Buffalo Sabres’ Jeff Skinner starting to roll

One of the biggest and most one-sided NHL trades during the off season saw 26-year-old left-winger Jeff Skinner being dealt to the Buffalo Sabres from the Carolina Hurricanes. The Hurricanes originally drafted the Markham-born player in the first round with the seventh overall pick in 2010. He quickly proceeded to tear up the league as a rookie by winning the Calder Memorial Trophy with 31 goals and 32 assists in his first season in 2010/11 and it appeared Carolina had found an excellent franchise player.

In his debut season, Skinner became the youngest NHL’er to be named rookie of the year at the age of 18 and was also the youngest ever to play in an NHL All-Star Game. In addition, he became the youngest all-star in any of the four major sports leagues in North America. The former Kitchener Ranger missed 18 games the next season, but still managed 20 goals and 24 assists and then posted 13 goals and 11 assists in the shortened 42-game campaign of 2012/13. Following that, Skinner had seasons of 33, 18, 28, 37 and 24 goals for the Hurricanes and notched 204 goals and 185 assists for 379 points in 579 games with the struggling franchise.

But even though he arguably hadn’t hit his prime yet at the age of 26, Carolina decided to trade him to Buffalo for prospect Cliff Pu as well as a second-round pick in the 2019 draft, and a third and sixth-rounder in 2020. At the time of the trade, Skinner had one year remaining on his contract with a salary cap hit of $5.725 million. He may have started off relatively slowly with the Sabres with just two points in his first six outings this season, but he’s now started to roll with six goals and six assists in 11 games to lead the squad and is a plus-nine. He’s also helped the team get off to a fine 6-4-1 start.

If he can keep the pace up, Skinner will set new career highs in goals, assists and points and there’s no better time to do so since he’ll be an unrestricted free agent next July. Playing mainly on a line with centre Jack Eichel has certainly helped, but all of Skinner’s stats and possession numbers have been impressive so far. This bodes well for the winger when it comes time to sign his next contract and his stock should rise even higher if he can help the Sabres reach the playoffs this season. It wouldn’t be unrealistic to see Skinner get close to $8 million a year on his next deal.

As long as Skinner can stay healthy through the 2018/19 campaign he should be in a good bargaining position when it’s time to negotiate his next contract. However, it’s unclear if he’d rather test the free agency waters next year or re-sign with the Sabres. Of course, Buffalo doesn’t want to lose him for nothing, so they really need to feel him out to see how interested he is in remaining with the club after this season. If they get the feeling Skinner wants to shop his services around next summer they will need to deal him before the trade deadline to¬† recoup some of the assets they used to acquire him.

There’s no doubt the speedy goalscorer could bring in an attractive return at the trade deadline as playoff-bound teams try to strengthen their squads. This puts the onus on the Sabres to start negotiating with Skinner now to see just what his future plans are. If Buffalo continues to play well and Skinner can keep producing, he may very well be tempted to stay with the young squad since it could have a bright future. But wherever he ends up in 2019/20, you can bet Skinner’s next contract should contain a considerable hike in pay.

Blackhawks’ Alex DeBrincat appears to be the real deal

Alex DeBrincat of the Chicago Blackhawks isn’t the first 5-foot-7-inch, 165 lb. success story in the NHL and he won’t be the last, but he his the latest. The 20-year-old native of Farmington Hills, Michigan was selected by Chicago in the second round of the 2016 Entry Draft with the 39th overall pick during a stellar junior career in the Ontario Hockey League. And considering the numbers he posted as a youngster it shouldn’t be too surprising that he’s found his feet in the NHL.

The young winger joined the Erie Otters of the OHL as an unsigned free agent in 2014/15 and racked up 51 goals and 53 assists for 104 points as a rookie in 68 games. He then scored 51 goals and 50 assists for 101 points in 60 games the following campaign and added 127 points on 65 goals and 62 assists in 63 contests in his final year of junior. However, DeBrincat wasn’t chosen in the first round during his draft year as some scouts believed he was too small as well as too slow.

