Wednesday, February 24, 2016

WHL Playoff Picture: Western Conference

In the WHL Western Conference, things are less certain as to who will make the playoffs, as every team is still in it, and only 12 points is all that separates the sixth spot from dead last.

VICTORIA ROYALS: Thought to have been nothing more than a middle of the road team prior to the season, they find themselves a point ahead of Kelowna for the Scotty Munro Trophy, thanks to the second best offense and second best defense in terms of goals for and against. However, Kelowna does have two games in hand over Victoria, so the Royals' historically great season will have to be just that for the remainder of the season.

KELOWNA ROCKETS: Just a point behind Victoria and with two games in hand, the Rockets were dealt a blow recently when their best player Nick Merkley was lost for the season to injury. However, the Rockets are still a balanced attack that can do some damage come playoff time.

PRINCE GEORGE: Third in the B.C. Division, they still have to look over their shoulder for Kamloops, who sit five points back for that final division spot.

EVERETT SILVERTIPS: The best team in the goals against category, the Silvertips are also the U.S. Division leaders and a win over their nearest competitor Seattle last weekend helped add to their slim cushion. However, they are tied for second fewest goals for, so they are banking on Carter Hart to carry the team, which could be a recipe for disaster come playoff time.

SEATTLE THUNDERBIRDS: Thought to have been the favorite to claim the U.S. Division crown prior to the season, the T-Birds are instead trying to catch up to Everett while also trying to fend off the Portland Winterhawks and Spokane Chiefs, as five points is all that separates the three teams. Whether Logan Flodell can elevate his game in goal when the stakes get higher remains to be seen.

PORTLAND WINTERHAWKS: A loss to Calgary last night did not help in their quest to stay within the division spots. Four points is all that separates them from missing the playoffs, as Tri-City sits that far back and with a game in hand.

SPOKANE CHIEFS: Holders of the first wild card spot, it's rather tenuous, at best, as Tri-City is just three points back. While the Chiefs are most likely going to be contenders next season, they have to deal with this season, which will be painful.

KAMLOOPS BLAZERS: Like Portland and Spokane, they also have to look over their shoulder for Tri-City, who are just two points back of Kamloops and with a game in hand. Of the teams in that block, Portland and Tri-City have been playing their best hockey in the last 10 games, and Kamloops cannot afford too many slip-ups if they want to avoid missing the playoffs for the third straight season.

TRI-CITY AMERICANS: They are just two points out of a playoff spot, but have also played their best hockey lately, going 7-2-0-1 in their last 10 games. They have a good chance to make the playoffs if they can do well against their division rivals.

VANCOUVER GIANTS: They sit 10 points out of a playoff spot, but are still alive, with games against division rivals still to go. If they can win games like last weekend, they could sneak in, but it won't be easy if only Tyler Benson is regularly contributing.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

WHL Playoff Picture: Eastern Conference

With the WHL Playoffs just a month away, teams are fighting for position and the weak are getting weeded out with every game. Today, the Eastern Conference will be given a look.

BRANDON WHEAT KINGS: Currently lead the East Division and were the second team to clinch a playoff berth. They've played better lately, although they did lose to Saskatoon yesterday in overtime. Seven points is what separates them from Prince Albert, with Moose Jaw only nine points out.

PRINCE ALBERT RAIDERS: Seven points behind Brandon for the East Division lead, they also have to fend off Moose Jaw, who is just two points behind, and Regina, who are nine points behind and are playing their best hockey right now.

MOOSE JAW WARRIORS: They're in good shape to end a playoff drought that has gone on for three seasons, but they would love to not travel to either Brandon or Lethbridge for their first round match, as they have to fend off Regina.

REGINA PATS: Comfortably in the first wild-card spot, they're playing their best hockey and have a chance to overtake either Moose Jaw or Prince Albert for a division spot.

SWIFT CURRENT BRONCOS: They are eight points behind Edmonton for the final playoff spot and are unlikely to claim a division spot if they do get in. They must play better hockey, which begins with scoring more goals, as only Kootenay has a worse offense.

SASKATOON BLADES: Currently just seven points behind Edmonton for the final playoff spot, they are still in the middle of a rebuild. Making the playoffs would be a bonus, but until they fix a defense that ranks only ahead of Kootenay, they won't get far.

LETHBRIDGE HURRICANES: Currently hold the Central Division lead (six ahead of Red Deer) and the Eastern Conference lead (two ahead of Brandon), but have picked a bad time to play their worst hockey, as they currently ride a three game losing streak.

