Toronto’s Jake Gardiner evolving into top-20 NHL defenceman

While the Toronto Maple Leafs may be concerned about the backwards step taken by defenceman Morgan Rielly this season, they should be happy with the production they’re getting out of fellow blueliner Jake Gardiner. Rielly was pegged as being the Leafs’ best offensive defenceman and perhaps a future all-star and team captain, but he’s been struggling in both ends of the ice this season with 22 points after 55 games and a minus-15 rating. Rielly’s just 22 years old though and still has plenty of time to live up to his potential even though he is a minus-61 for his career.
On the other hand, the 26-yar-old Gardiner of Minnetonka, Minnesota, has evolved into a top-20 NHL defenceman in just about every category. Gardiner’s offensive skills appear to be getting better with each season and he had a career-high 32 points after 61 games this year on nine goals and 23 assists. Gardiner had twice hit the 31-point mark previously and also had 30 points in a season. His best goal output in a season is 10, so should be able to tie or better that mark this campaign. He also has two game-winning goals in overtime in 2016/17.
Most fans and critics always knew Gardiner was a pretty good offensive defenceman so being the 21sthighest-scoring blueliner may not be such a shock. What may be surprising though, is his plus-23 mark after 61 games, which was by far the best on the Leafs and ranked him 12th overall in the league in that category and seventh-best for defencemen. Gardiner is well known for his high-risk plays during games which often lead to giveaways. He’s far from being the perfect defenceman because of this and due to his lack of physical play for somebody who stands 6-feet-2-inches tall, but he’s obviously doing something right.
Gardiner’s strengths are his skating, passing and offensive abilities. He can usually be depended on to carry the puck out of his own end or make a tape-to-tape pass to one of his forwards. In addition, he’s usually the quarterback of the Leafs’ power play unit, which was leading the league at 23.1 per cent on February 26th. We should also mention that Gardiner’s quite durable as he’s missed just eight games due to injury in the past three seasons and has suited up for every contest so far this campaign. And for fans of NHL analytics, Gardiner’s possession numbers have been excellent this year with a 53.8 Corsi rating.
Gardiner signed a five-year deal worth $20.25 million before the 2014/15 season faced off and it’s proving to be a good contract for the Leafs. He still makes the odd mistake, but so do all hockey players. Except, Gardiner’s gaffes are often magnified in Toronto and some fans use him as a scapegoat, much like Hall of Famer Larry Murphy was when he played for the Leafs. The majority of fans are starting to appreciate Gardiner’s skills though and what he brings to the team on a consistent basis. He has all of the tools needed to be a top blueliner in the NHL and it’s started to show ever since Mike Babcock took over as head coach and the team’s overall talent and skill level has improved.

Babcock has shown confidence in Gardiner and that has resulted in self confidence for the player. The coach has said Gardiner is always willing to improve as a player through practice and that’s why he’s averaging over 21 minutes of ice time per game. The rebuilding Leafs and Gardiner have certainly improved this season, but they’re still in a dogfight to make the playoffs. But even if they fail to make the postseason, the club’s brass and its fans have been pleasantly surprised by the team’s performance so far this season as it appears it’s well ahead of schedule.

