Take a deep breath Canada. It isn’t that bad.

When the 2015-16 NHL regular season wrapped up, Canadians faced a spring with no playoff hockey played north of the 49th parallel for the first time in 46 years. The last (and only other) time was in 1970, when Toronto and Montreal were the only Canadian squads in a twelve team league. The sting was a little sharper considering that last year, five of Canada’s seven franchises fought their way into the playoffs, with Montreal and Calgary advancing to the second round. How much have Canadian hockey fans been turned off by the absence of their teams in the playoffs? Rogers reported a viewership drop of over 60 percent for the first round of the playoffs versus last year and the St. Louis Blues have been running an add campaign to convince disenfranchised Canucks to support their post season drive. And Canada’s absence from the NHL playoffs has provided plenty of fodder for the prophets of doom who, without fail, herald the end of Canada’s hockey superiority this time every year. In fact, 2016 has been a banner year for the doom and gloomers so far.

When Canada’s 2016 World Junior team finished sixth last January in Helsinki, the caterwauling from coast to coast to coast was as predictable as it was deafening. The entire hockey blogosphere was running around like the world’s biggest headless chicken jumped up on bath salts screaming that the sky was collapsing, the typical Canadian reaction whenever one of it’s national entries doesn’t win gold in an international tournament.

Canada’s poor finish was a “debacle” according to the legions of fans who flocked to the Internet to voice their disgust. Its elimination was a national embarrassment and the players should have been ashamed that they disappointed an entire country. There was the inevitable finger pointing; according to the armchair GMs, Hockey Canada didn’t know what it was doing and selected all the wrong players (an opinion held about any international team Canada assembles even when the Great White North wins gold). The coaches were incompetent and the selections were all about politics and on and on (and mercilessly on). But the same message resonated beneath each accusing finger and every outraged breath; the players weren’t good enough.

If that wasn’t enough, American born sniper Patrick Kane lead the NHL scoring race all season long and is this year’s favourite to win the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s Most Valuable Player. And the Nostradamus collective of the hockey world will drag out their tired prognastations this June when the name of a Canadian born and trained player probably won’t be called until the sixth selection in this year’s annual entry draft. All are signs, they say, that Canada’s global hockey dominance has come to an end.

But relax Canada. It’s human nature to view the entire world through apocalyptic glasses, especially about something so deeply embedded in your sense of national self-esteem. Despite all the ominous portends you’ve suffered this year, Canada is still the apex predator of the hockey world. So calm down and consider the following.

First, let’s add a little perspective to this year’s World Junior’s performance. This year’s team had its issues; goaltending was suspect from the first puck drop, the team wrestled with on ice discipline-often taking bad penalties at the worst times-which wouldn’t have been the worst thing in the world except it’s penalty kill struggled. But despite all that, this team was better than its sixth place finish indicated. Canada was eliminated by Finland in a sudden death tournament. By one goal. In overtime. And Finland, you may have noticed, went on to win gold, defeating Canada’s arch nemesis Russia to win the title. Canada was narrowly eliminated by the eventual world champs (that were powered by a top line that challenged just about every offensive record in the tournament’s history), meaning if the teenage Canucks had one or two lucky breaks they could have had a date with Russia in a rematch of 2015’s gold medal game.

Canada’s place atop the global hockey food chain is as healthy as it’s ever been. Not only is Canada the defending Olympic champions, having won gold in Sochi in 2014 and Vancouver in 2010, but it’s also the defending World Champion, winning the tournament in 2015 and again this year in dominating fashion. Canada is the odds on favourite to win next September’s World Cup and while the country was having a meltdown about the 2016 World Juniors, Canada was quietly winning the Spengler Cup, a tournament it wasn’t expected to do very well in this year.

A healthy chunk the NHL’s top twenty scorers are Canadians (during a season when Cole Harbour’s favourite native son, Sidney Crosby, considered the best hockey player in the world for the past decade, had a down year and his heir apparent, Connor McDavid, missed three months because of a broken collar bone) and as far as the draft is concerned, seven of the last ten first overall picks have been citizens of the Great White North and Nolan Patrick, currently projected to be taken at the head of 2017’s draft class, has a Canadian passport.

Besides, it wasn’t as though any of the Canadian teams were cup contenders this year. If one or two teams had managed to sneak in, they were destined to be first round casualties. Being represented in the post-season 46 of the last 47 years is nothing to sneeze at, so consider Canada’s one-year absence a well deserved nap.