RED DEER REBELS: Six points behind Lethbridge for the Central Division lead, they just broke a losing streak of their own last game with a victory over Prince George. They will still have a Memorial Cup appearance in hand, but they will need to find their game sooner rather than later if they wish to make a deep WHL run.

CALGARY HITMEN: Nine points behind Lethbridge for the Central Division lead and just three points behind Red Deer for second, the Hitmen haven't been their usual selves, as the own a paltry +13 goal differential and have a pivotal matchup with Portland tonight.

EDMONTON OIL KINGS: Seven points above the red line, they still haven't been able to find the offense that has eluded them since the 2014 Memorial Cup run. They are a woeful -26 in goal differential, and though the duo of Payton Lee and Patrick Dea won't remind anyone of either Tristan Jarry or Laurent Brossoit, they are keeping the Oil Kings in it.

MEDICINE HAT TIGERS: Nine points behind Edmonton for the final wild card spot, they have been snakebit when it comes to their goaltending, as Nick Schneider hasn't played great and Austin Lotz got hurt six games after being claimed in the overage waivers draft. The Tigers would be best to miss the playoffs, as there just isn't anything they can do if they sneak in.

KOOTENAY ICE: The worst team in the WHL, the Ice are pretty much headed to the first overall pick in the Bantam Draft this year. Not even Sam Reinhart could have saved this year's version of the Kootenay Ice.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Mavericks Report: Changes Abound

With success comes teams inevitably knocking at the door, and that was the case for Josh Robinson, who was called up to Springfield of the AHL, where he made his debut this week. Unfortunately, he was on the wrong end of a 7-2 loss. With Robinson's call-up, that meant the Mavericks had to rely on the goaltending duo of Parker Milner and Steven Summerhays this week.

Milner got the first crack on Tuesday against Tulsa, and he made his time count, as he helped shutout the Oilers 3-0. Friday, the Mavericks took on the Allen Americans in the first of four home games that will be televised locally, and thanks to Milner, the Mavericks made this game a success, as they won 4-2. Saturday, the Mavericks began their back-to-back games with Evansville, and with Milner in net once again and a Sebastian Sylvestre goal in overtime, the Mavericks were able to escape with a 4-3 win. Sunday was a different story, as Steven Summerhays was in net and played well. However, an unlucky play resulted in the game winning goal for the IceMen as they would take a 2-1 win over the Mavs.

The Mavericks make an Indiana road trip this week, as they visit the Indy Fuel on Tuesday before games with the Fort Wayne Komets on Wednesday and Friday before coming home for a Sunday tilt with the Rapid City Rush.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

As the Firebirds Turn

To say that the Flint Firebirds' first season in the Ontario Hockey League has resembled a daytime soap opera would be an understatement. Following the firing (again) of both head coach John Gruden and assistant coach Dave Karpa earlier this week, the Firebirds were hit with sanctions from the league, meaning owner Rolf Nilsen and his handpicked replacement for Gruden (and director of operations) Sergei Kharin were suspended effective immediately.

Below is the statement from the Ontario Hockey League:
"The Ontario League takes the health and well being of our players very seriously. The recent actions by the owner of the Flint Firebirds Rolf Nilsen and his representatives on the management team and coaching staff is of great concern as they pose a serious threat to our commitment to our players and their families.

"The league announces the following sanctions effective immediately:

"Mr. Nilsen and his appointees on the management and coaching staff including Sergei Kharin are suspended from Flint Firebirds’ hockey operations until further notice;

"The Flint Firebirds at their cost, under the direction of the League, shall provide counselling services for players;

"Rolf Nilsen and representatives of the Flint Firebirds shall co-operate with the Commissioner and the League in investigations into the conduct and actions of the Flint Firebirds and its representatives, employees, officers and directors."

If you remember earlier in the season, both Gruden and Karpa were relieved of their duties, with the root of the problem being Hakon Nilsen not given enough playing time. Hakon is the owner's son, for those that don't know. After the second firing, for today's practice, only Hakon Nilsen was out for the practice, as many of the Firebirds players have been at odds with upper management. According to sources, Michael Bitten, father of the team's leading scorer Will Bitten, has said that his son would not be coming back to the team if the elder Nilsen was still in control of the team.

Joe Stefan and Pat Peake were named interim coach and interim assistant coach, respectively by the OHL.

It's been no secret that the Firebirds have been a dumpster fire ever since they relocated from Plymouth after ownership changed hands, and certainly, issues surrounding the city haven't helped much. However, trading away your best players in Josh Wesley, Connor Chatham, and Alex Nedeljkovic doesn't exactly foster a winning locker room. More to the point, when a person in power like Nilsen is more concerned about his son getting playing time in major junior (the younger Nilsen has 3 assists and is a -19 in 36 games), it's going to create problems for everyone. It almost makes you wonder if Peter Karmanos regrets selling the team to Nilsen and his company if he had known the direction the team was going from there.

