Nathan MacKinnon: No longer the “Other Kid” from Cole Harbour

With 63 points in 82 games and 10 points in 7 playoff games this season as a rookie, 18-year-old Nathan MacKinnon is no longer the “Other Kid” from Cole Harbour. He is a star in his own right, despite the presence of his Cole Harbour buddy Sidney Crosby.

The career paths of MacKinnon and Crosby are similar and well documented to no end. MacKinnon is not Crosby, plain and simple. MacKinnon just happens to be from the same hometown and no doubt Crosby was a big influence on him.

Going into his draft year, MacKinnon was the favourite to go first overall in the 2013 NHL draft for good reason. He led the upstart Halifax Mooseheads to an upset over the heavily favoured Quebec Remparts as a rookie and had a hat trick in the final at the 2012 Ivan Hlinka Memorial tournament to win gold for Canada.

But MacKinnon had some competition for the coveted No.1 ranking on scouts’ lists. American defenseman Seth Jones, who played for the powerhouse Portland Winterhawks in the WHL edged out MacKinnon after the 2013 World Junior Hockey Championships, where MacKinnon was relegated to a fourth line role for Canada who finished in fourth place, while Jones played an integral role for the gold-medal winning Americans. In addition, MacKinnon’s Mooseheads teammate Jonathan Drouin stormed up the draft charts with a dominant QMJHL season and an eye opening World Juniors as an underager. Even phenom Connor McDavid, who had received exceptional status in the OHL and is not draft-eligible until 2015, was stealing headlines in the hockey world.

It was the 2013 MasterCard Memorial Cup where MacKinnon showed why he deserved to go No.1. He had 13 points in just four games in a dominant MVP-winning performance including a hat trick and two assists in the final vs. Jones’s Winterhawks to clinch the championship for Halifax. All of the sudden MacKinnon was starting to get his name back in the No.1 spot on the scouting lists. However, with the Colorado Avalanche winning the draft lottery and the team already rife with talented forwards up front in Matt Duchene, Gabriel Landeskog, Ryan O’Reilly and Paul Stastny, it appeared Jones would be the better pick for a team lacking on the back end.

But Joe Sakic and the Colorado Avalanche thought differently. A few days before the draft, the team declared they would be drafting MacKinnon first overall. Some questioned why they would take him over the defenseman Jones, but others saw his star potential as a game breaker. The Avs kept to their word and took MacKinnon 1st, while Jones slipped to fourth to Nashville.

These days, I don’t think too many people are questioning Colorado’s decision to take MacKinnon. He along with Duchene, gives the Avs a dynamic 1-2 punch down the middle as his blazing speed, quick hands and willingness to battle has given the team another potent weapon in their quest to become a contender.  The poise and confidence MacKinnon showed this season belies his young age and it is scary to think how good he is now and what he is capable of in the future.

Fallen Leafs

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With a 3-0 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs on Tuesday, the Tampa Bay Lightning dashed the Leafs’ chances of making the playoffs. It marks that time of year again for Leafs Nation, where everyone from management down to the coaches and players are scrutinized to no end as the streak of 47 years without a Stanley Cup championship in Toronto will go on for another year.

There are so many factors that went into the Leafs not making the playoffs. But the biggest thing that sticks out in my mind is the Leafs managed to pull off another choke job at the worst possible time. From March 16th to March 29th, the Leafs lost 8 games in regulation, reaffirming the belief that Toronto’s big stars are ineffective in crunch time. Guys like captain Dion Phaneuf, Phil Kessel, James van Riemsdyk and Tyler Bozak took most of the heat as they should. The whole team deserves blame but the core guys who are your best players and leaders of the hockey team need to take responsibility.

