ON TOP OF THE WORLD

I PLAY ARMCHAIR GM AND OFFER CANADA A FEW SUGGESTIONS FOR ITS WORLD CUP TEAM

When Hockey Canada released the initial roster for its World Cup entry in February, just about every hockey fan north of the 49th looked at it, judged it and probably complained about it ad nauseam. That’s the fun of tournaments that pit our best against the rest of the world’s elite, and given how deeply hockey is entrenched in Canada’s collective national identity, we Canucks can get pretty passionate about our international rosters. Peruse your favourite online hockey board and you’ll see what I mean.

With everyone involved in this fall’s highly anticipated tourney scheduled to announce their complete rosters in the coming days, I thought it would be fun to name my own Team Canada and see how closely it resembles the actual roster that will carry the Great White North’s banner into icy battle this September. And the best part about being an armchair GM? Zero blame if things go south.

Some of these players have already been named to Canada’s squad and some are likely to be left off. You’ll notice I omitted defenceman Marc Edouard-Vlasic from my fantasy squad even though he’s already been named to Team Canada. I also didn’t take into account considerations like right and left-handed shooters, etc. This is just an exercise in pure fun.

The Forwards

Sidney Crosby: The conversation about forwards begins and ends with team captain, Sidney Crosby. Sid The Kid is a lightning rod for criticism and he took a lot of heat for a very slow start this season, but his critics became a lot quieter once Mike Sullivan took over behind Pittsburgh’s bench and Crosby quickly turned things around, dragging the Pittsburgh Penguins into a playoff spot along the way. While Sid had a very slow start (like seriously slow), he managed to climb into the NHL’s top scorers, finishing third in the League despite his horrible start. The Stanley Cup winning, multiple Hart Trophy recipient’s experience on previous Olympic Rosters (winning Gold in 2010 and again in 2014) would prove invaluable as well.

Jonathan Toews: The Chicago Blackhawks captain is one of the fiercest competitors in the game today, and while his scoring was a little below his normal standards last season, his leadership, physicality and strong defensive play more then compensated. There’s a good reason he’s weeks away from becoming one of the highest paid players in NHL history. With three Stanley Cups, a Conn Smythe Trophy and two Olympic gold medals (he was named the top forward of the entire tournament at Sochi in 2014) already on his resume, Toews isn’t just destined to be a top member of Canada’s 2016 World Cup team, he’s destined to be one of its leaders.

Steve Stamkos: In a little over a month’s time, Stamkos is likely going to be the most pursued free agent in NHL history. And a day or two after he hits the market he’s likely to become the highest paid player in NHL history (at least for a season or two). There’s a reason for that. The first overall pick from 2008 already has a pair of fifty goal seasons under his belt, two Maurice Richard Trophies and a Stanley Cup Final appearance. When a 36 goal, 64 point season is considered a disappointment, that isn’t a put down, it’s a testament to how good a player you are. And after missing the Sochi Olympics with a broken tibia, Stamkos deserves a place on this squad and would be the perfect second line centre behind Crosby.

John Tavares: While John Tavares has no collection of NHL hardware or Stanley Cup rings in his trophy case yet, he is by far one of the best players in the game. He practically IS the New York Islanders (think of him as New York’s Carey Price, with him they’re a playoff bound team, without him they’re scouting the first overall pick). When you consider what Tavares has been able to accomplish on Long Island, your respect for him grows by leaps and bounds. There is no question who dresses as the third centre behind Crosby and Stamkos.

Jamie Benn: What to say about Benn? He won the NHL scoring championship in 2014-15 and was the League’s second top scorer last season. He’s perhaps the biggest reason behind Dallas’ recent resurgence and why the Stars were the highest scoring team in the League in 2015-16. While he can play centre, he’s more comfortable (and dangerous) playing left wing and if you slot him on a line with Crosby, Stamkos or Tavares, well you can just sit back and watch the opponent’s goal lamp light up.

Joe Thornton: Often overlooked because of his age and the sunny market he plays in, the 1997 first overall pick and current San Jose Sharks captain is still one of the most durable players in the NHL today (he’s missed just six games over the last seven seasons), he remains one of the NHL’s top point producers (he finished fourth in League scoring last season), he’s widely considered one of the best playmakers and pure passers in the world and is one of the game’s best two-way players. Add all that to his near two decades of experience and how do you not have this guy on your team?

Patrice Bergeron: Bergeron is a warrior and it isn’t a coincidence that every time he dons the red Maple Leaf, Canada usually comes home with gold. A versatile positional player whose considered the best two-way player on the planet (the three time Selke Trophy winner is nominated again this year), Bergeron doesn’t know how to quit. Imagine a high-energy line of Bergeron, Toews and Thornton. You know who doesn’t want to? The rest of the world.

Cory Perry: Like many of the NHL’s top scorers, Perry had a sub par season by his standards in 2015-16. Despite that, the Anaheim sniper finished ninth in the NHL in goals and he remains one of the top right-wingers in the game (as well as a someone who can find his way under the opposition’s skin). A veteran of Canada’s gold medal squads in both the 2010 and 2014 Olympics, you could suit the former Hart Trophy winner and 50 goal scorer up on Sidney Crosby or Steve Stamkos’ wing and watch him terrorize opposing goalies all tournament long.

