Written by Dixon Ward, Vice President.
The NHL trade deadline is just around the corner and scuttlebutt around the league is starting to heat up. This is the time of year where we learn what teams think they have a chance and what teams have conceded the season and will be looking to move some assets to build for the future. The list of “buyers” and “sellers” is in constant flux right up to deadline day, Monday, February 24th at noon Pacific time. In recent years most of the big moves were made at least a week or two before d-day, so look for things to start happening very soon.
Teams that feel that they have a chance to win will be looking to add specific pieces that fill a current void in their lineup. It could be depth on defense or veteran depth forwards that they need to make the long run. It is very difficult in the salary cap era to add a significant high priced player without dumping a bunch of salaries. Hockey deals are a lot tougher to make these days. When I played the late great Pat Quinn was always making moves without having to worry about dollars and cents. There is a lot of talk around Montreal that it might be time to move Carey Price and/or Shea Weber. Numerous teams would love to have these guys, however, their salaries and what Montreal would want in return would make a deal very difficult to make. Usually, you will see role players move at the deadline and some of these guys end up making a significant impact on a run at the cup. Look to see who these players will be this year.
On the other hand, teams that know this isn’t their year will be looking to move some veteran players in order to free up some space for younger talent that they want to get into the lineup. Usually, these teams will be looking for draft picks in return rather than players. This allows them to stockpile picks that they can use in the draft, or as assets in future trades.
I remember the year that we went to the Stanley Cup in Buffalo back in 1999. We had a solid group heading into the second half of the season and also we had the league’s best goalie in Dominik Hasek. We acquired Stu Barnes, Rhett Warrener, and Joe Juneau. All three of these guys played pivotal roles in our run to the cup. One of the toughest things at the deadline is to build chemistry with new players who not only have to learn how to play a new style with new teammates, but they also have adjusted to life in a new city. A situation made even tougher a lot of times because they have to do that without their family. That’s what made Stu, Rhett, and Joe so special.
Whether your team is a buyer or seller at the deadline, it’s always an exciting time of year leading up to the playoffs. The games get more intense, the stakes are high, and certain players always rise to the occasion when everything is on the line.
As the NHL All-Star game took place this past weekend in St Louis, it was very interesting to see the skills competition, especially the fastest skater contest. Almost every hockey expert around the globe, and every fan in the building for that matter, would have picked Connor McDavid to win for the 4th year in a row. Shockingly, that didn’t happen and many people were more than a little surprised to see Mathew Barzal claim the title in just his second All-Star game appearance. Although truthfully, I wasn’t surprised at all! The reasoning behind this stems from a few different aspects. First of all, Barzal has always been a tremendous skater. I remember watching him as a Pee Wee and Bantam and no one I had ever seen possessed better edge work than him. His ability to accelerate without lifting his feet is extraordinary. In a race that includes straight away speed combined with crossovers on the corners, edgework and the ability to use crossovers to accelerate become paramount. He is as good as anyone in the game at maximizing these skills. “I don’t think I could’ve skated a better lap,” Barzal said after the race. “You don’t really practice something like this at all. Even when Connor was coming around the last turn, I think he was at eight or nine seconds and I said: “I don’t think my time is holding up”. I guess I got lucky.” Lucky or not, his time of 13.175 seconds was just .003 ticks away from the fastest time ever posted by Dylan Larkin in 2016.
“Matt flies,” McDavid boldly stated after losing to Barzal. “He skates like the wind. He’s definitely a player who is fun to watch and I have fun watching him.” While both are ridiculously fast on their skates, McDavid possesses something even more special than burner speed, he is the very best at creating quickness with the puck on his stick. Believe it or not, he actually skates faster with the puck on his stick. Think about that for a minute. Most of us have a hard time chewing gum and walking at the same time. On the ice, it just makes sense that you should slow down when lugging the puck up the ice. Not McDavid. He gets faster with each stride through the neutral zone.
Case in point was a goal he scored in early January against the Flames. In the first period, McDavid picked up the puck at his own blue line, raced up the ice past two Calgary defensemen in Noah Hanifin and Travis Hamonic, and put the most subtle of dekes at top speed on goalie Cam Talbot before scoring glove-high. Of course “seeing is believing” but if you don’t believe me or your eyes while watching the Oilers on TV, I have proof. This has been proven out through testing protocols that measure this type of data. This skill is so important that it has become a major focus at our Okanagan Hockey Group Combine testing when we are analyzing the players we put through their paces. The ability to create speed with the puck is directly correlated to performance.
One last thing on the Oilers captain, do yourself a favour and watch the documentary “Whatever it takes”. I don’t want to give too much away, but McDavid’s incredible rehab and decision to balk at having knee surgery is truly incredible.