The Blackhawks appeared to know better though and since they didn’t have a first round pick in 2016 they took DeBrincat as soon as they could when they drafted 39th overall. He had already played two seasons with Erie before his name was selected and it came as a blessing for Chicago when he enjoyed his finest junior campaign after the draft by averaging two points per game. The Otters captured the OHL crown that year and the Red Tilson Award went home with DeBrincat as the most outstanding player in the league. He also added 10 points in five Memorial Cup contests.

Looking back at DeBrincat’s junior career we see he was named the CHL Rookie of the Year in 2014/15 and led the league in rookie goals, assists, and points and was named to the OHL’s Second All-Star Team. In 2015/16 he played in the CHL Top Prospects Game, was named to the league’s Third All-Star Team and helped the USA capture the bronze medal at the World junior Championships. He finished with a bang in 2016/17 by leading the OHL in goals and points, being named to the league’s First All-Star Team and to the Memorial Cup All-Star Team. He also helped the Otters win the OHL, won the Red Tilson Trophy, and led the playoffs in both assists with 25 and points with 38.

It didn’t take the youngster long to crack the Blackhawks’ lineup as DeBrincat made his NHL debut in 2016/17 and proceeded to score 28 goals and 24 assists for 52 points in his rookie season even though Chicago missed the playoffs by finishing deal last in the Central Division. DeBrincat stayed active though by playing for the USA at the World Championships in the spring and scored a goal and eight assists in 10 games to help the Americans win the bronze medal. When summer finally arrived he said he worked on his strength, speed and stick handling so he could become a more complete NHL’er.

His work ethic during the offseason has paid dividends so far as DeBrincat, who plays on a line with centre Jonathan Toews, came out of the gate this season with seven goals and four helpers in his first eight games. Since being drafted in 2016, just four NHL players have managed to score more points than DeBrincat and they are more or less household names as they are Auston Matthews of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Patrik Laine of the Winnipeg Jets, Matthew Tkachuk of the Calgary Flames and Clayton Keller of the Arizona Coyotes. They’ve also played more games than the Blackhawks’ sniper.

DeBrincat’s 28 goals and 24 assists as a rookie ranked him sixth in the NHL in rookie scoring and third in goals. He’s a small, but definitely skilled player who has a knack for putting the puck in the net and Toews believes it’s just a matter of time before he scored 40 goals in a season and he could even reach that plateau this year. There should be numerous scouts out there who are embarrassed by DeBrincat’s success considering he wasn’t drafted by the OHL and had to wait until the 39th pick in the NHL Draft even though he was the fifth leading scorer in the CHL the season before.

Maple Leafs’ young guns off to flying start

Led by their young guns, the Toronto Maple Leafs got their 2018/19 NHL season off to a flying start by going 5-1 in their first six games including winning all four contests on a recent road trip. To keep things in perspective though, the Leafs’ first five contests came against non-playoff teams from last season. However, they did manage to double the reigning Stanley Cup champions the Washington Capitals 4-2 in Washington.

A quick look at the NHL scoring parade on October 15th saw four Leafs in the top six. Centre Auston Matthews was leading the way with 10 goals and four assists in six games while defenceman Morgan Rielly was right behind him at three goals and 10 assists. Centre John Tavares was fifth in the league with six goals and four assists and winger Mitch Marner had three goals and seven helpers. All of this has been achieved while another Maple Leafs’ young sharpshooter William Nylander remains in Sweden during a contract dispute and Nazem Kadri and Patrick Marleau have yet to score a goal.

At 21 years old, Matthews’ quick start saw him become the youngest player in league history to score at least two points per game in his club’s first five games to start a season. He’s just the 12th player ever to achieve the feat with Leafs’ teammate Patrick Marleau being the last to accomplish it in 2012/13 when he was with the San Jose Sharks. The youngest player before Matthews was a 22-year-old Wayne Gretzky when he scored six goals and 10 assists in five games back in 1983/84. Matthews has recorded five two-point games and one four-point encounter in his first six contests of the campaign.