Tyler Seguin: Seguin has really turned his career around since he land in the Lone Star state a few years ago, and he’s now considered on of the NHL’s premier snipers. When healthy he’s a top ten scorer, he can play both centre and right wing and has great chemistry with Dallas teammate and NHL All Star Jamie Benn. Why wouldn’t you have him on this team?

Taylor Hall: Hall had a great start to the 2015-16 season but faded in the second half (meaning he probably isn’t going to be named to the final roster). But the Kingston Cannonball is still one of Canada’s best pure left wingers (he already has a pair of top ten scoring finishes in his six season career on horrible Edmonton teams), he won back-to-back memorial Cups before turning pro and was a big part of Canada’s gold medal winning teams in both the 2015 and 2016 IIHF World Championships, proving he can come up big in big international tournaments.

Jeff Carter: Carter almost always gets overlooked by fans during these debates and his inclusion in these kinds of tourneys is always questioned by armchair GMs. But Carter can play all three forward positions with equal efficiency and can fill roles on any of your top three lines. Add that versatility to the fact that he’s a puck possession beast, and you can see why he deserves to wear Team Canada’s jersey. He was a huge part of L.A.’s Stanley Cup championships in 2012 and 2014.

Claude Giroux: Like many names on this list, Giroux’s numbers were a bit disappointing last season. Having said that, he was still good enough to lead the Philadelphia Flyers in scoring and finished 20th overall in the NHL. Not too shabby for a “disappointing season.” Giroux is a slick, almost sneaky skater with good size and skill to burn. The fact that he can play centre and right wing is an added bonus and he’d be a valuable asset in a brief but super competitive tournament like this one.

Ryan Getzlaf: Corey Perry’s line mate in Anaheim has also lost an offensive step or two the past few seasons, but he remains one of the NHL’s most efficient two way forwards who can play with a physical edge (and still give you 60 points a season). The Ducks captain would make an ideal thirteenth forward for this squad.

The Blue Line

Drew Doughty: Those who don’t think Doughty is the best defenceman in the game today will, at the very least, concede that he’s the second best. Doughty is arguably the best player in his own zone right now and while he’s no Erik Karlsson or Brent Burns, his offensive skills are often underrated. Make no mistake, Doughty can put the puck in the net (he finished ninth in scoring among NHL defenceman), but he’s all about taking care of business in own zone first. A Burns-Doughty pairing would easily be the best one in the tournament and a thing of pure beauty. He was arguably the most important skater in L.A.’s Stanley Cup victories.

Duncan Keith: Keith is one of a handful of players who have been part of all three of the Chicago Blackhawks recent Stanley Cup wins (the previously listed Jonathan Toews is another). How important has Keith been to the Blackhawks over the years? Other then his three Stanley Cup rings, his considerable resume boasts two Norris Trophies (2010, 2014) and a Conn Smythe Trophy (2015). Easily one of the most versatile and all round rear guards in the game today, Keith is a must have.

Brent Burns: How the Minnesota Wild must be kicking themselves after trading Burns away. The 6’5 San Jose Shark was the highest scoring Canadian born blue liner in the NHL last season, and his 27 goals were one of the biggest reasons why he’s a Norris Trophy nominee. When Burns begins a rush there are few who can challenge him and there are fewer still who can dictate play the way he can at any given point in a game.

Shea Weber: The best defenceman not to win a Norris Trophy (yet), Weber’s howitzer of a shot makes any power play twice as dangerous, the Nashville veteran can defend his net with the best of them and can throw his weight around with the heavyweights. There’s no conversation about Canada’s blue line that doesn’t include Weber.

P.K. Subban: Subban’s actually a long shot to make this team, and the question is why? You need offense? Subban was second among NHL blue liners in assists last season before an injury cut his season short (he still finished 12th among defencemen in scoring despite missing 14 games to said injury). You need physicality? Subban brings that by the metric tonne. You need someone who can play in his own zone? Subban checks that box too. The 2013 Norris Trophy winner brings everything you want in an elite defenceman to the table and then some. While he has matured a little over the years, his passion and agitating style sometimes gets him into penalty trouble. The reverse side of that coin is he’s one of the most frustrating opponents in the game and he draws just as many penalties as he takes, which would allow a fearsome Canadian power play to go to work. And few are as quick as Subban to jump to a teammate’s defence.

Kris Letang: Letang has plenty of experience playing in high-pressure games on star laden rosters. He’s easily one of the best puck carriers in the NHL today (he could probably carry the puck out of the deepest pit of Hades without breaking a sweat) and he’s the personification of perseverance. Letang has overcome a lot of health problems the last few years-including a stroke-but he’s bounced back every time. How can you not have a competitor with his combination of skills and an Everest sized heart on your roster?

Alex Petriangelo: Quickly developing into one of the most well rounded blue liners in the game, Petriangelo is one of the biggest reasons behind St. Louis’ playoff success this year. A perfect choice as Team Canada’s seventh defenceman, if for no other reason than to gain valuable experience for future tournaments.

The Crease

Carey Price: Carey Price is the best goalie in the world. How can you tell beyond the eye popping numbers he posts? With him in net, the Montreal Canadiens were one of the NHL’s top teams in 2014-15 and they won the first nine games of last season decisively. Then Price went down with a mysterious injury that sidelined him for the rest of the campaign and the Habs went into complete free fall, plummeting from early Stanley Cup favourites to playoff outsiders. His mere presence turns the Habs from a draft lottery team into a 100-point one-that’s how good he is. If fully healthy come September, there’s no question he’s Canada’s go to man between the pipes.

