Written by Dixon Ward, Vice President
OPENING FACE OFF
The game of hockey rarely disappoints. Sure, the ups and downs of a long season can have some lulls and the odd dull moment, but for the most part, the speed, skill, and talent that is on display nightly in NHL rinks around North America is simply amazing. The number of younger players who have made their mark in the game is incredible, especially when you consider how big of a jump it is from Junior or College to the pros. Case in point, Matthew Tkachuk’s goal this past week against the San Jose Sharks. The 22-year-old Calgary Flame drove to the net on the power play and just when it looked like he was going to pass or dangle, Tkachuk put his stick in between his legs and ended up roofing the puck short side. When asked about it post-game, all he said was “I didn’t even think about it at the time. It was just the only way I thought I could score.” That goal was the second time this season Tkachuk has showed off his magical mitts. Last Halloween he had the entire league buzzing when he helped the Flames erase a 4-1 deficit in Nashville by scoring the game-tying goal in the dying seconds of the third period and then capped things off with a between the legs buzzer-beater in overtime to lift Calgary to victory. That jaw-dropping marker with just two seconds left on the clock is something you would not have seen when I was in the NHL. No one would have had the guts to try something like with two points on the line and if you were so bold, there would have been a price to pay with the opposition and your teammates. “I am lucky it went in” Tkachuk said at the time. “I knew there was very little time left on the clock, like a couple of seconds. Where the puck was I couldn’t get my feet or my body around to keep in on my forehand and I didn’t want to smash it backhand, so between the legs was a last resort. It went in and that was nice.” Fortunately for us, creativity is something that is embraced and celebrated these days. The evolution of hockey is moving forward at an incredible pace, with young confident and sometimes cocky players leading the way. If I was able to turn back the clock and do it all over again, I would spend the majority of the off-season working with a skills coach. Shooting and stickhandling drills would replace the countless summers hours of playing shinny with the boys. Yes, off-ice strength and conditioning workouts are still an important part of a player’s development and battling in small area games has some benefits. Edge work and a little power skating is part of the package as well, but bottom line, scoring and creating offensive is the name of the game. Not only do you need to have the will to try new things on the ice in order to put the puck in the net, you also need the skill to pull off between the legs or lacrosse like goals. That type of offensive flair only comes with practice, practice and more practice. Young players like Tkachuk are receiving specialized training and skill development at an early age, which has them arriving in the NHL better prepared than ever before. Of course, one major thing that has helped players get better is the ability to watch what they are doing on video. Seeing is believing and the use of video is a key driver in helping the new generation of hockey players get more comfortable on the ice.
There is no denying Connor McDavid still sits on the throne in Edmonton. That said, the King of Leon is making a name for himself this season and is now considered an MVP candidate. Leon Draisaitl is closing in on 100 points and there is still a quarter of the season left to play. After starting the year riding shotgun with McDavid, Draisaitl was moved to his own line by head coach Dave Tippett in order to get some more balanced scoring in the Edmonton. While some thought this would slow down the big powerful German, the exact opposite has happened. He has not only survived with new linemates, but he has also thrived skating alongside Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Kailer Yamamoto. The “Dry Line” has been pacing the Oilers lately with McDavid both in and out of the lineup. Draisaitl leads NHL regulars in points per game by a long shot with 1.61 points per game. Draisaitl has the highest points per game rate in the NHL for a regular NHLer (more than 40 games played) since Mario Lemieux in 2000-2001, when he had 76 points in 43 games, 1.77 per game. Tippett has had nothing but praise for the emerging superstar of late “I think they knew already how good he was, but when you see what he’s doing out there and the minutes he’s carrying and the effect he has on the game is unbelievable.” With the Oilers captain on the sidelines nursing a quad injury, Draisaitl has racked up 10 points in four games without McDavid. With tongue firmly planted in cheek, he had this to say after a recent win over Carolina, “According to a lot of people out there, I can’t play on my own; I can only play with Connor,” Draisaitl proclaimed. A reluctant emerging superstar, he does prefer to do his talking on the ice. This is the fourth straight year he has surpassed 70 points and will no doubt hit the century mark again for the second straight season. Always a great passer, his goal-scoring prowess is starting to show as well. Currently leading the NHL in average ice time played and power play points, his defensive game is improving as he has faced the toughest competition of any Edmonton player, with almost 40 percent of his ice time come against elite competition, according to PuckIQ.
