Canucks are one of the strongest franchises in AJHL history. They won nine championships and hold the AJHL records for most wins and regular season championships. They set a record with 34 consecutive playoff appears. They graduated a total of 40 NHL players and secured close to 300 scholarships to universities all across North America.

October 15, 2020

That Was Fun, But What's Next?

The rushed off-season following the Stanley Cup playoffs bubble promised to be the most fascinating period of business in NHL history since the lost lockout season of 2004-05. There is certainly a lot to unpack in virtually every market. It has been hard to keep up. 

But now that all the trades and all the signings are quietening down, and while the hope and renewal has been cathartic, reality is now starting to set in. And the reality is maybe all this was for not? 

Can the NHL have a season in 2020-21? With all the complications of the global pandemic and closed international borders, is it possible to play? Likely not without major changes, which while that can be exciting in itself makes for the new normal to be anything but normal.

Reality is somehow the NHL will have some sort of a season, somehow. But the next two seasons will definitely not be business as usual. The business is fine long term, but there will be very real hurt over the next couple of campaigns. Players, management, owners and franchises will all take a big hit. 

The lack of player development in this time span is what I find fascinating. There are so many great young players right now, but what happens if there is no junior or college or minor pro leagues to play in? You can only train in the gym and work with skills coaches one on one on the ice for so long. These players need games to play. The ripple effect of this lack of development will reach for years, as kids in peewee hockey in many regions aren't getting on the ice either.

What I will be watching for going forward is how teams are investing in player development. Because the teams that do that the best will have a big head start when things do return to normal in a couple of years.

September 28, 2020

Tampa Bay Lightning Are 2020 Stanley Cup Champions

Congratulations go out to the Tampa Bay Lightning for winning the 2020 Stanley Cup championship. It was arguably the most difficult championship in the storied history of the trophy. The Lightning truly endured and are worthy champions.

Congratulations goes out to the NHL who pulled off this miraculous set up to get the season completed. They gave us an exemplary Stanley Cup tournament full of integrity. And let's not forget to thank all the support staff within the bubble, from the hotel staff to the arena staff to all the coordinators. This could not have happened without them.

Perhaps everyone else is already focused on what's next, even though no one really knows what is next. It will be a fascinating off-season, and we have no firm idea when we will see hockey again.

Stay safe everyone.

September 27, 2020

Pucks On The 'Net

The Stanley Cup final is an interesting time, and more so this year. Unless you are loyal to the two teams involved, most of the league and it's fans, about 94% of the league, are focused on what is to come as soon as it is all over. 

I say more so this year because the off-season seems to be such a foreign process, with flat salary caps, reduced budgets, and complete uncertainty over the economics of the entire industry for the next number of years. It is scary as it is fascinating.

Here's some Pucks On The 'Net:

Vancouver Canucks

Let's start with my favorite team, the Canucks. What the team does with MVP Jacob Markstrom is perhaps the most captivating story line of all. There are no easy decisions especially when whatever choice is made will have repercussions for the franchise for years to come. At this time it sounds like negotiations are not going well. The Canucks apparently are not putting a no-movement clause on the table, and want a shorter term deal. Markstrom must know he could get more money elsewhere.

I think the Canucks have to approach all off-season decisions with two or three years down the road as the focal point. If you look down that road, you see three clear points that must happen for the Canucks to contend:

  1. The Canucks need to greatly improve the back end, likely needing to add two or preferably three strong defensemen.
  2. Upcoming rookies Nils Hoglander and Vasili Podkolzin absolutely have to make an impact to fill out the roster. That's not likely for two more seasons, but if the can contribute while on their cost-effective Entry Level Contracts, that will be a real key.
  3. They have to continue to get great goaltending.
Markstrom should continue to give Vancouver great goaltending for another 2 or 3 years, but then history tells us older goalies fade away. Thatcher Demko is a fantastic goalie of the future, but still no sure thing. But he could be traded off for one of those missing dmen the team needs so badly. Letting Markstrom go does not accomplish that. 

I don't know what the answers are. But I'm really starting to think trading off promising pieces like Demko, Jake Virtanen and Adam Gaudette to strengthen the team immediately while Elias Petterson, Quinn Hughes and maybe Jacob Markstrom are all in place is the best way to pry open the Stanley Cup window. 

Taylor Hall

Taylor Hall is an unrestricted free agent and looking to cash in. I don't doubt that he is genuine when he says finding the right fit on a winning team is first and foremost on his goals list, but you know he's going to cash in. 

And that team will be making a big mistake.

I have long said Taylor Hall is the most overrated player of his era, like Todd Bertuzzi before him. He has a lot of great attributes, but the bottom line is he needs other players to make him better. The biggest contracts should go to the true superstars of the game, the guys who make others better just by being on the ice. 