Braden Holtby: Your likely 2016 Vezina Trophy winner, Holtby tied Hall of Famer Martin Brodeur’s record for regular season wins at 48. With Price sidelined for most of the season, Holtby climbed to the top f the NHL’s goaltending food chain and while thoroughbreds like Alex Ovechkn and Evengi Kuznetsov got a lot of the attention in Washington, there’s no way the Capitals win the President’s Trophy without Holtby’s brilliance between the pipes. When Price needs a game or two off, Holtby is the obvious choice to man Canada’s net.

Corey Crawford: Crawford is the Rodney Dangerfield of the NHL. Despite backstopping the Chicago Blackhawks to a pair of Stanley Cups as their starter (2013 and 2015), he gets precious little respect. But he put up excellent numbers this year despite the struggles of the dynastic team in front of him and many felt the NHL’s failure to recognize him with his first career Vezina nomination was a snub of insulting proportions.

Shayne Kempton

Photo Anji Barton Standard Flikr License

 

THE NHL’S 2015 CHRISTMAS WISH LIST

TEN THINGS GMS, PLAYERS AND FANS FROM THE NHL SHOULD BE WISHING FOR THIS CHRISTMAS

(Originally posted on Hautnews.com on December 24th, 2015)

So here we are on Christmas Eve, and while everyone’s asked jolly old St. Nick for something this year, here are ten suggestions that should appear under some NHL Christmas trees tomorrow morning. If you’re reading this Santa, you might want to take a few of these to heart and hopefully some enterprising GMs and hockey execs will leave out some extra cookies and milk for you.

  1. A hobby for the idiots from Las Vegas who came after me on Twitter. Earlier this year I wrote a story on why the NHL shouldn’t put a franchise in Sin City (you’ll notice the absence of any other major sports league teams as well) and before I knew it I found myself in the crosshairs of some angry Las Vegas fans on Twitter, including the guy who ran the bid’s Twitter account. They apparently had nothing better to do with their time on a summer Saturday evening, so if you could Santa, maybe leave a hobby or two in their stocking. Possibly crochet or Sudoku. Or maybe Crazy 8s because I hear playing cards is a big thing in Vegas. And speaking of Twitter . . .
  1. Some exploding coal for some toxic Chicago Blackhawks fans. When Chicago Blackhawks superstar (and renowned party animal) Patrick Kane was being investigated for allegations of rape during the summer, some Blackhawk fans not only decided that he was innocent, but that anyone in the media who didn’t immediately begin singing songs of his innocence deserved threats. CBSChicago.com reporter (and Sports 670 update anchor) Julie DiCaro actually had to stay home from work after getting threatening Tweets from some Blackhawk fans. Common sense and reason doesn’t enter into the equation with animals like this Big Red, so maybe some hand grenades disguised like coal could get the job done.
  1. Some luck for my fantasy hockey team. I don’t know what it is Santa, but this year my players have been dropping like flies. Not minor injuries mind you, but the kind that sidelines players for weeks and even months at a time. Even the players I’ve drafted to replace my injured superstars have been getting themselves injured. At this point I wouldn’t be surprised if some of their legs started falling off. I don’t know how you’d wrap it Big Man, but how about some fantasy health?
  1. A break for Buffalo Sabre fans. Being a Sabre fan these past few years has been a pretty tall order. The team finished dead last in both 2014 and 2015 but they were denied the first overall pick both years (losing out on Connor McDavid last June was especially painful given how Sabre management did everything in its power to finish last). But despite all that, this year was supposed to offer hope for beleaguered Sabres fans. Not a playoff spot mind you, but enough tangible improvement to warrant patient loyalty. Instead, Sabres fans have been treated to a buffet of injury and misfortune. Robin Lehtner, who was supposed to be their goaltender moving forward, has yet to start a game because of injury and Evander Kane, who was supposed to light it up riding shotgun for generational talent Jack Eichel, missed a month with a leg injury (I know, he was on my fantasy team). And speaking of Eichel, while 2015’s second overall pick has been posting pretty good numbers, he isn’t yet in the Calder Trophy conversation, another potential sore point for long suffering Sabres fans.
  1. A do-over for the Columbus Blue Jackets. Columbus lost over 500 man games to injury last season (no other team came close) and even though their non-stop parade of injuries cost them a playoff berth, when the team was healthy it looked mighty fine, ending the season by winning thirteen of its final sixteen games. Adding rising young power forward Brandon Saad over the summer was the icing on the cake and a playoff berth seemed a foregone conclusion for a lot of pundits. No one knows exactly what happened in Ohio but wow did this team fall of the rails at light speed. Mired at the bottom of the standings again with a playoff spot looking like an impossible long shot, Columbus is now stuck with the walking talking temper tantrum known as John Tortorella as it’s coach and the team seems on the verge of dealing away superstar and franchise player Ryan Johansen (one of only two Blue Jackets not to miss any time to injury last season). It’s pretty safe to say Big Red that this was hardly how the Blue Jackets or their fans expected this season to go.
  1. Last year Santa I asked you for some Divine Intervention to save my Edmonton Oilers from themselves. Primarily from horrible management and deliberately blind ownership. Boy did you come through. When we won the right to draft Connor McDavid last April, it set off a chain of events that all fell into place like dominoes from Heaven. Within forty-eight hours our President and General Manager (both the worst in the League) had been demoted and our head coaching position vacated. Over the next few months the proven and competent leadership that replaced them systematically filled the open positions with established names and then went about transforming the roster. But now Santa, I need to ask another monumental favour for my team.