The point is, Canada is still producing the best players on the planet, providing over half of the players (and over forty percent of the revenue) to the best hockey league in the world despite hosting less then a third of is teams. We should take pride in the fact that our greatest export is the best players in the game we love.

In the meantime, enjoy the rest of the playoffs and the story lines that are still unfolding (Will St. Louis win enough games to save Ken Hitchcock’s job? Will Tampa Bay be able to go all the way this year and capture the Stanley Cup without Steve Stamkos? And if so, does that seal his fate as a member of the Lightning? Can San Jose shake their rep as playoff chokers? How much crow will Phil Kessel force Leafs Nation to eat after they ran him out of down on a rail last July?). And all the naysayers can stick their stupidity in their pipes and choke on it.

Shayne Kempton

Photo: S. Yume Standard Flikr License




      And then there were four. Four teams are all that remain in the hunt for the Stanley Cup and each offers plenty of intrigue and questions. While the Chicago Blackhawks and Los Angeles Kings clashing for the second consecutive season to represent the West in the Stanley Cup Final probably doesn’t surprise a lot of hockey fans, the fact that the East is up for grabs between the New York Rangers and the Montreal Canadiens blows more than a few predictions out of the water (mine included). There are three original six teams included among the Final Four, as well as the first Canadian team in seven years, the defending Stanley Cup champions, the 2012 Stanley Cup champions, the team that won the Cup twenty years ago (the Rangers) and the team that won it twenty seasons ago (Montreal, adjusted for the 2005 lockout that scrapped that year’s post season). And each remaining roster includes at least two members from Canada’s gold medal winning team from the Sochi Winter Games, meaning that no matter what happens over the next few weeks, a couple of players will accomplish the incredible feat of winning both an Olympic gold medal and a Stanley Cup ring in the same year. Its gonna be an awesome end to the 2013-2014 campaign.

CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS: No team is a better example of excellence and champion building in today’s NHL than the Chicago Blackhawks. A decade ago, the Blackhawks were consistently written off as perennial losers and the only time they were ever mentioned in the same sentence as the playoffs was as the punch line of a joke. But through smart drafting, patient development, shrewd trades and a handful of brilliant free agency signings, the Blackhawks are on the cusp of being a modern day dynasty. They had to strip some parts after their Stanley Cup parade in 2010 for salary cap reasons, but were still playoff worthy in 2011 and 2012 before winning the Cup again last spring. It should come as no surprise that the Hawks were tied with Detroit and St. Louis for sending the most players to the Olympics (including Jonathan Toews and Duncan Keith to wear the Maple Leaf) or that this is their third appearance in the NHL’s Final Four in the past five years. Nor should it come as any surprise that they remain most people’s favourites for the 2014 Stanley Cup

 LOS ANGELES KINGS: 2012’s Stanley Cup winners are looking to avenge their 2013 elimination by Chi-town this spring and get some of that Dynasty recognition for themselves. They are perhaps the only team in the League right now that can challenge Chicago in terms of depth and playoff caliber talent. Despite some big names up front, the Kings did have some scoring difficulties during the regular season. That was until they added sniper Marion Gaborik at the trade deadline and now roll three lines that are a danger to score at any time. With Drew Doughty leading a deep blue line and franchise goalie Jonathan Quick as the last line of defense between the pipes, the Kings are a super power. And if anyone doubts the Kings’ emotional resolve, well you can just ask the San Jose Sharks, who jumped out to a commanding 3-0 lead during their first round matchup, only to watch L.A. storm back and become just the fourth team in NHL history to overcome such a deficit and win their series. What turned the tide during that matchup? For the first three games, Quick wasn’t on his game. For the last four he was unbeatable. Now the Kings are contending for the Cup and San Jose is doing a full post mortem on their entire organization. Enough said.