I do not believe Dion Phaneuf is captain material. Do any Leafs fans honestly believe he will be the one to lead their beloved team to the promised land? I certainly don’t. When I see guys like Sidney Crosby and Jonathan Toews lead their teams to Cups, I see true leaders. Are they exceptional players? For sure. But you don’t have to be an exceptional player to be an exceptional leader. I wouldn’t consider Dustin Brown of the Los Angeles Kings to be an elite player, but he effectively wears the C in Los Angeles and has a Cup ring to show for it. On December 31st 2013, Leafs management gave Phaneuf a 7 year $49 million dollar contract extension. With that kind of term and money, management must believe that he is the main man. I have heard excuses that with the salary cap going up that this contract will be a bargain, but I don’t buy it. As of April 9th, Phaneuf does not rank in the Top 40 in defencemen scoring and while offensive numbers don’t tell the whole story, when you are being paid $7 million per year, top level production is practically a requirement. When looking up next season’s salaries among defencemen, Phaneuf will rank third behind only Shea Weber and Ryan Suter. Weber and Suter are two elite workhorse defencemen with Olympic pedigrees but the fact that Phaneuf will get more than Drew Doughty, Duncan Keith and Erik Karlsson seems wrong.

Phil Kessel is applauded for being a prolific scorer that is rounding out to be a two-way player. But I don’t see it. Kessel has a great shot and blazing speed but I’m not convinced he is going anything more than that. Yes, I have seen him back-check more and while Kessel isn’t expected to morph into a Jonathan Toews like player, effort is questionable sometimes with him. And he has a gift for disappearing in the most critical times. In the Olympics, he was a top scorer but was invisible in the semifinal and bronze medal games. For a player with his natural abilities, you would think he could do more but I guess not.

For the first time in a long time, Leaf Nation can’t blame goaltending. Getting Jonathan Bernier from the Kings was a godsend to the Leafs, who relied heavily on him. Bernier did well in his first season as a No.1 goaltender after apprenticing behind Jonathan Quick for a few seasons in Los Angeles. Bernier stole games that the Leafs had no business winning and his numbers stacked up well against the competition. In the case of James Reimer, he needs to be moved out of Toronto. Reimer did not play to the best of his abilities when Bernier went down with injury. However, he sat out for games on end before getting a start and no doubt his confidence is crushed. This summer will be flooded with free agent goaltenders and there could be a market for Reimer. Perhaps Winnipeg could be a fit as Reimer would be close to home and I find Pavelec to be an overrated goaltender who is holding the Jets back from going further. Calgary could use a young goalie for their rebuild. Buffalo has some young goalies but no sure thing. Evgeni Nabokov is nearing 40, so the Islanders could be looking. Platooning two goalies who both want to be No.1 doesn’t quite work. When you look at how Montreal handled it with Carey Price and Jaroslav Halak in 2010, they understand one had to leave and the Habs went with Price, which turned out to be the right decision. Reimer desperately needs a fresh start and I’m sure there is a place for him somewhere else.

As for the rest of Toronto’s main core, they have no excuse. Guys are Joffrey Lupul, Tyler Bozak and James van Riemsdyk aren’t youngsters who need to be babied. They have been around long enough to understand how the game works. The other two big summer pickups David Clarkson and Dave Bolland were basically non factors this season. Bolland was hurt for most of the season and it understandably affected his contribution to the team. In the case of Clarkson, he was a massive disappointment. Suspensions and injuries aside, there is no excuse to his performance this season.

The season isn’t even over yet and the Leafs have already started making changes. Brendan Shanahan was hired as president and alternate governor of the team. Leaf management has some serious evaluating to do before the start of next year. What is the status of coach Randy Carlyle? What to do with James Reimer who is a restricted free agent at season’s end? Does Clarkson get bought out? Does the core group need a shakeup? It is another long summer for Leafs fans again and as they watch another team go on to win the Stanley Cup, they will wonder what it will take to keep the 18 wheeler from going off the cliff. Again.

2014 WJC Review. Pesky Finns win gold, Canada contemplates what went wrong (again)

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Wow. Didn’t see that coming. Yesterday in front of raucous crowd in Malmo, Sweden, Finland won the 2014 World Junior Hockey Championships, defeating arch rival (and the heavily favourited) Sweden, to win their first gold medal since 1998. In overtime, Buffalo Sabres 2013 first-rounder Rasmus Ristolainen scored the golden goal for the Finns, leaving the host team and their fans in shock and dismay.