First One In

With the WHL playoffs a month away, teams are fighting for position, some for the top spot in their respective divisions while others are fighting just to get into the playoffs. One spot was clinched yesterday despite the team losing their game, as the Lethbridge Hurricanes were able to end their five-year playoff drought yesterday. Though they lost to Calgary 6-2, thanks to the Swift Current Broncos losing, the Hurricanes are playoff bound and it caps a remarkable turnaround from the previous two seasons in which they were the laughingstock of the league.

Currently, the Hurricanes hold a comfortable eight point lead on Red Deer for the Central Division crown and are just two points behind Kelowna for Scotty Munro Trophy contention, though the Victoria Royals are also in the hunt, as they are in between Kelowna and Lethbridge in the standings.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Fixing the Canucks

Photo by Getty Images
In light of some of the worst hockey from the Vancouver Canucks, losing 5-2 to Toronto on Saturday and Minnesota 5-2 yesterday, I am left to wonder just how much longer the front office can go before they start making roster moves. With the trade deadline just a hair under two weeks away, it's time to start thinking about moving out some of the veterans to stockpile younger talent, particularly on the blue line. So, who would be on the trading block and what could they fetch? Here are a few ideas:

  • Dan Hamhuis: The best defender on the Canucks, he does come with injury risks, as he came back earlier this month after missing time due to injury, and he doesn't offer much offense. However, a team that could be looking for solid play in their own end could be asking for Hamhuis, and getting a draft pick and a younger defender would be considered a decent haul.
  • Matt Bartkowski or Luca Sbisa: With Alex Edler on the shelf, he would be off the trade block until after the season. However, that doesn't mean the Canucks can stand pat, as neither Bartkowski nor Sbisa have been pulling their weight. While it may seem impossible to move either one, hence why I'm lumping the two together here, both are still under 30, which means a team that could use a bottom pairing player may look to either one. At this point, I'd be happy with lower end prospects and/or draft picks.
  • Radim Vrbata: He scored 30+ goals last season, and given that the Canucks are looking to get younger, it makes sense to move Vrbata, and a contending team that needs scoring on the second line is likely to come calling. If the Canucks can get an NHL roster player in addition to a prospect or two, it would be ideal.
  • Alex Burrows: Like Vrbata, Burrows has been a good scorer in the past. However, he hasn't been that player in a few years, and he is on the wrong side of 30. A couple prospects and or/draft picks sounds about right here.
While it sounds like the Canucks don't have a lot of trade chips that could be turned into higher level prospects, it is reasonable that the Canucks have needed to rebuild their prospect pool, something that has been a work in progress mainly through the draft. By trading some of their more seasoned veterans, they can supplement their pipeline in the hope that they can bolster a blue line sorely in need of warm bodies.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Mavericks Report: Getting Fueled

The Missouri Mavericks continued their nine-game home stand last week, and they had most of their success against the Indy Fuel. Of course, they also played the Fuel in three of the four games last week. Their week began last Tuesday against the South Carolina Stingrays, and they didn't fare so well in the rare match-up against an Eastern Conference foe, as the Stingrays won 4-2. Friday through Sunday, the Indy Fuel came calling, and the Mavericks took care of business all three days, winning 4-3, 5-4, and 3-2, taking six out of eight points in the standings for the week, as well as goaltender Josh Robinson breaking a record for most consecutive wins in a season.

The Mavericks wrap up the home stand this week, as they play Tulsa on Tuesday, Allen on Friday, and Evansville on Saturday and Sunday.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Not Going Wild

The Minnesota Wild are underachieving again this season, and this time, Mike Yeo was unable to stave off the firing squad. After a 4-2 loss to Boston yesterday, the Wild relieved Yeo of head coaching duties and named John Torchetti the interim coach.

Yeo had been the head coach since the 2011-12 season, and in that time, the Wild were no better than second best in their division and in three straight seasons, saw their playoff season end at the hand of the Chicago Blackhawks. Even with the signings of both Zach Parise and Ryan Suter prior to the 2012-13 season, as well as a fairly well-stocked prospect pool for a time, the Wild were never able to be anything more than middle of the road contenders. The low point in Yeo's tenure was a blow-up after a practice last season. This season, the Wild are struggling for their playoff lives and many of the players expected to produce haven't done so to their standards. It will now be up to Torchetti, last seen coaching the AHL affiliate in Iowa, to get through to a team that hasn't played to their full potential. The coaching move this late in the season may also be a referendum on General Manager Cliff Fletcher, who has made questionable signings in his time, most notably the Thomas Vanek deal prior to last season.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

When to Pull the Trigger?