 MONTREAL CANADIENS: I have to hand it to the Habs; I didn’t give them much of a chance against the Boston Bruins in their second round series. Boston was the East’s answer to the Chicago Blackhawks, tailor built for playoff success from the ground up with one of the best goalies, one of the best defensemen and one of the best two-way forwards in the game all wearing Bruins’ jerseys. Good thing nobody told Les Habitants that. Anyone who doesn’t believe that Carey Price and P.K. Subban are now prime time talents in today’s NHL clearly wasn’t paying attention. The Bruins made a habit of outshooting and out chancing the Habs early in the series, but Price routinely made game-saving stops while Subban increasingly dominated the ice, challenging the Bruins as often as he could, refusing to back down when they challenged him and putting more than his fair share of pucks behind Tuuka Rask. Meanwhile, Montreal’s forwards adapted to Boston’s bigger yet less mobile defense, allowing them to gradually take the lead in shots and scoring chances. Montreal proved they wouldn’t be intimidated by either the odds or bigger teams and through perseverance and self-confidence now find themselves the first team representing the Great white North in the Final Four since the Ottawa Senators in 2007 (and 20 seasons after they won it all in 1993, over Wayne Gretzky’s Los Angeles Kings no less). And while losing Price to a knee injury is a devastating blow, if there’s one team that seems destined to overcome such enormous adversity this spring, it’s Montreal. Does another goalie rise to the occasion in Price’s absence? Does Peter Budaj rekindle his days as a starter? Or does an unheralded prospect like Dustin Tokarski get in touch with his inner Bill Ranford and emerge as the team’s savior? This could be interesting.

 NEW YORK RANGERS: At the beginning of the season, would anyone outside of New York’s dressing room have thought the Rangers would still be playing meaningful hockey in mid-May? Even at the beginning of the playoffs, no one outside the most optimistic Rangers fan thought they’d get this far. And when Pittsburgh jumped out to a 3-1 lead in their second round series, the Rangers were given up for dead by just about everyone. But that’ why they play the games. Henrik Lundqvist, who backstopped his native Sweden to silver at Sochi last February, has reasserted himself as The King, keeping his team in games no matter how many shots they give up or how difficult the Rangers attack finds it to score. The Rangers blue line meanwhile, may be the most underrated defense corps in the NHL and the entire team blocks more shots then targets at a shooting range on NRA appreciation day. Scoring on the Rangers sometimes resembles a feat of Herculean proportions (just ask the Philadelphia Flyers, Sidney Crosby and Evengi Malkin). Deadline acquisition Martin St.-Louis not only offers experience (having won the Cup in 2004 with the Tampa Bay Lightning) but an emotional fire as well, playing in tribute to his mother who tragically passed away earlier this month (the Rangers defeated the Penguins in the game St.-Louis missed, embracing the mantra “Win it for Marty,” a win that sparked their comeback). The simple fact is New York is red hot right now with most cylinders firing at warp speed. If Rick Nash can return to form, the Rangers may be this year’s Cinderella team, an unstoppable David that slays all the remaining Goliaths on their path to Stanley Cup glory.

 Shayne Kempton


Daniel Alfredsson

Daniel Alfredsson (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s been an entire week now Ottawa; how do you feel?  You’ve had seven days to accept the fact that Daniel Alfredsson will play the 2013-14 season-likely his last-wearing another team’s jersey.  Most Sens fans, though left winded and heartbroken, wished nothing but the best for their former captain, his family and even his new team, the Detroit Red Wings.  But there are some Ottawa fans who choked on the bitter pill that was Alfredsson’s departure; behaving like jealous, jilted lovers they swarmed to the internet, their grief spilling across chat rooms and fan forums like so much venom and bile, insulting No. 11 and accusing him of being a traitor (one disgruntled Sens fan took to Twitter, wishing Alfie the best of luck selling his house once it was covered with egg).  And those fans, well, you’re the ones here to get bitch slapped.  Shall we begin?

I have to be honest; I never thought I’d see Daniel Alfredsson leave the Nations Capital to join another team.  I heard the rumours leading up to last Friday’s free agent feeding frenzy, that Alfie (who’d just confirmed he would play one more season the week before), was being courted by other teams (with the Boston Bruins topping the list).  But in all honestly, I thought it a game his agent was playing to nudge the value of his final contract up just a little more.  And why not?  Alfredsson had accepted a hometown discount for a large part of the seventeen seasons he wore a Senators jersey (fourteen of them with the captain’s “C” on his chest), even giving up some paycheques when the team was bankrupt and flirting with relocation.  Besides, that’s what agents do, they get the best possible deal for their clients.  And the Senators had pretty much made it clear that they were prepared to offer the heart and soul of their franchise a blank cheque to keep him in Ottawa for his final season, so any contractual foreplay seemed a moot point.  But there we all were last Friday afternoon, shocked to find out that Daniel Alfredsson had joined the Detroit Red Wings.  That enormous crashing sound coming from the Nation’s Capital last Friday wasn’t Bluesfest getting under way or another earthquake shaking Ottawa, it was the collective hearts of the Sens Army breaking.