Do you think you could lift the curse that seems to be hanging over this franchise? We     have yet to see what this squad can do since the roster has never been healthy. Jordan Eberle blew his shoulder in training camp, missing the first month of the season. Justin Schultz injured his back just before Halloween, sidelining him a month. The worst has got to be Connor McDavid, the saviour and teenage phenom who was just beginning to bust out after a slow start and dominate games the way few eighteen year olds before him had, when a pair of no talent Philadelphia pylons on skates dragged him into the boards, breaking his left collarbone and putting him on the shelf for several months. And now Oscar Klefbom, arguably our top blue liner, is out an undetermined amount of time after a broken finger somehow became a staff infection in his leg. Perhaps nothing sums up how snake bitten this season has been as much as Nail Yakupov. Finally having a good year (playing alongside McDavid), the embattled Yak has been out for the past few weeks (and will be out a few more) since being dragged down by a falling linesman. Yak sprained his ankle in the fall and will miss approximately a month with the biggest freak injury anyone has ever heard of. But don’t worry Santa, the ref was OK.

  1. A milk carton for the Pittsburgh Penguins offence and the entire Anaheim Ducks organization, since both seem to be missing. When the Penguins stunned the hockey world by acquiring sniper Phil Kessel from the rebuilding Toronto Maple Leafs last July, adding him to the likes of Sydney Crosby, Evengi Malkin and Kris Letang, everyone thought Pittsburgh was going to be a regular feature on the nightly highlight reels. No one was prepared to hand the Pens the Cup mind you (much was made of the team’s remaining holes on the blue line and questions in net), but the question everyone was asking was how many goals would Pittsburgh score? Now the question going into every game is are the Pittsburgh Penguins going to score at all? Sydney Crosby has spent months mired in a scoring slump and Kessel has yet to light anything resembling a fire under the Pens offence. They’ve been downright mediocre and are miles from being the offensive juggernaut just about every one in the world predicted them to be last September.

Anaheim meanwhile is easily the biggest disappointment in the NHL this season. After falling just short of making the Stanley Cup finals last June, no other team was as aggressive as the Ducks in addressing roster needs while deftly managing the salary cap. The Ducks beefed up at every position and were everyone’s favourite to win the Cup at the beginning of the season. The team’s strength combined with their home in the NHL’s weakest division seemed a perfect recipe for regular season dominance and eventual Stanley Cup glory. But now the Ducks are in very real danger of missing the playoffs altogether, their top players have been called out repeatedly in the media and it’s considered only a matter of time before head coach Bruce Boudreau is fired. How bad has it been Santa? The Ducks won just one game in the entire month of October and fared little better in November. Even if Anaheim begins tearing it up in the New Year, they may not be able to make up the ground they lost in the first few months of the season, and could very well find themselves on the outside looking in come playoff time.

  1. A little more patience from my fellow Oilers fans. If you could Big Man, could you slip a little more resolve into Oilers fans stockings? We’ve been a battered bunch this past decade, saddled with the worst President, the worst GMs and the worst coaches for years, all overseen by an owner whose negligence bordered on criminal. But with Connor McDavid now on the scene and all the necessary front office changes his arrival inspired, we finally had hope-sweet, precious hope. But that hope was tested when we lost our first four games and has been bruised further by a few prolonged losing streaks that have kept us from reaching a .500 record. But if you squint your eyes and turn your head just enough, things are looking up.

The Oilers may have lost a lot of games this season, but they’ve been competitive in just about all of them, something they haven’t been able to say in years. A few more bounces go their way and a few less calls against them and this team could easily be a game or two over the .500 mark right now. They’ve actually come back to win some games, another trait they haven’t displayed since time out of mind, and they’ve managed to steal a few points here and there with some outstanding goaltending (if you would have told an Oilers fan that as recently as last year they would have slapped you in the face with a brick and told you to stop your lies). McDavid’s injury was a big blow, but it allowed the team to recall Leon Draisaitl, who has blown the doors off the NHL and Taylor Hall, who’s spent most of the season among the NHL’s top scorers, is looking every bit like the team’s future captain, both on and off the ice. And when McDavid returns sometime in January, GM Peter Chiarelli will have a surplus of assets he can trade to address other needs.

There’s still a long way to go Santa, but could you just make sure my fellow members of the Copper and Blue Nation stick around just a little longer for the good times? No one should have anticipated a playoff spot this season anyway (though a recent winning streak has put us back in that conversation, a place we haven’t been in December for years), but there would be a certain poetic symbolism if we returned to the post season dance next season, the first in our shiny new home.

  1. A healing factor for Connor McDavid. You know Santa, like the one Wolverine has. And maybe some of those unbreakable Adamantium bones as well. Because if McDavid’s injury in November at the hands of much less talented, slow of foot blue liners, it’s that the young heir apparent has a target on his back. McDavid’s blinding speed coupled with his cat like agility and his sublime puck handling skills proved impossible for most NHL D-men to defend against, so the thug like antics displayed by Flyers blue liners Michael Del Zotto and Brandon Manning, where they basically gang-tackled him into the boards, are likely going to become more common. And more accepted (the NHL has never been eager to protect its stars).