Eventful NHL week includes suspensions, milestones and hiring/firing

The past week in the NHL was quite eventful as it featured a couple of suspensions and milestones and the firing and hiring of a head coach. The Montreal Canadiens made the biggest splash early in the week when they announced the firing of head coach Michel Therrien on February 14th and the hiring of Claude Julien as his replacement. Julien was let go as head coach of the Boston Bruins just a week earlier and this will be his second stint behind the bench in Montreal. Ironically, Therrien was hired by the Habs four years ago to replace Julien.
It appears Montreal didn’t want to risk seeing Julien hired by somebody else such as the Las Vegas Golden Knights and jumped at the chance to sign him. However, it came at a price since Julien was hired to see out the rest of this season and was inked for four more years at $5 million a campaign. Therrien also had two coaching stints in Montreal as he was at the helm from 2000 to partway of 2002-03 season. He was fired in 2002/03 after the Habs record stood at 18-19-5. Julien then took over for two and a half seasons before he was also let go.
It’s not often that the coach of a first-place team gets the sack, but the Canadiens haven’t been playing well lately and Julien was a Stanley Cup winner with Boston. Therrien’s record over the past four and a half years stood at 194-121-37. He led the team to two divisional titles and a trio of playoff appearances, but failed to make the postseason last year. However, they were without all-star goaltender Carey Price for much of the campaign. Julien still had two years remaining on his contract in Boston and Therrien also had two years remaining in Montreal at $2 million per season.
There were also a couple of high-profile suspensions recently as veteran forward Antoine Vermette of the Anaheim Ducks was nailed with a 10-game ban and forward Gus Nyquist of the Detroit Red Wings was handed a six-game suspension. Vermette was given an automatic suspension after he slashed the back legs of a referee in a road game in Minnesota. Vermette was officially suspended on February 16th for abusing an official. The 10-game holiday will cost Vermette a grand total of $97,222.22 in salary, but it’s believed the NHL Players’ Association will appeal the verdict. If the appeal fails, he’ll be eligible to return to action on March 12th.
As for Nyquist, he was found guilty of high-sticking defenceman Jared Spurgeon of the Minnesota Wild. Nyquist appeared to intentionally spear Spurgeon in the face after being cross-checked by the defenceman. The Red Wing was handed a double minor penalty on the play and fortunately there was no serious damage done to Spurgeon. However, most NHL insiders felt the 27-year-old Nyquist should have received at least 10 games for his actions. The ban will cost Nyquist a total of $158,333.34 from his salary and like Vermette’s suspension, the money goes to the Players’ Emergency Assistance Fund.
On the brighter side, Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby reached a scoring milestone last week when he notched his 1,000th career point. The year-old centre earned the point with an assist on a Chris Kunitz goal against the Winnipeg Jets at home on February 16th. Crosby reached the 1,000-point plateau in his 757th regular-season game. He’s the 12th-fastest NHL player to hit the milestone and the fastest active player. Alexander Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals scored his 1,000th point a few weeks ago, but took more games to accomplish the feat.
In addition, another interesting milestone was reached on February 14th when forwards Auston Matthews of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Patrik Laine of the Winnipeg Jets became the first draft choices to be selected first and second overall to score at least 25 goals in their rookie seasons since 2004/05. Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin of the Penguins were the last pair of top-two draft picks to achieve the feat over a decade ago. Matthews was taken first overall in the 2016 NHL Draft while Laine went second and they both have an outside chance at leading the NHL in goals this season.

Other milestones included ageless winger Jaromir Jagr scoring the 760th regular-season goal of his career in a 4-1 victory over the Anaheim Ducks on February 17th. Jagr, who just turned 45 years old, is third on the NHL’s all-time goalscoring list and will tie Gordie Howe for second place if and when he reaches 801. Wayne Gretzky tops the list with 894 goals. On the same night, forward Evgeni Malkin of the Penguins recorded his 500th career assist in a 2-1 overtime loss to Columbus.  

Las Vegas Golden Knights getting ready to start dealing

The Las Vegas Golden Knights, the NHL’s newest expansion franchise, will soon get the green light to start making player deals and general manager George McPhee is looking forward to it. The Golden Knights will officially be able to start assembling their roster once club owner Bill Foley has paid off the remaining money owing on the $500 million expansion fee. Once he does, Las Vegas will be the league’s 31stteam. It’s believed Foley will pay off the final installment close to March 1st, which is trade deadline day in the NHL.
The Golden Knights won’t be able to trade for players who are currently on rosters in the 2016/17 season or players who are injured, but can start acquiring draft picks from other clubs. This is a distinct possibility due to the upcoming expansion draft on June 20th. The Golden Knights will be able to select one unprotected player from each of the other 30 teams to build their roster. However, several clubs will be inclined to persuade Las Vegas to leave specific unprotected players alone by sending them draft picks or future considerations. For example, a team could send a fourth-round pick to Vegas to turn a blind eye on a specific player.
This was the case before the last expansion draft in 2000. At that time, the San Jose Sharks made a deal with both the Minnesota Wild and Columbus Blue Jackets if they agreed not to choose goaltender Evgeni Nabokov. This summer’s expansion draft picks will be revealed live on television on June 21st, the same day the NHL Awards show takes place in Las Vegas. However, Las Vegas will send the league their picks the day before. The Entry Draft will then take place a few days later. The timing of Las Vegas’ official trade go-ahead could have a big effect on this year’s trade deadline moves. At the moment, teams may decide to trade a player for something in return rather than risk losing him for nothing in the draft.
On the other side of the coin, clubs may also trade draft picks for a certain player for the specific reason of leaving him exposed in the expansion draft. The NHL will allow Las Vegas to make deals for draft picks after the March 1st trade deadline has passed if the franchise hasn’t finalized the expansion fee payment by that date. The Golden Knights will also be able to trade for junior-level players who have already been drafted by an NHL club as well as an NHL-signed player who may be playing overseas for some reason. CHL and NCAA free agents are others who can be acquired. McPhee and his staff have been preparing for their debut season for several months now by scouting draft-eligible players and free agents.