And as I said, for the most part, Sens fans have been very understanding, and while disappointed and emotionally exhausted, many have wished Alfie all the best with his new team.  For his part, Alfredsson said all the right things last Friday, heaping genuine praise on the Ottawa Senators organization and it’s fans.  He even offered an olive branch to the angry, unforgiving ones, saying he understood their anger, giving them permission to vent their hatred.  He’s a big man, that Daniel Alfredsson.  Me?  Not so much, and I’m still going to slap the trolls like the bitches they are.

Daniel Alfredsson has nothing to apologize for.  His primary reason for signing with the Red Wings was to win a Stanley Cup, it’s what every professional hockey player dreams of.  And doesn’t one who’s played in the NHL for seventeen seasons at an elite level deserve that shot?  Alfredsson worked tirelessly to realize that dream with the Ottawa Senators, he demonstrated exceptional loyalty to both the team and the city of Ottawa (see my previous point about him playing for free before the Sens were rescued by Eugene Melnyk), investing almost as much time in charitable causes within the community as he invested on the ice in his quest to win the Cup.  He’s earned the right to be loyal to himself for a change.

Now here’s the part where you’re going to tell me that Detroit and Ottawa’s chances of winning Lord Stanley’s coveted chalice are the same.  Both teams finished seventh in their respective conferences last season and both were eliminated in the second round of the playoffs, so abandoning the Senators for the Red Wings makes about as much sense as dumping a bikini model to date a lingerie one.  Except the Red Wings were (and remain) stronger contenders for the Cup then the Senators.  Yes, Detroit was knocked out in the second round last season-same as the Sens-but they were eliminated by the Chicago Blackhawks, the eventual Stanley Cup champions.  That series went seven games, with the Red Wings staking a 3-1 series lead at one point, and the decisive game seven needed overtime before it was settled.  No other team pushed the Blackhawks so close to elimination; not the defending Stanley Cup champion L.A. Kings in the third round and not the Stanley Cup finalist Boston Bruins.  And if the Red Wings had won that pivotal game seven a few months ago, they could very well have been the ones sipping champagne out of the Stanley Cup when all was said and done. After defeating the highly favoured Montreal Canadiens in the first round,  the Senators on the other hand, proceeded to get an education in playoff hockey from Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins.  Even Sens coach Paul MacLean joked about Ottawa owing the Pens money for the clinic they put on at the Senators expense.  The same Pittsburgh Penguins who would go on to be manhandled by the Boston Bruins in the following round, the same Boston Bruins who were then defeated in six games by the Blackhawks in the Stanley Cup final.   The simple truth of he matter is that the Red Wings were contenders and the Sens pretenders.  Even now, bookies in Vegas are probably giving the Red Wings more favourable odds to win the Cup.  And after what we’ve seen Detroit, recognized by most in the business to be the most efficiently run organization in the NHL, do these past few weeks, can you blame them?

It’s a hard fact to face Sens fans, but Alfie has a better chance at hoisting the Cup in Detroit than he does here in Ottawa,  And isn’t that what you want for a captain that worked so hard and played so tirelessly for you for the better part of two decades?  It isn’t too much to ask, is it?  And as for the haters out there, maybe you should direct some of that restless contempt of yours at the Sens organization.  There are some rumours that Mr. Melnyk’s pockets are no longer quite as deep as they once were, and the blank cheque Sens management guaranteed fans would convince Alfredsson to remain a Senator may not have existed at all.  And if Ottawa did lowball Daniel Alfredsson after all he’s done for them, doesn’t it make poetic sense for him to take his considerable services to one of the best franchises in the NHL?

So good luck Alfie.  No hard feelings and all the best for you and your family.  If the Sens are smart, they’ll retire your number 11 to the rafters of the Canadian Tire Centre (Dumbest.  Name.  Ever.) as soon as possible and offer you a job upstairs.  The city will embrace you because most of your fans are sensible, reasonable people (well, as much as any sports fan can be).  As for all the spiteful trolls out there, just remember, with Detroit moving into the Eastern Conference next season, you’ll still get to see plenty of Danny.  And between you and me?  Deep down, we both know that when he scores, even if it’s against the Sens, you’ll still be cheering a little.