But there’s one other reason Connor’s going to need an ability to heal fast Big Red, and that’s because of Hockey Trolls. McDavid’s good. Really good. He’s been lauded by everyone from Steven Stamkos to Wayne Gretzky (who described him as the best player to come along in the last thirty years) and his skill set is pure offense (though he’s proven he can use his offensive instincts to protect a lead as well), meaning that there’s a sizeable portion of “traditional” hockey fans who will never respect him. There was no shortage of them on social media before the season began begging for him to fail and they tripped over themselves with glee when he went down with his injury. The Great One had his fair share of detractors back in the day, fans who didn’t consider him a real player because he didn’t fight, but Gretz didn’t have to contend with Twitter and Reddit. So if it isn’t too much trouble Santa, could you wrap up a nice healing X-gene and put it under Connor’s tree?

  1. A big pat on the back to P.K. Subban. Already heavily involved in charity work (P.K. and his family are the faces of Hyundai Hockey Helpers, a non profit organization that assists parents struggling with cost of enrolling their kids in North America’s most expensive sport), the popular (and often controversial) Montreal Canadiens defenseman pledged ten million dollars over the next seven years to the Montreal Children’s Hospital. It is by far the biggest single donation a member of the venerated Habs franchise has ever donated to charity. Subban’s contributions on the ice never go unnoticed by his teammates or Habs fans (or their opponents, for that matter), and now, with a wing of the hospital bearing his name, his presence and generosity to the community won’t either.

          An honourable shout out to Washington Capitals winger T.J. Oshie and Montreal Canadiens goalie Carey Price in this category as well. When the St. Louis Blues traded the popular Oshie to Washington last off-season, five-year-old Libby Lu was so distraught at his departure that she locked herself in a closet crying, refusing to come out. Well, T.J. reached out to little Libby twice, first calling her on a Sportscenter talk show and then by mailing her a crate full of Washington Capitals swag, all of it autographed, ensuring that Libby would not only be a T.J. Oshie fan her entire life, but also a hockey one as well. Meanwhile Carey Price has been heavily involved in a number of youth programs, everything from donating equipment to Aboriginal communities to raffling off his game masks. Price’s community work won him the Jean Beliveau award last October, awarded by the legendary Beliveau’s wife. Good job, gentlemen, good job.

Shayne Kempton

libby-lu-caps-jersey

FIVE ALIVE

MY EDMONTON OILERS HAD THEIR PLAYOFF HOPES LAID TO REST MONTHS AGO. SO WHO TO FOLLOW THESE STANLEY CUP PLAYOFFS? HERE ARE FIVE VERY LIKEABLE CANDIDATES

So here we are, at the beginning of another campaign for Lord Stanley’s coveted chalice. Back in October there were thirty teams with visions of the Stanley Cup dancing in their head, but seven and a half months later the weak and the slow have been culled and we’re down to the sixteen most worthy teams; sixteen that will be reduced to a single champion in two months time.

But the biggest question I find myself asking is who to cheer for. I’ve made no secret that my heart belongs to the Edmonton Oilers, arguably the most dysfunctional franchise in all of professional sports (and I’ve also been one of their most vocal critics). The Oil were essentially banished from chasing Lord Stanley’s Cup some time around November, meaning that for a ninth year in a row, myself and other long suffering Oilers fans are left on the outside looking in (and worse yet, our current and failure obsessed management group seems oblivious or indifferent to the fan base’s growing frustration and fatigue). So I face a choice; ignore the playoffs altogether, choosing to deprive myself of the best hockey all year, or choose another franchise to champion my hopes and dreams. Cheer might be a little too strong for the limited emotional investment I’m willing to make, while support is probably a more accurate term of what I’m looking to offer some NHL franchise over the next few months. Now the question becomes how to narrow it down. While I may not have determined my franchise of choice for this season’s Stanley Cup playoffs yet, I have determined the five teams most worthy of my support. And why.

Winnipeg Jets: Perhaps the second biggest underdogs to even make the playoffs this season, the Jets have been playing desperation hockey for 82 games already, clinching their first post-season berth since landing back in the ‘Peg in 2011. Few pundits believed the Jets had a snowball’s chance to make the playoff dance, but Winnipeg has fought and clawed all season long. When the Evander Kane situation reached apparent critical mass last February, Winnipeg GM Kevin Cheveldayoff overcame his trade reluctant rep and pulled the trigger on a deal that sent the talented but much maligned young power forward to the struggling Buffalo Sabres in a deal that improved his roster both today and down the road. Every time adversity reared it’s gruesome head, the Jets buckled down and pressed their collective shoulder to the grindstone even harder. It would seem the NHL’s smallest market is this year’s little engine that could, and have so far risen to the occasion through blood, sweat and intestinal fortitude. How can you not like that?