The Golden Knights will enter the 2017 NHL Entry Draft Lottery in April with the same odds as the league’s 28th-placed team this season, which means the latest they will draft will be sixth overall. The team will then pick third in rounds two to seven of the draft. Las Vegas is also a possibility for the 2018 NHL All Star Game if the league doesn’t send players to the Winter Olympics next year. If NHL players are allowed to participate in the Olympics then the All-Star Game won’t take place next year. In that case, Vegas will host an All-Star Game in the near future as a part of the $500 million franchise fee.

Ken Hitchcock’s final season in St. Louis ends earlier than expected

Veteran head coach Ken Hitchcock was supposed to say goodbye to the St. Louis Blues and their fans by remaining behind the bench for the 2016/17 season, but those plans recently came to an abrupt end. Hitchcock signed a new one-year deal last year, but the Blues fired him on January 31st after the team lost for the fifth time in six games. He was then replaced by assistant coach Mike Yeo, the former head coach of the Minnesota Wild. The Blues promptly downed the Toronto Maple Leafs 5-1 at home in Yeo’s first game in charge on February 3rd.
Hitchcock, the 65-year-old former coach, was midway through his sixth campaign with St. Louis and compiled a record of 248-124-41. His teams also made the postseason in each of his five years in charge and reached the Western Conference Final in 2015/16, but lost to San Jose. In fact, the Blues didn’t win a playoff series for three straight seasons until last year. The club was 24-21-5 and sitting in eighth spot in the conference when Hitchcock was let go with a 5-8 record for the month of January. He shouldered the blame for the team’s poor performance this season, but general manager Doug Armstrong should probably take some of the heat too.
Armstrong traded regular starting goaltender Brian Elliott to the Calgary Flames during the offseason and the move has hurt the Blues. The team has used Jake Allen, Pheonix Copley and Carter Hutton between the pipes this season and the three of them had a combined save percentage of a league-worst 88.7 when Hitchcock was sacked. The move trade hasn’t worked out for Elliot either as he’s been struggling in Calgary and often sits glued to the bench while Chad Johnson plays. Armstrong told the media that Hitchcock is his best friend and belongs in the Hockey Hall of Fame, but something had to be done to turn the team around.
Yeo, who was supposed to take over the Blues starting next season, said he felt bad about taking over for Hitchcock halfway through campaign, but is ready to accept the challenge. Armstrong added that Hitchcock wasn’t happy with the move and stated that Jim Corsi, the club’s goaltending coach, was fired along with him. Assistant manager Martin Brodeur will reportedly share Corsi’s duties along with the squad’s goalie development coach Ty Conklin. Looking back at Hitchcock’s career, he should have no problem being voted into the Hall of Fame. He’s coached 20 seasons in the NHL with St. Louis, the Columbus Blue Jackets, Philadelphia Flyers, and Dallas Stars.

Hitchcock is fourth on the all-time coaching wins list with 781 victories to his name in regular-season action and he led Dallas to a Stanley Cup triumph in 1998/99. If Hitchcock is hired by another team, such as the Las Vegas Golden Knights, he’ll tie Hall of Famer Al Arbour in third place for wins with his next victory. Hitchcock became the third head coach to be let go this season as the Florida Panthers fired Gerard Gallant in November while the New York Islanders dropped Jack Capuano earlier in January. The move could possibly pay off for St. Louis though as three of the last eight teams to win the Stanley Cup replaced their head coach during the season.