Shayne Kempton




Vancouver Canucks goaltender Roberto Luongo du...

Vancouver Canucks goaltender Roberto Luongo during training camp in 2009. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

At exactly noon today, thirty NHL General Managers will begin scrambling to sign as many free agents as their budgets will allow.  It will make Christmas Eve in a Toys R Us pale by comparison.  But before the onslaught of deals and ridiculous free agent signings gets under way, I thought I’d share some thoughts on a pair of goalies who’ve made news lately.  Roberto Luongo and Tim Thomas, whose goaltending duel went the full seven game distance in 2011’s Stanley Cup final, have attracted their fair share of headlines the past few days;  Luongo for what hasn’t happened (a much needed change of address) and Thomas for what might happen (the 39 year old is interested in returning to the NHL after sitting out last season for personal reasons).  Two very different goalies with very different stories back in the news for very different reasons.

Ever since the Boston Bruins defeated the Vancouver Canucks in 2011, an epic soap opera has been playing itself out in Vancouver as young goalie Cory Schneider seemed ready to assume the role as the Canucks top goalie, shoving long time starter Roberto Luongo aside.  But the Canucks invested heavily in Luongo, signing him to a lucrative, twelve year deal that’s proven extremely difficult to move in a salary cap NHL.  Yet, with few exceptions he’s been gracious and witty ever since the whole circus about his anticipated move from Vancouver started, garnering one of hockey’s largest Twitter followings in the process.  Now, it seems, with the Canucks trading Schneider to the New Jersey Devils in last Sunday’s entry draft, Luongo is Vancouver’s number one net minder once more, whether he likes it or not.

While he has yet to win it, Luongo has been nominated for the Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s best goalie four times.  He finished runner up for the Hart Trophy in 2007 as the NHL’s MVP and backstopped Team Canada to Olympic gold in his own backyard during the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.  He’s won 233 regular season games so far in a Canucks jersey and has collected 348 victories over the entirety of his career.  At the age of 34, he’s assembled one of the most impressive resumes among active NHL goalies, but he just can’t seem to find any respect.  Many Canuck fans (and indeed the franchise itself) unfairly threw him under the bus for the Canucks Stanley Cup loss to the Bruins in 2011, and many more hockey fans won’t even cut him a break for his gold medal winning performance in 2010, telling anyone who’ll listen that he was a benefactor of playing on a stacked team.  In point of fact, many of Roberto’s online haters have taken to social media, boasting that they can’t wait until he allows first soft goal next October, their mockery machines already tuned up and primed.

Anyone who watched 2011’s Vancouver-Boston final knows that the Canucks lost to a Bruins team that was tailor made for the trench warfare of the playoffs and could tell you there was plenty of blame for the Canucks loss to go around.  Vancouver’s big guns fell silent and what little firepower they mustered was easily dismissed by Boston’s Tim Thomas, an eventual Conn Smythe and Vezina Trophy winner that season. In fact, if it wasn’t for Vancouver’s goaltending, they could have been tossed aside by the Bruins in only five or six games.  Has Luongo given up some soft goals over his career?  Sure, but so has Corey Crawford, Chicago’s goalie who just picked up his second Stanley Cup ring a few weeks ago and whose played himself into the conversation to man Canada’s net at the 2014 Winter Olympics.  Speaking of the Olympics, while Canada’s hockey entry at any Olympics is always going to be stacked, you need capable goaltending to compliment all the other talent.  A stacked team in front of you doesn’t guarantee Olympic success; you could have asked Patrick Roy that in 1998 or Martin Brodeur in 2006, years when Canada’s stacked Olympic squads didn’t even medal, let alone take home the gold.  Dismissing Luongo’s Olympic success in 2010 is nothing more than a fool’s move.