Calgary Flames: This was supposed to be just the second year of the Flames official rebuild. When Calgary traded franchise cornerstone Jarome Iginla in the spring of 2013, it signaled a long overdue changing of the guard for the Flames, one that was supposed to see them competing for the first overall pick in this June’s entry draft. But things haven’t quite followed that particular script. While Winnipeg may have been the NHL’s second biggest playoff underdog story, the Flames were by far it’s largest. Everyone kept expecting Calgary to fall out of playoff contention any day, but the Flames kept the naysayers waiting and silenced them for good when they fought and shoved their way into the playoff picture. The Flames were this year’s Come Back Kids, leading the NHL in comebacks when they trailed opponents by a goal or more entering the third period. To a man, Calgary embraced a new “Never Say Die” culture; one adopted by the new leadership Calgary ownership brought in to complete the rebuild. There’s a lesson there that Calgary’s provincial cousins down the road in Edmonton have failed to realize, and if the Flames go deep in this year’s playoffs, it will serve to embarrass the Oiler’s incompetent brass even more. And that’s reason enough to show them some love.

Ottawa Senators: Ottawa was another team that wasn’t supposed to be part of the playoff equation this year, but enough dominoes fell into place to allow the Ottawa Senators to stage the biggest second half turnaround in NHL history. And simply put, the Sens, bar none, were the NHL’s biggest Cinderella Story this year. Sure, the team played better under Dave Cameron, who replaced 2013 Jack Adams winning coach Paul MacLean after Ottawa fired the Walrus mid-season. And sure, new captain Erik Karlsson deserves a healthy dose of credit, leading the team in scoring (again) while leading all NHL blue liners in points (again), not to mention how important Ottawa’s young guns were to their success this season; with Mark Stone (who should win the Calder trophy for best rookie), Mike Hoffman (who lead both Ottawa and all NHL freshmen in goals), Mika Zibanejad (2011’s sixth overall pick who looks to have usurped Kyle Turris as Ottawa’s number one centre) and Curtis Lazar (a big part of Canada’s gold medal winning squad at this year’s World Junior tournament). But the Sens momentous turnaround belongs primarily to one player-Andrew “Hamburglar” Hammond. When Ottawa’s regular net minders went down with injuries at the end of January and Hammond, who was posting less then mediocre numbers with the AHL Binghamton Senators, was thrust into the Sens crease, everyone pretty much stuck a fork in Ottawa’s playoff hopes (the Sens were 14 points out of a playoff spot at that point). But a funny thing happened-Hammond became the architect of a bona fide NHL Miracle on Ice. The Sens became supernova hot overnight and Hammond began breaking 80 year old records as he pulled Ottawa into the playoffs. And if that wasn’t enough of a storybook plot line for you, the team is pulling to give GM Bryan Murray, whose been battling terminal cancer all season long, one final season of memorable hockey and they’ll be dedicating every second of success to the memory of assistant coach Mike Lee who died a few days ago. This team will be playing with unimaginable emotional chutzpah.

Montreal Canadiens: The Habs were Canada’s lone post-season representative last year and they battled all the way to the Eastern Conference final before being eliminated by the New York Rangers. It is quite possible those two meet again this spring, possibly battling once again for the privilege of representing the East in the Stanley Cup Finals and a potential rematch between these two powerhouses will be epic as both teams have improved significantly since last June. I’ve always favoured the NHL’s masked men and while not taking anything away from the aforementioned Andrew Hammond or the Minnesota Wild’s Devan Dubnyk (who pulled a similar resurrection act with Minnesota’s flailing playoff hopes), Carey Price has quietly put together an historical campaign that has put his name alongside legends like Ken Dryden and Patrick Roy. His season long numbers have guaranteed him the Vezina trophy as the League’s top goalie and there’s also plenty of chatter about him taking home the Hart as the NHL’s most valuable player as well. And while I’ve never denied his flaws, it never fails to amaze me how little respect P.K. Subban gets, especially after his heroics last spring against the Boston Bruins (Subban took home the Norris trophy as the NHL’s top defenseman in 2013 and was the NHL’s second highest scoring blue liner this season). Maybe another deep post season run will get him some much-deserved respect. But my biggest reason for wanting to see the Habs enjoy some Stanley Cup success is Jeff Petry. Petry became the most recent in a long line of whipping boys for Edmonton Oilers management and fans despite numbers showing he was the best defenseman on a team where the blue line was their biggest weakness. The Oilers showed him little respect, signalling they were planning on trading him when they signed him to a single year deal last summer and then followed through on their intentions by shipping him to the Habs for draft picks at last March’s trade deadline. Yes, a team with a notoriously weak blue line gave away their best d-man for nothing (reason number 517 why Edmonton has spent the better part of the past decade well outside the playoff bubble). Seeing Petry, who was immediately slotted into the Habs top defensive four upon arrival, playing for the Stanley Cup will be an added bonus to humiliate Oilers brass.

