Hockey January 11, 2019


My keyboard is practically dusty. It feels like forever since I tackled an Ask Me Anything Mailbag. Apologies! But it’s good to be back. At this time of year, it’s easier to provide meaty answers to your queries. Players’ and teams’ sample sizes are bigger. We have a better idea who the buyers and sellers are, too, and that’s the most common thread this week. That and some handwringing over Team Canada’s medal-free showing at the World Junior Championship. Paper bags out, everyone…and…breathe…

Vancity4life (@Llevesque604) asks…

Should the Canucks give up Bo Horvat and whatever else besides Quinn Hughes, Brock Boeser or Elias Pettersson to go for first overall and have the Hughes brothers together in Vancouver?

The first thing we have to do here is immediately excise the Bo Horvat element. He is very likely Vancouver’s next captain. He should earn the ‘C’ by next season. As the team continues to develop, Horvat will become the leader, the two-way center who grinds out the tough matchups against the other team’s best players. If you look at all the Stanley Cup winners over the past decade or so, they were consistently deep at center: Evgeny Kuznetsov and Nicklas Backstrom, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, Anze Kopitar and Jeff Carter, etc. If the Canucks rise to power over the next several seasons riding their increasingly impressive young core, they’ll want a one-two punch of Pettersson and Horvat.

Wait, you might say…wouldn’t Jack Hughes, a center, provide a superior 1-2 punch with Pettersson? Sure, but there’s no guarantee the Canucks would be getting Hughes by tanking and/or dealing Horvat. Even a last-overall finish would max out their odds at 18.5 percent. No way it’s worth sacrificing Horvat when there’s an 81.5 percent chance of not getting Hughes.

That part out of the way, I still think it’s possible the Canucks become active sellers by next month. I caught a Canucks game live last week and asked coach Travis Green point blank afterward if he felt it was time to start considering the playoffs a legitimate target.

“I don’t want to get ahead of ourselves,” Green said. “We’re in this to win every game. We’ve said that from Day 1. We’ve also said there’s been a couple things we want to be this year: we want to be a faster team, we want to be harder to play against, and we want to play meaningful games down the stretch. So far, we’ve accomplished that, but in saying that, we’re also keeping an eye on our development and pushing our team in the right direction.”

Those sound like the words of a coach who still views a playoff berth as a bonus, not a necessity, and for good reason. This is Year 1 of life without the Sedins. Also, Green spoke those words before Pettersson sprained his MCL the very next game. The Canucks have since lost three straight contests, although they do have a nice homestand now, and will face an uphill climb while Pettersson is out. I thus do see a scenario in which GM Jim Benning unloads a few pieces. The most logical would obviously be pending UFA defenseman Alexander Edler, who has picked a fantastic time to have a resurgent season, albeit he has a no-trade clause he’d have to waive. Removing his 23 minutes a night from Vancouver’s top pair would weaken the team, upping the chances the losses and lottery balls pile up. Does that mean the Canucks get Hughes? It’s still unlikely, especially since they’re too far up on the basement teams to finish last overall. But, hey, the Philadelphia Flyers won the second pick in 2017 after finishing 19th overall, so it can happen. Just not at the expense of Bo friggin’ Horvat!

Regular Season Marty (@martin_14) asks…

I keep reading that there’s a feeling that Canada has “no sure thing” goalie prospect coming through. Is that justified or is it a bit overstated?

I fall squarely in the “overstated” camp for several reasons. First off, do “sure things” really exist anymore in goaltending? To me, a “sure thing” goalie would have to be drafted in the first round to earn such a distinction, so let’s look at the past 10 goaltenders chosen in the first round of the NHL draft who came of NHL age (as we can’t pass judgment yet on goalies like Jake Oettinger and Ilya Samsonov, who have yet to earn their shots):

Andrei Vasilevskiy, 2012
Malcolm Subban, 2012
Jack Campbell, 2010
Mark Visentin, 2010
Chet Pickard, 2008
Tom McCollum, 2008
Jonathan Bernier, 2006
Riku Helenius, 2006
Semyon Varlamov, 2006
Leland Irving, 2006

…Wow. What a bloodbath. We’ve gotten one bona fide star NHL goaltender, Vasilevskiy, among those 10 picked in the first round, and two if you’re generous to Varlamov. If we include Bernier, that’s three NHL regulars. If we include Subban and this year’s late bloomer Campbell, that’s five who broke through to get NHL opportunities. But half the first-rounders taken were total busts. One may argue that the standard for picking goalies early in drafts has changed, that we should include second- or third-rounders on this list, that the likes of John Gibson and Matt Murray were borderline sure things based on the new standard in which almost no one takes a goalie in Round 1. But I don’t agree with that. The very reason why first-round goalie selections are so rare now is because they are not sure things, and it’s too risky to use a first-round pick on any goaltender.