When Vancouver GM Mike Gillis made last Sunday’s trade, he confessed he hadn’t spoken to Luongo, who had all but been promised a new team next season.  Gillis said he planned on reaching out to Roberto, indicating that he’s aware that bridge is pretty shaky, if not burnt entirely (TSN later reported that a shocked and disappointed Luongo was declining interview requests).  But Vancouver’s GM may want to avoid speaking publicly about this mess because one hundred percent of it is his fault.  He was the one who offered Luongo the contract that has been an albatross around both their necks, he sabotaged a number of potential deals with various trading partners over the past two seasons by hiking his asking price and he couldn’t convince Canucks ownership to use a compliance buyout to sever Luongo’s deal after telling the media that Bobby Lou probably wasn’t returning next October (which must have been music to Luongo’s ears). One image sums up how the relationship between the star goalie and Vancouver had deteriorated better than anything else.  Vancouver’s final regular season game last season was a road game against the Edmonton Oilers.  Luongo was started to rest Schneider, signaling to the entire NHL that Vancouver now considered Schneider their playoff goalie.  The Canucks rested a lot of their top players that game and their squad resembled an AHL team more than their regular lineup.  Edmonton, on the wrong side of yet another losing season, lit the Canucks up and head coach Alain Vigneault wouldn’t even look at his former starter, let alone pull him and save him additional embarrassment.  Luongo was the first Canuck off the ice and was showered, changed and headed to the Canucks bus, alone, in just twelve minutes. Now the Canucks want to kiss and make up.  Kind of makes you think Luongo just might skip training camp . . .

And speaking of skipping training camp, remember Mr. Thomas?  It might be tough because he’s been off the radar over the course of his year long vacation to focus on his three Fs; family, friends and faith.  Tim Thomas was an outstanding goalie who earned every accolade and award he received.  A virtual unknown before 2005, the story goes that then Boston Bruin Joe Thornton convinced Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli to take a look at a goalie (Thomas) he played with in Finland during the lockout that wiped out the 2004-05 season.  Chiarelli liked what he saw and brought Thomas over, whose unorthodox but stellar play quickly earned him the Bruins number one job.  Thomas won the Vezina for the NHL’s best goaltender in 2009 and again in 2011, the same year he also won the Conn Smythe for backstopping the Bruins to the Stanley Cup.  He won silver in the 2010 Olympics with team U.S.A. and he hopes to be considered for America’s entry in the upcoming 2014 Olympic games as well.  His resume speaks volumes.  So does the fact he turned his back on his team its fans.

Goalie Tim Thomas, NHL Hockey player for the B...

Goalie Tim Thomas, NHL Hockey player for the Boston Bruins (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When Thomas informed Bruins management last year that he planned on sitting out the 2012-13 season, he wasn’t merely violating his contract, but he was turning his back on the Bruins organization who had rescued him from obscurity in Finland and the fans who embraced him.   His decision was particularly difficult for the Bruins, who, despite suspending him so they wouldn’t have to pay him while he sat out, were forced to absorb his contract’s value against their salary cap. If they hadn’t been able to pawn it off on an Islanders team desperate to reach the NHL’s salary floor, the Bruins would have essentially been up the salary cap creek this past season.  Thomas also generated some controversy when he passed on Boston’s visit to the White House to celebrate its Stanley Cup victory and again when he posted conservative political statements on his personal Facebook page.  While I didn’t agree with those decisions (or statements), I defended them as free speech (which doesn’t only count when you like what the person says), but his decision to abandon the Bruins was stabbing the organization that made him a Stanley Cup winner and millionaire in the back.  What he did wasn’t all that different from what Alexei Yashin made a habit of doing to the Ottawa Senators in the 90’s, sitting out a contractually obligated year because he wanted more money (Thomas didn’t want a raise, just a paid vacation).  At the very least, he owed an explanation to his teammates, his organization and his fans, who paid his enormous salary by buying obscenely expensive tickets and over priced merchandise.  If it had been a sick relative or other family emergency, Boston is a classy town and a classy organization, they would have thanked him and given him his privacy, but Bruins fans deserved something one way or another.  The bottom line is his decision was selfish and disrespectful.

So now you have a pair of goalies in painfully opposite situations.  Roberto Luongo, whose team turned its back on him but wants him back, and Tim Thomas, who turned his back on his team and its fans and wants to come back.  This should be interesting.