He is also just the second player in the past 30 years and the fifth in the modern era to reach double digits in goals in his team’s first six games as Mario Lemieux had 11 for Pittsburgh in 1988/89. Bobby Hull scored 11 goals in his first half dozen games in 1965/66 while Dino Ciccarelli scored 10 in 1986/87 and Mike Bossy also netted 10 in 1984/85. In addition, Matthews became the third Maple Leaf in team history to score 10 times in the first six games with Babe Dye last achieving the feat in 1922/23.

As for Rielly, the last NHL defenceman to get off to such a quick start was Bobby Orr back in 1973/74 when he notched 11 points in his first five games while Rielly posted 12 in the Leafs first five this year. In fact, just one defenceman has gotten off to a better start than the 24-year-old Rielly and that came over 100 years ago when Harry Cameron scored 15 points in his first five outings with the old Toronto Arenas in 1917/18. Perhaps Rielly’s stats have surprised some fans, but he was one of the league’s top scoring blue liners last season with 52 points.

It may not be surprising that Tavares has already racked up up 10 points in six games since the 28-year-old veteran was the New York Islanders’ best player for the best part of a decade before signing in Toronto as a free agent this summer. However, some skeptics weren’t sure how long it would take him to fit with and adapt to the the Leafs’ system. The 21-year-old Marner has been keeping pace with his line mate Tavares and the crafty right-winger has now scored 70 points in his last 53 NHL games including the playoffs. Not bad for a player who was banished to the fourth line for a while last season.

As a team, the Leafs were leading the NHL in points with 10 as of October 15th and in goals with 29 after six starts. However, they had also allowed 22 against, which was the second most in the league behind the Detroit Red Wings’ 23. It’s possible, but highly unlikely that Matthews, Rielly, Tavares and Marner remain on their torrid pace for the remainder of the season, but it’s also unlikely that Kadri and Marleau don’t start scoring soon. The Leafs have enjoyed fine regular seasons in the past couple of years, but have been knocked out of the playoffs in the first round each time. So unless they can replicate the scoring in the postseason, it may not mean much in the long run.

Washington’s Tom Wilson keeps NHL’s Department of Player Safety busy

If it wasn’t for forward Tom Wilson of the Washington Capitals, the NHL’s Department of Player Safety might not have too much to do. Wilson was recently handed a 20-game suspension for his illegal blindside hit to the head on centre Oskar Sundqvist of the St. Louis Blues in the preseason and it’s his fourth suspension in his last 105 NHL contests. All of these bans have been handed down over the past 13 months and it looks like the repeat offender hasn’t learned his lesson yet. He’ll have to sit out close to a quarter of the 2018/19 regular season and will forfeit approximately $1.26 million in salary.

Last season the 24-year-old was suspended four games in the preseason, two games in the regular season and for three games in the playoffs. He arguably could have been suspended for his hit on the Columbus Blue Jackets’ Alexander Wennberg last season as well, but the league looked the other way and the same could be said for his hit against Brian Dumoulin of the Pittsburgh Penguins in the playoffs. But with NHL players receiving concussions at an alarming rate these days, there’s definitely no room in the game for illegal hits to the head area.

It’s possible that Wilson finally gets the hint and changes his ways, but not likely. He served 187 minutes in penalties last season, which was the second most in the NHL, but also saw a lot of ice time on his team’s first line with star players Alexander Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov. And with Washington winning the Stanley Cup for the first time, Wilson may see no reason to alter his headhunting style, especially since he chipped in with a respectable and career-high of 14 goals and 21 assists for 35 points in 78 games. He also racked up five goals and 10 assists in 21 postseason outings.

Wilson recently signed a new six-year contract in Washington worth just over $5 million a season so the suspension will hit him harder in the wallet this time around. It’s also the longest suspension for an on-ice hit since Raffi Torres was banned for 41 games back in 2015. Overall, Wilson has played 391 NHL contests since making his debut in 2012 and has spent 806 minutes in the penalty box. He’s scored a total of 35 goals and has been suspended for 29 games so far. Since entering the league, Wilson has led the NHL in penalty minutes and approximately 20 per cent (58) of his 255 regular-season penalty calls have been five-minute majors. He’s also receiver a match penalty and 11 misconducts.