The Finns received stellar goaltending from Nashville Predators prospect Juuse Saros, played excellent defence headlined by Ristolainen and was led offensively by the likes of Teuvo Teravainen, Artturi Lehkonen and Saku Maenalanen. Known as the Pesky Finns, Finland never gave up throughout the tournament, gelling as a team and believing they deserved to be in the conversation for the gold medal. Finnish coach Karri Kivi was a fiery presence behind the bench and had this team playing a structured game and believing they could win. Finland is a team that never goes away, always pushing and refuses to give up.

On the international stage, they are not quite an afterthought, but rarely the favourite. I extend my congratulations to Team Finland for their gold medal win. They played with discipline, hard work and most of all, heart. They deserved that gold medal for the way they played and for a such a small country, their ability to produce quality hockey players is remarkable. 

The other big story of the tournament was for the first time since 1979-81, Canada has gone back to back years without a medal. For a country used to gold medals galore, the Canadian national junior team has gotten further away from the podium with every passing year since their last gold medal in 2009. A lot of it comes from other countries catching up to Canada as five of the past six gold medal winners have been different countries.Teams are making strides as the USA, Russia, Sweden and Finland continue to crank out elite players, Switzerland is starting to produce top quality prospects, while the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Germany are slowing climbing their way up. It’s safe to say Canada is no longer the overwhelming favourite to win every tournament anymore.

As for this year, the same problem reared its ugly head again. In the semifinal against Finland, the Canadians looked woefully unprepared for the pesky Finns. It was the same problem the 2013 edition faced as they were dominated by an American squad that wanted it more. Canada has seemed to choke the past three semifinals they have played in and it’s alarming. Is coaching the problem? The last three WJC coaches for Canada include Don Hay, Steve Spott and Brent Sutter, who are all experienced coaches with extensive careers coaching junior hockey. Is the top level management for Hockey Canada the problem? Politics have come into question in recent years as arguments over taking too many or too little players from one league or leaving talented players at home.

This year’s team was one of the youngest Canada has iced at the WJC and post tournament, player selection has been criticized. High first rounders such as defenceman Darnell Nurse and forward Max Domi were left at home as was the OHL’s leading scorer, Connor Brown. Blame was pointed at goaltenders Jake Paterson and Zach Fucale, but they weren’t necessarily the problem. They didn’t steal games or play to the best of their abilities, but that could be said for the entire team not just them. On defence, turnovers and poor passes were an issue. Derrick Pouliot and Aaron Ekblad were good but the others were just okay. Matt Dumba, Griffin Reinhart, Josh Morrissey didn’t live up to their high draft standings while Adam Pelech and Chris Bigras played in limited ice time. Up front, many of the forwards just couldn’t find their game, including captain Scott Laughton, Kerby Rychel, Taylor Leier and Frederik Gauthier. During the big games, too much individual play was an issue as well as dumb penalties. Jonathan Drouin, tried to do too much and took too many penalties including a ten minute misconduct in the semifinal. Anthony Mantha was considered to be on the bubble during camp but emerged as the team’s leading scorer during the tournament.

One of the biggest sources of debate was whether Connor McDavid was ready for this level. The 16 year old phenom had four points in seven points which isn’t bad by any means. But as the play ramped up in certain situations, McDavid appeared overwhelmed. Sutter doesn’t regret taking McDavid and this tournament serves as a good learning experience for him, as he will be heavily counted for next year’s tournament in Montreal and Toronto. People often forget how young McDavid really is, despite his maturity, the exceptional status and his already impressive hockey resume. He was playing against the best players in the world in his age group. Many have tasted the NHL already and have the physical maturity that comes with age.

So what does this fourth place finish mean? It means Hockey Canada will no doubt go back to the drawing board to try and find a solution. It wouldn’t hurt to re-examine player development at the grassroots level or perhaps look to other countries and see what they are doing to understand why they are having so much success. Canada has another year to contemplate what went wrong and unfortunately, there is no definite answer.