Shayne Kempton



English: Stage for NHL Entry Draft

English: Stage for NHL Entry Draft (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

     A few years ago I got into a fierce debate with a good friend of mine over the importance of the NHL entry draft.  A passionate Leafs fan, he was defending Brain Burke’s decision to trade the Leafs first and second round picks in the 2010 entry draft and their first round pick in 2011 to the Boston Bruins in return for Phil Kessel.  I wasn’t the only one who criticized the deal, the majority of hockey pundits cast doubt on it as well.  In fact, the only ones who seemed to defend it were members of the Toronto media and Leafs Nation.  The deal looked even worse when the bottom fell out of the Leafs 2009-10 season and they watched as the second overall pick, which should have been their consolation prize for such a dreadful season, went to the Bruins, who drafted the highly touted Tyler Seguin.  It must have stung just a bit more when Seguin made the jump directly to the NHL on a deep Bruins roster, and then was a huge factor in the 2011 Eastern Conference finals, helping the Bruins defeat the Tampa Bay Lightning and moving on to eventually defeat the Vancouver Canucks for the Stanley Cup.  To add a little extra salt to the Leafs wounded pride, they saw the newly defending Stanley Cup champs use the other first round pick they surrendered for Kessel to draft hulking young blue liner Doug Hamilton ninth overall that June (Hamilton was widely considered the best North American defenceman available in that draft).

     My friend’s opinion, indeed much of Leaf’s Nation collective belief, seemed to mimic that of former Leafs GM Cliff Fletcher (who when asked about trading away so many of Toronto’s draft picks, once replied “draft schmaft”), that the entry draft didn’t deserve to be taken seriously as a source for talent and that the future was now (it should be noted that while Cliff Fletcher never won a Stanley Cup with the Leafs, he was GM of the Calgary Flames when they won the Cup in 1988-with a lineup full of Flames draft picks).  But watching beaming teenagers getting drafted last Sunday afternoon and hearing all the rumours swirling around, it was easy to remember that successful drafting and patient development is the only true key to winning Lord Stanley’s coveted chalice.

     Take the Pittsburgh Penguins for example.  During the half decade where they missed the playoffs, flirted with bankruptcy and relocation and played to a half filled relic of a stadium, the Pens were able to amass a wealth of talent, drafting Evengi Malkin second overall in 2004 and Jordan Staal at that same spot in 2006, Marc-Andre Fleury first overall in 2003 and nabbed the prize of prizes by drafting Sydney Crosby first overall in 2005.  It didn’t hurt that they also tabbed defenceman Brooks Orpik in 2001 and drafted all-star defenceman Kris Letang in the third round of 2005.  All of those names were present and accounted for when the Penguins went all the way to the Stanley Cup finals in 2008 and again when they defeated the Detroit Red Wings in a Stanley Cup championship rematch the following season.  While the Pens haven’t made it back to the final since winning it all in 2009, they’ve hardly been in danger of missing the playoffs and have been a regular season superpower every season since.  And you should also remember, this was Pittsburgh’s second kick at the Stanley Cup can; the Pens won back to back Cups in 1991 and 92, with teams that included names like Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr, names Pittsburgh called out at the draft podium.

   But what if the Pens hadn’t won the coveted number one pick in the 2005 entry draft, you may ask?  They simply benefited from an enormous amount of luck that year (or scheming, if the numerous yet unfounded conspiracy theories are to be believed), because without Crosby Pittsburgh’s Cup dreams evaporate.  Perhaps, and if Pittsburgh were the only arrow in that quiver you might be right.  But look no further than the Chicago Blackhawks for an even better example.  Chi-town’s team had been exiled to the NHL’s basement for years but collected a fortune of wealth in the likes of Johnathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Dave Bolland and Corey Crawford, all of whom held the Cup aloft in 2010 and again this year (making the draft-built Blackhawks the only team to win the Stanley Cup twice in the salary cap era).  Or you could take the Boston Bruins; not only 2011 Stanley Cup champions but also 2013 Stanley Cup finalists.  The 2006 entry draft was a good one for Beantown; that’s the year they picked up the aforementioned Phil Kessel in the first round, Milan Lucic in the second and Brad Marchand in the third.  While we know how Mr. Kessel’s time in a Bruins jersey ended, Lucic and Marchand have been vital cogs in the successful Bruins machine, joined by second round picks Patrice Bergeron and David Krecji (drafted in 2003 and 2004 respectively).   Or we could take the L.A. Kings, the defending 2012 Stanley Cup champions who were also a member of this year’s final four, their core consisting of Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown, Drew Doughty and stand-on-his-head-goalie Johnathan Quick.  Take a quick guess how many the Kings drafted?  If you said all of them, congratulations, you guessed it in one.  We could also use the St. Louis Blues as an example.  Or the Tampa Bay Lightning, if they ever get back to the post season while Steve Stamkos is in his twenties.