Wilson and the NHL Players Association have announced they will be appealing the suspension to NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and if they aren’t happy with the decision they can then appeal again to a neutral arbitrator. If the ban is upheld he won’t be eligible to play until Washington faces off against the Chicago Blackhawks on November 21st. But at 6-feet-4-inches tall and weighing in at 218 lbs, Wilson can cause a lot of damage on the ice. The Capitals’ first-round draft pick and 16th overall in 2012 has enough skill to survive in the league without crossing the line between clean and dirty hits. However, if the suspension is reduced he’s not likely to suddenly become a choir boy and play without reckless abandon. It’s also a good bet he’ll be suspended for a fifth time by the NHL before too long.

Maple Leafs’ Patrick Marleau still going strong 21 years after NHL debut

One of the NHL’s elder statesmen heading into the 2018/19 campaign is certainly winger Patrick Marleau as the 39 year old will be skating in his 21st season this year. The native of Swift Current, Saskatchewan was originally drafted second overall by the San Jose Sharks in 1997 and made his NHL debut a few months later as an 18-year-old. Marleau stayed with the Sharks for 19 seasons before joining the Toronto Maple Leafs as a free agent in the summer of 2017.

He proved to be an efficient scorer on the west coast with 508 goals and 574 assists with the Sharks for 1,072 points in 1,493 regular-season games and added 68 goals and 52 assists in 177 playoff contests. He signed a three-year, $18.75 million contract in Toronto and chipped in with 47 points in 82 games last year with 27 goals and 20 assists playing mainly on a line with centre Nazem Kadri and rookie right-winger Mitch Marner. He also netted four goals and an assist in seven postseason outings. Marleau has now scored at least 20 goals in 15 of his 20 seasons and has scored 30 or more on seven occasions with 44 being his peak.

As well as his scoring prowess, Marleau is well known for his leadership, fitness, and skating ability. This allows him to keep up with the young stars in Toronto and also offer them some much-needed advice during the season. It appears Marleau will be faced with another new challenge this year as he’ll likely start the season on a line with 21-year-old centre Auston Matthews and veteran right-winger Tyler Ennis, who was signed this summer. Ennis will be filling in for unrestricted free agent William Nylander who still hasn’t come to terms with the Leafs on a new contract yet.

Matthews and Marleau enjoy an excellent off-ice relationship and the Leafs are hoping they can also turn it into a productive on-ice partnership. Like every NHL player, Marleau’s goal is to win a Stanley Cup before retiring and realizes time is running out at his age. He reached the Stanley Cup Final in 2015/16 against the Pittsburgh Penguins, but the Sharks came away empty handed. He now has two years left on his contract in Toronto to get his name engraved on Lord Stanley’s trophy. The Leafs have suddenly become one of the betting favourites to win the cup this year following the addition of all-star centre John Tavares.

Marleau realizes the odds don’t mean a thing though if the team doesn’t put in the hard work needed to succeed. He’s optimistic about the Leafs’ chances, but hopes the squad doesn’t get carried away with all the hype surrounding the them. As for personal achievements, Marleau enters the season with 535 goals and 594 assists for 1,129 points in 1,575 games and 125 points in 184 playoff games. He needs another 65 goals to reach 600 and is just six assists short of 600. He’s climbing the games-played ladder with each outing and is currently 11th on the all-time list at 1,575 and is seventh all-time in game-winning goals with 103.

There’s a good chance Marleau will keep adding to those numbers until he’s in his forties due to his skating ability and conditioning. It’s quite possible that he signs another contract in Toronto after his current deal runs out or he tries his luck elsewhere. He’s played in 706 straight regular season games since being sidelined in April of 2009 and he’s hoping to play at least another 164 consecutive contests in Toronto before considering his next move.