Dubbed the “German Gretzky” for his scoring ability, Draisaitl played two years of junior in the Western Hockey League before being selected by the Oilers. One of his coaches in Prince Albert Coach was former NHL tough guy Dave Mason, who described him this way, “He’s a big train and he’s going to grow. He’s more suited for the pro level with his style of play,” Manson said. “Europeans have very good puck possession skills and Leon has that. With his skating, if you don’t have a good angle on him, he gets to where he wants to go." Compared at times to Joe Thornton and Anze Kopitar, he continues to be an explosive scorer in the NHL with a combination of soft hands, to make perfect passes, and great vision to see the ice. Over the past few years his skating has also improved, an area he needed to work on coming out of junior. “I took that to heart.” Draisaitl explained. “You know I wanted to kind of pick up where I left off after last season. It is a team effort and we are all playing well right now and we are all trying to get better. Everyone is buying in and everyone is stepping up and I am proud of how it has all come together.” Now like any great player or leader, Draisaitl is quick to put the team first and downplay his own abilities. Although let’s be honest, the Oilers wouldn’t be battling for a playoff spot right now without his contributions both on and off the ice. Yes, he is in the Hart Trophy conversation and should be considered a front runner, but bottom line all Draisaitl cares about right now is helping the Oilers win more games and get into the post season, “We’ve got good players in here and I think over the last little stretch we’ve been a little more consistent. We’ve been playing the same way every night and we’ve had success doing so. We just have to keep it up because it’s a tight race and it’s going to come down to the end so we got to keep going.”
Collective bargaining negotiations are always tricky no matter what the sport, although I am always fascinated with the way both the players and owners, through Gary Bettman, use the media to set the agenda. On the heels of the discussion about NHL Olympic participation in China, a topic covered in my last blog, there is word now that the league wants to expand the playoff format. This would be done by having the best of three play-in series between the 7th, 8th, 9th and 10th place teams in both the eastern and western conference. Seven would play nine, and eight would play ten, all in an effort to increase interest and revenue for the league and owners. This, of course, would have to be ratified by the NHL Players Association and let’s not forget that the players don’t get paid in the playoffs. That said, this isn’t something new to hockey. Back in the 1980s. 16 of the 21 NHL teams made the post-season and it did create a few big upsets. The “Miracle on Manchester” in 1982, had the lowly LA Kings upsetting the powerhouse Edmonton Oilers. In that series, the Kings pulled off what just might be the biggest comeback in hockey history. I remember this well growing up in Alberta, and all Oiler fans knew going into this matchup that the Kings had no chance. The Oilers were division champs and had set a record that year by scoring 417 goals in 80 games. LA on the other hand barely made the playoffs after posting a record of 24-41-and-15. The Cinderella Kings stunned the confident Oilers by taking game one, but Edmonton responded by winning game two and then built up a 5-0 lead heading into the third period of the series finale. LA, Defenseman Jay Wells ends Grant Fuhr's shutout bid at 2:46, and Doug Smith makes it 5-2 at 5:58. The Kings get a glimmer of hope when Charlie Simmer scores at 14:38, and defenseman Mark Hardy cuts the margin to 5-4 at 15:59. With the Kings swarming the Oilers and the Forum crowd behind them, Los Angeles scores the tying goal when Steve Bozek bangs a rebound past Fuhr with five seconds remaining in the third period. The end comes 2:35 into overtime when Smith wins a faceoff back to rookie Daryl Evans, whose slap shot beats Fuhr for perhaps the most amazing win in playoff history. "It was just close your eyes and hope it hits the net," Evans told the Los Angeles Times 30 years later. "It found a hole over Grant Fuhr's shoulder
While no one is predicting a new playoff format will create another Miracle on Manchester, it could provide some unique drama. The agreement between the league and union regarding the playoff format expires at the end of this season. Talk of extending or changing the current structure is expected to be joined by discussions about realignment. The NHL has proposed shifting Arizona from the Pacific into the Central Division in 2021-22 in order to accommodate Seattle’s entry into the league, and though that remains likely, the league will require the union’s approval in order to make the move. It also remains to be seen how much Commissioner Gary Bettman wants to change the playoff format. The board of governors obviously loves the extra revenue it would create, as playoff games bring in a sizable amount of money. Post season expansion also makes sense with the addition of Seattle. That franchise will bring the league total to 32 teams and having only half the league be eligible to play for the Stanley Cup seems a little behind the times. Even Major League Baseball is looking to add more teams to the playoff pool and the NFL has also expressed an interest in adding to the post season mix by increasing the participants. There should be some elasticity when the league expands to new markets. The NHL has added 10 teams since 1992, and the postseason number has stayed the same 16 combatants, from back in the ’80s.