So that’s point No. 1 on why we shouldn’t worry about Canada not having a “sure thing.” They almost don’t exist in goaltending anymore, so there’s no reason to fret over Canada not having a megahyped, first-round goalie like No. 5 overall pick Carey Price was. And if we want to look at Canada’s past few World Junior Championship goalies compared to the glory of previous world-junior netminders, I still don’t think the argument holds up. Sure, Canada fielded can’t miss, first-round goalie prospects at the WJC in Roberto Luongo, Marc-Andre Fleury and Price, but the hockey superpower got equally awesome performances from the likes of Jeff Glass and Justin Pogge, who never sniffed stardom. Here’s a look at Canada’s 10 WJC starters (or, the goalies who played the most games in the tourney) leading up to 2015 (again, it’s too early to judge the guys from 2016 onward, such as Carter Hart and Michael DiPietro, so I won’t include them):

Zach Fucale, 2015
Zach Fucale, 2014
Malcolm Subban, 2013
Mark Visentin, 2012
Mark Visentin, 2011
Jake Allen, 2010
Dustin Tokarski, 2009
Steve Mason, 2008
Carey Price, 2007
Justin Pogge, 2006

This list refutes any notion that Canada has a “new” goalie crisis, right? Only Price, Mason and Allen went on to legit NHL careers, and only Price has become a star among that group. Team USA, meanwhile, iced Gibson, Hellebuyck and Cory Schneider over that same stretch, but also Jeff Frazee, Jeremy Smith, McCollum, Campbell, Mike Lee and Jon Gillies. The idea of a “can’t-miss” goalie just doesn’t exist in 2019, in my mind. The first round of the NHL draft and the WJC don’t correlate strongly to NHL success. It’s hit-miss. The phenoms are the exceptions for every nation, so I don’t think we can say Canada has a goaltending crisis just yet. If the Olympics magically took place today, it could choose from a goalie stable including Price, Braden Holtby, Matt Murray, Marc-Andre Fleury and Martin Jones, among others.

Adam Zwick (@AtoZwick) asks…

If you had to choose three players to play in a 3-on-3 overtime from ALL-TIME, who would you choose?

Ooh, what a fun question. I almost wonder if we have to exclude current players to spice up the answer, because the game is just so much faster today that it would feel strange, for instance, to pick a 3-on-3 squad without Connor McDavid, who is arguably the fastest player in NHL history with or without the puck on his stick.

So that’s my approach. No McDavid, no Sidney Crosby, no Erik Karlsson, even tough each would warrant consideration. Sifting through the retirees, my first and easiest pick is Bobby Orr on defense. I want that mobility and vision and ability to dominate at both ends of the ice. My two forwards can do their thing knowing No. 4 has all 200 feet blanketed as his personal sandbox.

I still want a true burner at forward to attack the other team’s defenses, so if McDavid’s not in play, I want the second-fastest player I’ve ever seen with the puck on his stick: The Russian Rocket, Mr. Pavel Bure. He was absolutely engineered for 3-on-3. I could happily deploy the first Rocket, Maurice Richard, in this role as well. Just call this forward spot “One of the Rockets.”

As for my center, I’ll go with Mario Lemieux. Imagine deploying a guy in 3-on-3 today who is about as big as Patrik Laine but has the hands of Patrick Kane and the surprising big-man speed of Blake Wheeler. Lemieux would be a matchup nightmare, equally adept at backing up the defense, stickhandling through them or setting up Bure with gorgeous feeds.

As a bonus, how about a goalie? I’m a Dominik Hasek truther for life, but Marty Brodeur is my 3-on-3 pick, because his puckhandling ability essentially gives me 3.5 skaters.

Another player I almost considered for my defenseman would’ve been Sergei Fedorov, by the way, because he’s Selke-caliber strong at both ends of the ice, has tremendous wheels and was talented enough to play a bit of defense in spurts near the end of his time as a Detroit Red Wing. But that’s probably overthinking things. A 3-on-3 lineup without Orr can’t be taken seriously.

(I will forever defend Wayne Gretzky as not just the best hockey player, but the most dominant team-sport athlete of all-time, so it feels odd for me not to include him, but I just think 3-on-3 rewards the raw physical tools more, so it would play more to Mario’s strengths than Wayne’s).

Jared Thiessen (@thiessenj3) asks…

Should Canadian teams be kicking tires on Wayne Simmonds if he becomes available? And if so, which one do you think is the best fit for him?

Hey Jared. I don’t think it makes oodles of sense to restrict the question to Canadian teams only, as I think many, many teams could use Wayne Simmonds if (and likely when) the Philadelphia Flyers make him available at the trade deadline. Though he does have a 12-team no-trade list in his contract, he’s a perfect playoff rental for any team not on that list, a guy with scoring touch and power-play acumen and, notably, the ability to get downright nasty, a skill that matters a lot more when the officials hide their whistles come April. The Tampa Bay Lightning, for instance, are a stacked team looking for one or two pieces to complete their championship puzzle and got pushed around by the Washington Capitals in last year’s Eastern Conference final. The Boston Bruins need another scoring winger, too.