Hall is too much of a solo player. He is great at gaining the offensive zone and then driving to the net for the scoring chance. And while he scores at a higher rate than many, most of the time his play results in a goalie save and faceoff. I'd much rather have a player who can gain the zone and then set up a sustained bout of pressure involving his teammates. A momentum changing shift rather than a one-and-done event.

Hall is a player I would never have on my hockey team.

Stuetzle vs Byfield

The NHL Entry Draft will feature no surprises at the top. The lottery winning New York Rangers will select Alexis Lafreniere, the clear top prospect.

Los Angeles picks second, and common thought says they are choosing between OHL's Quinton Byfield and Germany's Tim Stuetzle.  Byfield, a giant center, might have the higher upside, while Stuetzle is NHL ready right now. Byfield still needs some developing. 

If I am the Kings, I'm taking Stuetzle. Who knows what the development pipeline will look like at the junior and minor pro levels over the next couple of years. Will Byfield's progress be stunted? 

Stuetzle will be an excellent fit in Los Angeles.

September 25, 2020

Dennis Hextall

Dennis Hextall was the third member in a family that has produced four NHL players spanning three generations. Dennis and his brother Bryan Jr. played during in the 60's and 70's making reasonably big names for themselves. Father Bryan Sr. played with the New York Rangers for 11 seasons (1936-48) earning the Stanley Cup with the Broadway Blues in the 1939-40 season. The fourth and final member of the Hextall NHL clan is Bryan's son Ron Hextall, goaltender for the Philadelphia Flyers.

Dennis grew up in Manitoba and played his way through the youth leagues before moving on to play junior hockey for the Brandon Wheat Kings. In his final season with Brandon, Hextall fell just one point shy of winning the scoring title. In the playoffs that year he scored 19 goals in 19 games.

From junior, Hextall was offered a college scholarship from four U.S. colleges and selected the University of North Dakota partially due to it's close location to his home.

In his three year's in college, the UND team won their league one year, placed second in another and made it to the NCAA tournament yet another. Following his final college season, Hextall made a jump that only one other college player had done before him - he signed a NHL contract with the Rangers. The only player to have made it to the NHL through the U.S. college avenue prior was Red Berenson who played for the University of Michigan.

Hextall played a few years in the Rangers' system (mostly playing minor pro) before he was sent bouncing around the league. Feeling more like a human pinball than a hockey player, Dennis went from New York to Montreal to Los Angeles to Oakland and finally ended up in Minnesota where his career began to take shape.

The summer following his scoring 2 goals and 31 assists for the Golden Seals in Oakland, Hextall was sent to Minnesota in a trade that saw Walt McKechnie and Joey Johnston head west. His first year with the North Stars, Hextall tore up his knee and didn't play much. Then things started clicking.

The next year, Dennis led the team in scoring from start to finish (30G-52A) and the Stars finished in second place. Hextall remained with the Stars for over four seasons and scored 84 goals and 196 assists in 330 games played.

Just when the Stars began their downturn, Hextall was sent to the Detroit Red Wings in 1976 for Bill Hogaboam and a second round draft pick. Hextall remained with the Red Wings the 78-79. During that season, Dennis was sent to the Washington Capitals before retiring from the game the next season and moving back to the Detroit area.

The only thing in his career that Hextall regrets is not winning the Stanley Cup. Coming into the game during the expansion time, like many of the game's players of that era, Hextall was bounced around between mediocre teams and never had a real chance at winning the NHL's Holy Grail.

While he was offered several coaching and front office management positions following his retirement, Hextall decided against it. One such offer was from the Red Wings as they were in the process of firing Wayne Maxner. With the team's turmoil under owner Bruce Norris' reign, Hextall decided it wasn't in his best interest.

The following year, Fred Shero contacted Dennis about the Rangers bench boss position. The offer was a three-year contract to be GM and coach of their AHL affiliate New Haven for two years then moving up to the parent club. Hextall once again declined.

Over his 13 seasons in the NHL, Hextall played in 681 games, scoring 153 goals and adding 350 assists with 1398 penalty minutes.

Today, Hextall remains a member for the Detroit community where he continues to play charity games with the Red Wings Alumni.

September 21, 2020

Bob Nevin

Bob Nevin was a long time NHL right winger, playing in over 1100 career games. He was a fine two way forward who was noted for his gentlemanly play, picking up just 211 penalty minutes in his lengthy career.

Nevin, a Toronto Maple Leaf prospect from the age of 13, played his junior hockey with the Toronto Marlboros from 1954 to 1958. In that time he scored a very solid 210 points in 152 games, including 111 goals.

Nevin's childhood dream of playing for the Leafs came true at the conclusion of the 1957-58 season when he was called up for a 4 game stint. However the next two seasons Nevin would spend apprenticing in the minor leagues with AHL Rochester.

Nevin's first full NHL season was in 1960-61. He had a strong year, scoring 21 goals and 58 points. However his sophomore season would be one not to forget. Though his scoring totals dipped to 15 goals and 45 points, Nevin helped the Leafs capture the Stanley Cup!