It is hard to believe it has been 10 years since Sidney Crosby scored the golden goal at the Vancouver Olympics. Like Paul Henderson’s winner against the Russians in 1972, Canadians everywhere remember where they were when Crosby netted the winner in overtime against the Americans. “Just an unbelievable memory,” Crosby said this week to reporters in Pittsburgh. “When I think back it’s crazy and scary to think that it’s been 10 years. I can’t believe it’s been that already. When I think back, just an amazing experience at the Olympics, being Canadian in Canada. To have it finish off that way was special.” To refresh your memory, Canada was leading the game 2-1 and the country was getting ready to celebrate before Zach Parise scored with only 24 seconds left in the third period to send it into OT. “Being in Canada and 30 seconds away from winning it in regulation and have them tie it up,” Crosby recalled. “As a kid growing up watching the Olympics and dreaming of playing for Team Canada and being part of that whole experience, just the way it all worked out was really special. … Regardless of the outcome, it would have been special in its own right. But to finish that way, I think that’s every kid’s dream.” Sid isn’t much of a Kid these days, although he is still leading the way for the Penguins. He has nine points in four games over the past week, including three multiple-point outings. No one had an answer for him and he has formed an immediate chemistry with new winger Jason Zucker. Since returning from an injury Crosby has 23 points in 13 games helping the Penguins in their quest for another cup, “It’s our work ethic,” he said. “We’ve had a lot of injuries, a lot of adversity and kept playing the same way, regardless of who’s in the lineup. We haven’t looked for excuses at any point, which is important. This time of year is when you get challenged the most. Everybody elevates their game and we have to do the same.”
A force on the ice, Crosby’s impact away from the rink in the community also remains as strong as ever. Now in its 12th season, with Sid leading the way, the “Little Penguins program” provides free head-to-toe hockey equipment, including skates, to 1,500 youngsters aged 4-9 each year. More than 13,000 children in the Pittsburgh area have been introduced to hockey this way. Crosby routinely turns up for these free practices with sometimes more than one hundred kids on the ice. “It's fun," Crosby told NHL.com earlier this month "The kids have great energy, and I have some great memories as a kid being at hockey camp and having good experiences that way. So just to be out here and see the smiles and the energy that they bring, that's what it's all about." Skating with the kids, sometimes Crosby will go in go and allow the campers to score on him and then receive a special fist bump from 87. This type of experience brings Crosby back to the days when he was a kid and sometimes got the opportunity to skate with NHL’ers like Cam Russell, Glen Murry, and Brad Richards. Besides skating with youngsters, Crosby is also front and centre for Pittsburgh’s annual tradition of signing “Make-A-Wish” foundation children to one day NHL contracts. GM Jim Rutherford holds a press conference in the locker room and this year he inked 6 new players “This is a day the Penguins really look forward to," Rutherford said. "We're really happy to have everybody here. ... It's been a little difficult for me, trying to figure out the cap and figure out how to fit you guys into our team. But late last night, with the analytics guy, we were able to do that.” Aside from signing on the dotted line and meeting players like Crosby, the children also get their own players stall in the room and get to skate with the Crosby and company on the ice. Selling and promoting the game of hockey isn’t for everyone, although Sid the Kid does make it look easy at times. Look out for the Penguins this post season, with Crosby leading the way.
1. Jake DeBrusk, Boston Bruins – The Bruins forward returned to his hometown in Edmonton and was interviewed pregame on TV by his father Louie DeBrusk who works for Sportsnet. For those who don’t remember, a video of an emotional Louie, who played in 12 NHL seasons, went viral after Jake scored his first-ever NHL goal against the Nashville Predators in Oct. 2017. That memorable goal made his dad cry. This time around there were no tears but the father and son combo did take a few shots at each other during the conversation. Jake said being home was great except “I kind of get tired of listening to my dad’s hunting stories though, that’s why I think it’s a little sketchy”. For his part, Louie countered with “better get going I don’t want to say bad things about you tonight”. This first star isn’t about stats but about the bond between father and son. After the interview was over, on national TV, Jake turned to his father Louie and said: “Thanks Dad, I love you”. Enough said.
2. Jordan Binnington, St. Louis Blues – Binnington made 14 saves for his second consecutive shutout for the Blues in a 1-0 win against the Coyotes. Binnington made 17 saves in a 3-0 win against the Devils earlier this week. He has a shutout streak of 122:11 dating to the third period of a game last weekend against the Predators."We'll take it," Binnington said. "Team's playing great and we'll build off that."We were dominating pretty consistently that game. Another full 60 minutes and being relentless and being hungry to get that first goal and working for that next one. It was a good mindset and it was a big two points for us." Binnington has three shutouts this season and eight in his NHL career. He is the 10th goalie in NHL history to reach 50 regular-season wins (50-16-8) in 77 appearances or fewer, showing his Cup run of last season was no fluke.
3. Ottawa Senators -The Sens retired Chris Phillips' No. 4 this past week. Phillips played in Ottawa for all 17 of his NHL seasons. “Big Red” is still the team leader in games with 1,179. This franchise needs something good to happen to it and hopefully this starts the process going in the right direction. Former OHA player and current Buffalo Sabres forward Curtis Lazar came out from the visitors’ locker room to sit in on the ceremony. Lazar lived with Phillips and his family when he started in the show. “That was awesome," Phillips said of Lazar joining the pre-game party. “Curtis had started off in the minors and we weren't sure if he was going to be up. And to see him up playing was pretty cool, to think that he was going to be here. ... To see him there, that's the type of kid that he is; strong character."