Why the Habs need to sit Desharnais, move Galchenyuk to centre and why the team and the rest of the league needs to give PK Subban some respect

Despite all the injuries, the Montreal Canadiens are off to a good start. Their young players are progressing well and goaltender Carey Price looks to be back on track. But there are some things holding the Habs back and many of them start with coach Michel Therrien’s decisions behind the bench.

David Desharnais doesn’t deserve the amount of ice time he is receiving. Desharnais has 1 point in 14 games, unacceptable for someone who was just given a 4 year deal with a $3.5 per year cap hit. He is small, below average defensively and seems to be able only to play with big players who can create space for him. Desharnais’s best season came in 2011-2012 with a career high 60 points flanked by two big power forwards in Max Pacioretty and Erik Cole. Since the trade of Cole, Desharnais’s play has dropped off dramatically but it didn’t stop GM Marc Bergevin from giving him that lucrative four year extension. It’s not fault Therrien’s fault that Desharnais has that contract, but for a guy who has fewer points (at this moment in time) than Francis Bouillon and Travis Moen, something has to be done to get Desharnais back on track. I think a seat in the press box for him is the best thing as he is not contributing to the best of his abilities. 

The second thing I want to see is Alex Galchenyuk moved to centre. Habs management has said repeatedly that they see Galchenyuk as the future franchise centre. But why is he still playing on the wing? Galchenyuk is the most gifted forward Montreal has and they are wasting his talents with him playing the wing. People can look at his 10 points in 14 games and say he is doing just fine but I think he can be better. His defensive game is advanced for a teenager and I can’t say enough about his offensive talents. He is a smart with incredible playmaking ability and a wicked wrist shot and playing at the centre ice position will unleash Galchenyuk’s creativity. Will there be hiccups? Of course. His faceoffs need to be improved and his defensive game can be better. But I think the longer he plays on the wing, his immense potential as a franchise centre is stunted. There is no reason to wait for Galchenyuk to get more experienced in the NHL. He is a talented, hard working kid with the brains to succeed in the NHL. His talent is second to none and the idea of Desharnais getting valuable centre ice minutes over Galchenyuk seems wrong. Therrien, it’s time to put the team’s most talented player at centre. He is the present and future of this hockey club and you need him to become that franchise centre the team has been missing for decades.

The last coaching issue I have that also doubles as the biggest one and a league wide one, is the treatment of PK Subban. The way Therrien treats Subban sometimes is downright shoddy. Subban still plays less minutes than Andrei Markov, and while Markov is still valuable, his age and multiple knee surgeries have taken their toll. The penalty kill was 2nd in 2011-12 but has not been the same since. The biggest difference? No Subban. Therrien has refused to give Subban extended minutes on the PK and it is hurting this hockey team. I hate the still perceived notion that Subban is this offensively gifted but defensively inept player. Subban is a perfectly capable defender but it’s no secret his elite offensive skill is his bread and butter. Subban is the reigning Norris Trophy winner and the fact is Therrien refuses to give Subban any sort of praise. Is it a tactic to bring out more in Subban? Or is it that he just has a problem with the guy? It’s a tough question to answer.

But it’s not just Therrien that seems to underrate Subban. There have even been whispers that Subban is not a lock for the Canadian Olympic Team. The idea of the reigning Norris Trophy winner not being a lock for the Olympic team because of lame excuses like too many right handed defencemen or they need a balance in styles, it honestly makes me question the decision making of Hockey Canada. Subban is one of the most talented defenders in the NHL and the idea of him being left off the team in favour of a lesser defenceman, makes me sick. People say his style is too risky, but it didn’t stop Subban from earning two gold medals at the World Junior Hockey Championships in 2008 and 2009. But can’t people say the same thing about a guy like Kris Letang (another candidate for the Olympic team), a fellow offensively gifted defenceman with a substantial amount of risk to his game as well? PK Subban is one of the most unique defencemen in the league because no one plays like him. He puts up more than his fair share of points like any offensive defenceman but his defensive game is better than most think. He also possesses a bruising physical game as well, just ask Brad Marchand or Chris Neil what it’s like to receive a hip check from Subban at the right side of the defensive blue line.