But I’ll humor you and play the Canadian-team game, haha. First off, we know Simmonds is a rental since he’s a UFA come July, so that eliminates any teams rebuilding or even hanging around the playoff periphery. Simmonds is not a fit for Vancouver, Ottawa or Montreal. Edmonton has the bruiser element covered with Milan Lucic and Zack Kassian, so Simmonds doesn’t fill a team need. The Jets’ wings are loaded on their first two lines with Kyle Connor, Blake Wheeler, Nikolaj Ehlers (when healthy) and Patrik Laine, so Simmonds would be an expensive acquisition for the third line, especially when the Jets have a decent amount of grit patrolling their bottom six already.

The Calgary Flames were rumored to be pursuing Simmonds at the draft last June and, given how badly James Neal has struggled and that Michael Frolik has been introduced to the press box on occasion, they feel like a potential fit. Simmonds would replace the jam Calgary lost when it sent Micheal Ferland to Carolina in the Dougie Hamilton trade. Simmonds would form a formidable second line with and Matthew Tkachuk and Mikael Backlund.

The Leafs, more so than the Jets and Flames, lack sandpaper to complement all the skill among their forward corps. Zach Hyman is an excellent forechecker, but if he’s the meanest forward you have, a team can intimidate you in the playoff trenches. From a pure team need standpoint, they are probably the best fit for Simmonds, as he would help them even if he’s not in their top six and, like the Jets, they have a seemingly bottomless pit of picks and prospects to trade right now. The Flames and Leafs would the Canadian teams most likely to pursue and land Simmonds in my opinion.

Victor Mroczka (@Sanibona2011) asks…

The Finns and Americans train differently (starting at the youngest levels) and are getting results. What can Canada do differently to revive (rescue?) its junior program?

Before I answer, I’d argue Canada’s junior program doesn’t need rescuing. The past five winners of the World Junior Championship: Canada, Finland, USA, Canada, Finland. Sure, the days of dynastic five-year stretches are over for Canada, but that’s because the rest of the world has caught up. That trend may never reverse, but I wouldn’t consider that a failure for Canada. It’s a victory for the sport.

I do admit it’s fascinating to see the Americans and Finns in particular earning so much respect for their junior programs and seemingly surpassing or at the very least equalling the Canadians in development. In the Finns’ case, I know individual skill coaching is key. Sabres defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen once told me that his high-school days as a kid were divided into two hockey components:

“We had our morning practice, skills like moving and shooting, and forwards did their own stuff,” he said. “In the afternoon, we had a whole team practising together, and then there was more team stuff. So I had a lot of both.”

Individual skill development coaches are definitely en vogue in Canada in 2019, though, so I don’t think that’s the problem. To me, the biggest difference between Canada and the other top-tier nations is that the Canadian players just spend so much less time bonding as a team. The U.S. National Team Development program, for instance, doesn’t just unite many of the same players for summer camps and tournaments from the world under-18s to the WJC year over year. Many of the kids get filtered through the U.S. NTDP’s regular-season squad that competes in the USHL, meaning they might play hundreds of games together across multiple seasons by the time they reach the world juniors.

I recently compiled an oral history of Team USA’s 2004 world junior squad, which captured the program’s first gold medal ever, and one key component of the team was the fact everyone knew each other so well. As Patrick O’Sullivan put it, high-school rivals were teammates, such as Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, and the group had played so many games together that O’Sullivan lived with the coach, Mike Eaves, whose son, future NHLer Patrick, was also on the team.

During the second intermission of the gold medal game against Canada, with the U.S. down 3-1, Coach Eaves ripped into Zach Parise. Here’s an excerpt from the oral history, which you can read in full (paywall alert!) here.

PARISE: Mike Eaves looked at me and said, “Zach, you need to be way better.” He told me in front of the team. I won’t forget that. And he was right.

O’SULLIVAN: It was just the familiarity of their relationship. I’m not sure the coach of Team Canada can ever really do that, because how well do you really know the guy you’re saying that to? Not that it’s so wrong to say that, but you need to be really sure you’re going to get the right response out of somebody if you say that to them. It’s the gold medal game. It’s our best player.

PARISE: He got right in my face, and it was great.

That year’s gold-medal win announced to the world that Team USA’s centralization system, similar to what the American and Canadian women’s national teams use, can work. Team Canada, on the other hand, throws players together by early December and asks them the gel rather quickly. Perhaps, then, the problem is a matter of chemistry, as major-junior commitments keep the top Canadians from spending much time together as a team.

As for a solution to that problem? I’m not sure if there is one. Convincing CHL squads to give up their best players earlier would not sit well with the owners, as it would hurt teams in the standings and maybe in ticket sales.



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