"We beat New York in the semi-finals and then we were in a really tough series with Chicago, who had won the Cup the previous year. And we managed to beat them in Game Six at Chicago Stadium, which was a tough feat considering all the noise and atmosphere in that building. So in terms of winning the Stanley Cup and doing it right in Chicago, that was a real big thrill because that was probably the hardest place at that time to win an away game.”

Any Stanley Cup championship team will tell you the only thing harder than winning the Cup is defending it. But the Leafs did that successfully in 1962-63. Nevin actually thought it was easier though.

“The second one was relatively easier, not that any of them are easy. But the second one, I think we beat Montreal in five games in the semi-finals and we beat Detroit in five games in the Finals. So in 10 playoff games, we only lost two so we had a pretty dynamite team that year. We had a pretty strong team and we figured if we kept the team together we could win a number of Cups in the early ‘60s.”

The Leafs did go on to win their share of Cups throughout the sixties, but the team was not kept in tact. Halfway during the 1963-64 season Nevin was traded with Rod Seiling, Dick Duff, Arnie Brown and Bill Collins to the New York Rangers. In return the Leafs got Don McKenney and superstar Andy Bathgate.

Nevin, who was one of the earliest players to wear contacts while playing, enjoyed 7 1/2 seasons in New York. He got more ice time and an increased role than he did on the veteran Maple Leafs team. He scored 20 goals in all but one season, and tapped in a career high 31 in 1968-69.

Nevin looked back on his Rangers days with a special fondness.

“Well, initially it was a big shock (to be traded) because I had grown up in Toronto and a lot of the guys on the Leafs I had played junior with and we had a pretty special relationship with all the guys on that Toronto team. And initially when I got the phone call that I had been traded it was a pretty big blow. It took me a while to adjust from living in Toronto to New York. But I got traded in late ’64 and the fall of ’64, the next year, they made me the team captain. So that obviously was a great thrill to be captain of a team in a six-team league. That was a pretty special time for me in my career.”

The Rangers traded Nevin to Minnesota for Bobby Rousseau for the 1971-72 season. Nevin didn't have his best years in Minnesota. Over 2 seasons he scored just 20 goals and 52 points. In his final year he had just 5 goals and was a -12. Many expected Nevin's career was over.

However the Los Angeles Kings thought Nevin could offer something to their team, and took a chance by selecting Nevin in the annual Reversal Draft. Nevin responded by posting three great seasons, including a career high 72 points in 1974-75 at the age of 36.

“I loved my time in L.A. I had my old teammate from junior and with the Leafs, Bob Pulford, who was the coach and he was doing a real good job. In fact, the one year, we finished with 105 points. We had a really good team. We had Butch Goring, Danny Maloney, Rogie Vachon, and Terry Harper and Bob Murdoch were on defence. Mike Murphy was also playing then. Actually, I really enjoyed my time in L.A. I’m an enthusiastic golfer and, as someone who likes to drive convertibles, it worked out pretty good out there!”

After three seasons in Los Angeles the aging Nevin signed on with the WHA Edmonton Oilers. He played only 13 games in the WHA, for a rather uneventful ending to his career.

In 1128 NHL games, the 4 time all star game representative scored 307 goals, 419 assists for 726 PIM. He added 16 goals and 34 points in 84 career playoff games.

September 18, 2020

Pucks On The 'Net: 2020 Stanley Cup Finals: Dallas Stars vs. Tampa Bay Lightning

 At long, long, long last here we are at the Stanley Cup final.  The 2020 champion will either be the Dallas Stars or the Tampa Bay Lightning. Given the circumstances of a global pandemic and the bubble quarantine, they will be a Stanley Cup champion like no other.

Almost everyone has the Tampa Bay Lightning as heavy favorites to beat the Dallas Stars. It's hard to argue against. That being said, Dallas has the rest intangible in their favor, and a dynamic blue line. So nothing would be shocking.

Having gone 11 for 14 in my playoff predictions in the first three rounds, I suppose I could go out on a limb and pick Dallas. I kind of want Dallas to win, because I've grown to like many of their players and have always liked their coach, Rick Bowness. I'd still have an impressive prediction record to look back on.

But I, like almost everyone else, will pick the Tampa Bay Lightning to defeat the Dallas Stars in the 2020 Stanley Cup final.

Playoff MVPs

Who are the favorites to win the Conn Smythe Trophy as the Stanley Cup MVP? 

Assuming Tampa Bay wins the Cup, Brayden Point and Victor Hedman are the favorites. If Dallas can complete the journey, goalie Anton Khudobin has to be a favorite, but I think Miro Heiskanen should be right there too. He might be the best defenseman in the world right now. He (or maybe Brayden Point) may be the best bubble hockey player in the world this summer.