Another cool thing that we saw at the All-Star game was the women’s 3 on 3 game between Canada and the United States. Two bitter hockey rivals battling it out in a unique format. For those who haven’t watched a lot of female hockey, the skill on display from these women was awesome. Kendall Coyne Schofield, who made history last year by competing in the men’s fastest skater competition, summed things up best when she said, “I think when you watch the women’s game, there are perceptions that maybe it’s slower or maybe it’s not as physical or maybe women are not as talented or they are not as big. We’ve heard it our whole life. But I would say we’re equally as entertaining and I think when the fans watch our game they will see some incredible women.” When the final buzzer sounded, Team Canada beat Team USA 2-1 and veteran Canadian Natalie Spooner could not have been happier with the result, “I was excited. But to be honest I was a little bit nervous going out there to start. It was a huge game for us. I think we put on a great show. It was back and forth and we had a blast. Even when we were getting called out for the first lineup, I was like “Wos, this is amazing.” We’re actually here and we’re at an NHL All-Star Weekend and we’re going to get to play and we’re going to showcase our talent.”
I was so happy to see them get exposed to this stage as our Okanagan Hockey Group has been deeply involved in the female game for a very long time. I had the pleasure of coaching our Female prep Team last season for a stretch and I can tell you, these athletes are terrific. They possess unique abilities on the cognitive level, competitive level, and skillsets are world-class. I felt that it was extremely important to include the females in this event and hopefully, the NHL and the hockey world can continue to promote the female game and establish a first-class, sustainable professional environment for these talented women to compete and make a living. We all know it isn’t going to be easy, but if the WNBA can figure it out for basketball, I am sure someone will find a solution for women’s hockey.
Last May, the Canadian Women’s Hockey league folded due to financial concerns after 12 seasons. Not to get into the politics of that decision, but if there was one positive to come out of that sad day it was the formation of the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association. That group not only plays exhibitions and showcase tournaments to promote the female game, they have also banded together to advocate for a new sustainable pro league. Erica Kromm, a former Calgary Inferno pro player and Okanagan Hockey Academy Alumni, was recently quoted as saying, “Just seeing these little stepping stones is great for us and the future of our sport. We can’t be viable and support a new league without fans in the stands. I don’t see it as a bad thing that our league folded. It is something we can learn from. We’re making great steps by taking it into our own hands and creating the PWHPA.” Good luck ladies, I wish you nothing but the best and truly hope to see something positive happen very soon.
With all the storylines swirling around the NHL at this time of year, maybe the most intriguing is Alex Ovechkin chasing Wayne Gretzky’s all-time goal scoring record. O-V pursuing the Great One will be must-see TV for the next few seasons. Can the Great 8 stay healthy? Will his goal-scoring skills diminish with more age and miles on the odometer? What makes this so interesting is the fact that not long ago, everyone, and I mean everyone, thought that the record of 894 goals was untouchable in today’s day and age. Well, here we are, with Ovechkin 201 goals away (at the time of this writing) and the hockey world is starting to ask the question of whether he can do it. Just this week, he passed Steve Yzerman to move into sole possession of 9th on the all-time list with a goal against the Nashville Predators. That means he is just one away from catching Mark Messier.
At 34 years old, common wisdom would dictate that this accomplishment is highly unlikely. However, Ovechkin has shown no signs of slowing down. He has played the most minutes of any NHL forward since the 2005 season and has just missed something like 17 games out of a possible 11-hundred opportunities to lace up the blades. “The most important thing is to be healthy. If you’re healthy, you can still play the game the way you want to play,” Ovechkin told the 31 Thoughts podcast just before the start of this current NHL season. “Of course the record matters, but as I said, I am not going to score 300 goals in two years. It’s going to take five or six years. I have to be healthy enough to do that.”
Oddly enough, against conventional wisdom, O-V seems to be getting stronger and more complete the older he gets. Realistically, he would need to average about 40 goals per season over the next 5 years to have a chance. A tall task to ask, but not out of the question. Goal scoring is not diminishing around the league, physical punishment is decreasing and he has proven his durability over the years. Even if he loses some speed, which is inevitable, his shot is his major weapon, and I believe he will not lose this skill. As big of a fan of Gretzky that I am, pointed out in my last blog post, I think that it would be outstanding for the game if Ovechkin made it interesting.
For the record, Gretzky retired at 38 and O-V would have to play many more years than that and maybe, just maybe, set a new goal-scoring record in his 40’s. Something at least a couple of NHL netminders believe is possible. Connor Hellebuyck of the Jets put it this way, “He’s not afraid to put anything on the net. He’s got a really good release and if you give him space, he will take it and he will make you pay for it.” Fellow countryman and Tampa tender Andrei Vasilevskiy feels the same, “His shot kinds of curves, changing direction every time so it’s pretty hard to stop for a goalie. Like a knuckleball. It is so very hard to stop him from scoring.” As for his teammates, they have all the confidence in the world that their captain will one day pass number 99, “He's probably one of the greatest to ever play and will go down as that, and it's pretty cool to have a front-row seat to watch that go down," linemate Tom Wilson said. "It seems like he hits a milestone every couple of games, but they don't make them like they made him anymore. There's no other player like him and I don't think there will ever be, so it's pretty cool to watch it unveil and watch him continue to dominate."
1. Elvis Merzlikins - Columbus
9-0-2 record, won last 5 starts, including 3 shutouts
2. Ilya Kovalchuk - Montreal
5 goals & 4 assists in 10 games with Habs
3. John Hynes - Nashville
2 straight wins behind the bench including one over the team that fired him (Devils)
My time at OHA taught me what it means to be an elite athlete both on and off the ice. It is a big reason I am the player, I am today."