Minnesota Wild: With the previous four entries on the list hailing from north of the border, this selection may leave you scratching your head a bit. And make no mistake, I’d love to see the Stanley Cup return to the Great White North for the first time in 22 years, but I’m also a pragmatist and with American teams constituting two thirds of playoff bound squads (including heavy hitters like the Rangers, Chicago, Anaheim, Nashville and others), the numbers are stacked against a Canadian captain skating victory laps holding the Cup aloft this June. And I do admire the way the Wild, a perennial playoff absentee a few years ago, have built their team, combining smart drafting, patient and efficient player development, shrewd trading and a few big free agent splashes into a recipe that has turned them into everyone’s favourite dark horse in the West. But my true motive for wanting to see the Wild raise a banner or two following this spring’s playoffs is Minnesota goaltending hero and former Edmonton Oiler Devan Dubnyk. You see, like Jeff Petry was this season, Dubnyk was Edmonton’s scapegoat last year, being dealt to the Nashville Predators for (overpaid) fourth line grinder Matt Hendricks.   During the lockout shortened 2013 season, Dubnyk, whose career had been trending upwards, finally seized hold of Edmonton’s top net minding job, but as soon as Dallas Eakins came on board as the Oilers bench boss, he was among a number of young players whose careers went south in a hurry (sophomores Nail Yakupov and Justin Schultz being the other two). Now Oiler apologists will point out that Dubnyk fared poorly with Nashville after the deal in question and never played a single minute for the Canadiens when the Preds dealt him to Montreal later that season. But what those pundits fail to point out is that when Dubs landed in Nashville he was well behind Pekka Rinne on the depth chart and when he arrived in Montreal he was behind Carey Price, Peter Budaj and Dustin Tokarski. When the Arizona Coyotes signed him to a one-year deal last summer, Dubs began posting numbers superior than starter and former Olympian Mike Smith (on a horrible team, no less) and when the Wild acquired him for the bank breaking price of a third round draft pick last January, Dubnyk (who set new standards for work horses everywhere, starting all but one game between then and the end of the season) turned Minnesota’s fortunes around nearly as much as Hammond did Ottawa’s. In fact, my dream final this year is a Minnesota-Montreal matchup, where no matter who wins, one of Edmonton’s head slapping mistakes will be on full display, and one will eventually have his name etched onto the Stanley Cup.

Shayne Kempton

THE NHL’S 2014 CHRISTMAS WISH LIST

WHAT TEAMS AND FANS SHOULD PROBABLY ASK JOLLY OLD SANTA FOR THIS CHRISTMAS SEASON

 Well hello Santa. So good to see you again. How is Mrs. Claus doing? Well I hope (because let’s be honest Big Man, we both know the whole operation comes tumbling down without the Missus). And the elves? The reindeer? Rudolph still getting up to his regular hijinks? That polar scamp. Totally incorrigible.

Y’know Santa, it’s not just Christmas we celebrate at this time of year, but we’re also at the point on the calendar where just about every team in the NHL has played at least a third or more of their current regular season, and there are a few franchises (and in the case of number two, a long suffering and oft ignored fan base) who are probably counting on a goodie or two in your sack to salvage the rest of the campaign. Or at least make life a little more bearable until the mercy of the balmy summer months.   But just in case any have forgotten amidst the hectic hustle and bustle of the Christmas season, I’ve taken the liberty of assembling a list of ten things that teams or fans should ask you for this Yuletide.

10.  Another Hart trophy, scoring championship and First Team All-Star berth for Sidney Crosby. I’m not a Pens fan Santa, or a Crosby one, but Sid the Kid’s critics (and he has many) act like a pack of rabid, ravenous wolves that pounce on any chance to diss or put him down. A Stanley Cup champion and two-time Olympic Gold Medalist, Sid’s got more personal hardware then any other player currently skating. In the world. But still, there are millions of “fans” who love to hate on him with savage abandon.   He could discover a cure for cancer tomorrow and they’d all flock to Facebook to bash him for not devoting every waking second to hockey and defying nature. A bunch of new awards won’t really silence Sid’s haters, but it will make their absurd, petty rhetoric look even more foolish.

9.  If you could Santa, you might want to consider wrapping super-prospect Connor McDavid in an Ottawa Senators jersey this year, and gifting him, not to Sens fans in general, but the ones who didn’t throw Jason Spezza under the bus last year. Now the Sens don’t have to finish last in in the NHL in order to draft Connor first overall this June (the Oilers had all but wrapped up dead last by Halloween) but the Sens playoff chances this season are looking a little less then 50/50 (far smarter people than yours truly have crunched the numbers using a decade’s worth of data and have determined that Ottawa, who was several spots removed from a playoff spot in early December, has around a twenty-five percent chance to make the post season next spring). Any team that misses the playoffs this season will have at least a 13.5% chance to land The Next Big Thing. Bigger gambles have paid off.

8.  Glasses for the people who apparently didn’t see the Montreal Canadiens 2014 playoff run and refuse to accept that Habs blue liner P.K. Subban is one of the game’s elite defencemen. The 2013 Norris Trophy winner and member of Canada’s Gold Medal winning 2014 Olympic team, Subban was a dominant one man force who, combined with Carey Price’s heroics in net, dragged the Habs to victory over their much bigger, deeper, more skilled and much more favoured Beantown rivals during their second round matchup last spring. Subban got in the Bruins’ face, he never let up and when he wasn’t getting in Boston’s head or under their skin, he was putting pucks in their net. Even after the Big Bad Bruins took a 3-2 series lead and everyone wrote Montreal off, Subban refused to throw in the towel and somehow stepped it up a notch, leading the Bleu et Blanc to victory in seven.  If after all that people weren’t ready to acknowledge P.K.’s place among the game’s current best, there’s something desperately wrong with their eyes. Of course, for a few of these rotten apples (and I’ve tangled with one or two online), their hatred really only runs skin deep. And speaking of skins . . .