It would be a shame to see Subban left off the Olympic team, but I think it’s more important that the Montreal Canadiens show Subban the respect he deserves. It’s no secret that Subban loves the team, the city and the fans but does his less than stellar treatment from the organization enough to make him want to leave? His contract is up this summer and as a restricted free agent, he doesn’t have the rights to just walk away but I can envision these negotiations getting messy. Subban has a Norris Trophy but what if he just happens to bring home another one or maybe Olympic gold and the Stanley Cup? There are so many scenarios that could dictate how much money Subban gets. Goalie Carey Price is the highest paid player on the team with a $6.5 million cap hit and I feel Subban could fetch more. I won’t be surprised of the Habs decide to low ball Subban but that would be a mistake. He has done what the organization has asked of him since signing that two year bridge and it’s time for the team to step and hold up their end of the bargain. 

Toronto Maple Leafs line brawl: entertaining or embarrassing?

In Sunday’s preseason game featuring the Toronto Maple Leafs and Buffalo Sabres, a line brawl was started after Sabres goon John Scott dropped the gloves and went after Phil Kessel to which Kessel responded with several chops of his stick at Scott which earned him a three preseason game suspension.David Clarkson came off the bench to join in on the brawl but with it came a 10 regular season game suspension. After signing that big contract, it was definitely bad judgment on Clarkson’s part. Even goalies Jonathan Bernier and Ryan Miller joined in on the fun by duking it out. The game has been talked about for days and there are many differing opinions. I feel the whole incident was both entertaining and embarrassing. On one hand, it has given Toronto something talk about and it showed how unwilling the Leafs are to be pushed around. The fans were very into it as they loved the animosity. But on the other hand it was the PRESEASON. Its nice to see the emotions but the fact it is so early just makes it look like a gong show. Toronto and Buffalo have a rivalry but one based more on geography and a shared division rather than a real incident. However, the brawl makes it more interesting for the next time these two teams meet as Leafs coach Randy Carlyle will surely want to dress his own heavyweights Colton Orr and Frazer McLaren to make Scott doesn’t go after Kessel (or any of the other Leafs). The incident has helped spark a rivalry that had gone stale and provide the entertainment factor the game sometimes lacks.

NHL Preseason Stanley Cup Favourites

Finally a full 82 game NHL season. Normally I don’t do Stanley Cup favourite picks but for fun I will choose my top six choices.

Pittsburgh will contend if Marc-Andre Fleury can step up and at least put on a half decent goaltending performance in the playoffs. As well, time for Crosby and Malkin to keep their cool and be the leaders they are expected to be. The defense worries me because besides Kris Letang, the defense is not elite. Pittsburgh was embarrassed by Boston in the Eastern Conference Final and for a team that has such high expectations, they are being outdone by other teams.

Chicago goes into the season as the reigning Stanley Cup champions and look good to repeat. They have all the key pieces back with a ton of youth to fill the holes of the departed players. Up front they are dynamic to go with a rock solid back end with goaltending that is good enough. This team has a core group that has won before and will look to avoid the Cup hangover.

I still think the Vancouver Canucks are a favourite. The goaltending situation is settled with Roberto Luongo as the No.1 and the team is relatively healthy. The key is the healthy return of Ryan Kesler, the player who brings the fire and is Vancouver’s heart and soul. He plays the tough match ups and is a fixture on the special teams. Coach John Tortorella is a coach that demands hard work and no one will be a passenger. Tortorella is a coach that gets instant results so it will be interesting to see how an experienced talented team will react to him and more importantly if they can deliver that long awaited championship to a city that is starved for a winner.

Boston made a big trade getting Loui Eriksson from Dallas and he will bring immediate dividends. Boston is a veteran laden roster with a top goalie in Tuukka Rask, Chara on defence and a balanced forward corps. One of the most interesting moves of the summer was the Bruins getting Jarome Iginla after he more or less snubbed the team at the trade deadline for Pittsburgh who was ironically eliminated by Boston. It will be interesting to see if Iginla could finally win that elusive Stanley Cup.

