• Joe Sakic, Steve Yzerman watching Anaheim Ducks
• Is Matt Hunwick a fit for the Rangers?
• Should Islanders treat Tavares with kid gloves?
Thursday night, Jin Woo Lee will arrive at North Surrey Rec Centre in Surrey, B.C., two hours before game time. He’ll eat a bagel, do his off-ice warmup, stretch, tape his sticks and get dressed. Number 24 in his team’s green and gold colours — skates before pants.
It will be his final chance for victory in the 2016-17 season.
Lee leads the Pacific Junior Hockey League’s Surrey Knights with 21 points in 39 games. The Knights are 0-40-3, last in the 10-team league. They’ve dressed 35 players, 17 of them rookies. Only Shaun Simpson (41 games) and Aidan Grigg (39) played as much as Lee.
“A lot of the top players [have] left,” he said by telephone Monday night. “I had pressure to leave. Friends told me, ‘You are good enough to get traded to another team. You’re not going to win with this team.’
“I thought about it. But I love hockey and we’ve worked hard together. I couldn’t leave the team….I wanted to be loyal.”
The reason for his loyalty was the Knights gave him a Junior B opportunity that wasn’t coming elsewhere. Lee played Midget for a pretty good team, the Richmond Blues, but was cut from a few clubs at the next level before reaching out to Surrey GM Amar Gill.
It’s been a tumultuous 16 months for this franchise, which played last season in Langley, B.C. One of the owners is John Craighead, who played five NHL games with the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1996-97. He doubled as coach last season until he went onto an opponent’s bench during a wild brawl. The resulting suspension? Six years. The Knights won four of 44 games.
Then, the WHL’s Vancouver Giants relocated to Langley, forcing a move. There’s already been one coaching change this season.
Lee, 18, is a first-year student at Simon Fraser University, taking criminology and thinking of a career in policing. He’s a Pittsburgh Penguins fan -- Sidney Crosby all the way. While his idol celebrated recent Stanley Cup and World Cup championships, Lee thinks about near victories that got away.
On Jan. 5, Surrey fell behind the North Vancouver Wolf Pack 3-0 after one period. But the Knights scored twice in the second and tied it in the third. The PJHL plays five minutes of four-on-four overtime, then, if necessary, five more minutes of three-on-three. North Vancouver won it in that second extra period.
He described it as his lowest moment of the season. “At the end of that game, we were playing with seven forwards and four defencemen. I was so tired, but the guy I was defending turned around and beat me.” That led to the winning goal.
Monday practices are at 6 am. It would be easy to stay in bed, to pass. “I’m not a morning person,” Lee laughs. What keeps him going? “It’s very tough but I’m never going to give up. Our young players are going to be better next year. Our coaches have talked about how things are going to be different.”
The only thing that bothered me about the conversation was when I asked Lee about his best moment, it took him a long time to answer. That shouldn’t happen. The reason I chose to write about this was I remember playing on an awful team one year as a kid, and two of our better players quit. They told us they didn’t want to play on a loser. That was never going to be me.
Fighting through 43 losses in 43 games? Showing up every day to try and make a bad situation better? Good on him and the rest of the kids who refused to quit.
“I’ve improved a lot,” Lee finally said. “In practice, we do a lot of bag skating. That’s helped my stamina and energy. My skating and stick-handling are much better.”
Their last chance is an enormous challenge against the Aldergrove Kodiaks, number one overall with 35 wins and seven losses. Last Wednesday, the two clubs were tied 1-1 after two. The Knights were within 4-3 with 10:30 to go. But the Kodiaks scored four more and won 8-3.
It would be a momentous upset. Good luck.
1. Claude Julien will be unemployed as long as he wants to be unemployed. It’s that simple. To be honest, it’s better for everyone that this march of uncertainty is over. The firing ends what was an unusually awkward dance with the organization considering his success.
In 2011, I was a rinkside reporter for the Montreal-Boston series. When Nathan Horton scored in overtime of Game 7, Julien and his assistants looked more relieved than happy. They knew they were gone if they lost that series. Owner Jeremy Jacobs has admitted he left before the end of Game 7 against Toronto in 2013, thinking the Bruins would lose.
A story that hung around for a few years: once he accidentally received an email criticizing his coaching, an email intended for someone else. (I did ask about it, but he ignored the question.) For a relationship that worked as well as Boston-Julien did, it was never a happy marriage. It’s a shame. They were great for each other.