     I may be accused of saying that only teams that spend years sucking, to the growing despair of their fans, can build themselves into Stanley Cup champions.  Au contraire grasshopper.  The Detroit Red Wings haven’t drafted in the top ten since 1991 when they picked Martin Lapointe tenth overall.  For those keeping score, the Red Wings have qualified for the Stanley Cup Playoffs an unprecedented 22 times in a row (that’s nearly a quarter of a century where Wings fans have been able to enjoy playoff hockey), they’ve played in six Stanley Cup finals since 1995 and won four of them.  The Red Wings have always been masters of the draft, finding gems in the rough, patiently and efficiently developing them, fending off attrition and Father Time himself with a seemingly endless pipeline of deserving prospects.  The same could once be said for the New Jersey Devils, and they have the Stanley Cup banners to show for it (three Cups since 1995, though the Devils are in a bit of a bumpy transition now).  The Ottawa Senators were able to overcome catastrophic injuries this season by depending on excellent organizational depth to not only get them into the playoffs, but to eliminate the highly favoured Montreal Canadiens in the first round while hardly breaking a sweat.  Most of that depth came via the draft.

     All the teams mentioned made missteps and made some pretty high-profile picks they’d rather forget (Cam Barker anyone?  Angelo Esposito?  Tom Hickey?  No?  Can’t say I blame you) and each made significant additional moves to compliment the cores they had assembled through the draft, usually moving surplus assets late in the season or at the trading deadline.  And there are plenty of teams that prove you can mess up successive years of high draft picks.  The New York Islanders and the late Atlanta Thrashers for starters (though New York redeemed themselves a little by sneaking into the playoffs this year), and my painfully beloved Oilers are on the verge of becoming another (the Oilers are actually a pretty fair example of what results from years of bad and reckless drafting). You have to cautiously shepherd your young talent with the necessary veteran presence and resist the temptation to rush your prospects, no matter the hype surrounding them.  The fact is that successful drafting is like great goaltending in the Stanley Cup playoffs; having it won’t guarantee you win, but missing it guarantees you won’t.

Tyler Seguin during a game against the Buffalo...

Tyler Seguin during a game against the Buffalo Sabres during the 2010-11 season (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Right now, the Kessel trade doesn’t look quite as bad.  Kessel was excellent for the Leafs this past season and bordered on fantastic during their riveting first round series against their former trading partners this past spring; the Bruins benched Doug Hamilton for the entire Stanley Cup final against the Chicago Blackhawks and the entire hockey world was taken by surprise when Tyler Seguin’s name popped up in trade rumours just days before the 2013 entry draft.  For the record though, I still wouldn’t have made that trade, and I don’t think Brian Burke would have either.  I think he gambled that the Leafs would probably miss the playoffs in 2010, but with Kessel added to their lineup they’d be a bubble team (they drafted seventh in 2009; a pick they used on Nazem Kadri), their choice falling somewhere between tenth and fourteenth.  And I’m pretty sure he was confident that with a few tweaks and improvements, that his Leafs would be in a playoff spot come 2011.  Phil Kessel is an excellent player, an elite one, whose has demonstrated character and fortitude to compliment his speed and skill (he won the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy in 2007 for overcoming testicular cancer), but I suspect, no matter how much he’s defended the trade since, that if he knew what he’d be parting with, Burke wouldn’t have made the deal. Seguin’s name is bouncing around in trade rumours only because the Bruins find themselves in salary cap trouble while twenty year old Dougie Hamilton is dripping with raw potential and will spend the better part of the next decade being mentored by blue line titan Zdeno Chara.  And let’s not forget the Bruins also snared Jared Knight with the Leafs 2010 second round pick, a pure goal scorer in the OHL whose progress has been slowed by injuries but is still expected to eventually develop into a promising NHL player.  But if you still need evidence that drafting isn’t merely the best way to build a Stanley Cup caliber team, but the only way, just scan the rafters at the Air Canada Centre, home to the Toronto Maple Leafs, and count how many Stanley Cup banners they’ve won in the past four decades and the answer should put any doubts you may still have to rest.

Shayne Kempton