The player you see in the picture above is Dan Hamhuis, and he is one of just three defensemen currently on the Vancouver Canucks roster that is pulling their weight, with Ben Hutton and Chris Tanev being the others. What makes Hamhuis different? He's on the other side of 30, whereas Hutton and Tanev are still relatively young, and he's been nicked up in recent seasons, with the latest injury being a shattered jaw thanks to a shot during a December 9 game at the New York Rangers that sidelined him until last Saturday at Calgary. So, why talk about Hamhuis?

He's been a subject of trade rumors and given that it is clear that the Canucks need help on the blue line for both now and beyond, he's the one player that holds the most value for a team seeking short term help in their own end. With Dustin Byfuglien recently re-signed by Winnipeg for five more years and Dion Phaneuf traded to Ottawa, it appears that contending teams are likely to set sights on Hamhuis. It is no secret that the Canucks have been woefully thin on the blue line both in the NHL and in their pipeline, and it was thought that the Canucks would have moved on from Alex Edler, who hasn't played to expectations in recent seasons. For consideration, the Canucks' current six is Hamhuis, Edler, Hutton, Tanev, Luca Sbisa, and Matt Bartkowski. That won't inspire anything other than possible laughter, as Hutton and Tanev are not top pairing defenders at the respective stages in their careers, Bartkowski and Sbisa are terrible, and Edler just needs a change in scenery. Hamhuis, when healthy (emphasis on this point), can be a solid second pairing/fringe first pairing player that can hold things down in his own end. Question is if he does get traded at the deadline, can Vancouver get an NHL ready player on the blue line in return? What about a higher-end prospect? The best Vancouver can do for a top prospect on the blue line is Jordan Subban, and he's a few years away from being a regular contributor on the NHL level.

The issue at hand could have been somewhat prevented had the Canucks either paid more attention to their blue line at the draft (they haven't drafted a defenseman in the first round since 2005, when they took Luc Bourdon) or made ill-advised trades (the Adam Clendening for Gustav Forsling deal last season looks bad in retrospect, since Clendening was moved in the Brandon Sutter deal in the off-season).

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

On the Move Again

Mired in a season-long rebuild that began in earnest when Mike Babcock and Lou Lamoriello took over as the head coach and General Manager, respectively, the Toronto Maple Leafs have made yet another big move. The Maple Leafs send Dion Phaneuf, Cody Donaghey, Matt Frattin, Casey Bailey, and Ryan Rupert to the Ottawa Senators in exchange for Milan Michalek, Colin Greening, Tobias Lindberg, and Jared Cowen, as well as a second round pick in 2017.

This is the second time Phaneuf has been moved in a major deal, as he had previously been acquired by Toronto in 2010 from Calgary in a deal that saw the likes of Matt Stajan, Fredrik Sjostrom, and Jamal Mayers switch teams. For Phaneuf, it is not only a chance for a fresh start after a rather tumultuous time in Toronto, but also a chance for him to help a Senators team that is making a push for the playoffs. Currently with three goals and 21 assists, he is expected to be on a pairing with Cody Ceci, though he will most likely have to change numbers, since his usual number 3 is occupied by Marc Methot. Frattin, Bailey, and Rupert are expected to report to Binghamton of the AHL while Donaghey is still rounding his game out in Moncton of the QMJHL.

As for what Toronto receives, they not only get cap space in anticipation of Steven Stamkos becoming a free agent after the season, they also get the expiring contract of Michalek, who was a former perennial 30-goal scorer that hasn't found his touch in recent seasons, and has not played since January 22. He becomes a free agent after next season, but could be a casualty after this season if the Leafs do decide to go a different direction. Greening and Cowen are also free agents after next season, but Cowen is a RFA, so the remainder of this season and the next could be an audition for him to prove that he can contribute to a team, something he never was able to do in Ottawa either through the coaching staffs or of his own doing. Greening is likely to report to the Toronto Marlies of the AHL, given that he has played almost all season in the AHL. Lindberg will also report to the Marlies of the AHL, and he essentially gives the Leafs a younger player that they can work with, as he is in his first year of pro hockey after a successful run with Oshawa of the OHL last season.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Mavericks Report: Getting Down to Business

It will be a busy three weeks for the Missouri Mavericks, as they will be playing four games a week for the next three weeks. In the meantime, they had to contend with two games last week, as they traveled to Tulsa last Wednesday for game at the Oilers. The Mavericks were able to gain a point in the standings, but were unable to get the full two, as the Oilers scored in overtime for a 4-3 decision. Saturday, the Mavericks returned home for the first game in a nine-game home stretch with the Colorado Eagles. Thanks to a 2-1 victory, the Mavericks were able to get started on the right foot.