7.  A thick one for current Ottawa Senators captain Erik Karlsson. The slick young Swede is superbly skilled, his awesome skill set leans towards the offensive side of the game, he isn’t overly physical and he’s European. In short Big Red, he’s everything Canadian “purists” hate in a hockey player. If the Sens struggle the rest of the way and fail to qualify for the post season, it won’t take long for the Sens Army to turn on Karlsson the way it turned on then captain Jason Spezza last season. Sports fans eat their own like no one else, and Ottawa’s hockey community has proven just as eager to chow down on anyone in a Sens jersey if things don’t go as well as they planned at season’s end.  Karlson will prove no exception.

6.  A huge lump of coal for the pretentious ass hats who run the Hockey Hall of Fame. The late Pat Burns was finally inducted into the Hall this year Santa, four years after he died from cancer. The kicker is he was eligible for admission before his unfortunate death and his wife confided after his passing that he secretly hoped he would be alive to see the day when he’d be inducted. It would have been such a little thing for the brains at the HHoF to bend a rule here or there and induct him while he was alive to see and enjoy it. But no, the walking, talking vials of syphilis that run the Hall couldn’t lower themselves to be actual feeling human beings. And Santa, that coal you put in their stockings? Could you make it the exploding kind? Pretty please?

5.  A lifetime ban from the Canadian Tire Centre for the Sens and Leafs fans that got into a flying brawl last November (during the game where both teams observed a moment of silence for the recently slain Cpl. Cirillo, no less). I don’t know how it started but everyone saw how it ended, with a member of each tribe hugging each other as they hurtled down the concrete stairs. In the days following the video’s Mach speed tour of the Internet, everyone was picking sides. IT WAS THE SENS FAN’S FAULT!  IT WAS THE LEAFS FAN’S FAULT! The truth is Big Red, it was the fault of everyone involved; everyone wearing a jersey during that scuffle was a douchebag, regardless of the logo. And while odds are the idiots who went down the stairs are still feeling it (good), justice will only truly be served if the two of them, Sen and Leafs fan alike, are prevented entry into the CTC (or any other Ottawa arena). For the rest of their lives.

4.  For Martin Brodeur to retire as a New Jersey Devil. The legendary Brodeur is currently doing a fine job holding down the fort in St. Louis crease, but his contract ends in June and once Blues starter Brian Elliot recovers from injury or future franchise goalie Jake Allen is ready to assume the reigns full time, Brodeur will be a 42 year old goalie on the outside looking in. So Santa, I think it only fair (and reasonable), that next September the New Jersey Devils sign Brodeur, who wrote an entire record book during his time manning New Jersey’s net, to a one game contract. Give him a start him against Edmonton or Carolina so he can grab one final win and then retire wearing the Devils jersey on a victorious note.

3.  A case of finger leprosy for the Leafs fans who took to Twitter to criticize, insult and berate Toronto goalie James Reimer’s wife, April. When Reimer struggled last spring (during a meltdown that affected every member of the roster and spelled the end of Toronto’s post season chances) and had a few lack luster games this past fall, some Leafs “fans” thought it would be a good idea to use Twitter to go after the man’s wife. Cause y’know, that’s the bravest and most reasonable thing of all to do. It should be mentioned that Mrs. Reimer handled the situation with grace and there were no shortage of other Leafs fans who rallied to her defense, but the idea they’ll get away with it still ticks in my craw. I made a tweet criticizing the Twidiots who targeted her (and I was completely civilized-I swear!) and found myself in the cross hairs of one or two malicious malcontents. And not only that Santa, even you have to admit that the mental image of a bunch of enraged fans racing to Twitter to voice their angry venom but have to resort to pecking the keyboard with their noses because they shed their diseased fingers is hysterical.

2.  A playoff berth for the Edmonton Oilers. I’m gonna be frank with you on this one Big Red, I, like millions of other Oilers fans, have abandoned hope that we’re ever going to see another meaningful game of hockey played in the month of April without divine intervention. Our coach is a one man blunder factory who ESPN recently named the worst bench boss in the NHL, our current GM doesn’t seem to have a long term plan or know what he’s doing (an affliction also suffered by his two predecessors), we’re saddled with the worst team president in the history of, well, ever, and an owner whose indifference to the strained loyalty of the team’s suffering fans is bordering on being criminally reckless. Even the most hardcore fan and the loudest team apologists have given up. It’s isn’t like we haven’t had opportunities to right the ship that’s been sinking for nine consecutive years Santa, but we seem to have gone out of our way to squander each and every one of them. I fear if you can’t fit a small miracle under Oiler Nation’s collective Christmas tree, the playoffs will become a permanent pipe dream and we’ll be forced to sustain ourselves on the memories of our long distant glory years.

1.  This might be the biggest one of all to ask for Santa, but if you can swing it, how about a few comfortable years of remission for Ottawa Senators GM Bryan Murray? Things aren’t looking too bright for Mr. Murray as he battles stage four cancer and both he and his doctors have admitted that at this point the best anyone can do is manage the situation. There are few guys out there in professional sports as classy as Mr. Murray, and if anyone in the NHL currently deserves a miracle of this size, it’s him. If you can only pull off one thing on this list Santa, it should be this one and I’ll make you a deal; if you can swing this particular stocking stuffer, I’ll leave out an extra large plate of double stuff Oreos.

Shayne Kempton