2. I do believe Julien lasted longer than many of us expected because GM Don Sweeney was determined to give the coach a chance. When Sweeney was hired, a lot of us assumed Julien to be a goner. He didn’t like that thinking. In fact, it’s the only time (so far) he’s bristled at a question I asked him. They did develop a decent working relationship until it unraveled in the last few weeks.
Other coaches believed Bruce Cassidy was Boston’s top choice as a replacement when he was moved from AHL Providence to the NHL staff, and Sweeney did say Cassidy will keep the title until the end of the season. This is his test drive.
3. Last Friday’s eyebrow-raiser: both Joe Sakic and Steve Yzerman watching Anaheim play at Florida. The Ducks were in Tampa the following night but their presence makes a ton of sense. Both men are looking for defence. Anaheim’s got a surplus and it’s been believed for a while now GM Bob Murray will trade one for a forward. Both the Avalanche and Lightning have that.
The more difficult thing to pin down is what specific defender Sakic and Yzerman eyed. Colorado prefers youth and term, Tampa Bay is looking top-four. The Ducks could certainly do either. We know whom the Avalanche have available. Who would the Lightning offer to ease their cap crunch? I’ve got a better chance of getting Donald Trump off Twitter than finding the answer from Steve Yzerman. Still, those are sensible trade partners.
4. One exec, watching that game: “[Aleksander] Barkov and [Jonathan] Huberdeau back together solve a lot of problems.”
5. The Ottawa Sun’s Bruce Garrioch reported the Senators checked in on Matt Duchene. Every GM’s responsibility is to do that but I don’t think it’s a match. (Pierre Dorion would not comment.) For one thing, Ottawa is not trading Thomas Chabot and he is the guy the Avalanche would lust after.
6. Just like with Calgary when Sam Bennett was a healthy scratch, Ottawa got its share of calls when Curtis Lazar sat out. I do think there is interest but I’m not sure the Senators are willing to pull the trigger. Teams will be happy to bet Lazar can rebound with a fresh start but don’t want to pay the price that comes with such a wager.
7. Finally on the Avalanche, there’s a certain logic that they are one of the teams taking a run at Edmonton’s Brandon Davidson. Davidson, a great story who’s carved out a nice niche, is not someone the Oilers want to trade, but someone they may be forced to move. First, it will be tough to protect him in the expansion draft. Second, he’s going to be due a raise, but so are Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. The Oilers also want to keep Kris Russell. You can’t keep everyone, so the Oilers are being proactive. Davidson will help someone.
8. When it comes to Edmonton and the trade deadline, remember the club could have some serious bonus overages affect the salary cap for next season. GM Peter Chiarelli will be conservative if he can’t move out a big salary.
9. Another GM sighting that made a lot of sense was Arizona’s John Chayka in Chicago for Blackhawks-Stars. Chicago is downplaying its chances of making a move, especially since it's hosting the draft and wants to keep its first-rounder. But the Blackhawks love to win, so opponents think this is stealth. Wouldn’t be surprised if the Hawks take a look at Thomas Vanek. He’s not the fastest but he’s smart. If Detroit chooses to make that move, the Red Wings can always bring him back in the summer.
10. UPDATED: With 11 goals and 35 points, Radim Vrbata is closing in on a $500,000 bonus for 20 goals and/or 40 points. There is also the possibility of up to $1.25M in playoff winnings. Initially, I mentioned that Arizona can’t promise to pay up to half of anything that could be accomplished after he is traded. That’s not correct, and it fooled some people (including myself). It’s Article 50.5, page 271 of the CBA. Basically, it comes down to the fact a team can’t say we’re keeping 50 per cent of salary, but not the bonuses. If you agree to take a chunk of something, you agree to take a chunk of all. So it’s good news for a club that would be interested in him.
11. The Rangers have been looking for defencemen, and, when Matt Hunwick was scratched last week by Toronto, I wondered if there was a fit. He played there and he’s a popular teammate. But I’m not sure that’s a match. New York is looking for right-handed shooters, which Hunwick is not. They already have Nick Holden on the off-side. Something to keep an eye on, though.
12. Paul LaDue makes his NHL debut Tuesday night in Tampa Bay. I'm looking forward to watching him because he’s a talented prospect. I'm also curious because there is some question about what the Kings will do. John Hoven, who does a terrific job covering the team, says LaDue is as close to untouchable as a prospect can be. I do think, though, he’s being scouted heavily and some clubs won’t be unhappy to get a chance to watch him at the NHL level.