Detroit hasn’t missed the playoffs in 22 seasons and with the move to the time friendly Eastern Conference; the additions of Daniel Alfredsson and Stephen Weiss and the continued excellence that is the Red Wings organization, the team looks poised to make a 23rd straight playoff appearance. Detroit has been a model NHL franchise with front office continuity, good coaching, excellent drafting and an impeccable track record.

Los Angeles is a big grinding physical team that struggles to score. Yet, they still manage to win games. Why? They have one of the best goalies in the world in Jonathan Quick, a top defense pairing in Drew Doughty and Slava Voynov with some talented forwards.

Montreal is my darkhorse pick. Not the biggest team in the world, they are one of the fastest. If Carey Price can rebound and be the top goalie he can be, the Habs will go far. The team is led by a workhorse in reigning Norris Trophy winner PK Subban and while the defense has some questions it can surprise. Josh Gorges must be better and is one of the more underrated defenseman in the league. Andrei Markov and Raphael Diaz need to stay healthy and contribute while Francis Bouillon, Douglas Murray and Davis Drewiske must be solid. Up front, Max Pacioretty, Alex Galchenyuk, Lars Eller and Brendan Gallagher are all talented forwards who are on the rise. The veterans such as Tomas Plekanec, Brian Gionta, Rene Bourque, Daniel Briere and David Desharnais must contribute. The team’s biggest hurdle will the questions about the toughness and size. Pacioretty, Galchenyuk, Eller and Subban have all beefed up their 6 foot plus frames while Gallagher is strong and savvy for his size. Toughness comes with Brandon Prust, Ryan White, George Parros and Douglas Murray. This is a team clearly on the rise and the Northeast division crown was no fluke despite the backlash from the team’s critics. They may not have a superstar to lead the charge and will face questions like most teams but Montreal has a history of icing teams that can upset in the playoffs. Why count them out?

Jonathan Bernier trade could prove fruitful for both sides

A year after Los Angeles Kings goaltender Jonathan Bernier asked for a trade, it was finally consummated today as he was moved to the Toronto Maple Leafs in exchange for winger Matt Frattin, goalie Ben Scrivens and a second round pick in either 2014 or 2015. Longing to leave the shadow of Jonathan Quick, Bernier was itching for the chance to be a No.1 starter in the NHL. He certainly has the pedigree as he is a former 1st rounder (11th overall), a Stanley Cup champion (albeit as a backup), QMJHL champion with the Lewiston Maineiacs (where he was named playoff MVP) as well as gold medals with Team Canada at the World Juniors and the Spengler Cup. Bernier will get ample opportunity to take the reins in Toronto despite the presence of James Reimer, who took the Leafs to their first playoff appearance in 9 years. Reimer will face his stiffest competition yet in the talented Bernier for the starting job and will be interesting to see both players will respond to the challenge. 

On the Kings’ side, they get a pretty decent package back. In Toronto, Scrivens fought all year to be the No.1 guy but in LA he will be the backup, a position he is more suited for. He definitely had his moments with the Leafs but he should do better with a smaller workload and a good defensive system in front of him. With Frattin, LA gets a scoring winger with some size and speed. He’ll be in tough in trying to crack a deep LA roster with prospects Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson looking to make the team next season too. The second rounder could be the deciding factor as LA has had a knack for finding talented prospects later on in the draft such as Slava Voynov, Kyle Clifford, Andrei Loktionov, Jordan Nolan and Tyler Toffoli to name a few.

This trade truly has no winner or loser at the moment. Toronto gets one of the most promising young goalies in the NHL who they hope will be the long term goaltending solution in a city that is desperate for a consistent No.1 goalie they can trust game in and game out. On the other hand, Los Angeles gets some nice pieces in Frattin and Scrivens to augment an already deep and talented roster as well as the very valuable second rounder. It will be very interesting to see how all this unfolds and it will no doubt be one of the most scrutinized trades this year.