The Mavericks begin this week welcoming the South Carolina Stingrays on Tuesday before a three-game series with the Indy Fuel this weekend.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

I Watched This Game: the McDavid Version

This edition of "I Watched This Game" is the first time I will have seen Connor McDavid in NHL action, as in an entire game as opposed to just the highlights. The Edmonton Oilers, McDavid's team, travelled to Ottawa to take on the Senators in a Thursday night tilt, and it ended up rather one-sided.


  • Canadian national anthem courtesy of Constable Lyndon Slewidge. It went as well as his other performances of the national anthem in Ottawa.


  • The Oilers waste little time getting on the board, as Mark Fayne fires a laser past Craig Anderson to put the Oilers up 1-0.
  • McDavid is a threat with or without the puck. Case in point: Jordan Eberle shot the puck instead of giving it back to McDavid on an odd-man rush and Eberle was rewarded the first of two goals to double the Oilers' lead. 
  • Former Senator Eric Gryba gets into a fight with Max McCormick. Not much of a fight, just a lot of clutching and grabbing.
  • Chris Neil goes to the box for interference, and the Oilers make them pay, thanks to an on-the-tape pass from McDavid to Eberle that ends up finding the back of the net and puts a premature end to Anderson's night.
  • The Senators get an opportunity to get back into the game when Benoit Pouliot goes off for hooking. Mike Hoffman makes good on this opportunity and cuts the lead down to two.
  • The Oilers got off to a hot start, and that is good enough for a 3-1 lead after one period.
  • Mark Stone fires a puck at the net, which Cam Talbot saves initially, but the puck manages to cross the line before Talbot could knock it away. The Senators are within one.
  • Fayne is a dirty hooker, so he's gone for two. However, the Senators can't capitalize, and it marks the beginning of the end for their chances to win.
  • Zack Kassian fires a shot from the left circle, which zips past Andrew Hammond and restores the Oilers' lead to two. If Kassian can provide secondary scoring like this and play to his size, he will be a shrewd pick-up for the Oilers this season and possibly beyond.
  • Former teammates go at it, as Gryba and Zack Smith have their dance. It was a lengthy one, and both threw some good shots. They get five to cool off.
  • Darnell Nurse is heading to the box for interference.
  • Both teams exchanged goals in the second period, which means the Oilers still have a two-goal lead heading into the final frame. It almost became a one-goal lead, but Talbot made a last second save to preserve the lead.
  • Shane Prince trips Justin Schultz, so it's off to the box for him.
  • The Oilers seem to be firing every puck with eyes, as Andrej Sekera finds the back of the net from the blue line on the power play.
  • Leon Draisaitl gets in on the act, as he scores on a one-on-one to give the Oilers six goals on the evening.
  • McCormick is fighting again, this time against Nurse. Nurse pretty much dominated this fight, and both get five to relax, with Nurse having a bag of ice on the hand.
  • Shortly after leaving the box, Nurse heads back there thanks to a high-stick.
  • Chris Wideman roughs up McDavid, so he sits for two minutes.
  • Brandon Davidson tacks on the extra point, as he fires a shot from the blue line past Hammond.
Overall, this was a game in which practically every member of the Oilers contributed in some way, shape, or form. McDavid's points all happened in the first period, but it was clear that his presence took the pressure off his teammates, and they put together their best effort of the season. Exactly how long it lasts (note: it imploded in today's game at Montreal) remains to be seen.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Mavericks Report: Back to Work

Last week's Mavericks Report was not put up, since I was preparing for NHL All-Star Weekend in Nashville, and there will be things mentioned later about that. This week's Mavericks Report will cover the past week and the week I missed.

On January 22 and 23, the Mavericks concluded their road trip in Tulsa, winning the first game 2-1, but losing 6-3 Saturday after allowing a third period barrage in the latter game. The Mavericks came home last week to take on the Evansville IceMen on Tuesday, and in a wild affair, the Mavericks managed to eke out a 6-5 win in overtime. Friday and Saturday, the Mavericks continued their dominance of the Wichita Thunder in a 2-1 win Friday and a 5-2 win on Saturday.

The Mavericks take a brief road trip to Tulsa on Wednesday before coming back home for a Saturday tilt with the Colorado Eagles.