13. I listen to Dallas GM Jim Nill talk about John Klingberg and imagine Philly counterpart Ron Hextall discussing Shayne Gostisbehere. “You have success early,” Nill said Tuesday, “and teams adjust to you. This is a smart league.” What have opponents targeted? “John likes to walk the line, make plays that way. They have taken that away from him. Teams don't cover the points anymore but they cover him. You have to adjust, and you have to learn how to manage the score.”
Stars coach Lindy Ruff was angry after last weekend’s loss to Chicago, and, watching some of the goals against, you could see how Klingberg was the object of that ire. I asked Nill if he still believes in Klingberg long-term. “Yes,” he answered, with no hesitation. “For sure.”
14. We all know about Dallas’s problems in goal. That’s a tough fix, since both Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi have another year remaining in a flat-cap world. Since he’s been there, Nill has preached patience on defence, saying he’ll handle growing pains to get the right mix. It’s clear the organization likes where Esa Lindell is going, he’s already getting some of the Stars' toughest minutes. In two years, who does he see from the current group on this blue line? Nill named Klingberg, Lindell, Jordie Benn, Julius Honka, Stephen Johns, and Patrik Nemeth.
NHL games played prior to this season? Benn 244, Klingberg 141, Nemeth 68, Lindell 4, Honka 0. That means more mistakes as experience is gained. But other organizations would kill for young, talented defenders.
16. One Star who is really coming on is centre Radek Faksa. A few teams who’ve played against Dallas (or watched them) have left impressed. He doesn’t play long shifts but he gets a lot of them — clearly earning Ruff’s trust. If there’s one thing he’d like to be improve on it’s faceoffs where he’s at 48 per cent success.
“That’s one thing they asked me to work on last summer,” he said. Who’s the toughest? “Nathan MacKinnon,” he answered. That’s a new one, I hadn’t heard him before. Why is he so tough? “He’s strong and comes wide [with his arms],” Faksa said, mimicking a canoeist’s stroke.
17. Faksa added that Dallas wanted him to get stronger, as many teams tell their 23-year-olds. Back home in Ostrava, Czechia, he works out on a “skating treadmill” during the summer. He was pretty funny describing it. “No one really uses it anymore, but I like it.”
18. On Gostisbehere: very early interesting parallel to Montreal and P.K. Subban. It’s very clear that he’s the target of everyone who faces the Flyers, and his strengths are being attacked just like Klingberg’s. It becomes a battle of wills. You’ve got Dave Hakstol saying, “This is what the next step has to be.” You’ve got Gostisbehere saying: “This worked just fine for me, thanks.”
You grind away to find a solution. Just because it didn’t work between Montreal and Subban doesn’t mean Philadelphia will go the nuclear option. Vincent Lecavalier and John Tortorella figured it out. Hextall strikes me as the type of guy who will wait as long as he can.
You know who else is going to go through this soon? Mike Babcock and William Nylander.
19. Doug Weight has a unique title as far as the NHL goes: interim head coach and assistant general manager. Which route does he prefer long-term? “I have an idea in my head,” he replied on Monday, hours before the Islanders beat Toronto in a wildly entertaining game. “Not to avoid your question, but it would really depend on the situation. Who would I be working with? What are the expectations? To be honest, I’ve enjoyed coaching more than I thought I would. But I haven’t been smacked in the face yet.” New York is 6-1-2 since he took over.
20. What was the best advice he received? “Don’t be a phoney,” he answered. “Rod Brind’Amour told me to be myself. If you’re not, people are going to see right through it. Trent Klatt reminded me that the players on the bench are thinking exactly what I used to think. They are listening. If a player makes a mistake, start by handling it in a positive way. But be honest behind the bench. We all know some players are going to be treated differently. But if someone deserves positivity or someone deserves criticism, handle it right because you know your players are going to be listening.”
That opens an interesting question about someone like John Tavares. Do you treat him with kid gloves because the organization is courting him to stay? “You can’t think like that,” Weight answered. “You can’t say, ‘I won’t do what I need to do with John Tavares because you’re afraid. Besides, he wants to win. I don’t think he’d want that either.”
21. Sean Tierney, who does some terrific work through his Twitter handle (@chartinghockey), says the data indicates a slight change in the Islanders under Weight. They are trending in a more positive direction by reducing shot rates both for and against; a slower pace of play overall. However, he adds, there were hints New York was improving a few games prior to Jack Capuano’s dismissal.
Weight was careful not to disrespect his predecessor. He did say there were a few areas he emphasized. “Wingers have to win their battles along the boards,” he said. “We’ve spent a lot of time on that in practice. Also, we had centres involved in some of the meetings with defencemen. Everyone has to be on the same page when it comes to responsibilities and breakouts. Are you in that proper triangle?” Weight said there’s been a lot of film work but will soon dial it back. “Before games, you have to be quick with your clips, especially in individual meetings…90 seconds.”
22. Finally on Weight and the Islanders: “The first player I met with was Nick Leddy. I told him he needs to be our second-best player every night.” Leddy is really good but it’s been a hard season for him.
23. One NHLer on the Blues: players knew when David Backes, Troy Brouwer, Brian Elliott, and Steve Ott all left that it was going to be trouble. “Those guys were the buffers. They could handle Ken Hitchcock and protect the guys who couldn’t.” Hitchcock will challenge you, repeatedly. Those guys could handle it.
24. Vancouver begins a six-game road trip Tuesday in Nashville that could determine their season. It also indicates how much the organizational philosophy has shifted from Mike Gillis to Trevor Linden. Under Gillis, the Canucks would always try to go East-to-West on a long swing across the continent. This one will go from the Central time zone to the East and back to the Central. Vancouver travels from Columbus Thursday night to Boston Saturday at 10 a.m. PT to Buffalo Sunday night.
That morning game is one I remember Gillis would always fight against, especially if it was back-to-back. Last month, they played one standalone game in the Eastern time zone, a 5-4 shootout loss to Philadelphia. The change is really interesting to me, especially considering how much money and effort the organization put into it.
25. For the 2018 Olympic hockey tournament, Canada and the USA are in different pools. Local game times are noon, 4:30 p.m., and 9 p.m. That’s 10 p.m., 2:30 a.m. and 7 a.m. Eastern time. It is expected that the Canadians and Americans will never be scheduled for that 2:30 a.m. (ET) game. It is hoped that will alleviate one of the NHL’s concerns, that the two marquee North American teams will never play in the middle of the night for this continent’s viewers.
26. As IOC President Thomas Bach met with the NHL and NHLPA last week, one of the things we were wondering was if he’d show up with an ultimatum: don’t go to South Korea, don’t bother asking about China. That didn’t happen. It’s a good sign but Bach also didn’t bring the kind of financial incentives the NHL/NHLPA have seen in the past, either.
Ron MacLean had a theory, that Bach showed up to “show respect,” because NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman had said the owners felt disrespected by the IOC’s unwillingness to recognize the efforts the league goes through to get there. That makes a lot of sense, but, at the end of the day, money talks. Bettman and Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly want the IOC and IIHF to convince them.
In an interview with his own organization’s website, IIHF President Rene Fasel said, “We do not feel at this time that it would be constructive to set a hard deadline for the NHL and NHLPA to confirm their participation.” Do you remember what date the NHL announced it was going to Sochi? July 19, 2013.
27. If the NHL and NHLPA want to solve the problem of each team’s rotating, five-day breaks, Pittsburgh GM Jim Rutherford has a good solution. Add three days at Christmas and three days around All-Star weekend. Makes perfect sense to me.
28. Word at the CHL Top Prospects’ Game last week was that Regina’s Memorial Cup bid did not go unnoticed. The Saskatchewan capital is in the conversation.
29. With numerous complaints coming from players about ice quality around the league, the NHL and NHLPA created a survey for them to answer if they wish to provide exact information about their concerns. Following each game, players will have to opportunity to share their thoughts about each arena and how the ice held up throughout the game. They will also be asked about things like building temperature, debris on the walk from the dressing room to the ice surface, etc. No piece of information is considered too small.
30. Love the story about Flyers alumni going to Russia, potentially playing a team that would include Vladimir Putin. A few years ago, some North American KHLers appeared in a special game that included a major political figure. (I think it was Alexander Lukashenko, President of Belarus, but not 100 per cent certain.) The coaches told them, “Let him be the best player on the ice.” The players laughed. “We’re not joking,” the coaches replied. The dignitary was indeed the star of the game.